Jeff Gordon Remains Best Stand-In for Earnhardt Jr. At Watkins Glen

Jeff Gordon has extensive experience and wins on road courses.

Jeff Gordon has extensive experience and wins on road courses.

Not that I yearn for Jeff Gordon to make a full comeback, but the storied four-time NASCAR Cup Champion surely has a lot left in his tank.

With Dale Earnhardt Jr. having missed three races as he carefully recovers from concussion-like symptoms, Jeff Gordon has already covered for Earnhardt Jr. at two races in admirable fashion, ensuring the #88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy delivered a solid finish of 13th at Indianapolis. This past weekend at weather-shortened Pocono Raceway, Gordon finished 28th after suffering a seat belt malfunction, having worked his way up to 8th on the final restart before the race was called.

Several reporters have carped on having Gordon sub for Earnhardt Jr., but, in fact, this tag team make perfect sense. Critiques have centered around the one-year delay of Gordon’s hall of fame eligibility (no doubt he is a first ballot Hall of Famer) or that Hendrick Motorsports should concentrate on using a development driver to build its talent pipeline.

Still, approaching the upcoming weekend at Watkins Glen is a different beast altogether. The Glen is a mecca of North American road racing and extremely popular venue among both fans and drivers; a swift road course that can produce challenging side by side racing as well as violent crashes. And, with wrecks that have the potential for head-on barrier impacts, The Glen would surely not be a good match for Earnhardt Jr. to return even if he is medically cleared of concussion symptoms.

Gordon at speed driving Watkins Glen.

Gordon at speed driving Watkins Glen.

“The difference between Sonoma and Watkins Glen are tremendous,” says Jeff Gordon, who has nine wins across the two road course on NASCAR’s schedule. “Watkins Glen is very high speed, much faster overall average speed, so you’re carrying a lot more speed through the corners. You rely more on the downforce there than at Sonoma.”

For Gordon, the timing sequence of his jumping in the car is right in his sweet spot of both his experience and past successes. Just consider Gordon’s career victory statistics:

  • Indianapolis: 5 wins at the Brickyard (1st among active drivers)
  • Pocono Raceway: 6 wins at the Tricky Triangle (1st among active drivers)
  • Watkins Glen International: 4 wins (2nd among active drivers)

Likewise, NASCAR gets a much needed boost, even if fleeting, by having the #88 Hendrick Chevy filled with an iconic all-star driver of Gordon’s caliber, rather than a development driver. The power of having Gordon in the #88, as compared to Alex Bowman who subbed at New Hampshire, is evident in the TV ratings for the Brickyard 400.

With Gordon back on the track, NASCAR’s Brickyard 400 scored a double-digit ratings increase over last year, with viewership up 11%. Even more surprising, the Brickyard 400 broadcast was the highest rated program in the history of the fledgling NBCSN cable network. For the upcoming weekend, NBCSN yet again can promote the continuation of Gordon’s stellar career, as he would achieve yet another milestone with 800 career starts (having retired last year with 797 starts)

And, just to put the icing on the cake, there are compelling driver and team benefits of having Gordon in the #88 Chevy.

Gordon’s knowledge of the race car is priceless, and he can contribute to the Hendrick organization more intangibles than any other available backup driver. Jeff is also the right driver in terms of not putting extra pressure on Dale Jr. to return too quickly.

With Gordon having previously swapped his helmet for a microphone during the first half of the broadcast season for TV partner FoxSports, being in the car gives Gordon relevant knowledge of how the current NASCAR downforce package is playing in the car, which only ups his ability to share that fresh insight with fans as NASCAR kicks-off the 2017 season.

For the #88 crew chief Greg Ives, he gets to work with an iconic driver of the sport, a perfectionist who can help push along Hendrick Motorsport’s efforts to improve the #88 car’s performance and remain in contention for the NASCAR owner’s championship.

Earnhardt Jr. encapsulates the opportunity for his team, commenting “Getting a different driver in there that thinks differently, feels things differently, is a great way to get new information. I was excited for Greg and I think this is really helping our team, as unfortunate as this situation is, we need to try to gain something out of it. I think our guys are excited about the opportunity to work with Jeff.”

Of course, both fans, as well as team owner Rick Hendrick are looking forward to having NASCAR’s most popular driver back racing “soon.” Of course, road course racing is unique on the NASCAR circuit, and you never quite know what you will get. With Gordon in the race seat, the guy that Hendrick already has in the car is pretty darn good.

For a true racer, it is tough not to look back on getting out of the car with no regrets. Gordon even admitted that he “jumped” at the chance to get back in the car when he got the text from Rick Hendrick, who he has spent his entire career with. And sponsors surely can’t complain about having a four-time Champion as a replacement driver in the car.

At the Glen, fans will be treated to one more opportunity to gaze upon Gordon’s unrivaled talents in the car. Own it, Jeff Gordon was born to race.

By Ron Bottano. Let’s connect on Twitter @rbottano

 

Sonoma Proves Road Racing Deserves Chase Berth

Tony Stewart masterfully won the Sonoma Road Race

Tony Stewart masterfully won the Sonoma Road Race

Tony Stewart’s return to the winner’s circle at Sonoma Raceway was the feel good story of the season for many fans, as the world of Twitter went crazy with shots of Victory Lane, the last lap pass, and burning rubber. Many fans remained in the grandstand after the race to salute Smoke on his victory lap, instead of racing to the parking lots.

Most remarkably, the win virtually made Stewart a lock to earn a Sprint Cup Chase sweet sixteen playoff spot, such that he will be able to pursue a potential fourth NASCAR championship in his final season before retirement.

We saw the fire of Tony the competitor, who took an ordinary kind of car for the day, added a little bit of luck, and a final lap drive with grit to earn his 49th career Sprint Cup race win. Capturing the imagination of many, IndyCar legend Dario Franchitti tweeted after the race “Give a champion a sniff of a win and see what happens!!! Nice job, @TonyStewart.”

Upon reflection, Sonoma Raceway showcased even more critically the importance of adding a road course into NASCAR’s Chase Playoff, which is often critiqued for including too many “cookie cutter” 1.5 mile ovals where the cars are still heavily dependent on aerodynamics.

I’ve heard the excuses before, but sometimes you need to take a leap of faith and make it so. NASCAR needs to make it happen and move this schedule change to its front burner. Road course racing is popular, and NASCAR needs to capitalize on this resurgence we’ve seen across other racing series.

Road courses are rousing for the close quarters’ side by side racing, the inevitable bump and grind of taking different lines to get around your competitors, and the need for crew chiefs to make timely strategy calls. Drivers can really showcase their talents on courses that are less aero-dependent.

Considering Sonoma in particular, this lush Northern California trip to the wine country offers the opportunity to connect with flush tech companies that dominate Silicon Valley. No doubt many global brands headquartered locally were closely measuring the relevance of the NASCAR brand and the platform that the sport could offer for showcasing technology and eyeballs. Microsoft is currently a key affiliate partner with NASCAR in terms of providing technology and communications for teams. As NASCAR expands it use of technology, video streaming, and social media, securing a premier tech company as an Entitlement sponsor to replace Sprint over the next 10 years could definitely offer a boost to NASCAR’s national image and cash flow.

Road Racing most certainly deserves a berth in the Cup Chase

Road Racing most certainly deserves a berth in the Cup Chase

From a competitive standpoint, today’s road courses at Sonoma Raceway, along with Watkins Glen International 2,700 miles to the east, are inherently unpredictable where an underdog can win (not just relying on the usual suspects), which opens up wider fan interest in the race outcome. At Sonoma, Tony Stewart took an ordinary car and achieved an extraordinary outcome. Similarly, AJ Allmendinger, who qualified on the front row, and showed strength to win the race, had his pit crew blow the final money stop, thereby basically cost him a shot at the win.

Road course racing features the importance of strategy, with a gusty off-cycle pit call by Stewart’s rookie crew chief Mike Bugarewicz positioning Stewart to chase the checkered flag over the final 24 laps. Stewart may not have had the best car, but he was given the chance to win by timely strategy.

Sonoma Raceway has been on the NASCAR’s premier schedule since 1989, so many of the current generation of drivers have grown up learning how to craftily handle these cars on such circuits. Spiritly, many NASCAR drivers, such as Allmendinger, Stewart, Jamie McMurray, Kyle Larson, Carl Edwards, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. having trained their skill sets in other road course series. The days of a Road Course “ringer” showing up in a part-time ride to steal the show has not happened in a decade.

As part of NASCAR’s grooming ladder, the NASCAR XFINITY Series showcases three road courses for NASCAR’s young guns to earn their chops. With career progression across NASCAR’s ladders, its seems shortsighted to only have two road course races in NASCAR’s premier Sprint Cup series.

Prior to the current Chase elimination format, NASCAR determined its champion based on consistency in earning points, which perhaps supported the argument of not having a Chase road course. However, with the current “win and advance” Chase playoff format, a road course fits perfectly in amping up the excitement of a dramatic finish in crowning NASCAR’s champion.

No doubt that much of NASCAR’s schedule is “locked in” and would require substantial effort to shift around. But from my standpoint, forget the excuses, NASCAR needs to do everything to spice up the show, and a road course in the Chase would be a great start. Perhaps the idea will grow on NASCAR’s Chairman, given his taste in fine wines, such that we can raise a glass during a future October harvest.

By Ron Bottano. Let’s connect on Twitter @rbottano


 

NASCAR, Give Us More Road Racing

Kyle Busch and Wife Samantha after his Sonoma road course win.

Kyle Busch and Wife Samantha after his Sonoma road course win.

It strikes me as odd that more road courses didn’t work their way into the minds of NASCAR fans in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. They were wild and rapidly changing times. However, to an American audience, for which NASCAR had built itself, the idea of being up close as the cars ran an oval was more appealing.

Times have changed. Dramatically.

The first live broadcast of a NASCAR race was the infamous 1979 Daytona 500 starring Cale Yarborough and the Allison brothers whose crazy leg flailing and wild air punches ushered in the television era of NASCAR.

Road racing was part of NASCAR long before most of the present day fans were born, but not a big part. California was the main player as the west coast demographic seemed to take to the big thundering cars turning right and left.

Big Bill France had often said that in order to have a healthy NASCAR that they needed road racing to be healthy as well. Road racing is where NASCAR actually started. Let’s face it, Junior Johnson didn’t just turn left on his way to deliver his spiritual goods.

Road racing is reviled by many NASCAR fans as not being pure enough and too hard to watch, at track. Television changed that as now one could watch the action from anywhere on the course, not just the grandstands.

The fight that put NASCAR on the map. Cale Yarborough and the Allison Brothers. NASCAR's first full length television broadcast.

The fight that put NASCAR on the map. Cale Yarborough and the Allison Brothers. NASCAR’s first full length television broadcast.

Part and parcel to the allure of road racing is just that. You can’t see the whole track so you have to walk around the facility to take in the whole experience. That’s what road racing is, a complete experience where people, not just fans, are in constant motion.

According to Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR EVP, “It is something that is being considered maybe more so for a longer term basis. Obviously, the schedule is full at this point but we’ve really evolved and when you look at the road course action, it’s almost on par with short tracks.

These cars at the end of a race really look like they’ve been beat up and guys are getting out there and really getting after it to where I think we’re putting on the best road racing in the world. It used to be where you used to bring in three to four ringers and they would finish in the top 10. Now our guys are consistently finishing up front and have proven to be the best in the world. So we really like the progress that’s been made. It’s certainly exciting. We share in the fans’ excitement, for sure. But the teams also like the ability to have those two opportunities to win a race and achieve that spot in the Chase.”

Whatever the history, whatever the reason, the modern NASCAR road races are as brutal and as fender banging as was Bristol. Pre-fix-it Bristol.

When you tune into a NASCAR road race, you expect to see the fender rubs, the ‘bump and run’ or ‘chrome horn’ as it’s sometimes called, being applied with joy by any driver close enough to the driver in front of him/her to execute said ‘chrome horn’.

It still seems to be somewhat of a novelty to the rank and file NASCAR fan, but it is gaining in popularity as a direct result of just how physical these drivers are with cars that won’t turn, won’t brake and slide around with 700 HP pushing them.

That sounds pretty cool to me rather than watching cars go around in a circle for 500 miles.

I’ve had several drivers, who are primarily road racers, tell me just how hard oval track racing really is. I believe them. Merely watching the backend of these cars slide around at 190 MPH is an art form.

On the other hand, if you are going to tell the world that NASCAR drivers are the best in the world, as O’Donnell claims, you have to show them and not having a road race in the Chase playoff is not the way to do it.

Arguably the Chase should represent the most watched races of the season. The global economy, alternate leisure activities and life compressing in on you be damned. This should be when most people are excited to see what’s going to happen from race to race.

2015 has been a strange year in many ways across the globe, so no one really knows what the Chase will look like from a fan perspective. However, this should be the year that a new road course is brought onto the 2016 schedule. It probably won’t be, despite every road race, so far, has been a cliffhanger, particularly with the green/white checker in play.

I hope that road racing will find it’s way into the NASCAR mindset soon as the world simply keeps changing and with great speed.

NASCAR needs something as the viewing and leisure time habits of consumers across the world are changing even faster than your 401K balance.

Perhaps two more road courses and at least one in the Chase may bring viewers that NASCAR wouldn’t normally attract.

 

 

Watkins Glen: More Safety, More Road Races


The skill set required to road race a modern Sprint Cup car is necessary as road races become more appealing. The safety has become the issue. Monday’s Watkins Glen race showed these cars are too heavy to not upgrade the tracks they run on.

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