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.

 

 

With Current Scenario, Battle For Chase Spot Could Be Riveting

Brad Keselowski is currently in 10th place in the point standings and with two wins seems certain to make the Chase this year. But if he slips out of the top 10 and others behind him win again, his situation could well change.

As it stands now, we have a very interesting, even stimulating, situation when it comes to just which drivers are going to make NASCAR’s 2012 version of the Chase.

After Sonoma, there was a logjam of drivers scrapping for one of the 12 open positions. To be more exact, there are eight drivers in competition for one of four available spots.

The top 10 in points after the year’s 26th race, at Richmond, are automatically entered in the Chase. The remaining two, called the “wildcard” entries, are the drivers with the most wins who are ranked among the top 20 in points.

My opinion is that, currently, the drivers ranked one through nine in points seem to be secure – barring meltdowns, of course, which are always possible.

Most secure among this group are five-time champ Jimmie Johnson, fourth in points with two victories, fifth-place Tony Stewart, who also has two wins, and Denny Hamlin, ranked eighth with a couple of victories.

That each has two wins means they have solid insurance policies for the Chase, even if they slip in points.

Brad Keselowski also has two wins and he ranks 10th in points. That should be enough, but then, if he falls out of the top 10 he could be in a scramble with other drivers. After all, he’s only 11 points ahead of Carl Edwards, who presently ranks No. 11.

It’s well known that Edwards figured to be a championship contender this year after he lost the 2011 title to Stewart on the first tiebreaker in NASCAR history – Stewart have five wins, Edwards one.

Edwards could solve his dilemma by doing one of two things, or both. He certainly needs to advance in points. But wins would be very beneficial.

Edwards agrees and says his strategy is to win.

If he can’t advance in points and can’t win, Kyle Busch is ready to pounce. The Joe Gibbs driver is 12th in points, just 20 behind Edwards and, most important, he has a victory.

Lately, his racing luck has been horrendous. He suffered three consecutive blown engines before he finished 17th at Sonoma.

Still, right now, Busch has the edge. If the Chase began today he would be in and Edwards out.

But even Busch cannot be comfortable. Ryan Newman is 13th in points and has a victory at Martinsville. Joey Logano is 15th with a win at Pocono and Kasey Kahne, whose season started horribly, was triumphant at Charlotte and is 17th in points.

Another win for any of them puts Busch on the hot seat.

And this scenario intensifies the delicacy of Edwards’ position. He would be fifth in line if the Chase began today.

But the Chase hasn’t begun. Ten races remain before it does.

Anything can happen.

A driver who seems certain to make the Chase may find himself struggling to remain among the top 10 and thus have to rely on an earned win, or wins.

For example, after the race at Kansas in early June last year, Dale Earnhardt Jr. stood third in points. He had not won a race but the assumption was he was high enough in the standings to overcome that.

Five-time champion Jimmie Johnson seems almost assured of making the Chase and have a chance at a sixth title. He is fourth in points with two victories, a very comfortable spot.

He almost didn’t. He had a horrible summer. By the race at Pocono in the first week of August, he had tumbled to 10th in points and the Chase was five weeks from its beginning.

He stayed in 10th for another week, then climbed to No. 9, where he remained for four races and was his position at Richmond, the season’s 26th race.

At Richmond Earnhardt Jr. finished 16th and fell to 10th in points – he held on to survive a near meltdown.

This year he’s already gained that insurance victory and his summer has begun very well.

He had already earned more top-10 finishes than any other driver by Dover in early June. He finished fourth there, eighth at Pocono and won at Michigan, after which he was second in points, four behind Matt Kenseth.

Earnhardt fell to third in points after a 23rd-place finish at Sonoma but to be honest that was not a major surprise. He has not done particularly well at the road course.

He has never earned a top-10 finish. He’s been 11th three times.

But, consider that over the same number of summer races last year, Earnhardt Jr. fell from third to seventh in points.

Which means he’s on a much better path this year – and, certainly, his victory offers him major assurance.

On the other end of the spectrum is Jeff Gordon, a four-time champion. Not only is he distant from the top 10 in points – 18th – he doesn’t have a victory to put him in title contention.

He has 10 races to earn one. Fact is, he’s likely going to have to win twice to be a Chase player.

He thinks it’s possible and there’s no reason do doubt him.

He did win three times last year to comfortably move into the Chase – and one of them came over the summer’s10-race span that ended at Richmond. Gordon won at Atlanta.

But, this year, one win isn’t going to cut it.With so many scenarios and possibilities, it seems highly likely the competition for a spot in the Chase is going to be very keen.

That should spark a great deal of interest among fans – and the media – which should, in turn, be very beneficial for NASCAR.

Coke Zero 400: Let’s Be Friends


After last weekends Sonoma Sprint Cup race you’d think that retaliation would be on everyones mind. Nope, not at Daytona, there’s too much to lose in a plate race. Points are paramount and payback can wait. http://www.motorsportsunplugged.com

The NASCAR Sonoma Slugfest

Many fans are beginning to warm to road racing in NASCAR based on the intensity of it. This weekend the Sprint Cup Series invades Sonoma’s Infineon road course. Expect to see rough racing as the noose tightens on those desperate to get into the chase. http://www.motorsportsunplugged.com

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