Did You Notice?… In an era where so much has been pinned on equipment, or lack thereof, who you have behind the wheel can still make a difference? 2014 has reminded us of that, with two prominent examples sticking out through seven races.
The first is Kyle Larson, replacing Juan Pablo Montoya behind the wheel of the No. 42 Target car after a rollercoaster eight seasons of mediocrity. During Montoya’s final season in 2013, he was 27th in points through seven races despite the addition of Hendrick horsepower. Without a top-10 finish, the team stumbled out of the blocks with a Daytona wreck, taking until the ninth race at Richmond (where Montoya led 67 laps and almost won) to break out of their slump.
Compare that to Kyle Larson, the talented rookie who’s earned two top-5 finishes in just the last three races alone. Larson stepped into a similar structure Montoya had: the same crew chief (affectionately called “Shine”), teammate Jamie McMurray, and Hendrick connections. He’s clicked immediately, sitting 16th in points and is a virtual time zone ahead of rookie rivals Austin Dillon, Justin Allgaier, and a handful of would-be stragglers. It’s clear already that owner Chip Ganassi made the right decision in letting Montoya move back to where his talent shines much brighter: open-wheel.
The same example, on the opposite end can be found with Furniture Row Racing and Martin Truex, Jr. It’s no offense to Truex, one of the nicer guys on the circuit, who’s shown flashes of potential during a career now earmarked by the infamous Richmond controversy. The innocent victim through that whole mess, Truex lost sponsor NAPA, his ride at Michael Waltrip Racing and was left looking for work. FRR, meanwhile, was looking for a “rebound” after losing Kurt Busch to Stewart-Haas Racing in just one year. Busch had taken the No. 78 to heights never before seen in the team’s long history of Sprint Cup competition: a Chase bid, 10th in the final standings and more top-5 and top-10 finishes than the organization had registered combined in the eight years before Busch popped behind the wheel there.
With momentum, retaining crew chief Todd Berrier, and the same degree of family-owned sponsorship, hopes were high when FRR offered Truex a lifeline. They even signed the former driver’s pit crew, retaining the chemistry while maintaining high-end equipment and an information-sharing relationship with Richard Childress Racing. And… the results? While the RCR partnerships are still working across the board, with strong runs so far from JTG’s AJ Allmendinger and Germain’s Casey Mears, Truex has struggled… badly. The team blew an engine at Daytona, a huge disappointment, and Truex remains without a single top-10 finish through seven events. Other than some girl named Danica, it’s the most notable full-timer not to have one yet.
Compare that to Busch’s track record, through the same time period, and you’d find two top-5 finishes already. Meanwhile, the 2004 Cup champ already has a win in 2014 with his new team at Stewart-Haas Racing so… you see where I’m going here. Yes, Hendrick, Gibbs, and the power teams still have the most money. You won’t be running fifth every week with, say, Tommy Baldwin Racing. But even in this day and age, there’s hope, especially with new rules that the guys behind the wheel ultimately aren’t trained sponsor monkeys. The ones with true talent are capable of separating themselves beyond the amount of funding they have in their pockets.
Did You Notice?… The biggest talking point from Texas revolved around a green-yellow start? That’s probably because most fans didn’t get to see the race yet, unfortunately, unless they caught the SportsCenter highlights. For those who missed it, the quick summary involves cars “staying in place” under caution, the laps actually counting for ten circuits before NASCAR let them loose at full speed. In between, they left the jet dryers on-track, creating wind force that messed up hoods and forced several repairs to the point officials had to allow pit stops, without penalty for a quarter of the field.
Mike Neff had a great feature Tuesday about the ridiculousness of green-yellow one full day after postponing for rain. If you’re taking that long to dry the track, geez, why not have a full start? But my issue doesn’t just lie with green-yellow this season. It’s with competition cautions altogether. With all the rain, NASCAR’s been implementing them to check tire wear to the point they’re almost automatic: Texas still had one on Lap 50 despite their awkward start. Four of seven events so far have featured them.
Here’s the problem with these competition cautions: it almost makes the racing, up to that point, a complete and total waste. Sure, there’s a few cars in back trying to keep from falling a lap behind on smaller tracks. But why go 100 percent, at or near the front when you’ve got a pending caution 50 laps in to work on your car automatically? Every week on the radios, I hear the same running theme throughout the major organizations: “Race calmly, take it easy and just make it to that competition yellow where we’llreally start fixing this thing up.” Now, I know no matter what, Cup drivers will pace themselves in a 500-mile event but to give them an out to do so? Isn’t that cheating the system a bit?
I have a novel idea: why don’t we not have these “competition” yellows. What if there was a tire problem that needed to be addressed, anyways? As we saw at Fontana, welp, not much that can be done there to fix it during the race. At the races without them, Goodyear analysts still do the same amount of checking, crew chiefs pick tires apart and strategy still evolves. So what’s the point? I’m guessing we’ll know if there are tire issues if there’s a rash of people hitting the wall before the competition yellow, right? Am I being cruel here? I just think it’s a waste of a half-an-hour, felt that way for years and my feelings have only cemented this season.
Did You Notice?… The current trend of seven winners in seven races shows no signs of stopping? It’s been talked to death, but a quick look at Darlington tells me we’re almost certainly headed towards 8-for-8. Here’s a list of winners since the Southern 500 got moved after 2003:
2004 – Spring – Jimmie Johnson
2004 – Fall – Jimmie Johnson
2005 – Greg Biffle
2006 – Greg Biffle
2007 – Jeff Gordon
2008 – Kyle Busch
2009 – Mark Martin
2010 – Denny Hamlin
2011 – Regan Smith
2012 – Jimmie Johnson
2013 – Matt Kenseth
On that list, only Busch has won this season (although he did lead 265 laps last year at Darlington). But with the No. 18 team, I’ve turned skeptical after hearing about the “home run” setup crew chief Dave Rogers installed after they won the pole at Martinsville. Openly admitting they’re “trying things” to get better before the Chase, Busch’s team might have their eye on a larger prize, practicing for a postseason where they’ve been dismal rather than ultimately pursuing the Southern 500 trophy.
There’s one other factor to consider here, with 16 winners an increasing possibility. As certain cars within a team win (like Busch from JGR) will there be an internal push for teammates to jump ahead, stealing a quick trophy just so they’re in the Chase as well? Yes, the Richmond controversy is bad enough but these adjustments could be more subtle. Considering the financial gain, if you’re a car owner that has two of your three teams “in” with a victory, why wouldn’t you throw everything you had towards the third? Isn’t three cars with postseason exposure going to be more profitable than two?
It’s a sticky situation that could rear its ugly head as the pressure inches higher. Let’s say Dale Earnhardt, Jr., in the closing laps, has a two-second lead on Kasey Kahne in August at Michigan. It’s one of Kahne’s few solid runs of the season and a chance to make the Chase. If they were racing Formula One, the answer would be clear, although most fans would scream and turn off the television. Earnhardt would fall back, perhaps under team orders, and you’d see the No. 5 car in Victory Lane. It’s a practice that drives most Americans mad but becomes inevitable when team cars wind up participating within an individual sport.
What’ll happen in NASCAR should that situation present itself come August? That, my friends will be a true test to see if the integrity of the sport can grow back along with these new rules promoting better competition overall.
Did You Notice?… Quick hits before we take off…
– I went back and took a look at what Greg Biffle said about his contract, back in February through Ford Racing. Here’s what I found.
“We’ve been in that for about the last half of last year and over the winter talking with 3M and it’s kind of a mutual negotiation, so we’re well on our way to probably announcing something I would think in the first quarter, but we’ll wait and see.”
Fast forward to Biffle’s quote on the subject Monday, in an interview posted with our Mike Neff:
“We’ve been working pretty diligently on that. It has been a pretty good negotiation so far. There are a lot of new people on both sides of the table so everyone is kind of getting a feel for the program and learning it. We feel pretty good that we’ll have something to announce before we get to summer.”
Hmm. From 3M negotiating diligently, for over a year and a half to “new people on both sides of the table.” We’ve gone from announcing something in the first quarter, an extension certain to keep him at Roush, to hopefully reaching a conclusion by summer. I like Biffle, I really do. But I also remember a similar contract doublespeak that went on back in 2012, with Matt Kenseth and the No. 17 team at Roush Fenway Racing.
A funny thing happened at the end of all that: Kenseth didn’t end up there. With Carl Edwards’ contract up, too, Denny Hamlin’s recent situation at Gibbs and the improvement of Trevor Bayne, both in Cup and Nationwide I see the plot thickening for what could be an interesting Silly Season…
– For two straight years, the Texas Spring race recorded 18 lead changes. Last year, that was third-best on the NASCAR circuit through seven events. This year? Only Phoenix (14) had a lower amount. It’s just the latest sign of how the new ride-height rules, combined with other factors, are steadily improving the competition up front.
– Yes, NASCAR television ratings are dipping these days. But compare them to IndyCar, whose St. Petersburg premiere averaged just 866,215 viewers when the final analysis came out late last week. By comparison, Sprint Cup qualifying alone had 771,000 viewers, right in the ballpark to compete against open-wheel. The Truck and Nationwide Series, meanwhile debuted to higher ratings for their season openers, respectively, which means open-wheel is getting beaten by double and triple-A baseball-type racing divisions. Any notion NASCAR is getting challenged as the preeminent motorsports series in America would be sadly mistaken.
That’s why Kurt Busch’s Indy-NASCAR double is an opportunity for both sides to bring some sorely-needed attention to their sport. Busch’s 1,100-mile journey, which used to be a yearly challenge for guys like Robby Gordon and Tony Stewart, is a chance to rekindle the national interest beyond hardcore supporters. Everyone wins in that type of setup, and with NASCAR trying new, innovative ideas and rule changes, one can hope this starts the ball rolling on further cross-promotion.Graham Rahal and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. switching rides, with connections to the David Letterman Show and additional exposure – why not? Opportunities offered byNASCAR teams for IndyCar drivers, international stars interested in running the Daytona 500 – why not? Restrictor plate racing evens the chances for even the inexperienced in stock cars to be competitive.
Down times within a sport call for innovative thinking. Let’s hope the sport of racing keeps inching towards modern evolution.