Time For a Breather:
After a frenetic first eight weeks of the mammoth ten-month NASCAR season we get our first moment to breathe this weekend as the engines go silent in honor of Easter. And so far, even the strongest and most vociferous of critics would have trouble denying it’s been anything other than a fantastic start to the 2014 campaign. We’ve had seven winners in eight races, eight different pole sitters, three or four genuinely terrific races and only one real stinker at Phoenix International Raceway; whilst the new Chase format is radically changing the way teams with wins under their belt approach each weekend. Add the revitalized qualification procedure into the mix and tires that do actually degrade across a fuel run and you have all the makings of a recipe for sustained success this year.
Now where this hasn’t translated is in the TV ratings with every race suffering some kind of year-over-year decline. True, these deteriorating numbers aren’t exactly precipitous drops but they are downward trends nonetheless. And this for me is a bit of a shame, because the racing we’re seeing this year is for the most part absolutely watchable with a plethora of storylines to follow each weekend. Yes, we’ve had tracks like Darlington and Martinsville where you would expect good racing but I don’t remember such an exciting start in quite a while.
Let’s hope it’s more of the same when they fire up the engines at Richmond a week from Saturday night.
If there were one driver who needed a week off, Enumclaw, WA native Kasey Kahne would be that wheelman. Sitting a lowly 23rd in the overall standings with just two top-10’s — eight place efforts at both Las Vegas and Bristol — and an average finish of 21.8, Kahne is a country mile off the pace of his Hendrick Motorsports colleagues who sit first (Jeff Gordon), fourth (Dale Earnhardt Jr.) and fifth respectively.
At the Lady in Black last Saturday night Kahne did even get up and lead 23 laps, pacing the field at the half way mark. But a late race encounter with the outside wall saw Kahne pancake the right side of his car forcing him behind the wall. Kahne ultimately finished 51 laps down in 35th place. The last time Kahne started a season this badly was 2007, on the back of his six-win 2006 season when he sat in 33rd place with four finishes of 35th or worse after eight races.
That year he ended up a distant 19th overall but the good news for Kahne and fans of the No. 5 Chevrolet driver, is that one win can radically transform his season. So whilst it isn’t looking that pretty for the pretty boy, don’t be surprised to see him turn things round soon and if not before at Charlotte on Memorial Day weekend, a track where he has four of his sixteen career wins.
On the other end of the spectrum from Kasey Kahne is his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon, who leads the points headed into the off-week. Now in the 23rd year of a glittering 88-win, 733-race career, Gordon’s enthusiasm appears renewed, gushing to Larry King at Auto Club Speedway about racing for another decade.
“It’s funny how life serves these things up. You go through a time where you go through a frustrating year, or I had some back and health issues.” Said Gordon. And I said, ‘You know, I don’t know how much longer I’m going to be able to do this at this level or if I event want to.’ “Then you all of the sudden have this amazing year, and you go, ‘God, I love racing. Racing’s amazing. I can’t wait to do it for another 10 years.’ “ With his six-year old daughter Ella getting in a quarter midget for the first time this week and a week to enjoy a points lead, this is a good moment for Gordon.
He still needs a win for that Chase place but if he continues to race consistently at the front of the pack there’s no reason to think it won’t be coming soon.
No Rush to Cup For Elliott:
When Chase Elliott won his second straight NASCAR Nationwide Series in a row at Darlington, becoming the youngest driver ever to record a pair of second echelon wins at the tender age of 18, the clamor for the youngster to move up to Cup began to increase to deafening proportions. It isn’t that surprising on one level, the kid is leading the points with a worst result of 15th at Daytona and an average finish of 6.6 and has looked every inch a savvy veteran and not a raw teenager.
Remember, he also only raced 16 total NASCAR races (nine in the Camping World Truck Series and seven at the Nationwide level) and is still at high school. The last driver with this much hype so young was old Sliced Bread Joey Logano and only now, with some five full seasons of Cup racing under his belt, is he starting to approximate the moniker. In other words, Elliott has plenty of time and a couple of seasons of Nationwide wouldn’t hurt him at all. Throw in the experience, guile and wisdom of his Cup champion father, a solid sponsor in NAPA and a contract with the best team in the sports and there seems to be little reason to believe anything other than the proverbial sky is the limit for Elliott.
Time, like I say, is on his side and I hope he gets plenty of that to learn and develop a career that on the early evidence could have the same sort of trajectory as old Awesome Bill from Dawsonville.
Talladega Qualifying on FOX:
And finally this week, I was delighted to see shouty old WE ARE FOX SPORTS has moved Talladega qualifying from FOX Sports 1 to the main network.
This is the first occasion qualifying not from Daytona has aired on FOX directly. “This move is a direct result of the double-digit ratings gains NASCAR’s new knockout qualifying format is delivering every weekend,” said Bill Wanger, EVP of Programming, Research & Content Strategy. “We are thrilled to be able to highlight this new format on FOX, and what more exciting place to do that than Talladega Superspeedway.”
Now this move makes great sense to me because on the restrictor plate tracks qualification can become almost like a mini-race with pack racing producing faster speeds than single car runs. Now on the other side of that argument, plate tracks are the only ones where qualification isn’t all that important but this is a move I applaud and it’s a direct result of NASCAR trying something new that really works. Often we criticize the governing body for doing the opposite so when it does work it’s worth noting.
Happy Easter everyone, enjoy the week off.