Did You Notice?… New drivers are not learning old tricks? That’s the sense I get four days after the hoopla surrounding Danica Patrick’s seventh-place finish. Patrick, who earned her career-best result at the 1.5-miler, did so in her second full season on the circuit, where she’s yet to score a top 5 and has made limited, if any, impact on-track outside of the sport’s restrictor plate tracks of Daytona and Talladega.
Here’s the problem with the Patrick situation, though: She’s not alone. In 2013-14, we’ve had eleven rookies introduced to us on the NASCAR circuit, equivalent to roughly one-quarter of the starting field. And exactly one of them has made a consistent impact, albeit without winning a race or producing statistics that entice anyone.
Let’s examine each case, one by one…
2013 Average Finish: 26.1
2014 Average Finish: 24.8 (after that 7th-place result) … it was 26.6 before that run
Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.
2013 Average Finish: 18.9
2014 Average Finish: 22.2
2013 Average Finish: 34.0
2014 Average Finish: 40.3
Ryan Truex – Drives No. 83 Of BK Racing
2013 Average Finish Of Car (David Reutimann): 31.1
2014 Average Finish With Truex: 35.3
Alex Bowman – Drives No. 23 Of BK Racing
2013 Average Finish Of Car (Travis Kvapil): 30.4
2014 Average Finish With Bowman:31.2
Michael Annett – Drives No. 7 Of Tommy Baldwin Racing
2013 Average Finish Of Car (Dave Blaney): 29.0
2014 Average Finish With Annett: 29.2
Justin Allgaier – Drives No. 51 Of HScott Racing
2013 Average Finish Of Car (Multiple Drivers): 26.5
2014 Average Finish With Allgaier: 26.1
Austin Dillon – Drives No. 3 For Richard Childress Racing
2013 Average Finish Of Car (Kevin Harvick): 11.2
2014 Average Finish With Dillon: 16.3
Parker Kligerman – Drives No. 30 For Swan Racing (Idle)
2014 Average Finish: 37.2
Cole Whitt – Drives No. 26 For Swan/BK Racing
2014 Average Finish: 30.6
Kyle Larson – Drives No. 42 For Chip Ganassi Racing
2013 Average Finish Of Car (Juan Pablo Montoya): 19.3
2014 Average Finish With Larson: 15.1
As you can see, out of eleven drivers, only Larson has significantly improved the average finish of his car. Only Larson has been in contention for victories. Out of all the rest of these drivers, just Stenhouse has earned a career top-5 finish. Eight of these eleven have made the average finishes of their cars worse or made no significant difference. Allgaier and Patrick, while improving in 2014 have done so only marginally, and neither have made an impact up front with the HScott Racing rookie driver still seeking a top-10 result.
No doubt, these statistics, in a year in which NASCAR touts the “new guard”, are incredibly disappointing. People have been speculating all year why the TV ratings have struggled in the face of good racing. Everything from the FOX broadcasting team to poor marketing on NASCAR’s part has been blamed. But the intriguing portion of this equation is that attendance, at least to the naked eye, has been up at several of the racetracks across the circuit. If the stands are full again, why are people not coming to the television?
And then… a potential theory hit me, in the midst of watching with new race fans last weekend. This sport has always been based around personalities, fans picking a driver and then sticking with them, through thick and thin, over a career that often lasts 30 years. Bedrooms become a sickening obsession, filled with Jeff Gordon/DuPont paraphernalia, shelves bought entirely from Lowe’s or Home Depot and Miller Lite beer bought in the tradition of a Brad Keselowski title. For new fans to flock to the sport, side-by-side action alone doesn’t get it done. We need fresh faces for them to follow, who perform and get on television enough to justify spending hours every week obsessing over their performance.
Larson aside, this season NASCAR really doesn’t have any of that. Yes, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has a second wind, a popular Daytona 500 victory jumpstarting the year. But he also will be 40 this Fall. It’s a proven name which has had plenty of time to mature and attach itself to NASCAR’s next generation. Ditto Joey Logano, having his most successful season at age 23 but doing so in his sixth full season on the Cup circuit. People know “Sliced Bread,” his story and the resultant struggles at Joe Gibbs Racing. There’s been plenty of time for people to jump on the bandwagon. Even Chase Elliott, perhaps the most promising of the drivers coming up through the ranks, has had his Nationwide Series wins buried in a last-season, lame-duck, we’re-putting-you-behind-pool-on-our-marketing-list schedule on ESPN.
So as we take a breather nearly halfway through the regular season, the biggest story, aside from the quality racing, is that the main contenders for this year’s Chase are the same drivers we see year in, year out. Right now, Larson and Austin Dillonwould sneak into the postseason field but does anyone see either one making it out of the first round? With 17 winners still possible, anyway over the course of 26 races, it’s highly likely they’ll be on the outside looking in come September. Patrick, with all the hoopla surrounding seventh, is far from a Chase contender, over a full race’s worth of points from even the top 16. Meanwhile, boyfriend Stenhouse might not even survive the season with Roush the way things are going at the No. 17.
So NASCAR has improved its product. Great! The problem is it’s been with the same old people. Even golf, without Tiger Woods, has a new young talent to crow about in Jordan Spieth. Where is the new NASCAR superstar that will make a major impact? Maybe that is what’s needed to bring new fans to the table in a year where the racing, many times, has made a significant improvement. You can’t throw the same people in front of fans already disinterested, for whatever reason, and get them to buy in. The racing, in a sport defined by words like “Intimidator” and “Jaws” and “the King” will never be completely enough.
Did You Notice?… The All-Star Weekend isn’t worth the expense anymore for teams who aren’t automatically guaranteed a spot? The Showdown event, for drivers to battle their way into the Big Race, used to drag out a lot of one-race deals, smaller teams looking to test before trying to qualify for the Coca-Cola 600. It was the start of a two-week proving ground, 30-35 cars each year showing up and battling to make one of the sport’s biggest races in terms of “prestige.” But now? The money won in the Showdown isn’t enough to justify the expense and/or potential risk of crashing a car.
Among those skipping the “second-tier” event this year include Justin Allgaier / HScott Motorsports, Trevor Bayne / The Wood Brothers, and Michael McDowell / Leavine Family Racing. Last year, the No. 47 team of JTG-Daugherty Racing, one of the sport’s hottest teams, currently wouldn’t have run the race if not for a last-ditch fan effort by Bobby Labonte that nearly got him the extra spot through the Fan Vote. These full-time operations no longer see the point of exhibition racing for little money, when their chances of making the big event are a longshot at best. With a smaller Cup garage, they’re all nearly guaranteed a spot in the Coke 600 so the extra testing time is unnecessary and a waste of money they could funnel towards other, more important races down the road.
In one sense, the All-Star Race is about the sport’s biggest drivers and teams, the ones who are already successful. But the decay in Showdown participation is, to me, a troubling sign for an All-Star Weekend still struggling to find its way in modernNASCAR. Traditionally the least-watched, lowest-rated event every year, what happens if 2014 is the start of a trend? Of the 23 cars attempting the Showdown, run on aero-dependent Charlotte Motor Speedway, only 5-10 of them realistically have a chance of earning the top 2 transfer spots and moving on. So what if the 2015 entry list has only those 5-10 cars showing up? It sounds silly, on the surface but don’t think for a second smaller teams like Front Row Motorsports, Germain and others aren’t looking at these withdrawals and going, “Hmm. Do we really need to spend the money here?”
Now, holding the All-Star Race at a place like Bristol, Talladega, or a road course where there’s more parity between David and Goliath would alleviate this problem. But NASCAR shows no signs of moving this race from Charlotte, which has struggled competitively since its “levigation” last decade, anytime soon. That leaves these underdogs in a tough spot, and in a sense they’re taking matters into their own hands by giving up. It’s a choice the big teams will never make, but there’s also an ugly reminder through this process: they wouldn’t be the “All-Stars” without the little guys competing against them and filling out the gird. And with the grueling, 36-race schedule, I bet you even some of the big teams are looking at that idea and wishing they had a little extra time off, too.
Did You Notice?… Quick hits before we take off…
– Yes, we’re giving Danica Patrick kudos for finishing in seventh place. But did we give Austin Dillon kudos for running ninth in the Daytona 500? Did we give Kyle Larson an “attaboy” the first time he cracked the top 10? Such accolades reek of desperation, a fishing attempt to attract that new audience as much as they speak to Patrick’s supposed popularity.
– Our own Brett Poirier wrote brilliantly about it, but Kurt Busch and Stewart-Haas Racing has been no walk in the park. Here’s the last five runs for the No. 41 team since Martinsville: crash, crash, crash, tire problem, crash. Busch was far more competitive at Furniture Row Racing, a team struggling in its own right with Martin Truex, Jr. and has yet to lead a lap in 2014. Chances are, no matter what, Busch will stick it out long-term. It’s hard to give up a top-tier opportunity. But doesn’t it feel like a second season at FRR wouldn’t have been all that bad by comparison?
– Yes, all of Joe Gibbs Racing struggled at Kansas. I know their 1.5-mile program is a step off the pace. But the way Kyle Busch acts, the second he steps foot there, it’s like he’s lost the race before stepping inside the car. No doubt, Busch has matured leaps and bounds over the last few seasons. But until the attitude about Kansas changes, a mental shift that will likely help his finishes there, you feel like it’ll cost him the championship every year.
– Blake Koch’s career resume: 95 Nationwide Series starts, zero top-10 finishes. But that’s apparently enough to convince both a sponsor he’s a driver on the ride and GO FAS Racing to hire him for the next three weeks: The All-Star Race, Charlotte’s 600-miler and Dover. Certainly, any team in GO FAS’ bracket is desperate for cash but, as we’ve seen so many times through the years, bringing in the inexperienced driver that has money rarely works.
– Nine winners in 11 races. Seven potential “spots” left in the Chase for more drivers hitting Victory Lane. Here’s a list of eight drivers who haven’t won yet: Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman, Greg Biffle, Brian Vickers, Kasey Kahne, Clint Bowyer, Tony Stewart. Yes, 17 winners this season is absolutely a possibility before Richmond.
– All-Star paybacks to watch for: Kurt Busch – Brad Keselowski. Casey Mears – Marcos Ambrose (Showdown). Matt Kenseth – Brad Keselowski. Jeff Gordon – Brad Keselowski. And yes, the always-still-there Clint Bowyer – Jeff Gordon and Joey Logano – Denny Hamlin dustups. Will this year finally be the one where we see a throwdown?