ONE: 10 TIL THE CHASE
Just 10 races remain before the 2014 Chase begins and it’s an eclectic mix of tracks that make up the pre-big dance schedule. First up (and more on this one below) is a Saturday night trip to Kentucky Speedway. Then we head down to Daytona for a second straight night event on the high banks of arguably the sport’s most iconic track. Following the fireworks in Florida we head into a stretch of three flat tracks of differing proportions and grandeur at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, the Brickyard and a second annual trip to picturesque Pocono Raceway. We stay in the northeast of the country for a trip to the last road course of the season at Watkins Glen before a second trip on the year to Michigan International Speedway. Finishing things up prior to the Chase is a triumvirate of terrific tracks: the Bristol Night race and lightning fast Atlanta Motor Speedway before we hit the crucial cutoff race at Richmond International Raceway. It’s a fascinating stretch of summer racing at some of the best tracks on the schedule and I’m expecting an excellent run of races into the start of the NASCAR playoffs.
TWO: 10 WINNERS
With 10 races to go until the Chase we have, in truly symmetrical fashion, 10 winners on the year so far. By way of a reminder, your winners and race tracks where they won at are: Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (Daytona, Pocono), Kevin Harvick (Phoenix, Darlington), Brad Keselowski (Las Vegas), Carl Edwards (Bristol, Sonoma), Kyle Busch (Fontana), Kurt Busch (Martinsville), Joey Logano (Texas, Richmond), Denny Hamlin (Talladega), Jeff Gordon (Kansas), Jimmie Johnson (Charlotte, Dover, Michigan).
All year long, folks have been debating what might happen if more than 16 drivers win a race prior to the Chase, but given some recent six time dominance and another win for Carl Edwards this past Sunday, I don’t think we’re going to hit the sweet sixteen by the time we make the Richmond cutoff race — all of which will please NASCAR as the whole win-and-you’re-in spiel we’ve been hearing about all year would suddenly look a little foolish if we ticked past 16 in the individual winner column. Now, there is still a chance with another road course and the Daytona wildcard race not to mention the Bristol night race but even with the likes of Matt Kenseth and Tony Stewart still to win in 2014, NASCAR should be spared some potential blushes here.
THREE: NEXT UP: KENTUCKY
Next up is a Saturday night under the lights race at Kentucky Speedway, just the fourth ever Sprint Cup event at the circuit. The 1.5-mile tri-oval asphalt track was opened at the turn of the millennium and has played host to 16 Camping World Truck Series races, 15 Nationwide Series races and three previous Cup races. Kyle Busch won the inaugural top-echelon race in 2011 with Brad Keselowski winning in his championship year of 2012. Matt Kenseth won last year on the way to a seven-win, runner-up finish season.
This weekend, we’ll see races at all three levels with Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski running in each event and looking for a weekend sweep. Kentucky Speedway bills itself in promotional material as the Roughest Track in NASCAR and the abrasive surface makes navigating the mile-and-a-half circuit a challenge.
“It puts the car certainly more in the driver’s hands,” Keselowski has said of the track. “With the mechanical grip you can move around and try different things on the track and the cars respond, and I think that produces better racing.” And that’s something we can all get behind.
FOUR: HOME DEP-OFF.
A report in the Sports Business Journal yesterday (June 23) suggests that long-time sponsor Home Depot will be departing the sport at the end of the year. The primary sponsor, notably for two of Tony Stewart’s three Sprint Cup crowns in 2002 and 2005 and going all the way back until 1999, will not renew with Joe Gibbs Racing and will exit the sport stage left, says the report. In the grand scheme of things, it is probably not a huge surprise, given how much more prevalent Dollar General has been on the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota this season serving as primary sponsor on 27 of the 36 total events. It is a trend we’ve seen develop with the Home Depot sponsorship in the past three seasons as they’ve gradually ratcheted back on their motorsports spend. How this will all play out with Kenseth’s team remains to be seen as does how it might affect the rumors swirling about a fourth JGR team — potentially Carl Edwards — for 2015. For now, though, if indeed the report is true, it will be sad to seem them go.
FIVE: THE CHAMP MEETS THE PRESIDENT
And finally (and briefly) this week, current champion Jimmie Johnson will take a trip to Washington, D.C., and the most famous abode in the United States — the White House — tomorrow to meet President Obama. Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and fellow No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports members will be honored by the President for their 2013 championship, the sixth such triumph in the past eight seasons. For me, this is a really neat tradition, so I’m glad to see it continue tomorrow.