ONE: A MUCH DESERVED WEEK OFF
It’s a temporary respite this weekend for the Sprint Cup circus as NASCAR’s top series goes dark for one final time before the stretch run to the finish in November. For the drivers, crews and teams it’s a chance to catch their collective breath ahead of a grueling 17 straight weeks of racing before we crown a champion at the one-and-a-half-mile Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 16.
Expect, then, over the next few days a plethora of stories about what the racecar drivers do with their free weekends (also known as lifestyles of the rich and the famous.)
Jimmie Johnson was first in on the act this past Sunday when he exited the race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway with two tire failures and a mangled Chevy after a mere 11 laps, tweeting: “On the bright side… I get to start vacation early.”
Once we fire the engines back up again at the historic Indianapolis Motor Speedway, we’ll have just seven races remaining before the 2014 Chase begins; so for those drivers on the bubble or still winless (such as Matt Kenseth, Clint Bowyer and Tony Stewart) the off-week will give them a chance to regroup and refocus ahead of the Chase charge.
TWO: BURTON’S FINAL RACE?
After 21 wins, 22 years and 693 races we may just have seen the final Sprint Cup run for Jeff Burton this past Sunday. Driving the “Let’s Go Places”-sponsored Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota, Burton finished in a respectable 20th, having started the race 10 positions lower in just his second race of 2014.
“I think it’s a good chance,” Burton said on Friday when asked if he was racing for the last time at the top echelon. “I’m OK with that. I’m really comfortable with what I’m doing. It’s fun being here.”
The popular veteran will take up broadcasting duties in 2015 for the incoming NBC Network and no doubt he’ll transition well into his new role.
“If this is my last race, it’s cool with me for it to be here,” he said. “This isn’t my home track, but this is certainly a track a lot of my career has been shaped at this race track.”
Burton won four of his 21 Cup races at Loudon, the most of any track in his career. Including his 306 Nationwide Series starts and his four Truck races, Burton has run a grand total of 1003 NASCAR races — a testament to both his skill and his longevity.
So if Sunday was indeed his last hurrah, the Mayor of the garage will be missed on the track but at least we’ll have his insight off it in the booth to look forward to in the coming seasons.
THREE: KESELOWSKI LOOKS STRONG
If there were one driver not looking forward to the off-week, that wheelman would be Brad Keselowski, who scored a dominant third victory of the season, leading 138 of the 305 total laps. The 2012 Cup champion also won the Nationwide Series race, becoming the first driver to sweep the weekend at the 1.058-mile track.
Keselowski has a strong record this year in his six double-duty weekends. Alongside the win at Loudon, Keselowski also won Cup races at Las Vegas and Kentucky to go along with third-place efforts at both Daytona and Phoenix. On the Nationwide side, Keselowski hasn’t finished outside the top 3.
Perhaps it’s a trend he should keep up, especially when we get into the Chase. Keselowski has looked strong all season long, with three poles, nine top 5s, 10 top 10s and 844 laps led.
Sitting in third place, 36 markers in arrears, and locked into the Chase, there’s no question Keselowski will be a huge threat once we get to the final 10 races. Expect the strong runs and solid form to continue all the way to Homestead.
FOUR: THE LOST SHEPHERD
It was certainly not a banner weekend for 72-year-old driver Morgan Shepherd who finished 39th at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, some 27 laps down. Of course that was only a fraction of the story after an on-track tangle took out Joey Logano who was running second at the time. A frustrated Logano had plenty to say to veteran pit reporter Marty Snider in the garage immediately following the incident. Shepherd, running the 517th race of a 32-year Cup career was more succinct, noting dryly: “Was he the only guy who wrecked? That answers that.”
In the past day or so, much has been written about the incident but the simple fact is NASCAR had cleared him to run and his car passed inspection so he had every right, technically speaking, to be out there on the track competing. Was it a good idea? Logano would probably beg to differ and he would have a case.
Interestingly and perhaps unsurprisingly, in TNT’s final NASCAR broadcast, Shepherd was the only driver out there who raced in Turner’s first ever television broadcast some 32 years ago. For the record, Shepherd finished seventh that day.
I’ll leave the last word to Logano’s owner Roger Penske. “”That’s the great thing about the sport, that if you want to bring your car and have a team, we let them run, so I don’t feel bad about it other than the fact that Joey got knocked out,” Penske said. “At the end of the day, we’ve got to move on.”
FIVE: THE WORLDWIDE LEADER IN SPORTS
And finally, a week from Sunday at the venerable Brickyard, we’ll see the return for one last time of the Worldwide Leader in Sports, ESPN, with just 17 races remaining of an eight-year contract.
“ESPN has enjoyed a long and mutually beneficial relationship with NASCAR,” John Skipper, ESPN president, said recently. “We have tremendous respect for the France family, the drivers and all in the sport and wish them well. We will continue to serve NASCAR fans through SportsCenter and our other news platforms as we continue to enhance our industry-leading collection of quality assets.”
This all comes on the back of news that ESPN will not be airing any more editions of NASCAR Now after it had gone on hiatus during the FIFA World Cup. The writing was perhaps on the wall for the show when it was moved to the early hours of the morning this season, but it’s still a shame no question. ESPN spokesman Andy Hall noted that the decision to cancel NASCAR Now was “totally unrelated to our telecasts of NASCAR races.” It will certainly be interesting to see how the network handles NASCAR in the final stages of their contract.