Welcome to the Frontstretch Five, a brand-new column for 2014! Each week, Amy Henderson takes a look at the racing, the drivers, and the storylines that drive NASCAR and produces a list of five people, places, things, and ideas that define the current state of our sport. This week, Amy has five things we have not (yet) learned in NASCAR 2014.
1. Who the title favorite is.
All the usual suspects are, of course, on the list: Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, etc. But nobody has been able to sustain an advantage. Harvick had it early, despite mechanical woes, Johnson had it for a while, and Keselowski got hot this summer. But so far, they haven’t been able to keep it going. Just when it seems like someone has an advantage, someone else gets on a hot streak, or bad luck steps in, or something. Drivers like Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who hasn’t been as serious a title favorite for years, or Jeff Gordon, who has never been successful in the Chase, are having fantastic seasons. Other preseason favorites are lagging behind. This lack of a favorite could make the Chase more exciting, but it could also make it a bust.
2. What the new Chase can deliver.
This one’s obvious, since it hasn’t started yet, but it’s critical for NASCAR that the new format gives fans…something. If the racing isn’t any better than in previous years, or if it goes the other way and becomes a wreckfest, fans who haven’t already written the format off will do so quickly. If teams approach it as points racing, as many may, that won’t make the system any better than the last. This new format is NASCAR’s best, and perhaps last, chance to bring fans around to any kind of “postseason” format. The other question is whether it can deliver a champion who fans feel earned it. If the winner does not win a race or lead the points at any time during the Chase or regular season, it’s not going to be easy to justify that to fans. If the champion isn’t legit to fans, it will be hard to call it a success.
3. How to make road courses safer.
The question of making road courses, especially Watkins Glen, safer is one that comes up every year, without a clear answer. The estimated $10 million cost to add concrete walls and SAFER barriers around a 2-mile-plus road course is prohibitive, and permanent barriers would be impossible in some areas because NASCAR does not run sections of the course at both Sonoma and Watkins Glen that other series do, so entrance and exit of those areas could not be permanently blocked.
The Armco and tire barriers that the road courses use do their job by absorbing a lot of impact. However, they also can act like a slingshot, carrying cars back into oncoming traffic. They also tear cars up, causing debris to fly, which runs the risk of sending shards of metal and other pieces of debris into a crowd of fans. There has to be a solution, a happy medium. Someone needs to find it.
4. Whether Tony Stewart can make a comeback.
This question had not been answered even before the tragedy that kept Stewart out of the car at Watkins Glen and may keep him out for more races. Stewart broke his leg last year so badly that he required multiple surgeries and several months of rehab, and his 2014 season previous to his involvement in a fatal sprint car accident last Saturday night was lackluster. Now, the question is whether he’ll be able to come back after he hit and killed another driver. He will get back in the car at some point, but whether he’ll be the same driver is another question entirely. Stewart also isn’t getting any younger, and while he certainly still has the talent to win races, those wins are bound to get fewer and further between as time goes on. If he’s not able rack up some more wins now, it makes the future that much more difficult.
5. Who, other than Chase Elliott, are the rising stars.
This one is as much on the broadcast media as anyone, but what do we really know about some of the drivers in the Nationwide and Truck series? We certainly don’t see much of them during races as the broadcasts focus heavily on the Cup drivers in the race. Unless one of them is leading, we aren’t exposed to much of what they do, and that’s hurting their future prospects, because sponsors aren’t seeing their drive, their determination … their talent. It’s proving difficult for drivers to move up through the various levels of racing, and lack of exposure is a part of that. Sponsors don’t want to back what race fans can’t see. There are some very good young drivers in both the Nationwide and Truck series, but the fans don’t know them well enough to get behind them. That makes it hard for the sport to move forward as current stars age out.