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Did You Notice? … The Race To NASCAR’s Bubble Begins
(Credit: CIA)

Did You Notice? … The Race To NASCAR’s Bubble Begins

Did You Notice? … A recent business report indicating for four-car Stewart-Haas Racing, their cost to compete is reaching $1.5 million per race weekend? Clearly, expenses are arching sky high. Making the Chase, whether fans like it or not, is critically important to a team’s financial bottom line. If you miss it, rumors have existed for a long time that sponsors either withhold bonuses, cut funding for the final ten races or, in rare cases, have even reconsidered future involvement over how the postseason run to the Chase plays out.

Stewart Hass

Stewart-Haas recently gave Sports Business Journal an inside look regarding the expenses the team incurs throughout the season.

These financial connections have never been more palpable than this year, especially with the “barrier to entry” for the Chase lowered even further (with an expansion to 16 entries). Among those teams on the bubble are a driver in the final year of his contract (Greg Biffle), one with a young driver nipping at his heels (Kasey Kahne), and another (Jamie McMurray) still potentially on shaky ground despite winning a $1 million bonus in the All-Star Race. Missing the postseason field leaves these drivers forgotten, an afterthought with the way broadcasts have covered these final ten races through the years. As I spoke about on Monday, how competitive the race to make the Chase becomes will determine whether the sport grabs back enough momentum to stop the bleeding that’s been fairly noticeable as of late.

For simplicity’s sake, let’s “lock in” the 11 winners we have so far this season: Aric Almirola, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski, and Joey Logano. On the flip side, with Daytona out of the way we can probably eliminate the longshots, like Front Row Motorsports or a HScott Motorsports surprise victory at a restrictor plate track. Martin Truex, Jr., to me, is the first man whose Chase plans look dead, sitting 78 points behind a spot, 23rd in the standings, and without a single lap led this year.

Using that criteria, it leaves Casey Mears, AJ Allmendinger, Danica Patrick, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., Justin Allgaier, Michael Annett, David Gilliland, David Ragan, and all the usual “scraping to get by” suspects sitting on the sidelines. What we have left, then, are twelve drivers, from mostly high-dollar teams competing for the final five spots. Let’s see where they sit and how much is at stake entering the final seven races…

Matt Kenseth

AS OF NOW: 5th in points, +97 inside Chase.

LAST 5 RACES: 2 top 5s, 2 top 10s, 1 DNF, 26 Laps Led.

OUTLOOK: For Kenseth, it’s been a year far better than he’s gotten credit for, buried under unrealistic expectations after a seven-win, runner-up finish in the championship the year before. When was this guy, the champion of top 5-ing people to death,  supposed to be the dominant win leader on the Cup circuit? Joe Gibbs Racing, as a whole has struggled with consistency but you never see that in the No. 20 camp; 12 top-10 finishes, through 19 races have kept Kenseth near the top of the standings, even leading the points for a race after Dover in June. Sure, he’d like to win, but after a few close calls and a strong recent run at New Hampshire, one of the tracks in the Chase it’s safe to say the No. 20 is, well, safe, especially with Toyota working overtime to fix handling issues at JGR. Kenseth, unless there’s a nightmare of epic proportions is in the same position he’s in every year, steady as a rock on the lead lap each week and may well be a Final Four candidate when all is said and done. A win probably won’t be needed here, with this points cushion but Bristol in August is the best bet to break through for a guy who’s missed only one Chase his entire career. Trust me, 2014 won’t be number two.

CHASE PREDICTION: In.

Ryan Newman

AS OF NOW: 7th in points, +49 inside Chase.

LAST 5 RACES: 2 top 5s, 4 top 15s, 0 DNF, 0 Laps Led.

OUTLOOK: Hello, Newman. RCR’s new addition has played it safe all year, trading in pole positions for midpack starts and 10th-place finishes. It’s an intriguing strategy of simply finishing races, sneaking in the postseason while his new organization looks to find the missing speed needed to contend over the final ten weeks. You want to peak at the right time, and the No. 31 team appears to be doing that, scoring both top-5 finishes within the last month-and-a-half as Newman now heads to Indy, the site of his last Cup victory. After that, four of the final six tracks the Cup Series visits, pre-Chase we’ve already run on this year; Newman has finished no worse than 16th at any of them. A repeat performance will keep up this points cushion, and a veteran like Rocket Man is unlikely to start rocketing himself into the wall anytime soon. Although a win seems like a longshot, 14 winners or less – which would give Newman a playoff spot through points – appears to be a safer bet with each passing week.

CHASE PREDICTION: In.

Clint Bowyer

AS OF NOW: 10th in points, +24 inside Chase.

LAST 5 RACES: 4 top 10s, 42 Laps Led.

OUTLOOK: Bowyer has been getting it together as of late, scoring half of his eight top-10 finishes this season in just the last five races. But Michael Waltrip Racing, still reeling from that cheating scandal last Fall is a step off the pace, just like the other Toyota teams have been this season, and remains deficient in horsepower. 24 points is far from a safe cushion, considering the caliber of drivers on the outside looking in and Bowyer can ill afford another embarrassing moment, which he’s had too many of this season. (See: Richmond’s broken suspension, 23rd at his home track of Kansas, blowing an engine in the Daytona 500…) And in a touch of irony, it could be the short track program itself where those boo boos pop up once more; Bowyer’s best run this year, on any of them is a ninth at Martinsville in the Spring. That doesn’t lead to confidence he’ll win at Bristol or Martinsville down the stretch, meaning we have to ask the question… can the No. 15 win anywhere else? With a few new winners expected, the points window is going to close and a streaking Bowyer may find a top-10 position in the season standings may wind up just not being enough.

CHASE PREDICTION: Out.

Paul Menard

AS OF NOW: 11th in points, +17 inside Chase.

LAST 5 RACES: 2 top 5s, 5 top 20s, 0 Laps Led.

OUTLOOK: Slow but steady wins the race. That’s what the tortoise tells Mr. Menard, every year but this guy insists on being the hare. Time and again, Menard comes out of the gate running top 10 in points, with a handful of top-10 finishes and gets people wondering, “Hmm.” Then, as quickly as his year came together a couple of disastrous finishes, strung together make us all collectively turn and go, “Never mind.” Menard’s stuck it out this year longer than ever, clinging onto 11th in points but has led a total of three races all year: Daytona (February), Las Vegas, and Talladega. Now is the time when Chase drivers find another gear, and it’s hard to see, based on past history Menard actually finding one. With runs of 15th, 16th, and 19th the last three races, expect consistency to continue; but when the bubble contenders start running third, fourth, and fifth every week the points lost, for top-15 finishes by comparison will be enough to turn Menard into Mr. Irrelevant, all over again. A win is needed, here beyond that one Brickyard miracle and right now, time up front is nowhere to be found for RCR.

CHASE PREDICTION: Out.

Kyle Larson

AS OF NOW: T-14th in points, +0 inside Chase (in on tiebreaker).

LAST 5 RACES: 1 top 5, 2 top 10s, 1 DNF, 16 Laps Led.

OUTLOOK: This year’s heavy favorite for rookie of the year has another “r” word defining his season: roller coaster. Larson’s turned some heads, for good reason and already has a runner-up finish at the Cup level to his credit (Fontana). But for every promising moment, like a third at Loudon in mid-July he’s got an ugly stretch of wrecks, tire issues or simple inconsistency to go along with it. With two DNFs already, for crashes along with time spent behind the wall for broken sheet metal this rookie is experiencing what everyone else with a yellow stripe goes through. There’s a reason Cup freshmen typically don’t contend, why Jeff Gordon won in his second season and not his first… you’re not supposed to have it all figured out right away. Next season, it’s hard to see Larson missing the Chase but in a year with so many big names on the bubble, it’s hard to see a rookie taking an extra step this early and making it. As a good friend of mine would say, “Prove me wrong, kid.” Larson’s done a lot of that this year, but may regret a few simple mistakes that took away a chunk of points — ones he won’t give up come 2015.

CHASE PREDICTION: Out.

Austin Dillon

AS OF NOW: T-14th in points, +0 outside Chase (loses tiebreaker).

LAST 5 RACES: 1 top 5, 1 top 10, 0 DNF, 2 Laps Led.

OUTLOOK: Look, what Dillon has done this season, to date has been nothing short of incredible. No one has run more miles on the Cup circuit than this rookie, who has not finished more than three laps back in any race this season. For a guy who needs to log race time, Dillon is doing just that while benefiting from his rookie education every week. Here’s the problem; 15th, seven times over the final seven weeks just won’t be enough. Teams who make the Chase are better than that, or at least they have the raw speed involved to be able to snag a win somewhere. Dillon doesn’t look like a guy ready take that next step; instead, too often he looks like a Cup rookie still wrapping his head around just finishing on the lead lap. It’s a far different vibe than Larson, one that’ll probably leave him midpack every race down the stretch. And 15th, when winning is a borderline necessity this far back in the standings will probably be enough to leave him an afterthought. Kudos to finishing races, though for Dillon as we clearly have not heard the last of Childress’ grandson.

CHASE PREDICTION: Out.

Greg Biffle

AS OF NOW: 16th in points, -5 outside Chase.

LAST 5 RACES: 1 top 10, 0 DNF, 9 Laps Led.

OUTLOOK:  So Biffle was re-signing with Roush Fenway. Then he wasn’t. Then he was. Then he wasn’t. Then he OMG how could anyone say anything else totally was. Then Frontstretch was among those who reported he wasn’t. Then a contract extension was imminent and it was all 3M’s fault, with too many new people sitting down at the bargaining table. And then…

You get the picture. The No. 16 team is struggling, on the outside looking in and with millions on the line, you ultimately wonder if the wavering means Biffle must make the Chase in order to save his job. But for the Biff, who feels strong his team can still contend for a title getting over the hump is clearly an uphill battle. RFR wasn’t a factor at Michigan, a track they’ve owned through the years and The Biff has been baffled one too many times lately by handling woes. If you see the Biff winning somewhere, these final seven weeks my question is … where? And will signing with a new team cause distractions? That last part is still a slight possibility. I just don’t see enough here to build on…

CHASE PREDICTION: Out.

Kasey Kahne

AS OF NOW: 17th in points, -9 outside Chase.

LAST 5 RACES: 1 top 5, 3 top 10, 1 DNF, 1 Lap Led.

OUTLOOK: Boy, is Hendrick pulling out all the stops to get Kasey Kahne at the Chase dinner table. Even though Chase Elliott has more wins (three) in the Nationwide Series than Kahne has top 5s (two) I’m hearing the preference is for Kahne to stay at Hendrick over the medium-term. That means help will swoop in, from all sides to ensure the rubber stamp gets placed on the No. 5 car sometime before the checkered flag at Richmond. All it takes is one win, and lately, Kahne has started sniffing around and getting closer. Bristol is when I think it will come, making up for that mad dash to the end with Mr. Kenseth. With the way HMS has run this year, how in the world could one of their teams get left out…

CHASE PREDICTION: In.

Brian Vickers

AS OF NOW: 18th in points, -17 outside Chase.

LAST 5 RACES: 1 top 5, 1 top 10, 0 DNF, 1 42nd-place finish, 0 Laps Led.

OUTLOOK: New Hampshire said it all for this bunch. It’s a place the No. 55 car won last year, earning Vickers this ride but too often, that final race before this off week you saw driver and team simply riding it out. The sense of urgency, so needed in order to make the Chase just doesn’t seem to be coming from this bunch or other branches of Michael Waltrip Racing. That’s a problem.

CHASE PREDICTION: Out.

Tony Stewart

AS OF NOW: 19th in points, -22 outside Chase.

LAST 5 RACES: 0 top 5s, 1 top 10, 0 DNF, 4 Laps Led.

OUTLOOK: Where there’s Smoke, there’s fire lately, as a Sprint Car race win has everyone thinking this 43-year-old is back to his old self. Sadly, for Stewart, it just won’t be that simple. It seems for the three-time champ, buried with obligations working a little extra overtime on the Stewart-Haas Racing program appears to be a necessity, not a voluntary effort. SHR bit the bullet, early on expanding to four cars and you wonder if it’s just enough, especially considering the recent numbers for Smoke to pull back and just focus on 2015.

CHASE PREDICTION: Out.

Marcos Ambrose

AS OF NOW: 20th in points, -35 outside Chase.

LAST 5 RACES: 0 top 5, 2 top 10, 0 DNF, 5 Laps Led.

OUTLOOK: Two words: Watkins Glen. Nothing else matters.

CHASE PREDICTION: In. (Wins at Watkins Glen)

Jamie McMurray

AS OF NOW: 21st in points, -49 outside Chase.

LAST 5 RACES: 1 top 5, 1 top 10, 1 DNF, 1 Pole, 24 Laps Led.

OUTLOOK: McMurray is the only full-time driver left, from the Chase’s inception in 2004 who has not made the postseason field despite driving for teams that were “playoff caliber” every year. At some point, luck needs to swing back in his direction right? Didn’t the Chase bill itself as a place for an upset or two? Hey, if he can win the Brickyard 400 once, and then the All-Star Race in a huge upset earlier this year anything can happen. Keep in mind the No. 1 team, so far down in the points will likely go for broke every week instead of trying to get cute with sixth-place finishes. Considering the different strategies involved, up and down the board I think that will only help them and allow a “hit” at the most unlikely of places: Chip Ganassi’s open-wheel mecca of Indianapolis.

CHASE PREDICTION: In. (Wins at Indy)

Did You Notice?… Quick hits before we take off…

NASCAR's Most Popular Driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the Daytona 500 but that apparently wasn't enough to peak the interest of casual sports fans. (Credit: CIA)

NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver Dale Earnhardt, Jr. won the Daytona 500 but that apparently wasn’t enough to peak the interest of casual sports fans. (Credit: CIA)

- NASCAR’s impact, with no races within the top 50 most watched sporting events of 2014, seems to be lessening on a national scale. The question is how ESPN, in their final year of covering the sport live, will react to that reality. Fans seem to be clamoring for more storylines, more coverage of the entire field and less on the top drivers every week. But what’s been the biggest criticism of the Worldwide Leader ever since its return in 2007? Too much focus on the “big picture,” a refusal to bypass main storylines in favor of covering the little guy and Chase, Chase, and more Chase. One notable exception is the Marty/McGee podcast, whose focus on the Race Team Alliance recently was a “must listen” for anyone looking for more information. Still, it’s unknown whether that type of hard-hitting analysis will carry over during a final season where the big executives don’t have much reason to care.

- Notably absent at Indianapolis are two of the sport’s smaller teams, Xxxtreme Motorsports and Randy Humphrey Racing. Both said they’d be back, starting at Indianapolis and for good reason; the purse money there is some of the highest this sport has to offer. The website for Xxxtreme’s No. 44 is down, the team is silent (beyond saying they’re not entered in the race) and all is quiet in the No. 77 camp as well. It’s a story that bears watching, even though a strong field this weekend, with 46 entries for 43 spots would have made qualifying for this race an uphill climb for either car. Why? Pocono looms dead ahead next week and several of Indy’s entries are unlikely to be on the grid for that race. It appears NASCAR, unless these teams start back up operations, will be looking at a short field for several more races near the end of the summer.

About Tom Bowles

Tom Bowles
The author of Bowles-Eye View (Mondays) and Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 30 staff members as its majority owner. Based in Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild.

7 comments

  1. The teams are just as culpable as Nascar in driving costs up. They.are the ones trying to get the latest shiny toy to outdo the competition. Problem. Is pretty quickly the competition has it also. It’s almost.like Spy vs Spy in the old. Mad magazine.
    And then complain about costs? Give me a break.

  2. Well, as Bill B said, the fans and media had talked about this potential issue with sponsorship money even while NASCAR said of course it won’t happen. Funny thing – if there were no chase, this wouldn’t be an issue.

    JohnQ, I hate the chase. I hate the fact that it is the major thing talked about rather than the actual racing. I used to go to a race or watch it on tv and just enjoy it. Now instead of doing that I keep thinking is my guy going to get a win so he can be in the chase. Personally it has produced high anxiety and stress for me as a fan instead of the fun and excitement that I used to feel through the season. That is one of the major reasons I hate the chase – it ruined the fun of racing – yeah winning the championship has always been important but it was THE only important thing – not until the varying formats under which we now pretend to crown a champion.

    rascalmanny, yep, totally agree.

    • I agree Gina. It did take some of the fun out of it. What the chase essentially did was create a mechanism to define drivers that were “winners” and drivers that were “losers”. I never felt that the old system put this type of label on drivers. It kind of just worked out at the end the way it worked out. Maybe you made the top ten to get a place at the banquet and maybe you didn’t, but you didn’t have to drive around for the last 10 races of the season being labeled a loser.

  3. That first paragraph regarding sponsorship and dollars contingent on making the chase is very interesting. I remember that, when the chase was first announced, many fans and those writers that weren’t in NASCAR’s pockets predicted many of these issues would be the result. Of course NASCAR establishment and the yes men surrounding them didn’t see that happening, but here we are.

    I find myself rooting for bad things to happen to NASCAR with regards to sponsorship, ratings, attendance, etc, because I want BF to reap what he has sewn. That’s pretty eft-up considering I really do love the sport and still watch every race in real time (not DVR’ed). Unfortunately, I love Classic NASCAR, not New NASCAR. I feel like when BF took over, NASCAR went to war with it’s fan base, and that perception has warped my attitude to this twisted love the sport / hate the leadership dynamic. When I see ratings and attendance plummeting, all I can think is, “how are all those changes workin’ out for you now Brian. Ha ha ha.”?
    Not a very good place to be for a fan.

  4. I’m starting to get that misread the invitation and showed up in jeans for a black tie event feeling. I enjoy the racing week to week. Because I do not believe NASCAR has any formula for selecting a legitimate champion my eyes glaze over immediately upon reading the words ” the Chase”. Am I alone in this or are there others out there that believe the Chase is a non event not worth paying attention to?

    • Ever since Knaus and Johnson have been stinking up the show I haven’t given a hoot about “The Chase”.I just want to see a good race each week.If the 48 wins the “Championship” again, which they probably will, so be it.

  5. If you want to know why the RTA was started, read the first two paragraphs of this piece again.

    And King France of Nascar looks down and says, “talk to my lawyer”.