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Four Burning Questions on the Off-Week: Title Favorites, Silly Season Rumors, and Chase Predictions

Four Burning Questions on the Off-Week: Title Favorites, Silly Season Rumors, and Chase Predictions

It’s a rare off-week in NASCAR-land, and as the men and women who make up the Sprint Cup Series enjoy some well-earned vacation time, the sport’s observers are left to reflect on the season that’s been as we sit at the de facto halfway point of the schedule. The 2014 season has been an interesting one to say the least, with plenty of storylines and drama to keep everyone occupied until the Chase starts eight weeks from now. With 18 weeks left of NASCAR action ahead of us, many questions still beg to be answered as to what the rest of this season will hold. Who will win the championship? How will the new-look Chase unfold? Will the ratings continue to plummet? These are the big topics that will fill the headlines on NASCAR websites for the rest of the season, and if you scroll down a little bit you can see my perspective on them (if you are into that sort of thing.)

1. Will the championship battle be a Hendrick-Penske duel a la 2012?

Over the past 3-4 years, Hendrick Motorsports and Team Penske have been the most prolific NASCAR teams in the business. Joe Gibbs Racing has been in the mix as well, but Hendrick and Penske have been the preeminent title threats year in and year out. Halfway through 2014, it appears that they will be dueling once again.

"Junior, dude, your ear tastes like AMP."

Is it already shaping up to be a showdown between the Hendrick Motorsports teammates and the Team Penske stable? (Photo: CIA Editorial Photography)

Between the two teams, they have combined to win a whopping 11 out of 18 events on the season. Brad Keselowski has been the hottest driver on the circuit over the past two months, winning 2 out of the last 3 races and vaulting himself to 4th in the point standings. Keselowski’s teammate, Joey Logano, has collected two wins as well and is a weekly threat to win.

The Hendrick side of the equation has been equally as impressive. Jimmie Johnson ripped off three wins throughout May and June and re-established his level of performance from 2013, and his teammates Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon have been just as competitive.

Frankly, it seems like a foregone conclusion at this point that the title is going to be won by one of these two organizations. They’ve been too consistently fast to lose it at this point, and unless one of the other big teams (such as JGR) catch fire, it seems inevitably that a Penske or Hendrick car will be hoisting the title.

2. Will television ratings continue to plummet?

Some blame it on the rain, some on the World Cup, some are even blaming it on the economy. Whichever outlet you choose to put the blame on, there is no doubt that the ratings are in the tank this year. The question that remains is this: how low can they possibly go?

Based on my own personal research into the topic of ratings, there is reason to believe that ratings will be evening out once the Chase starts. According to conversations I’ve had with folks such as RACINGnomics’ Andrew Maness,  NASCAR purposely designed the Chase’s format with the understanding that ratings losses seen early in the season would be balanced out by gains at the end of the year courtesy of the heightened drama of the new playoff system. Most experts I talk to believe this is what will happen: the Chase’s ratings will likely go up due to the novelty of the new Chase system and the many “made for TV” aspects of it.

This is obviously something of a “wait and see” question that will bear watching going forward. With this being ESPN’s last year with the NASCAR contract, it is a crapshoot as to whether or not they will promote the sport as aggressively as it has in the past. The ratings will end up telling the real story at the end of the day, so keep an eye on them.

3. Who will snag the last remaining Chase berths?

(Photo: CIA Editorial Photography)

Can rookie Kyle Larson squueze into the Chase without a win, or will veterans steal the show? (Photo: CIA Editorial Photography)

My apologies to the stuck-in-the-past readers who are still bitter about the fact that NASCAR has a playoff system, but yes, two out of these four questions are Chase-related because it is objectively the biggest event in the sport. Currently, 11 drivers appear to have locked up Chase berths courtesy of winning races. Realistically, there will likely only be two to three more winners, so a conservative prediction for how the Chase picture will look is that 14 drivers will earn berths courtesy of wins while two get in via points.

As to who will get those last berths, its anyone’s guess. Matt Kenseth hasn’t locked up a spot yet, but with plenty of Matt Kenseth-friendly tracks coming up, one would assume that he’ll lock up a win somewhere. Ryan Newman, sitting seventh in points, would appear to be a solid bet to make it in courtesy of points because of his consistency all season long. That leaves 3 spots left that are largely up for grabs. Could the rookies, Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon, sneak their way in? How about a resurgent last-ditch effort to make the Chase courtesy of veterans Kasey Kahne, Clint Bowyer, Greg Biffle, or Brian Vickers? Also, who could forget the surprising Paul Menard, who sits an out-of-nowhere 11th in the standings currently? Three of those mentioned will make the Chase, and at this point, it’s almost impossible to predict who will make it in.

My prediction: Kyle Larson and Clint Bowyer will sneak their way in on wins while Brian Vickers edges out Kasey Kahne to get in to the last spot based on points.

4. How will silly season unfold?

The silly season rumor mill has quieted the past few weeks, but with big-time free agents Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle still on the market, you can expect the rumors to heat up as the season reaches its conclusion. The choices that each driver makes will have a huge impact on where less-ballyhooed drivers will end up as well, so this is going to be a huge story over the next few weeks.

By most indications, Biffle seems locked in to stay at Roush-Fenway Racing. Biffle seems to want to stay, and the team seems to want to keep him as a veteran capable of mentoring the organization’s burgeoning crop of young guns. Edwards, on the other hand, is a mystery. Some say he’s headed to Gibbs, others say Penske, and even wilder rumors suggest he could somehow replace Kasey Kahne at Hendrick. That last one is extremely unlikely, but you get the point  here: Edwards’ situation will continue to be a mystery until his deal is officially announced.

This is pure speculation, but I’m going to guess that Edwards will head to JGR in a fourth car. JGR is a team on the rise, while RFR is on the way down. Only seems logical that he’ll bolt for greener pastures.

 

About Matt Stallknecht

Matt Stallknecht
Promoted to editor in 2014, Matt fights off rogue commas from our writing staff after rounding himself into a “young gun” racing expert. For the past two seasons, he’s penned the popular Four Burning Questions column (Weekends) highlighting the upcoming NASCAR race weekend. As an author for our open-wheel section, Matt also contributes to Open-Wheel Wednesdays and a substantial amount of race coverage and analysis. Matt, a native of Central New York also balances his duites with a full-time college course load. He’s a Senior at Le Moyne college this Fall.

17 comments

  1. On the Monday after a by weekend, seems like the two Matt’s from FS stepped in it. Too Bad Matt M. can’t chime in, on his original column comments, and take their NASCAR pom poms away before they injure themselves further.

  2. The fact that NASCAR thinks the chase ratings will offset the regular season decline makes me want to boycott the chase races just to prove them wrong. I won’t, but that’s what I’d like to do. NASCAR’s arrogance is most insulting. I will never accept the chase as the best and fairest method of determining a champion is this sport.
    Maybe I am a bitter fan but in my opinion, BF took something that was working perfectly fine the way it was, and effed with it until it was totally broken and I will never forgive him for that.

  3. Don’t think the Chase will ever go away? And replay will never be used in baseball.

    Right now nearly half the field makes the Chase. What happens next year? The top 35 make the Chase? There’s nothing Holy about the Chase. If the downward spiral continues I guarantee you the Chase will be on the table for discussion. It certainly has not fulfilled the promises from when it started.

    Things change. We’ve seen changes in the NFL, the NBA, and in MLB that 10 years ago people would swear would never happen. But if the fans cry loud enough, or go away, then changes are made.

    I’m telling you, this Nascar/RTA deal will be something to watch.

  4. Matt Stallknecht
    Matt Stallknecht

    Few things to button up here…

    A) John, nowhere in the article did I say that the new-look Chase was going to necessarily bring in old and embittered fans who have ditched the sport. I was simply saying that the current format of the Chase was literally designed to benefit the Chase-portion of the schedule. Most experts on ratings and such topics almost universally agree that the late stages of this year’s Chase will likely see a ratings boost due to the novelty of the format. This is not to say it’s going to convert old fans back to the sport, I’m simply stating that the format of the Chase is likely to garner the sport more media attention at the end of the year which, generally speaking, leads to higher ratings. This is not something I dreamed up, this is information I have gleaned from folks such as Andrew Maness over at RACINGnomics, who actually studies ratings’ trends and has real, raw data on that kind of stuff.

    So no, John, this is not a delusion of mine. And I believe you took me out of context anyway.

    Moving on…

    B) To Chris’ point about “what would happen if you removed the fans that don’t support the Chase,” it would be a bit presumptuous to base any assumptions about who does/does not like the Chase based on reader comments posted on Internet message boards and such. Generally speaking (and this is based on data we have both here at Frontstretch and data I’ve seen gathered in independent studies conducted on message board trends), the folks who tend to post the most on message boards are the ones who represent the most extreme/passionate viewpoints, and for the most part, those who do post tend to be the individuals on the “dissatisfied” side of whatever the topic is. Plenty of studies have been done on this, and it actually explains why most of the internet is unhappy, here is an article about it: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-is-everyone-on-the-internet-so-angry/

    “And because comment-section discourses don’t happen in real time, commenters can write lengthy monologues, which tend to entrench them in their extreme viewpoint. “When you’re having a conversation in person, who actually gets to deliver a monologue except people in the movies? Even if you get angry, people are talking back and forth and so eventually you have to calm down and listen so you can have a conversation.” <-Excerpt from the article.

    To paraphrase, what tends to happen is that people who are the most dissatisfied with the given topic are the ones who tend to post. This is certainly not a bad thing, you all have posted valid, well-written, and valuable opinions on the Chase, but to say it is representative of the population at-large would be a fallacy. Thus, to say that “no one would be left if you removed the anti-Chase crowd” would be presumptuous. There is certainly a big portion of the fan base that dislikes the Chase, but I think you guys would be surprised at the number of people who either aren’t affected by it or even outright support it.

    As for me personally, I don’t necessarily support the Chase one way or the other. I think there is value to it, but I am not naïve enough to say that it doesn’t have its flaws. It has PLENTY of flaws, and I frankly think the format needs to be tweaked to something less radical. All that being said, I would be lying if I said it won’t raise the level of drama of this year’s iteration of the Chase, because the very format of it this year lends itself to it. Whether you think that drama is contrived or not is up to you, but it is drama nonetheless and I personally see that as something that is tough to argue against. That was really my only point anyway, I wasn’t implying that Chase is good or bad, I was merely stating that it will likely increase media attention towards the sport at the end of the year, and is a possible explanation of why the ratings have been soft this year thus far.

    On to my last point:

    C) Many of you in this space seem to be under the impression that I and other writers on this site are trying to force feed certain types of opinions on to you. My comment about “stuck-in-the-past” fans was not intended to create this impression, and I personally don’t believe anyone writing for this site intends to create that impression either.

    Rather, what I was trying to say (and what others have likely been trying to say) is that no matter how much you do or don’t like the Chase, the 2014 season, or whatever, there is little to nothing that can be done to change it at this stage of the game. The Chase has been around since 2004. I can promise you that it is never, ever going away. So, at least to me, harping on it just seems like beating a dead horse at this point. Research on television ratings done courtesy of RACINGnomics has actually conclusively shown that there is no correlation between falling TV ratings and the existence of the Chase format (Andrew Maness had a post on his site about this last year but unfortunately it was taken down), so to pin all of the issues this sport has on the playoff system seems unfair. I think the piss-poor racing during the COT-era is the bigger culprit, but that’s a story for another day.

    I do, as always, appreciate the comments, and would enjoy furthering this discussion. Just wanted to add a little bit to the discussion to expand on my perspective.

    - Matt Stallknecht

    • Matt, thank you for your response. I stated “If we were to remove those fans from the entire pool of NASCAR fans exactly how many fans would be left that actually support the Chase format?” Your response to that is ” it would be a bit presumptuous to base any assumptions about who does/does not like the Chase based on reader comments posted on Internet message boards and such”. To be clear I did not state that the pool was based on readers comments. Furthermore I’m well aware and fully understand the many studies conducted on people who post to messageboards. This being said I am curious as to your point in context to the readers of Frontstretch that usually post to this website. Are we so passionate to our own viewpoints that we are blind to the realities of NASCAR? I, along with the rest of the usual commentators are really imagining empty seats and low ratings? Do we really represent the “most extreme/passionate viewpoints” on the subject of NASCAR? I’m not sure I buy into that logic as it contradicts the results of the current NASCAR business model.

      Also, for the record, I noted that attributed the quote ” “no one would be left if you removed the anti-Chase crowd” to which I did not write. I didn’t see that comment from other commenters but I just want to be clear that I did not write that.

      Furthermore you stated “Whether you think that drama is contrived or not is up to you, but it is drama nonetheless and I personally see that as something that is tough to argue against. ” True, it is drama but surely stating that whether or not it’s contrive is up to the viewer is a bit of a stretch. Playoff systems do not comfortably translate to any game or sport that involves more than two players at a time. To do so is in essence creating drama that is irrelevant or a misdirection to the goal of correctly determining a champion. Due to many factors the process doesn’t truly determine the correct winner. I agree with you that the old system needed a little tweaking, (changing the points to emphasis winning for instance), but at the very least the old system did correctly determine who was the champion by the number of points that each driver obtained throughout the season.

      I do agree that the current state of NASCAR cannot be blamed solely on the Chase format. I do think you may have yourself a potentially interesting future article regarding what you consider to be the hurdles that NASCAR faces in order to build the sport and what you feel could be put in place to overcome those hurdles.

    • Matt, I love that you take the time to interact with us. I can’t see a downside to it. As to the ratings going up for the Chase, I’m just not buying, especially as overall ratings seem to be in free fall. Anyway, we will not know which of us is right until then. Statistics, can be gathered in such a way to pretty much “prove” whatever you want them to, much like how poll questions can be structured to bend the results a certain way. I worked for a government agency that statistically lied to the public as a way to cover up serious performance problems. I believe the Chase is one of perhaps a dozen reasons that NASCAR is heading fans. In fact, I don’t think it is even near the top of the list. I just did a statistical study of Frontstretch posters and have concluded that sometimes we are right. If you don’t believe me I have a few questions for a short poll I am conducting. Again, thanks for paying attention.

    • Matt, I completely agree about the COT era. And who called it from day one? Kyle Busch. And he was crucified for his comments.

    • IMHO the Chase or even the commentators has little if anything to do with wether someone watches a particular race. Certainly some are better than others but what are the options? I know about the internet, etc. But realistically either you watch or you dont, simple as that. So again IMHO the reasons are more basic than that. Maybe its as simple as too many other things we can do now, and the automobile is less appealing to people than before. But I dont claim to have the answers.

      • Matt Stallknecht

        I agree with that Russ. The problems this sport faces are not the simple result of “NASCAR changing X and producing an undesired Y outcome.” A lot of this stuff is societally based, economically based, etc.

        As far as my own personal “macro perspective” on why NASCAR has “declined” over the past few years goes something like this: NASCAR was like a hot property on the stock market that went up up up in the 90s and 2000s. The growth was unsustainable after awhile, so this “decline” is really nothing more than NASCAR regressing back to it’s “mean” level of popularity, which based on research I’ve done, puts the sport on similar footing to mainstream second tier sports such as the NHL, PGA Tour, etc. Certainly nothing to be ashamed of, but also not the heights that some thought the sport would reach during the boom years.

        • Thanks for that response. That makes a lot of sense. And certainly a sports body that will report earnings of 600-650 million this year is doing rather well. As a sponsor of a car in another series I wish we had that robust a product. Perhaps as Nascar fans we get tunnel vision and ignore the bigger picture.

    • I would love to know WHO these people are that NASCAR asks to get the results of their various polls that always seem to support THEIR point of view?

      And why is is that fans who don’t agree with the opinions of NASCAR or the writers and other media who are often paid by NASCAR (not this site I assume) are always considered to be “embittered”?

      And while not liking the chase may be “beating a dead horse”, well, if everyone just accepts things they don’t like and accepts it w/o saying anything, then nothing will ever change. Do you think the changes to the COT would have happened if the manufacturer’s hadn’t gotten together and said “we hate this car”? People are entitled to their opinion about it even if you don’t agree with it. For instance, there are products I don’t buy because I don’t like the way they perform. That’s a simple example and applies to NASCAR as well – it used to be fun to watch a race, now it doesn’t meet my expectations.

  5. Nascar is dying and apathy is rampant. Nascar is literally a joke now. People know it’s a show with gimmicks and manipulation. Yellow flags anyone? If that’s okay with you then fine, so be it. But it’s not respected anymore.

    When ESPN wants out early that should be a massive red flag. When even Hendrick joins the RTA that should be MASSIVE shout to Nascar, who, in turn, has said “talk to my lawyer”.

    Who gives a flip whether the ratings go up a tick? The real question is, “How soon before the Nascar/RTA/fans bomb explodes?” I bet sooner rather than later.

  6. There’s also this sticky widget! Once the chase field is set you have automatically left those teams and the fans of those teams out to dry. That’s more than half the teams that are deemed unimportant. Now you have winners and probably some that slid in on points or another “because I can” edict from Brain dead. Are the fans of those teams going to hold their interest through to homestead? No! What NASCAR counts on is what happens in every sport during the play offs, increased ratings, not from the dedicated follower but from the casual fan. Those fans will be gone as soon as the gate closes at Homestead. So NASCAR trades the dedicated fan that follows their team for the Johnny come lately, part time fan. Trust me on this, when the dollars are counted after Homestead and they fall far short of fantasy projections, the chase will once again be modified, because it isn’t about racing anymore, it’s all about the Benjamin’s.

    As for the “stuck in the past” readers, you just might have that wrong. I’m a reader but, also a fan and participant of over 50 years. I’ve been part of a Busch championship team so I do come with some history of this sport. I think I can say this without reservation, the “Chase” has never been accepted by the fans, period! It was created as a money maker and has nothing to do with RACING. Yes, the old point system needed a change but, the creation of the “Chase” did nothing to add to the sport, nothing! It did not add to the RACING in anyway. Yet isn’t that what NASCAR is, or is supposed to be, about RACING?

    Since you went to stuck in the past readers allow me to go there as well. I don’t care how much you’ve read, how many races you’ve attended, whatever, you simply do not understand what it is that brought NASCAR to the fans, you can’t. As both a fan and participant I went through the benevolent dictatorship era’s of both Bill Sr and Bill Jr and they both had something that Brian is lacking, the RACING and the show, that was their mantra. That was the uppermost goal, the show, because that putt butts in the seat. That made the dedicated fan, that made the loyal fan, that built NASCAR. So when you denigrate those of us stuck in the past, try to remember, we made this sport, our dollars built it, our dedication built it and mostly, we were there, we lived it and we certainly know what we want. Having known it and felt it I never in my wildest thoughts would believe I’d ever say this, even with being heavy handed, I sure miss the shows that Sr and Jr put first and I do mean the France’s.

  7. Matt, in my opinion your comment about “stuck in the past” readers is very disrespectful. The preface of “your apologies” is nothing but a sugarcoating. Its the same sor to thing that NASCAR’s management has dealt to the many fans who over the years WERE the backbone of the sport. NASCAR and many in the media want the fans to just accept what they serve up as the “sport” these days and those who don’t are consistently told in every way possible they need to just get over it. Based on fans I talk to, that method isn’t working too well. Fans have been voting with their money and their remotes.

    Yes, the chase is still here in one more different iteration. The number of changes made to this playoff format since its inception indicates that it is NOT an effective way to capture the interest of a lot of fans or crown a champion. Will ratings go up for it? Maybe but it is certainly interesting to know that NASCAR and the TV partners are willing to accept 2/3 of the season as a loss leader in the hopes that fans will care when the last 10 races start. That of course assumes that the driver they favor is in. And then let’s look at the tracks, they start at Chicago (a track that may be in a large market but IMO doesn’t put on a race that is worth watching on TV), we’ve already seen the single car domination at Loudon (anyone really expect that the race in the fall to be more exciting?), followed by Dover, Kansas and Charlotte (anyone still awake? or watching?), then comes the great crapshoot race in Talladega followed by the only race in the 10 that I’m actually looking forward to seeing – Martinsville. Yeah, I can tell you that I won’t be glued to my TV for the entirety of most of those races – not during the nice weather that we usually get in the fall.

    As a fan, am I still here? Yes. Do I follow NASCAR with the same amount of enthusiasm as I did at one time? No. Will I watch the “new” crapshoot/demotion derby version of the chase? So long as my guy is in contention, the answer to that is probably yes, at least with a certain amount of attention. The only reason I still follow the sport is because Jeff Gordon is still racing. When he’s out, so am I. I don’t plan to pick another driver to follow on his exit from the chase or from NASCAR racing. I am simply NOT that interested in it overall and on top of that, I am tired of being insulted both by NASCAR and by various media because I don’t hold the same high opinion or enthusiasm for the “playoffs”.

    • I agree completely Gina. I too made it to the line “My apologies to the stuck-in-the-past readers who are still bitter about the fact that NASCAR has a playoff system” when I found myself thinking “Summer Bedgood and Matt would make a nice couple. Once again another “young gun” racing “expert” who hasn’t a clue. So far in the last few days Frontstretch writers have made the point that we, as fans should just be happy that there is race and not to complain about the racing or the current format.

      Let’s flip this on its ear a bit. Let’s go with Matt’s point that there are bitter fans that are stuck-in-the-past and just won’t accept the Chase format, no matter the iteration. If we were to remove those fans from the entire pool of NASCAR fans exactly how many fans would be left that actually support the Chase format? Of the friends that I have that still watch NASCAR,( many that have left the sport), none are excited by the Chase, (and even less so with the current format). I’m curious as to where these fans that embrace the Chase are as there are very few comments on this site that support the Chase.

      We know that NASCAR doesn’t listen to what the fans say but I didn’t think that some of the writers of this site could be this out of touch with the fans as well. Can’t wait until the next fan-insulting article comes out!

      • Go easy on Matt,he is obviously delusional. For example he believes that the Chase will bring back those fans that have drifted away because of silly gimmicks like the chase. (Look everybody, we’re just like football, we have playoffs). Here is my fantasy Chase, follow along. No Chase driver has more than 3 wins, at least one has no wins. A non Chase eligible driver gets red hot and wins 6 of the 10 Chase races. No Chase driver wins any of the other 4. At the end a Chase driver with no wins all year has the most points and we get a winless Champion. The icing on the illegitimate Chase cake. Listening to Brian Farce, Larry Mc GoodYearSunoco, Summer and Matt try to persuade us that the Chase was exciting and they have crowned a legitimate Champion would be piss your pants funny. Ah, dream with me.

        • Ok John, I’ll go with your dream but you clearly haven’t thought this all the way through. If your dream did come to pass NASCAR would not admit there was a problem with the Chase and we would have writers such as Summer and Matt telling us why it was the most exciting season/championship in the history of NASCAR. So in the end we would once again be subjected to insults such as we are a bunch of bitter stuck-in-the-past fans that incapable of recognizing how great the racing is nowadays.