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.
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?
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.