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Thinkin’ Out Loud: Off Week – RTA, The Chase and Tires Among First Half Topics
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is having the best year of his career since 2004. 2013 was a stark reminder of how one bad race can sink the Chase before it even really gets going. (Photo Credit: CIA)

Thinkin’ Out Loud: Off Week – RTA, The Chase and Tires Among First Half Topics

Key Moment – The dramatic changes to the Chase format announced in Charlotte during the 2014 Media Tour continue to be the key moment of the season. The “win and you’re in” philosophy is permeating the garage, and there have been obvious strategic decisions, during the season, altered by the fact that a team already has a win and is virtually locked into the Chase. Outside of the frenetic racing on restarts, it doesn’t seem to have greatly changed the overall racing, but it has impacted the season for sure. As the races count down to Richmond, it will most definitely dominate the coverage of the sport.

Matt Kenseth was the winningest driver last season but has yet to visit victory lane this year. Credit: CIA

Matt Kenseth was the winningest driver last season but has yet to visit victory lane this year. Credit: CIA

In a Nutshell – The 2014 season has seen the development of a few different story-lines. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. started off the season with a Daytona 500 victory. He has remained near the top of the points and notched a second victory to ensure he’ll race for the title. Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson have scored three wins each and are poised to be among the highest of favorites to take the Cup at the end of the race in Homestead. Eight other drivers have landed their cars in Victory Lane this year and are ready to make a run at the title. The victors include drivers like: Aric Almirola, who piloted the famous No. 43 to a win at Daytona in the July race; and Kevin Harvick who has been the class of the field for most of the season but has suffered from some self inflicted issues that have kept him from capitalizing several times. Last year’s leading race winner, Matt Kenseth, has failed to score a win this season but is highest in points among those who haven’t. Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon have been leading the way among the rookies, with Larson currently higher in the point standings.

Dramatic Moment- What has turned out to be the most dramatic moment of the season has been the announcement of the Race Team Alliance, a consortium of the owners of the nine biggest teams in the sport. Their stated mission is to save money and make the value of team ownership increase while making the sport better for everyone. The ultimate means to accomplish that goal will be unfolding over the next months and years, but NASCAR has already responded by stating that all communication with the group will be through their lawyers.

What They’ll be Talking About Around the Water Cooler

The RTA is the biggest topic of conversation at this point in the season. While the primary goal sounds altruistic, the ultimate result may be much more sinister. The rumors that are circulating rampantly through the garage are that the owners want a bigger piece of the upcoming $8,000,000,000 television package. The owners currently receive 25% while NASCAR takes in 10% and the race tracks put away 65%. The owners reportedly want some of the money that tracks are currently taking in. Hopefully the whole thing will all work out for the best, but fans are currently skeptical that it could take a turn for the worst.

The Goodyear tires looked like they had finally turned the corner at the beginning of the season. Fantastic races at Las Vegas and Fontana were greatly aided by the fall off of the tires and the ultimate strategy that they invoked. They continued to give up and enhance the racing until Charlotte rolled around. The last month and a half, they have regressed back to the rock hard donuts that we have seen for years. It culminated in the July Daytona race where drivers ran half of the race on a set of tires and crew chiefs stated they could have run the whole race on a single set. NASCAR needs to put pressure on their sole tire provider to bring more tires to the track like they did early in the season because that is the kind of racing that we all want to see.

Attendance is still a problem for NASCAR. The Cup series is seeing a rebound in at track attendance and television ratings, but it is a very long way from the money printing days of the late 90s and early 2000s. Dover had large sections of the grand stands covered and even more that were unused. Charlotte didn’t sell tickets in the Diamond Tower on the back straight because the front stretch was not sold out. Daytona is tearing down the super straight grandstands as this column is being typed. The racing was better at the beginning of the season but has slipped a little since Charlotte. The loop data statistics say the passing is through the roof, but most of that occurs after restarts. The on-track passes for the lead have increased some this year but not as much as most fans would like. The series is at a crossroads with the owners and the fans. We will see if it chooses the road less traveled or if it takes the easy path.

Turner Sports broadcast their last race when the covered the final race of their Summer Series at Loudon. With NBC taking over the races next season that TNT and ESPN broadcast this year, Turner ends a 32-year run of covering NASCAR. Add to that the fact that Fox is attempting to acquire Turner Sports, and the sports broadcasting landscape is situated for a contraction that can’t possibly be good for racing. NBC and CBS are ramping up sports networks but Turner long cut their teeth showing racing that the big broadcasters wouldn’t touch. If one of the rivals to ESPN goes away, the sports television landscape suffers a significant blow.

The Hindenburg Award for Foul Fortune

Parker Kligerman started off 2014 having realized a lifelong dream. He was in a Cup car with a full-time ride. After some misfortune, some driving errors and some realization by his owner that racing is very expensive, he was out of a ride. While his name is still around the sport and he has managed to land some work in television, he is not racing every week. For a driver who has done it on his own without a silver spoon in his sponsorship bracket, it is disappointing that he’s looking for a ride. Here’s to hoping something will come along where he can get back behind the wheel.

Reed Sorenson started the season with a failed hub at Daytona. He has battled back and started every one of the 19 races in the 2014 season. Unfortunately he’s only been running at the end of 14 of those races. He is tied with Kurt Busch for the fewest races running at the finish among the drivers who have been in every race. He is also lowest in points of all of the drivers who have run each event. The effort has been there for Tommy Baldwin Racing and Sorenson continues to chase the dream for that small team.

The “Seven Come for Eleven” Award for Fine Fortune

Kurt Busch has had as much–or more–bad luck as his teammate Kevin Harvick. He’s had cars that have run in the top 10 and top 5 for much of the season, only to have engine failures and flat tires torpedo their efforts late in races. Fortunately for the No. 41 team they kept it all together at Martinsville when they had a pit road fracas with Brad Keselowski that put them on a different pit strategy and into contention at the end of the day. While they are deep in the points, they are solidly above 30th and will be running for the title when the Chase gets here.

It has been 15 years since the No. 43 visited Victory Lane, and an entire generation has passed since the car was consistently competitive. However, it is one of the iconic cars in the series, and having it in the Winner’s Circle is important to bring the past forward and continue to honor the history of the sport. Aric Almirola took care of that in July at Daytona. When the race was called for rain he had the historic number out front and was declared the winner. While it wasn’t a full event he didn’t steal the win. Almirola started in the top 10 and steadily worked his way forward to take the lead when it mattered. If Marcos Ambrose can win at Watkins Glen, or on an oval, Richard Petty Motorsports will have both of their cars in the Chase.

Worth Noting

Winners by total:

3 – Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski
2 – Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards and Joey Logano
1 – Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin, Jeff Gordon and Aric Almirola

Most second-place finishes is three by Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Kevin Harvick and Jeff Gordon

Most top-3 finishes – Brad Keselowski – 8

Most top-5 finishes – Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Brad Keselowski – 9

Most top-10 finishes – Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Jeff Gordon – 13

Most Pole Positions – Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick – 3

Most Laps Led – Jimmie Johnson – 1,008

Most Lead Lap Finishes – Jeff Gordon – 18

Most Wins by Manufacturer – Chevrolet – 9

Most Prize Money Earned – Brad Keselowski – $4,236,695

What’s the Points

Points don’t matter as much as wins. The 11 race winners are listed below along with the five drivers who would make the Chase on points at this juncture of the season.

Winners:
Daytona and Pocono – Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
Phoenix and Darlington – Kevin Harvick
Las Vegas, Kentucky and New Hampshire – Brad Keselowski
Bristol and Sonoma – Carl Edwards
California – Kyle Busch
Martinsville – Kurt Busch
Texas and Richmond – Joey Logano
Talladega – Denny Hamlin
Kansas – Jeff Gordon
Charlotte, Dover and Michigan – Jimmie Johnson
Daytona (2) – Aric Almirola

Drivers making the Chase on points who do not have wins:
4) Matt Kenseth
7) Ryan Newman
10) Clint Bowyer
11) Paul Menard
14) Kyle Larson

Overall Rating(On a scale of one to six beer cans with one being a stinker and a six pack an instant classic)- We made it to the halfway point of the season and the races have been good and bad. While there were a couple that were borderline classics, there were two or three that were terrible. From the 10,000 foot level it has been an average year. There sport has given us quite a bit but left us wanting more. As a result we’ll give it three frosty Carolina Blondes with an eye toward the results the new Chase will provide.

Next Up

The series heads to Indianapolis for the Brickyard this weekend. The folks at ESPN pick up the television broadcasting duties to take the circuit through championship weekend in Homestead. The Brickyard will be shown at 1:00 Eastern. It can also be heard on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Radio Network and Sirius XM Radio.

About Mike Neff

Mike Neff
What is it that Mike Neff doesn’t do? The writer, radio contributor and racetrack announcer coordinates the site’s local short track coverage, hitting up Saturday Night Specials across the country while tracking the sport’s future racing stars. The writer for our signature Sprint Cup post-race column, Thinkin’ Out Loud (Mondays) also sits down with Cup crew chiefs to talk shop every Thursday with Tech Talk. Mike works as track announcer for Millbridge Speedway and East Lincoln Speedway, local bullrings based outside of Charlotte, and pops up everywhere from Athlon Sports to SIRIUS XM Radio.

14 comments

  1. Rebound in TV ratings? From everything I’ve seen almost every race in the first half had ratings with historic lows going back 10-15 years in most cases.
    The only reason we’ve even had some of action on the restarts is because of the “debris” cautions that have been prevalent since Charlotte, usually during commercials, nowhere near the racing surface, that is if we even see the alleged debris on the TV coverage.
    I hope Watkins Glen is good because otherwise we’re in the Summer Snooze (yes including Bristol)portion of the schedule until Richmond.

  2. Rebound in ratings? Where? Not according to the information I see online and certainly not based on my own viewing habits which have gone to watch the start of the race, go off and do something else, check back in and see what’s going on, go off and do something else, watch the end of the race IF it appears to be worthwhile.

    I used to be a dedicated NASCAR fan. I watched qualifying, practice and the race, not any more. I don’t bother with the new group qualifying because it isn’t worth it IMO, practice? are they showing it on TV? The race – see above.

    I had friends who followed the racing on at least a casual basis because I did. They don’t bother to do that anymore partly because I’ve become less interested.

    Of course the RTA is going to try and get a bigger piece of the pie from the France family. After all, it is the race teams/owners who have been footing the bill for all the craziness that BZF has inflicted on the sport. It costs money to redesign a freaking car every year.

    • Michael in SoCal

      Same boat here. I just tune in for select events, that should put on good racing. I’ll watch Eldora tomorrow night. I’ll be outside this weekend for Indianapolis. Might come in around 1:00 on Sunday to catch the final 50 laps. Or maybe I won’t.

      • I’ll probably do the same. I’m hoping that I don’t have to listen to Mikey on the broadcast. If they would all just shut up and let Mike Joy call the race, it would be good.

  3. I used to know about a dozen hard core NASCAR fans that I would BS with on Monday morning following a race. Now I am the only person I know that still watches and I NEVER see a NASCAR t shirt. Anecdotal I know but it leads me to believe that fan interest remains in free fall. Now Frontstretch is my only venue to BS with other fans. Anyone else have a similar experience?

    • Same here John. I would also add that in the late 90′s, early 2000′s that racing collectibles, (cars, shirts, hats, bottle cozy’s, etc.) were well stocked at the large stores such as Wal-Mart and Target. That isn’t the case now with very little, if any, being carried in stores. While the economy most likely played some role in the decline of NASCAR fans I have trouble believing that it played a large roll. My thought is that for anyone to be a fan of racing it really doesn’t require a large outlay of money. Basically just a television will do as most fans most likely don’t live in close proximity of a NASCAR track, (Sprint Cup). Based on how the race is presented on television will most likely determine if the viewer gets hooked on the sport. Additionally, in the early stages a new fan begins to learn about the format and rules of the sport and this too could be a pivotal point as to whether or not that the new fan stays with the point. As Matt pointed out in his response to our comments to his article there are many factors as to why the sport has declined over the past years but I believe the television coverage coupled with the decisions made by the governing body of NASCAR have contributed greatly in its decline, (COT, rock hard tires, Chase, etc.).

      In contrast I watched the Indy races this past weekend and thoroughly enjoyed the coverage, (tough break with the rain). The coverage was devoid of any contrived story lines nor any selling of products such as Sunoco racing fuel and Goodyear tires. The racing commentators went through the field and the coverage was focused on where the action was.

    • Same here JohnQ. I probably knew 8 people at work that followed NASCAR. They were all casual fans, I was the diehard fan that watched every race. Funny how these changes were supposed to attract the casual viewer..LOL. Now there is one other guy that will watch a race or two and still discuss the latest news.
      While I agree with the broadcast being huge turnoff for those of us that watch the races, I’ve never heard any of those casual fans mention that as a factor. Most of them just thought the constant rule changes and way the races were unfolding wasn’t worth their time. There were real sports on tv to watch.

  4. Your integrity just went the way of NA$CAR. Just because you print it does not make the informed
    fan believe it.

  5. Got to agree with the others – just when I thought you guys at Frontstretch had passed on the NASCAR/BF Koolaid, you try to tell us that attendance and ratings are improving !! Give me a break – have you noticed how EMPTY the stands are ?

  6. I agree the season started very good with good races at Daytona, Vegas, Bristol and Martinsville, but I what I feared happened. When they got to recently repaved race tracks (Kansas, Pocono, Michigan, Charlotte) the tires got harder and the racing suffered. I am optimistic for Chicago though. The Nationwide race on Saturday was pretty good. Again, a seasoned race track.

  7. Want to know what crazy is? Brian France and company think nascar is on the same level as the NFL, NBA, and MLB. Seriously. For a short time it was. Now I’d say they’re on the NHL level and heading to the tennis level. But even the NHL and tennis have something that Nascar does not.

    Respect.

  8. No rebound in ratings according to Jayski. There is an entry entitled “No NASCAR in top 50 watched sporting events this year:” Seems ratings are still decreasing. The NFL draft made the top 50 list but not one NASCAR event has cracked it.

  9. I could have sworn you wrote “The Cup series is seeing a rebound in at track attendance and television ratings,” Really?

  10. A rebound in tv ratings? Was this an attempt at a joke? Whether it was or not, it made me laugh.

    Let’s see what happens if/when that 48 wins……. again.