Race Weekend Central

Happy Hour: Revisiting NASCAR Predictions From Feb. 2009

Editor’s Note: Kurt Smith is once again vacationing and shirking his duties at Frontstretch, thinking himself the big shot after a couple of brief radio appearances and whatnot. But as a public service to you the Frontstretch readers, he left us a revisit of an earlier column asking our great writers about the future of the sport. We hope you enjoy it and thanks for reading.

Way back in February of this year, the Frontstretch staff gathered together to answer some questions about the upcoming season in an effort to sound like experts. (Some of us are, although I wont stake my career on my own expertise.) I stumbled on my responses to the six questions that Tom sent us and I thought it would be fun to see how it’s all played out this year.

So with no further ado, let me print my responses (abbreviated in the interest of brevity) and give some thought to how it’s all worked out so far in September.

Here are the questions, my original answers and what can be said now:

1) With the economic crisis front and center these days, all three of NASCAR’s top-three series are struggling to fill the fields. What should the sanctioning body do to cut costs and get both teams on the track and fans in the stands… or have they already done enough?

February Response: NASCAR must do what it has shown little capability of doing in recent years: nothing. Leave the sport, the car and the rules alone so that the teams that are struggling to get a handle on the new car. If NASCAR is correct in their assertion that the new car will save teams money, then they should stand by that statement. For once, NASCAR needs to bite down on their cheeks (their facial cheeks I mean) and sit still.

Regarding putting fans in the stands, short of offering packages and discounted seats – and I mean on decent seats, not the first two rows on the backstretch – NASCAR could try buying out land near racetracks, build a huge hotel and offer discounted rooms with ticket sales. It’ll never happen, but it sounds nice. Make it so the hotel cost doesn’t kill people who go out of their way.

And muzzle Bruton Smith about blackouts before any more fans are alienated.

And Now in September: Wow, I forgot all about Bruton Smith suggesting the idea of blackouts. Remember that?

Anyway, it looks like NASCAR is taking my advice, with Mike Helton announcing recently that there will be no changes to the current car for precisely the reasons that I’ve stated. How about that… NASCAR actually did something little ol’ Kurt Smith recommended. The problem is that Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s complaints about the car brought the statement on, and with his performance this year there are a lot of fans that probably agree with him. But as long as I seem to have their ear after all, how do they like the hotel idea?

2) Some observers have already anointed 18-year-old Joey Logano as the next great driver on the NASCAR circuit. But last season, he struggled mightily in a handful of Cup starts for Hall of Fame Racing. Is this kid capable of taking the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota back to the front or is he the second coming of Casey Atwood?

February Response: Not to worry about Logano… he will do just fine and should easily win the rookie of the year honors before he has to shave. He didn’t do well in the No. 96, but who did? Regarding his starts in the No. 02, he didn’t have many, and they were the first time he’s had to drive the winged snowplow, which has been an adjustment for everyone except for lunatic racers who don’t care how often they get sideways. Once he has a few races to adjust, look out.

His runs in 2008 remind me of another phenom’s few runs before his rookie season: Kyle Busch. And Atwood drove for a team that would not take up for him the way Gibbs will.

And Now in September: Well, I thought Logano would be a lot better than he has been, but he’ll still be Rookie of the Year easily. I should have known that the no-testing rule might cause him some problems as he learns to adjust to a car that is nothing like anything he’s ever driven before. Logano has been improving a little bit at a time, but next year he’s really going to have to step it up. He may be able to with the expectations being lower and a win under his belt.

But it’s certainly taken longer than a few races.

3) After an up-and-down first full season with the Car of Tomorrow, NASCAR implemented no changes to the design in the offseason. Will that result in better racing in 2009 as teams get a handle on the new car, or will no testing lead to necessary midseason changes to increase the quality of racing?

February Response: An up-and-down season? No offense, but what were the ups? Michael McDowell’s surviving the horrendous qualifying crash? Please clarify.

NASCAR is in a quandary here. The new car is unpopular for many reasons, not the least of which are the difficulties teams have with lack of downforce and the wear on right side tires caused by the high center of gravity. In short, Kyle Busch was right. The racing in the opinion of most (including myself) has suffered. It isn’t fun to watch drivers slide around and have so much difficulty passing. But the flip side is what I have said earlier: that if teams are struggling and NASCAR wants to help, the best thing they can do is nothing.

And Now in September: I’ve noticed that the new car isn’t as wobbly as it once was, but passing is still far too difficult, and the double-file restarts are really just a band-aid on a larger problem – the leader still pulls away too easily.

I will say it has gotten a little bit better, as we’ve had a few good races this season. There hasn’t been as much bending of the rules since NASCAR cracked down hard with stiff penalties… whether that makes the racing better will need a few more seasons to bear out. And NASCAR probably is best off not making any changes. Not after going this far. Either make no changes, or go back to run what you brung.

4) At 50 years old, Mark Martin is attempting the unthinkable: a return to full-time racing in the Cup Series. With good equipment underneath him (Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets), is he capable of putting together a run at the Chase (and if he gets there, the championship)? Or is it too little, too late for this sport’s version of Dan Marino?

February Response: If anyone can run 36 races a year at 50 and be competitive, my money is on Mark. He will be racing in some of the best cars out there, and he is probably the best driver in history not to win a championship. Bet on him to make the Chase… but as far as contending for a long-awaited title? He’ll need some luck for that. Still no one is more due for some luck. And it would be a great ending to a very underrated career.

And Now in September: It’s not a difficult call to say Martin will run well in any equipment, let alone Hendrick machinery. I should have counted on his having the same black cloud over him that he’s had for much of his career at least title-wise. I defy you to come up with when you’ve seen two blown Hendrick engines in the first three races of the season. And as I said last week, restrictor plates have been disastrous for Martin.

But I’m still confident that he’ll make the Chase and contend for a title. And maybe someday, the winds of fate will blow in Mark’s direction. No one deserves it more.

5) Last season, the 12 drivers that made the Chase were from just four teams (Hendrick, Gibbs, Childress and Roush). What other team has the best chance to break through and stop their Chase dominance, or are the advantages of the Big Four just too much?

February Response: If you ask me to pick one of the non-big four, I think Red Bull is on the march, especially if they put the wheels on right. And Scott Speed will be good for them. Did very well in the Truck Series. Maybe not this year, but they aren’t far away.

There’s too much chaos going on at Richard Petty Motorsports, DEI-Ganassi or Yates to make me think any of them could stop the big four juggernauts. I’d hedge my bets on Penske too… they seem to be slipping a bit. But I may get proven wrong on that.

The Big Four doesn’t have all that much of an advantage: Hendrick is maybe a half second a lap faster than Childress, who in turn is a half second a lap faster than DEI. There is more parity, maybe it’s the new car, who knows, but all of these teams can rise up and challenge if they make a commitment to.

And Now in September: Lessee… right about Brian Vickers, wrong about Speed, although Speed may have the same problem Logano has been having… not enough opportunities to learn the winged snowplow. But Vickers has been steadily improving, as has Red Bull’s ability to put a good car under him. Now that they have won at Michigan, that’s a lot of tracks that they can use similar setups and run well.

I was more or less right about DEI-Ganassi, Yates, and RPM, Kasey Kahne’s resurgence notwithstanding. I was indeed proven wrong about Penske. Kurt Busch has had a fine season but they aren’t likely to challenge Hendrick for the crown.

The sad thing for whoever authored the question (I’m guessing it was Tom, he’s got hang-ups about this stuff) is that it’s hard to imagine that anyone completely outside of the Hendrick circle is going to win the title this year. It looks like the only possible contenders to Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon or Jimmie Johnson are Martin if he makes it, or Kyle Busch if he makes it. And Kyle’s a member of a Big-Four team too, so that would be a pyrrhic victory.

6) Johnson is attempting to do something that’s never been done in the history of NASCAR: four straight championships. What will they need to do to get over the hump – and is it possible?

February Response: Not only would I say it’s possible, I would say Jimmie has a better chance than anyone to win again this year. Chad Knaus is the most innovative crew chief on the circuit, Jimmie is one of the best drivers on the track and the equipment is second to none. If Jimmie is challenged, it will most likely be by any one of his superstar teammates.

Still, the Chase being what it is, he will need some good luck. This team has a knack for flipping a switch when the Chase starts, but there will always be Talladega and Martinsville. And with Fontana added to the Chase, weepers could make a difference.

My money is on someone finally knocking down the No. 48… like the New Man in Black in the No. 24.

And Now in September: Never in my wildest dreams did I ever expect Stewart to have the season he is having. Even with that though, it’s not hard to see the No. 48 team lurking, ready to explode for four Chase wins and an unprecedented fourth straight title.

My prediction about the veteran in the No. 24 could still hold up. If Martin makes it, he could topple Johnson. Stewart has certainly made a statement. But in the end, if a driver is going to win a title, they’re going to have to stop the No. 48 juggernaut.

But the bit about the teammates was certainly correct.

There you have it. Turns out I’m not as dumb as I thought. I underestimated the effect the lack of testing would have on teams and especially rookies, but I was lucky enough to get a few predictions right this year.

Either that or this sport has become predictable.

I hope not.

About the author

The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

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