Was Daytona not enough to whet your NASCAR appetite? Never fear; we’re here with a little Fact or Fiction prognostication to lighten up your Tuesday (July 5). Remember, these are predictions based on major storylines happening in and around the Cup Series this week.
FACT: Dale Earnhardt Jr. Needs to be Worried About the Chase
Three weeks ago, all anyone could talk about was how Dale Earnhardt Jr. was on the verge of winning at Michigan. But after a ho-hum, 21st-place finish there runs of 41st and 19th have followed, easily the worst stretch of the No. 88’s season to date. Even though those endings are attached to mechanical and wreck-related failures beyond Junior’s control, they have suddenly made this team vulnerable to missing the Chase.
Such a disaster seems unthinkable at first glance, especially since Earnhardt stood third in Sprint Cup points 14 races into this season. But this type of late-season Chase collapse has happened before. After Pocono in 2005, Elliott Sadler was sitting third in the standings, comfortably in contention to not only make the postseason but contend for the title. In fact, Sadler stood third as late as Sonoma the end of June, boosted by two straight top-10 finishes to pad his comfort zone.
But at Daytona the following week, Sadler was a mediocre 21st. the start of a disastrous run for his Robert Yates Racing team. During the final 10 weeks of the regular season, he never finished higher than 12th and by Richmond had made a remarkable fall outside the Chase cutoff. The ending was so emotionally traumatic, in fact, that within the next year both Sadler and RYR would part ways.
Now, I’m not on the bandwagon for total Junior collapse just yet… I think he and Steve Letarte have had a remarkable, overachieving season. But keep in mind that Junior had a horrid last 10 regular-season races last year; once solidly in the Chase, a run of five consecutive finishes outside the top 15 doomed him, from Chicago in July to Michigan in early August.
Considering the quality of drivers outside the Chase this season, even a 39-point cushion isn’t enough to hold off the likes of Denny Hamlin, Tony Stewart and others poised to make a late charge. Clearly, Kentucky (a total wildcard for the No. 88) and Loudon, typically one of Junior’s better tracks need to right the ship to erase all postseason doubts… because this driver is one that must have confidence high to keep succeeding.
FICTION: Daytona’s Two-Car Drafting Tandem Will Change
Can I get a little cheese with that whine? NASCAR’s pairs-dancing draft format, while initially fostering praise this February seems to have rotted away by Daytona in July. Saturday night under the lights resembled a demolition derby at the finish, nearly two-thirds of the field caught up in accidents while Earnhardt scared NASCAR execs everywhere by referring to the race as “foolish.”
I’m not sure I’d agree with that, but it’s clear large sections of the 400 miles were more like “nap-inducing;” when you have two-car packs intentionally dropping back, losing the draft to wait for the final 20 laps of the race then that’s not exactly compelling sports and entertainment for three hours.
Personally, I’ve had an up-and-down affair with the whole situation; I hated the tandems to start, fell in love with them by the end of the 500 and now am completely out of love with them again. But isn’t that how it always goes with this plate racing? NASCAR throws out a bone every few years, making an adjustment so the cars end up handling differently in the draft.
That first race, we’re all awed by the change, forgetting for a split second the whole system of “forced equality” makes the winner little more than a lucky survivor of Russian Roulette. By the third or fourth race, the jig is up and enough people are complaining about the rules so that NASCAR makes a change. Can you say “Shower, Rinse, Repeat…?”
So with all the complaints reaching a crescendo, why do I think NASCAR will stick with this package? Two reasons: attendance and ratings. The at-track audience, listed at 115,000 didn’t experience a precipitous drop year-to-year while the television viewership, while not confirmed yet is expected to rise. So if you’ve got more fans watching overall, despite the frustration over the changes why be compelled to fix it?
My prediction is Talladega attendance will decrease, then we’ll get to the 2012 Daytona 500, there will be so much negative buzz over this system and at the most inconvenient time (like maybe after qualifying?) the sport will make some tweaks. But come Talladega in the fall, get ready for teammate chasing, because this two-car tango system isn’t going anywhere.
FACT: Greg Biffle Must Win to Make the Chase
Here’s a weird stat for you: name the lone Roush Fenway Racing driver not to win a race this season. It’s not Ragan (obviously), Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards or even Trevor Bayne with the Wood Brothers. Instead, Greg Biffle gets the nod. How ironic considering he and sponsor 3M are the only secure Roush Fenway team for 2012, right?
A season of struggles, from faulty fueling to poor on-track performance has left Biffle in a difficult predicament with nine races left. Fighting to get inside the top 10 in points, that Chase hill’s fairly difficult to climb as he sits 13th, 25 points behind Ryan Newman and with Stewart (he of the sizzling summer) and Hamlin (Chase tune-up time!) dead ahead. So, chances are unless a miracle occurs getting in the old-fashioned way, by top-10 consistency just isn’t going to happen for the No. 16 team this year.
Which is why Biffle should learn a lesson from what teammate Ragan did Saturday night… go for the jugular, victory lane a few times the next nine weeks instead of scoring points. The No. 6 team scored a win at their team’s biggest strength, plate racing and Biffle has a similar list of tracks coming up for him.
Defending champ of the August Pocono race, that monthly stretch also includes Michigan, easily tracks where the Biff can go 2-for-2. Execute and we have a wildcard steal that puts pressure on guys like Hamlin, on the Chase bubble and leaves a guy like Junior the odd man out. Otherwise, Roush is guaranteed to have one of his four teams sitting at home.
FICTION: Moving Race From Lucas Oil to Indianapolis Motor Speedway Will Increase Attendance
The announcement expected tomorrow, moving the Nationwide Series date from Lucas Oil Raceway to Indianapolis has been made based on one simple concern: money. Not only has IMS been looking to make more cash, its Cup attendance deflating faster than those Goodyear tires in 2008 there’s a limit to how much the sport can earn at Lucas Oil. The purse there was slightly over $789,000 last year, the worst paying of the 35 series events and with a limited seating capacity (30,000), those numbers can only increase so much.
But the problem the sport will find, especially in this age of Kentucky creeping in on the market is there’s just not going to be enough people willing to switch with the series. With the Sprint Cup tickets expensive enough at IMS, are fans really going to spend extra money for the minor-league stars to run mostly single file on the 2.5-mile oval that’s proven bulky for Cup competition… especially when they’ve been pampered with exceptional short-track finishes?
The overall money might increase, as the big track will have a better handle with marketing and sponsorship deals but don’t expect attendance to make this giant jump. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if the Saturday before the Brickyard brings just 25,000 into the stands before the big day, a sad postscript to fleecing that date from a short track who’s been part of the Nationwide Series schedule every year since 1982.
Just goes to show you some traditions, NASCAR, just shouldn’t be messed with in the name of the almighty dollar.
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