*Did You Notice?…* Those who impressed at Daytona testing weren’t as surprising as some might think? Yes, some eyebrows were raised when Jeff Burton led Friday morning practice at Daytona. Overall, Richard Childress Racing was strong, flashing the best speed out of the Chevy brigade despite winning all of one race last season. But Burton, with new crew chief Luke Lambert shouldn’t surprise anyone. Daytona was the No. 31 team’s strongest track last year; their two top-5 results of 2012 were registered there. In the 500, especially Burton looked like an upset contender, leading 24 laps before getting shuffled back to fifth down the stretch.
Other strong teams have a very familiar ring to it. Take Joe Gibbs Racing, with the combination of Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth, and Kyle Busch. Hamlin led 57 laps in last year’s 500, the most of any driver while Busch has totaled 180 in that category over the past five seasons. Add in newcomer Kenseth, the defending race champion and it’s easy to predict they’ll be successful.
Greg Biffle, of Roush Fenway Racing also looked strong, pacing the field on Daytona testing, Day 3. But that’s the organization that won the pole last year, with Carl Edwards, and whose 94 laps led of 202 was easily the most of any multi-car program in NASCAR’s Super Bowl. Last but not least, you had Michael Waltrip Racing near the top; but again, that’s to be expected. The owner of the program was two turns from winning Talladega last Fall and their three-car operation was 10th, 11th, and 12th in last year’s 500.
So did anyone really raise eyebrows last week? The answer, to me, is no. If anything, I think the more notable drivers were those that _remained_ near the bottom of the charts. Hendrick Motorsports, in particular did not have the best week. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. triggered a 12-car wreck, once he tapped Marcos Ambrose in an ill-timed tandem bump and the best HMS did on any practice chart was fourth – on the final day, when only a fraction of the 35 teams actually tested. Believe it or not, it’s going to be seven years since that organization last won at Daytona, Jimmie Johnson’s lone 500 victory in 2006. With so many of the same teams above them flashing top-level speeds, combined with the HMS focus on winning elsewhere it looks like they still have their work cut out for them.
*Did You Notice?…* That the entry list for this week’s Charlotte test, crucial in helping fine-tune the handling of the new Gen6 car includes no new car owners or teams? The best we get is the No. 30, owned by David Stremme last season but who acquired investor Brandon Davis in the offseason, changing the organization’s name to “Swan Energy.” In all, there will be 33 cars, including the “upgraded” entry of Danica Patrick (from part-time to full-time with Stewart-Haas Racing) but all of the usual suspects will stay the same.
It’s a crucial component missing, of course in the litany of changes NASCAR has thrown itself into the last two seasons to win back fans. Early reports on the new car have been favorable; at Daytona, drivers were impressed with the way it brought handling back into the equation. No longer will 43 cars be automatically stuck together like glue; yes, it’ll be that way in the beginning, pack racing replacing tandem duos but over the course of a green-flag tire run I’d expect to see at least a bit of spreading out. And as far as intermediates? It’s hard to say, quite yet, but the long list of rule changes, combined with redesigned bodies have NASCAR positioned for the best chance to improve what’s become single-file “aerodynamic necessity” at those racetracks.
“With this car,” Dale Earnhardt, Jr. said last week, “We have a chance to do something great and really make a big impact.”
In a perfect world, that means the pieces are in place for competitive improvements. But as we’ve so often learned the past decade, through the “young gun” era where sponsors pushed out quality drivers – along with changes fans didn’t appreciate – stock car racing survives as a business. And no matter how good the competition is this season, even with photo finishes every race in the ownership ranks the people who can bring more cars to the table have yet to be convinced the “business” side is worth their investment. Sponsors, too, even those that recently pulled out who are still enthusiastic about the sport are hesitant to realign themselves with new programs.
The question then becomes, as we enter 2013 how you entice more competition to the table. In the short-term, there are owner groups, like Turner Scott Motorsports that would be capable of putting an entry on the Sprint Cup level. But over the long-term, that’s not enough; right now, there’s only a handful of Nationwide and Truck owners who would be able to make those dreams become reality. The sport needs more Tony Stewarts, willing to step up to that driver/owner level even if it means the sacrifice, for now of having them be offshoots of the megateams Hendrick, Roush, and Gibbs. New blood provides new opportunities for drivers, sponsors, and new stories to tell. So with the TV deal secure, NASCAR would do good to pony up some cash here and provide the same types of incentives open-wheel did to produce more full-time competition. How about a cash bonus (a set one, paid once no matter how many teams) for an owner that competes in all 36 races? Better yet, the only way they get the money is to _finish_ at least 24 of them, eliminating the start-and-park problem.
It’s a system you don’t have to keep in place every year; make it a short-term option, a way to entice boardroom interest the same way the Winston Million used to have drivers giving that extra 10 percent in certain races. A little money now could secure the future for a generation, because the Penskes, Roushes, and Hendricks won’t be around forever – a point this column has tackled far too many times with no movement on a solution.
*Did You Notice?…* Some notes from the past week before we take off…
– Breaking news late Wednesday Landon Cassill had left BK Racing, due to no 2013 contract being reached (and 2012 terms unfulfilled) becomes the perfect example to prove my point above. Here’s a talented guy, who at age 23 is coming off a “building block” season with one of the sport’s few new teams willing to compete. But does that “team” even have the money in the bank to pay its bills? The two-car organization, in its first year was virtually invisible on-track, posting one top-10 finish (with Travis Kvapil) and a best result of 18th with Cassill. It’s hard to survive with those kinds of numbers; combine that with sponsor impatience and you’ve got a near-impossible environment for these expansion teams to survive long enough to A) make money or B) grow into a team capable of challenging the Chase-contending programs. The sport _has_ to find a way,
– So the new rule in NASCAR is you’re eligible for Rookie of the Year in any series the first year you choose to earn points. Translation: Danica is eligible now, despite running ten races last year (over NASCAR’s previous limit of seven) because those earned her zero points – she was competing for a title in the Nationwide Series. The rule change was expected, as this season marks the first “real” battle among freshmen drivers since Joey Logano – Scott Speed moved up to Cup in 2009. But over the long-term, you’re going to have to come up with a limit for how many races a guy can run before taking the plunge. Take Trevor Bayne as the perfect example. Right now, he’s competed in over 30 starts in the Sprint Cup Series; by the tail end of 2013, that number should grow over 50. So you’re telling me in 2014, should he move up full-time with Roush Fenway Racing that makes him eligible for Rookie of the Year in Cup? It’s not a “now” problem, but one NASCAR needs to address at some point before an example like that comes into play.
– Brad Keselowski running two Truck teams, instead of one? That’s the rumor, but you wonder how much an expansion of his own program could have an effect on Keselowski the champ. Yes, the drivers that know how to balance everything have the right people in place to manage these things. Last season, a driver replacement midseason (from Parker Kligerman to Ryan Blaney) didn’t change Keselowski’s mindset one bit on the Cup side while charging to a championship. But you never know… in a year filled with changes, where Penske’s moving to Ford, there’s a new teammate in Joey Logano and new cars to learn any off-track distraction would be most unwelcome in 2013.
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