ONE: 17 WEEKS IN A ROW
After a weekend to rest up and recuperate for the Sprint Cup circus, it’s time for 17 consecutive weeks of top echelon racing until we crown the 2014 champion at Homestead-Miami Raceway on Nov. 16. With the race to the Chase over the next seven weeks – paired with all the drama, entertainment and pressure that will inevitably bring – then the new playoff format, we have plenty to look forward to after a pretty solid first half of the year.
Such is the cadence of the Cup schedule that an off weekend feels like an eternity and I for one can’t wait to see the cars fire up at the venerable Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Certainly, it’s anyone’s guess as to what will transpire over the next four months, but it will most assuredly be fascinating to see just how this revised Chase method ends up. Given the fact that four drivers will be in contention for the big wavy silver trophy at Homestead, that should ratchet up the excitement level no matter what your thoughts are on the changes.
If that isn’t must see television – four drivers going for the title – I don’t know what is. So, bring it on drivers; it’s time to start those engines and race for a championship.
TWO: FIRST HALF RECAP
One of the added bonuses of being a weekly NASCAR writer is the plethora of stats released each week by the sport’s governing body. So with that in mind, I wanted to take a quick look back at some of the crucial indicators we’ve seen so far in 2014. We’ll start, of course, with perhaps the most important stat of all: we’ve seen 11 different race winners in 19 races so far.
Included in that number, next to all the usual suspects, is Aric Almirola, who picked up his first win in a seven-year, 126-race Cup career at Daytona. The driver wheeled the fabled number No. 43 car to victory lane in a “feel good” story that wasn’t mitigated (for me) by the weather-related manner in which he triumphed. Alongside the winners, we’ve seen 12 different drivers pick up a Coors Light Pole award and 13 track qualifying records broken. We’ve also seen an average of 11.1 leaders each race, which compares favorably to 8.8 at this time last year. Augmenting that stat is the news that we’ve seen 24.1 lead changes per race versus 16.6 at the same mark in the 2013 calendar.
This total may, to be fair, be warped slightly when we compare it to the final tally by the fact that we’ve run three restrictor plate races already. But the average margin of victory is .717 seconds – the lowest number through 19 races since electronic timing was introduced in 1993 and we’ve seen 771 green flag passes – the second-highest tally since 1995. On paper, it’s clear that the quality of racing is headed in the right direction.
THREE: ELDORA, TAKE II
Before we get to the Brickyard this weekend, it’s race No. 10 and arguably the most fascinating event in the 22-race Camping World Truck Series schedule at iconic Eldora Speedway this Wednesday evening.
The half-mile dirt track oval near New Weston, Ohio, was opened in 1954 and purchased by Tony Stewart in late 2004 from Earl Baltes, who built and developed the track for over half a century: a true labor of love. The 1-800-Car-Cash Mudsummer Classic will be the second consecutive Truck Series race at the venue. The inaugural event was won by Austin Dillon, holding off Sprint Cup rookie Kyle Larson across the final 31 of 150 total laps but was perhaps just as memorable for moments like Norm Benning’s side-by-side, thrilling battle just to earn a final qualifying spot. The race, predictably, drew a sold out crowd and recorded very respectable TV ratings as racing fans across the country tuned in to watch the Trucks slide around the clay bullring.
Both Dillon and Larson will return to the track this week, along with Cup rookie Michael Annett and the forever-young Ken Schrader, who will race in his 981st NASCAR event of a career that spans nearly three decades (29 years). While the entry list in total is not as robust (33 Trucks as of this writing) the racing should be just as spectacular, one of the highlights in a series that’s had its share of struggles in 2014. FOX Sports 1 will have the action Wednesday night.
FOUR: THE BRICKYARD
Next up on the slate is race number 20 of 2014 and Cup race No. 21 at the storied Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Only four drivers – Jeff Burton, Mark Martin, Bobby Labonte and Jeff Gordon – have competed in every Cup race at the Brickyard and after this weekend, that number could be reduced to one.
Gordon, who won the inaugural event, may stand alone with the historic milestone, appropriate given he’s the only four-time winner. Since Cup racing began at the Brickyard, a grand total of eight drivers who won the event have gone on to win the championship in the same season, so keep an eye on who takes the checkered flag this Sunday. This time last year it was South Bend, Ind.’s own Ryan Newman who won the race, fulfilling a boyhood dream at a track he grew up revering. And there’s something in that because, truth be told, NASCAR races at the Brickyard don’t tend to peg the excitement meter.
Not every race can be a classic, and the two-and-a-half mile flat track doesn’t necessarily promote great racing in stock cars; however, a win there means so much especially at a venue renowned the world over. One driver to keep an eye on this weekend is Juan Pablo Montoya, who will race the Penske Truck Rental No. 12. He does have to qualify on speed but provided he does, don’t be surprised if he’s a factor. Montoya, who recently won his first race back in IndyCar at Pocono came close to winning in Cup, leading 202 laps combined in 2009 and ’10 but pit road problems (and penalties) kept him from getting the job done.
FIVE: MOST WATCHED SPORTING EVENTS ON TV
Briefly and finally this week, a quick mention of a recent study completed by Sports Media Watch on the 50 most watched sporting events of 2014 thus far. As you might expect, this list is dominated by the all-powerful NFL, the Winter Olympic Games from Sochi, and the beguiling FIFA World Cup recently completed in Brazil. The Daytona 500 (9.3 million), by comparison didn’t even begin to get a look in, meaning NASCAR was eliminated from the Nielsen Ratings Top 50 altogether.
That’s not going to change anytime soon, either. Don’t get me wrong, the sport still has strong weekly viewing numbers (even with some of the precipitous drops these past few years) but it’s a trend that’s heading downward rather than up and that’s not good for any of us. A rain-free 500, which attracted nearly twice the viewership in 2013 is the only hope of cracking the list going forward; while there’s other sports in the same boat (both the NHL and MLB aren’t on there) it’s not the best bullet point to put on the resume for potential future sponsors.
So on that slightly depressing note, gentle readers, I’ll bid you farewell until next time. Enjoy the race this weekend.