Race Weekend Central

The Frontstretch Five: Things We Have NOT Learned So Far in 2014

Welcome to the Frontstretch Five, a brand-new column for 2014! Each week, Amy Henderson takes a look at the racing, the drivers, and the storylines that drive NASCAR and produces a list of five people, places, things, and ideas that define the current state of our sport. This week, Amy has five things we have not (yet) learned in NASCAR 2014.

1. Who the title favorite is.

Jimmie Johnson is an obvious title choice but hasn't shown the consistency this year to be the runaway favorite. (Credit: CIA)
Jimmie Johnson is an obvious title choice but hasn’t shown the consistency this year to be the runaway favorite. (Credit: CIA Editorial Photography)

All the usual suspects are, of course, on the list: Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, etc. But nobody has been able to sustain an advantage. Harvick had it early, despite mechanical woes, Johnson had it for a while, and Keselowski got hot this summer. But so far, they haven’t been able to keep it going. Just when it seems like someone has an advantage, someone else gets on a hot streak, or bad luck steps in, or something. Drivers like Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who hasn’t been as serious a title favorite for years, or Jeff Gordon, who has never been successful in the Chase, are having fantastic seasons. Other preseason favorites are lagging behind. This lack of a favorite could make the Chase more exciting, but it could also make it a bust.

2. What the new Chase can deliver.

This one’s obvious, since it hasn’t started yet, but it’s critical for NASCAR that the new format gives fans…something. If the racing isn’t any better than in previous years, or if it goes the other way and becomes a wreckfest, fans who haven’t already written the format off will do so quickly. If teams approach it as points racing, as many may, that won’t make the system any better than the last. This new format is NASCAR’s best, and perhaps last, chance to bring fans around to any kind of “postseason” format. The other question is whether it can deliver a champion who fans feel earned it. If the winner does not win a race or lead the points at any time during the Chase or regular season, it’s not going to be easy to justify that to fans. If the champion isn’t legit to fans, it will be hard to call it a success.

3. How to make road courses safer.

The question of making road courses, especially Watkins Glen, safer is one that comes up every year, without a clear answer. The estimated $10 million cost to add concrete walls and SAFER barriers around a 2-mile-plus road course is prohibitive, and permanent barriers would be impossible in some areas because NASCAR does not run sections of the course at both Sonoma and Watkins Glen that other series do, so entrance and exit of those areas could not be permanently blocked.

The Armco and tire barriers that the road courses use do their job by absorbing a lot of impact. However, they also can act like a slingshot, carrying cars back into oncoming traffic. They also tear cars up, causing debris to fly, which runs the risk of sending shards of metal and other pieces of debris into a crowd of fans. There has to be a solution, a happy medium. Someone needs to find it.

4. Whether Tony Stewart can make a comeback.

Can Tony Stewart recover from such an awful tragedy? (Credit: CIA)
Can Tony Stewart recover from such an awful tragedy? (Credit: CIA)

This question had not been answered even before the tragedy that kept Stewart out of the car at Watkins Glen and may keep him out for more races. Stewart broke his leg last year so badly that he required multiple surgeries and several months of rehab, and his 2014 season previous to his involvement in a fatal sprint car accident last Saturday night was lackluster. Now, the question is whether he’ll be able to come back after he hit and killed another driver. He will get back in the car at some point, but whether he’ll be the same driver is another question entirely. Stewart also isn’t getting any younger, and while he certainly still has the talent to win races, those wins are bound to get fewer and further between as time goes on. If he’s not able rack up some more wins now, it makes the future that much more difficult.

5. Who, other than Chase Elliott, are the rising stars.

This one is as much on the broadcast media as anyone, but what do we really know about some of the drivers in the Nationwide and Truck series? We certainly don’t see much of them during races as the broadcasts focus heavily on the Cup drivers in the race. Unless one of them is leading, we aren’t exposed to much of what they do, and that’s hurting their future prospects, because sponsors aren’t seeing their drive, their determination … their talent. It’s proving difficult for drivers to move up through the various levels of racing, and lack of exposure is a part of that. Sponsors don’t want to back what race fans can’t see. There are some very good young drivers in both the Nationwide and Truck series, but the fans don’t know them well enough to get behind them. That makes it hard for the sport to move forward as current stars age out.

About the author

Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

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Amy, IMO, this new format is not NASCAR’s best chance to convince the fans that that the “chase” or joke as someone else termed it, that they should be interested in NASCAR. I haven’t been a fan of the 10 race format since its inception. Why should racing which is different than stick & ball sports try to fit into their playoff mold? Oh yeah, the tv people wanted it! Gee, how has the worked out for them? Ratings have steadily declined except for a few races here and there through the season. Apparently whoever makes these decisions decided that the first 2/3 of the season should be a loss leader in the hope that the fans will watch during the last 10 races.

Maybe they will be right. I’ll watch as long as the driver I am interested in is in the hunt. All of the people who made these decisions ignore the fact that most NASCAR fans follow a particular driver. If he’s not involved and if the only TV time he will get once “eliminated” is minimal, well, then I have no interest or reason to watch. I may follow the race using raceview and twitter because I’ll still get info on that driver, but I certainly won’t waste my time otherwise.

I think this 1 race championship nonsense is even more of a farce in deciding who gets the trophy than even the old chase format was.

As far as rising starts, I would add Kyle Larson to Chase Elliott and probably the Dillon brothers. Do I plan to watch NASCAR once Gordon retires? The short answer is no, at least not with any frequency. I don’t plan to invest myself beyond his timeframe in NASCAR, it isn’t worth it to me.

Stewart is going to have an uphill battle. He was already struggling in the race car for whatever reason. I doubt that the issues from the dreadful accident on Saturday night will make that any easier.


The sport of baseball ,football, basketball, are GAMES. Games can be done with a playoff format. The sport of racing is NOT a game, it is a RACE. And NASCAR needs to realize this and quit trying to make a game out of it.


OK, I apologize for the typos in previous post. That should be “stars”, not “starts”. (sigh)


I miss watching drivers advance through the lower series. The Cup drivers certainly hinder the learning curve as young drivers learn to shoot for 6th because they know they can’t win. Hardly a formula for talent development. Watkins Glen is not a short track. Saturday ESPN chose to follow the first four Cup drivers for the ENTIRE first 10 laps. There was not a single shot of a regular until the Cup drivers started to lap them. This indicates that both NASCAR and the networks have determined that NW is nothing more than a Cup extended practice. Why anyone would expect fans to watch a race without racing in a series with no identity is a mystery to me. I usually tune in just to see the week to week attendance decline.

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