Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? The Key to Qualifying, Sophomore Slumps & Quick Hits

Did You Notice? Qualifying has become a point of emphasis for top teams? None other than Dover winner Jimmie Johnson spoke about his struggles in that department, one of only three drivers this season to win a race after starting outside the top 10.

“Raw speed hasn’t been our strong suit,” he admitted in the midst of celebrating his win. “That’s set us up for some long Sundays.” It was a point echoed by crew chief Chad Knaus, who emphasized “Friday improvement” as the biggest goal the team was looking to achieve halfway through the regular season.

A package where it’s difficult to pass has definitely harmed drivers who find themselves at the rear. Take Dale Earnhardt Jr., who started 43rd at Dover but at one point had the fastest car on track. He got lapped before the first caution, needed pit strategy to earn it back and was still never able to crack the top five more than 250 laps into the event. That’s how tough it is to move up, with clean air dirtying the chances of anyone who starts the day stuck in traffic.

So far this season, eight of 13 races have been won by drivers starting inside the top 10. At first, that doesn’t seem like much of a difference compared to past years…

2011: 4

2012: 11

2013: 7

2014: 6

2015: 8

But maybe that’s exactly the point. Now, let’s change things up a bit. Here’s how many races, through 13 events, were won by a driver starting outside the top 20.

2011: 6

2012: 0

2013: 1

2014: 2

2015: 1

Those numbers should surprise you, considering how much NASCAR likes to harp on parity. Turns out the qualifying problem isn’t a new one after all; it’s just an issue we seem to be focusing on more this year due to some particular superstars getting stuck in the back – and staying there. A better analogy concerns a driver’s average start. The top-three series leaders in that category – Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch – also are top three in laps led. That dominance translates into the standings, as well: Logano is third in the points, Harvick is a dominant first and Busch, without his suspension would average enough points to be listed inside the top three.

As Johnson has proven, even with Mission Impossible Aerodynamics, moving through the field can be done with the right car. It just takes a little luck, great restarts, a whole lot of pit strategy and a much longer amount of time than in past years. That’s part of the reason, perhaps, why the racing has been so dismal to watch in 2015. When a car starts 30th, it’s become a chess game for them to move up to 10th over 100 laps as compared to being able to slice through the field in exciting fashion. What would you rather watch: a guy capable of going three-wide to make a few passes, based on raw speed or someone taking five laps to get side-by-side with a guy? Let’s put it this way; there’s a reason why chess wasn’t televised.

Did You Notice? The depth of the sport’s sophomore slump? While Kyle Larson had himself a strong Sunday (more on that later) he still sits significantly worse in the standings than he did a year ago. In fact, let’s look at where all the rookies stood in 2014, through 14 races compared to where they are now…

Kyle Larson

2014: 0 wins, 2 top fives, 5 top 10s, 10th in points.

2015: 0 wins, 1 top five, 4 top 10s, 20th in points. (-10)

Austin Dillon

2014: 0 wins, 0 top fives, 1 top 10, Daytona 500 pole, 15th in points.

2015: 0 wins, 0 top fives, 1 top 10, 0 poles, 24th in points. (-9)

Michael Annett

2014: 0 wins, 0 top fives, 0 top 10s, 2 DNFs, 30th in points.

2015: 0 wins, 0 top fives, 0 top 10s, 1 DNF, 1 DNQ (had to buy a ride), 34th in points. (-4)

Justin Allgaier

2014: 0 wins, 0 top fives, 0 top 10s, 2 DNFs, 29th in points.

2015: 0 wins, 0 top fives, 1 top 10, 3 DNFs, 30th in points. (-1)

Cole Whitt

2014: 0 wins, 0 top fives, 0 top 10s, 1 DNF, 31st in points.

2015: 0 wins, 0 top fives, 0 top 10s, 1 DNF, 29th in points. (+2)

Alex Bowman

2014: 0 wins, 0 top fives, 0 top 10s, 3 DNFs, 0 DNQs, 35th in points.

2015: 0 wins, 0 top fives, 0 top 10s, 2 DNFs, 1 DNQ, 33rd in points. (+2)

Rarely have we seen such a consistent lack of success across the board from the previous year’s rookie class. The other two not listed, Ryan Truex and Parker Kligerman don’t even have full-time rides in NASCAR. Their problems have also contributed to the difficulty in hyping up the sport to new fans. A series that needs new faces in new places has its “new faces” running around virtually invisible. The news got bleaker for 2016, too, within the last few weeks as Ty Dillon revealed he may not run the Cup Series full-time yet. That leaves Chase Elliott as the only clear Rookie of the Year candidate, poised to run away with it unless someone like a Ryan Blaney gets proper funding.

When all these drivers move up, then fall short, we’re left with a lack of pure evolution up front. At some point, even the great Petty and Pearson got challenged, and we’re waiting for the next generation to come knock Johnson, Harvick et al off their perches. Will it happen eventually? Yes. But the fact is it’s going to be a few more years, at least looking at the current landscape doesn’t help matters much.

Did You Notice? Quick hits before we take off….

  • Pocono this weekend offers up a great chance to see a new Chase bid punched. Hendrick Motorsports has swept the last five races at the Tricky Triangle: Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon, Johnson and Kasey Kahne have all won there within the last three years. As Earnhardt and Johnson are solidly in the Chase, the focus shifts to a winless Kahne and Gordon, both of whom have shown signs of life over the last month. Kahne was a season-best fourth at Dover, but it’s Gordon who has the better Pocono track record as of late – he led 63 laps there last August and was dominant at times before fading to sixth by the finish. And on the underdog front? How about Hendrick-aligned Larson? The Chip Ganassi Racing driver was a season-best third last week at Dover, won the pole at the Pocono race last August and has a career average finish there of 8.0.
  • Harvick, with nine top-two finishes so far this season has tied a NASCAR record through 13 races. Only Bobby Allison (1972) and Cale Yarborough (1977) have matched that start in NASCAR’s modern era.
  • The FOX Sports 1 overnight rating for Dover, a lowly 2.3, should send shivers running down the spine of NASCAR execs. Remember, just seven of the final 20 races this season are televised by big NBC. The rest? They move to NBC Sports Network, nearly as difficult to get as FS1. In fact, from now through the end of August just one Sprint Cup event will make its way onto network television: Daytona in July, the official return of NBC to covering the sport. So if you thought the audience was smaller now, just wait for the news we’ll get the next 10-12 weeks. It’s hard to imagine any race besides the Coke Zero 400 posting an increase even though a lot of these summer events have been broadcast on cable in recent years.

About the author

The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.

You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.

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Bill B

As the ratings have been trending down for the last decade, why do the tv contracts keep getting bigger. That is completely counter intuitive. What is it that we non-tv people are missing?

Jay Scenga

The massive increase in TV commercials the last few years, they make it back by selling more and more broadcast time to advertisers and like sheep,some sit through them hoping to eventually see some racing…… or a parade…. or be told about the one lead change that will happen in the next 100 laps that we missed…. watching commercials….

Tim S.

Maybe they’re paying NASCAR more in exchange for allowing them to put the programming on more obscure networks (FS!/2, NBCSN), angling for more households for those networks. Another factor could simply be the insatiable need for programming that broadcasters have, with however-many-hundred channels now.


Tim S, you may be exactly right in the reasoning that the tv execs probably have, but you still have to get viewership and I know that personally I watch about the same 10 channels max the majority of the time.

I’m looking to ‘cut the cord’ not expand my reliance on cable.

Once this NASCAR season is over, I may consider whether or not I’m going completely to online or something other than cable.


Kyle Larsen is a young man with a ton of raw talent. I can’t help but wonder if all the silly over hype of his rookie season caused him to believe that competition at this level was easier than it is. After being told for a year that winning was a given and then not doing so has to be frustrating. How could his confidence not be shaken? How could he not lose focus? With Eric Jones we seem to be getting the same circus. Like all sports, racing writers are better reporters than predictors. I’d rather see young talent covered according to performance.


Why is it a surprise – or problem – that cars that qualify the best are the cars that do the best in the race? It seems pretty straightforward that a good driver with a good car is going to do better – both in qualifying and in the race itself – than a not as good driver driving a not as good car.

As far as Earnhardt getting lapped, he obviously didn’t have a faster car at that point than whoever was the leader. If he had, the leader wouldn’t have been able to pass him any more than the 2nd place driver being able to pass the leader.


Ratings continue to fall and moving races to cable channels that are “invisible” won’t help it. Of course since IMO the racing itself doesn’t make me fall all over myself to watch it these days isn’t helping the situation.

Would I rather see fast cars able to pass? Of course I would but NASCAR wanted the IROC series and parity. They’ve got it, along with an incredibly dull and uninteresting “product”.

New drivers coming in – well, if NASCAR, thru a number of what I consider to be, terrible decisions regarding the racing hadn’t lost my interest, I might have been willing to consider a new driver to follow with Gordon retiring, but I’m not.


“”Would I rather see fast cars able to pass? Of course I would but NASCAR wanted the IROC series and parity. They’ve got it, along with an incredibly dull and uninteresting “product”.”””

I think part of the problem is that Nascar, and the drunk idiot marketing major that is charge don’t see
the racing as the “product” any more…

How do they get more fans??? Twitter??? Concerts at the track?? Famous people waving the green
flag??? Making the logo green and putting alcohol in the fuel?? Facebook??? Constant non-stop
attention to the championship???

Idiot marketing major trying to sell a “brand” with gimmicks… Except for the concert, you can’t
watch any of those things for 3 hours on a Sunday afternoon… You watch the “race” on
Sunday afternoon, you don’t watch the championship, you don’t watch because of who
waved the flag, you don’t watch because of some tweet… You watch for the racing…

If Nascar ever figures out that the only thing they have to sell is what happens on the track, then
things might change for the better…

Marketing Major: One who creates buzz to sell crap

Business Man: One who makes a good product that sells itself.


Well said, Bob!

Tim S.

IROC was entertaining when it had a variety of tracks and a variety of drivers. Some of the series in the 80’s and early 90’s had tremendous variety in both. They killed it by making it all ovals and oval drivers for years. By the time they wised up and brought back road racing and road racers, it was too late. Just think of all the variety that has disappeared from Cup alone in the last decade-plus, from tracks all the way down to gearing choices.

“My” driver isn’t going anywhere (yet) but the things that make the series itself compelling on its own are nearly gone.


IROC also hurt itself when they went to a white car with a bit of colour trim. It was extremely difficult to figure out which car was which. Well, impossible really.


The tracks they went to at the end didn’t help either… What was
that last year, Daytona, Michigan, California and Indy….

Back in ’75 or whatever, they ran Porches at Watkins Glen.

At the end wasn’t it pretty much ALL nascar drivers?

Anybody else think Nascar shot itself in the foot by moving the
Rolex 24 to a month before Daytona? I didn’t even know it was
on this year, I caught the last couple of minutes… Used to
SPEED weeks down there, now it doesn’t seem worth going.


Gina, I think you have made it abundantly clear that you will not follow racing without your beloved Jeff Gordon to cheer. Whatever the validity of your comments aside from that is lost in your grief. Newsflash: drivers retire, their fans grumble for awhile, then usually find someone else to cheer for. Get over it and move on or move out.

Steve Cosentino

I spend my NASCAR time reading articles like this. I hardly ever watch the parade on Sunday.. thanks NASCAR


So Jimmie Johnson doesn’t qualify that well. Why not? He’s got the best car and he thinks he’s the best driver ever. Maybe he’s not. David Pearson won eleven straight poles at Charlotte for the 600 and 500 and a pole about every five races.

How can the diva out-qualify Johnson and drop like a rock during the race and Johnson work his way to the lead (after a few “adjustments” during debris cautions)? If he stopped sand-bagging during qualifying and qualified where he should the car would never leave the R&D centre. Besides, they’ve been running experimental parts since the first win.


I find the whole Jimmie saga interesting. Chad K. runs circles around Brian France with Rick H. too. Brian just isn’t smart enough to keep up with their antics. And I particularly love those self induced spinouts mid race, he gets down a lap or two..and then “ahem”..”here comes Jimmie”! DW having a heart attack. Nope, something ain’t right..I’ll get my tin foil hat now..bye… :)


I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks Johnson spins on his own. If hitting the wall during the second one was accidental maybe he isn’t the driver he thinks he is. Maybe he had to do some damage so NA$CAR wouldn’t look where they should have.

I don’t understand why he doesn’t qualify on the pole and win every race. He should know by now that the car will always pass Brian’s inspection. Even if he has to damage a few body panels during a celebratory burnout.


Gina, I think you have made it abundantly clear that you will not follow racing without your beloved Jeff Gordon to cheer for. Whatever the validity of your comments aside from that is lost in your grief. Newsflash: drivers retire, their fans grumble for awhile, then usually find someone else to cheer for. Get over it and move on or move out.


A quick look at the stands and TV ratings would indicate that plenty of fans have ” moved out”. Retiring drivers probably account for some of them. I’ve never had a favorite driver, I pretty much pull for whomever is driving the faux Fords. If Ford withdrew I would be gone the next day. I am convinced that Dodge took some fans with them when they bailed out. If Gina loses interest when Gordon retires what’s it to you?

Tim S.

Devotees to the current “product” need not hasten the exit of GinaV24. She and a bunch of other Gordon fans, many with no other connection to NASCAR, motorsports or even cars, will be gone in about six months, rarely to return, except for maybe stopping for a minute if they recognize his voice on a Fox broadcast while flipping to something else. That’s a hit I don’t think the “sport” is prepared to absorb. All of those who earnestly support the NASCAR Way need to be trying to keep GinaV24, not ditch her.


messengerfm – you may consider my comments on the current state of NASCAR invalid since I don’t plan to continue to follow the sport once Gordon retires, but I don’t. I’m not “grieving”, I’ve been waiting for this announcement since 2010 when the DuPont contract was going to expire. Also, I’ve held these opinions about NASCAR and their idiotic ideas for several years now – long before he announced his retirement and I’ve stated them here and other forums as well.

It is on NASCAR to be WORTH my time – not for me to support them no matter how stupid the entire operation has become.

Newsflash back at you – you are entitled to your own opinion and may not like mine – I don’t really care what you think. Your desire to have me “move on or move out” is just that, your opinion. Too bad. I don’t answer to you and last time I looked this was a public forum. You don’t like what I say – don’t read it.

John Q & Tim S, thanks for your support, I do appreciate it.


Late to this party albeit uninvited, but my two cent none the less:

Wow, snarky, snarky…I get it to, just not as overt as the meanness to Gina. Gina is a true fan, as most of us are. She loves Jeff, so what? Does that mean she is a good or horrible person? No it means she is a fan, a fan Nascar cannot afford to lose. Lighten up!

Bill B

Hey Einstein,
I am relieved Gordon is retiring. He is the only reason that I’ve felt the need to watch every race long after Brian took the fun out of it (for me personally). In fact I’ve been kind of mad at myself that I haven’t walked away and let my loyalty to Gordon keep me around. I consider it a character flaw. You know, like when you’ve followed a tv series that started out great and gotten worse but you have to see how it ends. At this point I don’t even care if makes the chase, it’s a crapshoot anyway. All I want is him to make it throw the next 23 races without any injuries so he can walk away and live the rest of his life.

I always planned on picking another driver when he retired but the last 7 years have tried my patience and I will never allow myself to become that vested in NASCAR again. I don’t need this crap. Gina is not alone and might be more the norm at this point.

I will still watch some races. Most will be DVR’ed and watched in less than an hour. What NASCAR has accomplished in my case is to take a serious fan (and buyer of NASCAR crap) and turned them into a casual fan. As long as I don’t care about who wins and who loses it won’t matter what cockamamie rules Brian comes up with. I won’t care because my vested interest will be minimal.

BTW,,, I thought the whole “America (or in this case NASCAR), love it or leave it” mentality went out with the 70’s and Nixon. You don’t leave anything…you rage against it.


Hey Bill B and kb, appreciate your kind comments.

Bill, I second the thought about just wanting Gordon to get thru this last season healthy. Anything else will be a bonus.

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