Race Weekend Central

The Frontstretch 5: Things to Keep an Eye on in 2016

1. This new package

It’s still too early in the season to say for sure what the racing will look like when everyone figures out the low-downforce package.  Drastic changes generally do produce a period of enhanced competition because some teams figure things out faster and get in the mix while others lag. But the race at Atlanta was everything that Daytona wasn’t: competitive and interesting. If a driver had a fast car and was able to drive it well, he could catch and pass other cars. There were passes for position all day long throughout the field. Multiple grooves made for some interesting racing. It wasn’t uncommon Sunday for cars to be running three- and four-wide and nobody giving an inch.  At one point, there was a three-way battle for the lead going on for multiple laps. It was the best we’ve seen on an intermediate track in years.

One reason for that was because the race was more in the hands of teams and drivers than races on the 1.5-milers recently. Yup, Jimmie Johnson had a massive lead at one point, but it wasn’t because of clean air. It was because of a daring pit call and good tire management, both of which were once staples of the best teams before track position trumped all. If anyone expected the package to produce the kind of racing you see at Talladega, they were probably as disappointed as they were misinformed. Races have been spread out at many tracks since the dawn of time. The package did its job in making it possible for drivers to run down and pass each other. Could it be better? Sure, and maybe as time goes on, more changes will be made. But Sunday’s show was an outstanding one, with the racing much more in the hands of the teams and drivers, and there were a few surprises on both ends of the spectrum, with some teams performing better than expected and others not running like many thought they would. If the racing is more in their hands, that’s how it should and will be.

(Photo: Nigel Kinrade /NKP)
The drivers had to work hard for their positions on Sunday, but not many fans felt that way. Is television to blame? (Photo: Nigel Kinrade /NKP)

2. Not as seen on TV

Sadly, there were still a lot of unsatisfied fans after Sunday’s race. Some of those probably wouldn’t be satisfied if every driver in the race made several green-flag passes for the lead and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. took out Johnson on the last lap for the win. But I’d wager a guess that most of the complaints are coming from fans who watched the race on television and not from the stands at Atlanta Motor Speedway. I had the rare opportunity to go to the race and watch from the stands, and everyone in the turn four section where we sat had nothing but good things to say about the racing they saw.

The television broadcast, though, made it seem as though nothing was happening anywhere in the field. Even when a driver was picking up spots one by one and passing plenty of good cars, fans at home didn’t see the run in an authentic manner. Too many camera shots were close and focused on one of only a small handful of cars. If the race didn’t look more like the races fans enjoyed in the mid-to-late 1990s, it was because TV didn’t allow it to. That’s too bad, because it was a lot like the racing from that era, and several drivers put on quite a show. It’s unfortunate that so many people never saw most of it. If ratings are going to improve, the way races are broadcast needs to change drastically.

3. The future is bright

As many of its marquee drivers age, NASCAR is going to be in good hands. This year’s rookie class is rock solid, and there are a few young talents not in the rookie race who are going to have something to say about the future of the sport. Chase Elliott had an impressive run Sunday, and while much has been made of him making it look smooth and easy, Elliott’s car was out of shape in turns three and four nearly every lap. It wasn’t big, but is was noticeable. It was a good sign too, because as everyone knows, thanks to Days of Thunder, loose is fast, and Elliott’s car was both on Sunday.

Ryan Blaney is another youngster who showed last season he can run with most anyone and will post some very good finishes as the year goes on. Chris Buescher is a hot young talent, though his equipment is a step behind, and his teammate Landon Cassill, a veteran at just 26, might just represent Hendrick Motorsports’ biggest mistake when the team gave up on him as a development driver and put Kasey Kahne in the No. 5.

Matt DiBenedetto is almost certainly a diamond in the rough.  That’s one good thing about the sport: even as time marches on, there are always youngsters in the wings who will take the sport into its next era.  These youngsters are all worth following this season.

4. It might be time to give credit where it’s due

Strategy is a part of racing, and any driver worth the uniform he’s wearing knows he can’t do it without a stellar pit crew, a smart crew chief and the best shop guys the team can find.  But to hear some people talk about it, those groups, and maybe a little creative engineering are the only reason that Jimmie Johnson has won any races. And while he owes part of every win to his team just like every driver who wins a race does, after 76 wins it’s a pretty ridiculous argument. Johnson is one of the best to ever strap into a NASCAR race car, and to be seventh on the all-time wins list isn’t because of everybody in the world but Johnson.

Even the “but they cheat” argument is pretty stale by now. No, Rick Hendrick doesn’t hand NASCAR a check on Monday morning.  Yes, his team is building cars that are as legal as anyone else’s. They’re just that good. Move on. Nothing to see here.

While Johnson was faster to 76 wins than Dale Earnhardt, whose career number Johnson matched in Atlanta, there are similarities. Johnson took 163 fewer races to get to 76 (that’s roughly five seasons sooner), Earnhardt had more top 5s and top 10s in his career.

As drivers, the two are both wildly different and strikingly similar. Earnhardt’s reputation for rough driving was well-known while Johnson doesn’t often ruffle feathers. Johnson is polished almost to a fault while Earnhardt was viewed as a blue-collar driver. Reality is slightly different; Earnhardt was a shrewd businessman and Johnson comes from a background that’s equally blue-collar. But both

(Photo: Russel LaBounty / NKP)
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. said his father would have “loved” Jimmie Johnson. (Photo: Russel LaBounty / NKP)

have shown a remarkable tenacity, especially when they smelled a win. Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who’s currently Johnson’s teammate, said after Sunday’s race that his father would have “loved” Johnson… and he most certainly would have respected him.

5. Moving on up?

Furniture Row Racing showed last season exactly what can happen when a team puts all the pieces into place. Seemingly overnight, though in reality it was far from an overnight success, the team went from toiling mid-pack with a couple of the better single-car organizations to running with the sport’s elite. How FRR did it came from a combination of things as success always does. There were good people, smart decisions, strong alliances with the right people and more talent than the team was given credit for.

With the new low-downforce package that, at least for now, puts the racing more in the teams’ hands and the charter system, which help smaller teams build value and income, could we see more teams going in the same direction?

Yes and no.  Things are looking up for the sport’s smaller teams, and a few have shown strength, most notably JTG-Daugherty Racing and Germain Racing, single-car teams with similar alliances as Furniture Row had with Richard Childress Racing. Germain, in particular, showed strength at Daytona, running out of fuel while running second in the Duel and  getting turned in the 500, and at Atlanta, where the No. 13 was one of the fastest cars on the track in the latter stages of the race. Other small teams are showing signs of improvement of late as well, with revamped driver lineups for Front Row Motorsports, BK Racing and Tommy Baldwin Racing.

It’s good for the sport to have an underdog with a shot at being competitive, and Furniture Row’s rise was one of the best feel-good stories of 2015. If a couple other teams can improve to the point of competing with teams like Richard Petty Motorsports, Chip Ganassi Racing and others at a similar level, that only makes the racing better for fans.

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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Unless TV learns to cover the entire field in a race, they will keep losing viewers. Squinting to watch the crawler, I could see that cars deeper in the field were moving up and/or down, but never saw any of that on the broadcast. It’s a shame that can only focus on the front of the field or a select few drivers. While a fan may ‘root’ for a particular driver, that doesn’t mean they don’t want to see the skills of others.

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