Did You Notice? … The sport’s oldest drivers are the ones having the hardest transition into NASCAR’s new point system? Matt Kenseth (45), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (42), and Jimmie Johnson (41) are the three oldest competing full-time. (Sorry, Derrike Cope. 1990 was a loooong time ago.)
The trio, despite being competitive at times has come up with a grand total of one top-five finish (Kenseth was third at Atlanta). None of them would make the playoffs if the season ended today, making the way for newcomers Ryan Blaney, Erik Jones, and Trevor Bayne.
Does that mean a changing of the guard is at hand? Not necessarily; I would never bet against a seven-time champion like Johnson to get the job done. But there’s certainly some growing pains as these guys get used to early-race bonuses in the form of stage points.
Veteran drivers have a tendency to hang back, working through crucial late-race adjustments to push their way to the front. Johnson, for example, won two of his five races last season leading 25 laps or less. The No. 48 team, earning a middling average start of 12.1 during their championship run, took nearly the whole day to get their car exactly right. (See: Homestead.)
In 2017, that costs you up to 20 points in stage bonuses. Matters are made worse when you qualify poorly; Johnson, in particular has a horrid average start of 21.8. Coming from the rear with these short stages makes it almost impossible to reach the top 10 in time. That just creates a cycle where these three get further behind in the standings, minimizing the impact even top-15 finishes could have over the long-term.
You’d think guys like Kenseth, who crashed at Auto Club, will get themselves together to earn a win. Johnson, in particular has some great tracks like Texas coming up on the schedule that could snap his victory drought before Easter. But their struggles early, along with their racing styles, may put them in a position where winning will be a need, not a luxury for them in the playoffs. Consistency just won’t be worth as much anymore if you can’t find a way to get it until Stage 3.
Did You Notice? … The dropoff for NASCAR for television viewership in just the last four seasons? Since moving to the current format in 2014, the 16-driver elimination system over the final 10 races fans have recognized the regular season has less impact.
Check out the four races after the Daytona 500 from 2013, the last year of the “old” Chase format and the viewership we saw in 2017.
2013 Track & Rating 2017 Track & Rating
Phoenix – 5.6 Atlanta – 3.8
Las Vegas – 4.7 Las Vegas – 3.6
Bristol – 4.6 Phoenix – 3.3
Fontana – 4.7 Fontana – 2.9
Each of these races experiences a decline of over 20 percent over the last four years. In the case of this weekend, the Fontana (Auto Club Speedway) numbers are stunning – especially since the track has been highly competitive. 2013, in fact was the race in which Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano tangled, starting off a run that made some argue this two-mile oval is the best intermediate on the circuit.
So why might fans be tuning out? The new aero package certainly qualifies; Fontana’s 17 lead changes were the fewest there since 2013. But I wonder if fans recognize early playoff spots minimize the regular season. For guys like Kurt Busch, they’re already testing for September; a victory ensures their spot. Earnhardt, the sport’s Most Popular Driver has struggled as we detailed earlier but most believe he and Johnson will get in easily.
So what storylines does that leave? How much will people care about playoff points? I think the answers we have right now are “still searching” and “not much.” As for qualifying, the grid has been at 39 cars (less than the 40-car maximum) so there hasn’t been drama there. No new teams have even showed up since the Daytona 500; Martinsville’s entry list has the total number down to 38.
No wonder the sport is courting a new manufacturer. The energy of Monster as new title sponsor combined with a strong Daytona 500 needed to be backed by some type of other, outside momentum. NASCAR appears to still be looking for it.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off….
- It’s no secret 2017 has been a struggle for Toyota’s top team in Joe Gibbs Racing. That’s what makes Martinsville so important this weekend. Hamlin’s last top-five finish? It was third at this racetrack last fall. Kenseth? He led 176 laps here last fall en route to fourth. And Kyle Busch, much maligned this season, is the race’s defending champion. If JGR can’t be competitive here, at a track where aerodynamics get thrown out the window, then they’re going to be in trouble long-term.
- Martinsville is also a place where AJ Allmendinger has three straight top-11 finishes. And if there’s a team that needs to turn it around more than JGR, it’s the No. 47 of JTG Daugherty. They’ve struggled through expansion with Chris Buescher and the ‘Dinger has posted four straight finishes outside the top 15. A third-place finish in the Daytona 500 has been wasted; he’s sitting 30th in points.
- That brings up another point with NASCAR’s celebrated-turned-criticized stage format. For the top drivers, those stage bonuses allow them to quickly pull away and minimize the damage from a bad finish. A third-place run from an underdog like the ‘Dinger has little effect when a favorite who slumps to 22nd, let’s say has 18 bonus stage points in his back pocket. This points system is quickly becoming an example of the rich getting richer. And for a guy like AJ? It’s clear he can still get into the playoffs one way and one way only – winning stage 3. Not stage 1 or stage 2. Stage 3, the one that earns the big trophy and the equivalent of an automatic bid.
- Kevin Harvick dropping the appeal means NASCAR’s strictest penalty system hasn’t run up against a stiff defense… yet. Will that give it more authority when the consequences really count in the playoffs?
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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Matty CRASHED because MARTY TRUEX hit him! And silence…nothing to see here move along! Not a thought to a “reporter” or “media” person to call out Marty as he did ruin (hard I might add) Matty’s day! (No sympathy, whatsoever..but not the point)!
I concur it was racing, but it ALWAYS ISN’T racing when Team Penske is in MARTY’s position. There is always some deep meaning, some hidden agenda, some nefarious intention, INTENTION..etc! The narrative against the obvious is amazing. The double standard, faux outrage, hypocrisy astounds! It never ceases to amaze, the faux narrative that gets spun around, and spun, and spun, and spun, and spun and continues to the next week and the “racing deal” absorbs the whole media event when there are other good and TRUE stories to concentrate on….total BS. IMO.
I agree, but also when is Nascar and the TV big wigs going to realize that they need to git rid of these hot shot announcers and program personalities. With the exception of Mike J.and Maybe Gordon, they all are so favorable to their favorite drivers, it is terrible. That goes for Race Hub also. Adam A.was so sarcastic the other night, he had Larry Mac furious. Adam is a terrible PXP person, especially in the Xfinity series.
Adam A. is a sarcastic SOB! I had to look up what right he has to be so sarcastic about and HE HAS NONE! He is a lame ass TV personality. From what I can tell by his BIO has zero experience sniffing car fumes, has ever changed a tire or has tell tale signs of grease beneath his finger nails showing “car work”!
Johnson got lucky at Homestead. Had the two best cars (19 and 22) not been knocked out in the waning laps he wouldn’t have had a prayer. In fact, I’d say that no one has benefited more from the chase format than Johnson. I’m not taking anything away from him, he is a great driver on a great team but that doesn’t change the fact that had it not been for the chase his championship numbers would be much different.
Why are fans tuning out? Geez there are more reasons for that then I can list. I think the biggest factor for the drop since 2014 is Gordon retiring in 2015 and Stewart retiring in 2016. I truly believe that a lot of fans continued watching after Brian declared war on the fan base in 2004 with all the changes, even though they were pissed off, because they were loyal to their drivers. Watch out when Earnhardt retires.
Without the Chase Johnson is a 3 time champ and Harvick is a 4 time champ. The Chase is a disaster. It’s no coincidence people started tuning out when the Chase was brought in.
And Gordon would be a 5 or 6 time champ. Definitely would have been champ in 2007 under any year long points system.
I don’t think any driver is having trouble transitioning to the stage system. Guys like Johnson and Kenseth and Earnhardt have been lacking speed. It’s hard to win stage points when your qualifying mid-pack or worse and not moving forward in the early laps. I also don’t think anyone “hangs back” on an intermediate track. It can’t be denied the new format has put a greater emphasis on qualifying.
Kenseth hasn’t lacked speed, though his cars haven’t been the best, but he’s really lacked luck. He’s been taken out in other people’s crashes or by other drivers (looking at you Truex) in three out of the first 5 races and has finishes of 36, 37 and 40 in those races as a result. He had a top 10 car in every race this year, but even with God at the wheel you’re toast without luck.
Allmendinger got penalized 35 points for loose lug nuts else he would be in top 20? That is what wasted the 3rd place finish at Daytona. The point made is still valid but you should show all the cards.
The Chase is a disaster so let’s fix it by adding segment racing
and points. Huh? So farcical only Brian and his loyal
acolytes, the brothers Waltrip, also known as Dumb and
Dumber, could love it.
I a not a fan of the segment racing at all. I saw my first race on the sands of Daytona in 1957 and have been a fan ever since. I did live in Florida for a few years which made it a great location to attend many of the races in the south. I did move home to Montana in 1977 which put us at a long distance from any of the tracks, but we do attend a few races each year, enjoying our road trips and visiting attractions in the area of the track on the trips.
With the new format, not only don’t I like it, but my wife doesn’t and we will no longer take out road trips to attend the races in person. Can’t see spending a lot of money to see something that I am not a fan of.I also dislike the 5 minute rule if a car has an incident on track. I can’t see a driver having to take a DNF when whe he can spend a few laps in the gagage and get back onto the track. The driver may finish a number of laps down, but won’t have a DNF.
Sorry NASCAR, as far as I’m soncerned, you screwed it up.
Typical Bowles column where he argues out of both sides of his mouth: First, the oldsters don’t “get” the new points system. BS. Second, the new system turns off viewers. Maybe the lack of RACING turns off viewers. Why watch a parade for 3 hours when you know the outcome will be determined by a slew of late cautions triggered by a backmarker wrecking at the appointed time every race?
And the biggest joke of all. Kyle Busch as “much maligned.” When has he NOT been much maligned? Truex can drive like a bull in a china shop taking out anyone who is in his way, but the media reserves its criticism for Busch whether he is instigator or victim or bystander.