ONE: Toyota’s Tough Start
Toyota, coming off its first NASCAR Cup manufacturer’s title, has tumbled out of the gate in 2017. Just two drivers – Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch – sit inside the top 10 in points, and only Truex has earned a victory thus far this season.
Joe Gibbs Racing in particular has struggled. The loss of Carl Edwards, then crew chief Dave Rogers, for personal reasons has harmed replacement rookie Daniel Suarez. He sits outside the top 20 in points along with veteran Matt Kenseth; the former champ has crashed out of three of the first seven races. Denny Hamlin is an enigma, sitting without a top-five finish while struggling at one of his best tracks (Martinsville Speedway).
There’s also a few sponsorship concerns. Kenseth has never fully replaced Dollar General. If rookie Erik Jones eventually replaces him, taking sponsor 5-Hour Energy with him, where does that leave Furniture Row Racing’s second team? With just six well-funded cars in its arsenal (BK Racing? Premium Motorsports? Not there yet), you wonder if poaching is in the future.
TWO: Young Guns Blazing
The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series has a point leader, Kyle Larson, who’s just 24 years old. Second place Chase Elliott is 22. Top rookie Jones? He’s 20 and currently in position to make the playoffs.
Compare those numbers to some of the sport’s aging veterans. Kevin Harvick, 41, has yet to win a race and sits 10th in points. Jimmie Johnson, 41, won at Texas Motor Speedway but sits 11th. Kenseth, 45, is outside playoff position, along with fan-favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr., 42.
It’s clear the sport is transitioning to a new generation of stars. Will they be able to keep fans in the seats? Early numbers are promising; despite more disgusting TV ratings, millennial viewership is stable or up over the past nine months. It looks like Elliott and Larson in particular are building a following within social media and outside the track.
Most importantly, a sport haunted by the ghost of Dale Earnhardt now has leaders who were in kindergarten when he was killed during the 2001 Daytona 500. New personalities sitting in Victory Lane are the way to propel this sport forward into a new era.
THREE: Follow The Leader
NASCAR’s new aero package has left much to be desired. Intermediates like Atlanta Motor Speedway, Auto Club Speedway and Las Vegas Motor Speedway saw a sharp downturn in lead changes year-to-year as first place got decided in, oh, about two turns after every restart.
The racing hasn’t been all bad; a repaved Texas offered hope while Martinsville produced typical excitement. February’s Daytona 500 was arguably the best plate race we’ve seen in years. But intermediates make up half the NASCAR schedule these days. They’re going to play to empty houses unless follow-the-leader turns into frantic finishes. No amount of double-file restarts, stage bonuses or magical debris cautions can keep the leader from darting away.
So much happened over NASCAR’s offseason it feels like we’re still settling in. For example, I was at Target last week and saw NASCAR Heat Evolution sitting there for Playstation with Edwards on the cover. The sport was rocked by his retirement, along with the loss of Tony Stewart, Greg Biffle and Jeff Gordon on the grid so far this year. Even Bobby Labonte and (gasp!) Michael Waltrip have somewhat of an impact, perhaps explaining the transition of fans and declining attendance in 2017.
Monster, the new title sponsor, still struggles with at-track engagement. Rumors of new manufacturers twist in the wind; a grid with less than 40 cars suggests NASCAR will do more to get them engaged. The overall trend is positive in both cases, but we need to see more.
The same goes for stage racing, increasing aggression but also producing a wild points structure. We’ve seen times when drivers have been willing to win early, earning a bonus only to fade with the real trophy on the line.
Is that right? Should a driver, like Ryan Newman at Phoenix International Raceway, win the main stage but score less points than other drivers in the race? And when will we address clinching playoff spots for September, um, in February?
I see more ch-ch-ch-changes coming.
FIVE: Danica, Danica, Danica
Ms. Patrick has had an awful start to 2017. Her former sponsor, Nature’s Bakery, broke contract and is involved in a lawsuit with Stewart-Haas Racing over payment. Other sponsors have stepped up to fill the void, but there are still open dates on the No. 10 car. (The same goes for Clint Bowyer in the No. 14, the cold reality of NASCAR financials today).
Patrick, now 35, has seen her star fade on the national stage and on the racetrack. After a promising Daytona 500, she wrecked out and hasn’t sniffed the top 15 since. An average finish of 25.9 is her worst since 2013, her rookie season; she’s already 61 points outside the playoffs.
A recent Associated Press article hinted retirement could come soon if Patrick’s not having fun. Would that be as early as this year?
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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