Thursday, October 18, 2012

On Junior and other NASCAR headaches

There's been a lot happening off the track in NASCAR the past couple of weeks, so here's a look at what was good, and bad about some of those issues and some suggestions to make things better.
Junior's headache: Yes, it was good that Dale Earnhardt Jr. came forward and is sitting out this week's race at Kansas, along with last week's at Charlotte, due to a concussion. There is always debate about whether NASCAR is a real sport (usually started by those who've never driven a race car, so they must be experts right?). But there is no debating that when it comes to serious mental concentration for an extended period of time, driving in a NASCAR race is at the top of list of where that's needed and if Junior couldn't do it, he needed to take a break.
No more top 35: Since 2005, NASCAR has had a rule that the top 35 cars in owners points were guaranteed a spot in the following week's race. That rule had become pretty much a joke as there are basically 35 teams that are guaranteed to compete each week while other part-time rides that fill in the 43-car field. Going back to qualifying strictly on speed and saving a provisional spot for a past champion is much better.
Start and Parkers: First, let's not place the blame on the teams that do this, they qualify, run say one tank of gas, and then pull in the garage. It's a chance for those teams/owners to make some money when sponsorship is difficult. Also, yes, I like owner James Finch's idea of giving more purse money to teams who actually compete in the whole race. Another bad thing about the start and parkers is when you look at the official results, the reasons these guys are listed as being out usually includes things like overheating, brakes, ignition, etc. NASCAR should just list these cars as S/P, similar to how the NBA lists players who don't play with a DNP-CD (did not play, coach's decision). Let's just end the facade and tell it like it is.
Sponsor backfire: Back when Sprint took over as the title sponsor in 2004, part of the deal was that it would be the exclusive communications sponsor in the sport. Now, it's a sport that is desperate for sponsors and that decision may well be costing some teams a major sponsor, but we'll never know for sure since they can't join in the fun. Wouldn't it be interesting to see a T-Mobile car or a Verizon car on the track? Also, you would think it would be automatic to have a McDonald's or Wendy's car, too. And Wal-Mart, which has its roots in the South, why aren't they in? NASCAR needs to take a hard look at why some of these multi-billion dollar companies aren't on board.
Sunday Starting times: It used to be that the actual green flag times for races came at about 12:45 p.m. on Sundays. There were a lot of good things about this. First, if you like NASCAR and the NFL, which is the case with many fans, it gives you a chance to get into the race a little bit before the 1 p.m. NFL games start. Then once you're interested in the race, if you are flipping back and forth between plays, or watching both events on a split screen, the interest is there. The way it is now, with with 2:15 green flags, fans are already invested in the NFL game of their choice, and it becomes more difficult to get into the race. These later start times also don't help those fans who in the past didn't mind traveling four or five hours to see a race. The early start times allowed them to get home before say around 11 p.m., and be in bed by midnight. Late, but doable. Now, with races not ending until after 6 p.m., and figuring it takes about an hour of waiting or sitting in traffic to get out of most venues, it's more like arriving home at midnight, and not to bed until 1 a.m. That's crossing the line for many who work the next day. And, we understand this due to the ...
TV Contracts: NASCAR announced earlier this week that it had reached an eight-year contract extension with FOX to broadcast the first 13 races of the year ... for a total of $2.4 billion. That's enough big bucks to say the sport is healthy. Next will be what ESPN does. The way it's set up now, when ESPN takes over coverage for the second part of the season, it can't get to race coverage once the NFL starts because it's NFL pre-game show lasts until 1 p.m. ESPN could put its pre-race coverage on ESPN2 at the same as the NFL pre-game show, and then start the race an hour earlier. But when it comes to money and ratings, what ESPN wants, ESPN gets. That's just the way its in sports television these days, whether we like it or not.
Will the new car help?: It's not that the drivers aren't trying, because they are. Or that the crew chiefs aren't trying to make their cars faster, because they are. But while the current NASCAR race car template has proven its value in safety (the Elliot Sadler crash at Pocono a couple of years ago could be used as Exhibit A), way, way too many races are not decided by side-by-side battles. The only realistic possibilities for these are the half-mile short tracks, such as Martinsville and Bristol, or the superspeedways of Talladega and Daytona, with the one exception being Darlington ... wouldn't change a thing about that track. That still leaves 27 races that if there is an exciting finish, we are surprised. So, NASCAR is introducing it's new cars for 2013 season. Hopefully, we won't have to keep hearing about clean air and track position being the most important things to make the cars go fast. Hopefully, the new model will put results much more in the hands of the drivers rather than circumstances.
And that would be best news of all.

It's Week 6 of the Chase, and, yes, the same guys who were on top going into Charlotte are on top going into Kansas. The only difference is that now, Clint Bowyer, is a legitimate contender as he is 28 points back with five to go. He's still a long shot, but at least it's possible for him to rally. And speaking of top contenders, you just might notice a theme in this week's picks. That's partially because past history at Kansas won't mean much as this is the first race on the re-paved track.
1. Brad Keselowski. No matter what his history on these final tracks, he's pretty much a must pick here. Just for the record, he does have a win and a top five in five races at Kansas.
2. Jimmie Johnson. Five-timer hasn't really had a hot streak yet and he's just seven points out of the lead. That's not good for everybody else and he does have two wins at Kansas.
3. Denny Hamlin. He's right there, too, just 15 points back. Hamlin's the kind of driver that can win three or four in a row and he has a win and two top fives in nine races at Kansas.
4. Clint Bowyer. This is considered his home track and teams get pumped up when their driver has a shot at the title and they are on their home track. He just might win two in a row, and if he does that, it might put him right in the mix with the first three.
 5. Carl Edwards. True, he's never won at Kansas and true, he's not in the Chase, and true, he's not won since the Las Vegas race in March 2011. He used to be a weekly contender to win, but no more of late. So why pick him here? I'd just like to see that victory back flip.
Shoulda, woulda, coulda: Tony Stewart. He's 50 points behind and is pretty much in a win at all cost mode and he did win a fuel-mileage race at Kansas when he was not in the Chase. He does have another win at Kansas, too, so it's always dangerous to not pick him here.

Here's a look at how last week's picks fared in Week 5 of the Chase at Charlotte.
Kyle Busch - 5th. He seemed to be in contention for much of the race, but never actually led a lap.
Kasey Kahne - 8th. He was in the top 10 pretty much all night, but never a factor to win the race. Also did not lead a lap.
Matt Kenseth  - 14th. Never was close to pulling off a two wins in a row.
Kevin Harvick  - 16th. A win can come at any time, but even though he's in the Chase, it would be a surprise to see him in Victory Lane these days.
Jeff Gordon - 18th. Seemed destined to get a top 10 finish, but was caught speeding on pit road and the drive-through penalty put him out of contention.

Here's a look at my results after 31 races and 155 picks.
15 wins
49 top 5s
70 top 10s
Grade for the week: D. Yes, the fuel-saving game played a part in this one, but none of my picks were serious contenders to win.
One last thing: The last non-Chaser to win the Kansas fall race was Greg Biffle in 2007.

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