NASCAR, Nerds, and Bill Nye

Bill Nye the Science Guy, who educated me on TV as a nerd in the making with his science themed kids’ show, is talking about NASCAR again.

My nerdy endeavors and love of NASCAR rarely cross streams, especially living in New England where, despite the growth of the sport, NASCAR is still viewed as a southern thing. The way they cross today is… somewhat unfortunate.

Dale Earnhardt, NHMS, 1997
Dale Earnhardt, NHMS, 1997

Nye’s first training is as an engineer, because science comes in all sorts of flavors. In a recent blog post, he lamented NASCAR as “celebrating very old transportation technology of yesterday.” Nye’s family is from North Carolina, the center of the NASCAR world. He talks about seeing races in Martinsville and how exciting it is to watch.

Good. Fantastic. The sport needs to break the redneck stereotype.

But as an engineer and a scientist, he laments that NASCAR engines run around 3 miles per gallon.

I get it, Bill Nye. NASCAR isn’t exactly a gold star for the environment. It’s not exactly difficult to deduce that 43 cars rumbling around for 500 miles and burning 166 gallons of gas a pop is not exactly efficient. Plus the thousands of fans in attendance. And the trucks to get to the track. And practice, qualifying. A lot of dead dinosaurs are being burned up to make my favorite sporting event every week.

I do want to note that when Bill Nye talks about the “ancient tech” NASCAR uses, he talks about carburetors. This is actually false and NASCAR has used fuel injection since 2012, stemming from a push from the auto manufacturers who claimed that NASCAR engines were antiques. Irony!

The general vibe that I got from this when I scanned Twitter was more thoughtful than I expected. I love NASCAR but I can’t be alone in thinking that the sport needs a kick in the pants to act sometimes. People want to watch good racing. You could power the car with unicorn tears and pixie farts for all I care, as long as the race is good.

The sport exploded out of the south with a big boom starting at the tail end of the 90s but the boom has been cool for a while now. While some people may be able to scoff at a smaller NASCAR market like New Hampshire tearing out seats, you can’t when it’s Daytona or Richmond cutting back on seating capacity. Since that boom has cooled, I feel like NASCAR has been walking a fine line between celebrating tradition and stifling new growth.

NASCAR has a very vocal segment of the fan base that likes things The Way They Always Are, where nothing ever changes. There are times when this is amazing. The Darlington throwback weekend was one of the most amazing celebrations of the history of the sport that I’ve seen in my lifetime. But there are times when it’s not, like the reaction and rule changes that came to the All Star race after Josh Wise was voted in by the Reddit community. The vocal old guys (because let’s face it, the Let’s Never Change segment of the sport is a generational thing) cried about internet nerds clicking away on the computer to vote him in when really Danica should have been voted.

What the hell?!

dogecarIt’s not like either has won a Cup race. Wise’s best finish is 10th. Danica’s is only 6th in much better equipment. Yet there were fans out there that cried a driver who gets the most out of his equipment is less worthy of fans than one who hasn’t lived up to expectations. For crap’s sake, people, the internet nerds of Reddit came together to sponsor Josh Wise’s car!

And yet the Let’s Never Change Cadre thinks change is bad.

I kind of went off on a tangent there since I planned on keeping this focused on Bill Nye’s blogging.

Frankly, I think the tone Bill Nye takes doesn’t help his case, even though I share his sentiment that NASCAR will have to evolve with technology.

Nye’s condescending tone aside, his ideas are not bad per se. He does drop some good facts comparing the torque and horsepower between NASCARs and fully electric Tesla Model-S sedans. And do you ever watch Top Gear? The British version? They’ve tested full on supercars which feature hybrid engines. I personally drive a hybrid Subaru and love it. The electric motor takes care of the low end torque and the gas engine operates at higher speeds where it’s more efficient than the motor. But I am constantly surprised how many people ask me if I have to plug it in. That’s not how most hybrids work.

So yes, if Porsche can make a bad ass hybrid that lays down the rubber on the test track, there is no reason why hybrids or electrics can’t make for good racing. Although, I will be the first to admit there would be a creepy factor in how quiet racing electric cars would be.

Menard, McMurray, and a random guy ordering beer. NHMS, Sept '14
Menard, McMurray, and a random guy ordering beer. NHMS, Sept ’14

Someday, I think NASCAR will be in the position where it has to adapt and its hand will be forced. I don’t see it coming for a long time though and I hope the sport does not wait until it’s at the brink of collapse. There has to be money involved for NASCAR to make something like that happen since there would be a lot of dollars all around spent to adapt. I think the push would have to come from the car manufacturers and possibly coincide with another one entering the sport. Subaru wouldn’t come to NASCAR since any racing they do is rally. Honda or Volkswagon could bring enough incentive when combined with the current Ford, Chevy, Toyota players.

As more and more engineers are involved with the sport and car technology advances more every year, the nerds are going to become a stronger force in NASCAR. That’s healthy for the fan base, for the competitors, and for the crews.

NASCAR changes the same way a dam breaks. When I was a kid, pit crews were mechanics in cowboy boots and twenty second stops were good. Then Jeff Gordon’s Rainbow Warriors made pit crews a specialty occupation and you’d never have it another way now.

More and more people involved with NASCAR are coming at it with an engineering degree. There’s room for the engineers like Ryan Newman (Purdue University class of ’01) and the wrenchers like Brad Keselowski (grew up with his father’s K Automotive Racing).

NASCAR needs to break the dam and let the nerds in. Push the technology in new ways. As long as we have a good product on the track driven by modern daredevils, most of us will be more than happy with it. Nerds have passion for what we like. Thousands of Reddit clicks for Josh Wise are proof that it can come to NASCAR.

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Media Week Round Up

NASCAR’s annual media week hit Charlotte this week. A lot of team moves and sponsorships and the like get announced as they happen nowadays thanks to social media. So most of the announcements coming from the major teams were not unexpected or particularly noteworthy. A lot of “This is how excited we are for the season” kind of stuff. The sanctioning body dropped some big news to kick off the week and a number of teams did still have news worth talking about.

NASCAR Press Con

Xfinity Heat Races

d4c logoNASCAR dropped a few bombs at the front end of media week that are going to shake up the lower tiers of the sport and it’s foolish to think that the reverberations won’t be felt in cup. For the fans, and likely the competitors, the best of these announcements is the introduction of heat races into select Xfinity races. These coincide with the Dash 4 Cash program which pays out bonus checks to the highest finishing Xfinity regular in the selected races. I always approved of this program for the Xfinity guys since so much of their thunder gets stolen from the Cup guys Bushwacking. Anything which lets the regulars of the lower series shine on their own is a good thing in my book.

As for the heat races themselves, I think this is a fantastic idea. A version of this has been part of the All-Star race (in its various names) for years. If you’re still on the fence about this, just check out Eldora. Check out Eldora’s Truck race anyways. It has become one of the best events in the NASCAR calendar and the heat race format is a part of this. This will be fantastic at Bristol and Richmond. This is a format made and perfected by short tracks, so it will be a homerun at those two tracks. Dover… eh, I think it can work there. Indianapolis? I’m not sold on that track. It is notorious for a lack of passing. So maybe the heat races will be a benefit to break up the racing, which NASCAR would have done anyways with Sweet Lady Debris, our mysterious and unseen friend.

Trucks and Xfinity Getting Chase

xfinity chase gridIn the “It’s about time” category of NASCAR announcements is the introduction of the Chase format to Xfinity and Trucks this year. NASCAR even made a fancy info graphic to explain how it works. As it should be, the process is a bit condensed and not as many weeks as the Cup Chase.

I have always considered the Chase a success in both the ten race format and the bracket format that is going on now. Too many years pre-Chase had the championship locked up weeks ahead of time. I have zero problem with the Chase and, frankly, am surprised that it took NASCAR so long to bring it over to the lower tier series.

truck chase gridI also like the idea of 2015 Cup Chase drivers not being allowed into the Homestead finale of the lower tiers in 2016. Let the guys shine in their own series. On the surface, the year differential sounds a bit odd, but sponsors and drivers can be lined up so far in advance, it makes sense. Take Kyle Larson or Austin Dillon for example. They run a limited schedule in Xfinity and should be contenders for the Chase (I expect both to get a first win this year). Target and Bass Pro Shops need to know months in advance if they are going to sponsor an Xfinity car but no one knows what Cup guys are going to be in the Chase until September. I understand the logistics and figure it is a good thing.

The only thing I’m not sold on with this process is the number of guys in each lower tier Chase. There were only 19 drivers in the Xfinity championship to qualify for every race and 14 in the Trucks. (Although John Hunter Nemecheck is now old enough to run superspeedways) Having 12 qualify for the Xfinity Chase is 63%. 8 of 14 is 57% for Trucks.

I don’t think it’s practical to have any less than eight in a bracket Chase so I can’t see changing it for the Trucks but I definitely think that 8 is a much more appropriate sized field for the Xfinity Chase.

Trucks Getting the Caution Clock

caution clockBoo.

Boo!

NASCAR has decided to implement a Caution Clock for Truck Races. (Boo!) Every time a green flag is waved, a 20 minute countdown starts ticking. Every time a yellow flies, the clock is reset. No caution clock cautions at the very end of the race. At least it’s a simple system.

The most positive thing I can say about this is at least we know when the Caution Clock will ding as opposed to Sweet Lady Debris rearing her mysterious head. I get that restarts are the best opportunity to pass and passing is one (very strong) metric of a good race. I really want to think NASCAR has its heart in the right place by creating more exciting racing, although every time France mentioned working with their “broadcast partners” on the Caution Clock, the cynic in me is following the money. I think a better way to get more exciting racing in the Truck series would be to lower the bar for entry to allow for more teams to get involved. Right now in the Trucks there’s Kyle Busch’s team, Keselowski’s team, and Thor Sport. After that there’s a big step down in how well the teams are funded. The Truck series is taking a cue from ARCA and offering leases on crate engines. While still not cheap, I think that will raise the competition level by lowering the monetary investments that small teams need to be competitive. That is a more effective way at boosting competition, not this Caution Clock shenanigans.

Anyways. Boo on this.

Charter System, Still Nothing

Still no new news on the potential Charter System coming to the Cup owners. Some of the smaller teams are maneuvering around to put themselves in a good position for when the Charter System drops, because we all expect franchising is coming to NASCAR.

I still think this is a neutral thing. If it helps out teams finances, good. Like it or not, NASCAR is a sport that runs on dollars and running a NASCAR team can be about as financially responsible as running bricks of cash through a wood chipper. Out of all the major and minor team owners, I think Childress and Petty are the only ones who’s primary occupation is owning a race car team. Henderick owns half the car dealerships in the south. The BK Racing guys own a massive amount of fast food franchises, hence their constant Burger King and Doctor Pepper sponsorships. As I mentioned above, I think lowering the financial end of NASCAR will increase the competition end.

Team News

Circle Sport – Levine Merger

cslfr logoJoe Falk’s #33 Circle Sport Racing team has merged with the #95 of Levine Family Racing. Michael McDowell ran a partial schedule for Levine for the last couple years and is going to be the primary driver for the team. Circle Sport raced by committee last year with support from RCR, including being the unofficial fourth RCR team for select races featuring RCR’s Xfinity guys getting seat time in Cup.

The team is going to stick with Circle Sport’s Chevy’s and have a technical alliance with RCR and run ECR engines. RCR may be on a winning drought, but everyone running ECR engines shows up very well at plate tracks. Just look at how wells Germain Racing steps up their game at the plate tracks. They’ve announced that McDowell is going to run at least 26 races and Ty Dillon is going to show up for the others with both of them entering into the Daytona 500.

Tommy Baldwin Racing

TBR LogoIn a surprise move, Tommy Baldwin Racing cut ties with Alex Bowman. Regan Smith is going to be running the #7 for the one car team. TBR already announced solid sponsorship with Toy State last year. Sponsors and drivers are often tied together which is why I was somewhat surprised by this move. If you follow Bowman on twitter, it seems like the news caught him unaware as he was looking forward to running Daytona. Seems like the news slipped out on Twitter before Baldwin even told Bowman. Kind of a lame situation but I think Bowman can bounce back.

Bowman does get to run a few races for JR Motorsports’ Star Car in the Xfinity series, so he’ll be running some races in very good cars. Also, he recently built a dirt track car to run in the Chili Bowl a couple weeks ago, so it sounds like he’ll be tearing up dirt tracks again.

Furniture Row Nabs New Sponsor Finally

basspropaintWith the success of Martin Truex Jr on the track, the Furniture Row Racing team has finally gotten some sponsors other than Barney Visser’s own Furniture Row brand. Bass Pro Shops has signed on with the team. Truex used to be sponsored by them back when he ran the DEI #1 car back in the day. ‘Course this means Bass Pro Shops is sponsoring less of Tony Stewart’s car, but I don’t imagine Smoke will have much problem filling the empty races.

Cassill to Front Row with Beuscher

TSM350_-_Landon_Cassill_-_2015_-_Stierch-wikiLandon Cassill, who has managed to become a long time journeyman racer even though he’s only 26, is heading to Front Row Racing to be the teammate of Rookie of the Year candidate Chris Buescher. While not exactly top tier equipment, FRM and their new alliance with Roush should give Cassill more of a chance to shine. He’s been one of those guys who makes the best out of whatever car he gets. Remember that 4th place he managed in the #40 at Talladega in 2014? I think there are a couple tracks this year he could seriously shine at.

Busch Skipping Plate Races in Xfinity/Trucks

leg hardwareKyle Busch has said that he is going to pass on plate races in Xfinity and Truck races this year. Considering the serious injuries he had to recover from last year, I’m not surprised one bit. Bonus, there’s a few less races he’s Bushwacking at. I’ve long thought there should be a cap on Cup guys racing in lower tiers (because an outright ban is not practical or smart) and a self imposed restriction is better than none.

Abreu Gets Full Time Truck Ride

ricoRico Abreu, the dirt tracker who just won his second straight Chili Bowl, is getting a full time Truck ride with Thor Sport and will be teammates with Matt Crafton. He put up solid number in ARCA last year with a couple truck races for the seat time.

Abreu has gotten praise from Tony Stewart and the Chili Bowl trophy is becoming one of the best in US motorsports so he’s got the skills. If you’ve ever seen him interviewed, Abreu has the charisma to do all the other things that go along with being a modern NASCAR driver. I look forward to watching him rise up the ranks and expect to see him challenging for wins.

Bubba Wallace Does Care for Your Conventional Shirt Grooming

Who needs to tuck in their shirt? Certainly not Bubba. High five.

bubba tucks

Brian Scott Sponsors

44-Albertsons-Companies_Shore-Lodge-Ford-HIGH-RES-614x358In sponsor news as surprising as “Menard’s sponsors Menard,” Albertson’s and Shore Lodge are going to be sponsoring the #44 of Brian Scott. Companies owned by his family. I chuckle at the news because of its obviousness, but don’t take it as a knock against Scott. You need both talent and funds in this sport to survive, let alone thrive. Having a sponsor still means you have to back it up.

David Ragan to BK Racing

bk racing logoBK Racing, who ran with JJ Yealy, Jeb Burton and Matt DiBeneditto last year, has been listed as TBA on all three of their cars so far. They’ve announced one, with David Ragan running the Dr Pepper #23. No word on which driver is the odd man out, but there’s also word that they bought up some of Michael Waltrip Racing’s old equipment. With an experienced driver and a boost in gear, maybe we can see a performance boost too. I have to think they need to soon if they are going to survive as a three car team.

Rookie of the Year

The NASCAR Rookie of the Year completion can be an odd thing. A driver’s rookie year doesn’t always predicate a career of success. Some of the sports biggest names missed out on a RotY title. Jimmie Johnson. Mark Martin. Terry Labonte. Dale Jr.

Remember guys like Andy Lally, Kevin Conway, and Stephen Leicht? They all won. There was a severe dry spell of rookie drivers between Joey Logono and Rickey Stenhouse Jr.

However, I feel that the 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year competition is slated to be one of the best in years. The sport has been seeing a generational shift in the last couple years and it is intensifying this year. Let’s take a look at the candidate who have been announced for this year’s rookie campaign…

Ryan_Blaney_Road_America_2015-wikipedia
R. Blaney via Wikipedia

Ryan Blaney

Blaney ran part time in Sprint Cup last year for the Wood Brothers. He’s been working closely with Penske and Keselowski in the lower tiers. There is a lot to be glad about with Blaney running for RotY this year. I was worried he was going to get Trevor Bayne’d and told he ran too many races to qualify as a rookie. The Wood Brothers have formed an alliance with Penske now and they’ve got the funding to run a full season for the first time in years. This is fantastic for one of the oldest teams in the sport and it’s a fantastic opportunity for Blaney. He picked up a couple top tens last year, including having a shot for the win at Talladega in May. The improving fortunes for the Wood Brothers are only going to mean improving fortunes for Blaney. He’s going to be strong at the plate tracks and I won’t be surprised if he snags a win this year.

Chris_Buescher-wikipedia
C. Buescher via Wikipedia

Chris Buescher

Buescher is the reigning Xfinity champion and following along the path that Stenhouse and Dillon have done recently by jumping up to Cup. Buescher is making the move with Front Row Motorsports and say what you will about the recent performance of Roush or RCR, FRM does not have the same level of resources. This is a team that has survived as a multi car operation for years, and that is no small feat in NASCAR, so I do not want to diminish their success. Hopefully they will be able to take another step forward with the new talent behind the wheel and a proper technical alliance with Roush. Buescher is still a developmental driver for Roush so the timing of his promotion to Cup and the technical alliance make sense. Roush just didn’t have any available seats for Buescher and wanted to keep him in Ford stable. Here’s hoping it doesn’t hold back Buescher. FRM does have a plate win from a couple years ago so I do expect Buescher to do well at Daytona / Talladega as a minimum.

Jeffrey_Earnhardt_2014_wiki
J. Earnhardt via Wikipedia

Jeffery Earnhardt

NASCAR finally has two Earnhardts that will be competing on a regular basis again. There’s a certain segment of the fan base that’s going to get stoked about that. However, this Earnhardt is not running the same level of equipment that his uncle and grandfather have. The Go FAS Racing #32 was driven by committee last year, including two starts for Earnhardt (including the September NH race I was at). The best finish for the team was a 23rd at Talladega with Bobby Labonte at the wheel. The Earnhardt name should attract more sponsors to the team and the team’s can make some progress from where they are. Unfortunately for Earnhardt, plate tracks are the great equalizer and Bobby Labonte is going to still drive the car for those races.

Chase_Elliott_Road_America_2015-wiki
C. Elliot via Wikipedia

Chase Elliot

NASCAR has been chomping at the bit for this for years now. Elliot is the most heralded second generation driver since Dale Jr started driving full time in 2000. He’s taking over one of the most storied rides in NASCAR history now that Jeff Gordon has retired. Love them or hate them, Hendrick cars set the bar as far as performance goes. If you’ve ever seen Elliot speak in any tv interviews, he handles himself like someone far more mature than someone who is only 20 years old. I definitely do not think the pressure is going to get to him. I think there are a lot of fans that will be disappointed, though, if he does not win a race this year. I think that is an unfair expectation, even with his pedigree. Unless the Chevrolets drop the ball across the board, Elliot should be competitive. I even think that there is a good chance he will out perform his teammate Kasey Kahne. I think it is more realistic to expect Elliot to have a similar trajectory in Cup as Larson and Dillon (whom I expect to both score wins this year).

Brian_Scott_Road_America_2015-wiki
B. Scott via Wikipedia

Brian Scott

Scott is a longtime Xfinity racer and actually the oldest Cup rookie this year at 28. He’s been running for RCR in the second tier series and as the unofficial fourth RCR Cup car with their arrangement with Circle Sport in the #33. He’s switching over to Fords and taking over Hornish’s renumbered car with Petty’s team. Scott is going to take guff this year because he has a built in sponsor, Shore Lodge, which is owned by his family along with some grocery store out west that I’ve never heard of on the East Coast. Look, NASCAR can be as financially responsible as taking a boat load of money and sinking it out in the Atlantic. It takes money to run. If you have money and no talent, you’re just going to run out of money fast. If you have talent and no money, you still behind the 8-ball. So what Brian Scott has a built in sponsor? It’s not like he’s a slouch. Scott has five consecutive years in a row of top ten points finishes in Xfinity. In ten Cup races last year, he pulled off three top 15’s and would have had better numbers at the plate tracks if not for wrecks. Does he have the pedigree of Elliot? No, but he will hold his own just fine. Richard Petty Motorsports are making great strides the last couple years, just look at Almirola. I don’t quite think Scott will be challenging for wins, but I think he can pull off solid results and work his way into competition along with RPM as a whole.

Overall

I think that the stake of 2016’s Rookie of the Year battle mirrors the state of the sport. NASCAR is changing the guard. It happens. This is a good thing. It’s healthy. It happened in the 90s when Jeff Gordon helped bring the sport outside of a southern niche. This is a very strong rookie class. Blaney and Elliot should be able to compete for wins and a spot in the Chase. Scott and Buescher should have some strong showings. Even Earnhardt running with the minnow team is going to improve that team’s fortunes and be able to build off of something. I think that all five of these rookies should have some staying power in the sport and it’s been a while since a whole rookie class had that feel. 2007 was the last year which had five rookies become regular contenders (Montoya, Menard, Ragan, Reutimann, Allmendinger). Despite all the doom and gloom of tracks downsizing grandstands and tv ratings and such, this rookie class signals to me the sport will be just fine.

Prediction

Conventional wisdom says Elliot. I’m going to buck the trend.

  1. Blaney
  2. Elliot
  3. Scott
  4. Buescher
  5. Earnhardt