Daytona 500 Roundup

The 2016 Daytona 500 is in the books and damn, we got a good one for lots of reason.

The obvious? Denny Hamlin won the closest Daytona 500 in history.

Just look at that finish!

daytona 500 finish

Not only was it the closest Daytona 500 finish, according to Jayski, there have only been six finishes in NASCAR closer than that one. (The closest being Ricky Craven over Kurt Busch in 2003)

Five hundred miles and the checkered flag comes down to about four inches.

But it’s easy to forget about the other 199 laps when that last one was pretty sweet like that. The whole race was a good one from flag to flag. After the lackluster Can-Am (plus big crash at the end), I was worried the cars would hook up nose to tail and start freight training laps. I get that not every race is going to be a classic for the ages, but logging laps via freight train isn’t the best way to get eyes on the race. I am soooo glad that wasn’t the case with this race. Whatever aero package NASCAR has for the plate tracks needs to stay exactly the same. While the race still skewed towards “leader controlled” there was never any huge breakaway. I think the biggest one was about eleven cars in mid race and they didn’t stay ahead that long before the rest of the pack reeled them in. This is a good thing. This is the platonic ideal of a restrictor plate race. NASCAR…. don’t touch a thing! Keep this package!

Now of course, it wouldn’t be a NASCAR race without the Let’s Never Change Cadre whining about something. I had thought that the “Grrr Toyota isn’t ‘merican!” crowd faded away into well deserved obscurity with their tin foil hats long ago. Toyota’s been in the sport for ten years. Pretty sure they’re committed while American brands have faded away from the sport. I guess some of the Let’s Never Change Cadre was going on twitter (huh, they’re ok with *that*… prolly only for Junior/Stewart/Danica) about how it was a fix or some crud like that. Really? Did you even watch the race? Four teammates/affiliates made a drafting block and outran everyone else. Swap Gibbs cars for Hendrick/Hass and they don’t whine. Get over yourselves Let’s Never Change Cadre. You’re whining is hurting our sport.

Also, you figured out twitter, learn to use google. Toyota is more “American made” than anything else.

Also, my Subaru is cooler than the Toyotas or the ‘Merican street cars.

Sorry for that rant. The Let’s Never Change Cadre bugs me. On to happy things about happy racing!

If this Daytona 500 is a preview of things to come for the whole season, the NASCAR world is in for a treat this year.

How’d my predictions do?

Well, I already said that the race was way more exciting than I thought it would be. More than ok being wrong about that one.

jr pitstop daytonaPrediction: Junior for the win….. Result: Swing and a miss

Earnhardt was one of the many during Speedweeks talking about how the plates races have become “leader controlled.” Not hard to see that, especially when Junior and his spotter TJ Majors have the #88 in the front. Those two work together better than anyone in the field. Listen to the constant stream of information that Majors gives Earnhardt and it’s easy to tell how they can keep the car bouncing between lanes to ride the push from the cars behind them.

The problem for Earnhardt is that his car drove like a dump truck once he was in traffic. He pushed it too hard and the car got away from him. Same kind of wreck happened to Chase Elliot. Handling played a bigger factor than it has in the past due to the wind and the hot weather. The worst part for Earnhardt is his favorite car is heading to the scrap bin.

Prediction: The Gibbs cars would be Earnhardt’s main competition… Result: Home run there

Ok, well, Earnhardt wasn’t up front to be in competition, but most of the race was dominated by Hamlin, Kenseth, Kyle Busch, and Martin Truex Jr in the Gibbs aligned Furniture Row car. They formed up a drafting block that kept a pretty solid lock on the top spots most of the race. Edwards was riding in the back for much of the race, not sure how much was intentional. He got a mess of right front damage during one of the wrecks but kept the lead lap and put it back together with duct tape and hope. Fox’s bumper cams showed that hunk of fender flapping in the wind and I was surprised it stayed on. Edwards taking that car and managing fifth is one of the most impressive feats of the race lost in the chatter of the epic finish.

Prediction: Blaney will be just fine… Results: Spot on

Plate races being what they are, Blaney in the Wood Brother’s #21 did get shuffled back at the end. He was scored with the 19th place finish but that doesn’t really tell the story of his race. The Penske affiliate out performed Keselowski, who never really made any noise during the race. Logano picked up at the end to be a factor while Blaney faded in the end, but the #21 was mixing it up in or near the top ten for most of the race. I don’t think being charterless will hurt the team on the track (though, it will hurt their wallet).

r smith at daytonaShout out to the little teams!

One of my favorite parts of plate racing is seeing the little teams throw it all out on the track and come home with a finish. I predicted someone would (though, I called DiBenedetto who wrecked out).

This year, the little team with the big finish was Tommy Baldwin Racing and Regan Smith in the #7 car. The Golden Coral/Toy State car showed up at the end of the race for an 8th place finish. This is the teams second best finish ever since 2009 and only their third top ten. Just last year, TBR DNQ’d for the 500 and ran six races unsponsored. This team is one of the biggest beneficiaries of the charter system and I find it fantastic to see all the hard work Baldwin had made in the last few years show some success.

mcdowell at daytona 59I also want to throw a shout out to Michael McDowell and Circle Sport-Levine Family Racing’s second car. With Ty Dillon using the chartered #95 as the “unofficial” fourth RCR car, McDowell had to get the #59 in charterless. He made the 500, had some pit road drama with Stenhouse, and managed to roll in 15th. That’s a very solid finish for CSLFR. Plate tracks are still a great equalizer, even if they aren’t as much as they used to be. Circle Sport has gotten some good finishes out of the being the unofficial 4th RCR car. It’s nice to see the merged team take their actual RCR alliance and get a good finish for themselves out of it.

The Charterless

  • #59 McDowell – 15th place finish
  • #21 Blaney – 19th place finish
  • #26 Richardson – 38th place finish
  • #93 DiBenedetto – 40th place finish

I talked about McDowell and Blaney already. They had good races, even if Blaney’s finish was a bit lower than his performance. Shrug that off as “eh, plate racing.”

I had picked DiBenedetto as the rep of the little teams and instead, he wrecked with #34 Chris Buscher mid race. It was a hard wreck. It took a while for him to get out of the car and he said on TV later that it knocked the wind out of him. Yay SAFER barriers! 190mph head on hit and just a bit winded? Sport’s come a long way.

BK Racing had a rough day with Richardson losing his engine and finishing 38th to boot. Somewhat ironic that the three drivers in their first Daytona 500 finished 38th, 39th and 40th.

Richardson doesn’t have anymore races on tap right now, so it’s back to the ranch in Texas. DiBenedetto and McDowell both get to run with charters next week since Michael Waltrip goes back to the TV booth until Talladega and word on the street is Ty Dillon is going to run the #14 next week.

On to Atlanta!

Success, or lack there of, at Daytona can only really predict performance at Daytona or Talladega. Sometimes not even then. So with just the one race under our belt in the 2016 season, there’s not much to go by for the mile and a half track.

kyle at daytonaBut we do know that NASCAR is going with the low down force aero package now for all the non-plate tracks. After the shows we got last year for Darlington and Kentucky, I think we are in for a good season. So to make any predictions for Atlanta, we’ve got to look at the drivers who favor looser cars, often one in the same as the drivers who came from dirt.

Johnson, Larson, Kahne (if he’s going to decide to show up this year), the Busch brothers, Keselowski. Too bad Stewart and Jeff Gordon aren’t running right now. Until we see otherwise, I am going to call these drivers as the having the leg up on mile and a halfs.

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Can-Am Duels

Can-Am_Duel_logoWhat did we learn from the Can-Am Duels?

Well, first of all, I learned how to spell Duel.

I thought this whole time it was Dual, as in two of them, not Duel, as in a face off. Spellcheck doesn’t help you when you type in a different word. Do the words Duel and Dual sound different to people with a southern accent? My Connecticut accent has them sounding the same combined with not being able to spell worth a damn meant I was wrong for a very long time.

What did we learn about the Daytona 500?

Well, we learned that really, when you get down to it, all that changes really just stays the same.

Daytona and Talladega are not quite the crapshoot that they used to be. The Let’s Never Change Cadre would be up in arms about that, except it’s their favorites that have become safe bets on plate tracks.

dale jr at daytonaDale Jr won his Duel. Kyle Busch won his. The Gibbs cars showed up to throw down and the Hendricks were their main competition. Keselowski got shuffled back in the pack, but Penske teammate Logano and affiliate Blaney were throwing down in the end. Roush, decent enough finishes all around but you’d have to look up the results afterwards because they made no real noise during the race. At this point, that doesn’t surprise anyone. RCR and affiliates were hot and cold. The Dillons ran well enough for some TV time. Mears made some waves til he ran out of gas. Menard and Newman ran strong but konked out with engine issues. McMurray and Larson were willing to dance but not a huge factor. The little teams showed some spark but that was all.

Copy and paste that general sentiment for all the plate races recently.

can-am damageThere was a lot of freight train racing with a big mess at the end. Kenseth, Truex, Johnson, Allmendinger, and Scott are all heading to back up cars for the 500. Kurt Busch took a hard hit but kept going across the finish line and the team expects to repair the car.

The results were mostly as expected.

And the Let’s Never Change Cadre is happy again.

I know I’m in the unpopular minority that loved tandem racing on the plate tracks. Eighty lead changes and constant passing, yet for some reason people cried “TRADITION!” and it got tossed by the wayside. The Unlimited and the Duels are the prelude to the big show. The Daytona 500 has all the pomp and circumstance as the marquis event in the sport. We’re all excited to see a proper race after the off season.

But freight train racing at our biggest event of the year is not how NASCAR is going to grow. The Ragan/Gilliland run from 10th to 1st at Talladega in 2013 was one of the best plate races in years. Not every race is going to turn into a classic, I get that, but the tandem racing puts on fantastic racing. That’s how you grow the sport.

Tangent aside.

busch wins can-amHere’s what we really learned (tho we knew these things before the Can-Ams)…

  • Dale Jr is the favorite
  • The Gibbs cars will be his competition
  • Blaney is going to be just fine

 

The Charterless

The Duels are not like back in the day when a dozen cars might miss the show. There were eight charterless cars gunning for four spots. No matter what happened, Blaney and DiBenedetto were going to be in by speed, but if either ended up being the highest finisher in their Duel, then the next fastest on speed would be in, McDowell and Richardson, both driving extra rides for their teams. So there was a lot less drama than in the past, but McDowell, talking to Ryan McGee on ESPN, said it was a lot more intense since “the margin of error was zero.” Beat the other guys, you’re in.

So. Blaney. He’s going to be just fine. I figured that even before Speedweeks considering the speed and results he showed last year in the limited schedule. His Wood Brothers Ford actually had a loose wheel during his Duel, lost a lap, got it back and managed to finish third.

McDowell, running the second CSLFR car with Ty Dillon in the #95, finished 14th, beating out Wise in the TMG #30 and Cole Whitt in the #98, who spun and retired out with damage.

In the second Duel, DiBenedetto finished in 9th with a similar situation as Blaney. He was the fastest on speed, beat out the other charterless, so the other open spot fell back to #26 Richardson, his BK Racing teammate running another extra car for the team. It looks a little odd though, because Gilliland in the extra Front Row car actually had a better finishing position, but it goes highest finisher and then fastest speed. Richardson had better speed than Gilliland so that’s the end of that.

richardson dibenedetto can-amI think it is super worth noting that BK Racing managed to get four cars in the Daytona 500 with only two charters. For a small team, that is a huge accomplishment. For people who keep all their eyes on the front of the track in NASCAR, it could be easy to miss all the improvement that this little team is doing just to survive ever since they took over the old Red Bull Racing. They sunk a lot of money into buying up a bunch of the Michael Waltrip Racing Toyotas so they get to run with some proper TRD engines. They’re stepping up their game. Four cars in the show is going to hand out a solid pay day for BK.

One of the great things about the Daytona 500 is talking to those guys who get to make their first show. It was a pleasure to see DiBenedetto and Richardson, a longtime Xfinity racer, get into the 500.

The Feels

Yesterday was the 15th anniversary of Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s death in the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. Junior fan or not, NASCAR collectively had some feels when he won a race at Daytona on Feb 18th.

daytona can-am 2Daytona Predictions

What do I think will happen during the 2016 Daytona 500?

Winner – Junior. His vocal fan base will go nuts. It will be a great accomplishment for him. Said happy fan base will let the NASCAR officials go “Everything’s ok” no matter how the other 199 laps turn out. Junior, meanwhile, will have to park his favorite car (named Amelia) in the museum for a year and he won’t have it available to run for the other three plate tracks which may come back to haunt him later in the season.

As for the rest of the field? Well, copy and paste my summary of the Can-Ams. Gibbs, Hendrick, solid. RCR, hot and cold. Roush, decent enough. RPM, constantly improving but not quite there yet.

Someone from a little team is likely to pull off a top 10, but not threaten for the win. Cassill could do it, his best finishes are all at plate tracks and he’s played that role before. Josh Wise did it at Talladega last year but he missed the show and Phil Parsons Motorsports doesn’t exist anymore. Labonte in the Go FAS #32 might get that shot as the wily veteran. David Ragan could do the same for BK Racing. If I had to pick one guy who could pull it off though, I’m gonna call DiBenedetto’s name here. Solid finish in his Duel and showed more speed than a lot of the other minnows.

The number one prediction that I can guarantee…

Truex and Vickers running with the same sponsor is going to be confusing as hell.

two bass pros

Speedweeks Round Up

Heading into the Don’t-They-Make-Those-Backward-Trike-Motorcycles Twin 125s.. or are they Duels now? Heading into the Gaterade Twin 125s, ‘cause I’m old school like that, the biggest news of the week is PR gold for NASCAR.

Elliot at DaytonaChase Elliot, the rookie, the young guy stepping into the #24, the heir to Awesome Bill from Dawsonville, scored the pole position for the Daytona 500. He was one of only two cars to top 195mph and will share the front row for the race (and number one starting spots in the Duels).

NASCAR has had a pretty solid string of PR wins with the Daytona pole. Chase this year. Last year Jeff Gordon scored it with his final 500. Austin Dillon scored the pole as a rookie in 2014 and the return of the #3 to NASCAR. Danica won the pole the year prior.

Of course, Dillon and Patrick haven’t won a race yet. Guys like Gilliland and Jeff Green and Mike Skinner and Loy Allen Jr have won the pole at Daytona and never won races so it’s not always an indicator of success. Chase Elliot himself said [quote from Elliot gets the pole article] “Nothing special I did to earn it. It’s about those guys, the kind of car they brought to the race track. That’s the biggest thing I look at.”

Plate track qualifying is all about putting the hammer down and seeing how much your crew put into your machine so it’s nice to see a young guy like Elliot have a very mature perspective about it.

It’s still an accomplishment that should be celebrated because despite what outsiders say about our sport, NASCAR is a team sport.

Hamlin wins the Unlimited

Hamlin at DaytonaI still want to call it the Clash, but whatev,#11 Hamlin won the exhibition race last Saturday followed by #22 Logano, #27 Paul “There was a smile under that beard all along” Menard, #42 Larson and #13 Mears.

The race got messy, as plate races are wont to do, so out of the 25 cars, only 15 were rolling at the finish and not all of them on the lead lap. It isn’t a points race and what since plate races are such a gamble anyways, everyone wants to win (or they wouldn’t be race car drivers) but it does get treated as an extended practice. I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t really have any long winded thoughts about the Unlimited. It’s fun to finally get to watch NASCAR again after the off season. They let in a lot of cars to guarantee the 25 people, which… eh… When the sport first did that a lot of the cynics, myself included, called it the Danica Rule, but whatever. The head honchos want 25 cars, it’s not like we’re gonna skip watching because there are more cars than there used to be.

Stewart’s Fill In

VickersBrian Vickers got tapped to run the 500 for Tony Stewart in the 14 and subsequently had a rough go of it at the Unlimited, wrecking out and finishing 24th of 25. I’m glad the guy can get a shot at running some more races. He’s had some bad luck with his medical problems coming and going. Vickers has the chops, he’s won a few races, including New Hampshire in 2014 on a part time schedule, but with such an unreliable availability, no one can take a chance on a full season with him. So yay Vickers on getting some more seat time.

Word on the street though is Ty Dillon is going to land at least a few of the open #14 races. Bass Pro Sports, which still has some sponsorship with Stewart’s team, has also been a long time sponsor of both Dillons through the years they came up the ranks. Ty Dillon is running the 500 in the Circle Sport – Levine chartered #95 (regular CSLFR driver McDowell is running a second, charterless entry), and was scheduled for a few races with them through the year. Basically he’s pulling a Blaney and getting as much seat time as NASCAR will let him but still qualify him as a rookie when he does go full time. RCR had deals with Circle Sport like that for a long time. Brian Scott and Austin Dillon did exactly that.

Getting long winded on this, but Ty wasn’t scheduled to run the #95 for the next handful of races, and Bass Pro Shop is signed on to sponsor the #14, so Ty is in. Brandan Gaughn has experience in Cup and has been tossed around as another seat filler for the #14.

Bass Pro Shops sponsorship rotating among Stewart, Truex, Vickers, and Ty Dillon might get confusing. And doesn’t Austin Dillon run a couple Cup races with them too?

Truex’s #78 gets impounded, Harvick and Vickers penalized

Truex at DaytonaIn “This might be big news,” the #78 car of Truex got impounded before being allowed to make a qualifying time over the weekend. It failed inspection and the specific penalty is a “roof flap violation.” So with no qual time, Truex has to start at the back of his Duel. It’s a plate track so ok, sucks, but not the end of the world. It’s not like he has to start at the back of the pack at Bristol. With the new charter system, it’s not like Truex even has to race his way into the 500 anyways. The car has a guaranteed spot.

The potential catastrophe for the #78 team comes from the roof flap penalty itself. It can be as high as a P5 penalty and NASCAR has said that context matters when they bring down the hammer. An aero issue is going to be taken a lot more seriously at Daytona than it will at Watkins Glen. P5’s carry a minimum 50-point penalty, a minimum $75,000 fine and a minimum six-race suspension to the crew chief. All kinds of bad news and having the crew chief on the bench is serious, but more so for a team starting with a new manufacturer this year.

The #4 of Harvick and the #14 of Vickers had their times disallowed because of bad track bars. Again, these are chartered cars and we’re on a plate track so not the end of the world for either driver. It’s the other penalties that could hurt, but no one is talking as high as P5 for either of them.

The Charterless

Blaney at DaytonaThis is something I am going to follow week in and week out, because in the last few years I think the health of the minnow teams can be a better indicator of the health of NASCAR than just the top tier teams.

Qualifying being such a unique procedure for the Daytona 500, it’s not just the fastest four Charterless teams get in the show. For the 500, the fastest two on time trial day are in and the top finisher in each Dual is in. If the top Charterless finisher in a Dual is also the fastest on speed, then it goes to the next finisher.

#21 Blaney and #93 DiBenedetto were the fastest Charterless cars. Blaney, in a car everyone expects to be very competitive this year, had the 7th fastest time and DiBenedetto pulled off the 24th fastest time. Normally, DiBenedetto will be in a chartered car, the #83, but Waltrip is running with that number/charter for the couple races that he pulls this year. So those two guys are in. Who’s left to race their way into the 500?

  • #59 McDowell – 25th fastest – extra ride for Circle Sport Levine
  • #26 Richardson Jr – 36th fastest – extra ride for BK Racing
  • #98 Whitt – 37th fastest – Premium leased their charter for the season to HScott’s #46
  • #25 Gilliland – 38th fastest – extra ride for Front Row
  • #30 Wise – 40th fastest – TMG did not qualify for a charter, longtime Xfinity team, part time Cup since 2015
  • #40 Sorenson – 41st fastest – Hillman Racing did not qualify for a charter, Part time Cup, slowest car that had an allowed time

 

Three of the teams that have to race in for spots, plus DiBenedetto’s #93, are not planned to be full time competitors this season. So having such a crowd for the Charterless seems like it will be unique to the plate races. On a normal week it seems like it’s going to be Blaney, Whitt, and whoever rotates into the TMG and Hillman cars. On the weeks Ty Dillon runs the #95, CSLFR may run the #59. I haven’t seen any news on how often they plan on rolling in with two cars as opposed to just one.

We may be at peak drama for the Charterless right now, but it will be something that I follow throughout the year.

Wood Brothers leave RTA

wood bros logoIn related news of the Charterless, and also a duh moment, the Wood Brothers announced they are leaving the Race Team Alliance. I don’t blame them. I’m not the only one thinking that they got left out to dry by the new charter system. I saw a note in an ESPN article about driver contracts and driver pay that mentioned the performance clause for a team losing a charter is not what I hoped it would be. A team has to be in the bottom three points standings of chartered teams for three years straight. That’s a long time. A long long time. I’m going to crunch some numbers later, but I am not sure if that’s a practical number to ever let another team in by performance. I think that’s not cool at all.

I don’t blame the Wood Brothers for telling the RTA to screw.

Jeb Burton Lands a Ride

jeb-twitterThere’s some happy news for up and coming driver Jeb Burton. The son of Ward and nephew of Jeff, he was showing some solid results in the Truck series in 2014 and even scored a win, but his teams funding fell out from under him right before the start of last year. He scored a ride with BK Racking but DNQ’d for a few races and BK went with David Ragan and DiBenedetto for the two chartered cars. Burton announced that he landed a full time ride in the Xfinity with Richard Petty Motorsports.

High five for this. I like when drivers are allowed to climb the ranks of the sport without being rushed. Yes, guys are doing it at a much younger age than they used to, Elliot is 20 but he’s got some seasons under him already. I remember all the careers that flamed out in the rush to find the next Jeff Gordon in the late 90s and early 00s. So watching guys like Chase Elliot, the Dillons, Eric Jones, Rico Abreu, and Bubba Wallace actually get a chance to work their way up the ladder gives me a good feeling for the health of the sport once all the current stars pull a Jeff Gordon and retire to the broadcast booth.

Charters… Finally!

The charter system.

We all knew it would be coming in some form, and for better or worse it’s actually here now.

Plenty of places have reported on the news which dropped on the 9th (including the NY Times) so here’s the short version…

  • The field is cut down to 40 cars.
  • 36 cars get a charter
  • Four “open” spots are left per race
  • Charters went to teams that attempted each race in the last three years
No Charter for you!
No Charter for you!

That three year clause is a big one. There are 38 teams who have announced intentions of racing full time this year. Four of those 38 teams do not qualify for a charter. The #19 JGR of Edwards, #41 Stewart-Hass of Kurt Busch, and the #46 HScott of Michael Annett all have not existed long enough to qualify for that three year minimum. The Wood Brothers’ #21 of Blaney has been part time for the last few years so did not attempt to qualify for all the races despite existing since the earliest days of NASCAR.

Kauffmann of MWR was awarded two charters even though everyone knew that MWR was shutting down because two of the MWR teams attempted all the races in the last three years.

As expected, Kauffmann sold the two charters to Gibbs and Stewart-Hass. Word on the street is that HScott is leasing the charter from Jay Robinson’s Premium Motorsports #62 for one year. This makes sense for Harry Scott’s team since Clint Bowyer is on a one year deal before moving on to take over Tony Stewart’s #14. HScott Motorsports can then contract back to one team with one charter or go about the process of guaranteeing the second car as they will. This is also a win for the #62 who will have an infusion of cash to go about qualifying for the Open Spots with a car that was often unsponsored in the past.

I love that teams like Tommy Baldwin Racing and merged forces of Levine Family Racing and Circle Sport are getting a reward finally for surviving the money churn that is running a race team. It is still expensive as hell to race in NASCAR, but having some security net in place is better than the past when there was zero security. Remember the owner-driver fad in the 90s when one car teams were still normal? Darrell Waltrip, Geoff Bodine, Rickey Rudd… all very successful drivers that still could not manage to survive as race teams.

The biggest travesty of this charter system is that it leaves the Wood Brothers out in the cold.

Let’s talk about the positives here before we get into too much speculation. Stability is the key word to all of this, because let’s face it, when Dale Jr and Danica can’t lock up a sponsor for the whole season, there’s trouble. Paul Menard, the man with the name on his car, races the #27 with a rotating cast of co-sponsors to go along with his glorious neon yellow. The finances of the sport just aren’t the same that they were back in NASCAR’s growth spurt when even the smallest teams could get full season sponsors.

But even with a different sponsorship landscape, the stars of the sport never will run a blank white car. Dale Jr, Edwards, Harvick, Keselowski, Logano… they’ll always have sponsors. And their car owners, Hendrick, Roush, Hass, Penske, have other successful business ventures to fall back on. (Cars, cars, CNC machinery, rental trucks) Even Ron Devine, the principal owner of BK Racing, has a fall back business with his large amount of Burger King franchises, hence the constant Burger King paint schemes in the early days when he first took over the Red Bull team.

Boris Said in the #32 Go FAS car at Watkins Glen 2015
Boris Said in the #32 Go FAS car at Watkins Glen 2015

The biggest benefit of the charter’s stability is going to be the Tommy Baldwins, the Levines, the Go FAS Racings… The teams that are clawing their way up from the basement of NASCAR the hard way. Sponsors are more likely to cut a check to a team when they know that team is going to make it into the show. The teams can leverage that guarantee into a better deal for the sponsors. This gives the smaller teams more access to a steady cash flow, which will get them better resources, which can make them more competitive and shrink the gap between the front of the field and the rear.

Pretty sure this was the intent of the Race Team Alliance straight from the get go and I am most definitely not going out on a limb guessing that this will be the outcome.

Let’s also talk about shrinking the field down to 40 cars.

There are people who are going to moan about this one but I don’t think they should. Speedweeks starts real soon and there are only 41 cars on the entry list for the Daytona 500 (as of writing this). How bad would that look if NASCAR doesn’t have a full field for its premier race? And keep in mind that the 41 car entry list includes two extra cars for BK Racing that they do not plan on racing full time (One for Robert Richardson Jr and one for Michael Waltrip driving one of the cars from his old team) and a second car for Levine-Circle Sport so both McDowell and Ty Dillon can run Daytona. A bunch of the minnow teams that started out last season don’t exist anymore like the #44 Team Xxxtreme and their stolen car. BK Racing and Front Row are only fielding 2 full time cars this year instead of three. So the cars which filled those last couple slots week in and week out, just aren’t there.

Xfinity and Trucks contracted their fields a couple years ago. I am not surprised that Cup followed suit. Frankly, I’d much rather see 40 cars running solid speeds than a couple more riding around logging laps.

wood bros logoSo those are all good things, but let’s return to the biggest travesty of the charter system.

The Wood Brothers are out in the cold.

They will be racing for one of the four Open Spots along with Premium’s #62 (cause of the lease to HScott), Mike Hillman’s #40 (who talked about how he’s really annoyed that he was left out too with all the work he put in to get as far as he has) and whoever else decides to roll in for the week.

In all honesty, I don’t think that the Wood Brothers car is going to have problems qualifying for races. They are getting factory backing from Ford and have a proper alliance with Penske now. I know I am not alone in picking Blaney to win Rookie of the Year. I think he should run in the top 15 consistently and contend for wins at his top performing tracks and plate races.

The biggest downside that I see in this stage of the charter system, is how easy will it be for a team like the Wood Brothers or someone new all together to get into the sport?

There is a mysterious performance clause in the charter system. I wish there was more broadcast about it at this point.

Ideally, I would love to see a system similar to the promotion-relegation system that European soccer leagues use.

If you’re a club playing in the English Premier League and you finish in the last three spots in the league, 17th through 20th, you get demoted to a lower league. If you’re in that lower league, the Football Championship, and you finish in the top three spots, you get promoted to top flight. Now, money matters (a lot) in English soccer, but in theory, you can go from a weekend pub team and get promoted all the way up to the top of the game with enough time, money, and performance.

There is no reason NASCAR can’t do the same.

I don’t mean that teams get bounced around between Xfinity and Cup, but rather, you can lose or gain a charter based off your performance relative to everyone else.

For example, let’s talk about the Wood Brothers again. I fully expect Blaney to have a top 20 season in the points and could qualify for the Chase. Now, let’s pick a team and call them Charter Team A so we don’t pick on anyone, and those guys have a real stinker of a season and finish last out of the 36 charters. The Charter Team A would get bumped out and the Wood Brothers would be in.

Now, this is almost identical to the Top 35 rule that everyone hated back in the day. But it’s better so we don’t want to leave it just like this. We also don’t want one streak of bad luck or a fluke plate win to alter the landscape of the sport too much. So let’s take this promotion-relegation idea and have it average out over three years. So the Wood Brothers would need to still attempt every race for three years straight, just like the time frame given for the original charters.

So it would work out like this…
2016 – Wood Brothers, 19th, Charter Team A, 36th
2017 – Wood Brothers, 13th, Charter Team A, 30th
2018 – Wood Brothers, 12th, Charter Team A, 34th

After three years, the average points standing finish for the Wood Brothers is 14.6. The average points finish for Charter Team A is 33.3. As the bottom of the three year average, Charter Team A would get relegated to having to fight for Open Slots and the Wood Brothers would get a hold of the vacant charter.

“But what about GoFAS Rac- … er … Charter Team A? They don’t get that guaranteed money anymore!”

True. NASCAR could implement a parachute payment in that case. That’s taking another cue from English soccer. When the EPL’s 20th place team gets demoted to a lower league, they receive a parachute payment to compensate them for lost television revenue. NASCAR can easily make it operate the same way. Of course, this leads to a phenomenon in English soccer where a handful of teams tend to yo-yo back and forth between the Premier League and the Football Championship. The teams who get demoted down frequently have more cash to be successful thanks to the parachute payment as opposed to the teams stuck in the middle of the lower tier standings.

And as soon as Charter Team A gets demoted, their three year clock starts. Attempt every race, out pace someone with a charter, and you’re back in.

I think that a system like this is the best way to let new blood have access to these charters on a performance basis rather than just the deep pockets (discounting the already deep pockets required to out perform anyone on the track).

Unfortunately, I think it is very much a pipe dream. The American sports fan does not really like things like that. Promotion and relegation is very much a European concept and as much as I want it to, I think it’s unlikely that it will take hold in the US.

(Side note, part of that is due to infrastructure. Most US sports don’t have the massive amounts of teams that European soccer does that would make a system like that work. I do think it could work in sports with robust minor leagues, ice hockey, basketball, and, the most likely candidate, baseball. But baseball is the only sport in America with enough of a tradition to just shake its fist at the clouds while shooting itself in the foot with sucky basement teams)

Like a lot of things in NASCAR, whether the charter system is good or bad needs to be given time to feel it out. It’s been two days. We can’t judge how well the system will function when the public doesn’t even know all the ins and outs of it. And even if we did, how those ins and outs work in reality is yet to be seen.

Charters have shaken up the sport (to the point that the New York Times covered it) so we need to give it a chance to breathe. At the same time, these are all changes and thought experiments on the back end of things. The product on the track? That’s still the important part since we’re not NASCAR team owners.

Unless a NASCAR team owner is reading this. Then Hi!

State of the Sport

Recently, when asked about the biggest problem NASCAR faces in the future, all Brian France had to say was “Rain.”

Really? That’s a cop out of an answer. I’ve loved NASCAR for over 20 years but that doesn’t mean I’m blind to the issues the sport faces. I can still be critical of the sport. It’s called being a good fan.

Bob Pockrass over at ESPN dropped a very good article about the state of NASCAR and didn’t go so far as to call France’s answer a cop out, but it does carry a general tone of “Uh… no.” Go take a minute to read the article yourself. It’s a good one. Then come back because much of what I have to say is counterpoint and commentary based off that.

“They won in NASCAR’s developmental series, which still remain too much pay-to-play leagues with a huge disparity between the haves and have-nots that doesn’t give the underdog a realistic shot.”

This. So much this.

I mentioned in a previous post that the Trucks are going to offer crate engines to the teams and I think this is a step in the right direction. Even at the lower levels of the sport, racing costs a boat load of money. No way around it, but NASCAR can do things to take the sting out of it. With Kyle Busch Motorsport’s lawsuit against Justin Boston, who’s family company failed to pay sponsor bills, and some comments Keselowski has made about his truck team, we get a picture that the Truck teams cost a few mil a year to run competitively. Where does that leave room for people to break into the sport? It really doesn’t.

Benning (57) and race winner A. Dillon (39) - Eldora 2013 - via normbenning.com
Benning (57) and race winner A. Dillon (39) – Eldora 2013 – via normbenning.com

One of the greatest things I ever saw in NASCAR was Norm Benning at the first Eldora race. This is a guy who has been plugging away at the track for decades. Since 1989 he’s got 29 DNQ’s in Cup with only four races started. Since 2009, he’s attempted every Truck race with 17 DNQ’s. He has zero top tens. The Last Chance qualifier for Eldora, he was beating and banging around that dirt track with Clay Greenfield. Benning manhandled that truck around that track in one of the single most exciting things I’ve never seen bearing the NASCAR name. Benning became a hero when he won the last qualifying spot for the race and gave the young punk the middle finger on national tv. People from every team descended on Benning’s Truck to prep it for the main event. It was amazing. Go watch a video of that last lap complete with Benning giving Greenfield the finger. (The official video from NASCAR edits out the middle finger)

So the guy can drive. He pulled this off at 61.

His best finish ever was a 12th at Talladega in 2013.

Why? Norm Benning Racing is staffed by him, his wife, and a few of his buddies. Most races, he rolls in with an unsponsored Truck. The truck he put on the amazing show at Eldora in 2013? Ebay. So he could raise cash to run the next race.

He’s got a passion for the sport and every time I see the results from a Truck race, I see if he had a good run.

Norm Benning is also the perfect example of the gulf from the haves to the have nots. But not just Benning. Look at Jennifer Jo Cobb. In a season where only 14 drivers even attempted to qualify for every race, she was 13th. And keeps showing up. And keeps racing.

I don’t think the sport needs to go to the extreme of the old IROC series where everyone drive identically prepped cars but NASCAR can lower the barrier of entry. And then when the barrier of entry is lower, new talent can find its way into the lower levels of the sport. And then encourage the new talent to shine by bridging that gap between the front of the field and the back.

I like to think NASCAR is heading in that direction. The charter scheme is a way to bring down some of the costs of racing. The new lower downforce package in Cup is a way to put the racing back in the driver’s hands and not just the engineer’s. This is just as important, if not more so, in the lower levels of the sport.

Just think of how the garage would lose its mind in joy if Norm Benning could walk away with a trophy.

“NASCAR must add a Cup entitlement sponsor that equally helps teams, tracks and the sponsor itself.”

nascar logosI am afraid this will turn into a big distraction the longer NASCAR goes without signing a new one. They need to tread lightly because the title sponsor is going to set the tone of the sport for a long time for good or for bad.

Personally, while I think Sprint has throttled my T-Mobile service every time I went to NHMS, a telecommunications company has been the right step. Everyone has a phone. Xfinity (the alter ego of one of the most hated companies in America, Comcast) fills a similar niche. Technology based utilities are the kind of product that casts a very wide net

Which is exactly what NASCAR needs.

Unfortunately, they may be kinda hosed there. I’m sure that Xfinity has verbage in their deal which prevents NASCAR from signing on with any of their competitors. Remember all the court battles when Nextel first signed on? Jeff Burton was still sponsored by Cingular and Ryan Newman had Alltel (which didn’t even exist in New England) and it was a headache to the point that Burton ran the #31 in a race with a black and orange base coat and no logos on it.

And speaking of phone carriers… Sprint is out. T-Mobile is really Deutches Telcomm out of Germany so I don’t see NASCAR being their primary focus at all. Verizon already sponsors IndyCar. Apple? Ha. The hipster cult of Apple would never go for that. Microsoft? Eh. They got a lot of money in football.

For the good of the sport, I really hope it is a tech based sponsorship.

“NASCAR desperately needs to add another manufacturer that could create a stronger base of teams.”

Yes!

Dodge backing out of NASCAR when the US economy tanked was a bad blow for the sport. Doubly so since Keselowski won the championship in the same season.

To do it, a car company would have to commit for the long haul the way Toyota did. They’ve got to sink some money into it and back the teams in their camp. Toyota finally got their championship by doing just that. Despite none of the original Toyota teams still existing now that MWR is gone.

hondaThe obvious candidates are Volkswagon and Honda. As a Subaru driver, I really really want to say Subaru, but all their racing involvement is rally based since their thing is all wheel drive. Volkswagon is too tied up in their diesel engine scandal so that leaves Honda. I could see Accords rolling around the track someday with the Camerys and such. It would be very beneficial for the sport for that to happen, but it would all depend on how much money Honda wants to sink into it.

“NASCAR must have a product in which drivers have more options than just knocking someone out of the way in order to pass and not allow its Chase to become the Wild, Wild West again.”

Kenseth via wikipedia
Kenseth via wikipedia

I am surprised that the Kenseth-Logono thing went down the way it did. Oh, not the on track throwdown they had. I’m surprised Kenseth’s suspension was upheld. Why? Look no farther than the NFL and Deflategate. Brady got out of his suspension, not because the panel decided he was innocent, but because the league never codified the penalty in their rule book. (Also, 18-1. Eli > Tom). Kenseth definitely set a precedent there, but I think in the near future NASCAR is going to find itself in an NFL level crap storm if a similar situation comes up.

Codify the penalties. Then if some drivers choose to throw down on the track, or just lose their temper or whatever, they know exactly what the consequences are. NASCAR has operated as a dictatorship since the beginning, usually, a benevolent one. But, like Pockrass said in his article, this isn’t the Wild Wild West age of NASCAR anymore.

I’m ok with the infamous “Boys, have at it” mantra that NASCAR adopted a bunch of years ago. You can’t take the racing out of a race. But NASCAR has been moving to clarify the rule book for the last few years on the engineering side of the house. Yes, there is still room for some subjectivity in the P1 to P5 scale of peanalties but it is better than what it was without any scale. Crew chiefs can and will (and should) still push the envalope and test the limits of the rule books, but they have a reasonable expectation of what will happen if they get caught. The new-ish pit road officiating system with the all the cameras flagging potential violations for human review do the same thing for the pit crews. Remember at Homestead last year Jimmie Johnson’s jackman got busted hip checking the right side to flare out the side skirts for better aero? Or how many more people were getting busted for driving through more than three pit stalls? None of this stuff is new, they’re just getting caught more often.

But they know what the concequences are for it *before* they do it.

I think NASCAR needs to codify the penalties for excessively rough driving are and give us a better rationale for what “excessively rough driving” is. That second part may be the hardest. It may be impossible because after the Kenseth-Logano mess, the officials said it was situational. And it should be. Laps down and take out the leader? Busted. Like woah. Last lap going for the win? I’ll take it.

Overall, I really do think NASCAR is moving in the right direction with things like that, albeit at a glacial pace.