Speedweeks – Clash and Pole Day

NASCAR had to wait half a day to get the seasons started thanks to that pesky Florida weather. I’m sure there are plenty of traditionalist who were happy to see the Clash, back with its preferred name, during the day, back at its preferred time (if only accidentally). NASCAR can throw down the Clash whenever it wants as long as we can get a good show.

The end of the race did not disappoint.

logono-wins-17-clashLogano won the Clash with a last lap pass thanks to Keselowski and Hamlin wrecking. Really the whole Clash came down to Penske vs Gibbs. Those two teams are the powerhouses of Monster Cup right now. Yeah, Jimmie won the championship last year, but he had a very un-Jimmie-like season with a lot more ups and downs. Hendrick is close behind in third and would be right there if Kahne was running better.

The Clash looked like it was going to be Hamlin’s to own. Again. The four Gibbs cars got nose to tail and were housing the field. Four fast cars are tough to beat. Kyle Busch, running at the tail of the Gibbs train, would be the most likely to throw down with his own teammates at the end, but no way he could have gotten a run on Hamlin by his lonesome with Suarez and Kenseth behind the 11.

Fortunately for everyone, Penske was there. Keselowski was not going to coast around and let that Gibbs train happen. Things like that are why he is one of the best things to happen to NASCAR. It was a very Dale Earnhardt like bull rush up there to break up the Gibbs train and set up the nice finish.

So Logano got the win. The big teams showed up to play. None of these things are surprising. What else did we learn from the Clash?

dillon-at-17-clashAustin Dillon showed up to race. RCR hasn’t won in a long time (Going back to when Harvick was still on the team) but they tend to finish a little better on plate tracks. Dillon seemed to will his car forward more than once without help. He couldn’t make it up front without dance partners though. His qualifying time was pretty pedestrian later that day, but Newman and Ty (running ECR engines on the Germain team) did well. A couple tweaks and someone to run with and I like to think RCR can be a factor in the 500. We’ll have to see how they run with more cars on the field during the Duals.

bowman-at-clashAlex Bowman is solidifying my opinion that Dale Jr is grooming him to be his hand picked replacement when he finally does retire (hopefully on his own terms). The chaos at the end of the race let him sneak up into a third place finish. He did it without much in the way of drafting help since Jimmie wrecked out and Chase Elliot wasn’t around. Even on Bowman’s BK Racing days, I always thought he outdrove the equipment he had. He’s done very well when he’s been given the top shelf equipment. It’s very unfortunate that he can’t get into a good car full time already.

In a shocking development (sarcasm only mild), Danica actually took advantage of the Danica Rule. Eligibility for the Class was tweaked a couple years ago to say any past Daytona 500 pole winners got in if they didn’t hit any of the other check boxes. The end of race chaos let her sneak into a fourth place finish. So a top five finish in a field of seventeen cars isn’t super impressive, but any time a driver mired in the bottom half week in and week out can sniff the front of the field, it’s positive. This is definitely a put up or shut up year for Danica, and with her sponsor woes, up front TV time is a must.

elliot-dale-jr-17-daytona-pole-dayAfter the Clash rolled up, Pole Day time trials hit the track that afternoon. Showing Gibbs and Penske not to forget about the Chevys, Hendrick swept the front row with Chase Elliot getting back to back Daytona 500 poles and Junior hitting second in his first track action after injury. Kahne even showed up to play, hitting the second round and qualifying eighth fastest.

This year’s rookie class has high expectations. After running well in the Gibbs freight train in the Clash, Suarez managed an okay 15th on time. Erik Jones with the new Furniture Row car could only hit 20th. The only rookie to make it to the second round of qualifying was Ty Dillon who ended up with a 12th place time. Germain Racing this year might as well be another RCR team, the same way that Furniture Row is practically an extension of Gibbs. Good on Ty and Germain Racing for getting a good run in qualifying, but it’s got to be frustrating to RCR that the technical alliance teams keep out performing them. Newman made a top ten time but Menard and brother Austin were both down in the 20s.

Single car runs at Daytona only mean so much though. Things will change a lot during the Can-Ams. (Hey look! I’m finally remembering to call them the correct name and not the Twin 125s)

What am I watching for on the Can-Am Duals this week? The big teams are there to party but that’s not the interesting part for me. The health of the sport is reflected in the health of the little teams so the qualifying bubble is what I want to see.

There are six charterless teams attempting to qualify for the 500 this year. The two fastest on time are guaranteed a spot. Long time Xfinity racer Brendan Gaughan (remember he ran a full Cup rookie season back in 04) in the part time Beard Motorsports #75 is locked in to his second Daytona 500. Tommy Baldwin Racing sold off their charter to Levine Family Racing as part of the off season charter dance, so the 7 car is running as a part time open team. Elliot Saddler locked the car in on Sunday for his 14th Daytona 500, but his first since 2012 as a spare RCR car.

Who’s got to race in?

Reed Sorensen in the Premium Motorsports #55. Premium got a charter when HScott shut down, but they’re using it on the #15 that Michael Waltrip is running his last race in. That team was pretty consistant about showing up and making the show last year with two open cars so I think they will be ok to make the show.

kennington-daytonaDJ Kennington in the part time Gaunt Brothers Racing #96. Kennington, from NASCAR’s cousins to the north in the Canadian Pinty’s Series, is slated to run the restrictor plate tracks. This team isn’t completely out of nowhere even though it is brand new. The owners also build engines as Triad Racing Technologies supplying the non-factory supported Toyotas.

Corie LaJoie in the BK Racing #83. BK downsized to just one charter and will run this car as a full time open team. It will be driven by committee. LaJoie is a second generation racer who’s had a couple starts in Cup back in ’14 and has been picking up some races in Xfinity. He’s looking for his first 500 and only his second start on the track in any series. This might be a tough hill to climb but he does have his teammate in the same Dual and they start nose to tail (albeit at the caboose).

t-hill-daytonaTimmy Hill in the Rick Ware Racing #51. This team is jumping up to Cup from Xfinity and will be racing by committee. They plan to run the whole season but Daytona is going to be a tough bill. The 51 car ran a whole half mile per hour slower than Jeffery Earnhardt’s in the Circle Sport’s Partnership of the Year car.

2017 Preseason Round Up

Pit Stall 13 is back and the new NASCAR season is upon us and the watchword for the new year is “change.”

Which isn’t exactly that different than almost every year for the past half decade. The nebulous rules package of the last few years for the Sprint Cup… wait… the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series (which by the way, I don’t think anyone will use that whole mouthful of a title. It’s Monster Cup) are well documented and this is not intended to be a history lesson. There’s google fu for that.

This is gearing up for the new season. This is excitement. I’m not just spitting out buzzwords. With the Clash this weekend and the 500 in spitting distance, I am excited for the season to start.

So what should we be excited about? Why, I am glad you asked since that’s what I’m here for.

New Series Sponsor: Pleasantly enthused

monstercuplogoI count myself among those who started to get worried towards the end of the season when NASCAR still hadn’t named a replacement for Sprint (who only took seven years to get decent cell service at Loudon). I honestly expected some established tech company to come into the scene. Some company who had the base where a few mil wouldn’t risk the company imploding but pushing the engineering sports hybrid that NASCAR is to get some edge to it. Samsung came to mind even though there would be the rumbles from the …. “ultra traditionalist” crowd… yanno, the same crowd that gives NASCAR the bad name with its Confederate flags. Coca Cola would not have surprised me, or even one of the big hardware chains (Lowe’s and the Depot… Menard’s is the number 3 but doesn’t actually exist on the east coast). The problem with one of them is that their competitors are so entrenched in sponsoring NASCAR, it would have gotten even uglier than the whole Cingular/ATT fiasco on Jeff Burton’s car a few years back.

Monster Energy Drinks came out of left field for this ‘slightly more than casual but not a professional’ observer but it makes absolute sense. They know what they’re getting into with sponsoring motorsports. They’re already doing it with motocross and team sponsorships within NASCAR (the Busch brothers) and teams across other motorsports (V8 Supercars, F1, rally).

Monster Energy. They're not newbs.
Monster Energy. They’re not newbs.

Look, the sport needs energy. Monster brings energy. NASCAR got real huge at the tail end of the 90s and the early 00s. Things were booming. Tracks were expanding. But the sport rested on its laurels too long and stopped innovating. The way people watch sports has changed. 50 inch plasma TVs in ultra high def are commonplace now and when you can get that good of a picture in arm’s reach of your own clean bathroom and all the beer/drinks/snacks you want out of your own fridge… where is the motivation to spend the better part of a whole day at the track? I have gone to a Cup race in New Hampshire every year since the track started hosting them in the mid 90s. It is a 20 hour day. I had a 230am wake up call to drive across three state lines for the race. How do you get more casual fans to want that experience?

Make it more of an experience. Create a festival atmosphere at the track. Give people things to do all day, and I don’t just mean the famous Talladega infield debauchery. NASCAR has been doing some of this the last few years. There’s a fan concourse with displays set up by sponsors and such. Last race I went to had a Miller tent, Toyota showed off its new models, the Air Force had a cut away car to show the internals of Almirola’s 43. Monster can come in and turn all that up to 11. That’s what the sport needs. I am optimistic that it will get exactly that.

The Clash: Finally!

advance-auto-parts-clashI am not an old timer, but as far as NASCAR goes, I am definitely old school. Harry Gant won the first race I saw in person. In an Oldsmobile. I was one of those fans who called the season opening exhibition race “The Busch Clash” because I had been watching it under that same name for a decade before anyone thought to change it. I am not a fan of change for the sake of change, but bringing The Clash back is happy nostalgia. Sometimes NASCAR can be blinded by tradition, but this is a good one to hold on to.

The Playoffs: Good. Also, duh.

Another naming change here. NASCAR dumped the term “Chase.” It’s just the Playoffs now.

This is a good thing. I wholeheartedly approve of the concept of the NASCAR Playoff system. I was never a fan of the naming convention of it though. NASCAR is a sport where the more you know, the more fun it is so the challenge is to get the casual observer over the hump to get in on all the minutiae of the sport. In that, NASCAR is very unlike the stick and ball sports. But NASCAR does not need to be standoffish about its differences. All nonNASCAR outlets would just refer to the Chase as “NASCAR’s version of the playoffs.” Since we are just now calling it the Playoffs, we don’t need to add another new term to the newbie potential fan.

The New Points System: ….there are so many layers here.

monsterwallThe new points system is mostly… good… I think. It’s complicated.

The big thing here is stages.

I am pro stages. This is an amped up version of the halfway money NASCAR used to pay out a few years ago. Cut a big check to the team leading at the halfway mark and yeah, it’s going to make that dash a lot more interesting. This is the same deal but with points. Throw some bonus points to the guys in the top ten at certain laps? Go nuts. I think this will help with NASCAR’s idea to avoid the middle chunks of the race where the field falls into a groove and just logs laps until the 80% mark.

Championship points (being different than regular points)makes this more complicated.

“Competition cautions” at the stage ends are really thinly veiled TV time outs which I think has the potential for abuse.

But in general? The potential for good outweighs my concerns and I think it can work well, although at some tracks more than others. (I’m looking at you road courses!)

Damaged Vehicle Policy: Ugh. Not so much.

allmendinger at talladegaMore than stages, I think this has the potential to cause chaos to the championship standings. Cars aren’t allowed to go to the garage for accidents anymore. They’re just allowed five minutes on pit road. The official reasoning behind this is a bit off for me. One of the NASCAR VPs said repairing wrecked cars is “something we don’t think enhances the show.” They’re worried about cars with “integrity issues”… eh, I’ll give you a little bit of that but only a little. They’re worried about crew guys hustling while around grinders and sparks. That one is total BS. My day job is at a shipyard and as someone who has worked with and around welding and metalwork for 12 years, I can tell you the crew guys aren’t worried about that. You get very nonchalant about being lit on fire after it’s happened a few times. NASCAR is worried about teams spending money on trashed firesuits or extra body panels. Sounds good but I doubt that.

The cynical part of me thinks the TV networks pushed this one. A lot of people (myself absolutely included) rail about Sweet Lady Debris and the proliferation of mystery cautions. I think NASCAR finally got fed up with getting trashed on for mystery cautions and went too far to fix the problem.

dillon at talladegaThis is going to hurt NASCAR at some of its biggest races. Austin Dillon pulling off the third place finish with the duct tape car was one of the rad finishes of last year. Not possible now. The beating and banging of Bristol or Watkins Glen… are they still going to happen if everyone is tip toeing around this new policy? When the Big One drops next week at Daytona, without the potential to make up some laps, how many people will be behind the 8 ball in points right after week one?

I hope this doesn’t cause all sorts of hurt, but I think it will.

New Penalty Structure: Good and needed.

inspectionNASCAR has streamlined the penalty structure. This is a good thing. The old warnings and levels and charts and whatever were complicated. I don’t honestly think that the rule book is any less complicated now. The real story here is that the penalties will be handled faster.

Penalties stacked up from warnings on previous races put the infractions at arm’s lengths. Immediate ramifications from infractions will definitely make them feel the hurt more. Which is what a penalty is designed to do. This will make it easier for the fan to keep track of, which is always a top concern. But I also think it will reign in some of the crew chiefs. A NASCAR team is supposed to push the boundaries. It’s their job. The line in the sand has a bit more sting to it now so tread carefully.

I’ve also heard the possibility of losing laps prior to the start of the race. That’s huge.

Danica’s Sponsor Woes: Eyeroll.

daytona2017danicaSponsorship woes are nothing new in the sport. They just don’t usually happen to someone which such a high profile in the sport.

Stewart Haas Racing and Nature’s Bounty are suing each other after the later cut off funds to the former in the excess of 31 mil. I don’t consider myself a Danica hater. Just to get to Cup level, you have to better than hundreds of other drivers who wish they could run Cup, so not winning a race doesn’t make Danica a crappy driver, but I do think she gets more attention than the perpetual 20-30th place finishes earn her. Like her or hate her, Danica still brings in the sponsors.

Or at least she did.

Losing 26 races of sponsorship is harsh. Gene Haas and Ford, their new manufacturers, have deep pockets, so Danica will still run all the races, but owch. 26 race sponsors are getting less common these days (we won’t even talk about the non existence of full season sponsorships anymore) so when one bows out of the sport for any reason, it hurts. Hopefully, with the new influx of oomph from Monster, the sport can get back in the limelight again with sponsors waiting to cut checks for cars.

2017 Rookies: Hell yes!

rookiesAfter a few lackluster rookie classes, NASCAR has gotten a few in a row with talent which should shine for years. Eric Jones is taking on the second Furniture Row car. Ty Dillon gets the Germain #13, the first time a Dillon has raced for someone other than Childress. Daniel Suarez takes over Edward’s car and becomes the first Mexican driver in Cup and one of the few non-Americans in the history of the sport.

Jones and Suarez are running A level Toyota gear. Germain isn’t an A level team, but they’ve increased their partnership with RCR (duh) which makes me think they’ll up their competitiveness. Couple that with Dillon having more Cup starts (18) than the other two (Jones – 3, Suarez – 0) and I think the rookie of the year race is going to be a very good one, just like last year. These are three guys who we will see race against each other for a long time.