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.

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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