Michigan Round Up

Low downforce. Low downforce. Low. Down. Force.

Dear NASCAR, I cannot say it enough. Low. Down. Force.

The bigwigs from the NASCAR R+D center pegged this past weekend at Michigan and another three weeks out at Kentucky as the tracks to experiment with a different aero package. They did the same thing last year with a “high drag” package which everyone agreed was a drag. (Ha! See what I did there?) This year NASCAR went the experimental route with ridiculously low downforce.

The spoilers were cut down so much, I’ve seen more solid aero packages from hoonigan Honda Civics trolling around Rhode Island.

On the Fox broadcast, DW commented that the spoilers were cut down more than he had ever seen since he started racing forty years ago.

This is fantastic. The race was a great one.

logano wins michiganYeah, Joey Logano kind of housed the field. He led the most laps by a ridiculous margin, but it’s not exactly surprising that a Penske Ford did well at Michigan. They like to go all out for the hometown crowd. Logano led 103 more laps than 2nd place Chase Elliott. No one else led more than ten laps. The funny thing is that Logano wasn’t really keen on the super low downforce package. Guys like Edwards were super stoked to run the low downforce package. A lot of people, myself included, figured that the aero down to only 1660lbs (as opposed to 3500 just two years ago) would fall into the wheelhouse of the ex-dirt races like Larson, Stewart, and Kahne.

Speeds at Michigan topped out around 216mph on the straights and dropped to the 170s in the corners. The 40mph swing really put the race in the driver’s hands a lot more than previous years at the track. For the last couple years, races at Michigan were looking like restrictor plate races. Put the hammer down and hold on, whoever have the most oomph in the engine will win it out. That is a much different style of racing than we got this past week. I’m more than ok with that. Once the drivers got comfortable with how the cars would handle forty on track at a time, there was plenty of passing. Menard led laps after starting 32nd. Harvick finished top 5 after starting 29th. Kurt Busch spent the front half of the day in the 20s and rallied up to tenth.

So despite the dominance of the #22 team up front, the race was a good one. A very good one. I understand a single good race is not a predictor of a season of success, but I think NASCAR should take a hard look at putting a similar package in place for good.

Kyle Busch’s Summer is Not So Hot

kyle at michiganThat’s pretty close to being a weather related pun, but seriously, I’m not going there.

The defending champion has been having an abysmal few weeks. In the last four races since he won at Kansas, Busch’s best finish was a 30th at Dover. Wind at Michigan this past week dropped a lot of trash on the track and hot dog wrappers have been affecting the outcome of races for decades. Toyota engineers said the #18’s engine overheated courtesy of said trash and it blew in a fiery mess. Busch limped it into the garage but his day was done and he finished in the caboose position.

The cynical Twitternauts were saying that after putting three wins in the bank already, the Chase grid format means he can play R+D car for the rest of the season. I’m pretty cynical and there are some drivers where I might believe that… however I don’t think that would sit well with Kyle Busch. He might swing for the fences, go big or go home style, but that’s pretty much how he races anyways on a normal day. Love him or hate him, Kyle Busch hates to lose. This four week stretch at the tail end of the field is eating him up.

Buescher’s Bad Day

buescher at michiganChris Buescher went from Xfinity Champion to a Cup car that can just almost crack the top 20 on a good day. That’s pretty rough. Competition in Cup is tight. There are only 40 seats to go around and a only a dozen of those are perennial contenders. With the speculation that the Michigan aero package would fit the newer driver’s real well, Buescher was actually having a pretty solid day for the Front Row #34. He spent much of the front end of the race in the top 20 and even cracked the top 10 for a while a mid race.

His finish of 20th was actually his second best on the season so that seems good… except I don’t think he should go on twitter for a few days.

On lap 63 he got loose in the turn, as most everyone did on the day, and drifted up the track. He tagged Junior who was stuck in the back of the pack from poor qualifying. Earnhardt and the #47 of Allmendinger pancaked the wall hard enough at 180+ to ruin the day and DNF’s for both. Buescher kept going. Junior’s legions of Twitternauts rage faced. Yeah… Buescher should just not turn his computer on for a while.

Shout Outs!

tony at michiganJust one week after talking about how he’s in trouble, Tony Stewart gets the Shout Out today. This was the kind of week where Tony had his old swagger back. He was racing well and having fun, at one point he messed with his crew saying he was coming in to pit out of the blue then laughed over the radio instead.

Smoke qualified third, his best on the season, and he ran in the top ten all day. A lot of that was in the top five. The #14 got shuffled around a bit in all the cautions and restarts on the back end of the race, but he finished 7th. This is good for Tony, and this is good for NASCAR. Yes there is a youth movement going on in NASCAR not seen since the late 90s, but a jovial Tony Stewart is the best Tony Stewart.

The 7th place finish puts him 45 points off of 30th place Brian Scott. Through the first 15 races, Scott has an average finish of 27.9. Tony has a 19.4 through his seven races since he came back from injury. Let’s call it an average of a 9 point gain every week by Stewart based off the numbers we have already. There are 11 races left until the Chase. The averages are in Tony Stewart’s favor to get in the top 30 in points. With the way his car ran at Michigan, there is reason to believe that Stewart could pull off that win to qualify into the Chase. Of the 11 races left before the Chase cut off, Tony has won at 9 of the tracks. Granted, some were years ago, I was surprised to see his last Bristol win was in 2001, (Chase Elliott was in kindergarten) but he still has a W there. Darlington and Kentucky are the only ones in that stretch he hasn’t won at and Kentucky will have the same aero as Michigan. I would love to see Tony pull this off, qual for the Chase, and retire with a big shit eating grin on his face.

mcmurray mcd colorsSo that was a lengthy Shout Out/Tony Update, but I still want to flag one more Shout Out for Michigan. Jamie McMurray pulled off a stealth run at Michigan. He ran in top 15ish for the first half of the race and once the cautions started flying frequently, he fell back into the 20s. As late as lap 180, he was down in 19th place. Over the last cluster of restarts, Jamie Mac surged to the front and snuck into a 9th place finish in a classic “Where the hell did he come from?” The #1 car is sitting 14th on the Chase grid only ten points to the good above Blaney. He needs these top 10s if he wants to be in the conversation come fall.

Pit Stall 13 Update

truex at doverThe magical pit stall this week went to Martin Truex Jr in the 78 Furniture Row Team.

Truex’s finish of 12th would be good by most people’s standards, however, after the epic beatdown dished out for the Coke 600, I’m sure the team would have expected more. The fact that he did so well is a testament to his crew though. Early on in the race, Truex made contact with Bowyer’s #15 who was running a lap down. He spun but managed to not hit a thing. NASCAR penalized the team though for a flared out fender. Personally, I thought it was an iffy call since it was visibly damage from the contact, but eh, not my call, NASCAR doesn’t pay me to do it. The team rallied to a good finish and frankly, runs like that are the ones that make or break a championship season.

Charterless Update

  • 17th – #21 Ryan Blaney – Ran top 10 at times but contact with the wall dropped him back to a 17th place finish. Still in the Chase grid via points.
  • 27th – #55 Cole Whitt – Still with the swapped numbers for some reason, matched his best non-plate race and finished on the lead lap. That’s a solid day for Premium.
  • 30th – #30 Josh Wise – Ran a couple laps off the pace but not bad for a minnow car.
  • 31st – #98 Reed Sorensen – Attrition helped get them up to this spot

On to Sonoma!

Oh snap! NASCAR is going to turn left AND right next week!

The traveling circus we all love is going west to Sonoma for one of the two road course races. The sport doesn’t really have true ringers anymore when it comes to turning in both directions. Boris Said can’t get a top shelf car and compete for the win anymore when top drivers need to run every race and are much better rounded than back in the day. However…. we do get some different people in the conversation for Sonoma and The Glen than on the circle tracks.

Ambrose and Montoya are gone, but anything short of a W is unacceptable for AJ Allmendinger and the 47 team. His team’s performance has been improving across the board since he joined JTG Daughtry, but the Dinger is the closest we have to a road course ringer in modern NASCAR.

The Dinger’s NASCAR W came at The Glen though. Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch are the only active drivers with multiple wins at Sonoma. Truex won there running for MWR a couple years back and could easily win again. Still, got to throw out the advantage for Allmendinger. The JTG Daughtry team will swing for the fences and expect a home run.

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!