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.

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.

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.

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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.

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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).

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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