Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

NASCAR’s Thrilling All-Star Event Brings Sport to Internal Struggle

The 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season has primarily been forgettable to this point. Of course, there have been some exciting and notable moments for the Cup tour this year — Austin Dillon’s dump and run to win the Daytona 500 is one of them. But for a sport trying to find its footing after years of declining TV ratings, drops in attendance and the departure of its superstars, the racing merely has not been able to live up to expectations. And it seems as if NASCAR knows it.

Saturday night’s Monster Energy All-Star race was something different. With a new rules package that featured a restrictor plate and body modifications to increase drag and downforce to promote closer racing and slingshot passing, the All-Star race, for once in a long time, met the hype.

The event, simply put, was thrilling. Considering Charlotte Motor Speedway’s lack of entertaining racing in its recent Cup events, this race looked as if it were at a new venue. Drivers were able to slingshot for the lead, frequently race three wide, draft with other cars to advance their position, and unlike so many races in recent memory, the leader never got away from the field. As Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR Executive Vice President and Chief Racing Development Officer said after the event, “it passed the eye test.”

But it also passed the data test, too. In 2018, the All-Star race featured 38 green flag passes for the lead. In 2017, there were zero.

So what’s next? In what is clearly a much more entertaining rules package and considering NASCAR’s track record of constant tweaks to the rule book, the conversation immediately moves to when and how much this package will be used in the future.

Intermediate tracks like Charlotte have been the bane of NASCAR’s existence in recent years. As the most common track on the schedule, these 1.5-mile speedways don’t entertain and certainly haven’t been giving NASCAR the boost it so desperately needs.

It would seem like a no-brainer for NASCAR to implement this rules package as soon as possible, which would likely be 2019 to give teams enough notice, which is fair. But, unfortunately for the fans that enjoyed what they saw on Saturday, even this looks like a challenge because of a lack of buy-in from the drivers.

“I hate to admit it, but the package was kinda fun,” Kyle Larson told FS1 following the event. “I’d hate to go this slow every week, but for select tracks, it was pretty good.”

The morning after the event, Brad Keselowski echoed similar thoughts on Twitter.

And before the race, Kyle Busch gave his point of view, as reported by Motorsport.com.

“I can certainly see it (used more), it’s not necessarily what I signed up for to be a race car driver to bring the whole field closer together and have it dictated by some type of a plate race.”

So this is where the sport’s internal struggle is. NASCAR, after years of constant tweaks to the rules package to make events more compelling, finally found something that could be worth pursuing, but there are already subtle hints about keeping it as limited as possible. Granted, it’s only been one race, so it’s early to make these decisions on either side. Still, it’s hard not get excited about what we saw on Saturday. 

People who oppose this rules package argue that slowing the cars down this much makes them too easy to drive and perhaps too much of a gimmick at NASCAR’s highest level. However, the best car and driver of the season, Kevin Harvick, was still able to win Saturday – and while there were many lead changes in the event, he was indeed not easy to pass, or keep behind.

The series runs at Talladega Superspeedway and Daytona International Speedway every year, arguably the extreme of what Charlotte produced on Saturday, yet the same drivers tend to compete and contend for those races. The competitive drivers will always rise to the top. That doesn’t seem gimmicky.

NASCAR has prided itself on increased collaboration with drivers, teams, manufacturers, and other partners in the recent years — that’s great news for the sport. But while NASCAR has to listen to these parties, they also have to govern with what they believe will work best overall. Sometimes, that isn’t what works for the drivers.

Having Saturday’s rules package implemented in some form and for multiple events throughout the year, certainly more than just the All-Star race, would be a huge win for NASCAR and its fans. The sport needs compelling races, and if there are no plans for the schedule to change anytime soon, then something else has to.

The way this rules package will be integrated into NASCAR on a regular basis is undoubtedly complex and to be determined. This method likely won’t work at all intermediate tracks, but preventing the sport from trying it only because drivers don’t want the field to be closer together wouldn’t be fair to fans.

It will likely be some time before NASCAR determines any concrete next steps for the package, but one thing is for sure: once you presented it to the public, you can’t take it away.

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @TravisBarend

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
XFINITY

Trucks, XFINITY Show Promise in High-Drag Package

In an effort to improve the racing product, downforce has been public enemy No. 1 in NASCAR, but as recent weeks have shown, there may have been some flaws in that approach.

For the last few years, NASCAR could not remove downforce quick enough, shortening the spoiler, splitter and making other tweaks to reduce aerodynamic grip multiple times, often mid-season, to put the racing in the drivers’ hands.

In many cases, these changes have led to more entertaining races, more passing and bigger moments, which NASCAR constantly seeks. But this improvement has not stretched entirely across the schedule, with multiple venues, like Indianapolis Motor Speedway and other larger tracks, still struggling to improve its product and create more energized racing.

Earlier this summer, NASCAR experimented with a high-drag and low-downforce package in the XFINITY Series at the Brickyard, using a restrictor plate and taller spoiler to make the cars punch a bigger hole in the air. This allowed drafting down the straightaway, much like what the IndyCar Series is able to do at the same venue, which always puts on an incredible show.

The XFINTY cars were certainly a lot slower than IndyCar, but the racing was much improved compared to what the series usually produces at the 2.5-mile speedway. The leader was never able to get away from second place, but the trailing car was not guaranteed to make a pass either.

The result was a close finish and something that NASCAR needs more of.

Fast-forward to Michigan International Speedway on Saturday with the Camping World Truck Series and one will find a similar style of racing.

Much like the Brickyard for the XFINITY Series, the leader was never able to get away from the pack, there was constant passing on the straightaway and there was an incredible finish that produced a Darrell Wallace Jr. victory. A three-wide slingshot pass to take the lead was the highlight of the race.

No, there was not a specialized rules package for the trucks at the 2-mile speedway, but the race featured the series’ usual low-horsepower, high-drag package and put on a much better show than the Cup Series typically does at the same track.

Just a few years ago, fans, drivers and teams shunned the concept of a high-drag package. But if NASCAR wants to grow the sport and appeal to the casual fan, it needs to produce the most thrilling racing possible. Low downforce might work at most tracks, but for the larger speedways like Indy, Pocono, and Michigan, it might be time for NASCAR to embrace what it is known for – drafting.

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @TravisBarend

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
Commentary

For Dale Jr., Or Any Driver, Retirement Should Be Definite

After winning the pole last weekend at Daytona, Dale Earnhardt Jr. left the door open for running the Clash and perhaps even the Daytona 500 next year.

He shouldn’t.

We have seen this story before with big name drivers retiring from full-time racing. Mark Martin is perhaps the best and most wellknown example of the urge many competitors feel once they declare retirement. Martin came back to race for years after such an announcement, in a combination of full-time and parttime seasons for various teams in the garage.

Jeff Gordon is the most recent example. After an entire career racing the No. 24 car, the driver returned to sub for Earnhardt last season, competing in a handful of events in the No. 88 while its usual talent recovered from concussion-like symptoms.

For Gordon especially, the situation was not fun.

Certainly, these superstar drivers earn the right to return when they want. After all, they have devoted their lives to this, and it is understandable if they want to compete at NASCAR’s highest level once again. Unfortunately, doing this seems to end their careers with a fade rather than a bang.

Gordon’s last few weeks in the No. 24 were incredible. The win at Martinsville and heading into the championship round at Homestead gave the sport and Gordon’s fans an energy boost. Even though he didn’t win the title, those races were big moments that provided meaning and closure to the driver’s career.

He should have quit while he was ahead, but he didn’t. Racing the following year in a different car took away those memories. Sure, nothing can discount the fact that Gordon competed for a championship in 2015, but the event was promoted as his final race – and that was a lie.

Drivers may not want retirement tours, but it doesn’t matter what they want. Such tours benefit the fans, the people who deserve closure after following a career of ups and downs.

When fans of Earnhardt buy tickets to Daytona, Talladega or Homestead this year, they should be sure those are his final races at that venue. Otherwise, the moments created throughout the season will be diluted with a feeling of uncertainty and closure will not feel as ripe.

Earnhardt has said he would race the Daytona 500 again under the right circumstances. Perhaps, in his case, such an event would be a significant place to end his career and provide such closure.

However, such a return is a risk. Earnhardt would have to be driving a very competitive car with an appropriate number – the No. 8 is the only one that could provide as much closure as the No. 88. More importantly, he has to shut the door completely after that. Anything less would result in disappointment.

It also doesn’t help that last weekend at Daytona was promoted as his final race at the speedway by NBC, the track and the sport in general. Either way, Earnhardt needs to solidify his plans soon and be transparent with his fans and the sport in general. His last race shouldn’t be a surprise, and it should clearly be his final ride.

Gordon did not come back under the right circumstances, and while every driver is different, Earnhardt should refrain from making similar decisions, so fans are not tricked into following a retirement tour that has no meaning.

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @TravisBarend

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

NASCAR Will Make Gains with New Schedule and Format Changes

NASCAR can only do so much.

That’s the situation the sanctioning body finds itself in after signing a five-year agreement with the tracks that make up the schedule. From now through 2020, the venues, a majority of which are owned by Speedway Motorsports Inc. and International Speedway Corporation, are here to stay.

For years now, NASCAR has found itself stuck in a slump of lackluster racing, consistently putting on events that are plagued with “dirty air,” a term coined by many in the industry to explain an absence of close action and passing.

NASCAR has tinkered with everything from playoff formats, race procedures and rules packages for the cars, arguably all steps in the right direction, but not solving the core problem. The dirty air conundrum is still very much there, with last week’s All-Star race equating to one of the more disappointing events in some time.

The last piece of the puzzle and the most important, is the one so infrequently touched – the schedule.

Intermediate tracks plug the calendar with an expected style of racing. Predictability, in any form of entertainment, is never good. Short tracks, superspeedways and road courses continue to provide the best of what NASCAR has to offer.Dirty air is rarely an issue and a constant reminder of what the sport could be. 

Track executives and other industry members argue that the best fix for the sport would be to continue to work on the rules package. To some degree, they may be right, but if this were so easy, why hasn’t the problem already been solved? It might take time, but NASCAR can’t afford to wait.

But they might have to.

Until 2020, when the lengthy track agreements are up, fans can expect to see the same circuits on the calendar year after year.

The 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series schedule, released Tuesday, is a sign that NASCAR recognizes that action must be taken in some form. Turning Charlotte Motor Speedway’s playoff race into a road course, adding quarter-mile Richmond International Raceway into the post-season, and kicking off the Chase in a bigger market, Las Vegas, are all positives.

They also have the option to do more. NASCAR has considered the use of restrictor plates at larger tracks like Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and will do so this year with the NASCAR XFINITY Series. If they can make it work, they can fix a track that is in need significant help with its spot on the schedule.

NASCAR is in a box. The sanctioning body can only do so much for now. But keeping the schedule the same for yet another year would be a defeat before the green flag even waves in 2018.

Making these shakeups to the current slate of venues can add some spice to stock car racing. It might not be much, but NASCAR needs to take everything it can get.

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @TravisBarend

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
Commentary

NASCAR’s Overtime Line Leaves Fans Disappointed

Saturday’s XFINITY Series race from Richmond International Raceway was a good one overall – but few will remember that.

The main takeaway from the event was not the Dash 4 Cash, the close, multi-groove racing, or even the exciting late-race restarts. Instead, the focus was on the race-ending caution during a NASCAR overtime attempt.

A crash with two laps to go, shortly after the leaders crossed the overtime line, initiated a caution flag – or at least in theory. The caution lights illuminated, signaling that the field would be frozen to determine the finishing order of the race, but the flag stand never displayed the yellow until well after the leaders took the white.

As one would expect, confusion struck the field, particularly the two leaders, Kyle Larson and Justin Allgaier, who continued to race at full speed for the victory because of their uncertainty.

NASCAR argued on Monday that the field should know to slow down when the caution lights flash, contradicting statements from previous years that have led people to believe that the flag stand always overrules the lights. Specifically, this way of thinking has come up in moments when the caution lights are accidentally triggered, which happened in 2014 at Bristol. In that instance, NASCAR did not freeze the field until the flag stand reacted to the mistake.

The finish was a mess and part of the blame falls on NASCAR’s officiating. However, the confusing nature is only a portion of the overall issue. Simply put, the overtime rules need an overhaul.

NASCAR has gone to extreme lengths to produce exciting racing. From constant playoff and points changes, to race format updates, to regular rules package alterations, hardly anything ever stays the same to reach this goal.

Yet, despite NASCAR’s efforts to stand out in a competitive entertainment industry, races still end under caution. Every week, the part of the race that is supposed to be most exciting can also be the most anticlimactic.

Fans are asked to tune into three or four hour races – arguably too long to begin with – and are sometimes rewarded with the field taking the checkered flag at 50 mph. Something with this logic does not add up.

The overtime line was developed under the suggestion of the driver’s council, proving that the stars of the sport can sometimes have too much power and what is best for them is not always ideal for the fans.

An argument NASCAR frequently makes is that having unlimited attempts at overtime would create endless restarts and force races to drag on for too long. Yet, many in the NASCAR industry also enjoy making fun of ARCA drivers for constant crashing, yet that series guarantees a green flag finish each race and has no issues effectively and reasonably providing fans with just that. If drivers from a lower level of stock car racing can do it, certainly NASCAR’s best are capable of such a feat.

Even if they were not, and there were multiple attempts at finishing the race, at least something exciting is happening and the sanctioning body is letting it play out to completion. If there is any part of the race that needs shortening, it’s the middle portion, not the closing laps, which can be the most thrilling.

Fans invest a lot into a race, whether it is time, money or both. The least the sanctioning body can do is provide them with a finish.

If a caution is absolutely necessary as the leaders are in turn four coming to the checkered, throw the yellow. But, after that, line them up and go for it again.

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @TravisBarend

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
Commentary

Earnhardt Replacing Darrell Waltrip at FOX Would Be a Win for NASCAR

There is no arguing that the biggest storyline of the past week has been the announcement that this season will be Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s last racing in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

As the sport’s most popular driver for well over a decade, there is also no debating the impact that Earnhardt has had on NASCAR and how he has represented the racing world with class.

While 2017 marks the end of an era, Earnhardt has been very clear that he plans to remain a part of the sport in some way. Naturally, many in the industry, including Earnhardt himself, are thinking that a TV career may be the next step.

In fact, a move to TV is inevitable and needs to happen for the health of the sport. For Earnhardt, it is the only step that can be just as impactful as his previous career.

The list of what he could do after this year is a long one. From being a driver coach for Hendrick Motorsports, to being at the track as a team owner, to perhaps even working for the sanctioning body in some fashion, Earnhardt can do whatever he chooses. However, anything short of being in the TV booth would be a disappointment for the sport overall.

Still, despite having the big name, putting the two-time Daytona 500 champion in front of the camera is not something that is necessarily easy to do. Earnhardt only has two choices – FOX Sports and NBC Sports, both of which have expressed interest in talking about the possibility of adding the driver.

However, Earnhardt’s entrance to the TV industry has to come as a replacement for someone else. While he has joined the booth in the past as a fourth member for both FOX and NBC, having that number every week is too many, and the networks seem to agree with this.

When Jeff Gordon retired and moved to FOX, he replaced Larry McReynolds, which altered the ideal driver-crew chief combination usually in the booth. Instead, two drivers, Darrell Waltrip and Gordon, represent the sport each weekend.

For NBC, an Earnhardt entrance to the team makes sense on paper, as the position would pair Earnhardt with former crew chief Steve Letarte, which would be great to watch considering their incredible chemistry. However, that would come at the expense of Jeff Burton, who has proven to be a tremendous analyst, treating viewers as intelligent beings and adding depth with his thoughts. Simply put, Burton should remain in his spot.

It ultimately comes down to FOX, which already has a full lineup. Gordon has proven to be exceptional since his start with the network last year, so he is safe. That leaves Waltrip, who has been working in his role since 2001.

Waltrip is very polarizing to many fans, with people either loving or loathing his commentary. The former driver is a great storyteller, and no doubt has immense knowledge about the sport in general. But like other areas of the industry, NASCAR would benefit from having younger faces in the booth.

Waltrip hasn’t raced full-time in years, closing in on two decades. Since then, NASCAR has undergone sweeping changes, from race and championship formats to generations of cars. Waltrip may still have some relevance to him, but not in the way Earnhardt would in his position.

The next few months will be critical for Earnhardt, the TV partners and the sport overall. After Gordon’s retirement announcement two years ago, FOX Sports announced his hire by Charlotte race weekend in May. If that is any precedent, it may not be long before Earnhardt’s plans are solidified.

No matter how long it takes, if millions of fans tune into the Daytona 500 next year to see Earnhardt guide them through the event, NASCAR will in some way keep its biggest star – and that’s good news.

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @TravisBarend

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
XFINITY

THREE TAKEAWAYS: Fitzgerald Glider Kits 300

It was a long afternoon for the NASCAR XFINITY Series at Bristol Motor Speedway that included two red flags, one for rain and the other for a crash. When it finally came to a close, it was Erik Jones standing in victory lane for the Fitzgerald Glider Kits 300. 

The VHT Effect

After an experiment last year with limited impact, the speedway was more aggressive this time around with the use of VHT, a substance that was applied to the lower groove in hopes of re-creating the racing of old at Bristol, including the bump and run.

Initially, the impact of VHT, which was designed to give more grip to the bottom lane, seemed to be inadequate. Starting second on the outside line, Austin Dillon passed pole sitter Kyle Larson in the first corner, despite Larson having the VHT to his advantage. However, as the race progressed, the low groove showed some promise, with much of the field running right against the apron.

It may not have been exactly like it used to be, but there were times it seemed close. The highlight of this was in the closing laps, when Jones put the bumper to Ryan Blaney to take the lead and ultimately the win.

Short of another reconfiguration, the old Bristol may never return back to its true form. However, while the Cup race on Sunday will be the best indicator, Saturday seemed to be an effective step. Track officials deserve credit for making bold moves in an attempt to enhance the racing.

Dash 4 Cash and Cup Drivers

Saturday was the second of four Dash 4 Cash races this season, where $100,000 was on the line for XFINITY Series regulars. For each of these events, Monster Energy NASCAR Cup drivers with more than five years of experience are not allowed to compete. This time, it was Daniel Hemric taking home the money after a fifth place finish.

However, Bristol was unable to live up to the high bar set by Phoenix, the first Dash 4 Cash race of the year, which was won by series regular Justin Allgaier and was one of the best events of 2017 thus far. In Bristol, Cup drivers with less than five years of experience, who are still able to compete, dominated the race. XFINITY drivers were rarely worthy of a mention, hiding in the shadows of those from the top series.

The new entry rules for the division are a start. A win by Jones is a bit more tolerable than a win by Kyle Busch simply because Jones has less experience and is a fresh face to the sport. However, more steps should be taken, with the next logical one being limiting any driver competing full time in Cup.

Daniel Suarez Has Strong Run

Cup drivers racing in the XFINITY Series may not be best for the sport, but the added track time is still good for Daniel Suarez. After being thrown into a Cup car after Carl Edwards’ sudden departure, Suarez was given a difficult challenge this year.

As Joey Logano showed when he moved to NASCAR’s top series, starting too early can hurt you, so any advantage Suarez can find is a major plus for the Mexican driver.

Running near the front, competing for the lead and ultimately finishing third Saturday was a bright spot in a season that has been rocky at times. Bristol is not easy to master, especially with the speedway trying to alter the track throughout the weekend, but Suarez handled it well. Sunday’s race will be an entirely different test, but the Joe Gibbs Racing driver may be setting himself up for a strong run on the big stage.

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The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott Taking Sport to New Level

After Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s first top-five of 2017 at Texas Motor Speedway, he praised his team on Twitter, but also the success of a competitor – Wood Brothers Racing.

In an age when some fans feel NASCAR’s roots are slowly fading away, Earnhardt brings up a solid point. The No. 21 team’s success is crucial on a bigger level, though.  

Since the beginning of stock car racing, superstars have come and gone in waves. The stories of these transitions, including Richard Petty’s last race being Jeff Gordon’s first and Earnhardt picking up much of his father’s fan base after he died in 2001 are arguably over-told, but still important points.

For some time now, it seems NASCAR as a whole, and the fans that follow it, have been searching for that next large figure. Gordon and Tony Stewart are gone. Earnhardt, the biggest name left, may renew his contract with Hendrick Motorsports this year, but still is limited in time.

NASCAR has many recognizable personalities. Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson are just a handful of names synonymous with the sport today. However, some of NASCAR’s best periods were among times where iconic figures overshadowed the rest. Petty may have lapped the field in a race that today would be labeled as boring, but many were still watching his every move and rooting him on.

It is no secret that NASCAR has been struggling in its attempt to attract a new, younger audience without losing their core fan base. For Ryan Blaney, there is the opportunity to encapsulate both of those goals. Driving for such an iconic team– and doing it successfully – is a major plus for fans that recall the car’s frequent contention for race wins back in the day.          

The driver, alternatively, is a fresh face. He is the social media guru, frequently interacting with fans on Twitter, Snapchat and through a recently launched and slightly edgy podcast titled “Glass Case of Emotion.” The podcast, a new initiative from NASCAR.com, comes with an offensive language warning message and showcases his personality better than any television interview could.

However, Blaney is not the only one mixing up the landscape. Chase Elliott is going down a similar path. As the son of Bill Elliott, he has the name. As the driver of the famous No. 24, he has additional recognition. Add youth, being in tune with pop culture and interactive with fans just like Blaney, and you have the perfect ingredients for superstardom.

Last August in Watkins Glen, both Blaney and Elliott, good friends, asked on social media for fans to join them in the infield to play soccer. Taking those initiatives is praiseworthy and does not go unnoticed by fans, especially ones just being introduced to auto racing.

There are many young drivers with the skill level to be a big name in NASCAR. Many of them will get there. However, new faces are often overhyped and unable to reach superstar level or even become recognizable. Without even scoring a victory in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series – and they eventually will – Blaney and Elliott are already proving they have what it takes to carry the sport on their shoulders and stand out from the rest.

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @TravisBarend

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.