Fast Five: What I’m Looking Forward To in the 2018 NASCAR Season

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season gets underway today, with the star-laden Advance Auto Parts Clash, a week ahead of the sport’s biggest event, the Daytona 500.

Every season has storylines, and this one is no different. As NASCAR makes its annual trip to the beach, here are the five things I’m most looking forward to for the 2018 season.

5. Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the broadcast booth

The 2017 season marked Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s farewell as a driver in the Cup Series, but he is not leaving the sport by any means.

Junior continues to own an XFinity Series team, and plans to run at least one one-off event in that series this year. He will also be in a very visible role for the second half of the 2018 season as an analyst for NBC Sports for their portion of the schedule, beginning at Daytona in July.

It’s great that the driver who has been voted Most Popular Driver for the last 15 consecutive years is staying involved in the sport, and in a way that he will be seen and heard by the fans. It’s also always a great idea for a broadcast network to add a just-retired driver to their coverage, as he will have excellent insight into the drivers and teams, since he just competed against them; Earnhardt also has a phenomenal knowledge of the sport’s past, given his family history and his own passion for it.

4. Who can match Truex’s stage-racing success?

Last year, in the first season of stage racing, Martin Truex Jr. mastered the new concept almost instantly and his 19 stage victories and eight race wins propelled him to his first Cup Series title.

Now, as the sport has had a year to adjust to stage racing, who will step up to match Truex’s mastery in 2018?

Kyle Busch won 14 stages in 2017, and Brad Keselowski and Kyle Larson each won eight. And it was Larson, not Truex, who had the most stage top 10s, earning 56 of them. In addition, several young stars seem primed to rise to the next level in 2018 (see below).

It will also be interesting to see if more drivers win stages in 2018. Last year, there were more race winners (15) than stage winners (13), due in part to Truex and Busch’s stage dominance.

3. The Charlotte “roval”

NASCAR has made significant changes to the schedule for the early rounds of the Playoffs, with Las Vegas and Richmond hosting the first two races of the first round, and Dover moved to the opening race of the second round. Another notable change is that the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis will now be the regular-season finale on Sept. 9.

But perhaps the biggest change is that the Playoff race at Charlotte on Sept. 30, now the last race of the first round, will now be run on the track’s “roval” — racing jargon for a road course-oval combo, as the circuit will include parts of the 1.5-mile oval and the infield road course.

This will be the first race since 1987 that NASCAR has had three road-course races in a season, something which I find as a great change for the sport. Adding one to the Playoffs is also a welcome change.

The new layout will be a unique challenge for the drivers and teams, especially with the event’s timing as a cut-off race in the Playoffs. Who will conquer the sport’s newest challenge?

2. The emergence of young stars

Two rookies enter the Cup Series full-time in 2018, as both take over a storied ride: defending XFinity Series champion William Byron takes over the No. 24 Hendrick seat, while Darrell Wallace Jr. will be in the Petty No. 43 full-time after subbing four races last year for the injured Aric Almirola. Both have the talent and the personality to be big stars in the very near future.

But in addition to these two, other young guns are ready to establish themselves more firmly among the sport’s upper echelon. Erik Jones moves to the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20 from Furniture Row Racing, taking over Matt Kenseth’s seat, while Ryan Blaney joins Penske Racing, who is expanding to three cars with the new No. 12 team. Both should be threats to win often, and have legitimate shots at contending for the championship this fall.

Alex Bowman takes over Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s ride in the No. 88 car at Hendrick Motorsports; many forget that he has 81 Cup Series starts between a stint in the No. 88 filling in for the concussed Earnhardt in 2016, as well as stints at the smaller teams of Tommy Baldwin Racing and BK Racing. Former XFinity Series champion Daniel Suarez also shows promise as he moves into his second season.

Oh, and there’s one other rising star primed for a huge 2018… some guy named Elliott.

1. The next level for Chase Elliott

Chase Elliott enters his third Cup Series season, and this year changes over to the No. 9 car at Hendrick Motorsports, driving for the same team but changing numbers after the opportunity arose to bring back to the Elliott family the number made legendary by Bill Elliott, Chase’s father.

Chase has not won a Cup Series race yet, though he has come painstakingly close on numerous occasions, including five runner-up finishes in 2017. Yet he seems primed for a breakout year in 2018, especially given a strong Playoff performance last year, finishing fifth in the final standings. Many feel one win may open the floodgates and lead to many victories.

With Earnhardt Jr. now retired, Elliott is set to take over as the sport’s most popular driver (I wasn’t sure about this, until at Darlington last year I noticed the number of Elliott shirts nearly equaled that of Earnhardt). But to validate that title in 2018, he needs to have the success to match — and he is more than capable of doing just that.

Elliott is already a star, but this year — with the timing of Earnhardt’s retirement and Elliott’s potential on-track success– may be the perfect storm for the humble, relatable Georgian to hit the fast track to superstardom, as in Junior’s absence he may be exactly what the sport is looking for.

 

 

Daytona Speedweeks Schedule

Sunday, Feb. 11
12:15 p.m. — Daytona 500 Pole Qualifying
3 p.m. — Advance Auto Parts Clash (75-lap exhibition race for 2017 pole winners, Playoff drivers and past Clash winners)

Thursday, Feb. 15
7 p.m. — CanAm Duels (Sets the starting lineup for the Daytona 500)

Friday, Feb. 16
7:30 p.m. — NextEra Energy Resources 250 (Camping World Truck Series race)

Saturday, Feb. 17
2:30 p.m. — Powershares QQQ 300 (XFinity Series race)

Sunday, Feb. 18
2:30 p.m. — 60th Daytona 500

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Hamlin Bucks Trends to Win Daytona 500

Sunday, in his 11th attempt, driving car #11, Denny Hamlin won the thrilling 58th Daytona 500, the first 500 victory of his career.

Hamlin picked up the biggest win of his career by coming from fourth on the final lap, passing leader Matt Kenseth before beating Martin Truex Jr. to the line by mere inches.  The margin of victory of 0.010 seconds was the closest in Daytona 500 history.

The win marked the first Daytona 500 victory for Toyota, and the first for owner Joe Gibbs since 1993 (Dale Jarrett).

Hamlin entered Daytona Speedweeks as one of my favorites, and his car showed speed all week leading up to the 500, but leading up to the race, Hamlin was not historically in a great position to win his first Daytona 500.

Consider the trends of the Daytona 500 throughout its 58-year history, and particularly over the last 15 years of restrictor plate racing (although restrictor plate racing has been around since 1988, it has been most similar to today’s restrictor plate racing only since 2001).

Last weekend, Hamlin won the Sprint Unlimited, a season-opening exhibition race at Daytona.  Before 2016, the winner of the Sprint Unlimited had only gone on to win the 500 five times, and had never done it since 2000 (Bobby Allison in 1982, Bill Elliott in 1987, Dale Jarrett in 1996 and 2000, and Jeff Gordon in 1997).

In fact, over the nearly six-decade history of the Daytona 500, a driver who has won any of the preliminary events during Speedweeks generally does not win the Daytona 500, but instead someone who has shown speed and performed well but not won in the Sprint Unlimited, Daytona 500 Pole Qualifying, and Can-Am Duels.

Another potential strike against Hamlin’s chances to win, at least according to the trends of the previous 15 editions of “The Great American Race”, is that he led the most laps.  While early in the 500’s history, it was common for one driver to dominate the race and take the checkered flag, Hamlin became just the third driver since 2001 to lead the most laps and win, joining Michael Waltrip in the rain-shortened 2003 edition, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2014.

Lastly, Hamlin was not the leader at the white flag, but found a way around all three of the cars in front of him to beat Truex by inches.  Hamlin becomes only the third driver in the last 23 Daytona 500s to make a last-lap pass for the win, joining Kevin Harvick in 2007 (who ironically pushed Hamlin to the win), and Ryan Newman in 2008 (who, like Hamlin, passed a #20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota).

Not only are last-lap passes to win the 500 rare, but throughout Speedweeks it appeared the leader at the white flag would have control over the pack, and would be very hard to pass them.

Kenseth had actually led from lap 160 of the 200-lap race until the third turn of the final lap when Hamlin and Truex got around (in fact, after Kenseth got sideways, he slowed to save his car from spinning out, and as a result fell back to 14th).  The leader at the white flag had won every stock car event so far during Speedweeks, including Hamlin, who was not hardly threatened over the final 2 1/2 miles of the Sprint Unlimited.

With a train of Gibbs Toyotas behind Kenseth, plus Truex in a Gibbs-affiliated Furniture Row Racing Toyota, it did not appear that Kenseth, a two-time 500 winner, would be touched.

After his 500 win, Hamlin told Marty Smith of ESPN that he did not intend to jump out of line to try to pass his teammates, but only moved to the outside to block a run by Harvick, who then pushed him to the win.

You might think it would be common sense that a driver would want to be leading at the white flag, but there have been years that the aerodynamic environment of the cars made passing easier, and in some of those years I have said before the 500 that I would want to be second at the white flag if I were driving in the race.

All of this being said, Hamlin winning NASCAR’s biggest event is a surprise to no one in the sport.  Hamlin’s win in the Sprint Unlimited was his third in that event, and he has also won twice in the Can-Am Duels, so he has experience winning at the World Center of Racing.

The thing about trends is that they are not always followed, as is the case here.  Three trends went against Denny Hamlin’s chances to win his first Daytona 500, but a car that was one of the favorites throughout Speedweeks, and showed plenty of muscle from the time it was unloaded, enabling Hamlin to nullify all of the tendencies above, and win by less than a foot.

With his prior prowess on the superspeedway, and his amazing run from fourth to the front, one thing is for sure.

Denny Hamlin’s name will forever be engraved on the Harley J. Earl Trophy.  And he earned it.

 

 

 

2016 Daytona 500, Results
(Finish. Driver, Start, Team, Manufacturer, Laps Led, Points)
1. Denny Hamlin, 11, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota, 95, 45
2. Martin Truex Jr., 28, Furniture Row Racing, Toyota, 2, 40
3. Kyle Busch, 4, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota, 19, 39
4. Kevin Harvick, 9, Stewart-Haas Racing, Chevrolet, 0, 37
5. Carl Edwards, 10, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota, 0, 36
6. Joey Logano, 5, Team Penske, Ford, 0, 35
7. Kyle Larson, 14, Chip Ganassi Racing, Chevrolet, 0, 34
8. Regan Smith, 27, Tommy Baldwin Racing, Chevrolet, 0, 33
9. Austin Dillon, 21, Richard Childress Racing, Chevrolet, 1, 33
10. Kurt Busch, 8, Stewart-Haas Racing, Chevrolet, 0, 31
Notables:
14. Matt Kenseth, 2, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota, 40, 28
16. Jimmie Johnson, 26, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet, 18, 26
20. Brad Keselowski, 25, Team Penske, Ford, 1, 22
36. Dale Earnhardt Jr., 3, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet, 15, 6
37. Chase Elliott, 1, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet, 3, 5

NASCAR Championship Round Preview

After a choatic Chase for the Sprint Cup, NASCAR’s version of the playoffs has reached its finale, the Championship Round at Homestead-Miami Speedway.  Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, and Martin Truex Jr. are the four drivers competing for the title, and whoever finishes highest among them on Sunday will win the title.  All four have had exciting seasons, and they bring four excellent storylines to the event.

The biggest storyline is Jeff Gordon.  He is retiring after Sunday’s race, and will attempt to win the Cup championship for the fifth time in his storied career.  Gordon has won 93 races in his 23 year career, which started in the finale of the 1992 season, on a day with storylines similar to this year’s finale, with a frantic championship battle occurring alongside Richard Petty’s final start.  This time, however, the legend who is retiring is also one of the title contenders, and could become the first driver since Ned Jarrett to walk away from the sport as reigning champion (and the first to win a title in his final start).

While Gordon does have four titles, he has never won a championship since NASCAR established the Chase format in 2004, something he has said he would like to accomplish.  Gordon qualified for the Championship Round with a win at Martinsville, and Hendrick Motorsports has won each of the last three races.

The other three storylines are mildly overshadowed by Gordon, but are all still very compelling nonetheless.  Kevin Harvick won last year’s Sprint Cup title in the first year of the Chase Grid format (the Chase was previously the accumulation of points from the final 10 races), after finishing third in points on three previous occasions.  If Harvick could win the championship, he would be the first back-to-back titlist since  Jimmie Johnson’s five straight titles from 2006-10, and the first excluding Johnson’s historic run since Gordon in 1997-98.  Harvick won the title last year in his first year at Stewart-Haas, so if he wins another on Sunday, through two seasons Harvick will have not lost a title with the team.  He came to Stewart-Haas after 13 seasons at Richard Childress Racing, where his highest points finish was third, on three occasions.

Martin Truex Jr. has never finished higher than 10th in the final points standings, and yet he can win the championship on Sunday.  Truex is driving for Furniture Row Racing, a small, one-car team based in Denver, CO, far away from the metro Charlotte area where a majority of the teams are based.  While the team does have a technical alliance with Richard Childress Racing, they are still officially a one-car team, and would be the first such team to win a championship since, ironically, Childress in 1994 with Dale Earnhardt.  With three career wins, Truex would have the least career wins by any Cup champion in the modern era if he wins the title without winning the race, or would tie the mark if he wins the race (Terry Labonte had four in 1984).  Truex and the little team that could are certainly underdogs, although throughout his career Truex has performed well at Homestead (see below).  Truex and longtime girlfriend Sherry Pollex are an inspirational story, as Pollex has been fighting a courageous public battle with ovarian cancer, giving Truex a unique perspective that, while this race is certainly important, it is, after all, just a race.

Kyle Busch entered 2015 as one of the title favorites, but his season came to an abrupt halt at Daytona.  In the XFinity Series event the day before the Daytona 500, Busch broke his right leg and his left foot in a vicious accident, and missed the first 11 races of the Sprint Cup Series season.  He received a waiver from NASCAR to allow him to be eligible for the Chase, and won four out of five races during a superb summer stretch.  Some have questioned why the one-time prodigy should be eligible for the championship after missing nearly a third of the season, but NASCAR’s current rules are written to allow such a scenario, which makes sense in such a dangerous sport.  Busch has never finished higher than fourth in points, and this is easily his best shot so far in his career to win the Sprint Cup title.

So, who is the favorite in this heavyweight fight?  To figure that out, let’s look at how these drivers have fared throughout their careers at Homestead, as well as on the intermediate-length tracks this season.

Looking back through each Homestead race since 2006 (Truex’s first full season in the Sprint Cup Series), if each Homestead race were hypothetically for the championship amongst these four, Harvick would have won the title four times, Truex three times, and Gordon twice, while Busch would not have won the title once.  Over that span, Harvick and Gordon have each won once, but the hypothetical title would have been won with a top four finish each year.  I will provide the disclaimer that the race may have been run differently if these four had been competing for the title, so this isn’t exactly the most scientific formula to pick the winner.

Since 2006, Harvick has an excellent average finish of 6.6 at Homestead, with a career average finish of 7.6 at the track, and has six top fives and 12 top 10s his 14 starts there, winning last year’s race to clinch the title.

Gordon’s numbers at the track are similar, although the average is a little lower at 10.6, and is 11.3 since 2006, with a win (in 2012), seven top fives, and 12 top 10s in 16 starts (NASCAR started racing at Homestead in 1999; otherwise Gordon might have 23 starts).

Homestead is one of Truex’s best tracks on the circuit, with an average of 7.6 since his first full-time season (and 10.0 when including his start there during a part-time 2004 season), and although he has never won at the speedway, he has a second, a third, and a fourth, and seven top 10s in 10 starts.  His only finish outside the top 11 was a 17th last season, during a horrible season in which his Furniture Row team led one lap all year, a stat which makes his run to Homestead that much more remarkable.

For Busch, Homestead is not one of his better tracks, as he has struggled to an average finish of 23.1 in 10 starts, with nearly as many DNF’s (2) as top 10 finished (3), and only three lead lap finishes in 10 starts.  The three top 10s for Busch at Homestead are fourth, seventh, and eighth, meaning he will likely need to have the best Homestead race of his career on Sunday to have a shot at the title.  However, all three of Busch’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammates have all had success at the track, and with Busch being the only Gibbs driver in the championship fight, he can use the organization’s full resources (although each of the four can say the same thing).

At intermediate tracks this season, Harvick was the highest finisher in seven of the 11 races, with Busch the highest in three, Truex in one, and Gordon in none.  While that sounds one-sided favoring Harvick, remember that Busch missed nearly a third of the season with injury, during which time Harvick was the highest finisher at all four intermediate races.  After Busch came back at Charlotte, however, the two drivers were even with three such races as the highest finisher.

In these 11 races, Harvick and Busch each won one, although Harvick finished in second on four occasions, and third once.  Besides his win, Busch’s highest finish is fourth.  Truex has a second and a third, and eight total top 10s.  Gordon’s highest intermediate finish is a fourth, and his next highest is a seventh, with only five top 10s, showing this type of track isn’t Gordon’s strongest.  On the other hand, however, Gordon has improved throughout the year, both on intermediate tracks and overall, so these numbers don’t necessarily tell the whole story.

Other than Gordon’s 13.5 average finish at intermediate tracks this year, the other three contenders have nearly identical averages, with Busch at 8.1, Harvick at 8.4, and Truex at 8.7.

It would not be surprising for any of these four to win the championship on Sunday, as all have earned the right to compete for the title in the finale.  As for making a pick, it’s nearly impossible to narrow even the small field of these four down to one favorite.

While Busch may be at a slight disadvantage with his less than stellar Homestead record, he has shown through his career he can be a threat anywhere, and that he can be successful at an intermediate track.

Truex is the definite underdog, but he’s a threat for a strong finish any time he cranks his engine at Homestead.

Harvick is, to many the clear favorite, and has earned that distinction with his strong season, particularly at similar circuits, as well as his Homestead record, and his experience in winning the title in this format a year ago.

The numbers don’t favor Gordon as much as the others, but he is the sentimental favorite, as he is trying to finish off the Hollywood ending to one of the greatest careers the sport has ever seen, and ride into the sunset as a five-time champion.  He also has the most recent race win of the four, three weeks ago at Martinsville, and posted the fastest 10-lap average in Saturday’s final practice.

While Sunday’s race will be unpredictable, one thing is for sure:  this crazy NASCAR season is going to have an incredible finish.

NAPA Drops Waltrip, Truex After Scandal

Three weeks ago, if someone had said the relationship between NAPA Auto Parts and Michael Waltrip would be over by mid-September, both me and most everyone else who follows NASCAR would’ve called the prediction outrageous.  However, due to some other outrageous events on the racetrack, including the “artificial altering” of a race, as NASCAR called it, by Michael Waltrip Racing, NASCAR’s shocker breakup of the year has happened.

NAPA has been with Waltrip since 2001, a span that includes 2 Daytona 500 wins, and 5 total Sprint Cup wins, while sponsoring Waltrip as a driver during his days at Dale Earnhardt, Inc.  When Waltrip started his own team in 2007, they moved with him to MWR, even staying with him through a fuel scandal at Daytona Speedweeks in 2007, and the team’s near bankruptcy.  Eventually, Waltrip reduced his driving schedule to just 4 races a year, but NAPA stayed with the team to sponsor Martin Truex Jr.

NAPA will stay with MWR and Truex until the end of the year, but will opt out of the extension they had signed last August that was scheduled to run through the 2015 season.

One notable result of the Waltrip-NAPA relationship over the last 13 seasons that was visible off the track was Waltrip’s marketability and all those NAPA commercials starring Waltrip that FOX, NBC, TNT, and ESPN have shown over the years.  Truex also starred in several NAPA commercials, and Waltrip and Truex even did a few together.  Unlike many commercials, the NAPA commercials were often funny and interesting, and actually caught the viewer’s attention.  All that will be gone now.

After yesterday’s announcement of NAPA’s dropping of Waltrip and Truex, today Waltrip said that now, due to losing Truex’s sponsorship, he would let Truex go drive for another team, if the opportunity presents itself.  Waltrip, in the meantime, is now forced to scramble to try and replace a $15 million sponsorship, and one that covered all 36 races on the NASCAR schedule (often times a primary sponsor will cover anywhere from 24-32 races, and leave alternate sponsors to take care of the rest).

Although this was not part of NASCAR’s official sanctions against MWR, it is, technically, an addition to the penalties NASCAR handed out.  In addition, now the floodgates are open, potentially, for other sponsors of MWR cars to get the same idea as NAPA.  These sponsors are Aaron’s and 5-Hour Energy.  Considering NAPA sponsored the car who actually wasn’t in on the Richmond manipulation but instead innocently benefitted from it, don’t be surprised at all if these 2 sponsors of the perpetrators of the Richmond incidents also go away soon.  The first domino, after all, has just fallen.

On that note, Aaron’s has publicly stated it remains dedicated to the MWR organization.  5-Hour Energy, which sponsors Clint Bowyer, MWR’s most successful driver, is still evaluating its relationship with Waltrip and his team, as of Thursday.  Waltrip says he’s not worried about 5-Hour Energy, and also said that, if no full-time sponsor steps up for the Truex entry, co-owner Rob Kauffman could step up financially to keep the car on the track, at least for next year.

Just when we think the fallout from the Richmond situation is over, some other news breaks.  The Richmond race was two weeks ago tomorrow, and we’re still talking about it.  Of course, if either Clint Bowyer or Jeff Gordon, or both, contend for the championship in the coming weeks, expect the story to keep brewing.

NASCAR Puts Gordon In Chase, Justice Done

NASCAR President Mike Helton and Chairman and CEO Brian France addressed the media on Friday to announce actions they were taking in regards to the situation between Joey Logano and David Gilliland in the closing laps last Saturday at Richmond.

I wanted to write about the Logano/Gilliland situation yesterday, as details emerged, but I was, frankly, tired of the Richmond issues, and ready to move on.  Logano, according to reports, was given a position in the closing laps of the Federated Auto Parts 400 by David Gilliland, who slowed to let Logano by after radio communication between representatives of the two teams.  Logano ended up finishing in the top 10 in the standings by a single point, as a result of both this and the MWR manipulation (read earlier posts).

NASCAR announced today that Penske Racing and Front Row Motorsports are both on probation until December 31, the penalty for, as we hear so often, “actions detrimental to stock car racing.”

The big news here, however, came when France announced that NASCAR was allowing Jeff Gordon and his #24 Drive To End Hunger team to compete in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.  This is an unprecedented decision, as no one has ever been allowed into the Chase after failing to mathematically qualify.  France said this was (I’m paraphrasing) a cumulative decision by the sanctioning body after multiple organizations manipulated the Richmond outcome and, as a whole, worked against Gordon and greatly damaged his chances of qualifying. He mentioned keeping the integrity of the sport, which is the number one goal, and that this is the only way to assure Gordon a level playing field.

As a fan, it feels like Jeff Gordon keeps getting bad breaks on the track.  Today he finally got a very, very good one, this time off the track.

NASCAR has made the right call here.  Gordon was robbed on Saturday night.  It wasn’t by just one organization, and it really wasn’t even that all the organizations in hot water now were specifically working against him on Saturday night.  It just so happened that when multiple organizations manipulated the outcome of the race to help themselves, they collectively worked to the disadvantage of Gordon.  It took six days from Saturday night to this afternoon, but the “integrity of the sport,” as France called it, is finally intact.

Of course, in a perfect world, Martin Truex Jr. would still be in because he as a driver and his #56 team did nothing wrong; it was the rest of Michael Waltrip Racing that has caused chaos in the NASCAR garage.  The 50-point penalty that was handed down, however, was part of an overall organizational penalty, and although I disagree with some aspects of the penalty, sanctions for MWR were certainly necessary.

NASCAR will meet on Saturday with all drivers, crew chiefs, and teams to discuss the “rules of the road” and provide clarity moving forward for what is right and what is over the line (and where the line might fall).

It’s a meeting Jeff Gordon, Alan Gustafson, and Rick Hendrick will be more than happy to attend.

Note: NASCAR Press Conference Transcript link:

http://www.jayski.com/news/pages/story/_/page/NASCAR-Richmond-penalty-press-conference-Sept-13-2013

Another Note:  Darrell Waltrip, as we know, loves numerology.  He’s at it again with this interesting tweet:  “In 2013 on September the 13th a 13th driver was added to the Chase, be easy to remember this day!”

NASCAR Penalties For MWR Debacle

Just a few opinion points on the issue surrounding the intentional spin by one car from Michael Waltrip Racing and the unnecessary pit stops by another all in an effort to get Martin Truex Jr. into the Chase for the Sprint Cup.  Keep in mind as you read my opinion that I am trying to stay relatively objective but I am also a lifelong Jeff Gordon fan.

For anyone unaware of the penalties I’m about to comment on, each MWR car (15, 55, 56) was penalized 50 driver points and 50 owner points in the standings after the Richmond race (not the reset Chase standings).  This penalty pushed Martin Truex Jr. from 12th in points (in position for the second wild card) to 17th, moving Ryan Newman, who was leading the race at the time of Bowyer’s spin, and in position “as they ran” to claim the wild card spot, into the chase.  The organization was also fined $300,000 and Executive VP/GM Ty Norris was suspended indefinitely (the pit stops issue was directed by him on the 55 radio).

1.  Clint Bowyer started this whole thing with the intentional spin.  Mike Helton said there was not conclusive evidence that the spin was intentional, but if you watch the in-car feed, listen to the audio, and watch the interviews with both Bowyer and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (who was directly behind the 15 car at the time of the spin), there’s plenty of evidence.  I won’t call it conclusive, but I’m pretty convinced something suspicious happened to that racecar.

Yet, Clint Bowyer is the driver among the MWR camp least penalized by these sanctions.  His spot in the chase was not in doubt all summer, and he had finished the regular season in 3rd.  The 50 points hurt his regular season standing, but that placement has absolutely no effect on the points reset that starts the Chase.  The seeding is determined by bonus points accumulated from wins, not from points position.  How is this fair to the field, to the sport, and its fans that the catalyst for one of the biggest scandals the sport has ever seen is still in a pretty good spot to potentially win the championship.

A few minutes ago, ESPN accidentally showed a graphic which had the 50-point penalty included in the Chase seeding, which put him 65 points behind Matt Kenseth.  Although the graphic was incorrect, I didn’t see it as such a bad idea.

2.  Martin Truex Jr. was totally innocent.  Did he benefit from the actions of his teammates?  Absolutely.  Was he involved in the manipulation by MWR? No.  After the race, he told multiple reporters he had no clue whether or not Bowyer’s spin was intentional.  And, at that time, no one had yet connected the dots on the Vickers pit stops during the final 3 laps.  He was simply the beneficiary of the actions of MWR.  I certainly understand handing down organizational punishment, but it’s not fair to penalize Truex (and NAPA) for the actions of others.  He should’ve been left in the Chase, and Newman should’ve been added in addition to Truex.  That would’ve made the most since to me.

Then again, Doug Rice said at one point during PRN’s coverage of the announcement that (I’m paraphrasing) there was no possible way for NASCAR to make everybody happy here.  True.

Jeff Gordon, who should be the most disappointed with the announcement (keep reading) tweeted “Feel bad for Truex.  He got in under controversy now out due to it.”  He goes on to say “But the guy who started all of this not effected at all??? Don’t agree!”  Well said, Jeff, referencing both Bowyer’s lack of penalty and Truex’s over-penalization.

3.  That being said, Jeff Gordon is still not in the Chase.  That one point he lost at, well, any of the 26 races cost him what would’ve been his ninth Chase berth in the ten years of the Chase era.  Actually, he really lost by two because in the event of a tie, Joey Logano would still be in because of his win at Michigan, whereas Gordon is winless this year.

When asked tonight about why Newman got in the Chase, but Gordon did not, Mike Helton said that (again, paraphrasing) NASCAR could react to what occurred, not to the ripple affect of what occurred.

Here’s what occurred: Brian Vickers pitted as the field took the green on the final restart with 3 laps to go, after being directed to do so by the aforementioned Ty Norris.  Vickers was surprised he was being called in to pit, even saying “Are you talking to me?” and “I don’t understand, pit right now?”  Norris responded, saying “You’ve got to pit this time, we need that one point.”  After the stop, Norris told Vickers “Brian, I owe you a kiss.”  Helton said that Vickers’ confusion (and Norris’ response) was the smoking gun.  (Not his words, credit to Jenna Fryer of the AP on Twitter).  Bowyer was also reported to have stopped after the final restart.

The direct result, not the ripple effect, was Joey Logano passing Vickers and Bowyer as they pitted, and gaining 2 positions on the racetrack and 2 corresponding points in the standings.  Two paragraphs ago, I referenced how Gordon needed 2 points at any point in the season.  There they are; those 2 points Logano gained got him in.

That was the direct result to what occurred, as Helton put it.  I don’t know what on earth the “ripple effect” was.  Jeff Gordon isn’t sure either, as he tweeted “Someone explain the “ripple effect” to me?”  Gordon’s wife, Ingrid, seemed more upset Ripple effect is when first guy causes something and gets no penalty.  Every driver effected by that first move gets screwed!”

I am in no way, form, or fashion upset with Joey Logano.  It wouldn’t be fair to penalize him for the actions of another team.  I’m frustrated, as a Jeff Gordon fan, and as a fan of the sport in general, that one of its greatest champions was cheated out of a chance at his 5th championship.

38% of readers of a Bleacher Report article I will reference momentarily said the best option was to have a 14-driver Chase, given the special circumstances, adding Gordon and Newman, as the best compromise.  Just a thought.  Another thought: did Mike Helton think that it would severely damage the integrity of the Chase to have 13 or 14 drivers?  I don’t know, but it certainly damages the integrity of the Chase to have this situation resolved like this.

NASCAR surely doesn’t want a black eye over its sport going into its championship run.  Unfortunately, due to the actions of an organization, I don’t think that’s possible.  As I mentioned earlier, nothing could have made everybody happy.

For complete details of the all-out manipulation of the Richmond race, here is an article published by Bleacher Report before the penalties came out that called my attention to how severe this manipulation was by MWR:

http://bleacherreport.com/articles/1766433-was-clint-bowyers-late-spinout-in-nascars-richmond-finale-fair-or-foul

As a fan, not as a blogger, I earlier tweeted the following:  “If NASCAR forgets about my driver (Gordon), maybe I’ll forget about them 4 a while.  Sorry ESPN 4 my NFL viewership this Sunday.”  I don’t know yet if I’ll take my displeasure with NASCAR to that extent yet; I’ll decide that on Sunday.  There’s some NFL games that my catch my attention, or perhaps the Braves will be in a position to clinch (the magic number is 8).

One final thought:  when I learned NASCAR was calling a news conference for 8:15 tonight, I knew it was something big.  NASCAR usually waits until Tuesdays to announce penalties but they were making their announcement right in the middle of a pretty big football game, 12 hours early.  In the end, however, I’m not sure it was big enough.

Stay tuned later in the week for my Chase prediction rankings, drivers 1-12.