Through the Gears: Four things we learned in New Hampshire
On paper, New Hampshire Motor Speedway should be one of the most exciting racetracks in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Just one mile in length, it’s the shortest oval NASCAR races on between the second week of June and Bristol in late August, part of a summer doldrums stretch that typically produces the lowest ratings of the year. Its second event, held in September, is also in the Chase midway through the first round of eliminations that will cut the field down from 16 drivers to 12 drivers. The layout may be flat, part of the track’s unique makeup, but the action on-track should be the opposite — a welcome respite in the midst of intermediate hell and Indy’s Brickyard Coronation Parade disguised as a 400-mile crown jewel.
Instead? While there’s parity up at the Magic Mile with Brad Keselowski the 13th winner in the last 13 races, the on-track jostling for position rarely materializes. Other than restarts — a frantic two to three laps of insanity — passing was near impossible in a race defined by pit strategy, track position and a Penske car that was often two-tenths quicker than the field. NASCAR officials tried their best, with four of seven cautions called for debris, but the most shuffling they got came from which team took two tires rather than four to stay out front. When the roughest contact came from a 72-year-old simply out there logging laps (more on that in a bit) NASCAR heads into its final off week struggling to sustain momentum. No wonder why aerial shots of the track, the final race covered by TNT, showed the stands as merely three-quarters full.
All that begs a look at the schedule, which could be set for some major changes with the shifting of TV partners come 2015. Right now, the Chase begins with Chicagoland, one of the sport’s weakest intermediate tracks, followed by this type of “yawner” competition. Up third? Dover, whose “Monster Mile” has done little to chew up the field in recent years. That’s your trio, in succession, out of all tracks NASCAR has to offer tasked with getting an audience revved up for this new format. It’s like announcing a world tour with Lady Gaga and kicking it off with Topeka, Bismarck and a smoky casino in Reno.
Is it the cars? Some might say yes, but the racing has been fantastic at other places (Fontana and Bristol immediately come to mind). Is it the drivers? Maybe, but several have abandoned the conservative, racing for points mentality in favor of a more aggressive approach. Is it the track? Perhaps, but after millions in aesthetic improvements following its purchase, owner Speedway Motorsports, Inc. will be reluctant to tear up the asphalt and start over. Is it the tires? Sure, we always seem to blame Goodyear, and too many two-tire stops Sunday were effective. But of course, there’s always a balance here when it comes to aggression and safety, as hung throttles claimed the lives of Kenny Irwin and Adam Petty here 14 short years ago.
The solutions here are complex, and it could be years before we get an effective answer to the monotony. Until then, maybe NASCAR should take a look at rewarding the best tracks with the best racing by saving the best for last. New Hampshire isn’t one of those options right now, making a two-date schedule of April and July (or even just one date on the schedule) a much more appealing option. Throwing Richmond, a road course or even Atlanta to spice things up in the first three Chase races would be far more preferable than putting people to sleep. Why burden the playoffs — which are already under fire — with the threat of potential snoozers like this one?
“Through the Gears” we go …
FIRST GEAR: Is “Bad Brad” back in charge?
Two of the last three weeks, it’s Team Penske that’s hot, with Brad Keselowski riding full momentum into NASCAR’s last off week. Leading 138 laps, even a green-white-checker finish wasn’t enough to derail perhaps the only car on-track that could pass people with ease.
“Where do I start? The team was just really on it,” said Keselowski who completed a New Hampshire sweep after winning the Nationwide race on Saturday. “From our perspective our car was so fast you hated to do anything to it. It really feels like we hit our stride.”
The victories, combined with some struggles of other top drivers, have lifted Keselowski to third in points. Most importantly, his third win ties him with Jimmie Johnson for most on tour and puts him in position for a potential top seed entering the Chase. Penske, with much of the summer left to keep fiddling around, appears to have hit on a combination that pushes the car ahead handling-wise in the center of the corner. That’s a key advantage to have for both these one-mile, shorter ovals and the bigger 1.5-mile intermediates that make up the bulk of NASCAR’s playoff.
Does that mean the balance of power has shifted? Not quite. Hendrick Motorsports, whose four-car outfit was all over the board Sunday, is also in a comfortable position. Johnson, who had two early tire blowouts that left him in the garage in 42nd, is easily the series’ best driver at Indianapolis. Teammates Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne used radically different setups Sunday — seemingly a test for the fall event so the organization comes back fully prepared.
SECOND GEAR: Gibbs clawing back … or one-race wonder?
It’s no secret that Joe Gibbs Racing has spent all season playing catch up. Matt Kenseth, though fourth in points, remains winless while Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch, despite being locked in the Chase, have been bouncing up and down the standings like yo-yos. Consistency, once the hallmark of this program, has been replaced by a Sherlock Holmes mystery: these cars could roll off third best or 30th best off the truck each weekend, with no rhyme or reason as to why. It’s a clear step back for Toyota’s top program, while Ford and Chevy’s best teams (Penske and Hendrick, respectively) run circles around it heading towards the Chase.
That’s why this weekend was so important for JGR to reestablish a baseline. All three teams were capable of winning, with the trio finishing second, fourth and eighth after qualifying first, third and 15th. If Hamlin wasn’t forced to pit due to fuel issues before the green-white-checker, those results could have been even better.
“We haven’t been such dominant forces that we were last year,” admitted Busch post-race. “At this time last year (Matt) Kenseth and myself and the races that Denny (Hamlin) was able to make — we led a lot of laps. Unfortunately, we just haven’t quite seen that yet this year. Trying to get better, and once we do, I think everybody will see, and you’ll start hearing the name JGR a little bit more.”
New Hampshire, for the reasons mentioned above, was a bit of a testing session of sorts for other top rivals. Still, you can’t ignore a trio of top-10 results, the type of confidence boost that gets JGR feeling it’s turned in the right direction with two months and counting left towards the Chase.
THIRD GEAR: The old guy wrecks the party
Here’s one for you: Morgan Shepherd scored his last top-5 finish in Cup when Chase Elliott was less than two years old. Born two months before Pearl Harbor, you’d think the 72-year-old Shepherd incited a war on Sunday when he slammed into a driver 50 years his junior in Joey Logano. Running second at the time, Logano’s race was toast, calling into question whether a driver who hadn’t finished a Cup race in a decade should still be competing.
“I got taken out by the slowest car out there. You would think there would be some courtesy to the leaders,” said Logano, who referenced there should be a driver’s test to someone like Shepherd before they go out and compete. “We were in second place. He gets out of the way on the straightaway and then goes into the corner and slides right up into the lane I was in. Whatever. I don’t know.”
For his part, Shepherd qualified dead last in the 43-car field. He ran far above NASCAR’s minimum speed, so despite running several laps off the pace, had every right to be there. The problem stems not so much from Shepherd but from the lack of outside competition to knock cars backed by this one-time novelty act off the grid. Just 42 cars ran at Kentucky last month, the Cup Series’ first “short field” since 2001. And there seem to be openings at the back of the field every week. With the right amount of cash paired with some previous experience, it seems anyone could earn a NASCAR license and pop up on track — creating a perception that the Cup Series is a “show” to the untrained observer rather than an actual sport.
You stop that process by increasing ownership, reducing costs and encouraging more manufacturers, investors, etc. to fight for a spot on the grid. Until that happens, if there’s a smaller field (36? 38?) to keep from watering-down the product this type of incident may be the tip of an iceberg.
FOURTH GEAR: RTA still overshadowing all
The sport’s new Race Team Alliance (RTA), formed by the top nine multi-car owners, was at the forefront of everyone’s mind in New Hampshire. Even after winning, at the post-race press conference, it was one of the first questions posed to RTA Charter Member Roger Penske.
“I support it 100 percent,” he said. “And Rob Kauffman communicates the message for all the owners. I really don’t have any other comments.”
Kauffman, co-owner for Michael Waltrip Racing has been named chair of the new organization, which publicly says its motive is to “cut costs and streamline ideas” for the sport going forward. But it’s also a grouping that NASCAR has never seen, long-term, throughout its 65-year history. Why not? In the past, totalitarian leadership by Bill France Sr. or Bill France Jr. would stamp out any such attempts to “unionize.” When drivers didn’t want to run Talladega in 1969 fearing safety issues, Bill Sr. still ran the race, building a replacement field. In the 1960s, when Curtis Turner led a potential movement towards a driver’s union? The move wound up destroying Turner’s career, not NASCAR’s.
But this time around, with millions of dollars on the line, the owners appear to have more leverage than ever. Look no further than Morgan Shepherd and the sobering reality of point three: if these owners don’t like a decision from NASCAR and choose to leave and/or boycott, there is no one, and I mean no one in position to replace them on the grid. It’s a powerful chess piece, one that could be played when it comes to receiving more TV money under the sport’s new contract or in opposition to rule changes. Owners see declining ratings and a threat of potential reductions to their country club; how they respond to it, along with the way they work together in this arrangement (despite remaining competitors on-track), could be the most important piece to NASCAR’s future over the next decade.
Let’s give a shout-out to Jeff Burton, 20th, in just his second race all season driving a Michael Waltrip Racing-supported No. 66. Burton was on the lead lap, a consistent performer throughout the day and could have finished higher if not for late contact with Danica Patrick. It’s the last Cup race currently scheduled for the veteran before making a full-time transition to the Sprint Cup booth for NBC in 2015. … See, NASCAR? You throw all those debris cautions (four out of seven Sunday) in what seemingly was a Herculean effort to keep the race competitive. Yet the green-white-checker finish developed naturally, with a David Ragan-Justin Allgaier wreck forcing the yellow with four laps left. Shouldn’t that be a lesson even boring races don’t have to be manipulated? Sometimes, the action simply fixes itself. … Kyle Larson had a strong recovery Sunday, erasing a summer slump by jumping to third on the race’s final restart. A top-10 car all day, Larson is tied with rookie Austin Dillon for the final Chase spot; only one is likely to make the field when all is said and done. … Kevin Harvick, after running out of gas at New Hampshire, has gone 11 races without a win. During that time, he’s posted three runner-up finishes, has led 367 laps and qualified no worse than 13th. Yes, Harvick’s temper has erupted one too many times and irritated the crew, but the list of missed opportunities is getting long enough to frustrate anyone.
Follow Tom Bowles on Twitter: @NASCARBowles
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.