Through the Gears: you can’t put lipstick on a pig.
So, NASCAR Nation, were the first three races of NASCAR’s reformatted Chase for the Sprint Cup more exciting than last year? Here’s a few statistics to help you decide.
2013: 21.0 per event
2014: 12.7 per event
Lead Changes in the Last 10 Laps
Debris Cautions (Typically thrown when the field is spread out)
2013: 7 of 20 (35%)
2014: 11 of 26 (42.3%)
I start this way not because I want the sport to fail but to provide sobering reality to the unrelenting marketing excitement of NASCAR’s “new Chase format.” CEO Brian France, in pushing to change the playoff system, has emphasized the need for “Game 7” moments for the crowning of a champion to rival the slow build we see in stick ‘n’ ball sports. To do so, the format was changed more radically this year than we’ve seen since a “playoff” was introduced in 2004. There’s been an emphasis on winning (automatic qualifier), an expansion of the field to 16 and elimination stages to the point only four drivers will be eligible to race for the title at Homestead in November.
The moves early on in the season led to more exciting competition, especially at tracks where driver skill, not team money/engineering expertise provides a decided advantage (see: Watkins Glen, short tracks, restrictor plate racing). However, over the long run you can’t put lipstick on a pig. The four drivers we saw eliminated in this round of the Chase were nowhere near in position to compete for a title. The three drivers we saw win to start the postseason is a trio that, along with Jimmie Johnson, would be no surprise to see inside the “Final Four” at Homestead. This Sunday, with eliminations on the line, all those titlists came in with a clear mentality: “winning” meant not fighting for the trophy but advancing to the next round. Honestly, New Hampshire would have been just as monotonous if not for some nicely-timed debris cautions that bunched up the field and upped the anxiety for the final 125 laps.
What Dover became was a lot of conservative competition, along the lines of a Week 17 NFL matchup with little on the line. A postseason event over the course of the day somehow wound up with less meaning, at times, than a regular-season race. And a larger-than-expected crowd at Dover — their interest piqued in NASCAR’s new Chase elimination — instead saw the fun eliminated out of competition at what used to be one of the sport’s trickier, exciting tracks.
There’s still seven races left to go in NASCAR’s playoff, so certainly anything can happen. But there’s few, if any, underdogs left in the field of 12; nine of them come from just three teams (Hendrick Motorsports, Penske Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing). Carl Edwards, the 2008 title runner-up, and the always-contending Kevin Harvick from Stewart-Haas Racing are numbers 10 and 11, respectively. Underrated Ryan Newman, known more for earning poles than fighting for titles, is the closest thing you get to a “David vs. Goliath” story, and even then he’s driving for well-funded Richard Childress Racing.
If I’m missing something, please, comment below and tell me why you’re more excited about NASCAR three races into the new format. I’m hopeful the tide turns, but right now I see a whole lot of changes … and, after early optimism, I also see a very similar end result. Falling flat.
Through the Gears we go…
FIRST GEAR: Gordon steps up
After two races of Penske dominance, threatening to take the “favorite” label away from Hendrick Motorsports, the regular season championship leader stepped up. Jeff Gordon waited patiently for his turn at Dover, an event dominated by Harvick until a broken valve stem on a tire left the No. 4 car limping to the pits with a roughed-up splitter. Harvick’s track position gone — despite a timely caution to save him from going a lap down — left the victory battle between the two other cars head and shoulders above the pack: Gordon and Brad Keselowski. Combined, that trio of drivers led 395 of Dover’s 400 laps.
“I felt like we had a shot at the 2 car,” Gordon said. “We had kind of stayed with [Keselowski] throughout the day. He really would fade after about 30 laps, and so I was able to run him down on one of those restarts on the longer run and get by him.”
This race favored Gordon, whose car has been at its best this season on long, green-flag runs where traffic spreads out. The No. 24 car, in those situations has been one of the few able to pass without being slowed significantly by NASCAR’s “aero push” phenomenon. And with “long run” types of tracks ahead, including the Kansas facility where Gordon won this spring, this four-time champ remains in strong contention to bring home a fifth come Homestead.
SECOND GEAR: Clearing up the Chase grid
NASCAR’s first elimination race became a battle down the stretch between Hendrick’s Kasey Kahne and SHR’s Kurt Busch. Kahne, who had a top-10 car, lost two laps when a loose left-rear tire forced a green-flag stop. He spent the rest of the day clawing back, catching a lucky break on another yellow to regain a lap on the leaders. Kahne wound up 20th, one lap behind, jumping eight spots over the last 160 laps of the race. Busch, meanwhile, saw his car turn evil handling-wise, dropping seven spots during that same stretch, from 11th to 18th. That ultimately made up the difference, Kahne the one recovering from adversity during a season where he’s drowned in it far too often.
“We just had to race, race, race,” he said. “I never really got nervous at all. I’m glad NASCAR just let it go and let us race for it.”
The long green-flag run at the end doomed Busch, whose car just couldn’t keep it together over the last 40 laps, losing the five spots that dropped the 2004 champ out of contention for good.
“It was just tight,” he explained. “I felt like we were in good position to advance, but you just can’t expect to advance by running 18th. I just chalk it up to me not getting the job done.”
Others left behind, dropped from the 16-driver Chase field could see it coming. AJ Allmendinger put up a valiant effort, coming the closest, but could not overcome the limits of a JTG-Daugherty single-car operation in its first full year together as driver, crew chief and manufacturer. Simply making the Chase was an achievement for them, as well as fellow first-time Cup winner Aric Almirola, who was doomed by a faulty engine at Chicagoland. Greg Biffle, driving for struggling Roush Fenway Racing has been down on speed all season, collecting just three top-5 finishes and was arguably the worst-performing of these Chase drivers during the regular season.
THIRD GEAR: Is the 48/88 shop a step behind?
Dover, where Jimmie Johnson has a record nine career victories, is the closest thing the sport has to an “automatic.” Johnson, who’s won the Chase race at Dover three of the last five years, was supposed to rubber-stamp his effort for a record-tying seventh championship here, pounding the field and reminding us all how the No. 48 owns NASCAR’s postseason era. Instead? There was an A-minus, third-place result — a race where Johnson didn’t lead a lap at the Monster Mile for the first time in seven-and-a-half years. Does that mean Johnson is in trouble?
Yes and no. Certainly, crew chief Chad Knaus has made a career out of building this team to peak at the right time. A victory here, as opposed to a third-place, did little for Johnson under this new format, as no one enters the next round with an advantage (all points for the 12 contenders have been reset). Knaus constantly reemphasized the strategy of “survive and advance” on the radio, urging Johnson not to push too hard with a car that was ever-so-slightly behind the top two.
At the same time, you’d like to see Johnson run up front more; he hasn’t led a lap in any race since Michigan in August, and is now winless since the first Michigan race in June. The performance of Dale Earnhardt Jr., whose cars are built in the same shop, is even more concerning. The No. 88 car came into the Chase with momentum but has run 11th, ninth and 17th, also failing to lead a lap. Without a past history of bouncing back, running consistently throughout all 10 races of the Chase, you have to wonder if Earnhardt could be vulnerable in this next round. He was a ho-hum 19th at Charlotte in the spring; a similar finish leaves him wide open to suffer bad luck at Talladega and miss out.
“Trust me, we’re going to go to work and try to find everything we can to get better,” he said after Sunday’s race. “But we’re concerned. It’s not been a good couple of weeks. We need to find something quick.”
FOURTH GEAR: A monstrous mess
Dover’s Monster Mile once again turned into a dull parade of too many cars running in place Sunday. A track known for survival had not a single car suffer a serious wreck, as 40 of 43 cars finished the race and virtually all cautions occur because of debris. Had NASCAR wanted, letting some subjective calls go the other way, this entire event could have run caution free.
Many claim the problem at Dover is the tire compound; that it doesn’t create enough fall-off over the course of a green-flag run. What you get is too much parity, about 20 cars up front running the same speed an entire run while the rest become meaningless lapped traffic. Watching the leaders dice through those backmarkers at a place where passing has become virtually impossible, provided the only interesting moments for fans frustrated over the racing here. One would think, considering the importance of this track on the schedule, that NASCAR, Dover executives and Goodyear would get together in the offseason and hammer toward a solution so the track’s aggressive, rough-around-the-edges personality can return. Dover’s marketing push in and around Philadelphia (my hometown) has been admirable but there’s only so much you can showcase to potential new fans from Sunday. Are you going to make a 30-second commercial based on Chase elimination mathematics? Come on.
How many races has Harvick given away due to poor pit stops, penalties or some type of tire problem? We’ve got to be up to half-a-dozen at this point as Harvick, who led a NASCAR-high 406 laps in the first three races of this Chase, went 0-for-3 on victory lane. … Quietly, local favorite Martin Truex Jr. came home seventh for single-car Furniture Row Racing. A disappointing Truex, who has yet to lead a lap this season in the No. 78, has just four top-10 finishes, with two of them occurring at the Monster Mile. … Three Chase races, three top-6 finishes for rookie Kyle Larson. While not in the postseason field, the kid continues to impress each and every week. … Someone needs to explain to me how Almirola, Biffle, Allmendinger or Kurt Busch could still finish “as high as fifth in points.” The new NASCAR Chase format resets everyone’s point total to 3,000, leaving 13th through 16th behind in the 2,000-point range. So isn’t it mathematically impossible to move up beyond 13th? If so, NASCAR better explain that to a whole host of other media members, drivers and crewmen, who were all chirping about “the push to finish as high as 5th in points” after getting eliminated.
Follow Tom Bowles on Twitter: @NASCARBowles
Photo by Action Sports, Inc.