NASCAR's longest race faces a long road ahead
NASCAR may have been born in Daytona Beach, the result of a smoke-filled hotel in December 1947 but North Carolina is now its grown-up home base. Ninety percent of Cup Series teams make their home there, most with race shops just outside the Charlotte city limits. Its 1.5-mile oval is looked at as one of the sport’s crown jewels, the Coca-Cola 600 is the longest race NASCAR’s top division will run all year.
But this prime example of “cookie-cutter” intermediate in the sport’s modern era also is facing a long list of criticisms, all of which were at a fever pitch following the All-Star Race Saturday night. A lackluster performance ended with a Kyle Busch victory in which you knew the winner by turn 2 of the final 10-lap sprint. And that’s with a double-file restart, different tire options, an elimination-style format... all that was missing was a kitchen sink.
The key moment in this borefest, one that could lead to change featured a repeat “pass in the grass” attempt by rookie Erik Jones gone wrong. You remember the pass in the grass, right? The funny part is it wasn’t even a pass. Dale Earnhardt slid through the grass ahead of Bill Elliott in 1987, keeping his rival in check en route to winning the sport’s third edition of the All-Star Race. Elliott was incensed; the crowd was in an uproar. NASCAR had reached another level of growth.
Look at Jones’ attempt 30 years later. It’s so similar, yet with such a tragic ending. The car gets ripped into pieces; Jones loses it and spins out five seconds later. Instead of a three-wide finish to that Open segment, the sport uttered a collective yawn — and protest. None other than a retiring Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced on Twitter the sport needed to fix the handling on these racecars ASAP.
Splitters need to be phased out of stock car oval racing as soon as possible.— Dale Earnhardt Jr. (@DaleJr) May 20, 2017
This brings us to the 2018 NASCAR schedule announced this week. Charlotte’s 600 was safe, but wait... what’s that I see? The fall edition at this track has been switched from the oval to its infield road course. Cars will turn left and right at CMS next year for the first time in the sport’s long history.
It’s a change met with cheers amongst many who felt the racing at CMS had gotten stale. What better way to renew interest in the sport’s home track then by opening up a brand new course? The 10-race playoff absolutely needed a right-turn track to better represent all the places drivers run on during the regular season.
But there’s another side to this gearshift. By abandoning the sport’s second oval race at CMS, NASCAR is admitting there’s a problem with the handling of the cars there. Instead of addressing the illness, they’re treating a symptom by just giving the cars a new playground. It’s following a pattern of the last dozen years: adding a playoff, changing the point system, adding stages during races... none of that addressing the actual side-by-side competition itself.
Look, it’s great CMS will have a new race to keep interest fresh. The region is an important part of the NASCAR landscape and, considering the nearly 40-week schedule on the road, I appreciate the sport trying to keep teams close to home as much as possible. But I also think it’s clear that, if the All-Star Race were held in California and the racing turned out like we saw Saturday night that event would be moved quicker than you could blink. Instead, it’s still on the 2018 schedule along with a 600-mile edition primed to produce the same type of boredom if we’re not careful. Hey, just ask Martin Truex Jr.; he led a race record 392 of 400 laps last year in a snoozer.
With the Indy 500 poised to once again pound NASCAR in the ratings, the sport needs to learn from what happened Saturday night. At some point, you run out of new cards in the deck and you have to work with the hand you have. If the handling on these cars doesn’t improve, in particular on cookie-cutter tracks no amount of new tricks will keep this old dog afloat in the competitive world of American sports.
That’s what the sport’s R&D Center should be spending every second of every minute trying to fix. Playing with the schedule and the rules only does so much.
Time: 6 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Charlotte Motor Speedway (Charlotte, NC)
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Kyle Busch
After a season filled with near misses and perennial shots in the foot Busch found himself a bit of luck Saturday night. The right-timed restart combined with contact behind him sent Busch to his first-ever $1 million bonus in the sport’s All-Star Race. Combine that with a Truck Series victory the night before and he enters Charlotte’s main weekend red hot.
Busch has struggled on the Cup level with his Joe Gibbs Racing team; the organization as a whole has yet to score a victory there this season. But the 2015 series champ is the type of driver that can break out of a slump in a hurry, scorching the field and winning three of four. Conditions are favorable (see: two straight top-five runs in Cup heading into Charlotte) so the rest of the competition better watch out.
Who’s at the Back: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
The All-Star Race was a sorry performance for the sport’s "Most Popular (soon-to-be-retired) Driver." Finishing 18th, he failed to make the final 10-lap segment and was never in contention, posting the worst average finish of all drivers through 60 laps.
In the regular season, Earnhardt now sits 24th in points with just one top-10 finish through 11 races. Seventy-seven (77) points outside a playoff spot, the push forward needs to start now. A win technically will get him in but when’s the last time the No. 88 was even capable of running up front outside of a restrictor plate track?
The 2018 NASCAR schedule was announced this week with some big changes. Indianapolis now moves to the final race of the regular season, replacing Richmond, which now moves into the 10-race playoff. Richmond displaces New Hampshire, shifted back from two dates to one as part of an expansion for Las Vegas Motor Speedway. LVMS gets a new second date, becoming the new playoff kickoff event while struggling Chicagoland Speedway moves back to a regular season race in July.
Regan Smith will remain the sub for Aric Almirola in the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford this weekend. (He failed to make the All-Star Race last weekend in the car). A long-term sub for Almirola, who will take 8-12 weeks to recover from his fractured T5 vertebra suffered at Kansas has not been announced.
NASCAR’s 2018 Hall of Fame class was announced this week. Red Byron, the final member of the original 25 nominees selected when the Hall opened in 2010 was among those selected. Byron, the original series champ in 1949, will be joined by legendary car owner and engine builder Robert Yates; Jeff Gordon’s championship crew chief Ray Evernham; all-time Truck Series leader in victories Ron Hornaday Jr.; and broadcasting legend Ken Squier. Jim France won the Landmark Award for outstanding contributions to NASCAR.
Danica Patrick’s employer, Stewart-Haas Racing, has tentatively settled a lawsuit with her former primary sponsor Nature’s Bakery. The corporation had pulled out of its final two years of a three-year deal in January claiming Patrick’s endorsement of rival products violated the deal (among other complaints).
Finally, in a long news week Kyle Larson, after running strong throughout the All-Star Race, will have to start this weekend from the back of the field. Larson hit the wall in practice and then did not pass technical inspection in time to make a qualifying lap. He’ll begin the 600 from 39th position.
NASCAR by the Numbers
NASCAR winners crowned through the sport’s first 11 points-paying events. A maximum of 16 drivers can win to automatically make the sport’s playoff before “bumping” begins, as long as they each remain inside the top 30 in points.
Average finish of points leader Kyle Larson this season, best on the NASCAR circuit.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
For Jimmie Johnson, the All-Star Race was a near miss but Charlotte has always been a hit. He has eight career victories at the track, including one last fall and posted an average finish of 2.0 at the track in 2016. While others at Hendrick Motorsports have been inconsistent, Johnson keeps humming along and with another solid track on the docket next week (Dover) he should be a mainstay on your roster.
See above for Kyle Busch; don’t count him out this Sunday. And keep in mind Martin Truex Jr. considering his dominating performance last season. Truex, though was underwhelming in the All-Star Race which have raised a few eyebrows he’ll be a step behind this Sunday.
Kyle Larson isn’t in the top tier of some leagues yet. So grab him before he gets more expensive! This guy should have won the All-Star Race with a better restart and has one of the fastest cars at Charlotte this week. Starting at the back won’t stop him when there’s 600 miles to make your way through the field. For what it’s worth, Larson was fifth at CMS last fall and has a reasonable career average finish there of 17.9.
I always am a Kasey Kahne guy when it comes to CMS. While underwhelming in the All-Star Race, he has four career wins at the track and was third in the 500-miler last fall. Kahne’s the type of guy who can survive 600 miles and quietly log you a top-10 finish.
How about the rookies this weekend? Daniel Suarez made the All-Star Race last Saturday night and has discreetly logged five straight top-20 finishes. Erik Jones almost made it and is due after wrecks in three of his last four Cup starts (including the All-Star Open). And Ty Dillon did reasonably well here in the XFINITY Series with five top-11 finishes in six career starts.
What Vegas Thinks
Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., and Kyle Larson share the top of the Vegas charts with 11/2 odds.
What I Think
Truex has the history. Larson has the speed. But I’m going to go with the momentum of Kyle Busch to get hot and score a victory in the 600, locking him into this year’s version of the Cup playoffs.
(Photo by ASP Inc.)