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NASCAR's Push For New Fans... Running Out Of Gas?

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Matt Kenseth No. 20 Windows 10 400 Pocono Raceway

Matt Kenseth No. 20 Windows 10 400 Pocono Raceway

Try this scenario on for size. You’re at the office Monday when a co-worker stops you and asks what you did over the weekend. You mention you watched the NASCAR race at Pocono. Your co-worker, not well versed in the world of stock car racing is interested in how the ending turned out. “Who won the race?” he says, a potential new fan in the making with your answers.

Matt Kenseth.”

“How’d he do it?”

“Well… all the other cars ran out of gas…”

Nowhere in there is a buzzer beater that sent college basketball fans rushing the court. There’s no home run hit in extra innings to talk about, a walk-off shot that sent the local MLB fans scurrying to watch the replay at the bar. Nor is there a penalty shot (soccer), a power play goal (hockey)… you get the picture.

Now don’t get me wrong; purists, longtime stock car racing fans and media analysts like me loved Sunday’s race at Pocono. One of the sport’s last independent tracks has improved conditions both on and off the track in recent years, producing one of the best crowds we’ll see. The first 97 laps were a glimpse into the NASCAR racing of old; blown engines, spectacular crashes and wild passing, especially on restarts, ruled the day. The finish, one that was based on fuel mileage, happens in the sport from time to time. It’s been forever since we’ve seen that many failed strategy calls during the final laps, drivers dropping like flies and running out of gas to the point a few couldn’t even make it back to the start/finish line.

It’s hard to find a hardcore fan disappointed with the outcome of that one. But potential new fans? How do you explain that to them? How do you get them psyched about the ending of a race in which everyone ran in place, cutting off the engine over the final 20 laps at times to avoid simply running out of gas? While most people can relate to pushing their fuel gauge to empty, squeezing every ounce out of it before hitting the gas station, it doesn’t sound all that enticing to watch.

NASCAR ratings followed suit, as the Pocono race put up a 2.6 household rating for NBC Sports Network. While that’s competitive with what we saw from FOX Sports 1 this season, it still tied a 17-year low for the race itself. Yet everyone is sitting around smiling this week, pleased with the outcome and feeling that NASCAR’s Tricky Triangle produced one of the best races we’ve seen all season.

Hmph. Even when NASCAR feels it wins, it winds up losing to some degree. Such has been the story of a tumultuous 2015 filled with multiple rule changes, safety concerns and a continued disconnect with an 18-to-34 age group that needs to find itself enthused about the sport. Maybe it’s just me but when I was a teenager I dreamed of racing my car, banging fenders with someone like in go karts.  Never did I dream about driving down the highway, sitting on cruise control as long as I could without running the darn thing out of gas.

Through the Gears we go….

FIRST GEAR: Mr. Consistency Makes His Presence Known

The second half of Sunday’s race became a runaway, Joey Logano and Kyle Busch distancing themselves from the field. Busch, going for his fourth straight win, ran about a second behind Logano, engaging in a little game of cat and mouse that kept them running at 110 percent. But both men, focused on speed never realized the race was tilting toward fuel mileage until it was far too late. Logano ran out first, sputtering with a little less than three laps remaining, while Busch found himself running short on the final lap.

It was a gamble both men felt like taking; Logano is locked into the Chase while Busch, on the precipice of qualifying, was going for his fourth straight victory. Instead, their loss turned into an unlikely gain for Matt Kenseth, a forgotten man this season in the midst of many changes at Joe Gibbs Racing. Running in the top 5 all afternoon, Kenseth was in position to capitalize and wound up with his second victory, improving his standing inside the Chase while knocking not one but two items off the bucket list.

“I won at Pocono,” said the 43-year-old who’s had his share of troubles there over the years. “I didn’t think that would ever happen. AND I won a fuel mileage race.”

What Kenseth also did was remind us that Busch isn’t the only threat for the championship running inside Joe Gibbs Racing. Even during a winless campaign last year, Kenseth and the No. 20 team fell just short of running for the title at Homestead. His 13 top-10 finishes are tied for fifth most in the series. If not for bad luck at the Russian Roulette tracks of the NASCAR circuit (Daytona and Talladega), his standing in the points would be much higher. The man whose mind-numbing, fifth-place finishes helped spawn the sport’s Chase format in 2004 is still well-positioned to be a factor.

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Here’s one more note that should have you watching Kenseth: the emergence of young Erik Jones, the star 18-year-old Joe Gibbs Racing revealed this week will be running one of their Cup cars full-time by 2017. Right now, JGR has “no room at the inn,” at their four-car limit with Carl Edwards signed through ‘17 and Kyle Busch under contract long term. Denny Hamlin could be the odd man out then… or is it Kenseth? He’ll be 44 next season, the same age as Jeff Gordon, who has made this year his last in Sprint Cup. With a potential limited number of chances left to make a run a title that could give Kenseth and the No. 20 team a little extra motivation going forward.

SECOND GEAR: The Difficulty of Maintaining Momentum

For Logano, who led a race-high 97 laps, it’s been a difficult summer of trying to maintain momentum. The first driver that qualified for the Chase this year, winning NASCAR’s Daytona 500, Logano hasn’t cashed in on Victory Lane since. That’s despite a series-leading four poles, collecting 12 top-5 finishes (second only to Kevin Harvick), and ending 19 of 21 races this year on the lead lap.

In Logano’s case, he should be building momentum but missed opportunities for wins hurt Chase seeding. At the moment, he sits nine points behind Jimmie Johnson for the top seed in NASCAR’s postseason and missing that extra cushion could haunt him should Team Penske encounter problems inside the first round. Ditto for points leader Kevin Harvick, a driver who at times has dominated the Cup circuit this season yet has only two victories to show for it. His 1,362 laps led is almost double the next driver on the list, yet it seems like the team is always shooting itself in the foot. Sunday’s 42nd-place finish, the result of an engine failure, was the reigning champion’s first DNF of 2015 and reminded observers about worries that sprouted up last year, a series of early mechanical problems that would kill a repeat title bid should they happen in the Chase.

For Brad Keselowski, he’s in much the same boat despite a run toward the front in recent weeks. Kes ran second Sunday, which was a surprise recovery after running into two of his crewmen on pit road (remarkably, no one was hurt). A penalty from that left him a lap down at one point, an obstacle the team should be happy they overcame. But second place, in Keselowski’s eyes is simply the first loser and it didn’t earn him any extra points for the races that really matter.

“There’s always going to be some adversity,” he explained. “That’s part of the sport. But if we could have, quite honestly, not had that (pit road) issue during the race, I feel like we probably would have won today. That one is on me, so I feel really guilty for my team on that.”

THIRD GEAR: What’s Up at Hendrick?

The scariest incident at Pocono happened less than five laps into the race when Kasey Kahne lost control exiting turn 3. Slamming the boilerplate wall inside pit road, Kahne sent crew members and spectators scattering as he destroyed the front end of his No. 5 car. It’s an incident that left him dead last, confused over what went on and clinging to the final spot inside this year’s Chase.

That spot will dissolve the second Kyle Busch works his way in, expected to crack the top 30 in points by next weekend in Watkins Glen. For Kahne, who’s on a streak of five straight races of 19th or worse, that leaves him in a really tough spot. His struggles have been symptomatic of Hendrick Motorsports all summer; outside of Daytona, where Dale Earnhardt Jr. led a 1-2 finish, HMS has led a grand total of 91 laps since Michigan in mid-June. Typically, Jimmie Johnson and Co. enter experimental mode, trying some stuff out for the postseason, but HMS as a whole typically isn’t that bad.

Jeff Gordon, who finished third at Pocono, might be the only one breathing easier this week. But a winless campaign during his final season means even the four-time champ is still vulnerable to miss the Chase with five races left. HMS, whose engines and chassis have been considered the strongest much of the season, could conceivably have half of its four-car lineup wind up missing the Chase.

“We're going to be doing everything we can with the 5-24 teams being under one roof there at Hendrick Motorsports, working as teammates, working with our other teammates to try to do what we can to get both of us in,” Gordon said. “We’re going to be fighting for every position.”

FOURTH GEAR: Roush Fenway Racing’s Rough Road Continues

Could Roush Fenway Racing be any more dysfunctional? Greg Biffle’s fifth-place finish was of small consolation to a team reeling after an ugly weekend. Trevor Bayne, who’d shown signs of improvement this summer, blew his engine after running over a tailpipe. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., wrecking yet again this season, wrapped up his two races at Pocono with an average finish of 41.5. None of the trio appears in position to make the Chase, the first time ever RFR will have failed to do so.

But those struggles pale in comparison to an XFINITY Series team in turmoil. After some ugly contact at Iowa, Ryan Reed wound up in arguments with Ross Chastain and the retired Kenny Wallace. Teammates Chris Buescher and Darrell Wallace Jr. made contact again, leading to a heated argument between Wallace and Buescher’s crew chief. No wonder Elliott Sadler is choosing to bolt, leaving for JR Motorsports in 2016, instead of sticking out RFR and perhaps even earning a Sprint Cup opportunity down the road.

Can you imagine this team, just three years ago was a legit title contender across NASCAR’s top three series? My, how the mighty have fallen…

OVERDRIVE

Kahne’s wreck, which caused over a 10-minute red flag, brought focus to the way Pocono’s pit road is built. A longer protection wall, SAFER Barriers, and extending pit road into turn 1 are some of several improvements being discussed for next season… Sam Hornish Jr., who slammed hard into Kurt Busch at Pocono, continues to disappoint in his first full-time season back in Sprint Cup. Running 39th on Sunday, he’s yet to score a top-5 finish with a team in Richard Petty Motorsports that’s more than capable… Boris Said is the only road course ringer entered in Sunday’s race at Watkins Glen. That’s the lowest number of “one-off” appearances for a Cup road course race in the sport’s modern era.

— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at tom.bowles@frontstretch.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.

Photos by Action Sports, Inc.