At first glance, there’s nothing unique about this weekend’s NASCAR race at Chicagoland. This cookie-cutter 1.5-miler has been on the schedule since 2001 and produced little in the way of memorable finishes. Moved out of the postseason this year, it’s dumped in a precarious spot on the July calendar which may be a precursor to getting kicked off the schedule altogether.
So why will this weekend be one of the season’s most memorable? The answer lies sitting in the broadcast booth.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. begins his post-driving career as a racing analyst Sunday in the Overton’s 400. NBC Sports signed Earnhardt after a hot-and-heavy free agency period last year; he’ll join Rick Allen, Steve Letarte and Jeff Burton as they cover 20 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races. That trio has done an admirable job at the helm these past three years but don’t be fooled; it’s Earnhardt who now becomes the center of attention.
For a sport suffering through ratings and attendance declines, putting hope in a broadcaster seems a bizarre way to fix the problem. How many people watch FOX NFL coverage because of Troy Aikman? Do people really go around claiming they watch the NBA because of Mike Breen? How about Joe Buck bumping up ratings for FOX’s World Series broadcasts?
It seems to me announcers are more responsible for keeping people from watching rather than upping the Nielsen numbers. It’s the athletes, after all, people pay to see, not the man in a suit telling their story. You can even make the argument NASCAR has an example in an aging (but competent) FOX Sports booth that has arleady come under fire a few times this year. “Boogity, boogity, boogity” is the call to start every race from Darrell Waltrip, aging rhetoric that may send younger millennials running for the exits.
But NBC has invested heavily in Earnhardt, sending him everywhere from the Olympics to last month’s Stanley Cup. By rebranding NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver as NASCAR’s Coolest Retiree the hope is fans will transform along with him. Will the urge to spend time with a former flame a few hours each weekend be enough to overcome subpar competition?
“Our plan is to make people want to hang out with us for every race,” said NBC Sports Group executive producer Sam Flood. “And we’ve got the people -- if I’m home on a Sunday afternoon, this is the group I’d want to hang out with. And after spending time with them during [dress rehearsals] it was a great indication that this is a place people are going to want to be.
“We’ll let the ratings take care of themselves.”
Sunday will be an early test, then with a track that produced only 12 lead changes, none in the last 50 laps, and not a single DNF in a snoozer start to the postseason last year. Can Earnhardt keep the fans entertained if the cars up front spend all day running single file?
We’re about to find out how much power athletes-turned-broadcasters have with the fan base after they retire. Earnhardt Jr. already helped save the sport once, after the death of his father left a generation of NASCAR fans searching in 2001.
Will it happen again?
18th Overton’s 400
Time: 2:30 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Chicagoland Speedway (Joliet, Ill.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Drivers With Multiple Wins
Pit road stategy from crew chief Cole Pearn allowed Martin Truex Jr. to snooker the field at Sonoma. With the freshest tires during the final pit cycle he easily ran down Kevin Harvick and surged to a 10.513-second victory on the road course.
But it’s Harvick, Truex, Kyle Busch and Clint Bowyer who continue to beat the field into submission. That quartet has now won 14 of 16 races (14 of 14 on tracks without a restrictor plate). At one point during the Sonoma race, this foursome was 1-2-3-4 with up to 23(!) seconds on the rest of the field.
There’s still plenty of time for their rivals to close the gap. But right now? It’s Homestead or bust for a quartet that’s produced the most lopsided NASCAR season we’ve seen in a decade.
Who’s at the Back: AJ Allmendinger
The ‘Dinger was a dud Sunday at Sonoma after missing a shift. A constant threat to win on right-turn tracks, that blown engine meant his fourth run of 35th or worse during his last five starts out in wine country. Sure, Watkins Glen still remains for the driver of the No. 47 JTG-Daugherty Racing Chevy to launch an upset victory. But for now, this year’s a major disappointment for the 36-year-old veteran (no top 5s, just two top 10s) who may be running out of chances to impress.
Brennan Poole is suing former owner Chip Ganassi and his former agent, accusing them of conspiring to steal his sponsor.Poole, who was a full-time XFINITY Series driver for Ganassi, brought DC Solar to the team from 2015-17 only to see them move to Kyle Larson’s No. 42 Cup car this season. Poole tried to shop the sponsor to Richard Childress Racing for a full-time Cup ride but the deal ultimately fell through. Instead, DC Solar stayed with Ganassi while Poole was relieved of his job. The sponsorship was supposedly worth $5.5 million for a full XFINITY Series schedule in 2017.
XFINITY Series point leader Elliott Sadler is searching for more sponsorship next season.OneMain Financial informed the team they’ll return in a lesser capacity in 2019, giving the No. 1 program a head start on finding a replacement. Last year, the financial company said they’d leave altogether but a strong series of runs during the late summer convinced them to return as the main primary sponsor in 2018.
XFINITY Series driver Michael Annett has signed a multi-year deal to remain with JR Motorsports.Annett is without a top-10 finish this season, sitting a disappointing 15th in the standings, but brings sponsorship from Pilot/Flying J to the team. JRM is hoping to remain a four-car XFINITY program in 2019 with Annett, Sadler, Justin Allgaier and Tyler Reddick at the controls.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Top-10 finishes for Aric Almirola in his new No. 10 ride at Stewart-Haas Racing this season. Almirola ran eighth at Sonoma, his career-best finish on a road course.
Top-10 finishes for Danica Patrick in her entire Cup Series career running the No. 10 car at SHR. Patrick was 7-for-191 in the car; Almirola is 7-for-16.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Who’s the best out of the Kevin Harvick-Kyle Busch-Martin Truex Jr.-Clint Bowyer quartet? That’s what you should be asking every week in this space and determining who to put on the roster. I’d go with Truex here; he’s won the last two races at Chicagoland, two of the last three Cup races in 2018 and is at his best on these 1.5-mile cookie-cutter tracks.
But Harvick isn’t a bad pick either. Sure, he hasn’t won at this track since 2002 but the No. 4 car was third last season, leading 59 laps. Just steer clear of Bowyer; his last (and only) top-5 finish at this track came all the way back in 2010.
Can Chase Elliott turn his season around? The Hendrick Motorsports driver has had an ugly 2018 but a top-5 finish at Sonoma was an unexpected surprise. Now, we’re off to a Chicagoland track where he’s never run lower than third. Those performances were part of a sizzling start to the playoffs; can Elliott keep the momentum rolling now that this race has been moved?
Even after missing the playoffs, Joey Logano pulled together a seventh-place run at Chicagoland last fall. He has four straight top-10 finishes here and won the pole in 2013 for Team Penske before blowing his engine.
Paul Menard has overachieved this year with the Wood Brothers Ford and Chicagoland offers another chance at success. This team, which won here in 2004 with Ricky Rudd ran 11th last season with Ryan Blaney behind the wheel. Menard? He was 14th, one of eight straight Chicagoland finishes between 10th and 22nd. That mid-pack consistency should be enough for a track that’s typically not so kind to the underdog.
What Vegas Thinks
Kevin Harvick is actually favored this weekend with 9/4 odds as of this writing; Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch are right behind at 7/2.
What I Think
After a few races slipped from his grasp in June I think Harvick returns to his winning ways. The No. 4 team reminds the field why they’re the championship favorite by cruising to their sixth victory of the season.
-- 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 email@example.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Top photo courtesy of @SteveLetarte)