Sunday, March 09, 2014

Sizing Up NASCAR After Three Races

With the Vegas 400 wrapped up, we now have three races in the 2014 NASCAR season and some observations are in order -

* - Jim Utter thinks NASCAR's new Chase format has delivered on its promise because Dale Earnhardt Jr. gambled on fuel late in the race, a view echoed by MRN's Dave Moody. It wasn't much of a gamble given Junior is locked into the Chase already because he won a race, and the race wasn't particularly competitive - contrast this with the Busch Series 300-miler the day before where there were some good bouts for the lead and the cars were sidedrafting surprisingly effectively.   If anything, between the day's lack of yellows and lack of passing, Junior's fuel gamble merely illustrated how conservatively the racers are racing after Daytona.  

* - It was the first test of NASCAR's aero changes for the non-plate tracks, and it's far too early to make any kind of pronouncement about their effectiveness.   Even so, it was a discouraging first race for this package. 

* - Getting handling to become less important than the draft remains the goal NASCAR needs to pursue for better racing, and directly involved with this goal is also the need to incentivize going for the lead.   The Busch 300 saw some good racing for the lead; the Cup 400 didn't.   This Chase format hasn't paid off as far as that goes.

* - The Chase already appears to be strictly a Hendrick-Penske duel with everyone else left with scraps.   Kevin Harvick's abysmal finish after leading 23 laps at Vegas - and 247 total in the first three races - dropped him to 14th in points; the Phoenix wins locks him into the Chase, so his part of the Stewart-Haas fleet breaks the Hendrick-Penske duopoly right now.   The rest of the SHR fleet, though, isn't performing up to snuff, and curiously neither is Joe Gibbs Racing, which has looked decidedly mediocre since Daytona.

* - How bizarre is this - leading the RCR fleet is Paul Menard, the driver of proven subpar talent whose Menards sponsorship package keeps him in racing.   Menard has led 35 laps so far - the rest of the RCR fleet has led seven.   Vegas was overall a good day for RCR.

* - The rookie "battle" was merely okay for Austin Dillon and Kyle Larson at Vegas - they kept their nose clean and finished in the top-20.  

* - It is becoming more obvious that Penske has become Ford's designated champion, as the Roush outfit has not looked terribly impressive this season.

* - We mentioned JGR's mediocre season so far; what's also obvious is Toyota's program is weaker than it's been since it started.

* - Premature it is to say this, but scanning the field it's hard to see a first-time winner out of this year's bunch.

So the series saunters eastward to the granite-jawed rock-brained concrete of Bristol before heading west again to Fontana and the scene of Denny Hamlin's unfortunate exercise in head-banging last year.  

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