Monday, July 06, 2015

Frustration At The Firecracker 400

Daytona racing has a history of enormous competition, but when it goes wrong it becomes incredibly maddening and at time scary. The 2015 Firecracker 400, coming a week after the amazing MAVTV 500 Indycar race at Fontana, showcased some of the same issues as Fontana but also other issues specific to NASCAR.

Observations from the ugliest Firecracker 400 in years -

* - The cars regularly broke 202 MPH, and once again nothing good can really come from 200 MPH, though Indycars are far safer at 200 than stockers.   The idea that Indycars somehow lose something when the power is restricted to 200 MPH or that NASCAR loses something with restriction to 190 is baffling, especially when in 2001 the entire sport openly acknowledged - Rusty Wallace gave it specific utterance at that time and has repeated it since - that 194 MPH is the cut-off point for keeping the cars on the ground.  

The complaint about restrictor plate racing will come up again, as usual ignoring vicious melees at non-plate tracks, such as the Watkins Glen series of melees including last year's Ryan Newman-Michael McDowell melee, bad crashes at Charlotte over the years, and so forth (Indycar has this same myopia about the lethality of crashes in its "plate" races as opposed to melees on its street circuits, crashes that usually out-do superspeedway wrecks as we saw with Dario Franchitti and more recently with RC Erenson in the Indy Lights race at Toronto).

Worth nothing for context is that this past Friday at Stafford Speedway, CT there was a huge crash in the SK Modified race that took out the leaders (notably Ryan Preece)  and there have been numerous such incidents in a Stafford season where the racing has been unusually competitive.

As relatively uncompetitive as this Firecracker was, it was still superior racing to most non-plate races, and as with the California Indy 500 at Fontana it showcased that the sport needs pack racing - albiet to a point.  The real issue for NASCAR is Brian France's ridiculous opposition to push-drafting - it stopped the blocking that has become more of a problem in racing of late, and it created more outright passing than anything else can; push-drafting would have opened up far more in the way of passing and thus opened up the competition level above what it was here, and this was even more true with the Firecracker 250 for the Xfinity Series, where uncompetitive racing and resultant frustration led to melees that left the finishers all with weak racecars.   

80 lead changes, seen at Fontana, is a lot better than the 22 seen in this Firecracker.

* - The real cause of the Dillon crash was Kevin Harvick, and he's done this before, notably last year's above-mentioned Newman-McDowell crash at the Glen.   Harvick has led over 1,200 laps but hasn't cashed in that much on winning.

* - The Hendrick cars have the season pretty much to themselves.   There is no non-Hendrick challenge anywhere outside of Stewart-Haas Racing, and the only challenger there is Harvick.  Kurt Busch has surged since coming back so he can still offer some challenge.   Outside of him, the rest of the field is racing for fifth at best - only seven of seventeen races have been won by someone other than a Hendrick or Harvick/Kurt Busch Chevrolet.

The upshot of the Austin Dillon crash is it is an illustration of his career - racing for nothing and hitting the wall.

* - Aggravation at Chevrolet's dominance has been a long-standing gripe within NASCAR dating to the 1960s and surging with the 1970s comeback of the Bowtie Brigade, and it appears Chevy's success is driving away other brands in other series, with Indycar potentially losing Honda after Chevrolet returned to the series only a few short seasons ago.   Sanctioning bodies need to rethink whether Chevrolet is as good for their series as they might think - certainly racing needs a lot more success from non-Chevrolets such as Honda and Toyota and (call this a subtle lobby all you want) any comeback Dodge might contemplate.

* - The worst of the non-Chevrolet lot is Ford.   When Penske Racing is off - and it's been curiously off outside of two wins this season - then the brand has nothing.   Roush Fenway Racing is worse than an also-ran, it is a cancer now, between failures at engineering and a driver roster inferior to some of Roush's customer cars.   It is no accident that once again Richard Petty's #43 looked stronger than the Roush cars, and it may be Petty needs to switch manufacturers and thus not be dragged down further by the Roush alliance.

* - With all this, the potential for a first-time winner this year looks strikingly weak.   Nobody with Roush or RCR looks like they know which way is up, and even with some respectable darkhorse runs at Daytona nothing developed to indicate anyone can seize a first-time win.   If anything, some of the drivers tagged for future potential are only getting worse, notably Danica Patrick.   Kyle Larson curiously does not seem to be taking any next step, and that's it as far as drivers who might get a first win.

*- Interesting off-the-track point is made by longtime NASCAR writer Mike Mulhern.   The talk of a franchise system in NASCAR comes after a $1 billion deal by Nike for the NBA, and it leads him to ask a question worth pondering - "Could NASCAR do a deal like that without franchising?"   Stay tuned there.

So what's next? Kentucky for NASCAR, Milwaukee for Indycar, and the sport has to plug on and try to get something better.

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