Wednesday, February 24, 2016

NASCAR Gets Curiouser And Curiouser Entering Atlanta 500

The Daytona 500 has passed and now NASCAR's touring classes enter Atlanta, where the weekend is forecast to be sunny, and looks to be better than 2015's race weekend.   It enters with Daytona 500 TV ratings down from 2015, but it also enters with some blockbuster news.

Stewart-Haas Racing announced it will switch to Ford for 2017.   Not since Toyota arrived in 2007 and then lured Joe Gibbs Racing into its fold for 2008 has a manufacturer switch generated the news this does given SHR's 30 Cup wins and the two driver titles - Tony Stewart's in 2011 and Kevin Harvick's in 2014.   The change is a shocker since Chevrolet in essence built the team out of Gene Haas' small outfit and gave Tony Stewart co-ownership of the team to lure him out of Joe Gibbs Racing's Toyota fleet, where he'd won at Talladega in 2008.   It is also a weakening of Chevrolet's power with Hendrick Motorsports still potent but no one else in the Chevy fleet having any muscle - RCR Enterprises remains a shell of itself while Chip Ganaasi's team remains in the RCR engine fold - we'll see how long that lasts.

The defection to Ford is also a surprising reassertion of the moribund Ford fleet, which has had Penske Racing and gotten nothing else out of its small force other that Richard Petty's Daytona and Watkins Glen wins in 2014; the Roush-Fenway group has been essentially a dead team since Matt Kenseth and later Carl Edwards went to JGR, this amid scuttlebutt that engine man Doug Yates will assume some form of ownership control of the team down the road, perhaps sooner rather than later.  

Some other scuttlebutt in the sport has it that hope exists in Daytona that such manufacturer moves may compel other brands - Honda and Dodge notably - to want to enter.   NASCAR certainly has not done well keeping manufacturers happy and that needs to change.   Dodge's withdrawal has meant a weakening of all NASCAR's series.  One certainly should want Dodge to return - I suspect in his heart Richard Petty wants to run Dodges rather than Fords and that program would still fit him better, while Honda's racing efforts have recently been personified in Indycars and taking on rival Toyota makes sense in NASCAR. 


As for Stewart-Haas Racing the defection to Ford   comes by "a desire for more autonomy," which also reflects the shafting of customer cars that has been the pattern for Hendrick Motorsports.   SHR has been a Hendrick satellite fleet from Day One, and Hendrick's history with customer teams has been a pattern - Bob Whitcomb's team won twice in 1990 with Hendrick engines and was then cut off because it outwon Hendrick's entire fleet; Darrell Waltrip then bought out Hendrick's #17 team, won five times with Hendrick engines 1991-2, and was cut off; Joe Gibbs began as a Hendrick customer team and won the 1993 Daytona 500, then finished a solid fourth in points, only to see a huge drop in horsepower in 1994; the team changed drivers to Bobby Labonte and got Chevy's controversial Monte Carlos of 1995, and won three times - when Hendrick's designated champion Jeff Gordon complained after a head-to-head loss to Labonte at Michigan JGR saw the writing on the wall and began building an in-house engine shop that debuted in 1996.

That SHR won as much as it has as long as it has indicates Chevrolet made it a priority - and also indicates something wrong in Chevy's leadership that the team is going to Ford, this as JGR's Toyotas have won fifteen of the last thirty-two races entering the 2016 Atlanta 500, a sure sign the NASCAR manufacturer paradigm has shifted.  


The Atlanta 500 weekend is the first with NASCAR's renewal of the 5&5 Rule low-downforce package - a cutting of downforce NASCAR implemented starting with this race last season.   They want this to be the package for the entire season but the failure of these low downforce packages in the past augurs poorly for that happening.   Jimmie Johnson won this race last year but the Hendrick fleet came out of Daytona looking noticeably weaker.   The other top-tier team in Cup, Penske Racing, had a curiously subpar Speedweeks as well. 

Judging a potential darkhorse team for the Atlanta 500 is tricky given the lower depth of the field, and one needs a few races to shake out before one can make any kind of gauge of who is going where as the season rolls.    Basically it's Joe Gibbs Racing and if they don't win it's a tossup.


The other story to watch is the Truck Series Georgia 200.   NASCAR's caution clock debuted at Daytona and appeared to have more effect on the intensity of the racing than expected; now though we have a non-plate race on an intermediate superspeedway, where the Trucks have put on some spirited races the last five seasons.   The effect of the caution clock on this race is the first key to watch.  

That's part one of what to watch with the Trucks at Atlanta.   Part two is the Maury Gallagher Chevrolets of Daytona winner Johnny Sauter and Daytona polesitter Grant Enfinger, to see if they can follow up Daytona with a strong effort at Atlanta.   The Curb and Thorson Toyotas, the Fords of Brad Keselowski, and the Shigeaki Hattori Toyota all showed fire at Daytona and will want to keep that momentum, while some teams that didn't make the Daytona race - like Jennifer Jo Cobb - also look for a rebound.

So it goes entering the Atlanta 500.

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