Tuesday, June 28, 2016

NASCAR Entering The Firecracker 400

NASCAR ended the first half of the 2016 season with a surprising result at Sears Point and now it enters the second half across the country back at Daytona. 

Tony Stewart's win was unexpected given he hadn't won in three years and frankly looked like a driver with one foot out the racecar for good.   But like Jeff Gordon in 2015 he goes out with at least one win.  

Stewart's win will be the headline story entering the Firecracker 400 weekend and the sport as usual has a number of issues to look at for this race as well as some bottom lines established in a season considered pivotal in some circles with the rule changes made to bolster sagging popularity.

A look at the varied angles entering Daytona -

Will the rain actually stay away this time? - the Firecracker weekend has been plagued with rain two straight seasons now.

Stewart-Haas gathers momentum against Hendrick, JGR, and Penske - Since Martin Truex exterminated the competition at Charlotte, SHR has won two of the last three races, a surprising development with the switchover to Ford for 2017.   Speaking of Ford, SHR's future nameplate allies Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano have combined for three wins to go with two Hendrick wins, both by Jimmie Johnson.

This leaves JGR's Toyotas with seven wins and the Barney Vissar #78 with the Charlotte win, though the rule changes at Charlotte curiously have seen a bit of a slip for JGR ensue. 

And with those four, it's left nothing for anyone else.  Kyle Larson turned heads with three top-fives and 103 laps led in Ganassi's #42 Chevrolet, but is 20th in points despite finishing in the top-15 more frequently in recent races.    That's been it as far as any kind of darkhorse.  RCR, Roush, and Petty are going nowhere and the season shows no evidence any darkhorse will emerge. 

The Five Best races this year prove NASCAR's low downforce package can't be called a success -
The five best races this year in chronological order - The Nextera Truck 250 at Daytona, the ARCA General Tire 200 at Talladega, the Toyota Truck 250 at Kansas, the Indianapolis 500, the Rattlesnake Truck 400k at Texas.   In all the battle for the lead was huge, at times unusually physical.  Daytona's Truck 250 saw its most competitive running (26 official lead changes) since 2002.  The ARCA Talladega 200-miler was almost a continuous sidedraft war for the lead.  The Indianapolis 500 exploded to 54 lead changes, the fifth straight 500 to hit 34 and above and the second in four years to break 50.  The Trucks at Kansas and Texas were side-by-side for the lead for prolonged stretches, and Kansas in particular was a physical race where the leaders crashed on the final lap. 

For good measure Indy Lights at the Brickyard saw a spirited fight for the lead in the Freedom 100 and ended in a photo finish, this for racecars running at speeds much closer to what NASCAR runs there than what Indycars hit.   And ARCA's Daytona 200 was a calm race but also saw a surprising and spirited 13-lap sidedraft fight for first.

And the common denominator to all of these races - the racecars are secure to the racetrack; they do not have more power than what the track can handle relative to how much grip the cars have; they have enough tire to race hard on without having to "catch" the car. 

NASCAR has promoted the hell out of its low downforce package and in the last month has worked on the undersides of the racecars to attack chassis "skew" and reduce downforce more.   And it hasn't worked.   Driver praise of the feel of the racecars tries to obscure the obvious - the racing just isn't there.   The one memorable Cup race so far was Dover, thanks to a surprisingly forgiving tire, one that evoked memory of the bias-ply days when the drivers had more tire footprint and teams didn't need "skew" or excessive camber and all the other tricks for grip necessitated by a radial tire that refuses to be forgiving. 

The upshot is also that since the finish of the 2015 Daytona 500 the racing at the plate tracks hasn't been as good as it should be, either.   The 500 this year was lethargic until Kevin Harvick blasted Denny Hamlin into the lead on the final lap.   The Winston 500 was better, but it was too hard to pass and too hard to push-draft there as well.   The Xfinity series at both tracks likewise was less than competitive by Daytona-Talladega standards.

It all shows NASCAR - yet again - has it wrong.

With 200 MPH the cars are not staying on the ground - Talladega saw three cars get off the ground and a lot of gnashing ensued about it, with seemingly no one noticing this is happening with the speeds over 200 MPH again.   People are still spooked over Austin Dillon's crash at the Firecracker - at about 3 in the morning - and they should be; so why is NASCAR letting the cars reach 200 again?  Haven't we seen that 190 is enough?

The most competitive NASCAR series is the Truck Series - And the Truck Series is seeing the emergence of a new star in William Byron.  Driving for Kyle Busch, Byron started slowly with mediocre or worse efforts at Daytona and Atlanta, then exploded after a third at Martinsville to seize the Toyota Truck 250 at Kansas - 

NASCAR's newest rising star - William Byron

Following Kansas Byron stormed to wins at Texas and Iowa and has led 299 laps so far.  

Meanwhile another Kyle Busch Toyota broke through at Gateway in Christopher Bell, who started the year bending over backwards at Daytona and has been curiously erratic between one win and four other top-tens amid two wrecks and one engine failure.

Christopher Bell's star-crossed season started with a bang at Daytona.

The series has also seen old pros Johnny Sauter in Maury Gallagher's Chevrolet and Matt Crafton in the Duke Thorson/Curb Motorsports Toyota grab victories; for Crafton the season has been doubly bittersweet after the fire that gutted the primary Thorsport race shop in mid-season.

The Xfinity Series trudges on - Bled dry by nearly two decades of Cup driver pillaging of its purses, the former Busch Series nonetheless this year saw two surprises - Daniel Suarez's shocking upset of Kyle Busch at the Michigan 250 and Sam Hornish's win at Iowa.  Returning to JGR on an emergency basis, Hornish cleaned house at Iowa for his first Xfinity win since 2014 at this same track.  

Hornish's win was one of a surprising five by non-Cup drivers in the Xfinity series this year.  Erik Jones has two wins so far while Elliott Sadler in the mess of Talladega in April has the win Brennan Poole was supposed to have.   Other than that it's more Cup more of the time.

And for Funny Comedy Gags, consider John Wes Townley and Spencer Gallagher's imitation of a hockey game at Gateway. 

So it goes entering the Firecracker 400 weekend.

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