Monday, May 15, 2017

NASCAR's Back-Breaking Mid-Season

NASCAR's  2017 season is the debut season of Monster Energy Drink sponsorship and in its first eleven races the season has seen a plethora of surprises, not all of them positive.   The Kansas 400 Winston Cup race was the second win of the season for Martin Truex, but the story of the 400 was Aric Almirola, who suffered a compression fracture in his back in the most vicious crash seen in a long time.  

Almirola's injury puts a scary damper on what was developing into a promising season after a very frustrating 2016 season.   Fourth-places at the Daytona 500 and Winston 500 and a strong ninth at Richmond indicated the beginning of a turnaround; working with the Roush organization, Richard Petty's team has benefitted, and the Roush fleet's renaissance - following the promotion of younger, engineering-oriented personnel after years under former crew chief Robbie Reiser - has become one of the stories of the season.

Almirola's injury has brought out stories about how safety has improved in NASCAR the last sixteen seasons, and that's certainly true, as is that racecar safety has been excellent for decades - yet overlooked has been the close calls in that span.

Sterling Marlin's near-disastrous neck injury from - ironically - a crash at Kansas happened in 2002.

The next season Jerry Nadeau was gravely injured in a crash at Richmond, a crash some data indicated was one of the hardest hits ever recorded - greater than on superspeeedays.  

In 2013 Michael Annett suffered a serious sternum injury after blasting the SAFER barrier in Daytona's Busch Series 300 - in a twin irony, he was driving a Richard Petty car and Aric Almirola subbed for him at Phoenix.  

The crash believed to have given Dale Earnhardt Jr. the concussion that ended his 2016 season - and whose lingering effects will see his retirement after 2017 - happened in the 2016 Michigan 400. 

Eric McClure suffered serious injury in 2012 at Talladega, blasting through the track's enormous paved runoff area and hammering the SAFER barrier. 

Denny Hamlin suffered a compression fracture in this vicious 2013 melee at Fontana.

Almirola's Kansas injury came in a race that saw an eye-popping fifteen yellows, most of them for crashes that involved some eighteen cars - and writer Mike Mulhern rightly asks about why brake rotors are exploding as happened to Logano that triggered the wreck.   Related to this is the trap speeds in the Almirola wreck measured some 215 MPH.   Why racing ostensibly needs speeds that high is puzzling, especially when speeds below 200 should suffice, especially for a track like Kansas.

Kansas was also a bitter pill for Ryan Blaney, who led 83 laps in the Wood Brothers #21 yet could not hold off Truex in the race's late showdowns.   He has led 233 laps so far, by far the most by the Woods' #21 in decades, and it's a sign winning is in the #21's future.

With so many yellows, restarts made for some good racing, highlighted by Brad Keselowski's nifty three-wide pass on the outside of the trioval on the final lap.   Keselowski's runner-up finish, Kevin Harvick's third, and Blaney's fourth further the progress of a season where Ford's competitive depth has exponentially grown with wins by Stewart-Haas, Penske, and Roush - it adds further bitterness to Aric Almirola's injury with a return to victory by Petty's team a real prospect.  

The win by Truex was his second of the season with a whopping 536 laps led to date; he was one of just three Toyotas in the top ten, and his Toyota benefactor Joe Gibbs Racing remains winless.   It raises anew concern that Toyota has not invested sufficiently in competitive depth.

Competitive depth has been a problem for Chevrolet since the halcyon days of Hendrick vs. the RAD Alliance of RCR, DEI, and Andy Petree Racing, yet so far in eleven races Chevy has won with Hendrick, RCR, and Ganassi Racing, a greater depth by the Bowtiers than seen in several years.

The big picture takeaway going forward is 2017 is not your typical recent Winston Cup season - there is clearly new energy and new competitive depth (nine different winners among eight different teams in eleven races so far) and the meat of the season for the first time in a long time holds actual promise of something special for racing.    Getting Almirola back will help.

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