The White Zone: Some good things in NASCAR right now
by Tucker White On Fri, Mar. 24, 2017
As much as I harp on NASCAR for getting things wrong and continuously point out the serious problems within it, I think it’s only fair to also give them their due when they get things right and point out the fantastic aspects in the sport at the moment.
Let me be clear. This isn’t me playing Ms. Pauliana, trying to brush a coat of gilded-color paint to cover up serious problems bubbling under the surface. In what I consider a make or break year for NASCAR with a decade of declining ratings and signing Monster Energy as the new title sponsor of the Cup Series, it’s not off to a hot start in the ratings and viewership department. The ratings for NASCAR this season, compared to last season so far are flat in ratings but up five percent in viewership (Daytona), down seven percent in ratings and three percent in viewership (Atlanta), down 18 percent in ratings and 17 percent in viewership (Las Vegas) and down 18 percent in ratings and 19 percent in viewership (Phoenix).
But while I find more wrong with the sport at the moment, I decided to do a column listing just a few items I believe show NASCAR is on course for better days when they also fix the bigger problems.
Without further adieu, here’s just a few things I feel are right with NASCAR at the moment.
1: Restrictor plate racing
I’m not talking about the “bet on disappointment” XFINITY Series race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway this coming July where NASCAR is going to use restrictor plates. I’m talking about the events of Speedweeks.
During The Clash on a Sunday afternoon, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano worked together to breakup the Toyota contingent commanding the lead in the closing laps one by one until Denny Hamlin was left all by himself. When Hamlin tried to block Keselowski’s advance in Turn 1, he got loose and turned himself sideways. Logano drove to the high side of them and won the race.
Granted, the current restrictor plate aero package still gives too great of an advantage to the leader, especially when it allows them to block any advancing lane and not lose said aero advantage, and that is the most frustrating aspect of plate racing today. But it was less prevalent during the Daytona 500, thanks largely to NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France telling the drivers in the drivers meeting don’t look to NASCAR “when you block somebody out there.”
“When you block somebody out there — and it’s going to happen today — it causes almost all the big incidents — do not look for NASCAR,” he said. “You’d better hope there’s a Good Samaritan behind you who is going to accept that block, because they have that lane.”
Considering the carnage in the XFINITY Series race the day before, France’s comments weren’t so out of left field. But given most of the wrecks were the result of the close nature of plate racing and bump drafting, his comments still left more questions than answers.
Regardless, this running of the Daytona 500 was entertaining from start to finish. It wasn’t next to impossible to pass for the lead and unlike the XFINITY race the day prior, the carnage didn’t start until halfway through. Breaking from what’s become the norm of plate races, there wasn’t a caution in the closing laps. Instead, the race went straight to the green on the last 47 laps. In the closing laps, Chase Elliott ran out of gas while leading, Martin Truex Jr. ran out while leading and Kyle Larson ran out while leading. Kurt Busch took the lead exiting Turn 2 and won the Daytona 500.
If we get a race similar in entertainment while at Talladega, plate racing in NASCAR will finally be back to a great place.
2: The young guns
This season might be the true start of the youth takeover of the Cup Series in NASCAR.
After four races, Larson is riding a streak of three consecutive runner-up finishes. Even though he’s led just 26 laps, he’s leading the points thanks to those runner-up finishes and finishing top-10 in every stage segment so far this season, minus the final stage of the Daytona 500 where he finished 12th. While he’s yet to earn a playoff point, his consistent stage finishes demonstrate the importance of running well the entire race and not just at the end.
Compare this to Kevin Harvick who had dominant runs in the Daytona 500, winning the second stage, and Atlanta, winning the first and second stage, but an early exit at Las Vegas and another non-factor day at Phoenix has dropped him from the points lead to seventh.
Other impressive “young whipper-snappers” so far includes Elliott. He was a few gallons short of possibly winning his first NASCAR race in the Daytona 500 and led over 100 laps in a disappointing 12th-place finish at Phoenix.
Ryan Blaney is also making good of his runner-up finish in the Daytona 500, sitting sixth in points.
Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez quietly earned their first top-10’s in the Cup Series this past weekend at Phoenix.
Austin Dillon is off to a slow start, currently sitting 25th. But it’s too early in the season to write them off.
3. The finishes so far
So far, the racing this season isn’t good. It’s just where we left off with 2016, serviceable to mediocre on most weekends. The finishes have been the saving grace to each of these races: last lap pass for the win at Daytona, closing laps pass for the win at Atlanta, Truex passes Keselowski for the win with two to go at Las Vegas and Ryan Newman stays out on final caution to win at Phoenix.
The way these races have finished this season have somewhat made up for the fact the races haven’t been that good. Truth be told, the stage breaks and stage racing are the only things that’s made the racing this year tolerable to watch.
Jeff Gluck and I were talking on the exit of pit road at Atlanta after the Cup race ended and he asked me what I thought of the race. I told him I thought it was average for a race at Atlanta, and that was with the way it ended. I added that if you took Harvick’s speeding penalty out of the equation and he won, it doesn’t register. Gluck responds, “Oh agreed. It’s basically Truex at Charlotte if Harvick won.” We also talked about how this race was a race to “adjust our expectations” after Daytona. I told him while I know Daytona is its own animal, I thought the stage racing contributed to making the race far more intense and made passing at a track where it’s been next to impossible in the past easier. I thought if that’s what we got at Daytona, imagine what we’ll get at Atlanta where passing is much easier. But halfway through, I realized we were going to get the same kind of racing we got last season. The only difference is we have stages to break them up.
Yes, stage racing is contrived and cautions at the end of the stages are more contrived. I’m still skeptical as to whether the stage racing concept NASCAR has devised will stem the decade slide in television ratings it’s experienced. As I pointed out in the beginning of this piece, that doesn’t seem the case.
But the bottom line is these races outside of Daytona would’ve been far less interesting without the stage racing. However, we’ve only raced at downforce centered tracks so far. So that could change.
There’s a lot wrong with NASCAR today, but these three huge things show this sport is set to head in the right direction if it fixes its other problems. If NASCAR does something about the quality of the racing and the XFINITY Series, it will find itself in a much better state.