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Who Will NOT Be Filling In For Tony Stewart

News came out earlier this week Tony Stewart was involved in a “non-racing” accident (because that makes it better for us to take? Weird emphasis on “non-racing” on nearly every press release) and will miss significant time after sustaining a burst fracture of his L1 vertebra. This will take a substantial amount of time to heal, thus opening the door for a replacement driver in the #14 Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR).

And with any opening in NASCAR, fans go crazy with off the wall suggestions for who should take over. With those in mind, here is a list of drivers who will NOT be driving for Tony Stewart in 2016.

Jeff Gordon: Recently retired and signed up to call races on FOX, Gordon WILL NOT drive for Stewart. Not it’s not really the FOX deal, as they would love for someone to call a race in a race, it’s the fact Gordon owns half of the #48 and part of the #24 cars for Hendrick Motorsports. NASCAR rules prohibit someone from owning part of a team that has four cars to then drive for another organization, never mind the Hendrick to Stewart-Haas connection. This is the same reason why JR Motorsports will never go to Cup nor Kyle Busch Motorsports. That is unless Dale Earnhardt Jr or Kyle Busch drive for their own teams. That aside, there is no way Gordon is selling his stake in Hendrick Motorsports to drive half a year or even just the Daytona 500.

Mark Martin: Martin already has filled in for Stewart before, but he WILL NOT drive for Stewart in 2016. He has retired and has no desire to drive anymore, saying as much on Twitter earlier this week. Poor Martin, he has bombarded with so many fan inquiries I would blame him from never logging on Twitter ever again.

Jeff Burton: Burton, like Martin has filled in for Stewart before. And like Gordon, has a TV deal that he’s currently working on. Like Martin again, he took to Twitter to tell fans he WILL NOT drive for Stewart.

John Hunter Nemechek: Not sure where this originated from, but John Hunter Nemechek WILL NOT drive for Stewart. Nemechek just turned 18 last season, which means he can finally run on large tracks, and I’m pretty sure there’s a large one to start the season. I can’t imagine SHR would want to rotate through a handful of drivers while Stewart recovers. And given Nemechek’s lack of experience, even in the Truck Series, and that is not a winning recipe.

Jeremy Mayfield: Even weirder than the Nemechek push has been the one for Jeremy Mayfield. Sorry folks, but Mayfield WILL NOT drive for Stewart. The driver who is better known for meth and burglary has been a heartwarming story of redemption trying to fight his way back into racing. That said, never mind “meth” and “burglary” being synonymous with his name (right or wrong), he hasn’t driven in the Cup Series since they had the Car of Tomorrow. Too much of a learning curve for him to try and make up for, plus that and still being suspended by NASCAR will hold him back.

Brian Vickers: Vickers is an interesting case because he when given good equipment, he can excel. That being said, Vickers WILL NOT drive for Stewart. One year removed having to stop racing while on blood thinners, not much has been heard from Vickers outside some studio time at NBC. Given his name came up exactly zero times this offseason as a driver who could go into an empty ride, I believe his racing career has come and gone. Add to that the unknown of if he has to step away again due to the blood clots and we’re back to SHR not wanting to flip-flop drivers every week.

Alex Bowman: Alex Bowman finds himself in an odd place in NASCAR, Cup Series owner Tommy Baldwin showed now faith in him and dumped him a week ago for Regan Smith. On the other side, Dale Earnhardt Jr sees potential with Bowman and inked him to five Xfinity Series races this upcoming season. One could argue that Stewart could see something in Bowman that Junior sees, but reality says Bowman WILL NOT drive for Stewart.

Clint Bowyer: While Bowyer will drive for Stewart, as his successor, in 2017, this year he WILL NOT drive for Stewart. Too much was done to get him over to HScott Motorsports for one year to then nix that deal to run him half of this year. If they knew Stewart was out for the full year, maybe, but with sponsors involved this one is a no go.

David Ragan: Ragan WILL NOT drive for Stewart. This isn’t so much because Ragan signed with BK Racing, it’s more because no one seems to want Ragan. He was spurned by Team Penske, Richard Petty Motorsports (twice!), Front Row Motorsports didn’t want him back after he left last year, and no other team had a fleeting interest in Ragan. That said, he does have one big fan who assumes every open seat is Ragan’s…good thing this guy isn’t in the media.

Parker Kligerman: Kligerman WILL NOT drive for Stewart. No talk of him doing it, just trying to justify using his image for the article. While he did work as a backup plan if Kurt Busch was late coming back to the Daytona 500, Kligerman has hitched his wagon on the NBC train while dabbling in the Truck Series. With no Cup experience, he would be very far down the list. He ran for Swan Racing, which everyone has since forgot about.

Ryan Ellis: Bwahahahaha.

Ty Dillon: Dillon’s name has gotten a lot of steam as a replacement, but he WILL NOT drive for Stewart…in the Daytona 500. He already has a deal with Leavine Circle Family Sport Racing (whoops, Leavine Family Circle Sport Racing…or is it Circle Sport Leavine Family Racing?) to run the 500 with Cheerios as a sponsor. You could argue they could move primary driver Michael McDowell to that ride and let Dillon go, but I don’t see that happening. After Daytona, however, I could see him being a good substitute for Stewart. And it’ll be fun to see him paired with Kevin Harvick as a teammate.

The New World Charter

Talk of a charter system taking over the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series ownership model has heated up as we get closer to the start of the 2016 season. With no firm deal yet, it is hard to speculate on what kind of impact this will have, but we are starting to see movement by teams in preparation of what will come.

The first such move was the dissolving of the Hillman Racing team (#40) and the merger of Cirlce Sport Racing and Leavine Family Racing (LFR). In essence, Circle Sport took its cars and points from their #33 car and has allowed the LFR team to now go for a full season for the first time in their history. While it is always sad to see teams go away because of the impact on the team workers, in this case it was a welcome move.

Circle Sport Racing only seemed to perform when it had direct help from Richard Childress Racing, not only behind the scenes, but with either Ty Dillon or Brian Scott driving. When it wasn’t either one of those drivers, it was a random mix of drivers ranging from Alex Kennedy to Ryan Ellis to even B.J. McLeod. Each one getting the ride because they had some sponsor to bring with them.

In an interview with Popular Speed, Ellis said the days of a driver buying a ride for the weekend could be over. This is the same driver who took to fans to raise money needed for driving. How is this a bad thing? While less teams inherently mean less opportunity, just because a driver has sponsorship does not mean they are worthy of an opportunity.

Furthermore, what is better for NASCAR racing, having more cars that are less competitive or less cars that are more competitive? I would say I’d rather see 35-40 cars out there if they will all compete, versus getting to that magic 43 number that was picked for some reason during the 1998 season.

That point plays into what transpired during the day on Thursday, which was the moves by Tommy Baldwin Racing (TBR). About a month after announcing a sponsor and getting their pictures taken with driver Alex Bowman, TBR released Bowman from his duties.

The cited reason by team owner Tommy Baldwin was “as NASCAR transitions to different business and competition models, teams have to make decisions accordingly.” In plainer terms, TBR needs to be running closer to the front and it might be because the charter might be based upon points positioning from this year.

Baldwin has chosen veteran Regan Smith, who is an upgrade over Bowman, but it is not clear what kind of miracles he can work with the TBR team. They are optimistic in their hire, as we should be optimistic that this charter system can lead to stronger teams going forward knowing they are locked into the field each week.

Ever Changing NASCAR

If you’re not a big fan of change, then maybe it’s time to get off the NASCAR rollercoaster. We had another media week kick off and it was full of even more changes and fan outrage than usual. It is almost as if this is becoming a yearly tradition of pushing traditional fans to the brink of no return.

When the news first started to break at 11 am this morning with NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France it resulted in an alarming firestorm of media and fans on Twitter. Bits and pieces of the ideas being implemented in 2016 were brought up, but no real meat and potatoes were offered to help explain and support the ideas.

Well, that’s Brian France for you. The man who has guided NASCAR for the last 13 years still does not seem like he has a grasp on public speaking or even sounding genuine. Ideas were delivered, but he added nothing to them. Granted, that’s what VP and Chief Racing Development Officer Steve O’Donnell was for, but I would have liked France to just give us something other than the run around. For a man who had just had knee surgery, France was bobbing and weaving on stage like Mohammed Ali in his prime.

He would throw an idea out, then move on to the next topic. In the short Q and A session with France, media members like Jim Utter, asked serious questions about the logic of some of the new ideas. France spoke in circles, then went to the next question. Basically it was France’s job to drop the bomb (or turd as I described on Twitter) and O’Donnell’s job was to polish it into something nice. I do not envy that messy job for O’Donnell.

Of the announcements, let’s get to the best one first, that no longer will the Sprint Cup Series Chase have dumb names for each round. There was the Challenger Round, Eliminator Round, Terminator Round, and Other Word Ending In “Er” Round (some of those might have been made up). Instead we will just have “Round of 16” or “Round of 12,” which is not only descriptive and simplistic, but easy to remember. “How many drivers are left? Well round of 12, I’m going to go with…12!”

It took me about eight hours, some pizza, and a Coke Zero, but I might have finally come to terms with the other major announcements. That and the fact (as always) this is NASCAR’s sandbox and anyone is welcome to leave at any point to find a better sandbox. Well, I’m going to stay, not happy, but I will stay…and complain. That said, the ideas did start to grow on me…some.

Let’s start with the Xfinity Dash 4 Cash, which had previously been four races during the Xfinity Series that Xfinity handed out money to the highest finishing Xfinity Series only driver. Xfinity. Now instead of that, the four races will be unique and feature Two Heats and a Main Event. The tracks involved will be Bristol (good choice), Richmond (another good choice), Dover (getting colder), and Indianapolis (why!?).

Now the rules straight from the horse’s (NASCAR) mouth:

Qualifying for each Dash 4 Cash event will set the 40-car field and the starting positions for the Two Heats with the fastest qualifier awarded the Coors Light Pole Award. Odd-numbered qualifiers (1st, 3rd, 5th, etc.) will start in the first Heat in respective order, while even-numbered qualifiers (2nd, 4th, 6th, etc.) will start the second Heat in respective order.

The Two Heats will set the starting positions for the Main with the top two NASCAR XFINITY Series regulars in each Heat becoming eligible for the Dash 4 Cash bonus. The highest finishing driver among the four Dash 4 Cash eligible drivers will be awarded a $100,000 bonus. If any driver wins two of the four Dash 4 Cash bonuses available, he/she is all but guaranteed a spot in the 2016 NASCAR XFINITY Series Chase. In short, two Dash 4 Cash bonuses are equivalent to one race win in the new NASCAR XFINITY Series Chase format.

Now that brings up something I probably should have led with. The Xfinity Series (and Trucks, we’ll get to them in a bit) will have a Chase for the Spri…Xfinity Cup! Not only will there be a Chase, but it will be elimination style like the last two Cup Series Chases. The biggest difference from the Cup Series is only 12 drivers will be in the Chase (thankfully, I think there might be 10 teams with realistic hopes of the title…scratch that, maybe 8) and only two elimination rounds rather than three.

Like the Cup Series it’s a ‘win and you’re in’ deal (unless you declare for Cup points) or win two of the four Dash races (above) and you’re in. And if that’s still not enough and Cup drivers have dominated the year, you can get in by being in the top-12 in points. The Chase starts at Kentucky, the second round starts at Kansas, and that sets up the finale to actually mean something at Homestead. Each cut race eliminates four drivers.

I rejected this idea at first, but if it adds some excitement/meaning to the final race, sure let’s do it. As much as I get annoyed at the idea of a Chase where streaky or fluky things can happen, it is what it is. If it can yield better, closer racing, then I’m in. If Elliott Sadler somehow wins the title, then we must scrap the idea and burn the history books while vowing to never speak of this again.

Enter the Truck Series, who will also get their own Chase for the Camping World Cup…or something. Copy and paste most of what I said above with some minor tweaks for the lower series. Only eight drivers will enter the Chase and the first starts at New Hampshire, the second at Martinsville, and that sets up the finale at Homestead. Two drivers get eliminated after each round to bring it to four finalists.

For a series with only about six viable championship options, this is a bit silly. That was Jim Utter’s question of Brian France, to which France commented he enjoys underdog stories. Well that might just happen when you let outcomes be determined by one random race, but we’ll see how this plays out and if it adds excitement to the races. Also, if this fails miserably we can thank Erik Jones. He was named by France as the inspiration because last year, while running the final race for the title, Jones went with the “just finish” strategy instead of going for the win. While it worked, it apparently did not impress France.

As an added bonus for each of the new Chases (Xfinity and Trucks) for some odd reason any driver who made the 2015 Cup Series Chase is ineligible to drive in the finale at Homestead for either series. I get the idea of allowing the Xfinity and Truck drivers to fight it out amongst themselves, but shouldn’t you then ban all of the Cup drivers? I mean, I don’t think Jeff Gordon was coming out of retirement to run that race, which is good because he can’t. It seemed to be a subtle way of keeping Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski, and Joey Logano out of the mix to run away with the race and leave TV to watch the battle for fifth and the title.

The final announcement was also about the Truck Series and this one is a bit hard to take in. When a race is in continuous green flag conditions, after 20 minutes an automatic caution will be thrown. France’s rationale he tossed out there was so the inexperienced crews could work on the cars, thus making racing better. Others equate it to a timeout during football so fans can go get food and tinkle. Maybe it’ll help FOX go to less commercials, but again, we’ll have to wait and see. I think it is a dumb idea, especially since NASCAR has had no trouble finding non-existent debris to throw the caution for. I guess now they don’t have to spend money on binoculars to find this debris.

All in all, my initial reaction was one of absolute horror for what the sport I have loved for the past 25 year has become. As I got to thinking about things, maybe this is a good step in the right direction for the Xfinity and Truck Series. They often get forgotten and today have been at the forefront of the discussion. If nothing else, it’ll give them some press to kick off the 2016 season.

Johnson Not Solely To Blame For Harvick’s Trouble

For Kevin Harvick, yesterday’s poor finish can be directly linked to the actions of Jimmie Johnson. That much was evident after Johnson tried to talk to him about the contact that led to a cut left rear tire. Harvick gave Johnson a shove (or punch depending on how you saw it) and many choice words. If you didn’t see the video, you will soon because NASCAR will be pushing this baby all over to promote their Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship battle.

Johnson took the jab in stride, let Harvick yap, and when it seemed nothing would be accomplished, walked away. Not all of this falls onto Johnson’s shoulders, sure it was his car that made the contact that put Harvick in that position, but there’s other factors involved.

If you watch the video, you can see Joey Logano push Johnson on the restart, leaving Johnson with nowhere to go but low below Harvick. The option there would have been to plow into Harvick and we could only guess where that would lead. A giant pile up? Harvick’s car getting trashed anyways? Or maybe nothing would have happened.

The option Johnson went with was going low next to Harvick, something Harvick was aware of. There was an opening next to Harvick, so the option was there for him to slide over without contact, but Harvick wanted to send the message he wasn’t giving an inch to Johnson.

“I saw those guys coming on the apron. They must have gotten together and had a good run up. But I just held my ground and he (Johnson) just slammed into the side of the door like I wasn’t even there. So, the spotter was telling me four-wide and I guess he just figured that he’d come up the race track,” said Harvick.

Johnson also had that mindset, as he came over whether Harvick was willing to move or not. “He (Harvick) didn’t leave me any space. He was pinning me down, and I had to get back up on the track. I wouldn’t say that what he did was any different than other situations I’ve been in like that. When you are in his position, you want to get the inside car in a bad angle so they have to lift. I was fine with lifting, but I had to get back on the race track, so I worked my way back up on the track,” commented Johnson after the race.

The contact took place, which is a common occurrence in the world of racing. What makes this unique, is Harvick and his crew ran the calculated risk that the damage inflicted would not lead to a cut tire. It is a coin flip situation, as you can try and run around hoping the tire and fender separate before the tire goes. That was not the case of Harvick, who shortly thereafter lost his left rear.

While it would have been costly to come down pit road, it paled in comparison to what transpired and the time lost repairing a fully wrecked vehicle. I understand it is the Chase, you are up front and want to do your best, but you have to error on the side of caution when something like that happens.

Right now Harvick doesn’t want to hear it or share the blame, but things could been done differently on both sides. The good thing for Harvick is he is fast enough each week, that winning at New Hampshire or Dover is a possibility, it just means he and his crew need to be flawless the next two races.

Bowyer’s Plans Coming Into Focus

What seemed to be a stretch of an idea by Motorsport.com is now being reported by another media outlet. Earlier Claire B Lang of SiriusXM Radio confirms the Motorsport.com report that Clint Bowyer will head to HScott Motorsports (HSM) in 2016 and then move to Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) in 2017.

When Bowyer gets to SHR, he would take over the seat of Tony Stewart, who will hang up his helmet after 18 seasons in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. This would be another big blow to NASCAR on the national radar, as this year marks the end of Jeff Gordon’s illustrious career.

Originally the idea seemed crazy that Stewart would ever walk away, but at age 45 (Stewart in 2016) time and circumstances have taken their toll on him. A broken leg in 2013 and then the tragedy in 2014, Stewart has yet to regain the form that has led him to three Sprint Cup Series titles and 48 wins in his career. The last win coming in early 2013, which was done with fuel mileage rather than out pacing the competition. So far this season, Stewart sits 26th in points with only two top-10 finishes in 24 starts.

When looking at what HSM might do for that one season, no matter what, it will be an improvement over what it is currently getting from drivers Justin Allgaier and Michael Annett. Logic would dictate that one of those drivers would be out of a job to make room for Bowyer, rather than expanding for three teams for one season. Allgaier is a favorite of owner Harry Scott, but lacks full sponsorship and is currently 30th in points. Annett has sponsorship, but sitting 35th in points with no top-10 finishes (Allgaier has one) I can’t imagine there’s enough Pilot Travel Centers money to keep him employed at HSM.

The benefit to Bowyer spending a year in the minor leagues, as outlined by Motorsport.com, is with HSM’s Hendrick Motorsports affiliation, he can spend a year getting accustomed to their chassis. While the results haven’t been there for HSM, it is not from lack of effort, and getting a talented driver like Bowyer in there might turn their luck around. Many would point to when Kurt Busch went to HSM’s predecessor, Phoenix Racing, and turned them into a potential contender. While that is an honorable comparison, what Busch did for Furniture Row Racing might be a better parallel.

With the eventual move to SHR, Bowyer will be reunited with his for Richard Childress Racing teammate Kevin Harvick. Looking at that aspect, maybe it is better to go backwards in time, to then be able to go forward.

FOX Wrong on MWR Reporting

It’s weird to think that FOX Sports could be wrong in its reporting about Michael Waltrip Racing. Especially since, you know, the team owner works for FOX Sports. But here we are and apparently there were no Danica Patrick yoga poses to talk about, so instead erroneous reports about MWR’s future with Toyota were to be had. Here’s Toyota’s Andy Graves calling out FOX digital editor Jay Pennell about his reporting.

 

To his credit, Pennell doesn’t dwell on the call out and bounces along as if nothing happened. It’s FOX, so I’m sure nothing will happen until more “news” breaks.

Transitions – Merchandising

Last year I spent the majority of my time during the NASCAR weekend at Watkins Glen International (WGI) focused on my experience as a member of the media and it’s comparison to the fan experience. I have had the opportunity of taking it all in with fresh eyes, with little to no expectations. Since Mike has attended many races at WGI, he has provided insight as to how things “used to be.” Usually I just say okay and move on with the conversation, but this year there have been a few changes that even I have to adjust to. My goal for this weekend is to pause during the chaos, make time to reflect on the changes that effect fans, drivers, and essentially all who attend this weekend’s race.

One of the bigger changes that have taken place at the track this year is the modification of the sale of merchandise. “Back in the good ol’ days,” as Mike would say, NASCAR teams would bring in their haulers full of merchandise, pull them into the middle of the infield, open up and sell to fans. As a fan, you would walk in their pop-up village, find the trailer of your favorite team, and purchase whatever paraphernalia your heart desires. For example, being a Brad Keselowski fan, I would theoretically find the No.2 hauler and behind glass would be all of the 1-64 scale cars a girl could ever wish for, plenty of hoodies and t-shirts for men and women, bumper stickers, car decals, hats, etc. all for a competitive price of the surrounding haulers of different teams.

Nowadays, beginning last week at Pocono, all NASCAR merchandise is arranged in a rather large tent area run by ‘Fanatics.’ Walking through the Fanatics tent you can find anything you could possibly be looking for. Merchandise is organized in a number of ways; such as youth sizes and styles, a ‘Kids Corner,’ by team, by item (i.e. hats). While wandering through, I was absorbing all of the comments I could hear from people. I can promise you I was trying really hard not to blatantly be eaves-dropping, but the way the tent is set up, there is little room for people to look at merchandise and easily maneuver around other shoppers; so overhearing their conversations was not that difficult.

Fanatics_2The tent is strategically set up where each section requires you to walk in to the back, turn around to come back to the center aisle and turn the corner for the next section. You cannot move from section to section except one entrance again. If one staff member stood in every section, I feel they would serve more of the purpose of watching for shoplifting while helping people find the merchandise they are looking for.

These sections allow fans to not only view the items for sale, but to feel them and hold them up for size without having the pressure of asking someone to get it from the back for you. In the hauler, if you asked to view an item there was an awkward, unspoken expectation to then purchase said item. With the tent set up, you can hold it and decide that the back of the hat has the netting that you don’t like, and you can put it down without feeling obligated to buy it just because you made someone do their job.

One of the first things I noticed is that the tent area has gates around it, so you are forced to walk in one entrance and essentially one exit. Standing at the entrance/exit are two “ushers” who greet you and search your bags when you are leaving the area. The shopping experience is much different than the previous set up in that you grab a green ‘re-usable’ Fanatics bag (reminds me of the bags I use when grocery shopping to protect the environment by not using plastic bags, you know the kind) and fill it with all sorts of goodies. There are many staff members in the area to help you; however, I feel this position is more on a volunteer basis. We have had encountered several staff members so far this weekend who have been unable to answer our questions, which is why I believe that partaking as staff is a volunteer situation.

It is pretty awesome that going through the Fanatics tent you can find merchandise for many more drivers than you would have for the haulers. The teams individually fund their merchandise haulers; therefore, lower tiered drivers who may not have as much financial support as other teams would not likely be able to afford to haul merchandise haulers around the country. We all know the power of the Underdog and sometimes we just want to be able to buy a t-shirt to proud display our support, but those shirts can feel like they do not even exist. This set-up allows for those teams to make a portion of profits, which is more than they get from selling nothing. I am sure NASCAR is receiving the largest chunk of change from this new set-up.

For Watkins Glen International, though this is not a life or death situation, it is a shame that there is an area of the infield entitled “Turn Ten Village,” which was the site of the hauler circle of merchandise. From a nostalgic point of view, they have paved paradise and put up a parking lot. Yes, this area has now become a place for parking for buses, food trucks, and golf carts.