Driver Jimmie Johnson announces that he and two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso will do a ride swap at the end of the month. They will meet at Bahrain International Circuit on November 26th, with Johnson taking laps in a McLaren F1 car and Alonso driving a Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. This is the second time a NASCAR/Formula One ride swap has been done, previously Jeff Gordon and Juan Pablo Montoya ran laps at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2003 and in 2011 Tony Stewart and Lewis Hamilton swapped at Watkins Glen International.
We’re just a few days away from the return of NASCAR racing for another season. There’s a lot to be excited about, and with good reason. There’s finally a rookie class that looks like it’ll produce a race-winning rookie driver for the first time since 2009. Picking an organization as the “best” team going into the season is problematic- while the usual suspects are almost all good choices for a preseason pick to be the Champion, picking one team that as a whole is the top dog right now is simply not easy.
While all of that is true, and on the one hand you can be excited for the 2016 NASCAR season, here are several reasons why you probably need to scale back that excitement.
Remember the new aero package to reduce downforce, the digital dashboard, and all those other improvements to the cars?
Yeah, probably not. And it’s forgivable if you’ve forgotten all of those changes to the cars, as they haven’t exactly been the talking point of the offseason (hi there, charter franchise system). But, the aero package being run in most races in 2016 was hyped up following Kentucky last year, and will hopefully bring about better racing in 2016.
However, we’ve heard that story before, and it’s rarely ever panned out. The issue isn’t that the setup isn’t conducive to better racing: it’s that the engineers employed by the teams are finding more and more ways to counter any changes that NASCAR makes in order to find that extra millisecond of speed in the cars. While there certainly is a chance that the racing will be better in 2016 (no more 10+ second leads on the intermediate tracks), if a team hits their setup and has an advantage, they’re still going to pull away from the pack.
The 2016 Olympics Impact the TV Schedule
Okay, so this probably should not be a concern, except it is. NASCAR fans have a habit of not being able to find the channel that the race is on, despite the entire schedule being posted on hundreds of websites. After so many complained about not being able to find a race on FOX, FS1, NBC, or NBCSN, with NBC covering the 2016 Olympics over the summer, the Watkins Glen Cup race as well as the Xfinity Series races at Mid-Ohio and Bristol will be moved to the USA Network, while the Xfinity Series race at Watkins Glen will air on CNBC.
While USA is available in more households than NBCSN as of November 2015, no one thinks of the channel as being where NASCAR will be found. Add in that these races were some of the lowest-viewed races in 2015, it’s safe to say right now that the ratings will be absolutely dreadful in 2016.
Bottom line, prepare for NASCAR fans to be complaining incessantly during those race weekends when suddenly NBCSN isn’t showing those races and they can’t find the channel that they’re on. The Olympics are a huge event, and I completely understand the move of NASCAR events to a channel that won’t be showing something related to the Olympics. That won’t stop NASCAR fans from being outraged. Plus, having to remember a different channel for one race is just annoying.
The TV Coverage Is Still Lacking… And Probably Won’t Be Getting (Much) Better in 2016
Warning: This is the long entry in the list.
This is one of those points that you will either agree wholeheartedly with or believe that I am absolutely wrong about. However, the TV coverage last year was absolutely awful, both on Fox and NBC. Fox’s strategy of having The Three Stooges in the commentary booth for their Cup events continued in 2015, as Darrell Waltrip, Larry MacReynolds, and Mike Joy polluted the airwaves through Fox’s 16 Cup races. On the bright side, Jeff Gordon is joining the booth for 2016 as Larry MacReynolds’ replacement, which should hopefully improve the commentary from the booth. The big concern though is that instead of improving the quality of the product being produced by Fox, Gordon will act just like Mike Joy and Darrell Waltrip.
Their Xfinity Series coverage was made slightly more tolerable than Cup in 2015 by bringing in current Cup Series drivers to provide guest commentary. Having the insight of Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer and Brad Keselowski added at least a new dimension to the broadcasts, though admittedly of the special guest commentators, Danica Patrick was certainly the weakest of the group. Seeing this continue in 2016 is one of the few good things about Fox’s television coverage.
Truck Series coverage is still a disaster in waiting. With a booth of Vince Welch, Phil Parsons, and Michael Waltrip, it’s almost as if Fox Sports has decided to punish NASCAR fans that tune in to the Truck races. The coverage was already bad in 2015, but this trio has absolutely no redeeming qualities.
While I clearly give Fox some flak for their coverage, NBC isn’t innocent. The booth for NBC’s Cup events isn’t nearly as good as it was hyped up to be. It wasn’t necessarily bad. It was just… mediocre. Hopefully year two of NBC’s Cup coverage means that the trio has more time to mesh together and for each member to find their role.
For Xfinity, NBC’s coverage is… dismal. The rotating cast of characters often led to disappointment. Ralph Sheheen, Dale Jarrett, Leigh Diffey, Frank Stoddard, and Ray Evernham rotating in for the Cup commentators simply made things feel disjointed more often than not. Whenever NBC’s “B” team (or “C” team, as it sometimes felt) was calling a standalone Xfinity race, there just wasn’t any excitement; instead of engaging the viewer I sometimes felt like NBC was actively working to drive away viewers. In 2016, I expect this cast to rotate just as much, if not more, for the standalone races.
I’m not even going to really get into the whole “let’s move stuff to FS2 or CNBC or whatnot”. Neither network is innocent at this, and the trend of moving things off a main channel will continue as TV ratings continue their freefall. Get used to either finding these more obscure networks or simply doing without the coverage if you don’t get the channel.
NASCAR Has Now Locked Most Tracks Into 5-Year Agreements
Yep, if you’re one of those people that want to see new tracks added to the Cup schedule… good luck. All of the Cup tracks are now locked into sanctioning agreements with NASCAR through the 2020 season. So no, Iowa isn’t getting a Cup date any time soon, nor is NASCAR going to add more road courses to the Cup schedule (and I’m *definitely* looking forward to that debate cropping up during the Sonoma and Watkins Glen weekends like it always does).
Not that ISC or SMI were ever in much danger of losing a race date, but now it’s basically guaranteed until 2020 unless a track goes bankrupt that no one is losing a date. Get used to the Cup schedule you saw in 2015 because, aside from minor changes due to events like Easter, that schedule is here to stay through 2020. That means two Cup races at Pocono, two races at Texas, two races at New Hampshire, two races at Kansas, zero races at Iowa, pretty much the same Chase schedule, and Homestead holding the season finale for the next five seasons.
So even if these tracks put on absolute snorefests of races this season, they’re even less likely to get booted off the schedule than before
There Are Still Rules That NASCAR Has Not Yet Figured Out
Daytona 500 qualifying is on Sunday. NASCAR is expected to announce their qualifying format for the four “open” spots in Cup for the teams that do not have a charter on Thursday. There’s still no decision on how NASCAR will alter the green-white-checkered finish rule for plate races, how the Can-Am Duel 150 races will determine the 4 “open” spots in the 40 car field, how the four spots will be field if qualifying is canceled, whether there will be a Champion’s Provisional (the belief is that no, there won’t be), and a plethora of other rules. Heck, with the drop to 40 cars in the field now for a Cup race, there’s the expectation that NASCAR will adjust the current point system. Yep, we’re under two weeks to the season’s first race and we have no idea how the points are going to work this year.
And the best part? NASCAR’s probably going to change some stuff around just because they can in the middle of the season. There’s a reason that the joke of NASCAR’s rulebook being written in pencil is a real joke: sometimes, it feels like that is actually true.
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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). Continue reading “Who Will NOT Be Filling In For Tony Stewart”
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.
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series finds it way to the final road race of the year one of the most exciting races in recent memory. The famed Watkins Glen International track has set the bar for excitement and drama, and this weekend figures to continue that when the Cheez-It 355 at the Glen is run. Continue reading “5 Questions Going Into Watkins Glen”
News broke on Thursday that Jeff Gordon will be joining FOX to call Sprint Cup Series races in 2016. Joining him in the booth will be Mike Joy and Darrell Waltrip, two originals from when FOX started with NASCAR in 2001. That means Gordon is replacing Larry McReynolds, who will be discarded to the Hollywood Hotel like an empty pizza box.
When I first read the news, I thought “wow what a great pick up of Gordon.” While rough around the edges, I think with more experience this season calling some races he can be something good in the booth. Then it sunk in that the number one reason I don’t like FOX races will remain. That being Darrell Waltrip.
Flashback to 2001 when Waltrip entered the booth for the first time with FOX (can go prior to this when he moonlighted on TNN prior to this) and Waltrip was a breath of fresh air. He was funny, he told stories, and he tried to relate to the average fan. That was great 14 years ago, now it’s just a tired shtick. FOX had the good sense in putting Digger down awhile back, I figured they had the good sense to put old DW down. I guess I was wrong.
All you have to do is just watch the start of a race a hear Waltrip say “boogity, boogity, boogity, let’s go racing!” Nothing says professional sports league like a commentator who uses gibberish words to signal the start of the race. Just watch a football game and listen for Jim Nance to say “whoooooooooo let’s go footballing!” just as the opening kickoff happens.
If you can get past the gibberish, you still have to deal with Waltrip’s obvious bias for some drivers. It’s almost like he’s paid by the number of times he mentions “Dale Earnhardt Jr” or “Danica Patrick.” Then you have the (major) conflict of interest when it comes to his brother, Michael’s team. Never is that team in the wrong for anything it does because that’s his baby brother’s team.
The worst part about this is McReynolds getting the shaft and being sent to be in the looney bin with Chris Myers and Michael Waltrip. And by looney bin, I mean Hollywood Hotel, which shouldn’t be called that since they sent Jeff Hammond off to pasture after last season. McReynolds might have butchered the English language on a daily basis, but his points was facts based and usually correct. He added the right amount of humor and seriousness to the broadcast, whereas Waltrip acts like the dopy sidekick.
Looking over the release one last time there is a slight glimmer of hope, there is no mention of Andy Peetre. This year FOX is using Peetre as a “rules expert” to chime in when there’s a question about a rule. Digger wins as the dumbest thing FOX has pushed on NASCAR fans, but this “rules expert” position is second to him. Peetre literally adds nothing to the broadcast other than to offer Mike Joy bathroom breaks during the broadcast.
Like most things in NASCAR, FOX is taking the two steps ahead, one step back approach to their broadcast booth. Thank goodness NASCAR fans have the option of MRN or PRN to listen while watching the races on mute.
The year 2015 marks the final full-time season from Jeff Gordon, who will undoubtedly go down as one of the best drivers in NASCAR history. While it is sad to think Gordon will be done after this season, the good news is we can spend the whole season celebrating his career. Odds are good we could see Gordon drive in the Sprint Cup Series after 2015, but when it comes to Daytona it is a big NO to running here again. “I definitely won’t be running another restrictor plate race,” Gordon told media members last week. Continue reading “Jeff Gordon Flashback: The Daytona 500”