Yesterday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Phoenix International Raceway (50th anniversary of racing at that track), was a reminder that it’s a new ballgame this year in NASCAR highest level.
First that with the new playoff system (Sprint to the Chase aka “Chase”), is that wins are king. So last weeks winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. had an advantage because his win gave him the one of two things that beats all others on the track.
All day the race commentators whether on Fox or on the radio on the syndicated Motor Racing Network (MRN), reminded us fans that he had one foot in the Chase (and it
doesn’t even start until September here at my home track Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet), so he had to luxury to be aggressive and take chances and almost won again.
Now with the many cautions (yellow flags), it could be argued it was Dale Jr's race to lose but the only other thing that can beat leverage is speed. And Kevin Harvick (who ironically took over Dale Earnhardt Sr's car after his passing in 2001), had speed yesterday in spades.
Kevin knows this track in Phoenix and basically owns this track with four wins on the highest level (Kyle Busch is “The Man” on this track on the lower Nationwide series with 3 consecutive wins and 10 overall wins), so to beat a man with speed on a 1 mile flat track is tough but Dale Jr. showed he’s no slouch so far this year.
I like what Dale Jr. said to Fox Sports 1 last week, “That you can call me overrated, but don’t say I don’t want to win”. I think Dale Jr. sees a golden opportunity here with this playoff and qualifying system in NASCAR, its his last season with excellent crew chief Steve LeTarte and Dale Jr. is 39 years old, this is best chance to have a great season with the top notched crew and equipment at Hendrick Motorsports.
But you can say the same to yesterday’s winner Kevin Harvick who is a year younger (same age as me), with a new team at Stewart-Haas and for a guy who has always been consistent (which was rewarded heavily under the previous NASCAR point and playoff system), if he can turn in a few wins, he can make this a memorable season.
And no I didn’t forget about Jimmie Johnson (no relation by the way), his dominance under the old system was no accident and he can still be great with the new system because he was consistent (not to mention he's in that Hendrick Motorsports garage too), did well in almost every race and won a bunch too, that’s how you get six championships in eight years.
But there’s other people who can flourish now too and another great Hendrick Motorsports driver in Jeff Gordon. He goes back to the previous NASCAR system before the Chase playoff and he’s won plenty and is legendary for finishing races and seasons strong.
By the way, did ya’ll check out the new Pepsi Max video he did scaring the daylights out of Jalopnik auto writer Travis Okulski? Its worth watching, shows Jeff has a deviant side to him.
Its important we see drivers for more just a dude (or woman in Danica Patrick’s case), in a car driving with a helmet on and then having bland commercials and pushing products. I think race fans want to see personalities and get to know drivers. I spend plenty of time at Chicagoland Speedway when NASCAR is here and its hard these days to get an autograph or see a driver (outside of standing at the pit lane gate and you need a pit pas for that), so more fun videos are needed, even if it is a glorified commercial.
It goes back to what is good for the sport and with Dale Jr. having another good week, it gets people behind the sport and makes for good races because people feel like they know him. One difference between NASCAR and NHRA drag racing is in NHRA every ticket is a pit pass and you get up and close with the drivers and they embrace it. That goodwill goes a lot further than just the length of a race track.
NASCAR badly needed a shot in the arm this season, both on the track during races, as well as qualifying and for the Chase playoff later this year, looks like we might just get it, though it is still early.
Still this year looks really promising for a lot of drivers and for a lot of fun too.
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