Atlanta Observations

Thoughts, observations and a few questions following the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway:

  • I know that you can’t please everyone (you’ve got to learn to please yourself).  It’s why they make vanilla and chocolate. But if you truly are an auto racing fan of the NASCAR variety, then you must agree that Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 was one of the most entertaining Sprint Cup regular season races in recent memory.
  • It was a stark reminder  of how different a perspective you get when you see the race in person rather than rely upon the visual and verbal descriptions offered by both television and radio. While there was apparently quite a bit of racing going on in the field, the FOX Sports television broadcast saddled viewers at home with the same monotonous shots of the same cars. The PRN broadcast, heard via Raceview, wasn’t much better although radio did talk about some of the midfield racing action.
  • Congratulations to Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus on win number 76, which ties Johnson with the legendary Dale Earnhardt. Johnson is my pick for the title this season.
  • Goodyear brought a tire combination to Atlanta that was just good enough to have forced teams to manage their tires. Compounding that issue was that the race was dictated by long green flag runs. Kudos to Jeff Gordon in the television broadcast booth for pointing out the tire management issue.
  • The long green flag runs we witnessed on Sunday may be a harbinger of things to come this season, especially on the 1.5-mile tracks. That 20-minute clock idea doesn’t look so silly now, does it?
  • Gordon’s insight in the booth, even two races into the season, has been invaluable. Especially if you’ve been a Gordon fan. You get to further appreciate why he was so good a driver for so many years.
  • I also like the role that Larry McReynolds now plays on the FOX Sports broadcasts. A much better fit.
  • There were times during the long green flag runs when you literally thought some of the cars were having trouble because they appeared to be going much slower than before. That’s the magic of Atlanta. Its coarse and aged surface wreaks havoc on tires and setups and causes tremendous fall off just laps into a run. That’s why the drivers love it, too.
  • Even though the new low downforce setup was initially proposed by the drivers, you have to give a tip of the hat to NASCAR competition execs for following through with the idea. It provided the first competitive 1.5-mile race in many years. Yes, I know, it hasn’t changed the fact that the car out front always benefits from clean air, but the race leader was challenged several times. The real test will be if we see similar racing next week at Las Vegas. I expect we will.
  • I can’t believe so much time and energy was spent on Matt Kenseth’s penalty. The replay showed an obvious violation of pit road regulations. Crew chief Jason Ratcliff either doesn’t know the rule book or he was showboating to cover his ass. No matter the reason, the kerfuffle put Kenseth two laps down to the leaders and out of contention. I mean, did team owner Gibbs really need to get involved?
  • I think the Sunoco commercial with the drivers making engine noises is stupid.
  • Ford was MIA once again with Brad Keselowski the highest finishing blue oval entry (ninth). Maybe we should we say a small hurrah for Roush Fenway with Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s top 10 finish. Don’t expect this anemic showing for Ford to continue for much longer. After all, Joey Logano drives a Ford.
  • I could never understand what all the excitement and media love has been over Clint Bowyer. I’ve always felt he belongs back in the field alongside the McDowells, the Cassills and the Annetts of the world. That’s where he’s racing now.
  • It was easy to see by the results on Sunday which teams have their 1.5-mile setups figured out and which ones have more work to do. I remember when Kasey Kahne was the man to beat at Atlanta. Of course, he was driving a Dodge in those days. Those were also the days when he appeared in those funny Allstate commercials.
  • Were you one of those people who was predicting such a great season for Kyle Larson after practice and after the Xfinity race on Saturday? What in the world happened to him and Ganassi teammate Jamie McMurray on race day? If you thought that this group would slide in to fill the void with Chevrolet when Stewart Haas leaves for Ford, think again. They’ve got a long way to go.
  • Was it me or was Dale Earnhardt Jr. in just about every NASCAR oriented television commercial? I’m not disputing his being the most popular driver, but I can remember when Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson got their fair share of commercial exposure. And where are all the commercials featuring the current champion? And where are the Danica Patrick commercials that seemed to run back-to-back?
  • A disappointed Kevin Harvick, who led the most laps and was burned in the final restart when he spun his tires was asked by Jamie Little after the race what he thought of the new 1.5-mile package. His answer was very revealing. “I know now it’s not how fast you are in practice. It’s how (well) does your car handle.” Don’t bet against “The Closer” over the next two races (Las Vegas and Phoenix). He may win both.

Thanks for stopping by the original Observations. Often imitated, never duplicated.

And so it begins…(he says with a stifled yawn)

I’m sure I’ll be the only one to write that the 58th edition of the “Great American Race,” the Daytona 500, was for the most part, a snooze-fest with restricted (no pun intended) passing, highlighted by mind-numbing follow the leader plate racing and the closest finish in the race’s history. The current restrictor plate package is a swing in the wrong direction.

I also know I wasn’t the only member of the audience watching at home that was frustrated by the anticlimactic final laps of a 500-miler that somehow was saved from being a forgettable race by the ballsy move from race winner Denny Hamlin.

Hamlin’s win in the sport’s biggest event is long overdue. After all, he won his very first outing, a preliminary event on the legendary 2.5-mile speedway, back in 2006. Nearly every year since, coming into NASCAR Speedweeks, he’s been one of the favorites to win but for one reason or another, the Virginia boy just couldn’t close the deal. On Sunday, he finally did.

Some thoughts, observations and a few questions:

  • Toyota spent an obscene amount of money to win its first Sprint Cup title. Apparently the deal also included a win at Daytona. The Toyotas dominated the race and their only real competition was the 88 car of Dale Earnhardt Jr. Once Junior fell out, it was only a matter of which JGR car would win.
  • Once again O Fortuna from Carmina Burana was used as the backdrop to driver introductions. Not only is it cliched, but it becomes boring and repetitive after the first minute or so. I can think of about 25 other pieces of music that would work better. Why not have one of NASCAR’s hot shot L.A. – based executives assigned to work with the entertainment business find a suitable contemporary composer to write a piece of music specific to the event? You know, like NBC does with the Sunday Night Football theme?
  • If the Daytona 500 is truly the “Super Bowl of stock car racing” as it is often referred to, then why aren’t there more Super Bowl caliber television commercials being seen during the broadcast? There were few good, new commercials as nearly all had been seen before. FOX repeated all of them just enough times to force you to either change the channel during a commercial break or just leave the room. The occasional side-by-side presentation didn’t keep you glued to the screen either because there just wasn’t much going on in the race.
  • Isn’t this new Colonel Sanders the worst of the lot? Norm MacDonald (#2) was so much better.
  • The Jeff Gordon “Through the Years” promo was good for the first 5-6 times you watched it then it too became annoying.
  • The pre-race grid walk on the FOX broadcast is a good idea that continues to be poorly executed. I can think of two things that would make it 100% better. Get rid of Waltrip and keep Jamie Little and tell those who are on the grid how important it is to the broadcast. Right now it comes off as more of an annoyance than good television. And it doesn’t come close to capturing the electricity you feel when you’re on the grid prior to the race.
  • I hope you were paying attention when the 48 team made a rare pit road miscue. It will be the only time it does so all season.
  • Mike Joy credited the late, great Chris Economaki with penning the phrase “Calamity Corner” for Turn 4 at Daytona International Speedway. I’ll take his word for it. No matter who came up with the monicker, it provided the only drama all afternoon. The tricky surface gave many of the best in the business (Junior, Harvick, Vickers and even the kid in the 24 car) a reason to pucker up.
  • I hope Tony Stewart gets asked to call into every race broadcast until he comes back. It was a treat. He was the first to point out that the reason why everyone was having handling issues was because the race was the first time all week that the drivers were able to experience authentic race conditions. Limited daytime practice sessions and night time racing made even the best crew chiefs have to dig deep to figure out how to get more mechanical grip as the race wore on and the track loosened up.
  • Get well, Smoke!
  • I know its tradition to have the sport’s biggest event as the season opener but try and explain that to someone who knows little about NASCAR. It doesn’t make sense to most people. I happen to think the Homestead finale is far more important to the sport than bragging rights for winning the Daytona. I know…that’s sacrilege. So be it!

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Homestead Observations

Thoughts, observations and a few questions following the Ford Ecoboost 400, the season finale for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series:

  • Although each of the Gang of Four in the season finale had his own unique and appealing story, Busch’s as the “comeback kid” was not the most attractive according to the media I talked to. Most were looking to a miracle win by Jeff Gordon. Least attractive? A repeat by Kevin Harvick.
  • But as we’ve seen happen so often this season, Harvick played the bridesmaid once again. Second is the first loser, right?
  • It will be hard not to compare Jeff Gordon’s final season with Tony Stewart’s upcoming finale in 2016. One big difference between the two champions is that Gordon has remained competitive until the end. Stewart hasn’t been a threat to win for several seasons. I hope that changes.
  • OK, so Kyle Busch has won the championship, but I’m still thinking about how Joe Gibbs Racing went from having four cars in the Chase (and being the outright favorite to win the title) to having just one in the finale.
  • As Sprint Cup races go, the season finale was another of the many ho-hum affairs NASCAR fans have been forced to endure this year. Restarts provided the only excitement all evening and even they were in short supply. I think everyone is happy to see that this current competition package on the Cup cars has run its final race.
  • We’ve been talking about a Kyle Busch championship for years. But every year Busch always fell flat during the Chase. This time around, one thing was different. He really wanted (read: needed) it. After spending time in a hospital bed, thinking about how the whole dream might be over, changed him. Trust me, after spending a good deal of time in a hospital bed myself, your life changes.
  • It would be a mistake to overlook the 18 team’s flawless final pit stop with ten laps to go that secured Busch’s win and the title. During my travel throughout the year I often will meet someone for the first time and I tell them I work in NASCAR. In explaining why they too should be a fan, I always insist that among everything else, it is important that they understand that it is a team sport.
  • How about a championship race where only the final four (or maybe six) teams race each other in a 100 lap shoot out, perhaps split into four separate segments? Sounds crazy, right? But so did group qualifying when I wrote about it ten years ago. Back then I was met with “Are you out of your mind, Margolis?”
  • The departure of Brett Jewkes as the head of NASCAR’s Integrated Marketing Communications group is a welcome change by this writer. Under Jewkes direction, the dynamic of how NASCAR was being covered by the media changed dramatically — and not in a good way. Under Jewkes’ reign, the sport experienced a homogenization and pasteurization of coverage. Like taking a glass of fresh organic milk and turning it into a McDonald’s milkshake. Sweet, somewhat appealing, but you hope there are still some remnants of “real” ingredients involved.
  • I shudder to think of who will be Jewkes’ replacement. I know of a few good candidates, but I seriously doubt any of them will get the gig.
  • I’ve had the pleasure of spending a good deal of time in and around the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and if you’re not paying attention to what’s going on in that series, you need to. There was a tremendous amount of young talent in the pipeline to the senior series this season (Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez, Tyler Roddick, Daniel Hemric and others). The races are short (most are under two hours), the competitors see NASCAR as a full contact sport and the passion for winning is genuine.
  • Speaking of Jones, he may be the best young pure talent to come into the sport since Kyle Busch. I know he’s already in the Joe Gibbs Racing pipeline, but I can’t help but think that when the bidding war for his talents begins, Rick Hendrick will be there as the highest bidder.
  • After spending billions of dollars in its NASCAR program, (yes, that’s with a “b”) Toyota finally gets a Cup title. Money well spent? The manufacturer spent the same kind of money, over an eight year period in Formula One, and never won a single race. There were five runner-up finishes, however.
  • Has the Xfinity Series lost its appeal for most NASCAR fans? I wonder how many can tell you who the top three drivers in points were at the end of the season. The series suffers from the Goldilocks syndrome — something just isn’t right. The current competition package makes for lackluster racing.
  • Now that Kyle Larson’s sophomore slump is officially over, I’m looking forward to the Ganassi Racing driver putting this season behind him and taking command of his future by winning races and being a contender in the 2016 Chase.
  • Will this season’s disappointment produce a hangover in 2016 for the 22 team? Is Joey Logano the kind of leader that can rally a squad back to the top?
  • Could we see Michelin make an appearance in NASCAR in the near future? I think so.
  • You can bet the farm that next year’s Ford Championship weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway will have a Ford team (or two) among the final four. I wouldn’t exactly call it embarrassment on the faces of Ford execs this past weekend, but there were a lot of forced smiles. Ford’s failure to have a team in the final four has made for a difficult start to Dave Pericak’s tenure as head of Ford Performance.
  • Meanwhile, Chevrolet execs are still scratching their collective heads and wondering how two of their top teams (Hendrick and Stewart-Haas) couldn’t beat one Toyota. I don’t think they were all that excited about Furniture Row winning since that team will be a Toyota team in 2016.
  • Speaking of execs, look for changes in NASCAR’s competition department executive suite in the near future.
  • Things I’ll miss next season: GoDaddy’s prominent sponsorship that helped keep Danica Patrick’s career afloat; and Budweiser, which has sponsored a car in NASCAR since 1983. The change from Budweiser to the Busch brand on the 4 car is not smart marketing. This is what happens when you’re company is no longer American owned and being run by the bean counters.

Phoenix Observations

Thoughts, observations and a few questions following the Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500 at Phoenix International Raceway:

  • It took a dedicated NASCAR fan to stay awake for the rain-shortened penultimate event of the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup season. I feel asleep about 75 laps in. Woke up at lap 122. Long rain delays are miserable if you’re at home — stuck with watching hours of NASCAR talking heads going over the same stories several times. Its far worse if you’re at the track.
  • Just to change things up, NBC should have taken their cameras into the media center to hear a different angle on the sport, from those who work in the media trenches — the beat reporters. They have the closest connection to the fans — via social media — not the television network’s talking heads.
  • Last week I wrote that the outcome of the race at Phoenix would have little impact on the top four teams in points that will duke it out at Homestead. That’s exactly how things played out. It didn’t take a genius to figure it out.
  • Who will win the championship? Any one of the four drivers: Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr would make a great champion to represent the sport. Each one can put two sentences together in a meaningful way, each represents a long-standing and dedicated sponsor and each driver has a special story.
  • Gordon is in his final season and his win at Martinsville was like magic. Some fans will always insist that some higher power in Daytona Beach scripts the story for the sport and Gordon winning his fifth title in his final year as a driver is just the kind of storybook ending NASCAR needs at this juncture.
  • Harvick has been the driver to beat all season and his is easily the best of the four teams. A repeat win by the Stewart-Haas driver would be beneficial mainly to those who are in the sport. It would serve as another reminder of how hard work, combined with team wide talent and chemistry is what makes champions in auto racing, not big money or a talented driver alone.
  • Busch’s season is easily the most remarkable. Sitting out for nearly a dozen races due to injury and then returning to destroy the competition with a mid-summer winning streak is truly a story for the ages. Being a father has changed the younger of the Busch brothers and it’s easy to see that the devastating injuries Kyle suffered at Daytona was a wake up call about racing and the meaning of life.
  • Truex Jr.’s team is a lone wolf organization that chose to build its cars a thousand miles away from the competition, making the acquisition of the talent necessary to win all that more difficult. Somehow, team owner Barney Visser has done it. To be honest, moving to Colorado is really a no-brainer. This single-car team is clearly the underdog of the Gang of Four and while winning the title would make a good story, it wouldn’t have the lasting power of a Gordon or Busch win.
  • NASCAR championships are not decided by who would make the best story. If that was the case, Dale Earnhardt Jr. would have won six titles and not Jimmie Johnson. This year the title will be won by the team that has shown consistency all year long.
  • I’m thinking that means it’ll be the 4 car. Unless they screw it up.
  • By the way, the race is in Homestead and NOT Miami. I don’t have anything against Miami. I grew up there and graduated high school there. I love Miami. I love the city, the people, the food and the weather. But, the track is in Homestead, just like Auto Club Speedway is in Fontana and NOT Los Angeles.
  • I wonder how Ford executives feel about hosting the season finale, known as the Ford Championship Weekend, yet there are no Ford teams in the Gang of Four? They have to feel like the only one at the dance without a date.
  • The Air Titans (I love that name) were once more called into action at Phoenix. I would prefer not to see them on the track until sometime next June or July.
  • I’ve not written anything about Dale Earnhardt Jr. winning the rain-shortened race at Phoenix. It just seems meaningless after a marathon day that disappointed everyone but the winning team and the four going to Homestead for the title.
  • I never like to prognosticate, but I do think that if the race continued after a brief rain delay, Joey Logano would be in the Gang of Four.
  • See you in south Florida. Let’s get together for a Cuban coffee and a pastelito de guava.