This is a difficult blog for me to write.  For many years I’ve been following Danica Patrick in both IndyCar and NASCAR.  It was thrilling to see the close calls and competitive racing she had in IndyCar, along with the eventual win she had at Motegi.  It was exciting when she announced that she was going to try out NASCAR in what was then known as the Nationwide Series.  She had an exciting debut in an ARCA race, followed up by her first NASCAR start at Daytona.  She had a near pole win one year, followed up by an actual pole win at Daytona the next year.  Victory Lane eluded her, but she was on a part time schedule to start and hey, many others had come from open wheel racing to NASCAR and hadn’t done nearly as well.

She’s had a few races at Daytona in the Nationwide Series that were notable, but, as restrictor plate races often go, she was caught up in wrecks often not of her own doing.  Still there was hope.

When the announcement was made that she would be joining Stewart-Haas Racing and following in the steps of Tony Stewart and working with his team and former crew chief Greg Zippadelli the hope continued.  She would have excellent equipment, a strong sponsor, teammates in Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman that both had open wheel backgrounds and a solid crew behind her.  Again, a part time schedule to start at some of NASCAR’s toughest tracks, just to get her some seat time.  We as fans were frustrated when she was running at the back of the pack, literally qualifying dead last in many cases and running laps down if she wasn’t wrecked out.  However, we were assured that this was all part of the plan.  She was learning, getting time in the car and learning the system.  Turmoil on her Nationwide team with her crew chief getting fired and the team taking on a new direction didn’t help matters much, but the season ended and she was moving on to bigger and better things.

Her first full year Sprint Cup start at Daytona was interesting.  She won the pole (which many say was rigged) and drove her car to the back of the pack in her Duel race to prevent losing her starting spot.  She didn’t lead the first lap of the race, although she did eventually lead a lap, making her one of 13 to lead laps at the Indy 500 and Daytona 500.  After running 3rd throughout most of the race, she got shuffled back in the last lap and finished 8th.  Not bad, so there was hope.  But Daytona isn’t like the rest of the season.

She would go on to run pretty awful with the exception of Martinsville, where she raced her way up to 12th.  Otherwise though, she was in the low 30s, high 20s, finishing laps down and not competitive at all.  Towards the end of her first full season, her team was swapped with Kurt Busch’s team and she was given a new crew and crew chief, as well as the hand me down cars that they were salvaging from when Ryan Newman was with the team.

Her year with Daniel Knost as crew chief again was disappointing, but with flashes of decent finishes.  Communication was a struggle, whereas in the offseason it was thought to work well with her technical background coming from IndyCar and his engineering mindset.  While she lagged behind in the 20s and 30s, getting caught up in wrecks with guys like Landon Cassill and David Gilliland, Kurt Busch and her former team were at the front of the field and winning races.

She is on yet another crew chief, and her pit crew, which had won the fastest team in an internal SHR pit crew competition, was swapped out again.  The change is noticeable, because any progress she may make on the track is lost by horrible pit stops and mistakes.  Billy Scott seems unable to unload with a fast car, tweaking it to make it better, and instead rolls off 30th in practice and has to make huge swings to try to the car to live up to the potential of the equipment.

As fans, we are frustrated, especially when Kevin Harvick is one of the fastest on the track each week and winning races and championships.  Kurt Busch is winning races and contending for championships.  Tony Stewart isn’t doing so well, but his personal struggles off track with injuries and legal issues can be contributed to that as well.  After coming back from a back injury he’s running better than Danica has all season long.  We hang our hats on the little things though, like the top 10s at Kansas and Atlanta, only to have them crushed when she returns back to the same track.  We get hopeful that experience and Hendrick power will propel her to a win at Daytona or Talladega, or that her road racing experience will help her at Sonoma or Watkins Glen, but we’re consistently disappointed.

After winning the Most Popular Driver Award in the Nationwide Series she’s not done much from a fan standpoint in the Sprint Cup Series.  She’s won the fan vote a couple of times for the All Star race, save for the time she lost it to Josh Wise, but the entry has mostly been a waste.  Her experiences at both the All Star race and the Sprint Unlimited during Speedweeks have been lackluster to say the least.  She runs last, save for the cars that blow up or get wrecked and isn’t competitive at all.

I don’t like to agree with the detractors, but they are right.  She’s no All Star.  She’s done nothing in NASCAR to be worthy of that moniker.

I understand that NASCAR likes to have her in the races because she brings in a fan base.  It’s good to have diversity and she is still the only woman to have won a closed circuit race in a major national series, which makes her the best female in the sport.  However, she still needs to perform to be in the seat and thusfar, she hasn’t earned it.

I want her to succeed.  I want her to win.  I want to see a turnaround similar to Dale Jr., where he got paired up with a crew chief who demanded more of him and asked him if he wanted to be Dale Jr. or if he wanted to be a winning race car driver.  I want to see selfies in Victory Lane rather than headstands and puppy pictures posted to Instagram.  I don’t want to see her settle for 20th place as a good day. I want her competitiveness on the track to match her popularity.  I want her to stop being a celebrity and really focus on being a racer.

I want her to truly *be* an All Star.  I’m not giving up on her, because I think that as a true fan you have to be there when your driver/team/player sucks as well as when they are doing well, but it’s hard to defend her week in and week out when we see the same thing over and over again.

It’s another season and while we’ve seen some amazing races and finishes in the Sprint Cup Series, we’ve seen Kyle Busch dominate three out of the four races in the Xfinity Series.  After his injury last year, Kyle Busch isn’t running restrictor plate races anymore in Xfinity or the Camping World Truck Series, so of the four races we’ve had, he’s won all three that he’s entered.  This brings up the question/argument about Sprint Cup Drivers racing in the Xfinity Series.

First we have to ask the question of why they are racing?  The majority of these drivers race in multiple formats when they aren’t racing in NSCS on Sundays as well, since they have a passion for racing.  However, those events aren’t NASCAR events, so their regulations are different.  They love racing.  They live for Victory Lane, the trophy and thrill of winning.  For some, pulling double or triple duty can also increase their experience and growth for their NSCS careers.

The main reason they are racing though, is because sponsors and fans want them there.  Sponsors get TV time when they have a popular driver in the car and the fans can see their favorite Cup driver either multiple times in a weekend or for a lower cost than a Cup race.

The Xfinity regulars, at least in public forums like news and twitter, seem to be in favor of having the Cup drivers there because they like the competition.  On the rare occasion they do win a race, they beat a Cup driver or ten to do so.  Cup drivers don’t get points for racing in NXS, so there is still competition among NXS regulars, but they are still missing out on trophies, wins, prize money and exposure.

Often you’ll see dominating performances from the Cup drivers as well.  They win the pole then lead most of the race, if not all of it, with little threat to the lead and coast to Victory Lane, making for a dull event.  As we’ve seen this year, Kyle Busch has dominated so much of the races it’s almost predictable that we’re going to see the same thing week after week if he’s in the race.

I don’t want to restrict the drivers from racing.  They want to race and in some cases, like with Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson and other new-ish drivers to NSCS, the extra laps in NXS can help further their careers.  However, we have to do something to level the playing field.

One of the major advantages that the NSCS drivers have is they have the support of the NSCS team behind them.  Kyle Busch isn’t racing for just anyone.  He’s racing for Joe Gibbs Racing and his pit crew are the same guys that pit for him on Sundays.  When Dale Earnhardt Jr. races for his Jr Motorsports team (which is just Hendrick Motorsports NXS team) he has his same spotter, crew, and at times he had Steve Letarte on the box for him too.  This is the first step to level the playing field.

Anyone who performs a function for a race team in the NSCS may not perform any duties, even if they are different, for a NXS/CWTS team.

That’s a start.  When you’re seeing 11 second vs 14 second pit stops it’s because you have Cup level pit crews doing the work.

Another reason why the Cup drivers are running in NXS is that while they can’t earn driver points for the championship, they can earn owners points and manufacturer points for their respective championship.  There’s plenty of incentive there from the owners and manufacturers to stack the deck with all star rosters to rotate through and win those championships.  Typically the NXS drivers get little to no seat time in those rides.  Step two is take away this incentive.

Any car driven by a driver who has not declared points eligibility in NXS/CWTS is also not eligible to earn owner or manufacturer points.

With some of the incentive by the owners and manufacturers taken away, there will be a greater incentive to put NXS/CWTS regulars in the seats.

This last suggestion is going to be the most controversial I believe.  The major stick and ball leagues have restrictions on the number of franchises you can own in a market.  Mark Cuban, who currently owns the Dallas Mavericks, could also buy the Dallas Stars, Cowboys or Rangers, but couldn’t own more than two at the same time.  NASCAR has a similar rule in that you can’t field more than four teams at a time.  However, this rule is a per series rule.  As the NSCS drivers have the backing of NSCS teams, they carry a significant advantage to the teams that don’t have that backing, further creating a divide of the haves and have nots.

Limit ownership of NASCAR teams to no more than four in any one series, and no more than one in any subsequent series.  

If Joe Gibbs Racing wants to field an NXS or CWTS entry, they can do so, but only one.  What driver they put in that car is their choice.  It could be Kyle Busch or Erik Jones.  There are pros and cons to each.  However, this doesn’t prevent Kyle Busch or Brad Keselowski or Kevin Harvick or any other NSCS driver from starting their own team or hitching a ride with a non NSCS backed team.

I don’t think an outright ban is needed.  I just think we can level the playing field and reduce the incentives for the Cup drivers to drop down into the lower series to race.

The rivalry between Matt Kenseth and Joey Logano came to a head this past weekend at Martinsville Speedway and NASCAR leveled a pretty heavy penalty on Matt for his actions, suspending him for two races.  His crime, as many know already, was wrecking Joey Logano, who is a Chase contender and was leading the race, while Matt was 9 laps down and already out of the Chase.  This was in retaliation for Joey spinning Matt out at Kansas a few weeks prior and Matt feeling like he was wrecked by Joey’s teammate, Brad Keselowski, earlier in the race.

Earlier in the race, Danica Patrick and David Gilliland had a similar dustup.  Gilliland bumped Danica while racing for position, sending her out of the groove and into the wall.  Danica got her car repaired and returned the to track 25 laps down.  While circling around the paperclip she came to Gilliland’s car and decided to enact some revenge of her own, bumping him and chasing his car up the track and into the wall.  She wound up on the worse end of it though as she tried to hit him again and he brake checked her, smashing the front end of her car in and ending her day.  Danica was given a $50,000 fine and a 25 point penalty for her actions.

As I write this, word just came out that the suspension was upheld and Matt is moving to final appeal on that.

To me, this is pretty clear cut and NASCAR has drawn the line on what is ok and what isn’t when it comes to “Boys have at it.”  To others though, it’s not, so let me clarify the differences in the incidents and why some got penalized while others didn’t, why the penalties that were assessed were different and past history.

First, with Joey and Matt.  This started at Kansas when towards the end of the race Matt was in the lead and Joey was behind him with a faster car.  Joey gave Matt a tap on the rear and Matt was blocking to hold his lead.  Joey pushed through and didn’t lift and as a result Matt wound up spinning out.  Joey went on to win the race and Matt didn’t advance to the next round of the Chase through points or wins at either Charlotte or Talladega.  (Joey won both of those races as well for the record)  At Talladega Matt felt like Joey brake checked him during a pit stop as well, fueling this feud.  For the spin at Kansas Joey wasn’t assessed any penalties.  This was determined to be a racing incident and acceptable contact.  They were in the final laps and racing for position (the lead) and neither drive was expected to give an inch.  Both were Chase contenders at the time.

Now, for Danica and David.  This has gone on pretty much since Danica entered NASCAR and has been rolling around in the back with the backmarkers.  They have beat and banged on each other routinely, often with Danica getting the worst of it.  At Martinsville though, it started with David feeling like Danica was blocking and he bumped her out of the groove.  They were both racing for position on the lead lap at the time and neither are or were Chase contenders.  She wound up in the wall with right front damage that took some time to repair.  She wound up 25 laps down when she returned to the track.  She was very angry about the incident as it wasn’t the first and was determined to get retaliation.  When she got near Gilliland again she did the same that he had done to her and bumped him up out of the groove.  A difference was that she chased after him after he went into the wall and under caution when he came back around she hit him again.

The incidents were similar, but had some differences.  In both initial instances the drivers were racing for position when the contact occurred.  There was no intent to injure or damage, but simply to move the perceived slower driver out of the way.  This is normal racing and part of “Boys have at it.”  That is why there were no penalties for the initial incidents.  In the retaliations both Danica and Matt were laps down, not racing for position and were out on the track with the sole purpose of wrecking the driver that had wrecked them.  This is the reason for the penalties.  There was an intent to damage and/or injure the other driver and they were not racing for position, but using their car as a weapon.  The reason that Matt’s was harsher than Danica’s is because he was a non-Chase driver who wrecked a Chase contender who was leading the race (and likely would’ve won his fourth in a row, punching his ticket to Homestead for the championship race.)

I am surprised that NASCAR didn’t suspend Matt for the three remaining races to prevent him from disrupting Homestead and expect that it will be reduced to a one race suspension and a fine plus points.  He’ll wind up finishing in 12th place for the season as a result.

Danica and Stewart-Haas Racing have said they will not appeal her penalty.

Historically the penalty to Matt is a bit harsh and I think there’s an example being set in part due to the new format of the Chase.  Matt could’ve very likely cost Joey the chance at a championship with his actions.  Previously Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer got into a similar crash at Phoenix where Gordon lied in wait and crashed Clint out and ended his chances at a championship (although he had a very long shot chance that year) and Gordon was given a $100,000 fine without suspension.  A race suspension wouldn’t have done much there as there was one race left and no chance that Gordon would impact the outcome anymore.  I also feel like Danica likely wouldn’t have gotten a penalty or as harsh of one if Matt hadn’t done what he did.  The blatant targeting of another driver though, can’t be tolerated.

So the question becomes, what is acceptable for retaliation to honor the driver’s code?  You hear all the time that payback will come at a short track, where the speeds are low and the chance for injury is also low.  The answer, again, is fairly simple.  Had Matt and Joey been racing for position and Matt bumped Joey and put him out of the groove and into the wall that would’ve been perfectly ok.  The score would be considered settled and no penalties would be levied.  It would’ve been chalked up as a racing incident and while some bad blood may have still existed between the two drivers, it would be pretty much over at that point.  In 2013 there was bad blood between Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano.  Joey and Denny had a tangle at Fontana early in the season that resulted in Denny hitting a wall and breaking his back.  Later in the year though, at Bristol, Denny was behind Joey and took the opportunity to put him into the wall.  No fines, no penalties.  They were racing for position and Denny got his retaliation.

It’s pretty clear to me how it all works.

I may be late to the conversation, and I know it’s one that has been discussed before, but I felt like addressing again since it’s come to pass.

It’s no secret that many NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers race in non-Cup events regularly.  Some do Xfinity or Camping World Truck Series races.  Some do World of Outlaws.  Some do late models.  Some race in the 24 hours of Daytona, etc. While most of the time these activities don’t interfere with their primary job, racing in the Sprint Cup series, there are times when they do.

Most recently, Kyle Busch, racing in the Xfinity series for Joe Gibbs Racing at Daytona, was involved in a wreck that broke one leg in multiple places and the foot on the opposite leg.  The result was him missing not only the Daytona 500, but many other races as yet to be determined.  It has very likely cost him and his team the opportunity to run for a championship this year and may affect his future ability to race at all.  Kyle often races in the lower stock car and truck series, often doing double or triple duty over the course of the weekend.  He’s a draw for sponsors and fans to those races, but after this incident, is it worth it?

Kasey Kahne is another who races in non Cup races regularly.  He does the dirt tracks in the sprint cars when the opportunity affords itself and has been in a few wrecks doing that, although so far he hasn’t sustained any injuries from it.

Tony Stewart has had his share of issues with extracurricular racing lately.  Two years ago, in a sprint car, he was in a wreck that broke his leg and caused him to miss the rest of the season.  The following season he struggled in the Cup car and didn’t win a race.  That season was also interrupted due to the accident that killed Kevin Ward Jr. and the subsequent litigation that followed.  The start of the 2015 season hasn’t been kind to Tony either, with him falling behind in the standings early and failing to be competitive.  Some of that can be attributed to the car, but the fact remains that he hasn’t been the same since the accident that broke his leg.

Some extracurricular racing pays off well.  A.J. Allmendinger, Jamie McMurray and Kyle Larson have raced in the Rolex 24 in the past two years and come away with the victory and the Rolex payday.  No harm there right?  Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and others routinely run Xfinity and Truck series races, bringing in fans and sponsors.  Some of that racing allows them to field their own Truck or Xfinity teams, allowing younger drivers the opportunity to run races as well.

While there are drivers chomping at the bit for a first class ride, sliding into a seat due to injury is never what is best for the team.  Once in a while it will pay off well, but for the most part they are filling the seat to keep the car in owners points for the next season.  It’s rarely as competitive as it was before.  This causes problems with sponsors and with the revenue earned by the driver for wins, making the Chase and higher finishing positions.  In football if you lose your starting QB, you probably lost your chance at the playoffs.  In baseball if you lose your starting pitcher or power hitter, you’re going to struggle.  The new Chase format may give Kyle a chance at the Chase, but he would have to get a waiver (probably not an issue,) win a race (could be tough, depending on how many races are left,) and get into the top 30 in points (getting more difficult as each week passes.)  Now NASCAR could skip the top 30 requirement at their discretion if he wins a race, but other than that I think they are preparing for next year.

Now, NASCAR as a sanctioning body doesn’t care what the drivers do.  They like having Kyle Busch in the Xfinity series because it brings fans to those races.  The local short tracks love having Tony Stewart show up for a race.  Again, it generates buzz.  The drivers obviously aren’t going to regulate themselves, regardless of how many times they get hurt.  Tony has said he probably won’t race a sprint car again after the death of Kevin Ward Jr., but that’s a pretty extreme example.  Should the owners and agents put clauses in that limit the activities?  You can race in Xfinity races as long as they aren’t super speedways like Daytona and Talladega?  You can only race in NASCAR sanctioned events?  Also, what about non-racing events?  Denny Hamlin tore his ACL playing basketball in a pickup game.  He didn’t miss any time if I recall, but it was painful for him to even get in and out of the car.  Should Carl Edwards be allowed to do his backflip if he wins?  Could Jimmie Johnson go sky diving or bungee jumping?  These drivers love the thrill of some of these experiences, but should they be limited for their own safety?

It also brings about the question of the crews.  What happens if you lose a pit crew member due to injury?  I’m sure it happens during the normal course of the season, but the Cup crews for these drivers often pit their Xfinity cars too.  Say some rookie Xfinity driver comes barreling down pit lane and takes out your jackman or your fuel man?  Then later you have a slow stop due to their replacement that causes you to lose a race or championship?

I don’t have an answer, but I’d love to hear the debate.

It’s been a long time since I’ve had a chance to write much about racing, as I’ve honestly not had enough time to devote to it. Family and work can take a lot out of you. As the 2015 NASCAR season has started though it’s given me a lot of things to think about.

Sprint announced that they will no longer be the title sponsor for the series when their contract is up at the end of 2016. They’ve been a good sponsor but things change and a new sponsor will need to be found. So it got me to thinking of who could come in and fill that role? Rumor has it that the new deal will be a $1 Billion dollar a year cost, so whoever does it will need to have some serious financial backing. A few industries come to mind. The top three to me are Media, Tech and Finance.

Tech companies like Microsoft, Google and Apple have the capital to sponsor the series and technology certainly has gotten important in NASCAR, with twitter being a huge piece of that. Microsoft has already gotten into a deal with the NFL, using their Surface tablets all over the field, so it’s not a stretch to think that a tech company could come into NASCAR. I think this is unlikely because it’s not really the demographic of NASCAR fans though. Google would be the most likely candidate in my opinion for a tech company sponsor.

Finance companies could be a big player in the sponsorship search as well. They have the capital to cover the sponsorship and likely would do a lot of co-branded offers with the fans as well. Who wouldn’t want a Dale Jr. VISA card? The card companies like VISA, Mastercard, American Express and Discover could all be players. Individual banks like Citibank, Chase, Bank of America and Capital One could be bidders as well. Capital One is a sponsor of the College football bowl games, so they are probably out, but their somewhat brash advertising nature of What’s in Your Wallet? could be appealing to NASCAR fans. Chase could be a player, but some rebranding for NASCAR’s playoff system would have to happen. You can’t have the Chase for the Chase Cup. I could see VISA being a big player in it. Being the only credit card offered at the tracks, etc. Lots of options here.

Media companies are probably the most likely choice though. Verizon sponsors the IndyCar series so having rival AT&T sponsoring the NASCAR series seems like a no brainer. Unique offerings through their U-Verse/DirecTV and mobile services could enhance the viewership for fans. Like Sprint they have the mobile service and could have exclusive content through the apps, but they have the added benefit of a TV package. With their in progress acquisition of DirecTV they would have reach throughout the US and Canada for special programming too. Maybe they could bring a version of DirecTV’s HotPass offering back. NBC is another possibility. NBC/Universal/Comcast/Xfinity is already a huge investor into NASCAR with sponsorship of the mid-tier Xfinity series (formerly Nationwide/Busch,) plus the half year programming schedule for the series. They could also present tie-ins with their theme park business and more.

A lot will go into finding a new title sponsor and while I could be way off on my thoughts, time will tell. I’m guessing that it won’t be announced until early to mid-2016 before everything gets nailed down.

Kurt Busch got suspended by NASCAR just before the Daytona 500 due to a finding in a protection hearing that Busch had assaulted his ex-girlfriend. He appealed and lost and agreed to follow a Road to Recovery to get reinstated. Today it was announced that no charges will be filed against Kurt, so he’s a free man. The question now is what will NASCAR do? Will he still have to follow the Road to Recovery even though there’s been no charges filed or will they reinstate him immediately? Will Stewart-Haas, his sponsors and Chevrolet let him drive again? I think he should be driving again immediately, but since he’s a high profile name in the sport and domestic violence is a huge topic in the media right now, I suspect the Road to Recovery plan will stand and then it will be up to the sponsors to decide if they want to take a risk with him.

Yes we’re two races into the season and it’s too early for any predictions, but the Gen 6 Rev C aero/rules/engine package seems to be working well. We had some pretty good races at Daytona and while it isn’t as exciting as the tandems, it’s much better than the first year of the Gen 6 car. The Atlanta race was pretty good too. To be honest I thought the weather was going to kill that one but we were able to not only get the race in, but run it to the end. It was nice to see a lot of passing in that race too. Hopefully Vegas is as exciting. It will be hot in Vegas and the track is very bumpy so it could be an adventure. Again, while we are two races in, it’s interesting to see who is in the front of the pack (Jimmie, Joey, Kevin, Dale Jr,) and who is way deep in the standings (Tony, Jeff, Brad.) I suspect that those in the back will move their way up, and all they have to do is win a race and stay in the top 30 to qualify for the Chase, so it’s not really as scary as it looks.

I’m pleased with Danica’s start. Again, it’s early in the season but despite being wrecked three times during Speedweeks she was able to race her way into the Daytona 500, coming back from an 18th place restart after a wreck to finish 10th in her Duel race and avoiding accidents in the Daytona 500. She was also able to pass cars and avoid wrecks at Atlanta, despite having an electrical fire that took out her tach. Momentum is big in NASCAR and if she can keep on with another decent finish at Las Vegas it could do a lot for her confidence in the rest of the season.

Like Danica’s start, some of the smaller teams like Casey Mears, AJ Allmendinger and Martin Truex Jr. have gotten off to good starts. That’s a big deal for these one car teams.

In the disappointment category Roush Fenway Racing and Richard Childress Racing aren’t showing too much. Ty Dillon had a great showing at Speedweeks, but not much else has been good to talk about. While I’m no fan of the Dillon boys I’d like to see Trevor Bayne and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. doing better. Biffle and Newman need to lead the way on those teams to get them going in the right direction.

Safety is a big issue for NASCAR this year, as we’ve seen Kyle Busch go out due to a hard crash at Daytona in the Xfinity series and Jeff Gordon hitting a concrete wall at Atlanta. Both accidents involved walls that didn’t have the SAFER barrier installed. NASCAR is looking to remediate that at all tracks ASAP. Too bad it took for Kyle to get seriously injured for that to happen. Get well soon Kyle!

As for predictions? I’ll go with some obvious ones. The path to the championship will run through the 48 shop for sure. You will have to beat Jimmie and Chad if you want to win the Cup. Kyle Larson will win a race this year. Chase Elliott will win a second title in the Xfinity series. Tony Stewart will get back to his old form and we’ll have another surprise fan vote winner at the All Star race.

And oh yeah, narwhals.

Hard to believe it’s here already but the 2014 NASCAR season is coming to a close.  Ford Championship Weekend is upon us and in the Sprint Cup division we will crown a new champion.

NASCAR switched up the Chase format as they have done a few times since it was created, expanding it and changing the qualifications of entry some.  Let me recap that real quick first.

First, the Grid (as it is now called) is expanded from 12 spots to 16 spots.  Next, and perhaps one of the most important aspects of the new format, is that drivers will get in based on wins first, then on points, with a spot reserved for the points leader if he or she doesn’t have a win.  If there aren’t 16 winners (which there haven’t been in the history of NASCAR in the first 26 races) then the remaining spots will be filled on points.  Drivers with wins will have to stay in the top 30 in points to maintain their spot and attempt to qualify for all of the races during the season.  Exceptions can be granted by NASCAR to the qualifying rule.  Bonus points will still be earned for wins, giving each win 3 points for the opening round of the Chase.  There will be three elimination rounds.  For each of the three sets of races in the Chase leading up to the finale, 4 drivers will be eliminated from Chase contention.  After each round the remaining Chase drivers will have their points reset.  No bonus points will be earned for wins in the Chase.  A win in any of the rounds will automatically advance you to the next round.  The opening round the points are set to 2000 plus the bonus points for wins.  Second round the points are set to 3000 with no bonus points.  The third round the points are set to 4000 with no bonus points and for the finale the points are set to 5000 with no bonus points.  With the points being reset at the finale, that turns the race at Homestead into a Leader Take All format.  Whomever of the 4 remaining Chase drivers is highest in points at the end of the race will be crowned the Champion.

This new format with the emphasis on winning has created a new sense of excitement and competitiveness that the sport sorely needed.  There was a new rules package for the car this year, designed to allow for more passing, side by side racing and competition.  With the “Win and You’re In” design of the Chase, Dale Earnhardt Jr. knew he was Chase eligible after winning the Daytona 500 this year, as did Kevin Harvick after Phoenix.

The elimination format also proved to be exciting, although it wasn’t always the elimination race that was the exciting one.  The second race in the elimination rounds turned out to be very exciting, with Texas being particularly exciting both during and after the race.  Chase drivers won all but two of the races, although those were won by drivers that had been in the Chase but were eliminated.  This was in the last round leading up to Homestead, which made the race at Phoenix that much more dramatic.  While Kevin Harvick dominated the race he needed to win, Ryan Newman, needing just one point to advance to the finale and knock Jeff Gordon out of contention, rubbed Kyle Larson over in the final turn to get the point he needed.

The format was great for drivers like Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch, A.J. Allmendinger and Aric Almirola.  Ryan had no wins through the season but was quietly consistent.  Kurt was mired in the high teens and low 20’s through the season, but had his win at Martinsville to get him into the Chase.  A.J. won on a road course and Almirola won a rain shortened Daytona race.  For others though, it didn’t help so much.  Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon, despite having a combined total of 18 wins, literally half of the season, aren’t in the finale at all.  Gordon missed it by a point at Phoenix, largely in part due to a wreck caused by Brad at Texas.  Jimmie and Dale were eliminated at Talladega in the previous round.  All were favorites to be at Homestead.  Kyle Busch, who was having the best Chase of his career, got caught up in someone else’s wreck in the same round that eliminated Jimmie and Dale and got bumped out.

So we’re left with Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin and Ryan Newman running for the title.  Newman is the only one without a win and there isn’t much hope that he’ll get one this weekend.  Denny Hamlin has one win this season and while the Toyotas in general have been underpowered, he has won at Homestead in the past and so did his crew chief in a must win race when he was with Tony Stewart.  Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick are the clear favorites to win, both winning multiple races through the year, qualifying well and showing great speed.  Harvick’s had some issues on pit road that hopefully were solved with a crew swap at the beginning of the Chase or else he would’ve won more races.  Both have just unloaded fast weekend after weekend and were a threat to win numerous races they didn’t.  Joey probably could’ve won Talladega, but chose to block for his teammate Brad Keselowski, who needed a win to advance to the next round.

We’ve got history and drama here of course.  Joey isn’t liked by any of the other three drivers, having run ins with all of them in the past.  Newman has shown he’ll do anything for a title by virtue of his last lap move on Kyle Larson.  Hamlin has been here before and to a lesser extent so has Harvick.  While I don’t think we’re going to see anyone dump someone else with a hard right turn into a quarter panel to win, we could definitely see some bumping and banging in the final laps if it’s close.  This is assuming, of course, that nobody gets a pit road speeding penalty or a bad pit stop or caught up in a wreck with lap traffic or a blown tire or motor and that all four are racing for the win.  How anti-climatic would it be if they’re running 1-4 and Landon Cassill blows a tire and takes out all of them?  I doubt that will happen but it may.

All in all it should be a good race and a fitting end to what I think has been a great season.  The competition has been good.  Drivers are fighting harder for wins and you’re on the edge of your seat not just for the race winner, but for the race within a race that has been occurring.  Jeff Gordon and Ryan Newman proved that every point counts so don’t lift.

I give the new format an A-.  It has improved the competition and made for exciting races and story lines, but I think that 16 slots is too much.  While I don’t think we should mess with the format for a couple of years, I think 12 slots would be better.  Eliminate 3 drivers per round and have the finale be 3 drivers instead of 4.  Or even perhaps have a way a driver could race his or her way back into the finale to make it 4 drivers.  The highest points finisher after the first 9 races (with a win trumping points) could be the 4th “wild card” entry.  This would continue the emphasis on winning and give us an exciting finale.

I for one am looking forward to the race on Sunday and to the 2015 season and what that will bring.

While most folks watching the race at Texas Motor Speedway yesterday were focused on the Chase and the race for the lead, some of us were watching a different development.

As announced a few weeks ago, the #10 and #41 teams at Stewart-Haas Racing switched road crews and crew chiefs starting this weekend at Texas.  The pit crews remained the same.  Tony Gibson went to crew chief for Kurt Busch and Daniel Knost went to crew chief for Danica.  Some fans were skeptical and some were excited about the change, thinking that an old school crew chief like Tony Gibson would work better with Kurt Busch and that a younger, more engineering focused crew chief in Daniel Knost could work better with Danica Patrick, whose IndyCar background lent her to be a bit more technical in her feedback.  Since there is a ban on testing in 2015, Stewart-Haas said this was a way to “test” new personnel before they had to do it in real race situations.  Neither Kurt nor Danica are in the Chase, so there was little to lose with this idea.

The results were noticed immediately.  Kurt Busch, along with Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick, all posted qualifying times in the top 6.  Danica qualified 27th, not even making it out of the first round of qualifying.  It didn’t get much better for Danica either.  While she did gain some positions in the practices that followed, the team made a last minute transmission change that forced her to start at the rear of the field.

While I focused more on Danica’s status during the race than Kurt Busch, it was apparent from watching the race and following on twitter that things were bad for the #10 GoDaddy Chevrolet.  With less than 40 laps in Danica lost a tire, forcing her to pit early and lose a lap in the process.  She was already a lap down at that point and would never recover.  From early on she was on pace to be 10 laps down by the end of the race and if not for a couple of wave around opportunities that’s exactly where she would’ve been.  As it was she finished 9 laps down after suffering another blown tire and hitting the wall.  She was never competitive and spent the majority of the race running against back markers in the mid 30’s.  She gained a few spots due to wrecks but finished second to last of the running cars.  It was misery from the drop of the green flag and Danica expressed her frustrations on the radio, even saying she wished she was part of some of the wrecks so she could be done with the horrible day she was having.  Communication with Daniel Knost was a major problem, as he was repeatedly asking spotter Brandon Benesch to repeat things that Danica said or explain what she said.  The blown tires are an indicator of a bad setup, probably using too low of an air pressure, beyond what the manufacturer specifies.  That’s a crew chief issue right there and worth noting that most other teams did not have issues with tire wear, especially after less than 40 laps.

Also worth noting is that Kurt Busch, with Danica’s car and crew chief, was fighting for the win at the end of the race.  He led laps and finished in the top 10 and may have finished higher if not for the pit calls at the end of the race.

I will state the obvious here, that Kurt is far more talented than Danica so we should expect him to do better, but should we expect Danica to do so much worse than she was before?  Prior to the swap she was making great progress.  She was finishing on the lead lap, racing competitively, qualifying better and overall just getting better and faster as the season went on.  If not for a late caution that pinned her behind cars that hadn’t done green flag stops at Talladega she could’ve won that race, or at least contended for the win.  Kurt, on the other hand, was struggling most of the year.  He did win at Martinsville but more often than not was not contending for wins or fast many weekends and while he did make the Chase on the back of that one win, he was way low in the standings and missed the first cut of the Chase.

So that brings us to the topic at hand.  Has Stewart-Haas given up on Danica or was it just a bad weekend?  Even the best drivers have bad weekends from time to time, but this just has the feeling of something bigger.  We saw it at Andretti towards the end and we saw it at JR Motorsports at the end of her time there too.  Both teams made changes to her team and her cars were inferior to the rest of the cars on the track.  I’m thinking that Gene Haas, who is sponsoring Kurt Busch and made the unilateral decision to bring him on, made the executive decision to put Kurt with the better performing equipment and personnel.  Probably convinced that Danica isn’t going to win or even contend for wins despite being in good equipment and with a good team (remember her pit crew won the SHR competition at the beginning of the year,) he’s going to let GoDaddy foot the bill for the rest of the contract and then Danica’s foray into NASCAR will be over.  After next year SHR will go back to three teams or perhaps will pick up someone else, but I doubt that Danica will be renewed or signed with another team.  She’s loyal to Tony and she likes Kevin Harvick but I also think she’s happy being Danica, versus being a race car driver.  We know that Richard Petty doesn’t think she’ll win, so RPM won’t sign her.  Richard Childress Racing has the Dillon boys that they are bringing up through the ranks as well as steady money from Menards and Caterpillar.  Roush Fenway Racing has Biffle, Stenhouse Jr and Bayne and I doubt Jack Roush wants Ricky and Danica on the same team together.  I think Penske and Ganassi have tried the open-wheel convert experiment so I would count those teams out.  Hendrick and Gibbs have four teams, so no openings there.  She won’t go back to Nationwide and she won’t run with a small, underfunded team.  Her ego is too big for that.

I like Danica.  I want her to succeed in the sport.  I’m a father of two girls who love watching her race.  I jump out of my chair and start whooping and hollering whenever she takes the lead in a race. It would speak volumes to the ability for other women to be able to join the ranks if she is successful.  However, if she is not I feel that owners will be less likely to sign a female driver for a long time.   These last two races of the season will tell us if Daniel Knost is the man for the job or not and if he’s not, then a new crew chief and team will run the show for the last year of this contract.  If she doesn’t compete for wins next year then I’m pretty sure she’s done in racing.  I just don’t see her going back to Nationwide like Sam Hornish Jr did or going back to IndyCar like Juan Pablo Montoya did.  While it’s possible that GoDaddy will continue to foot the bill and Tony Stewart and Gene Haas let them pay for it and she sticks around like JPM did, I’m not holding my breath on that.

I hope I’m wrong.  I hope that she goes to Phoenix next week and blows the doors off the place.  I hope she wins Daytona and gets a spot in the Chase next year.  I’m just not counting on it.