Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Points system leading to early aggressiveness?

At Daytona, we saw the "big one" a couple of times. This was no surprise to anyone who has watched the racing at Daytona in recent years. The type of racing that is the norm at the restrictor plate tracks leads to the possibility of multiple car wrecks, with cars running two and three wide in one or more packs.

If there was a track where most observers would say a huge, third-of-the-field wreck would not be expected, that track would be Phoenix International Raceway.

Nevertheless, that is exactly what we saw, and we saw it on lap 67 of a 312 lap race. Why are drivers being so aggressive so early in a race? It's easy enough to just dismiss this as hard racing, which is what top level drivers do. The question is, what, if anything, has changed to bring the level of aggressiveness even higher, and so early in races?

Could it be the points system? NASCAR implemented its new point system at the beginning of the year. The new system was meant to improve a number of perceived problems with the old points system. The new system is simpler, mathematically, since generally each position on the track counts for one point. It was also intended to reward winning more, which it does, marginally.

There is one other thing it does that has not been discussed much in the racing media: it punishes poor finishes, and it does so more than the old system did. Under the old system, the maximum points one could earn in a race was 195; the minimum was 34. That means that the worst one could do, by finishing 43rd, is to earn 17.4% of the points of the race winner.

Under the new system, the last-place finisher gets one point. The maximum that can be earned is 48 points. That means the driver that comes in 43rd can find himself receiving 2% of the points the winner gets.

This may be causing teams to be that much more afraid of a back-of-the-pack finish, and could be leading to strategies to avoid that, like trying to get up front as soon as possible.

The positive side of this is it would tend to discourage single-line racing throughout the field, because at most tracks, it takes some time to advance positions, so you should end up with a more exciting race. Obviously, the negative side is the possibility of a lot of wrecked race cars. It also means teams will have even more incentive get damaged cars back on track as soon as they can to salvage points, which could lead to even more wrecks. Case in point: we saw Andy Lally get into the wall Sunday in his noseless race car, bringing out a caution.

Now, this is just a theory, and it's very early in the season.

If we see a "big one" at Las Vegas early in the race, though, just keep this theory in mind as a possible explanation.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Some drivers who finished better than media thought they would

The Daytona 500 was a different race than it has been in recent years, with the two-by-two pushing strategy that was necessary for anyone that wanted to run well. Nevertheless, initial ratings are showing ratings much-improved from last year, and even above 2009 levels.

One of the other things that stood out was that there were a number of drivers who finished in the top 10, who don't normally finish there. Unfortunately, Fox decided not to give any TV time to them, focusing on more well-known (read: well-sponsored) drivers who finished behind them.

Let's look at a few of them:

David Gilliland - 3rd: Gilliland nearly pushed Carl Edwards to the win, but Trevor Bayne wisely blocked, ensuring his win. He had a 2nd place finish at Sonoma in 2008, but otherwise has had average finishes in the high 20s to low 30s. He didn't show much strength earlier in the race, but survived to the end of the race and drove his Taco Bell Ford Fusion to the highest-ever finish for Front Row Motorsports.

Gilliland was let go by Yates for lack of sponsorship after the 2008 season. He drove most of the 2009 season for TRG Motorsports, finishing out that season in a fourth Joe Gibbs car. He missed the Daytona 500 last year, but drove the rest of the season for Front Row, and finished 32nd in driver points.

Bobby Labonte - 4th: Labonte gave Trevor Bayne the initial push to get out front on the final restart. This was the 2000 champion's first start for JTG Daugherty. He missed wrecks earlier while running mid-pack, preserving his Kroger Toyota for the finish.

Labonte has floated from team to team in recent years after leaving Joe Gibbs. He's driven for Petty Enterprises, Hall of Fame Racing, TRG Motorsports, Robby Gordon, James Finch and brother Terry. This looks to be a more stable environment this year with a solid set of sponsors. Starting off the season with a top five can't hurt.

Regan Smith - 7th. Unlike Gilliland and Labonte, Smith ran up front pretty much all day. Whenever he would get mired back in the pack due to pit issues or strategy, he was pushing someone to the front within a handful of laps. He had worked with Kurt Busch most of Speedweeks, pushing Busch to his Gatorade Duel victory, taking a 2nd place finish. Near the end of the race, Busch was pushed hard into Smith's bumper by Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt, Jr., causing the Furniture Row Chevy Impala to spin into several other cars. The damage was not extensive, though, and he managed to get a push from Kyle Busch, resulting in his career-best finish, and the highest driver rating in the race.

This is Smith's third season driving for Denver, Colo.-based Furniture Row Racing. He had previously driven for Ginn Racing and its successor organization, Dale Earnhardt, Inc., where he nearly drove to victory at Talledega Superspeedway, losing out to Tony Stewart after a controversial double-yellow-line ruling. The team made continuous progress last year, and looks to contend for a top 20 points finish this year.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

What's going on with Mike Skinner?

Something doesn't make sense about the story that Mike Skinner is out at Randy Moss Motorsports, to be replaced with Travis Kvapil.

I know multiple sources are saying that the above scenario is what is playing out, but consider: Front Row Motorsports is planning on Travis Kvapil again running the #34 FRM Ford full time next year. Considering the budgets involved (a low-moderate-budget Cup team, and a Truck team), does it make sense that Kvapil would be flying around the country to run both series? Is Kvapil going to fund the helicopter rides out of pocket? Can the deals be that lucrative to make financial sense?

I'm just wondering aloud here, folks. It just doesn't add up.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Saturday Notes from the Flagstand - 12/11/10

Here's hoping Aric Almirola's stint in the JR Motorsports #88 lasts longer than Kelly Bires'...speaking of Aric A. Almirola, I know the American Automobile Assn., currently has a deal with Penske Racing, but wouldn't that be the perfect sponsor for a guy whose initials are "AAA?" Best wishes to "Triple A" and his bride on this, their wedding day!

Will 2011 be the year Dale Earnhardt, Jr., finally breaks out and starts winning again? His father, the great Dale Earnhardt, won a championship when he was 30, but didn't really dominate until his mid-to-late 30s. Junior is now 36, so maybe this is his time.

Scott Speed, as promised, sued Red Bull Racing for $6.5 million. He argues, in essence, that while there was a performance clause, RBR didn't give him equipment that was up to the task. It is odd, at least, that RBR signed an extension shortly before fax-firing the 27-year-old driver. The courts will decide.

And happy birthday to Eric McClure, who turns 32 today!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Scott Speed to sue Red Bull

Scott Speed announced via Twitter today that his lawyer is filing a suit today against Red Bull Racing. The reason was not given, but it's fair to assume it is a breach of contract action.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Now that's racin'!

The 43rd Annual Snowball Derby, the "Daytona 500 of short track racing," ran Sunday, and it was almost certainly the most exciting race of the year. 18-year-old Johanna Long, for whom this race is a "home game," won in overtime, easily pulling away from the field on the final restart when things fell her way after multiple wrecks in front, and leaving her with fresh tires, a good car and a clear track ahead. She did a masterful job avoiding getting caught up in the carnage that occurred right in front of her multiple times.

This should help her in her quest for sponsorship for her family-run Panhandle Motorsports #20 Camping World Truck series entry, or perhaps even bigger things sooner than she may have expected. She and her family would do well, of course, to proceed carefully, as some drivers move up too quickly, and are unable to adjust to the tougher competition. She has proven, though, that she has the raw talent, and is quickly gaining the experience, to succeed against a highly competitive field.

Despite a mere eight cars left on the lead lap at the end of the race, and only another eleven one or two laps down, the Snowball Derby showed short track racing at its best. It lasted over three hours, but was packed with non-stop action. Many times, cars that were a lap down were able to race back on to the lead lap, rather than rely on the "lucky dog" rule. There was lots of passing, and it was clear that all 37 drivers were there for one reason, and one reason only: to win.

While season championships are important to keep long-term fan interest piqued, what the Snowball Derby reminds us is how exciting racing is when there is no one on the track engaging in "points racing," and the only goal is winning. Yes, there were wrecks; yes, there were some bruised egos and tempers flaring...and yes, this is the kind of race that race fans love.

Some commentators and many fans have argued for years that there should be more short tracks on the NASCAR national series' schedules, and certainly the excitement of this race helps make the case that it would be a boon to the popularity of NASCAR racing. But I think this also shows that if winning is paramount, you get action on the track that is unrivaled by any championship run. If NASCAR changes the points system to make wins much more valuable than they currently are, we could see this kind of racing every week.

A couple of other notes on this race: Chase Elliott, the 15-year-old son of 1988 Cup champion Bill Elliott, ran a strong race, but most notably showed maturity far beyond his youth, in how he dealt with the disappointment of a destroyed race car after he was bumped in a turn by Landon Cassill late in the race. Landon Cassill, in turn, also showed a lot of maturity and class in not blaming Johanna Long for bumping him when racing for the lead with less than five laps to go. He still managed a fourth-place finish. David Stremme finished 13th, while David Ragan was involved in a wreck that ended his day prematurely, causing him to finish a disappointing 27th. Incidentally...Johanna Long is not the first woman to win the Derby; Tammy Jo Kirk won it in 1994. Neither is she the youngest: Steve Wallace won it at age 17 in 2004.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Saturday Notes from the Flagstand - 12/4/10

Why is the Snowball Derby not on SPEED? Could we not survive with a couple less episodes of "Two Guys Garage" or "My Classic Car?" Notables running the Derby this year include David Stremme, Johanna Long, David Ragan and Landon Cassill.

If Richard Petty Motorsports is going to retain its name during the ownership change, are we now going to refer to "Old RPM" and "New RPM?"

Is it just me, or did anyone else sense an awkward silence when Narain Karthikeyan was presented his Most Popular Driver award for the Camping World Truck Series? Narain seems a nice-enough guy, but something is awry when a part-time driver from another continent wins the popularity contest. Who will win next year, Nelson Piquet, Jr.? How about 50% fan vote, 50% survey, NASCAR?

With the Silver State Winternationals running at the same time, in the same city, as the NASCAR banquets, it's too bad NASCAR couldn't have had an event where some drivers visited with the kids. To be fair, the switch from Primm, Nev., to Las Vegas for the quarter midget event happened at the last minute...regardless, it'd be nice if NASCAR took a proactive approach to promoting and supporting the next generation of racers.

Wondering if next year will be a level playing field at last in the Nationwide series, or if Joe Gibbs' cars will continue to dominate...if the latter, NASCAR is going to have to step in and make horsepower adjustments, and sooner rather than later.