Monday, March 25, 2019

COMMENTARY: Johnson's Martinsville Performance A Cause For Concern

For Jimmie Johnson, Martinsville Speedway has traditionally been the Land of Milk and Honey.

The Hendrick Motorsports driver leads all active drivers with nine career victories at the historic Virginia half-mile, and has been a dominant force there for as long as most fans can remember.

Sunday, however, the seven-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion was a non-factor from start to finish, lapped three times under green-flag conditions before claiming a troubling, 24th-place finish.

Johnson and his Kevin Meendering-led team gave cause for optimism earlier in the weekend, pacing an early practice round. But that fast lap came during a mock qualifying run – when most teams were already in race mode – skewing the speed charts in favor of the No. 48 Chevrolet. Johnson qualified only 12th-best Saturday, and when the green flag flew in Sunday’s STP 500, he and the No. 48 Ally Chevrolet began a slow and steady fade to the back of the pack.

Johnson was lapped by leader Brad Keselowski in the race’s second stage, and lost two more circuits in the final round. He regained one of those lost circuits by taking a wave around in the late going, but no amount of pit-road gerrymandering could overcome a shockingly ill-handling race car. Johnson spent the final 200 laps being passed by cars he has never raced before, and an average 2019 finish of 16.8 is cause for genuine concern.

His 24th-place finish extended a Martinsville slump that has seen him finish outside the Top-10 in eight of his last 10 starts. By comparison, the California native had just three finishes worse than 10th in 25 previous Martinsville races. He has not claimed a Martinsville Speedway grandfather clock since the fall of 2016, and has not finished better than 12th at the Virginia short track since then.

Johnson’s struggles have not been confined to Martinsville, either.

For Johnson, the drought continues.
He has not won a MENCS race since the AAA 400 Drive For Autism at Dover on June 4, 12017; a span of 65 consecutive races. Some of that drought rightfully lies at the feet of a new Chevrolet Camaro that has not rolled out as competitively as expected, and Hendrick Motorsports has also struggled to overcome the recent retirements of Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt, Jr., as well as the departure of veteran Kasey Kahne at the end of the 2017 campaign.

Chase Elliott’s runner-up showing Sunday was Hendrick’s first Top-5 finish since Kansas last October; a span of 10 races. And while HMS is clearly struggling to regain its championship form, Team Jimmie has lagged behind both its Hendrick and Chevrolet brethren.

Alex Bowman spent considerable time in the Top-10 Sunday, before settling for 14th at the drop of the checkered flag. Chevy pilots Austin Dillon, Kurt Busch and Ty Dillon all ran in the Top-10 as well, before finishing 11th, 12th and 13th respectively. Johnson left the Old Dominion 15th in the championship standings, and his performance at a track he has traditionally dominated will do little to calm a justifiably jittery fan base.

Just three weeks ago, Johnson spoke optimistically after an eighth-place finish at ISM Raceway in Phoenix, saying, “We showed that if we have a mistake-free race, we can run in the Top-5 and Top-10. (With) how last year went, that’s a step in the right direction.

“Clearly, we’re putting a lot of time and work and effort to get better,” he said. “So, it’s nice to have those better runs. But it’s not where we want to be. It’s not where I want to be, or Mr. Hendrick or Kevin or this whole team. We’re trying to celebrate the small victories, but at the same time, if you look at the speed that the No. 18 had on the field and his ability to pass, we want that. And we’re not going to stop until we get that.”

Johnson also spoke candidly about the recent evolution of the sport and how things have changed since he first joined Hendrick Motorsports in 2001.

“I showed-up at Hendrick with cars and set-ups that just did everything you wanted them to,” he recalled. “Rules packages have changed quite a bit since then and we’ve lost our advantage. When I look at our problems in the last couple of years… aero is a big piece of it. Times change. We’ve got to re-think things and re-build things.

“We’ve put a lot of effort in and it’s just frustrating to not get the results as quick as we want, but we’ll head (to Martinsville) optimistic once again, with a lot of new stuff on the cars and see if it works.”

These are trying times for fans of the seven-time NASCAR champion, with no assurance that things will get better soon, or ever. At age 43, Johnson faces inevitable questions about whether his skill set has begun to diminish, and while he is unquestionably in the best physical condition of his career, there is more to racing than aerobic fitness and a low body fat percentage.

Father Time is undefeated, and Johnson fans can only hope that all those Martinsville grandfather clocks are not preparing to chime the stroke of midnight.

Monday, March 18, 2019

COMMENTARY: Plenty Of Blame To Go Around After Auto Club Speedway Qualifying Debacle

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series tripped over its own shoelaces again Friday, with a qualifying fiasco straight out of the Keystone Kops.

In a misguided attempt to avoid going onto the racetrack first and allowing other cars to draft off their back bumper, all 12 final-round competitors sat idling on pit road, until it was too late. All 12 competitors failed to begin their decisive Round Three time-trial effort until after the qualifying clock ran out and the red and black flags had signaled an end to the session.

It was a baffling, inexplicable turn of events; one that left the ACS grandstands howling in anger.

And it was no mistake.

Every crew chief on every pit box knew how long it would take to get from the exit of pit road to the start/finish line, in time to begin a qualifying lap. Despite that knowledge, all 12 crew chiefs held their drivers until not enough time remained; stubbornly refusing to be the dreaded “first man out.”

It was a world class game of Chicken; a senseless pecker-measuring contest that ultimately produced only one backhanded winner (Austin Dillon) and millions of losers.

Fans in attendance at ACS – and likely those viewing at home — booed their lungs out in frustration. Frustration with the drivers, frustration with the teams and frustration with the sanctioning body.

That frustration was entirely justified, and all three entities deserve a share of the blame.

NASCAR probably should have seen Friday’s qualifying chicanery coming. It has loomed like a dark cloud on the horizon for the last three weeks, as teams gradually became more brazen in their attempts to manipulate and massage the system to their own benefit. A number of drivers predicted exactly what happened, before the green flag ever flew. But somehow, NASCAR was caught with its collective pants down, having failed to anticipate any sort of on-track bamboozlement.

In recent years, NASCAR seems to have adopted a “we’re all in this together“ attitude when it comes to governing the sport; abandoning the iron-fisted management style favored by founder Bill France, Sr., in favor of a sort of “governance by consensus.”

As a result, the sanctioning body frequently finds itself playing defense at times like this, reacting to the whims of the garage area, instead of being proactive. They modify rules in the aftermath of a disaster, rather than anticipating the disaster and preventing it before it occurs.

Racers are mercenaries. They often care less about what’s good for the sport than what’s good for them. They will cut their mother’s throat for a $100 trophy and 45 championship points, and have no qualms about delivering a farcical qualifying session to their fans, rather than risking a 12th-place start in Sunday’s race.

There is nothing wrong with being a mercenary. In the end, we all look out for number one, and it should come as no surprise that NASCAR drivers and teams think of themselves first and the fans later, if at all.

Professional athletes have finite careers; 10 or 15 years to cement their legacy, pay the kids’ college tuition and provide for their retirement. They are one blown ACL, one torn rotator cuff, one severe concussion away from being shuffled off to the sidelines at any moment. Little wonder, then, that their overriding attitude tends to be, “me first.”

Team owners are the same way. With a slate of multi-million dollar sponsors to appease, they’ll do whatever it takes to keep their organization at the front of the pack. They’ll spend $500,000 to save 5/1,000 of a second on pit road, then complain pitifully about the skyrocketing cost of competition.

It’s understandable, and absolutely predictable.

The Drivers Council cares about what’s best for drivers, and the Race Team Alliance cares about what’s best for teams. They may occasionally do things that are in the overall best interest of the sport, but only when those things positively impact their own bottom line.

Friday afternoon proved — once again — that NASCAR’s “let’s all pull together” attitude is not working, and never will.

What happened Friday at Auto Club Speedway was a slap in the face to NASCAR’s already dwindling fan base; a shameful, inexcusable insult to anyone who spent the money or time necessary to witness a sham of a program that never should have happened.

Now, NASCAR is once again forced to react. Preliminary indications are that they will once again modify the qualifying format, in an attempt to prevent racers from harming themselves and others. It’s the motorsports equivalent of imposing a new, later curfew on your child, after they refuse to obey the previous one.

Yet another procedural tweak, as the sanctioning body hopes against hope that its teams will do the right thing, rather than demanding it.

Monday, March 11, 2019

COMMENTARY: “Anyone Can Do It” Does A Disservice To The Sport

NASCAR’s new 2019 Rules Package is now three races old, with plenty of opinion on both sides of the aisle.

Fan reaction has – as usual – been all over the road, with some hailing the on-track results at Atlanta, Las Vegas and ISM Raceways as a positive improvement over past seasons. Others have been critical of the package, characterizing the competition as marginally better, if at all.

Fan reaction is predictably unpredictable, since no one in the grandstands (or at home in the Barcalounger) has actually driven the race cars they’re commenting on. However, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series garage seems equally divided, with some drivers complimenting the new package while others administer tar and feathers.

“I thought there was a lot of side-by-side,” said Logano after winning at Las Vegas Motor Speedway two weeks ago. “It was very intense. My heart rate was going as high as it has ever been, because there’s so many other things you have to think about now, because the cars are closer.

“Three-wide, four-wide, bumping, banging, very aggressive moves on the racetrack. How do people not love that? I don’t understand. It’s really good.”

Logano’s positive take is not shared by all of his garage-area brethren, however. Both Kyle Busch and Ryan Newman has been highly critical of the new rules

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver told the media that NASCAR had "taken the driver skill away from the drivers in this package.” Newman echoed those comments, effectively saying that the cars are now so easy to handle that NASCAR could pull fans from the grandstands to drive them.

In addition to being patently untrue, overhyped “anyone can do it” statements like those uttered by Busch and Newman do the sport a huge disservice.

One of the main selling points of NASCAR since its birth in 1949 has been – as Ken Squier so aptly stated nearly half a century ago – “Common men performing uncommon deeds.” Comments like those made by Newman and Busch turn that statement on its head. Now, we are suddenly supposed to believe that NASCAR is nothing more than “common men performing common deeds;” all due to one simple rule change.

Does anyone truly believe that the average Joe Sixpack could wheel a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series car at speeds above 180 mph, inches away from a pack of 37 other automobiles?

Horse hockey. You know it, I know it… and Busch and Newman know it, too.

I cannot drive a speeding MENCS car in heavy lapped traffic, any more than I can throw a Tom Brady-esque 65-yard spiral through double coverage onto the fingertips of a sprinting wide receiver.  

No more than I can wallop a Justin Verlander fastball 400 feet into the upper deck at Yankee Stadium.

No more than I can snipe a top-corner slap shot past Carey Price in Game Seven of the Stanley Cup finals.

None of those things are ever going to happen, no matter how insistent some of today’s top drivers may be to the contrary.

Mowing the lawn is not a spectator sport, because anyone can do it. Taking a bath is not a spectator sport, because anyone can do it. Why should anyone buy a ticket – or devote three hours of their valuable Sunday afternoon – to watch a group of people do something that they (apparently) can simply do themselves?

NASCAR drivers have traditionally been poor spokespersons for their sport. If they owned an Italian restaurant, some NASCAR wheelmen would place an ad in the local newspaper stating “WORST LASAGNA IN TOWN! LOUSY DECORE, SHODDY SERVICE AND EXHORBITANT PRICING,” then wonder why nobody shows up for dinner.

Last week’s grousing was simply the latest example.

It’s understandable, I guess. After all, racers have been raised on speed, virtually from the womb. Going fast is all they care about; to the point where many of them would rather put on a lousy race at high speed than a great race, only slower. In addition, Newman’s comments came just moments after a frustrating, 24th-place finish. A guy's bound to be a little crabby after a day like that. Busch, meanwhile, made his remarks after a pit road speeding penalty cost him a shot at Victory Lane, relegating him to third place on the podium. We all know how Kyle feels about finishing third, don't we?

Car out to lunch? Made a critical mistake that cost your team a possible win? Blame the rules. It’s much easier than facing up to your own shortcomings, or giving a brand new technical package enough time to prove itself, for better or worse.

Newman and Busch are absolutely entitled to their opinions. And eventually, NASCAR’s new rules package may indeed prove to be as flawed as they say. But when virtually every driver and crew chief on pit road says they have a lot of learning to do before the new technical specs can be fairly judged, comments like “anyone can do it” are premature at best and irresponsible at worst.

Sunday, March 03, 2019

COMMENTARY: Busch Enters March In Midseason Form

In just the third week of the 2019 NASCAR season, Kyle Busch appears to be in midseason form. 

Busch scored at LVMS in Trucks...
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver is off to a scalding start in all three NASCAR National Series. Two weeks ago he supplanted Hall of Famer Ron Hornaday, Jr. as the all-time winningest driver in NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series history, claiming his  Motor Speedway. He already held the career-wins mark in the Xfinity Series, where he has collected a total of 92 checkered flags.

Busch swept the opening two events of last weekend’s tripleheader in Las Vegas, and only an early pit road speeding penalty in Sunday’s Pennzoil 400 cost him a shot at a weekend sweep; relegating him to third behind Team Penske stablemates Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski.

...and Xfinity competition.
Busch’s third-place finish Sunday in Las Vegas followed a runner-up showing in the season-opening Daytona 500 and a sixth at Atlanta Motor Speedway; for an early season average finish of 3.7. He is the only driver to record Top-10 finishes in all three starts this season, and ranks fourth in points earned, trailing only Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin. Numbers like that will keep a guy gainfully employed in the NASCAR garage for as long as he likes, and last Thursday, Busch announced that he had signed a contract extension with Joe Gibbs Racing and longtime sponsor Mars Inc., to continue their combined assault on the NASCAR record books.

“My relationship with Joe, JD and the (Gibbs) family has grown a lot of the years,” said Busch last week. “And each year, I think it gets better and better. Being a driver with them since 2008 has meant the most to my career.

“It’s all about relationships,” he added, “and I feel like the relationship with M&M’s has continued to get better and grown over the years, as well as with Toyota. I have a lot of friendships there.

“You never say never, but I don’t know if you’d ever really see me drive anything different than a Joe Gibbs Racing No. 18 M&M’s Toyota. Hopefully, it stays that way. We know it will stay that way for the foreseeable future. I am certainly looking forward to that.”

Busch and Petty: Same, but different.
Busch’s 197 NASCAR National Series wins leave him just three behind the legendary Richard Petty on the all-time list. The mere mention of that impending achievement inspires heated – even venomous – water cooler debate across NASCAR Nation, and at this rate, it’s only a matter of time before NASCAR’s most polarizing driver equals – and then surpasses – the King’s 200-win total.

Petty downplayed the chase late last season, saying, “His 200 and my 200 -- there’s no comparison. I did my thing and he’s doing his, but they’re not the same.” 

For what it’s worth, Busch concurs, saying that his pursuit is not of Petty, but of the second and third men on the Cup win list.

“I feel as though I’m chasing Jeff Gordon (93 wins) and David Pearson (103)," said Busch recently. "I don’t know if I can get there or not, but I’d like to think I can. Nobody will ever touch 200 Cup wins, but it would certainly be nice to go out with 100.”

Comparing Petty’s 200 premier series victories to Busch’s combined Truck-Xfinity-Cup total is like comparing apples to watermelons. But the Las Vegas native is just this close to doing something that only one other person in the history of the sport has ever done.

That alone seems worth of notice and respect.