The Biggest NASCAR Storylines Ahead of the Sprint Cup Series in Indianapolis
NASCAR’s Sprint Cup teams return to work this weekend with the 20th running of the Brickyard 400, still one of the sport’s crown jewels.
When we left off two weeks ago, Brad Keselowski had swept the weekend at New Hampshire, winning both the Nationwide and Sprint Cup events.
Team Penske’s hot streak, the unfolding story of the Race Team Alliance (RTA), NASCAR’s return to dirt, sports cars at the Brickyard, (still) declining television ratings and more highlight a look at the stories of the week leading up to Sunday’s Crown Royal Presents, The John Wayne Walding 400.
Team Penske on Hot Streak
Unquestionably the most potent dynamic duo since Batman and Robin (you figure out who is Batman and who is Robin), Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano have combined for a total of five Sprint Cup victories in 2014.
Neither driver takes their success this season for granted.
“Past success doesn’t guarantee future success,” said Keselowski after his victorious weekend in New Hampshire. “We have to keep working and plugging away. I am sure a lot of guys will be stronger and hopefully we will be, too.”
“We have to keep the momentum going,” Logano told the media prior to the race in New Hampshire. “We have to keep those good finishes coming along and keep the momentum going and keep our guys ready to go when it comes to Chase time. That is the big time. We have to go out and win races and be there for Homestead.”
It’s obvious their focus is already on the Chase, and indeed it should be. Keselowski's success at Pocono earlier in the season, a track with similar setup requirements to the Brickyard, easily qualifies the No. 2 car as the favorite.
Can the No. 48 Team Rebound at the Brickyard?
Ah...memories of what once was (photo above).
Fans of the No. 48 team can only hope that Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus used the week off to recharge and erase the misery of their back-to-back misfortunes.
The month of July hasn’t been kind to the Lowe’s team. Johnson’s early exits at Daytona and New Hampshire are not at all indicative of this team’s 2014 performance. There is no reason why the team can’t rebound at the Brickyard with a victory.
Johnson has four Brickyard 400 wins on his racing resume (2006, '08, '09, '12).
Now is the time for this team to provide a reminder to the competition that it is still the team to beat in the Chase.
Time Is Running Out
For rookie Austin Dillon (15th in points), Greg Biffle (16th), Kasey Kahne (17th), Brian Vickers (18th) and Tony Stewart (19th), time is running out.
There are only seven weekends remaining in the regular season. Seven chances left for them to capture a victory, which would assure them a spot in the Chase.
Each driver's current points position has him outside of the Chase competition looking in. Stewart is the only one of the five who brings a strong history to the Brickyard, with two wins, seven top fives, 11 top 10s and one pole.
All five possess the talent and team depth to score a win before the regular season ends at Richmond in September. Doing it now at one of NASCAR’s crown jewels would be more than just having the icing on the cake—it would be taking the cherry on top of it, too.
NASCAR Plays in the Dirt
The teams of NASCAR’s Camping World Truck Series return to Tony Stewart’s personal playground, the dirt track at Eldora Speedway, on Wednesday for the second annual NASCAR Midsummer Classic.
From all accounts, last year’s inaugural event was a huge success, with an overflow crowd filling the grandstands.
The race on dirt was originally Stewart’s idea.
He had proposed nearly a decade ago that the now-defunct International Race of Champions, a series featuring champions from different racing series competing against each other in equally prepared race cars, stage an event at his Rossburg, Ohio, facility.
When that series went away, Stewart turned his focus on NASCAR officials who liked the concept of a national series returning to its dirt-track roots after a 40-year absence.
Last year’s race winner, Austin Dillon, returns to defend his title against runner-up Kyle Larson and a host of Sprint Cup stars as well as the regulars of the NCWTS.
There will be an open garage for fans the day before the event (Tuesday).
Last year’s race provided exciting flag-to-flag entertainment, and this year’s edition promises to deliver much of the same. The race will be broadcast live on Fox Sports 1.
How Will the Race Team Alliance Affect How NASCAR Operates?
Its mission, according to spokesperson Rob Kauffman, is to give team owners a stronger voice in the direction of the sport and work on cutting common costs.
Beyond that, little else is known about the new Race Team Alliance (RTA), formed earlier this month by team owners Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi, Rick Hendrick, Joe Gibbs, Jack Roush, Richard Petty and Michael Waltrip.
Everything about this new group goes against how NASCAR has conducted business in the past.
Both sides have shown cautious behavior toward each other in public, but NASCAR fans have to be wondering what is going on during closed-door meetings on both sides. This will be a situation worth watching against a backdrop of rising costs to team owners and the impact of the new television contract, reportedly worth $8.2 billion that begins next year.
Will the RTA survive against a tide of those in NASCAR who want the status quo to remain?
Swan Song Begins for ESPN
The Brickyard 400 marks the beginning of the end of ESPN’s eight-year run of broadcasting NASCAR Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series races.
NASCAR announced last year that it had signed a 10-year deal with NBC to televise the second half of the NASCAR season, taking over the same television schedule that ESPN currently broadcasts.
NBC has already debuted a nightly NASCAR show, NASCAR America, and beefed up its coverage of the sport online since the deal was announced.
Fans have been told not to expect any decrease in the quality of ESPN’s coverage this season while its contract is still in effect. However, it is doubtful ESPN's focus on Danica Patrick for the remaining races of the season, even during the Chase, shall remain. She was one of the stars of the sports network's recent ESPY awards.
And speaking of Ms. Patrick...
Are Fans Losing Faith in Danica Patrick?
To be honest, this is only the third year that Danica Patrick has competed at the Sprint Cup level. She’s not shown us a lot of success, other than three top 10s and one pole (Daytona).
Patrick does appear to have the restrictor plate races figured out. When she doesn’t crash out during one of those super speedway events, you can usually count on a top-10 finish from the GoDaddy car.
However, on the all-important 1.5-mile tracks, where she did show some progress earlier in the season, she continues to show a lack of consistency. The team was touting a breakthrough in her performance on the 1.5-mile tracks back in May. Since then, there have been few of those tracks with which to reinforce its argument.
While she may be NASCAR’s version of Kim Kardashian at the moment, looking especially good in a dress at the ESPY Awards last week, her performance—or lack thereof—has her losing ground in the eyes of the international motorsports media to Susie Wolff, the test driver for the Mercedes AMG Formula One team.
The wife of Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff, the 31-year-old Scot has shown speed during Friday practice sessions.
And she looks good posing as a model, too.
Of course, there's always Simona deSilvestro.
Has This Crown Jewel Lost Some of Its Luster?
Still considered one of the more prestigious races on the Sprint Cup schedule, the Brickyard 400 has, over the years, become more of a processional parade that features little side-by-side racing except right after a two-by-two restart. The new Gen 6 car, which places more emphasis on aerodynamics, has helped the racing at the Brickyard.
However, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was designed more than a century ago for specialized automobiles that morphed into today’s Indy Cars and not stock cars. This is clearly evident when NASCAR comes to town.
The tire debacle of 2008 began a serious decline in attendance.
NASCAR decided to make the weekend’s racing even worse with the decision to move the Saturday night, short-track Nationwide Series race from Lucas Oil Raceway across town to the Speedway a couple of years ago. Now there are two, single-file processionals.
One saving grace for the weekend: NASCAR’s Tudor United Sports Car Series race is on Friday afternoon on the newly modified road course in the infield of the Speedway.
No NASCAR on List of Top 50 Most-Watched Television Sports Events
It seems like we all knew that NASCAR’s television ratings were in trouble and down from last year, but the news from Sports Media Watch, a website which tracks sports television ratings and other news, is quite depressing.
"NASCAR…plummeted out of the top 50 as the Daytona 500, 5.6 share (9.3M)…suffered a sizable decline."
Maybe things will get better when the Chase begins.
NASCAR's homogenization and pasteurization of its message, and its boring, guaranteed to put you to sleep, we're talking to your Uncle Dave and his drinking buddies television broadcasts, are to blame.
In spite of strong growth in the digital sector, NASCAR suffers from a serious disconnect from the critical 18-34 demographic, commonly referred to as millennials.
Tired of (Still) Talking About Tires
In June, Goodyear conducted a two-day tire test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Participating in the test at Indianapolis were Greg Biffle in the No. 16 Roush Fenway Racing Ford, Clint Bowyer in the No. 15 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota, Kyle Busch in the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, Joey Logano in the No. 22 Penske Racing Ford, Ryan Newman in the No. 31 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet and Tony Stewart in the No. 14 Stewart Haas Racing Chevrolet.
According to Kenny Bruce of NASCAR.com, Greg Stucker, Goodyear's director of racing said the following of the test:
Our test speeds were extremely fast at Indianapolis. Like a lot of race tracks we've been to this year with this new car package, it appears the race pace can be significantly faster than it's been in the past. Because of that, we have to make sure we come back with a recommendation that is robust enough for the conditions we'll have in the race.
The weather conditions during the test were exactly what we have to come to expect during the race weekend in late July -- pushing 90 degrees and sunny. That enabled us to evaluate the tires we brought under the proper conditions.
The test was fairly uneventful except for an incident on Day 2 of the test, three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart had a right-front tire lose air 17 laps into a 20-lap run.
Stewart’s incident was taken into account in making the final decision on what tire formula and combination Goodyear will bring to the Brickyard this weekend.
Given the tire manufacturer’s extensive testing regimen so far this year, and the level of success it has seen based upon that testing, it’s a good bet there won’t be a repeat of the 2008 tire debacle this year.
That's a wrap on the latest storylines the week of July 21-27.
Bob Margolis has covered NASCAR, IndyCar, NHRA and Sports Cars for more than two decades as a writer, television producer and on-air talent. All quotes and other technical information has been taken from official NASCAR, team and manufacturer media releases unless otherwise stated.
Follow Bob on Twitter: @BobMargolis