The Top Five: Breaking down the Chicago and Sonoma races

Five thoughts after NASCAR’s playoff opener at Chicago and the IndyCar season finale at Sonoma…

1. U-S-A, U-S-A!

In 2012, when Ryan Hunter-Reay became the first American to win an IndyCar title in six years, there was hope his victory would help lead to a revitalization of open-wheel racing in the United States.

That didn’t happen. Perhaps that was in part because IndyCar doesn’t make enough ripples in the national sports scene to have an impact, but it also may have been because Hunter-Reay wasn’t able to finish in the top five in points since.

So it’s with a note of caution here when we say Josef Newgarden really could be the next great hope for helping to rejuvenate American open-wheel racing — but only if everything falls into place over the next several years.

Even before he signed with Team Penske this season, Newgarden was a tremendously marketable young driver. He’s a 26-year-old from suburban Nashville with tons of charisma, talent and the face of a movie star. Now he’s a champion — thanks to a near-flawless weekend at Sonoma — with plenty of years ahead of him.

It might be a fallacy that a big-time American star would really boost IndyCar to the next level, but that’s often been a debate that doesn’t get a chance to get settled because there hasn’t really been one. This generation of IndyCar has been dominated by South Americans and Europeans, and the top American open-wheel talents have largely ended up getting funneled into the NASCAR pipeline (Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne, Kyle Larson, etc.).

Look, Newgarden is going to have to win a lot. He’s going to have to win more titles and an Indy 500 or two. But should Newgarden continue to shine, there’s a chance his visibility could rise on a national scale at the same time IndyCar does. And as the series champion, he’ll have more of a platform now to make an impact with sports fans.

“We don’t want a championship filled with just American drivers, but it’s important to have the best of America in it,” said Newgarden, who celebrated with an American flag draped around his shoulders. “We have to have the best from Europe and from anywhere overseas, because if it’s just Americans running, it wouldn’t mean anything. But certainly, having successful Americans is a big deal, too.”

2. Missed opportunity

This might anger all my new friends in IndyCar (seriously, everyone is so nice here!), but the Sonoma race didn’t do the series any favors in terms of winning over some NASCAR fans.

With the Chicagoland race serving as a lead-in on NBCSN, IndyCar had a golden opportunity to show stock car fans how compelling its brand of racing can be. Instead, Sonoma was a caution-free race with little drama — at least not the kind NASCAR fans are used to.

IndyCar fans probably love that, because they are fiercely proud of their purer brand of racing — no stages, no playoffs, no questionable cautions (even though they do have double points races and push to pass).

But here’s the thing: IndyCar needs to dip into the pool of NASCAR fans — present and former — to provide its best opportunity for growth. A mainstream sports fan is going to be harder for open-wheel racing to hook than a fan who is already predisposed to liking race cars.

I hope IndyCar continues to take steps toward being more and more relevant again in the sports world — and at the same time is able to coexist with NASCAR to have two very healthy forms of motorsport. Though their fans may argue (RIP my mentions this weekend), everyone still shares the common bond of being a race fan — which is becoming a rare breed these days.

3. Truex, again

Even when Martin Truex Jr. and his team screw up, like they did on Sunday, he still finds a way to win by more than seven seconds in a playoff race.

That’s a sobering fact for the competition, which looked like it might have a chance to beat Truex after he sped on pit road and later had to make an extra pit stop for missing lug nuts, which left him in 17th place.

The No. 78 car is so fast that it can overcome seemingly anything, though — at least if it happens early enough in the race — and Truex was back to the lead in plenty of time.

Truex now has 58 playoff points for Rounds 2 and 3, and the only realistic chance of beating him will come when the four contenders battle straight-up for the championship at Homestead.

In the meantime, expect a lot more races like Chicagoland in the coming weeks.

“We really don’t have any tracks I feel like we’re not good at,” Truex said. “It’s just being confident each and every week no matter where we’re going is the difference. We don’t have any big question marks on the schedule anymore.”

4. Keselowski’s great tweet

Brad Keselowski pissed off the Toyota NASCAR contingent this weekend with his tweet, but personally, I loved it.

People have been complaining lately that too many NASCAR storylines revolve around off-track issues. Well, guess what? This drama was about on-track stuff. It was about performance and rules and had everything to do with the playoffs.

That’s great! I mean, it resulted in Kyle Busch tweeting “STFU” with a crying emoji to another driver. Wild! NASCAR needs rivalries like this to add spice to the races.

Honestly, it’s great to see Busch and Keselowski not even pretending to be civil. All the drivers these days seem like they are way too tight, with the group text and drivers council and bike rides and wives/kids hanging out. It’s nice for them to get along, but it’s refreshing for everyone else when there’s some real sourness between two of the top competitors. It makes it more fun to watch.

And by the way, there was nothing wrong with what Keselowski tweeted. Politicking for manufacturer advantages has been a part of NASCAR for a long time, and that’s what he was obviously doing.

5. Burnout talk

OK, let’s have a chat about burnouts for a second. It seems like NASCAR race winners routinely destroy their cars on purpose these days — and not just in the name of celebration.

Today’s burnouts are intentionally designed to cause tire blowouts, which mess up the back of the car and make it harder for NASCAR to run the cars through post-race tech inspection.

A decade ago, drivers did kickass, smoky burnouts without blowing off the rear quarterpanels. But that’s not the case now. It seems like every winner does it, and some drivers (coughDennyHamlincough) have even tapped the wall in the process.

We know this makes a difference because cars can be illegal if they’re off a thousandth of an inch, and destroying part of the car removes that area from scrutiny. Fair or not, the appearance is not good.

NASCAR has indicated it does not want to step in and outlaw burnouts or institute a rule that limits them. After all, fans might complain that NASCAR officials are the fun police and they’re taking yet another enjoyable part away from the sport.

But drivers are smart enough to know how to do a burnout without shredding their tires. So perhaps in the interest of maintaining a level playing field for the playoffs, NASCAR should decide burnouts themselves are OK — but tire blowouts are not.

15 Replies to “The Top Five: Breaking down the Chicago and Sonoma races”

  1. If you’re serious about cracking down on “cheating” jeff (your rants against winners failing R&D tech keeping the win, etc), Nascar needs to go to an F1-style parc ferme and impound the top cars immediately after the race, with no on-track celebrations. It would take away some of the “fun” (not that burnouts, etc aren’t old hat), but it’s the price you have to pay if you want your wins to be “pure” and not have any hint of cheating. I stress I do not agree with this myself, but am only pointing out it’s the logical conclusion of the “take away the wins” argument… if you’re gonna start taking away wins, the car(s) must go through tech in EXACTLY the same condition that they crossed the finished line in

    Let the winning team unload and roll out their backup car as soon as the checkers are waved if the winner wants to tear something up

    1. Edit: So I haven’t followed F1 closely since schumi’s 2006 retirement. when i referenced parc ferme i meant parc ferme as it existed at such time, where cars had to be directly driven to parc ferme. I guess now the fia does allow donuts if it doesn’t take into “question” the legality of the car, but that new rule leaves room for the envelope to be pushed, imho

  2. Hi Jeff!

    I thought this was a great read! I’m a diehard fan of the sport of IndyCar and I thought you’re inexperience at coming to these races wasn’t shown here and it does seem like you know what you are talking about. But I do want to point out that I wouldn’t say this was a “Missed Opportunity” for IndyCar to attract NASCAR fans.

    You are correct where you say NASCAR fans are used to drama, playoffs, stages, and mysterious yellows to shake things up, but I think what people like yourself and fans like me should emphasize is that don’t expect watching an IndyCar race to be overly dramatic to create fake entertainment. There was an old Mario Andretti quote that advised IndyCar to not be like NASCAR. In order to win fans, we need to show them how the sport works and what goes on to set up the show they see.

    Believe me, we need to chuck the Push to Pass and double points, but I would personally recommend IndyCar to anyone who wants a break from all that drama and just see pure racing.

  3. Hope you had fun Jeff.
    I watch IndyCar when it doesn’t conflict with NASCAR and I’ve saw some really exciting oval racing. Not so much for the street or road course, kinda boring. But I can say the same thing about plenty of my NASCAR races too. As for the driver’s, the few that I know of, seem to have funniest, outgoing personalities. I wish the TV schedules were different so I could watch more IndyCar

    1. You already have the opportunity to watch more. IndyCar posts the races to YouRube a couple days after the event, and NBC or ESPN always posts them a couple hours after conclusion.

  4. P.S. I don’t buy into the burnout conspiracy theory. What if they don’t win and they’re 2nd OR they are chosen as the random car for the R&D? What then??

    P.S.S. This is Martin’s championship to lose.

      1. Pretty sure he meant to burn’em down. But, not to the extent to damage the rear end. I can not believe how many people are always seeing those black helicopter’s flying around. #SMH

  5. As a fan, I would much rather NASCAR scale back the never ending rules that require a laser to measure something. At some point we might as well just put video game cars on the track and let the drivers race with a joystick.

  6. nascar is a rerun each week, besides rule changes. indy car i will admit little downer yesterday but when their on oval you have passing and side by side racing and not just at the restarts. Nascar is still a single file race unless ur at the talladega, daytona or martinsville n bristol. yesterdays nascar race was most exciting was when to see who screwed up on pit road. also indy drivers respect fans way more than nascar drivers. some nascar drivers do respect fans but nothing compared to indy. thats my opinion and know lot will disagree but been to both more than once

  7. Jeff, fellow Portlander here. My gripe with RHR’s championship is that IndyCar didn’t even begin to market him. Yeah he’s terrible in the Butterball commercials but that’s something they can work on. Or could’ve worked on. Winning more after ’12 certainly would’ve helped, but it’s irrelevant considering IC’s neglect at even giving it a shot. I wish you could do more coverage of the series because you have the platform for it. Help promote IC to NASCAR fans, please. It’s not your job but you have a good fan base and reach.

    I watch nearly all forms of motorsport so I like to think it gives me a good reference across series. NBC has seen that traditionally races with a Cup lead in do better than those without. However, Sonoma is a terrible track for passing, and doesn’t have the fans to support in in that region of the country. I prefer ovals the least for open wheel, but could you imagine having had TMS following instead of Sonoma? I think it would’ve been much more exciting, and a better draw for new fans.

    Agreed on the post-race destruction. Blow out your tires, win revoked. That’s not exactly what you said, but until they start taking away wins, or multiple sets of tires in the next race, NOTHING will get teams to stop cheating (or being accused because of the burnouts, etc.).

  8. So as you tweeted jeff, the 2nd place car from chicago (elliott) has some fishy stuff going on with the spoiler (unclear at this point if “illegal” or just ingenuity). However, assume we didn’t know about it. And assume that the 78 were to fail R&D tech. Your “take away the win” credo could hand wins to illegal cars not subject to the same scrutiny

  9. Where both Nascar and Indy Car are both struggling to get and keep fans, I would love to see IndyCar/Nascar implement double header weekends at the same track. Probably too many egos to pull that one off, though I’m afraid

  10. A) I like both series. Entirely different, but equally fun, IMO. Not every race is a barn burner in either series. Blaming Indy for not “manufacturing” fun to capture NASCAR viewers is a little silly, considering there was so much post-race, in a show that already nosedives, to think that NASCAR fans could carry over.

    B) The problem drivers/people are having with Brad’s tweets – is that it’s not just tweets. He’s been whining all season about everyone and everything like a 2yo who’s lost his binky. It’s getting old. He’s not doing any lobbying for anything. And the very drivers he’s constantly whining about are the ones taking flak for sticking up for themselves or media piles on whomever he waves his pointy nose to. If Kyle Busch said the same thing, everyone would be freaking out about “Cryle” and “Busch baby”.

    The combo of Logano’s “Daddy fights my battles” history, and Brad’s “I’m a sanctimonious atmosphere sniffer” history, is just played out. One of the loudest cheers in a decade came when Kenseth took out Logano. Not for a “rivalry”, but because (nearly) everyone is getting sick to death of the Twin Brat Bros.

    A great rivalry is born on the track. Not kiddies, who wreck everyone, everything, then get their handlers to take care of the people they wreck, and whine about them for the rest of the week/year. Earnhardt and Gordon – GREAT rivalry. Wallace and Earnhardt – GREAT rivalry. What do they have in common? Men, who would likely go fishing together, who have no problems having a beer away from the track (Dale and Rusty were often pranking each other), but squared up at the track, and fought their own battles. Logano hides behind Daddy (literally, runs behind him). Brad doesn’t have that kind of guts.

    A great rivalry begins with respecting your opponents. Logano, nor Keselowski do that – but they sure love to demand it, then whine and feign martyrdom when everyone doesn’t fawn all over them.

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