Danica taking on Daytona, thoughts on the Chase, more mailbag
We're only days away from going green in the 55th running of the Great American Race. History has already been made in 2013 on the high banks of Daytona International Speedway -- Danica Patrick, on Sunday, became the first woman to ever win a pole in any Cup series race -- and I think this year's 500 won't be decided until the last turn of the last lap, when two teammates from a powerhouse organization will draft together to the front. To find out my pick of who will reach Victory Lane, check back to SI.com on Friday.
Now let's dive into the final preseason mailbag of 2013. Keep the NASCAR questions coming -- email using the link above, or tweet them (@SI_racing or @LarsAndersonSI) -- because we'll be answering them in this space for the next nine months.
So Danica has earned the pole position -- unless she wrecks her car in the Duel and has to go to a backup. Would she be allowed to race a backup in the Duel to protect (a) her Cup car; and (b) her starting position?
-- Patrick Dennis, Centreville, VA
I'm sure Patrick and her crew chief Tony Gibson would love to do this if they could, but NASCAR mandates that you have to use the same car you piloted in qualifying in your duel race as well. So Patrick's mission in her race on Thursday is simple: learn as much as possible about the draft but also observe an abundance of caution to keep her fenders clean. It doesn't matter where she finishes in her qualifier; as long as she doesn't have to go to a backup car, she'll be the leading the field to the green flag on Sunday for the 500.
Your SI.com colleague Dustin Long talked about how the Chase has changed NASCAR in his column. I'm not a fan of the Chase, but that's beside the point. If you could see any changes made with the Chase, if any, what would they be?
-- Tobey Taylor, Houston, TX
If I were the Czar of NASCAR, I'd place a greater emphasis on winning in the Chase and give a driver a ten-point bonus for crossing the finish line first. Under the current system, the winning driver receives a three-point bonus, which is the equivalent of three positions on the track. But what if you made that bonus worth ten points? Well, you'd give the drivers far more incentive to aggressively go for the checkered flag as the laps down. Too often in the Chase you see drivers play it safe late in the races and settle for a top-five run, knowing that it's not worth wrecking over a mere three points. But this dynamic would change, I think, if that winning bonus was sweetened to ten points.
I have a few more ideas for improving the Chase, and we'll get those shortly.
You do realize the fact that the Fraud -- I mean Chase -- is the exact reason why so many seats are empty and TVs turned off, don't you?
-- Mike, Paris, OH
No, Mike, actually I don't. The erosion of the TV ratings and the slips in attendance can also be seen during the regular season, as well as in the Chase. If you remember back to 2004, when the Chase was introduced, it was almost universally hailed by observers as a smashing success. The year before, in '03, Matt Kenseth had essentially wrapped up the title late in the summer and there was little drama surrounding the final months of the season. That's what spurred NASCAR chairman Brian France to create the playoff-style format.
And, over the years, the Chase has certainly delivered some arresting, down-to-the-wire finishes. In 2004 there were four drivers that had a legitimate shot at the title in the season-finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, with Kurt Busch overcoming a broken wheel to emerge with the Cup. And in the last three years, the championship literally hasn't been decided until the final laps at Homestead. I know many longtime NASCAR fans still pine for the days of the old points system, but it's hard to argue that the Chase format hasn't achieved exactly what it was designed to do, which was to create more compelling finishes to the season.
Why have NASCAR's TV ratings and attendance taken a nosedive in the last six years? The answer is complex, but it's rooted, I think, in four overriding factors: the economic downturn, which hit NASCAR fans especially hard; the wide-spread distaste for the Car of Tomorrow, which debuted in 2007; the general lack of thrilling, on-track racing for the last few years (though it has improved recently); and the growing disparity in the sport between the haves and the have-nots, which has made it so only about 15 drivers or so have a credible shot of winning on any given weekend.
How do you feel about putting the driver's name on the windshield of the car? I don't know if it will help fans identify the driver more easily, because one can typically do that by the car's paint job. And speaking of paint jobs, what do you think of Gordon's new paint job?
-- Michael S., Greenville, SC
I like having the driver's name on the windshield of the car. Anything that helps identify the car with the driver is a good thing in my opinion. NASCAR is, after all, a personality-driven sport, and this will help casual fans -- who may not know which car number or paint job is attached to each driver -- be able to pinpoint exactly who is behind the wheel.
It will be odd not to see Gordon's familiar, flaming DuPont paint scheme at the track this season. It was one of the most iconic paint schemes in NASCAR history -- right up there with Dale Earnhardt's black No. 3 Goodwrench Chevy and Richard Petty's blue-and-red No. 43 STP Dodge -- but DuPont sold its car paint unit last season and so now Gordon will have a new look when Axalta Coating Systems is the primary sponsor on Gordon's No. 24 Chevy this season. At Daytona Gordon will be backed by AARP's "Drive to End Hunger" program.
I have some ideas for how NASCAR can make changes to its product that may draw more viewers. I'd like to read what you think:
-- Blake, Flowery Branch, GA
1. On tracks run more than one time per year, consider running in the opposite direction at one of the races. This would force the race engineers to work more on car set up and it would likely change the pacing of the pit crew -- not to mention it would at least break the monotony of 4 left turns.
Interesting thought, Blake. I must admit this is the first time I've ever head this suggestion. But this won't happen. Ever. The cars are designed to race with their left side on the inside of the track. It would take countless hours of testing -- and millions of dollars in R&D -- to make the cars safe to run in the opposite direction on the track, not to mention the myriad hazards this would cause on pit road.
2. Add a road course to the Chase. If you're going to keep this "playoff" structure, then have a track of every design (short track, medium cookie-cutter, tri-oval, road course and superspeedway) in the chase. Also, there is a wonderful new facility in Austin, TX... Likewise, if a track has an infield road course (Atlanta, Daytona, etc.) consider using it for one race a year. Road course racing really displays driver skill, and only having two on the calendar is a disgrace.
I'm with you 100 percent on this, Blake. I've been writing for years that if NASCAR is going to have a road course race in the regular season -- and right now there are two -- then the sanctioning body also needs to also feature one in the Chase. Otherwise, what's the point of having tracks on the circuit where drivers are required to turn both left and right? As it stands, a driver could finish dead last at Infineon Raceway in California and dead last at Watkins Glen (N.Y.) and still win the championship. Drivers can essentially coast those weekends (if they are high enough in the standings) because there is zero incentive to improve on the road courses, given that there isn't one in the Chase, when every point matters. Hopefully NASCAR will change this in the future and include the Glen in the Chase.
3. Race in the rain. Normal people have to drive in the rain. Almost every other motor sport races in the rain. Tell the NASCAR boys to bring grooved tires to the track and have at it.
I hear this all the time from fans, but it simply isn't going to happen. The tires NASCAR uses (which have a smooth tread to give the tires as much contact with the track as possible) combined with the heavy weight of the cars (about 3,200 pounds) and the high speeds they reach (200 mph) make it too dangerous to race in wet conditions. NASCAR is rightfully hesitant to use grooved tires because they don't grip the track as well.
As someone who has spent a healthy chunk of my life waiting out rain delays at the track, I certainly wish NASCAR could race in the rain. But it's just too dangerous.
What do you think about basing the points on a Formula 1 type scale? Only the top ten gets points, and the winner gets a larger proportionate share. Makes wins mean more -- no more getting points just for showing up.
-- Andrew S., Hoboken, NJ
As mentioned, I think more bonus points should be awarded to the driver that reaches Victory Lane, but other than that, I like NASCAR's current points system. It's eloquence lies in its simplicity: one point translates into one position on the track.
The question is, will NASCAR conspire, like they did with Dale Earnhardt Jr. years ago, to let Danica Patrick win this year?
-- Kraig Debro, Oakland, CA
In the past NASCAR has produced several almost too-good-to-be true storylines, the most famous being Dale Earnhardt Jr. winning at Daytona in 2001 only months after his father passed away at the 2.5-mile tri-oval. But I'm no conspiracy theorist. If Patrick takes the checkered flag on Sunday -- and I think this will be her best chance this season to win a race -- it will be on merit, not because NASCAR somehow manipulated the race or tinkered with her car to give her more speed. End of story.