NASCAR on Monday nights, Earnhardt Jr.'s future, more mailbag
The shortest offseason in sports is quickly coming to an end. The NASCAR haulers carrying the race cars soon will leave the team shops for Daytona International Speedway and the start of Speedweeks, which will conclude on Feb. 24th with the 55th running of the Great American Race.
Keep sending your questions on all things NASCAR this way -- email using the link above, or tweet them (@SI_racing or @LarsAndersonSI). Now let's cruise into the mailbag.
Brian, I love this idea. Last year's Daytona 500 turned out to be a great spectacle. Because they raced under the lights, you could see the sparks fly as the cars roared through turns. It really gave viewers a sense of how fast the cars were moving. Then the great explosion that was triggered when Juan Pablo Montoya plowed into a jet dryer under caution was made even more dramatic because it was outlined against a black, nighttime sky. I was so taken with the event that, days later in the magazine, I called on NASCAR to consider running more races during prime time on Monday nights.
So far NASCAR doesn't appear to have any plans to do this. You're right: the logistics of holding a Monday night race for the teams would be challenging, unless it were to fall before an off week. I'm sure NASCAR fears that the crowd for a Monday night race would be miniscule (it's not like in the NFL, where Monday night game are played in front of a home fan base that only has to travel a few miles to get to the stadium) and even though last year's 500 was one of the most bizarre in history, it still only netted a 7.7 overnight rating, which was down six percent from 2011. So don't expect NASCAR to try this experiment anytime soon, though I'd be all for it.
More than professional football, basketball and baseball, NASCAR is a personality-driven sport. Fans want to know as much as possible about the drivers and their lives, about what they do in their free time and with whom they spend that time. So, like it or not, these questions have become fair game, even if they do make you squirm in your seat when they are asked. Did I press Danica (who still is technically married, by the way, because Arizona requires a 60-day waiting period once a divorce petition is filed before it can become final) about her love life? No. But I can guarantee you the Danica-Stenhouse sub-plot will be a major storyline during Speedweeks and at least throughout the beginning months of the season. This is just the nature of NASCAR, which has been described by many (and I think somewhat accurately) as a soap opera on wheels.
I think it will be just the opposite, Sheppard. Earnhardt snapped his 143-race winless streak last season, briefly held the points lead late in the spring and, before he suffered a concussion that knocked him out of two races, appeared to be a genuine threat to win his first championship. So you'll be subjected, at least in the stories that I write about Earnhardt early in 2013, to reading about all the reasons why he'll be a title contender again this season. Here are a few: He's in the best physical shape of his life; he spends more time with his team and his crew chief than ever before; he's no longer making fatigue-induced mistakes behind the wheel; he's vastly improved his communication skills over the last two years; his personal life is in order; and he still can weave a car through traffic as expertly as anyone in the sport. Add it all up and I think Earnhardt is poised to have a very, very strong year.
I think this was one of the most overlooked moves of the offseason. The fact that Busch re-upped with Gibbs shows how comfortable he with that team. He gets along well with Denny Hamlin, his longtime teammate, and he'll certainly benefit from the addition of Matt Kenseth, who joins JGR this season after spending his entire career at Roush Fenway Racing. Kenseth is the perfect type of mentor for Busch: calm, smart, and as mistake-free on the track as any driver in NASCAR today. Busch has been his own worst enemy over the years, making far too many heat-of-the-moment boneheaded decisions, and the influence of Kenseth could be the perfect tonic for that problem.
I do think Busch will make the Chase this season. Can he contend for a title? Well, Busch has never performed well in the ten-race playoffs, as the Chase features some of his worst tracks. But if anyone can help him get over the hump late this fall, it will be Kenseth, who won the 2003 championship.
NASCAR executives have talked about this for the last few years, about how the experience of watching a race at home in HD has become so enjoyable that many fans are now choosing to remain in their living rooms (and save money) rather than venture to the track. But the things you miss when you stay in your recliner are the sensations you can only experience of being there: the thump of horsepower on your chest; the smell of burnt rubber in the air; the roar of the engines in your ears...
Many tracks are in the process of enhancing the race day experience for fans. Charlotte Motor Speedway, for instance, erected the world's largest HD video board last spring, which took four months to build and weighs more than 332 tons. Expect to see more technological gizmos at tracks in the near future.