Is this the year of the Junior?
March 1, 2014
On the Chinese calendar, 2014 is the Year of the Horse. After the Daytona 500, the NASCAR calendar may become the Year of Junior. Dale Earnhardt Jr. pulled away on the final restart with the help of a push from teammate Jeff Gordon and went on to take the win in the rain-delayed and wreck-strewn race. Coming off a strong 2013 season and in his last year with crew chief Steve Letarte, Junior may very well be poised for his first Sprint Cup championship. Of course, one race does not make a season, and changes to the Chase rules this year make winning the title even more problematic than usual. But having a win in the regular season is almost a certain ticket into the Chase, so Earnhardt can at least check off that box on his 2014 to-do list.
Veteran announcer Mike Joy committed a cardinal sin during the broadcast, commenting that so far the race had been relatively clean. As a long-time race announcer myself, I know that saying something like that only angers the racing gods and causes them to smite the event with disaster. Sure enough, as they came out of commercial immediately after Joy's remark, cars were spinning and crashing, taking out Danica Patrick, Michael Waltrip, and several others. Waltrip had been working his way from the back of the pack, and is a strong finisher at Daytona if he's around at the end. Patrick had led laps under green, and has shown that Daytona is one of her best tracks.
But it was only the first of three multi-car wrecks, the last of which brought out the caution on the final lap, freezing the field and giving the win to Junior. However, it wouldn't have mattered, as he was well ahead at the start/finish line and would have won had the track stayed green.
This weekend, the NASCAR circus visits Phoenix International Raceway, a very different racetrack than Daytona. A flat one-mile oval with a dogleg back straight, PIR will be the first race that the Cup cars will use the new knockout qualifying procedure. And since it's a short track, there will only be two knockout sessions.
So we can expect everybody to be out early and often for the first 30-minute session, with the fastest 12 cars from that session going for the pole in the 10-minute run that follows.
The Camping World Trucks and the Nationwide series have already used the procedure at Daytona, while the Cup cars used the unique qualifying procedure that NASCAR has mandated for the Daytona 500.
Personally, I think the new qualifying scheme is one of the best ideas NASCAR has had in years. Formula One started knockout qualifying a number of years ago, then IndyCar followed with their version of it about 3 years back.
Now NASCAR has finally realized that with the attention span of today's race fan, single car qualifying is no longer a viable vehicle for attracting either fans in the stands or TV ratings.
The start of the Formula One season is only two weeks away, and it promises to be quite interesting. The final pre-season test saw former McLaren driver Sergio Perez put his Force India car at the top of the time charts.
The underfunded team has made some pretty good strides in recent seasons, but this test result may portend a quantum leap in the team's performance.
However, when the F1 season opener hits Australia in mid-March, it could be anybody's race.
The new technical regulations comprise the most drastic reconfiguration of the cars in recent memory, so everyone is starting with a blank slate. And with the limited testing availability, Australia could provide some real surprises.