Before the start of every season, NASCAR chairman Brian France gathers the media and delivers a State of the Sport address. Often, he uses the occasion to drop a bombshell, like last season’s announcement that NASCAR was moving to an elimination system to crown its champion.
So this year, when France delivered his speech and the sum total of it was, “Man oh man, I still can’t get over how awesome last year was, we ain’t changing anything,” it was perceived as if it’s same old, same old for NASCAR’s Sprint Cup series.
And it is, from a how-the-champion-is-determined point of view. But there are no shortage of subplots: the impending retirement of the most important driver in the sport’s modern history (Jeff Gordon), a new crew chief for the most popular driver (Dale Earnhardt Jr.) and a promised return to normalcy from one of its most controversial drivers (Tony Stewart). The sanctioning body also implemented some 60 rules changes and revamped the officiating process on pit road.
In short, there’s plenty to talk about ahead of Sunday’s Daytona 500, the race that officially begins the 2015 season. Let’s kick the tires on a couple of those topics.
New Rules for the Cars
To make the racing better, the sport has made the cars less powerful – by decreasing horsepower by 125 – and harder to drive, by making the rear spoiler two inches shorter, which will decrease downforce and make the back end whip around like a snapped power line. The changes are designed to make it more difficult for the person in the front to stay there (or, depending on your point of view, to make it easier for the person behind to pass).
But here’s the funny thing about people who go fast for a living: They don’t particularly care how fast they go. Drivers don’t want to go so fast that it’s dangerous nor so slow that it’s ridiculous. Other than that, they simply want to be faster than the rest of the cars on the track. They care so little about miles per hour that their race cars don’t even have speedometers.
They do care, however, about how their cars handle. Very much so: It’s essentially the difference between facing a 100 mph fastball when the pitcher knows where it’s going and when he doesn’t.
Prediction: Drivers who handle a squirrely car better – Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch among them – stand to benefit from the changes. Johnson will use that advantage to win his seventh championship.
Gordon’s Last Lap
The biggest change in NASCAR this season won’t really happen until next season. Jeff Gordon announced in January that 2015 will be his final year as a full-time driver in NASCAR. The four-time champion says he doesn’t want the season to turn into a yearlong retirement party – but of course it will.
After every race he wins, there will be speculation it could be his last. There will be ovations at drivers’ meetings before every race. Every track will want to honor him in some way, as well each should, as the grandstands would not be so big (nor so full) if Gordon hadn’t pulled the sport into mainstream America in the mid-to-late Nineties.
Unlike many of his predecessors, Gordon will step away while he’s still among the best drivers in the sport. He was a title contender last season and will be again this season. On Sunday, he won the pole for the Daytona 500, which is a harbinger for absolutely nothing in the long term, but sure is a great way to start the year.
Prediction: Gordon will win three races and qualify for the Chase but be eliminated before the season finale in Homestead.
For years, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s greatest strength and weakness as a driver were the same: He rose and fell with his confidence. However fast he thought his car was, he went out and proved it. Former crew chief Steve Letarte rescued Earnhardt Jr.’s career over the last four seasons by becoming his biggest cheerleader, thereby convincing him he was fast.
The years working with Letarte, who retired from crew chiefing at the end of last season to take a job as an analyst with NBC, have given Earnhardt confidence that transcends his mood or his opinion of the car – so far, at least. That’s why he’s not worried about relapsing into his old mopey ways now that he has a new crew chief in Greg Ives.
“Maybe I’m mature enough, as a 40 year old, to act like a man, and be a professional inside the car, and not have to depend on Greg to boost me up,” Junior tells me.
Earnhardt knew Ives before he was announced as his new crew chief late last season, as Ives was crew chief for an Xfinity Series team owned by Junior. But they became close in the offseason. They even spent an evening at a pizzeria in suburban Charlotte called Pie in the Sky, where they were the only two in the place and passed the time talking about racing and life.
“I like hearing what he’s thinking about so I get a real understanding of what he thinks is important, what’s concerning him,” Earnhardt Jr. says. “I’m not going to be a huge asset as far as building the cars, but I want to know what makes him tick. So I pick his brain.”
So far, Earnhardt and Ives are still in the “crash dating” phase of their relationship, as Ives put it.
“I can go to Dale’s house tonight, and he’ll have an old race from 1986 on. [He’ll say,] ‘Look at that spoiler.’ Or ‘Look at this, look how the cars look. I’ve got to try that line next time,'” Ives says. “You’d think a football player at the end of the day wouldn’t want to go study and watch film. But the greats do, like Peyton Manning. You’d think Dale races around every week, that’s his profession, he wouldn’t want to go home and watch old races. But he does.”
Prediction: Junior will win two races, but he will get eliminated in the first round of the Chase.
To watch Tony Stewart’s public appearances over the last six months is to see a man ripped to pieces and slowly put back together. Stewart’s career was in the balance after his car struck and killed a racer named Kevin Ward Jr., who had exited his car and walked onto the track during a race in Upstate New York on August 9.
When Stewart read a statement to the media three weeks later, he looked like he hadn’t eaten or been outside in weeks. He spoke again to the media on September 29, after the police investigation ended with no charges. He looked and sounded better, but still beaten.
Stewart, a three-time champion and co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing, disappeared in the offseason, spending most of his time with family and friends in his hometown of Columbus, Indiana. And now here Stewart is, ready to go for the 2015 season. He looks and sounds like his old self – and vows that he is. “I’m not looking in the mirror, I’m not talking about it, I’m not thinking about it,” he says. “I’m going back to being me again.”
Already, signs of the old Tony have emerged. NASCAR ordered him off the track during practice last week because he hadn’t submitted to his preseason weigh-in. When asked about it, he reportedly called NASCAR officials “fucking rocket scientists.” After Sunday’s controversial qualifying session for the Daytona 500, he tweeted that the new group process was “a complete embarrassment for our series.“
Can he become the old Tony on the track? He was having the worst season of his career before the incident with Ward. And while Kevin Harvick drove a Stewart-Haas Racing car to the championship last season, that’s no guarantee Stewart will be able to find similar speed, let alone similar results. Still, Stewart is always at his best when he’s got something to prove, as he does now more than at any time in his career.
“Deep down inside I know who I am as a person and I know who I am as a driver,” he says, “and that’s what I want to get back to.”
Prediction: Stewart will qualify for the Chase with a win in the Daytona 500, but he will get eliminated in the second round.