The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series has its own version of spring break and it has arrived, with the traditional Easter weekend hiatus. It’s time for a bit of rest, relaxation – and examination regarding the first eight races of the 2014 season.
In case you hadn’t noticed, there’s a lot going on, starting with the unreal level of parity that has made predictability an outdated term. Much has been said and written about the seven different winners to start the season, a streak broken this past weekend at Darlington Raceway when Kevin Harvick became the year’s first two-time winner. Overshadowed somewhat has been a concurrent revolving door, in the form of eight different Coors Light Pole winners to open the season, tied for the series’ longest season-opening streak of different pole winners.
Is competition better than ever? There are statistics supporting that notion:
All three manufacturers have won races thus far, led by Chevrolet’s four victories.
An average of 12 different leaders per race, compared to 8.6 at this point last year.
An average of 25.6 lead changes per race, compared to 17.4 in 2013.
Total of 29,541 green flag passes, compared to 23,178 in 2013.
Total of 346 green flag passes for the lead, compared to 181 in 2013.
And … an average margin of victory of 0.588 seconds, the smallest since 2008.
In addition, it’s even easier to argue that the competition has certainly received a boost in interest because of the nuances of the new championship-deciding, Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup format. Race winners are virtually assured a berth in the 16-driver Chase, unless there are more than 16 different winners, whereupon the series points could be used to determine which race winners get into the “playoffs.” Number of race victories, though, will be the first “tiebreaker.” And don’t forget about this addendum: the series points leader after 26 races – the “regular season’ champion so to speak – will get in, with or without having a race victory.
Less than 16 different winners? Again, we’ll go to the standings to fill out the Chase field.
You want nuance? Try this. The possibility exists that a driver could be, say, second in the points come time for the Chase and not make the field, if they haven’t won a race. That could be painful.
After eight races, three of the top five drivers in the series standings are winless – Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson. Those three drivers have won 11 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championships, collectively but right now they’re sharing a seat that perhaps isn’t really hot just yet, but definitely is getting warm.
Other items of interest “after eight” …
Two drivers with race victories aren’t even in the top 16 in points, starting with Harvick who is “mired” – talk about another outdated term due to the new format – in 22nd. Harvick’s Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kurt Busch is 26th but he has a Martinsville victory and a likely Chase berth.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the Daytona 500, has three runner-up finishes plus one third. He has been running near the front seemingly all season – with the exception of Texas, when he ran into the grass early in the race.
Tony Stewart, coming back from being sidelined for much of last year by injury, is winless but has four top-10 finishes in the last five races, including an incredibly strong Texas run where he was the Coors Light Pole Award winner.
Danica Patrick, driver of the No. 10 GoDaddy Chevrolet, was never a factor at the Daytona 500 but had her second-best finish of the year thus far at Bristol’s half-mile. Go figure.
Team Penske has both of its drivers in the victory column, with Brad Keselowski winning at Las Vegas and Joey Logano at Texas. That’s two wins on 1.5-mile tracks. There are five 1.5-mile tracks in the Chase lineup. Sounds ominous.
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule resumes Saturday night April 26 at three-quarters mile Richmond International Raceway. Richmond has been called, through the years, “the perfect track” which means there’s a good chance at an interesting season is about to become even more so, coming out of our spring break.