Ingram's Flat Spot On: NASCAR reloads the schedule


Ingram's Flat Spot On


NASCAR Reloads The Schedule
by Jonathan Ingram

What does the officially announced 2011 schedule say about the state of play in the NASCAR Sprint Cup?

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series signage.
Photo by Eric Gilbert.

The series seems to be working better in some places than others, so the rearrangement of calendar dates and locations of events will have to be enough for the short term when it comes to trying to get clear of the Great Recession.

The good news, for those who happen to cotton to stock car racing, occurred at the Michigan Speedway, where there were absolutely no schedule adjustments for the 2.0-mile track in the Irish Hills. Sunday's race brought to mind the ebb and flow of days gone by, when a number of drivers ran up front at different times according to pit strategy and chassis adjustments. What otherwise might have been a boring runaway by the stoutly powered Shell Chevrolet of Kevin Harvick turned out to be a display of door-to-door stock car racing at its finest.

The COT is a relatively old warhorse compared to the new schedule structure that will carry NASCAR until, well, the next realignment. The car is finally living up to its big letters and the futuristic handle, because teams have done enough innovation and copying of what they see in the garage to figure out how to make the former blunderbuss work more like a flying flivver.

"I had a lot of fun racing today," summed up Harvick, which is never surprising to hear from a guy who's clinched a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship and taken 10 bonus points away from contender Denny Hamlin, the runner-up. But on this day you could take Harvick at his word. "There were a lot of position changes and a lot of passing going on," he said.

Gary Nelson, the midwife of the COT concept, is justifiably proud to see the reduction in aerodynamic dependency finally pay some dividends in places like the wide banks of Michigan -- or even across the unpredictable cambers of Pocono. Sure, there's always a breakaway or two, but the order of the day is keeping up with the chassis adjustments as well as pit road strategy or your ass will be left in the grass. "You can never underestimate the ability of these teams to innovate," said Nelson.

Kevin Harvick celebrates 2010 Michigan victory.
Photo by Action Sports Photography.

While on this subject, it's refreshing to not hear drivers talk about how they couldn't pass another driver or get better in the course of the day. It falls on deaf ears when others are finding the handle.

Oval race tracks are another subject. They are a quirky sort of sports arena. The same week a California track loses a Sprint Cup race in part due to relatively boring racing, the original blueprint for its 2.0-mile, D-shaped layout hosts an outstanding race in Michigan. Am I missing something or does this just prove you can't transfer the racing magic as easily as changing the schedule or building a new facility?

These things are hard to predict. The same week a second Sprint Cup race is added to the schedule in Kansas City -- with every expectation that it will sell most of its seats to ticket buyers -- a very similar track in Chicago gets switched into the opening date for the 2011 Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship. Unless I'm mistaken, this particular twin track -- a very similar 1.5-mile layout as to the one in Kansas City -- needs a boost in ticket sales for its lone date without a new casino being built next door.

Like the California track, now known as the Auto Club Speedway, the Chicagoland Speedway is in the midst of one of the largest population bases in the U.S. The white flag usually signifies the last lap, but after aborted efforts in the state of Washington and New York City to establish new tracks, let's hope the white flag of tactical retreat to just one race a year shown in the Los Angeles area is just that.

In five years time, we may be wondering what all the shouting was about when it comes to schedule realignment, a process that has been ongoing since "Big Bill" France launched NASCAR's first season in 1948. In five years time, the Great Recession may be over, all the facilities may be full, the racing action solid and those who would reduce Sprint Cup race weekends to one of a kind in highly competitive major markets may just look like geniuses.

For those who are near the middle and lower reaches of the Ohio River, the Kentucky Motor Speedway, the first new track to be added to the Sprint Cup schedule since the Chicagoland and Kansas facilities, may be a welcome addition. If you're trying to sell tickets at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway scant weeks after the "grand opening," maybe not. If you lost the race in Atlanta to Kentucky, it's definitely more like the Hatfields and McCoys.

Fans watch the start of the 2010 Brickyard 400.
Photo by Action Sports Photography.

For many fans, the great receding of a once great lake of events in the deep Southeast will never be anything but another defeat for a region of the country too often bilked of its resources. Fans in Martinsville, meanwhile, have been spared the axe, perhaps a concession to the fact NASCAR needs its roots after all.

Up north, winner Harvick proved he's for real in the upcoming Chase. Jimmie Johnson continues to fade and the slippage in the clutch, so to speak, of the entire Hendrick Motorsports team may leave Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin on the outside looking in. Even among its viable candidates, Gordon appears to be on a record streak of finding ways to lose events he might have won.

Now it looks like one of NASCAR's few remaining legacy teams -- the ones that grew out of good ol' racing operations -- may have a shot at the championship due to the resurgence of Richard Childress Racing. In any event, Harvick stole a march on Hamlin and the Toyota brigade by out-horsepowering the FedEx Camry on the back stretch to the tune of banging the rear bumper in order to stymie any blocking maneuvers on the next lap. Hello! (A move that the COT can manage well at 170 mph.)

It's entirely possible that the COT finally coming into its own as a race vehicle arrived too late to save certain tracks. At least we're finally back to the days when drivers and crew chiefs are confident about making chassis adjustments over the course of a race in addition to taking big strategy swings on two tires, four or none?

The Cat in the Hat, now down to seven lives, was back from a second life-threatening plane crash, again making one wonder if team owner Jack Roush should give up some of his more overbearing motivational techniques in favor of something more inspirational? His guys ran like fast cats at Michigan after his emotion-charged return. Then again, the inspirational approach is not working for team owner Rick Hendrick at this point in time. And, it's probably asking too much for this Cat to keep walking away from crashed planes.

Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jonathan@jingrambooks.com.