Hen­drick team leads deep field

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - SPORTS -

DAY­TONA BEACH, Fla. — The good news for NAS­CAR is that all signs in­di­cate Dale Earnhardt Jr. has a le­git­i­mate shot to win the Day­tona 500.

A vic­tory for one of NAS­CAR’s most pop­u­lar driv­ers, in his re­turn to rac­ing af­ter a con­cus­sion side­lined him the sec­ond half of last sea­son, would be a boost for the sag­ging se­ries. Earnhardt’s star power has been one of the

bright spots of Speed­weeks and his strength on the track has been ob­vi­ous ev­ery time he’s be­hind the wheel of his Chevro­let.

Earnhardt was part of a Hen­drick Mo­tor­sports

qual­i­fy­ing sweep for to­day’s sea­son-open­ing race. Chase El­liott won the pole, and Earnhardt will line up next to him on the start­ing grid. El­liott added a vic­tory in a qual­i­fy­ing race, and Earnhardt led 53 of 60 laps in a sec­ond qual­i­fy­ing race be­fore he was passed at the end.

So the Hen­drick cars have speed, the driv­ers aren’t cow­er­ing from the Toy­ota team­work that dom­i­nated last year’s race, and they are ready to go bumper-to-bumper with the Team Penske fleet.

It means to­day could be a strong open­ing day for NAS­CAR, par­tic­u­larly if Earnhardt can pull off his third vic­tory in The Great Amer­i­can Race. He’s not ready to call him­self a fa­vorite, and thinks he’ll have his hands full with the Joe Gibbs Rac­ing group and Penske driv­ers Joey Logano and Brad Ke­selowski.

“Watch­ing the last sev­eral plate races, I think the Gibbs guys have the mar­ket cor­nered on the fa­vorite,” Earnhardt said. “The Penske guys are re­ally strong. So I think it’s their race to lose. The Hen­drick cars are go­ing to be up there try­ing to mix it up.”

NAS­CAR needs to­day to go off with­out a hitch.

The se­ries is un­der heavy scru­tiny be­cause of slid­ing at­ten­dance and tele­vi­sion rat­ings, plus the ti­tle spon­sor deal with Mon­ster En­ergy came in at a frac­tion of what NAS­CAR was look­ing for when it be­gan shop­ping the nam­ing rights al­most two years ago.

NAS­CAR cel­e­brated its deal with Mon­ster in a Las Ve­gas an­nounce­ment, and has hitched its wagon to the hope that Mon­ster can at­tract a younger de­mo­graphic and raise the ex­cite­ment level at all the events. But there was lit­tle sig­nage around the track dur­ing Speed­weeks, and one of the few in­di­ca­tions Mon­ster is the new spon­sor were the scant­ily clad women around for some of the pomp and cir­cum­stance. There’s been no tele­vi­sion ad­ver­tis­ing and NAS­CAR was even the sub­ject of a crit­i­cal ex­am­i­na­tion in the Wall Street Jour­nal.

NAS­CAR has coun­tered with a JGR an­nounce­ment that de­fend­ing race win­ner Denny Ham­lin and FedEx have signed long- term ex­ten­sions, while Team Penske locked in Logano and Shell-Pennzoil through 2023.

“Peo­ple are talk­ing about the health of the sport, and this is a wa­ter­shed mo­ment,” Roger Penske said of an ex­ten­sion that took nearly a year to com­plete with Shell.

Both FedEx and Shell-Pennzoil are ma­jor spon­sors who spend some­thing close to

$20 mil­lion a year to brand the race cars and mar­ket to the NAS­CAR au­di­ence.

“This is a very pos­i­tive story in our sport, to see the com­mit­ment of a very large com­pany like Shell and Pennzoil are and for them to be able to sign up with this team re­ally makes a state­ment for not only where Team Penske is, but for where NAS­CAR is as a sport,” Logano said.

Prob­lem is, NAS­CAR doesn’t yet know ex­actly where it is.

NAS­CAR will launch a new ad­ver­tis­ing cam­paign to­day called “Ready. Set. Race.” and a crash-filled 30-sec­ond TV ad was re­vealed Satur­day to pro­mote the 500.

In an ef­fort to add ex­cite­ment to the rac­ing — some­thing both the tele­vi­sion part­ners and Mon­ster wanted — all events will be run in seg­ments this year. It means the Day­tona 500 won’t ex­actly be a 500-mile race of at­tri­tion, but will in­stead be cut into three parts. There are points on the line for each seg­ment, giv­ing driv­ers in­cen­tive to race hard for the en­tire race, and one fi­nal long push to the check­ered flag.

It’s a risky move for NAS­CAR, but one em­braced pub­licly by driv­ers. Some fans, par­tic­u­larly long­time watch­ers, are hor­ri­fied at the gim­micks NAS­CAR is us­ing, but a ris­ing crop of young driv­ers is ea­ger to give it a try.

“I think you have a group of guys com­ing along that are go­ing to put their sig­na­ture on this sport,” said team owner Chip Ganassi. “The sport’s gone through some changes. We’re look­ing at a new for­mat. Some of us older guys, when they talk about chang­ing the for­mat, we look at each other, ask ques­tions. These young driv­ers, they go, ‘OK.’ It’s kind of no big deal to those guys.

“I think that says a lot about how they ap­proach it, how they look for­ward to it. So I think it’s pretty bright when you have an at­ti­tude like that.”

In­deed, the faces are rapidly chang­ing in NAS­CAR as the stars are ag­ing out of their rides.

Jeff Gor­don is now a tele­vi­sion an­a­lyst and will drive the pace car to­day. Tony Ste­wart re­tired at the end of last sea­son. Carl Edwards de­cided in late De­cem­ber he didn’t want to race this year af­ter com­ing 10 laps short of win­ning the cham­pi­onship. Greg Bif­fle has com­mit­ted to a tele­vi­sion job.

With all those open seats, the se­ries is start­ing to shift and there’s more at­ten­tion for driv­ers like El­liott, Gor­don’s re­place­ment a year ago, and Daniel Suarez, the Mex­i­can driver who turned his Xfin­ity Se­ries cham­pi­onship into a pro­mo­tion to the Cup se­ries when Edwards re­tired.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.