Monday, February 13, 2017

Musings From the Weekend: This Might Not Be So Bad

IndyCar tested in Phoenix and some drivers are frustrated by the downforce levels. J.R. Hildebrand was fastest over the two-day test and broke the track record with a lap of 19.0401 seconds (193.234 MPH) but he did hit the wall at the end of the session. In actual races, an underdog beat a Red Bull junior driver, a Ferrari academy driver, a Force India junior driver and the son of a three-time world champion to take the first title of the junior formula season. Something happened in the World Rally Championship that hadn't happened since 1999. Something happened in Supercross that hadn't happened since 2002. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

This Might Not Be So Bad
We are less than two weeks away from the first race of the 2017 NASCAR season and many are dreading the impeding 60-60-80 segmentation of the Daytona 500 and that is without mentioning the dread for playoff points and championship points that will come from positioning at the end of those segments and forgetting to mention that the Thursday night qualifying races will now pay ten points to the winners and descending a point for the rest of the top ten in those races. However, let's take a step back to look at how the segments aren't going to change that much in a NASCAR race.

The easiest way to look at segments is two guaranteed caution periods in each race. While there is something inherently wrong about that because races in theory should start and run unto the finish without being disrupted, the truth is pretty much every NASCAR race has at least two caution periods. The last race to feature fewer than two cautions was nearly five years ago at Fontana and the only caution in that race was for the rain that eventually caused the race to be shortened after 129 of 200 laps. NASCAR races have always been segmented but for an undetermined amount of times and at previously undetermined lengths.

This change is compared to other sports because it is a carbon copy of what other leagues have been doing for years. Hockey fans are accustomed to knowing there will be three commercial breaks per period coming with under 14 minutes to play, ten minutes to play and six minutes to play.

Commercial breaks aren't the end of the world for hockey or any other sport but a key difference is there are many stoppages in a hockey game for offside calls, penalties, pucks going out of play and goals that three extended breaks hardly go noticed. This is a little different because unlike hockey where the commercial break comes once there is a natural stoppage in play (unless it is a goal or during a power play) the end of a segment will be a hard break. When lap 60 occurs at Daytona, the caution is coming out to end the segment. At the same time, I am not sure when a natural stoppage would be in a race so it has to be a hard break otherwise it would just be the way races have been conducted for the last 69 years, which is now no longer an acceptable way of doing things.

Another issue many have is that making lap 60 and lap 120 or lap 55 and lap 110 or lap 150 and lap 300 worth something doesn't mean the racing will be better nor does it make any sense to subjectively make these laps any more valuable than the next. Points may be on the line but there is still a bigger picture at play and that is winning a race still locks a driver into the Chase. While the playoff point for leading at the end of a segment is nice, winning a race pays five playoff points. If a team is struggling and approaching the end of a segment it still makes more sense to fight for another day than push in the moment especially with the new rules basically preventing damaged cars from returning to a race.

If a driver is in the top three and feels a tire going down four laps before the end of a segment that driver is going to pit and change the tire and live to fight for another day than go all out for a handful of points and one special points that floats around until Phoenix in November. After all, the championship is a basic experiment in common sense. It makes more sense to pit, sacrifice the segment points, go a lap down (which you will likely get back anyway because of wavearounds and lucky dogs) and at worst finish 15th and get 22 points than risk it, have the tire fail exiting turn two on the final lap of the segment and not be able to reenter the race and have to settle with at most two points for being classified in 35th.

The segments likely won't be that big of a deal. It is better than the caution clock but the biggest problem is the arbitrary nature of awarding points for being at the front 25-33% of the way through a race. This was the safest way NASCAR could split up the race without being too radical, although outside of the Daytona 500, the Coca-Cola 600 and the Southern 500, I am sure most of us would have been ok if NASCAR jumped into the deep end and split the rest of the races on the schedule into two heats, an LCQ and a final that fit into the three or four-hour television window. After all those changes are more likely to draw viewers in than two caution periods that are always going to happen.

Champion From the Weekend
Australian Thomas Randle won the Toyota Racing Series by five points over Pedro Piquet after finishing fifth, fourth and third over the weekend at Circuit Chris Amon in Feilding, New Zealand. Red Bull junior driver Richard Vanschoor finished 12 points back in third with New Zealander and Ferrari Driver Academy's Marcus Armstrong finishing fourth, 63 points off Randle.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about the IndyCar test and Thomas Randle's championship but did you know...

Jari-Matti Latvala won Rally Sweden and it was Toyota's first win since Didier Auriol won Rally China in 1999.

Pedro Piquet, Richard Vanschoor and Force India junior driver Jehan Daruvala split the three Toyota Racing Series races from Circuit Chris Amon.

Marvin Musquin won the Supercross race from Arlington. It was Musquin's first Supercross victory and the first victory by a French rider in the series since David Vuillemin won at Indianapolis in 2002.

Coming Up This Weekend
Formula E returns after over three months off in Buenos Aires for the final edition of the Buenos Aires ePrix on the current course.
NASCAR starts its season with a clash in the Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona.
Supercross makes its debut at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota.