Tuesday, November 20, 2018

2018 NASCAR Predictions: Revisited

NASCAR season is over and we are now going to look back at the predictions made nearly a year ago. What things went as thought and how wrong was I last December? This is where we find out.

1. Martin Truex, Jr., finishes outside the top ten in at least two races at 1.5-mile tracks
Wrong! Truex, Jr. had one finish outside the top ten at a 1.5-mile oval and that was 37th in the first Texas race after an accident. That is quite impressive especially when you look at it over the two-year span.

2. Aric Almirola sets a career-high in top ten finishes in a season
Correct! Not only did Almirola set a career-high with 17 top ten finishes but he had a career-high four top five finishes. And with his results, Almirola finished fifth in the championship. And that doesn't feel right.

NASCAR's championship format has many problems but from a historical standpoint I think there will be drivers we look back on, see the championship finish but are misled a bit because of the reset and then the reset once eliminated. If a driver makes the round of eight but not the final four, there is a chance that driver could finish 16th in the championship. All these drivers get points for advancing each round but once eliminated they lose the bump from advancing to the prior round. It is really odd.

Almirola finished four points ahead of Chase Elliott despite Elliott having won three times the number of races and double the number of Chase races. Elliott had nearly three the number of top five finishes with 11 and he had 21 top ten finishes. Brad Keselowski had three the number of victories, three times the number of top five finishes and 20 top ten finishes.

Without the Chase, Elliott, Keselowski and Almirola would have been eighth, sixth and 12th respectively.

I know people make the argument "a guy with one victory had finished ahead of drivers with three or four or nine victories prior" and I understand this defense but it doesn't mean it is right or means NASCAR's decision to lump the eliminated drivers together is the right thing to do.

I will say it. I fucking hate this system. Because we have no idea what it means to be good. Remember when NASCAR wanted to make winning races worth more? NASCAR has failed to do that with each re-iteration of the Chase. But even worse it has devalued top five finishes. Almirola had a career year but it never felt like he was the fifth-best driver in NASCAR and you can argue that he is because that is where he finished but deep down you have to know at no point was anyone saying Almirola's name in the same conversation as Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex, Jr., Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson.

3. Hendrick Motorsports wins more than three races
Wrong! Hendrick Motorsports won exactly three races and all were at the hands of Chase Elliott. The Georgian broke through at Watkins Glen, adding his second victory at Dover and then won at Kansas two weeks later but that was it for Hendrick Motorsports.

Jimmie Johnson was shut out for the first time in his career. Alex Bowman had a few good days but was never a contender for a race victory. William Byron was getting his feet wet.

4. Ford does not win more than two restrictor plate races
Correct! Ford won twice at plate tracks with Joey Logano in the spring Talladega race and Aric Almirola winning the autumn race at Talladega but Austin Dillon won the Daytona 500 and Erik Jones won the July Daytona race.

5. Team Penske does not win the autumn race at Talladega
Correct! See above. Almirola won in what was a dominant day for Stewart-Haas Racing.

6. Darrell Wallace, Jr., is the top rookie finisher in at least 12 races
Correct! He was the top rookie in 14 races and this was a terrible prediction. One, there were only two rookies with Wallace and William Byron. Two, 14 out of 36 races is only 38.888%. That isn't good. Wallace was basically a 6-10 team in the NFL. No one ever celebrates going 6-10. Not even Cleveland Browns fans would feel good about celebrating 6-10.

Richard Petty Motorsports is a bad team and I think the longer Wallace stays the more it hurts his career. Who has gone to Richard Petty Motorsports and left with their career in better shape? Who? And yes, I realize we just talked about Aric Almirola but look at other recent drivers for this team: Brian Scott, Sam Hornish, Jr., Marcos Ambrose, Elliott Sadler, Paul Menard, Kasey Kahne, Reed Sorenson, A.J. Allmendinger, Bobby Labonte and Jeff Green.

Which of those drivers had a significantly better career after driving for Petty's team? The answer is none. Wallace, get out while you still can!

7. A change is made to the Charlotte roval event before the race occurs
Correct! The layout was changed and the infield section bypassed a left and a right hand turn that would have created a hairpin back onto the oval and a chicane was added on the backstretch.

8. At least five drives make the Grand National Series Chase by victory
Wrong! And I am a bit disappointed. Only four drivers clinched a spot with a victory: Tyler Reddick, Christopher Bell, Justin Allgaier and Ross Chastain. Six championship-eligible drivers did win a race before the start of the Chase but Ryan Preece was not full-time and Spencer Gallagher failed a drug test and could not qualify based on that victory.

Daniel Hemric didn't win a race all season. Elliott Sadler did not win a race all season. Cole Custer did not win until the autumn Texas race. Matt Tifft didn't win a race. Austin Cindric had a few road course races get away from him. John Hunter Nemechek won a race but it was not until Kansas in October and he wasn't full-time. Chase Briscoe won a race but it was not until Charlotte in September.

I thought Sadler would break through and Custer would get a victory and possibly even Hemric. This season the Grand National Series underperformed. But what makes it worse is the final eight races when there were no full-time Cup drivers racing were really good races and fun to watch and there were six different winners in the final six races and there were seven different winners in the final eight.

Imagine if most of the season had no Cup drivers. I am not for banning Cup drivers entirely but there is a night and day difference between the start of the season and the end. Thirteen of the first 26 races were won by Cup drivers and four races were Dash 4 Cash races (Bristol, Richmond, Talladega, Dover) where Cup drivers are banned, another four races are standalone races (Iowa twice, Mid-Ohio and Road America) and Cup drivers were barred from the Las Vegas race, the final race of the regular season.

That leaves four "unregulated" races won by championship-eligible drivers and those races were Daytona, Kentucky, Loudon and Indianapolis. Daytona was a plate race and Indianapolis has the alternate aero package.

I don't want too much more to be done. I think enough has been done to begin with and I think the decision to barred cars with Cup drivers scoring points toward the owners' championship will cause a seismic shift and is the most disadvantageous move made yet. I think we are more likely to have at least five or six championship-eligible drivers get a victory in the first 26 races of 2019.

9. Brendan Gaughan competes in at least three of four August Grand National Series races
Wrong! Gaughan competed in only two of the four races, Mid-Ohio and Road America.

10. The Eldora truck race has a sixth different winner in as many years
Correct! Chase Briscoe won in a photo finish over Grant Enfinger and either driver would have been the sixth different winner at Eldora.

11. Ryan Truex wins a truck race
Wrong! This one stings. At the time, it wasn't clear where Truex would be and I thought he would return to Hattori Racing Enterprises. However, he moved up to the second division with Kaulig Racing and he nearly won the season opener at Daytona but outside of that he had a pretty average year and made the Chase but Hattori Racing Enterprises won the Truck championship with Brett Moffitt. Oof. I am not going to say Truex would have done just as well or better than Moffitt but I think he would have won at least one race.

12. Dale Earnhardt, Jr., runs one track he has never raced at before
Wrong! Earnhardt, Jr. made one start and it was at Richmond and Earnhardt, Jr. had run plenty of times at Richmond before. I am not surprised he didn't run more but I thought he would have run three or four races and spread them out over the summer. I thought he would have given Iowa a go and I thought he was going to run Homestead because he spoke so highly of the track last November and it sounded like he really wanted to run it.

I would have liked to see him run a few more times. I get why he didn't and he is still young but if Richmond is the only time he runs every year from now until he is 64 then I think we will all live.

Final Words
I got to admit this season ends with a bit of an underwhelming feeling and I think it is because for the first time I think NASCAR has produced not just one champion but two champions that were never the best driver at any point in the season. With prior iterations of the Chase, the guy on top at the end had a better argument for being on top. When Johnson won five consecutive titles he had to put together ten strong races, same for Kurt Busch in 2004 and Tony Stewart in 2005 and 2011 and Brad Keselowski in 2012. Even in the Chase-era, the only questionable title was Stewart's 2011 because he didn't win in the first 26 races but he did win five of ten to close out the year and that provides a great defense for Stewart's title.

With this format something as simple as a pit lane speeding penalty can cost you a title. If Logano speeds on that final stop, he is not champion and you could twist an argument that speeding could have cost a driver prior but the difference is that driver either had nine other results or 35 other results to look back on where points could have been made up and that driver could have not been in position where a pit lane speeding penalty could cost a driver a title. With this format, it is one race that decides the champion. The other races decide who gets there but have no bearing on the final result and that is terrible.

I am not a moron. I am not one of those people who say Joey Logano or Tyler Reddick are not real champions and I am not going to be delusional and say another driver is champion. First off, those people are full of shit. What sane person goes through their life preaching results are different then the record book and not just one event but possibly every year? Those people are full of shit and full of themselves.

But something doesn't feel right. It feels more like Logano and Reddick did what was necessary to be good in one race and that is how the game is currently played but we must decide whether one race should have so much bearing in deciding who is best over an entire season and how we will look at who are the best drivers in the history of these series.

Six of 12, 50%. Not good. Not bad. Plenty of room for improvement.