Friday, February 26, 2021

Best of the Month: February 2021

We are at the end of February, the shortest month of the year, and now that we are approaching March's doorstep it feels like we have cleared the worst of winter in the Northern Hemisphere. We have made it. Whatever sloppy weather comes is surmountable. We have come this far and brighter days are upon us. We can already tell we are gaining daylight. 

In the motorsports world, there have been a handful of events and a handful of announcements. We continue to make it through these pandemic conditions and hope there are no further delays. Let's take into account what has happened over this month. 

Fixing the Qualifying Races: Ideas #1,092-#1,094
Let me start by saying I enjoyed the condensed festivities ahead of the Daytona 500. There was something each night leading up to the main event. It was a constant buildup. I hope it is here to stay. 

However, Thursday's Daytona 500 qualifying races could use some work. 

With the charter system and 36 cars locked into the 40-car field, there is little excitement over four spots, especially when two of those spots are tied to the best remaining qualifying times from the open team. One spot is up for grabs in each race. This year we were lucky to have four drivers going for each spot, but there have been years when it has been three cars and one of them has not be overly competitive. 

I got three more ideas to add to the nearly countless ways to reinvent the qualifying races.

Idea #1,092: Split the field in half, top 20 qualifiers compete in race one to set the first ten rows; the remaining drivers compete in race two to set the final ten rows and who will be in the race

Advantages: Qualifying would matter. Drivers would have something to compete for in qualifying. An open team can still qualify into the race via qualifying times. 

Qualms: What happens if all the open teams qualify in the top 20? 

I would love NASCAR to make the Daytona 500 be the only race where anyone can fail to qualify, but that's not going to happen. 

For this format, my suggestion would be only the fastest two open teams in the top 20 would make it. In theory, if open teams qualified first, second and third, the third fastest car would have to start in the second race. I hate it too, but it is the stipulation NASCAR would put in. The first race would actually be at least the fastest 18 chartered teams with possibly two open cars, but no more than two. 

It would make the second race interesting. Let's say none of the open team make the first race. You would then have possibly eight cars going for four spots. There is wiggle room for some of these teams. It doesn't come down to one spot. But open teams could handle their business in qualifying and not have to worry about the qualifying race and could even be guaranteed a top 20 start. 

Idea #1,093: Race first and then qualify

Advantages: People are getting dumber. That was my takeaway after this year's Daytona 500 qualifying races. The viewers had no clue that the open car that made the race on time could race its way in, even though that has been the custom since NASCAR starting tooling around with the Daytona 500 format and locking teams in over the last 15 years. 

When Ryan Preece crossed the line the best open car in the first qualifying race, he raced in and kept his starting position as corresponded to his race finish, which meant the third-fastest open car from qualifying made the race. Austin Cindric was the lucky driver, but again, people are getting dumber, and did not know that despite it being that way for years, so many thought Tyler Dillon got the spot because Dillon was next-best open finisher behind Preece. 

To cater to the dumber people, let's just flip proceedings. We are already racing without qualifying or practicing, let's do the same thing with the Daytona 500 qualifying races. Race on Wednesday and qualify on Thursday. 

The race winners are guaranteed second row positions. The best open cars are guaranteed spots in the field. Then we have qualifying and qualifying sets the rest of the field and what other two open entries make the race.

Qualms: How do you set the grid for the qualifying races if qualifying hasn't happened?

I would just split the field in half via owner points. Odd-positioned finishing chartered teams in race one, even-positioned chartered team in race two and then you can split the open teams with the odd-positioned of the open teams in the first race and even-positioned open teams in the second race.

What happens when a handful of cars get into an accident?

This is a problem I am not sure I can adequately solve. 

How do you prevent the teams from having two cars, one for the qualifying race and one for qualifying? You could have a bunch of teams not mind it being a free-for-all because the backup car is better for qualifying. 

You cannot institute a rule barring teams from qualifying if they have an accident in the first race. You could, but then you take all the air out of qualifying. For the chartered teams it is fine, they would just start at the rear of the field, but for the open teams that is likely an automatic qualifying failure. You could have two open teams left standing who just have to complete a qualifying run and they would be in because everyone else is out, but what happens if no open teams can qualify? What do you do then? 

This idea has its flaws. But it is aimed for the dumb people. 

Idea #1,094: Shorten the races to 50 laps, fill the cars with fuel, no pit stops allowed, no new tires, no re-fueling. Go. 

Advantage: This is nothing procedural, but it is another way to spice up the races. The cars can't quite get 125 miles on a tank of fuel now, but what kind of race would we see if we made the teams stretch it? Would all the teams agree to run the first five or ten laps at slower speeds? Would some teams start slow to save early and go hard at the end? Would some teams speed away and hope to be able to coast to the finish? 

One caution and all of a sudden the teams can make it, but nobody can take tires and there is always a chance of a green-white-checkered finish, with means there is a chance teams could find themselves in trouble even if conserving.

Qualms: You know someone is going to bring up safety and say you can't have cars running out of fuel at Daytona. We had cars running out of fuel at the finish of the 2017 Daytona 500 and we all survived. 

Hildebrand Heads to the Mountain?
There is not a lot out about this story, but the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb entry list was released and one of the entrants was J.R. Hildebrand with a Dallara DW12 chassis.

Is an IndyCar returning to Pikes Peak?

I hope so.

I have been a proponent of IndyCar returning to Pikes Peak. When Michael Shank Racing was toying with bringing an LMP2 car to Pikes Peak, I thought it was a great opportunity to stand out and I wished an IndyCar team would do it. I actually think Pikes Peak should return to the IndyCar calendar. 

1. It would be an event unlike any other and it would force people to watch. An IndyCar climbing up over 4,700 feet on a 12-mile road? That will catch the attention of many. Let's face it, IndyCar racing at Mid-Ohio or Pocono or Gateway or on the street of Nashville isn't turning many heads. IndyCar racing at Pikes Peak with no guardrails and risking life and limb? That will get some eyeballs. 

2. Nobody knows what the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb is. Pretty much every racetrack looks alike to the commoner. It is a paved road and some barriers. Unless it is Monaco with yacht and bikini-clad women lining the track, no one can tell the difference between Road America and Road Atlanta, Sonoma and Laguna Seca or Texas and Chicagoland. 

Pikes Peak is a mountain, absent of the sterilizing safety amenities, and an actual beast. None of the racetracks scare anybody, not even Indianapolis. They got SAFER Barriers and catchfences and the drivers walkaway. Like it or not, motorsports is a thrill sport and a staring contest with death is the greatest thrill of all, especially when it is setup to be a spectacular death. 

3. For part-time IndyCar teams or Indianapolis-only teams, I have always wondered why one wouldn't do an event like this for the exposure. A full-time season is expensive, but for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, Juncos Racing, the now-defunct Lazier Racing Partners, why not go to Pikes Peak and draw out sponsors? Why not use that car for more than Indianapolis?

I know there are limits and those Honda and Chevrolet engines are not readily available for an effort like this, but you could put something else inside the DW12 chassis to get it up the mountain. 

We need more adventurous teams, teams that will take a chance doing something no one else is considering. Hopefully, Hildebrand does take an IndyCar to Pikes Peak and guns to shatter the record. It will be the event of year if it happens.

March Preview
Speaking of taking chances, NASCAR's dirt race at Bristol is the event of the month in March 2021.

We are still learning about the race, but here is what we know. On Saturday night before the race, there will be four 15-lap qualifying races. I am not sure how those are setting the field or how the field will be split for those races, but it is happening. The main event on Sunday will be 250-laps. There is still no word on if there will be live pit stops or how the race will be broken up. 

I am skeptical this will be a good race. Good is subjective, but we have to look at what this race is replacing, a regular Bristol race, which didn't need any improvement. 

I have already set a tier-one of possible winners: Kyle Larson, Christopher Bell, Chase Briscoe and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. 

This could be Stenhouse, Jr.'s greatest day in NASCAR, which means he is going to blow it. 

Is it crazy to put a Rick Ware Racing car in tier two? Because I think Chris Windom could have a shot. Windom has been one of the best dirt racers over the last decade, but unlike contemporaries Larson and Bell, Windom has not been able to turn it into pavement opportunities, and he has not made the most of the pavement opportunities given to him. 

Windom kept tearing up Indy Lights cars with it ending in a heavy accident in the Freedom 100. He has made a handful fo Truck starts, including two Eldora races, but even at Eldora he was mediocre. He has done well in the ARCA dirt races at DuQuoin and Springfield. Most Cup drivers are nowhere near as close to the level of comfort Windom has on dirt. I am not going to pick Windom to win it, but no one should be surprised if he is in the top 15 on speed and possibly pushing the top ten. 

Other tier two drivers? Kyle Busch just because of talent, Alex Bowman because everyone has forgotten his dirt background, Ryan Newman because of his dirt background, but we have to acknowledge Newman has not been the same over the last year. 

Many drivers ran the Eldora Truck race. Bubba Wallace won it and was seventh in his other star. Austin Dillon won the inaugural race and was in the top ten of all three of his starts. There is a rumbling Stewart Friesen could be making his Cup debut at Bristol and Friesen won the last Eldora dirt race with three consecutive top five finishes in the race. Friesen is one of two drivers with at least three top five finishes at Eldora. The other driver is Grant Enfinger. 

And then there is a group of drivers who will be completely lost on the dirt: Michael McDowell, William Byron, Daniel Su├írez, Cole Custer, Corey LaJoie, Quin Houff (but he is lost every week in the Cup Series, so Bristol is not going to be that different). Joey Logano will kind of be a fish out of water. Martin Truex, Jr. does not have a lot of dirt experience. 

This might not be the greatest NASCAR race ever, but it will be fascinating to say the least.

Other events of note in March:
Formula One season might start in Bahrain. 
MotoGP season might start in Qatar. 
There should be a 12 Hours of Sebring
Supercross returns with races in Daytona and Arlington, Texas. 
NASCAR will have three other races on paved racetracks.