2016 NASCAR season shows upper hand is hard to get – and harder to keep

  • Aric Almirola celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Xfinity Series auto race at Daytona International Speedway, Friday, July 1, 2016, in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux) John Raoux

  • Aric Almirola celebrates after winning the NASCAR Xfinity Series auto race at Daytona International Speedway, Friday, July 1, 2016, in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee) Wilfredo Lee

Monitor staff
Published: 7/15/2016 12:04:48 AM

He’s in the midst of his most sluggish season in years, with no wins to his name, little speed packed into his Nationwide Chevrolet and – revealed Thursday – concussion symptoms that have knocked him out of this weekend and further threatened his Chase for the Sprint Cup chances.

But even through the lowest moments of a season in which little has gone right, Dale Earnhardt Jr. speaks often with the upbeat tone of one of the drivers consistently racing by him on the track.

“I’ve been in some situations that are very, very difficult to be positive about,” Earnhardt said during a late-May visit to Loudon. “This isn’t one of them. This is the same crew, most of the guys on the team are the guys I’ve been with for the last five or six years.”

After all, Earnhardt knows the game. In NASCAR, things change. Rapidly.

The team running circles around the competition one week can be the one looking for answers the next. A team with no chance one month can find itself reaching and then returning to Victory Lane the next. The driver on top can’t relax. The driver buried in the standings can’t give up.

Some teams aren’t as equipped as others to succeed. But among those with similar resources, the fixes to all problems can be a race away, making another team or driver’s advantage on the track a tenuous and precious commodity.

“Our sport is definitely a sport that’s very cyclical,” Richard Petty Motorsports driver Aric Almirola said. “I think a couple of years ago, Joe Gibbs Racing was probably off and struggling a little bit and Stewart-Haas and Hendrick were always the guys on top, and now it’s very apparent that Gibbs are the cars that are on top over the course of the last 12 months. ... So it’s very cyclical.”

One doesn’t have to take a long trip through history to see the dynamic at work. In 2014, Brad Keselowski won the regular-season finale at Richmond and the Chase opener at Chicago, then stormed his way to the pole the following week at Loudon. Drivers collectively threw up their hands, knowing that if he kept running the way he was, Keselowski was a shoo-in for the championship.

“I don’t think anybody has anything for Brad right now,” Kyle Larson lamented thatday.

He couldn’t keep it up, however. He was seventh and second at NHMS and Dover, respectively, but then 36th- and 31st-place finishes in two of the next four races slashed those pristine chances at a title. Keselowski was on the positive end of NASCAR’s fleeting nature two years earlier, however. Hendrick Motorsports won seven regular-season races and put all four drivers in the Chase, but Keselowski took two of the first playoff races and rode the momentum to his first championship.

“Hendrick cars dominated the whole year. We had an advantage on the competition all the way up until the Chase,” Earnhardt said. “Brad and those guys figured out some of the things we had going on, they took it in house and made it better. And they beat us.”

This year has reinforced the message. Kyle Busch’s win in Kansas on May 7 was his third and Toyota-based Joe Gibbs Racing’s sixth of the season. Since then, Busch has two top-10 finishes in seven races, Gibbs has one win and Penske Racing’s Fords have dominated the circuit with three wins in the past four races.

Gibbs was unstoppable but now it’s Penske that can’t be beaten. It’ll be someone else in a matter of weeks. Round and round the cycle goes.

“It’s no surprise to me that Gibbs came out strong, it’s no surprise to me that Penske’s recovering,” said NBC sports analyst Steve Letarte, a former crew chief for Jeff Gordon and Earnhardt Jr. “It would be no surprise to me to see Stewart-Haas Racing or Hendrick Motorsports get the next team on top.”

The tendency for the upper hand to switch so regularly from team to team comes from NASCAR’s details-oriented approach and the copycat mentality it breeds. As science and engineering have taken over and improved the technology being used, a minor tweak made in the lab or the garage can shave off the tenths of seconds that make the difference between a car finishing 15th or finishing first – and teams are always looking over and over again at the equipment to find where those tenths could be.

“Everybody’s always trying to improve their cars, make more downforce, get their cars handling better, driving better,” Almirola said. “And there’s a lot of smart people that are employed on all these race teams. Some of these race teams have as many engineers as we have total employees.”

And when a team does find the secret, it doesn’t last in a sport in which everyone is watching the winners intently to see what they’re doing right.

“The good thing about it is, in the garage, secrets don’t last for long because it’s such a small area and everyone’s working on top of each other,” Earnhardt said. “And what you do too, when you figure out someone’s idea, you’ve got enough smart people to take that idea and make it your own and improve it.”

With finding an edge so difficult and keeping it to yourself even harder, teams that find their way to the front need to find even more motivation to stay there.

“When you have an advantage, all you do is stress and worry about trying to find the next one. Because you know another team is catching you,” Letarte said. “When you leave a win, you know that the field is now shooting for you and you’re now the high-water mark in the garage.”

Sometimes, that requires the crew chief to play the part of a football coach – reminding his team of all its miscues to ensure no complacency sets in.

“The hardest thing to do is push the team that’s on top,” Letarte said. “For a crew chief that’s dominating, I expect you to play it down, severely. Put the fear into everyone that you’re getting caught, try to make sure everybody is continuing to push. Because that’s how you got there in the first place.”

And for the struggling teams, the task centers on reminding the driver and his teammates that the tough times, while inevitable, aren’t necessarily long-lasting – and that, with the way the Chase for the Sprint Cup is currently constructed, there’s always a chance to turn things around.

“It’s going to be interesting to see who gets hot at the right time, because it’s not a 36-race champion anymore,” Letarte said. “It’s a 10-week playoff to a one-race championship, and we’ll see who gets hot at the right time.”

(Drew Bonifant can be reached at 369-3340, abonifant@cmonitor.com or on Twitter at @dbonifant.)

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