The flood of NASCAR fans gridlocked on Interstate 71 in Kentucky this past weekend had plenty of time to reflect on the first half of the Sprint Cup season. I know I did. And I was lucky enough to avoid that traffic mess! With half the races behind us and eight to go before the Chase, here are three things I've learned …
1. Track position is the king of 2010-2011 racing.
The first-place car is usually the best car on the track that day and it will enjoy the clean air and be able to take the checkered flag. But the cars from second place all the way back to 25th are extremely close to each other and the aerodynamics of these race cars make it incredibly difficult to pass. So in order to have a successful day at the track, teams have to have flawless pit stops and, sometimes, a little bit of luck. In most races, a team is making a call in the pits based on what the people around them are doing. Crews really have to pay attention. If your car takes four tires instead of two, you could lose five spots on the racetrack that you aren't getting back. I would like to see the cars become less dependent upon air and those types of things. But I tell you, the racing this year is as good as I've ever seen.
2. The competition has caught up to Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus.
There's still a lot of racing left. And they are still, without question, the team to beat. But the gap has closed. For the past five years, they were so dominant. But the Fords have come a long way with horsepower and the new FR9 motor. The Joe Gibbs Racing duo of Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch have posted four wins between them and shown great speed. And the turnaround at Penske Racing has made the Dodge camp a factor, as well. I think a lot of it is the aerodynamics of these bodies.
3. The new points system is creating a different type of pressure.
What I'm noticing when watching these races is that the new wild-card setup is encouraging drivers from the eighth spot through the 20th to race for wins. At first, a lot of people thought it would be difficult to gain back points if you got really far behind. Now everyone is realizing that the points part isn't so bad, but the pressure to get a win if you are a driver like Dale Earnhardt Jr., Ryan Newman, Tony Stewart or Clint Bowyer is only mounting.
We've seen Earnhardt Jr. tumble from second to third to eighth in points. His camp has to be worried. In his past four races, he hasn't finished inside the top 19. If he has another bad race this weekend and ends up with a miserable finish, he falls outside of that top 10 and he's in trouble because he doesn't have a win. Then someone like Brad Keselowski, who has a win and is sitting 21st in points, could have a strong run this weekend to put himself squarely in the Chase conversation.
Of the drivers in contention who don't have a win, I think Tony Stewart will rip one off before Earnhardt Jr. will. He's a late-season guy historically and I expect him to run well enough at Pocono to get the win. But if these guys don't find Victory Lane pretty soon, they could be in trouble come Chase time. And it's cool that the new system has added that element.
Former NBA and college basketball star and longtime NASCAR fan Brad Daugherty joined ESPN as a NASCAR analyst in 2007. He is a regular on the NASCAR Countdown program that precedes all NASCAR race telecasts and is also an analyst on ESPN's daily "NASCAR Now" show.