Friday, March 7, 2014

A Glitzy and Glamorous Beginning: Five Questions before Las Vegas

Jeff Burton returns to the track at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Credit: Todd Warshaw/Getty Images  
Once something becomes normal, comfort sets in, and people want to stay the same.

But change is inevitable. It's what makes the world intriguing. Without change, there would be no seasons, butterflies or diamonds. Everything would be bleak and boring.

Sometimes, change is needed. An aspect switching sets off a whole new feeling, a different kind of security. Security in a risk. Security in the unknown.

Jeff Burton was in a predicament; his role as the elder statesman at Richard Childress Racing was coming to a close. He, Mark Martin and other racing veterans were feeling the tremors from The Domino Effect. Out with the old, in with the new. Factors like money, empty win columns and a rising band of younger racers played into the hands of team owners.

Burton, Martin and others were stranded.

Risks are what push us to move on and rewrite goals. Achievements grow or shrink according to the times. Sails adjust and catch a breeze.

The former driver of the No. 31 for RCR felt a growing gust coming off the horizon. Sails moved. Directions switched. He landed on the shores of Michael Waltrip Racing. Another teaching role. The possibilities are a bit limited, but he will flourish.

What seemed bleak and boring has now become a glitzy and glamorous beginning. How fitting that Burton's first 2014 start is in the glittering oasis of Las Vegas?

In this week's Five Questions, I discuss Burton, the latest aero package, Powerhouse Harvick, and much more. Oh, and where's Jimmie Johnson hiding?

Is their Phoenix win a sign of future success for the Kevin Harvick/Rodney Childers duo? Move over Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson, there’s a new powerful pairing in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series garage. Harvick and Childers have already flexed their muscle two races in. The two have bonded quickly at Stewart Haas Racing and it’s turned into a fantastic match. Many have heard of the crew chief but couldn’t analyze him; Childers is a lurker. However, fans should know this: he is smart, more intelligent than imaginable. Harvick has the talent and the fearlessness to turn his partner’s visions into reality. The only thing that can get in the way of these two is themselves.

Does the “new” Chase really mean anything? After giving it some thought, there is something that irks me about the “new” Chase format. The projected final races are set up with an elimination format which is an obvious ploy to drum up talk. I definitely approve of the expansion to a sixteen-car field; this opens up the opportunity for more shake-ups and surprises. However, what’s with the Sweet Sixteen-esque layout? The eliminations happen every year; over the ten races, drivers become mathematically ineligible.

I also don’t like that NASCAR is trying to mimic the NBA. The sport is going through an identity crisis, but trying on all the different hats won’t work. What works for the NBA or any other sports organization won’t work for us. Racing is a different animal that involves machines, and the other leagues can’t say that. I see The Chase of 2014 being one full of excitement, but the “eliminations” are just too much.

Where is Johnson? Where, oh where, has the six-time champion gone? Where, oh where, can he be? I’ll tell you where Johnson is: he’s creeping, like a lion watching its prey. Nobody has been talking about the driver of the No. 48, but that doesn’t mean he’s not racking up stats. The first two stops on the schedule have resulted in two top-10 finishes. It’s not the opening act we’re use to, but that doesn’t mean we should count him out. If you ever count Jimmie Johnson out, then you’re already losing.

How does the latest aero package affect mile-and-a-half tracks? A restrictor plate and a one-mile track. Those are the two layouts the series has raced on and the results are interesting. Both exhibited exciting racing and dull green flag runs. As we head to a mile-and-a-half track, it’s crucial for teams to get as much information as possible during testing sessions and practices. With the schedule being mostly comprised of tracks this length, what happens in Las Vegas won’t stay in Las Vegas; it will carry over and can possibly burden the rest of the season. What the aerodynamic changes do will affect much more than just Sunday’s event.

What will come of Burton’s first start since last season? When the confetti and 2013 season settled down, Burton was out at RCR and heading towards MWR in a part-time role. Las Vegas Motor Speedway will be his first appearance, and it’s the start of a new endeavor. Will there be rust to knock off? I’m so happy Burton is back; he is The Mayor, after all. Sunday will tell if changing teams will put a spring in his step.  

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