Opinion: Solid Start to 2017

NASCAR

The opening of the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season has generated plenty of story lines. (Photo: Getty Images)

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The phrase about it being a marathon and not a sprint certainly applies to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series schedule. The grueling 36-race campaign is the longest in professional sports so a lot can change between February and November.

But after the first seven races of 2017 there have been more than enough story lines to keep everyone’s attention.

Six different drivers representing from six different organizations have visited victory lane this season. All three manufacturers have also taken checkered flags as parity flourishes in the early going.

Most races have been decided in the closing stages so while there have been some dominating performances, the outcome has remained very much in doubt until the final laps.

The variety is music to NASCAR’s ears.

“It’s been very competitive,” said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer during an appearance on Sirius XM NASCAR Radio’s “The Morning Drive.” “Our job is to create an equal playing field and you’ve seen just how competitive the sport can be in that environment.”

Maybe even more interesting than who’s won so far is what teams are still looking for a first victory. Joe Gibbs Racing now leads that category after Jimmie Johnson’s Texas win got Hendrick Motorsports off the schneid The four-team stable, which does have a different look now with rookie Daniel Suarez replacing the departed Carl Edwards next to Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin, has yet to cross the finish line first.

However, even Busch thinks despite his organization’s disappointment spreading the wealth isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

“I don’t think it should be alarming,” Busch said. “I think it’s probably a good thing, to be honest with you. There needs to be more parity in our sport. There needs to be other teams that have the opportunity to get up there and run well and win races.

“You see RCR (Richard Childress Racing) has done that (with Newman). You see Ganassi has done that. Those would be two teams that probably haven’t won in the last couple years. I know Larson won a race last year, but not regularly, let’s say, like the JGR bunch or the HMS bunch. Our time is coming. We know that. We’ll turn our program around. We’ll get it up to speed to where we need to.”

Cup teams came into the year with another new rules package once again significantly reducing aerodynamic downforce. But unlike last year when similar action was taken, the jury is still out on how much impact the package has made on the competition. Racing throughout the pack appears to be better at least in the “eyeball” test, but all too often leaders have checked out and passing for the top spot has been minimal.

More impactful has been the introduction of stage racing, a radical idea that was met with much skepticism and a great deal of resistance from traditional fans when announced back in January. But the idea of breaking each race into three stages and awarding both regular season and playoff points to winners of the first two has created much more intensity than even those most hopeful the format would work could have hoped.

The finish of the second stage at Martinsville that saw Ricky Stenhouse Jr. not afraid to make contact with race leader Kyle Busch just to stay on the lead lap was evidence drivers would indeed ramp things up under the new concept.

The stages have also broken up the monotony of long stretches at places like Atlanta, Auto Club and Texas to give races more of a bite size feel rather than one long over bloated affair.

Not every race has been a barnburner and even with stage breaks there is still sentiment from some – most recently Kevin Harvick – that trimming back more race total distances in conjunction with the stage format would further improve the product.

The next stretch that picks up after the Easter break this weekend at Bristol is a long one. There is one Cup off weekend left in 2017 and it doesn’t come until the end of August.

But overall NASCAR is off to a solid start, something the sport hopes to continue through the end of spring and long hot summer that lies ahead.

The opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Motor Racing Network.

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