Track Talk: Daytona 500 Preview

Each weekend, our panel on The Podium Finish will provide their thoughts on the latest stories in the world of NASCAR as well as discussing their race pick to win the upcoming Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race of the weekend, the season opening Daytona 500.

This weekend, our panel consisting of Ashley Hobbs, Ashley Hull, Kathleen CassidyKatie Copple, Kerstin LewisKyle MagdaSean Fesko, and Stephen Conley talk about the happenings with NASCAR’s changes, network coverage, and drivers and teams who could be making big-time statements in today’s Daytona 500!

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Question 1
Lost in translation or reshuffling like a Daytona drafting pack?

Lost in translation or reshuffling like a Daytona drafting pack?

Tripp Mickle and Valerie Baurelein of The Wall Street Journal wrote an interesting article about some of the concerns with NASCAR, particularly its leadership. How concerning are some of the issues that are taking place behind the scenes with the sport in terms of the decision making process?

Conley :  I think the biggest concern is who is running the sport.  If there is a conflict between Brian and Lesa, then NASCAR could be in trouble, especially if Brian France has sold off his ownership stake, yet is still the CEO.  It sounds like some decisions have been made “behind the back.”  If the owners don’t know who to talk to, that’s a problem.  Plus, if Lesa has a controlling stake in NASCAR and not just ISC, then that could hold a major conflict as the other half of the tracks are SMI.  But I think there is one thing we can look at as a possible positive.  We’ve been looking for ways to cut cost.  It sounds like Monster got away with about a fifth of what NASCAR was originally looking for, and less money coming in will force NASCAR ownership to cut costs one way or another.  The waters are certainly murky, but race cars on track are still what fans want, and we’ve got that.

Copple :  Behind the scenes issues aren’t brought up to the public until a decision has either been made or something is already in the process of happening.  Without being able to read the article, I can’t say much about what was discussed in this particular instance.  But back on track, the drivers council, is that what they are called?

Anyway, I think this was a great idea to bring drivers in to add their input in to big decision when it comes to on-track and weekend decisions that are going to effect them.  They are the ones who are in the middle of this sport. When it comes to logistics and funding, those decisions should be made behind the scenes but when it comes to track amenities or other items that involve the fans, they should have input, at least in some aspect.

Whether that be via online surveys or on-track surveys, the fans should have a say, as they are the ones who pay their hard-earned cash to come to the track for a race weekend!  While some decisions should be made by the higher-ups, bringing in drivers, teams, and fans makes for the greatest product.

Magda :  Everyone won’t agree with the changes made to make the racing better.  I feel the relationship between Brian France and Lesa Kennedy shouldn’t interfere with the sport, whether it comes to rule changes, race formats etc.  There needs to be improvement on decisions being made because there’s days I scratch my head wondering why a certain change was made.  Heading into this season, there’s a lot of uncertainty with the new race format, playoffs and points.  Don’t think it’ll make much of a difference at Daytona but Atlanta will be the tell-tale sign of how the season goes.

Hobbs :  Speaking of concerns in NASCAR, this is a topic that we here at TPF are investigating (see study here).  It seems that not only do the fans see the issues, but some inside NASCAR see the issue as well.  It is very concerning for the sport that there are issues on the inside; but that also proves that the feelings on NASCAR leadership are legit.  It is very concerning that there are behind the scenes issues within the sport that seem to contribute to the overall perspective view of the sport.

Cassidy :  A lot of these points within the articles are facts lifelong fans of NASCAR are already aware of.  Obviously, some points are more concerning than others, but as someone who cares about this sport, all of these items strike fear into a fans passion for a sport.  Aside from the negative components, I think fans need to look at the positives and what Monster Energy can bring to the NASCAR.  However, I hope leadership remembers that old fans make the sport what it is.

Hull :  On a completely unrelated note; doesn’t Tripp Mickle sound like a cool NASCAR driver’s name? I think so at least…

Anyway, I think that the biggest concern that a lot of drivers have had with Brian France is that he isn’t as hands-on as he needs to be.  He seldom attends a race, or is ever in the garage area.  I think that in a way, that shows that he is out of touch with the sport itself.  I think that is a big reason why he has made decisions that people haven’t been happy with.  He really doesn’t know what goes down there in the garage.
Also, the way that France was trying to market the sport out to be more NFL or NBA like is having an impact on the fans.  Because of this, costs have risen, and empty stands have been a result of this.  As long as France adopts the leadership style where he is out of touch with the fans, the sport could go down in further turmoil.

Lewis :  I’m not sure of what all is going on behind the scenes contributing to the decline in ratings and viewership of NASCAR but there need to be some changes made because it is pretty eye opening when you think of how much less Monster is paying to be title sponsor of the series than Sprint did.  That was what really made me realize and think of the severity of the situation. It is disappointing because the sport used to be so huge, selling out crowds all over the place. It will be interesting to see how crowds and TV ratings for the Daytona 500 stack up!

Question 2
From cell phones to energy drinks, it's all about NASCAR.

From cell phones to energy drinks, it’s all about NASCAR.

NASCAR enters a new era with Monster Energy as the entitlement sponsor of the premier series.  What are some of the things that Monster Energy can do to help popularize the sport with the youth while appealing to the longtime racing fans?

Conley :  That is struggle that Monster will face and honestly, I don’t think they are off to a great start.  The Monster Energy Girls have already stirred up the hornets’ nest, but I think something they could do is pair NASCAR with Supercross.  Those events are in similar locations at the same time.  Give a crossover to the fan bases.  Signage at the track isn’t going to do it and just pushing the energy drink won’t either.  Monster has to go very big and without any further ideas, that’s why I’m here and not in a marketing office.

Copple :  I haven’t seen anything significant yet that Monster Energy has done for the sport.  They haven’t really kicked off Daytona Speedweeks with anything spectacular.  The first sight of them was in Victory Lane in the background with the Monster Energy girl.  They need to step up their on-track presence.  With Monster on board, NASCAR has a great opportunity to reach a very large and diverse group of people, more so than Sprint ever did. They need to amp up their marketing both on and off-track. Stick drivers on Monster cans.  Get those Monster Energy girls out into the racing community in the days leading up to each race weekend, giving out free swag and drinks with a promo to get millennials to the track.  They have such a great opportunity to capitalize on Monster Energy’s reach and they haven’t even began to delve into it yet.

Magda :  Something I’d like to see Monster do is more involvement with the fans. Sprint didn’t do enough to appeal to the younger fan base.  Sure, there was the Sprint Experience but it seemed very limited.  Overcrowded events to see a driver at the display, long lines for the driving simulator, basically, you had to time it perfectly to experience everything or be left empty-handed.  I can see Monster doing more along the lines of fun contests with the fans because our older, die-hard fan base won’t be around forever.  It’s crucial to appeal to the younger generation so both NASCAR and Monster Energy can make it work to pass down the stories of racing and great times to the future.

Hobbs :  This has been the question since the announcement came; how can Monster Energy bring the youth and energy to the sport.  So far in our study, majority of fans are very excited about this season.  Could that be due to all the changes?  Perhaps; or it could just be they still love NASCAR.  However, Monster Energy has also seen backlash from fans over the way the Monster Energy Girls are dressed; so that does not put them off to a good start for the season.

It will be a very, very delicate balance for Monster Energy and NASCAR to appeal to both the new and the veterans. If they focus too much on the new, the veterans will leave; if they focus too much on the veterans, no new fans will come.  At this point, it is up to Monster Energy and NASCAR’s marketing teams to appeal to both demographics. The new race rules are set and we are about to see how that works, but there are so many more paths they can take to appeal to all fans.

Cassidy :  It is not question that Monster Energy knows how to appeal to younger audience.  For example, Supercross, has been made extremely popular thanks to Monster.  By en-cooperating a well known product in the youth market to NASCAR, Monster Energy displays a diverse group of people and activities, Monster Energy finds ways to connect with teens and young adults through their campaigns and on track experiences.  However, while doing so, I hope that this marketing tactics do not push away longtime racing fans.  Already, we see many lifelong fans being pushed away through confusing points changes already, which are hard to understand.  My only question: if lifelong fans can not understand the new rules, how do you expect new fans to the sport to?

Hull :  This is a tough question actually. I think that the first thing that needs to be done is lowering the ticket prices.  However, kids can get in for free now.  If the parents can’t pay for them to go, they wouldn’t be able to take advantage of that.  Sadly, a lot of fans are longing for the older days or how NASCAR was, and that is why they aren’t drawing a crowd.  I think just making racing exciting again would help.

Fesko :  The MENCS has already implemented a ton of new rules for this season, and Monster Energy is poised to potentially be the entitlement sponsor to bring the sport back to its roots.  The addition of segments is a throwback to the sport’s bumping and banging beginnings as drivers now have an incentive to run hard the entire race and not just the final portion.  By adding playoff points to the mix, and allowing them to stay attached to a driver throughout the entirety of the playoffs, the points battle is more of a season-long affair than a brief, 10 race playoff.  True, the champion is still decided in a winner take all race, but the current format makes it more likely the top performing drivers through the whole season get a shot.

Lewis :  I think that having Monster as a title sponsor will be great in terms of attracting younger viewers to the sport as it is seen as a very “hip, cool” brand, sponsoring events like motocross etc.  I think it will be more of a challenge to appeal to the longtime racing fans, especially as we see some veterans drivers hanging up their helmets. That said though, racing fans are very loyal and longtime fans are likely to grab a Monster Energy drink and keep watching TV and showing up to the races.

Question 3
Boogity, boogity, boogity, or green flag back in the air?

Boogity, boogity, boogity, or green flag back in the air?

As writers and observers of the sport, which of the major NASCAR TV network partners do you think produces the best coverage quality wise with their weekday programs, documentaries, pre-race, race, and post-race telecasts in terms of talent and production?

Conley :  I certainly think FOX wins this.  Their coverage is entertaining and informative (yes, there are a few voices that are like fingernails on a chalkboard), it brings the fans close, and it gives you multiple ways of viewing.  The weekly programming is on point with daily news updates plus the behind the scenes stories can pull at the heart strings and fill the memory banks.  The major issue I see, and this goes for both TV networks, is the secondary channels they broadcast it on with FS1 and NBCSN.  Basic cable has always been the primary for fans, and with more and more people “cutting the cord,” it’s harder to view that programming.

Copple :  Each network brings their strengths and weaknesses but I am prone to the FOX broadcast.  The graphics are cleaner and sharper and easy to read.  The commentators, both pre-race, in the booth, and in the pit out on a great show and explain things to a degree where newcomers are going to understand it and the long time fans aren’t going to get bored.  I really have no major complains with any network broadcast but Fox is definitely at the top. Plus, they have Jeff Gordon.

Magda :  This is more of a ball-and-strike call for me.  I’m not much into pre-race as I used to be but I watch a lot of post-race because I want to see the drivers’ reactions at the end of the day.  Within the last few years, I’ll take NBC over FOX.  I don’t like what FOX did with some of their production changes, i.e. talent for the XFINITY, Truck and ARCA Racing Series, as well as putting two drivers in the broadcast booth for their Cup telecasts.

Call me a traditionalist but the combo with a play-by-play commentator, former driver and crew chief works every time.  NBC appears to be more professional with their broadcasts as opposed to FOX with their ridiculous Grid Walks and other circus antics.  Look, I get the fun parts of racing.  I’m all for having fun at the track, not to the extent to make the sport look bad with either bad pre or post-race coverage.  Get to the point, grab the drivers’ reactions then talk about it all week on NASCAR Race Hub and NASCAR America.  Simple as that.

Also, a quick-shoutout to NBC for doing a good job on the Matt Tifft special aired this week.  Very well done and focused on the future stars of the sport.  It’s not easy to fight back from an apparent back problem to having a brain tumor and being back at the track three months later.  Incredible.

Hobbs :  Each group brings their own personality to the sport.  I like how NBC did side-by-side for the playoff races; that is something Fox needs to do for the Daytona 500 (after all, the Indy 500 has it).  Fox also has a diverse team in the booth with former drivers and analysts, which I am a fan of; NBC has drivers and crew chiefs and a little bit of everything.  Both, however, struggle when it comes to actual race coverage – a topic that continues to be a painful point for fans and something these new stages could fix.

If I had to pick one, I would give the edge to Fox. We shall see if that remains true or changes this season.

Cassidy :  FS1 makes NASCAR for me.  Although this may not be a popular opinion, Darrell Waltrip makes races for me.  There is nothing like getting into the spirit of a race like “Boogity, boogity, boogity” for me.  Brings a smile to my face.  I also appreciate the commentary Jeff Gordon can add to the booth, being a recent retiree of the sport.

Hull :  Both NBC and FOX have their flaws.  While NBC had a strong debut in 2015, they fell very flat last year. They had way too many commercials, and neither of the broadcasters seemed comfortable up there.  So I would have to go with FOX, even though they too could use some work.  I love watching RaceHub more, and they have a great panel of analysts that come in.  I love how they bring in drivers and get their perspective.  I like the broadcasting crew better, even though I could really care less about DW.  And there are fewer commercials.  I think that is one area that both packages and NASCAR needs to work on; having fewer commercials.

Fesko :  It really depends on what you’re looking for.  Both NBC and FOX are professional in their delivery.  I don’t watch weekday programs or pre-race due to my schedule, so I can only judge on the basis of the race and post-race shows.  And both networks shine for different reasons.  FOX is more of a laid back, “hanging with the guys” style broadcast while NBC is a little more buttoned up.  What’s important is they both have talent that knows what they’re talking about and can provide an entertaining look at the event.  Can I pick one?  No.  Having one without the other would do the sport a huge disservice; variety is the spice of life and this is no exception.

Lewis :  I’ve never really thought too much about this one.  I am going to have to pay more attention to details on the different networks and get back to you on this one!

Question 4
Might this Georgian claim his first NASCAR premier division win today?

Might this Georgian claim his first NASCAR premier division win today?

Daytona is almost a season onto itself with two weeks of race action leading up to the big 500-miler on Sunday.  Which driver and team do you see making a big statement in “The Great American Race” and has that momentum carry over throughout the regular season?

Conley :  First, I wish they would cut Speedweeks down to a week, instead of two, and that includes cutting The Clash.  Now, onto the subject matter – I don’t think the winner of the Daytona 500 makes a statement on the year.  In fact, it’s not often that the 500 winner is a champion or contender.  So much goes into this one race, as it’s more about taking this trophy for prestige and then starting the season and title chase next week.

A driver that needs to start off on a good note would be Jimmie Johnson, and it seems weird to say for a seven time champion, but he needs momentum.  All three Richard Childress Racing cars, especially Austin Dillon, and JTG Daugherty’s Chris Buescher could really use a strong start and that may give him a little boost and a win would really give someone a boost of momentum.  Kurt Busch really needs that win and strong start.

Copple :  Chase Elliott has proven to be strong once again at Daytona and after his impressive rookie season, so I see big things coming for him in 2017.  I wouldn’t be surprised one bit to see him in Victory Lane this year, maybe even more than once!  Also, I hope to see big things from Danica Patrick this year.  Am I expecting a win?  No.  While that would be nice, a top-five or two would be expected and consistently pulling top-15s and top-10s.

Also, along the hands of Stewart-Haas Racing, particularly with them switching to Ford this season and gaining Clint Bowyer in the No. 14, hopefully this proves to be a strong season across the board for their four drivers.  And one more, Daniel Suarez.  He is taking over a big ride with the No. 19 and with no time at all in a Cup car, he is going to have a lot to prove and a steep learning curve. But I could see him surprising us all.

Magda :  I tend to say the second race of the year is more important than the Daytona 500.  There’s the unpredictability of plate racing but this Speedweeks shows cars fast right off the bat will be quick all year.  The Penske duo of Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano worked so well together in the Clash and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them back up their strong performance in the Duels and the 500.

For one driver though, to carry the momentum into the regular season, I’d have to go with Dale Earnhardt Jr.  The No. 88 team finished third in the Clash with Alex Bowman and Earnhardt qualified second for Sunday’s race.  The Hendrick team has speed right out of the bat but they have work to do if they want to catch up to JGR and Penske. Jimmie Johnson wrecked out of the Clash and Chase Elliott never got the handle on his No. 24 NAPA Chevrolet. Since the Can-Am Duels are at night now, Hendrick tends to be very good under the lights so don’t be surprised if they start 2017 with a bang.

Hobbs :  Clint Bowyer and Austin Dillon are both phenomenal restrictor plate racers.  Bowyer had an off-year last year, and now in better equipment, it is time to show he still has it.  Dillon made the playoffs last year and made noise at both Daytona and Talladega, so that could continue him on the right path this season.  I will also give a nod to the pole winner (again) of Chase Elliott; he had an amazing rookie season and now he must hope to avoid the sophomore slump we have seen too many times.

Cassidy :  I am looking at the Rookies this time.  Daytona is full of surprises, and I think we can see a young gun make a name for himself here.  Jones, Suárez, or Ty Dillion will start the season off with a bang, and I think they’ll be challenging our veterans all year long!

Hull :  I have seen a lot of standout people during Speedweeks.  One of them being Chase Elliott.  He has shown some great speed this week, and won the first Duel race last night.  We can see some good things from him.  Dale Earndhardt, Jr. is also in his typical Daytona mode where he is fast.  The Penske boys are also showing some speed as well, and could very well get the job done on Sunday.  And finally Denny Hamlin could also go back-to-back with another Daytona 500 win.  He has looked very strong during Speedweeks, by winning the second Duel race last night.

Fesko :  Based on the Duels, both Ryan Blaney and Jamie McMurray could be big stories this weekend.  Both drive for middle-tier teams, and a win would not only basically qualify them for the playoffs but give them the confidence to go out and continue performing at an elite level.  Remember what happened to Martin Truex Jr. in 2015 once he got that first win—he’s been on a tear ever since.  The drivers of the Nos. 21 and 1 could do the same this season.

Lewis :  I think we will see Chase Elliot’s momentum carry over and he will run towards the front of the race, as he has shown good speed.  I think we will continue to see him make an impact over the course of the season.  My pick for the race win though is Denny Hamlin as he has been consistent in finishing towards the front.

Four laps into our Daytona 500 preview and we’re well under way, NASCAR style!  As a reminder, let’s review how we all fared with a look at the results of the 2016 Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway and the final points standings of 2016!
While Cody Shoppe won with race runner-up Kyle Larson...

While Cody Shoppe won with race runner-up Kyle Larson…

...Ashley Hull claimed her first TPF Track Talk Cup championship!

…Ashley Hull claimed her first TPF Track Talk Cup championship!

With a new season ready to kick off today at “The World Center of Racing,” first, let’s look at who are championship picks will be for this year’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season!
Which of these magnificent seven will win the title?

Which of these magnificent seven will win the title?

Tiongson :  After the great rally put forth by Jimmie Johnson and his No. 48 team last year to win a historic seventh title, I look for this bunch to make it happen again in 2017.

Copple :  I’m doing it…Jimmie Johnson gets No. 8! 

Lewis :  I’m saying Jimmie Johnson does number 8. He seems unbeatable and I don’t think thats stopping just yet.

Conley :  My 2017 champion is Kyle Busch.

Magda :  My Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion pick is Martin Truex Jr

Hobbs :  I’m stuck between Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson here. Harvick is with a new manufacturer so it is hard to say how performance will be; and Jimmie Johnson is Jimmie Johnson.  So, since I cannot break my own tie this early on, I will go for Joey Logano to finally get it done.

Hull :  I’ll go with Joey Logano!

TPF Stats :  Kevin Harvick is the projected champion.

Cassidy :  My championship pick is Denny Hamlin.

Fesko :  Brad Keselowski gets the job done this year.

Good luck to the TPF Track Talk panel!  We’ll monitor how our championship picks will fare throughout the season.  For now, it’s that moment – let’s reveal our picks to win today’s Daytona 500!
Who'll be happy about it being Daytona Day?

Who’ll be happy about it being Daytona Day?

Tiongson :  After a great rookie season in 2016, Chase Elliott has started his 2017 campaign with a pole and Can-Am Duel race win.  Look for Driver 24 to win today!

Copple :  Going with Danica Patrick! 

Conley :  My race pick is Brad Keselowski.

Magda :  My Daytona 500 pick is Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Hobbs :  Austin Dillon will go cowboy up at Daytona.

TPF Stats :  Kevin Harvick is the projected Daytona 500 winner.

Cassidy :  Clint Bowyer is the race winner today!

Fesko :  Jamie McMurray wins today!

Hull :  My pick for the Daytona 500 is Denny Hamlin.

Lewis :  My race pick is Denny Hamlin!  

That wraps it up, race fans! Thanks for joining us for another edition of Track Talk!   We’re about ready for some racing.  How about you? What do you think are the biggest storylines heading into today’s race and who is your favorite to win?  Tweet us now @ThePodiumFinish and tell us now!

Thanks as always to the TPF team!  The opinions and thoughts expressed in Track Talk are solely of the authors and do not reflect on any organizations that we are affiliated with outside of TPF. This weekly feature is strictly for entertainment purposes and are not indicative of TPF, the organization, and its staff.

Rob Tiongson

Rob Tiongson is a 30-something motorsports journalist who enjoys sports like baseball, basketball, football, soccer, track and field and hockey. A Boston native turned Austinite, racing was the first sport that caught his eyes.

From interviews to retrospective articles, if it's about anything with an engine and four wheels, it'll be here on TPF, by him or by one of his talented columnists who have a passion for racing.

Currently seeking a sports writing, public relations, or sports marketing career, particularly in motorsports. He enjoys editing and writing articles and features, as well as photography. Moreover, he enjoys time with his family and friends, traveling, cooking, working out and being a fun uncle or "funcle" to his nephew, niece and cat.

Tiongson, a graduate of Southern New Hampshire University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication, pursues his Master of Arts in Digital Communications at St. Bonaventure University. Indeed, while Tiongson is proud to be from Massachusetts, he's just as happy to be a Texan.

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