Jimmie Johnson versus Matt Kenseth for the NASCAR title? Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch still hoping to challenge...and Jeff Gordon too (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Now that NASCAR executives have closed out TV renegotiations for the 2014 season, next year's Sprint Cup schedule is quickly taking form.
A number of tracks have made their official announcements: Dover, New Hampshire, Phoenix, California, Texas, Pocono, Michigan and Kentucky.
And the International Speedway Corp.'s race tickets website, presumably semi-official, is filling in the blanks and shows most of the rest of the 2014 Cup calendar. Only three of next fall's final events are still not yet listed.
NASCAR itself, though, has still apparently not put its full official imprimatur on 2014.
Jeff Gordon, the four-time champion whose last title was in 2001, before the chase format, took the pole Thursday evening at Charlotte Motor Speedway for Saturday night's 500 miler.
"There's nothing better than stepping up and knocking it out of the park," Gordon said. "That's what I feel we did."
Gordon was clocked at 194.308 mph, a tick quicker than Kansas 400 winner Kevin Harvick's 194.203.
Gordon is 32 points down to Sprint Cup tour leader Matt Kenseth; that's approximately the difference in finishing positions. A race winner can earn a six-point bonus.
So Gordon, like Harvick, appears in good shape to put a wrench in the Matt Kenseth versus Jimmie Johnson championship playoff scenario.
Jeff Gordon: on the Charlotte pole, 32 points down, and on the charge with six playoff races to go (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
NBC, which is to return as NASCAR's television partner in the second half of 2015, and Fox, which is continuing its long-time partnership with NASCAR, were both reportedly set to take over the full stock car tour package in 2014, a year early.
However, Turner's TNT division apparently didn't like all the terms of the deal, according to television sources, and that prompted NASCAR finally to plug the plug and continue in 2014 under all the current contracts.
But with ESPN/Disney/ABC not even bidding on a renewal of its current eight-year contract with NASCAR, it remains to be seen how strongly ESPN/Disney will promote NASCAR racing for the remainder of that contract, which runs through November 2014. With questions already about this sport's 'chase' format for the championship, modest or mediocre TV promotion of the playoffs could be damaging.
Ever since NASCAR announced its new NBC deal in July, there has been speculation about worries that NASCAR could follow the National Hockey League in noticeably declining TV visibility.
And a report that ESPN's SportsCenter spent only about two percent of its time on NASCAR over a one-year period of observation would seem to add to complaints that the Disney operation simply doesn't care that much about NASCAR racing.
NBC, according to industry figures, is interested in making some changes to current coverage of this sport, to jazz things up.
Track promoter Bruton Smith has even hinted about a few dramatic changes, like moving the annual summer Sonoma race to the fall chase.
And there were strong indications that Phoenix could wind up with the season-ending race; where that might stand now, without NBC in 2014, is unclear. Ford's long contract for 'Ford championship weekend' at Homestead is currently being renegotiated, and those discussions could be key to what happens next with that part of the schedule.
And now comes renewed speculation that 2014 may yet indeed have a surprise championship finale, and not at Homestead.
Daytona-to-Daytona is now being heard in the stock car garage as a possibility...in part because of the huge construction projects set for play at that facility. Construction that might not fit into a Daytona-February four-month window through Daytona-July. Hence the possibility of moving the final race from Homestead to Daytona, to open up an eight-month construction window.
Whether or not that plays out is not clear.
But many fans have long insisted a Daytona championship finale could be a real zinger.
And where might Homestead-Miami fit in such a shakeup?
One possibility thrown out for consideration -- under the lights July Fourth weekend. Couldn't be much hotter or rainier than Daytona that weekend, could it?
It all does sound rather far-fetched, though Daytona for the final race would certainly be a crowd pleaser.
More thinking about the future of NASCAR's three national touring series, Cup, Nationwide and Truck -- for 2015 it seems possible NASCAR may drop stand-alone events and run all three series at the same track each weekend. That could be one reason behind the cost-cutting move of 'retiring' about 55 of the sport's 100-odd inspectors.
Elsewhere on the NASCAR front: officials are apparently considering a number of possibly significant rules tweaks for 2014.
-- Elimination of the minimum height rule. That would be to end the rather meaningless post-race controversies and penalties for cars being 'too low' after a race. Some worry, though, that such a rule would force teams to discard thousands of dollars of expensive springs. However the current rules have led teams to spend huge sums on very trick springs.
-- Adding roof 'wickers,' similar to used in years past, designed to break up air flow over the roof and presumably make it easier for a trailing car to pass.
Goodyear's Stu Grant (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
While awaiting the arrival of Goodyear's Stu Grant for a post-Kansas tire analysis, there are grumblings in the garage that the tire raced at Kansas was not the tire the four test drivers picked as the best tire at their July night-time test.
"When we got through testing at Kansas, we felt we had found a tire combination that worked very well," Greg Biffle said. "We all got a chance to test that combination, and we all agreed that would be a very good combination for the race.
"We tested from 4 p.m. till midnight, and it was still hot but slick. And we found a combination that we all felt was perfect.
"But when we came back last weekend, the first lap on the track I could tell that combination just didn't feel the same."
However that tire combination tested in July was apparently not the combination Goodyear brought back for the 400. The tires raced last Sunday were way too hard, drivers complained.
Some teams felt that part of the reason for the change was to force teams to have to make four-tire stops, rather than use the two-tire strategy some used in the spring 400.
Ironically the left-side tires used in the Kansas race didn't wear much at all, and teams found they could get 80 laps (120 miles) out of a set of rights, hence leading to two-tire stops...even though some teams said their right-sides were in the cords at 80 laps.
Among the curious storylines here this week is quite unexpected -- the Wood brothers team hasn't shown up. The Woods' shop is less than a mile away from Charlotte Motor Speedway. But lack of sponsorship apparently has Eddie and Len Wood and Trevor Bayne on the sidelines....even though the list shows only 43 teams here for the 43-car field.
The medical update on Bobby Labonte: he says he feels fine, and he's back on his bike, a month after cracking three ribs while working out near his Trinity, N.C. home.
Labonte's front tire rolled off when he crossed an uneven stretch of asphalt, and he went straight over the handle bars..and cracked his helmet in four places.
"The good news is it only cost me $106 to get the bike repaired," Labonte said. "The bad news is the medical bills were over $20,000."
Bobby Labonte, recovering from that bike crash (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Travis Kvapil has issued a brief statement about his arrest Tuesday night:
"There was a domestic situation with my wife and I. I deeply regret what happened. However, this is a personal, family matter and we would ask for privacy and respect as we work through this together as a family.
"I'm embarrassed. I'm ashamed of the situation and what happened. I certainly understand the negativity that has been brought on and because of that, I apologize to NASCAR, my team, the supporters of BK Racing, my fans and anyone else who was impacted by the events of Tuesday night."
Police reports are that Kvapil was charged with assaulting his wife, with misdemeanor assault on a female and false imprisonment.
Kvapil, NASCAR's 2003 Truck series champion, has been a Sprint Cup regular since 2005.
His race team Ron Devine also issued a short statement: "BK Racing understands the severity of the situation and we don't condone the actions that Travis has been accused of.
"We feel it's important to let the system take its course. For that reason, we have elected to support Travis and his family and keep Travis in the car for this weekend's race. Further comment will be available as additional information becomes available."
NASCAR itself issued a statement too: "NASCAR does not condone the actions with which Travis Kvapil has been charged and we are disappointed to learn of this incident.
"We have been in close communication with the race team and are in the process of gathering as much information as possible.
"NASCAR takes this matter very seriously and will continue to monitor the situation as it moves forward."
Travis Kvapil and his familiy, at Michigan in 2008 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Humpy Wheeler, the veteran NASCAR promoter who ran Charlotte Motor Speedway for so many years, has a new idea: to 'unite' many of the country's 1200 grassroots tracks.
That could give them buying power among vendors.
However Wheeler's idea isn't really new -- R. J. Reynolds used its Winston Weekly Racing Series for decades as grassroots marketing for this sport. That RJR's nationwide impact hasn't been continued has been a major downfall for the sport since the Winston-Salem NC company was forced to give up the weekly racing series in 2003.
NASCAR Sprint Cup 2014?
(still not official, but this according to myracetravel.com)
Feb 15 Sprint Unlimited (Sat)
Feb 23 Daytona 500
March 2 Phoenix 500
March 9 Las Vegas 400
March 16 Bristol 500
March 23 California 400
March 30 Martinsville 500
April 6 Texas 500
April 13 Kansas 400
April 26 Richmond 400 (Sat)
May 4 Talladega
May 10 Darlington (Sat)
May 17 Charlotte All-star (Sat)
May 25 Charlotte 600
June 1 Dover
June 8 Pocono
June 15 Michigan
June 22 Sonoma
June 28 Kentucky (Sat)
July 5 Daytona (Sat)
July 13 New Hampshire
July 27 Indianapolis
Aug 3 Pocono
Aug 10 Watkins Glen
Aug 17 Michigan
Aug 23 Bristol (Sat)
Aug 31 Atlanta
Sept 6 Richmond (Sat)
Sept 14 Chicago
Sept 21 New Hampshire
Sept 28 Dover
Oct 5 Kansas
Oct 11 Charlotte (Sat)
Oct 19 Not yet available
Oct 26 Not yet available
Nov 2 Texas
Nov 9 Phoenix
Nov 16 Not yet available