WINCHESTER — Jeff Hammond admits he’s pleasantly stunned thus far with this NASCAR season.
The FOX analyst, who has been across the sport professionally for practically 40 years, clearly is aware of that when a radical change is made that often there are numerous rising pains to return.
And the game clearly made a type of modifications by switching to the Next Gen automobile this season. The seventh era of the automobile for Cup Series was designed to stage the enjoying area within the sport, decrease prices and extra intently resemble what’s on sale on the native automobile dealership.
And by the primary 10 races, Hammond, a championship crew chief with Darrell Waltrip, likes what he sees thus far.
“I have been enjoying watching the new car perform and watching them go through the little things that you know are going to be wrong with it and the way they’ve addressed it,” mentioned Hammond, a visitor for the Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival’s Partlow Insurance Sports Breakfast. “The overall performance and the show they’ve been able to put on has been pretty phenomenal. We’ve seen some really good racing and I don’t think we’ve seen the disappointments that a lot of people anticipated.
“I figured to have some more down days with some problems, but they’ve done a really good job and the drivers are adapting to it in a unique way. I think we are seeing that the younger drivers who are not as set in their ways have done better than a lot of the experienced drivers.”
And that has despatched numerous new faces to Victory Lane up to now. Ross Chastain, from the brand new Trackhouse Team, has gained twice and Austin Cindric (Penske) and Chase Briscoe (Stewart-Haas) have additionally gained for the primary time this season. Cindric captured the game’s premier occasion on the Daytona 500.
“I’m definitely excited,” Hammond mentioned. “I didn’t want to see the dominance of Hendrick. We’re seeing Trackhouse Racing. ‘Whoa, where did they come from?’ Richard Childress has made a resurgence. They should have won a couple of races already.
“That’s refreshing. You can counter and say, ‘That’s still Chevrolet, a bow tie.’ Yes, but it’s a different group of bow ties. That’s what makes me energized is that this is playing out the way that NASCAR hoped. It leveled the playing field and when you see Trackhouse performing the way like they are performing, that’s great. … There’s a lot to be said for what this new car has done for the overall program.”
Some of the established groups and drivers have been struggling. Former champions Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski and Kurt Busch have but to win a race. Some have probably not been in rivalry. The upstart Trackhouse has as many wins as Joe Gibbs Racing and extra wins than Penske, Stewart-Haas and Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing.
“We still have got a lot of hope for a lot of these teams,” Hammond mentioned. “Stewart-Haas and Penske, the younger drivers have won the races for them, not the regulars that you’d be looking for. Kevin Harvick is still struggling. He’s holding his own because he is not making mistakes. He’s still putting points on the board.”
But Hammond mentioned placing factors on the board is probably not sufficient to qualify for the 10-race Chase for the collection title. Drivers who get a win routinely qualify and final season 14 completely different drivers within the season’s first 26 races gained earlier than the 16-driver cutoff for the Chase.
“I think this year is going to be a little like last year,” Hammond mentioned. “It’s going to take a win [to get in The Chase]. It may be even tougher than last year and that’s saying a lot. We’ll just have to wait and see how the progression goes.”
Hammond, a self-described traditionalist, likes the best way the game is making modifications. Fans are attending to see racing on dust and extra highway course occasions. He’s seeing cooperation between International Speedway and Speedway Motorsports for occasions.
“I think all of these things are breaking the traditions that were so important to NASCAR,” he mentioned. “At one time you never would have heard of getting away from a racetrack or changing a racetrack. It was, ‘This is the way it is and this is the schedule.’ Now that’s not the case.
“It’s, ‘Let’s go here. Let’s go there. Let’s change it up.’ There’s a genuine effort for all parties, including NASCAR and the owners of the teams. And when you think about what we are seeing on television, I think it has been supported. The return is exciting racing, unbelievable finishes, unpredictable finishes.”
Hammond additionally has witnessed cooperation in one other enviornment.
“We’ve seen something that we’ve never thought would happen at FOX, seeing NBC willing to share someone like Dale [Earnhardt] Jr.,” Hammond mentioned. “We’ve got the No. 1 entity in our sport today coming and calling a race for a competitor. I think everybody understands, ‘Hey look, we’re wanting to build the sport back up again. Tearing you down is not going to help us. … I think we’re seeing a partnership with what we profess on the competitive side and that’s teamwork.”
Hammond admits the game won’t ever draw the crowds of greater than 100,000 that have been jamming the stands 20 years in the past.
“We overbuilt the sport and we’re having to pay the price for that and change it up so it doesn’t look so dramatic,” he mentioned of the prevalent empty seats. “If we can get 65,000 to 70,000 in the grandstands, we’ve got nothing to be ashamed of.”
And getting these followers within the stands and holding sponsor cash flowing is essential to survival.
Sometimes meaning breaking with custom.
“If you don’t give up on tradition, you might as well give up on the sport,” Hammond mentioned. “It’s like changing the paint scheme, the way the car is designed, where the numbers are located for the betterment of the sponsors. Without sponsors or fans, where are we? We are going to be in a world of hurt.”
Hammond was a part of one thing new that mixed with custom final yr — the Superstar Racing Series. The SRX, co-owned by Tony Stewart and Ray Evernham, introduced Saturday night time racing on brief tracks to prime time on CBS, with warmth racing that resembles one thing you’d discover at your native speedway. It introduced collectively former and present racers and was met with resounding success. It might be again for six extra races this season with one of many stops at South Boston.
Hammond bought to function a crew chief final summer season.
“It was so much fun it was hard to compare the ability to see and be around something that was brand new with the flavor of the old,” Hammond mentioned. “I’ve called IROC races and been around that have driven in the IROC Series and do see something that resembles it and is probably the most even opportunity for drives is pretty phenomenal.
“Being able to work with Willy T. Ribbs and Helio Castroneves, win with Tony Stewart, help Bobby Labonte and Bill Elliott, it was almost like a dream come true because it was the kind of thing that you could only think of in your dreams. To have it happen in reality, it was such a blast. Ray and his crew last year did an outstanding job. To allow myself and Mike Beam, Tony Eury, Todd Parrot and other guys that were local crew chiefs to come and be a part of it, it was a stroke of genius.
“It was a great, made for Saturday night event that the average fan could embrace and new race fans could enjoy because it never got a chance to get boring. I just wish we could do more of it.”
And relating to doing extra with NASCAR, Hammond doesn’t look too far forward.
“I never worry about tomorrow because I’m always worried about today,” he mentioned. “I love talking about racing, whether it’s television or radio. It’s what I’ve done for so long and I’m excited about the young talent that’s out there.”
And whereas he has his eyes on the likes of Christopher Bell, Noah Gragson (who has two wins and 7 Top 5 finishes in eight Xfinity Series races this yr) and Chastain, one younger driver has his consideration.
“I think one of the guys you can’t lose sight of is Tyler Reddick,” Hammond mentioned. “He keeps running well. He hasn’t got into Victory Lane in the Cup Series yet, but it’s just a matter of time. His overall commitment to the sport and his demeanor as being right on the fence as fiery and at the same time under control, that’s a guy to pull for.”