The lion never sleeps: Breaking down the Sprint Cup Series headed into final off-week

The NASCAR Sprint Cup season is rounding the corner this weekend, taking its final off-week before a 17 week stretch of races. 

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You know it was clear back in 1961 when a doo-wop group called The Tokens released the song "The Lion Sleeps Tonight."  That thing shot up the charts and became a No. 1 hit. In racing, however, it just isn’t true. The lion never sleeps. I know the teams have a week off and it’s a much-needed break.

For some teams, it gives them a chance to evaluate where their program is as we head towards the latter part of the season. It gives some teams a chance to simply catch their breath, while for others it’s a chance to simply try and catch up. See, what everyone is facing is come next weekend at Indianapolis; it literally is game on with 17 straight weeks of racing with zero breaks the rest of the 2014 season.

I always broke our season down into three segments — the beginning, the middle and naturally the end. What’s ironic to me is that from then until now, the season always seems to ebb and flow like that. It really hasn’t changed a bit.

We see it every season and this year it was Kevin Harvick and the No. 4 car. Somebody always comes out of the box hotter than a firecracker. They took the off-season changes, were able to adapt and get their arms around it quicker than the others. That No. 4 bunch was really getting the job done and to be honest, if it wasn’t for some mechanical problems and self-inflicted problems in the pits, there is no reason that Kevin couldn’t have put more than two wins on the board to date.

The reality is everyone has pit-crew issues. The problem is you don’t notice as much and not as much light is shined on it until it costs you a win. Sure you might have a problem early in a race and you lose valuable time and track position. It’s the money stop –€“ the last one of the race where perfection in the pits is critical when the race is on the line that if your team stumbles, as a driver you don’t have much of a chance to overcome it.

All that said though, Kevin and his No. 4 car were the talk of the sport in the early stages of the season. You had a veteran driver with a new team and with a new crew chief already upfront and winning race. That was pretty darn impressive.

As we started to get to the middle part of May, the Hendrick cars came to life and posted four consecutive wins among Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Actually when Jimmie put his two wins back to back the talk was the No. 48 had finally woken up and championship No. 7 was just around the corner.

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Guess what though? There is that young man in the No. 2 making the statement that the engraver shouldn’t be putting Jimmie’s name on the championship trophy just yet. Here came Brad Keselowski and now he is setting the sport on fire, in a Ford no less. Don’t get me wrong; those Penske Fords have been fast all year long. Both Brad and his teammate Joey Logano have been qualifying up front and running up front week after week. Out of the 19 races in the books, Brad and Joey account for five of those wins.

Brad has really come on these last few weeks and dominated our sport. Right now today, everyone is pointing and saying the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup championship runs through the No. 2 car and not the No. 48 camp. With Brad’s win Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, he just delivered Ford its fourth win in a row. I know it might be hard to believe, but that hasn’t happened for Ford since way back in 2001. Now out of the 19 races in the books this year, that was Ford’s eighth victory.

What’s going to be interesting is can Brad with all his momentum and some of the other drivers out there that are on a roll, like Kyle Busch who just posted yet another second place finish, can they take this mid-season momentum and carry it on through to the championship?

We have seven races left in our 26-race regular season and we have already begun going back to some of the tracks we visited earlier in the year. I don’t know whether the average race fan realizes how different the tracks are when you go back a second time. You have that February through May scenario where the tracks aren’t that hot. It’s when you get to that swing of races from June to the end of September where things change.

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Let’s use Pocono as an example. We go there the first time with one setup but when we return there in early August this year, the teams will use almost a completely different setup. Why? It is because that track has been sitting there cooking in the hot summer heat. That affects setups and how the car handles more than I think people really understands or factor in.

It’s the team that can keep up with those changes from the early cooler temperature tracks to the dead-of-summer hot slick tracks that usually stay on top of things and run up front consistently. So we’ll see what happens. Like I mentioned there are still seven races to go before the Chase starts in Chicago in mid-September.

Personally I can’t wait for next weekend. Next to the Daytona 500, I can’t wait every year to go to Indianapolis and the Brickyard 400. The city of Indianapolis and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway have always been near and dear to my heart. I grew up just south of Indianapolis in Owensboro, Kentucky. I used to go to Indy a lot and simply drool about being able to race there one day. 

It truly was one of the most gratifying times of my professional career with Bill France Jr. called me and invited me to be one of only nine drivers to go to the Brickyard clear back in 1992 for that initial tire test to see how stock cars would handle that historic track. When we finally got to race there it was like a dream come true. Even in my last race there in 2000, I sat on the outside pole and it is still one of my fondest memories.

Joey Logano criticizes 72-year-old Morgan Shepherd after wreck

Back to New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Brad did something that no one has ever done in our sport there. He won both on Saturday in the Nationwide race and then naturally Sunday in the Cup race. So congratulations to him on a record-setting weekend.

What’s a NASCAR race without controversy, right? I know there was a lot of controversy about the Morgan Shepherd/Joey Logano incident. Joey made some pretty heated comments about whether Morgan should be allowed to race in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Folks, if Morgan can pass the battery of tests that NASCAR require of all drivers, then why shouldn’t he be allowed to compete?

Don’t get me wrong, Joey has a right to be upset. My goodness he was running second at the time but if Joey was that concerned about Morgan’s driving ability maybe he should have given Morgan a whole lot more room than he did. He should have steered clear of Morgan.

I’m just saying there is enough blame to go around and none of it has to do with Morgan’s age. Again, I don’t blame Joey for being mad. It doesn’t matter if it’s a rookie with a yellow strip on his bumper or a driver that is 72 years old, when you get together and you are wrecked out of course you are going to be mad. I feel sorry for both Morgan and Joey. It was just a bad situation for both drivers but hey, it’s pretty common knowledge in our sport that when race cars run into each other, well by golly race cars wreck.

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I also know there is a lot of speculation about this new Race Team Alliance. They have already begun looking to expand their membership from the initial nine owners. I really think this is a good thing. I think the owners simply want to make this sport better than it’s ever been before. I don’t see a rivalry or conflict between the owners and NASCAR.

Don’t forget, it’s the owners that foot the bills. It’s the owners that have to pay for any and all rule changes. It’s the owners that pay the huge tire bills. They have to pay for everything. Folks, they have to pay for their cars to go through inspection. Owners have to pay, pay, pay, pay and then pay some more.

I think it’s a good thing for the owners wanting to get together as a group to share ideas and ways to make the sport better. I know all those owners personally and they aren’t going to do anything to hurt the sport. It’s just the opposite; they want to make the sport better in the future. The grim reality is the television ratings aren’t that great and the grandstands are not that full. So maybe it’s time for infusion of new ideas and leadership from the guys who literally pay the bills in this sport of how to make it more efficient while still moving it forward.