ONE: Does a win really “get you in” the Chase?
Since the new Chase format was announced, this January there’s been the sentiment that one win secures your spot in the field. NASCAR is taking a total of 16 drivers into the postseason with this new playoff format; it includes race winners, inside the top 30 in points, plus the top non race-winning drivers by points. Given past seasons, on average we’re looking at a dozen drivers, after the first 26 races with 1+ victory to be joined by the top four non-winners in the point standings.
But maybe 2014 will become a clearly different breed. Following the race at Bristol Motor Speedway, Carl Edwards hinted at the possibility that four winners in four races, thus far could be the start of a record-producing number for this season.
“It may be a heck of a battle just to get in,” Edwards added. “We have 12 more races, and all of a sudden it turns into there are already 16 winners …”
With 26 races before the Chase, there could be a possibility of 26 different winners. Reality tells us, of course, the final number will be a little less than that. But a look at NASCAR’s top teams reveals plenty of drivers capable of getting one. Hendrick, Roush, Stewart-Haas, Penske, Gibbs, and Childress – arguably the top six organizations on the circuit right now – are composed of 19 cars. Even if you take rookie Austin Dillon, along with Danica Patrick out of the equation that still leaves a solid seventeen. And that’s not counting a surprise underdog, like David Ragan, who could win a race like Talladega and the road course exploits of a guy like Marcos Ambrose.
“You’re going to have to have a win, I believe, to be in the Chase, so now that we’ve checked that box, we need to go get another win,” Edwards commented. “I think then we will be guaranteed to be in it.”
So should we automatically say that a driver is in the Chase due to one race win? Or should we wait till they have multiple ones? Edwards could have himself a point.
TWO: Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Struggles At Bristol
Coming off three top-2 finishes to start the season, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. had strong hopes for another great run at Bristol. However, tire and handling issues resulted in a poor showing on Sunday.
“We had a fast car early in the race and then, when we went back racing after the rain delay, the thing just wouldn’t turn and it tore the left-front tire off of it,” Earnhardt commented after the race. “We changed tires thinking it was just a bad set because we had a tire out of balance in practice. The next set of tires did the same thing, just tore it right up and so you’re off the pace, maybe half-a-second when that left-front tire goes away completely. It was shaking bad and I thought maybe the wheel was coming loose, so we came in and made a lot of adjustments to free the car up and got ourselves four laps down. Then, we finally got the car to where it would keep the tires on it. Still wasn’t driving that fast.”
As of press time, it’s still unclear whether something broke inside the car. However, the bottom line was Bristol was clearly the worst performance of the No. 88 all season. It left the crew scratching their heads, along with the driver and had everyone outright confused for the first time in awhile.
That last line is what’s important. Many people thought based on Earnhardt’s start to the year, 2014 would be the one when he finally wins that elusive championship. Well, champions are made of drivers who fight back from adversity and come back swinging. Jimmie Johnson has shown that multiple times where, the week after the No. 48 struggles, he comes back and dominates the race.
Will Earnhardt Jr. get back to the form that started off his season this weekend? Or will he be left with another poor showing? It’ll depend on Earnhardt’s attitude moving forward. Junior has shown multiple times in the past that his confidence level has an effect on how he runs. If confidence is hindered at all, and crew chief Steve Letarte isn’t able to keep everyone upbeat, Junior Nation may be in for a tough couple of weeks.
THREE: The Success of Richard Petty Motorsports
RPM had a great showing at Bristol Motor Speedway with Aric Almirola and Marcos Ambrose both finishing inside the top 5. It’s a long time coming, the first time they’ve done so since contracting into a two-car operation, with new investors prior to the start of 2011. Both drivers showed speed the entire 500-lap race, making the end result far from a fluke.
RPM has a technical alliance with Roush Fenway Racing, one that appears to be paying dividends with Ford’s resurgence this season. RPM has the chance to look at the notes that RFR has compiled, as well as use their technical resources and equipment. RFR also had a great night at Bristol with Carl Edwards claiming the victory, followed by Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.; in all, it was the first 1-2-3 finish for the Blue Oval crowd since Talladega last May.
“We thought when we brought Trent (Owens) over that he would come with some new ideas,” said Almirola Sunday, praising his new crew chief from the Nationwide Series. “Our cars, everybody at Roush Fenway has been working really hard and everybody at Richard Petty Motorsports has been working really hard together to get our cars better, and I feel like we have some really good cars right now.”
Last year, Furniture Row Racing took the alliance that they had with Richard Childress Racing and parlayed that into a successful Chase season. Could the same happen for RPM this year? It is certainly possible, but it goes without saying that they’re off to a better start this season. RPM had one top-5 altogether last year between their two drivers and, so far this year, they have two.
FOUR: Joe Gibbs Racing Struggling… Or Are They?
Last year, Joe Gibbs Racing got off to a very strong start at the beginning of the season as they started winning early. So far this year, that hasn’t been the case as they only have one top 5 and five top-10 finishes in the first four races with their three drivers.
Is it bad luck? Or do they need to go do some homework?
When it comes to the restrictor plates and short tracks, JGR’s doing pretty well speed wise. Hamlin dominated most of Speedweeks before coming up just short in the Daytona 500, while Matt Kenseth won a qualifying race in Daytona.
This past weekend at Bristol, Hamlin won the pole and ran inside the top 10 for most of the night while Kenseth looked strong early until contact with underfunded Timmy Hill as the caution came out. Hill running into the back of Kenseth as he slowed due to Cole Whitt’s spin can be attributed to bad luck, as there was nothing that Kenseth could’ve done differently. With a 13th-place finish, Kenseth is left playing the “what if” game as what if he hadn’t been hit? Would he have won the race or finished better?
The only driver that hasn’t shown any speed so far this year, across the board in theJGR camp is Kyle Busch. Despite some success in lower divisions, beating up on Nationwide Series competition in 2014 he’s got only one finish, barely inside the top 10 in Cup. Busch certainly needs to go back to the drawing board if he wants to have success as he hasn’t shown the true speed that fans are used to.
As a whole, though, the organization’s mile-and-a-half program looked rather rusty when they got to Las Vegas. A lot of people expected success based on Kenseth’s win in 2013. However, the three drivers finished 10th, 11th and 12th – never showing their face inside the top 5 most of the day.
If there’s any chance of having success this season, JGR needs to get their package sorted out on intermediates. That’s been their bread and butter; it needs to be again come postseason time for them to contend.
FIVE: Will California produce another thriller?
Last season, Auto Club Speedway produced a fantastic finish with Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin battling hard for the win, wrecking each other and Kyle Busch slipping by for the glory. Will fans be treated to the same excitement this year?
Not between the No. 22 and No. 11, I don’t think. Logano and Hamlin have sorted out their differences, so to speak, per Hamlin’s comments on Friday at Bristol. “As far as my relationship with him, I treat him with respect on the race track as I should,” Hamlin commented. He went on to say the drivers do little beyond cordial talking outside the track, no longer friends like they used to be, but thoughts of revenge weren’t dancing through my head after hearing that.
Nor do they when it comes to anyone else. Beyond those two, there hasn’t been any other feud that has been talked about this year; just a few frustrated drivers, angry at their own teams and nothing more. So does that mean that fans will be left in California dreaming for a better finish?
I don’t think so. Based on the event at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, it looks like the new aero package could deliver excitement with plenty of passing. Las Vegas’ race featured competitive side-by-side racing throughout the entire course of the event, as all the races have so far this year. Even if you subtract the added drama of fuel mileage, it was a solid performance by all the sport’s top-level stars.
The new Chase format seems to have heightened the level of competition, so adding the high speeds of Auto Club Speedway, along with tires that wear should produce one of the best intermediate races on the schedule once again.