Race Weekend Central

Four Burning Questions in Texas: Tire Concerns and Smoke Rising

I don’t like rain. I really, truly don’t. In fact, I hate it. I find it to be an annoying pestilence that has the capacity to ruin just about any sort of outing one can conjure up. I’m sure if I lived in some perpetually-arid desert region in New Mexico I might feel differently, but alas, I live in Central New York, a land where wet weather of all varieties leads the local news cycle each and every day. As such, it pains me that I have to type words about the rain once again in the realm of auto racing, but I guess that’s just how it’s going to go this year. Welcome to the world of NASCAR in 2014, where the Air Titans lead the most laps and the weather makes no sense.

But as someone who’s name I can’t remember right now once said, the show must go on, and as such we must operate under the assumption that the Duck Commander 500 will be contested either today or perhaps tomorrow. So with that in mind, let’s get to the questions, shall we?

1. Will the threat of rain lead to another thriller?

Rain has soaked the Sprint Cup garage in recent weeks. But will the return of Mother Nature’s wrath, Sunday at Texas actually improve the competition?
Rain has soaked the Sprint Cup garage in recent weeks. But will the return of Mother Nature’s wrath, Sunday at Texas actually improve the competition?

Remember how the threat of rain made the drivers race like children with undiagnosed ADHD back in Daytona? Remember how such a similar threat made the drivers race in a similarly thrilling manner back at Bristol? Well…just apply what you witnessed in those races to today’s event in Texas, and you should have a pretty clear idea of how today’s race will unfold.

Frankly, looking at the radar, there’s really no telling what could happen in terms of when the race will start, if the rain will fall during the race, if the race will be delayed to tonight, etc., etc., etc. All the drivers and teams know is that rain will be a persistent threat through at least Monday, which means that if the race does start today, there will be a palpable sense of urgency from the get-go as drivers realize that the race could be postponed at any moment (or outright called if it’s after halfway).

Thus, do not expect this to look like a typical Texas race. Expect drivers to be much more daring and willing to push their cars further than they normally would. All told, it should lead to a much more exciting race than this facility is used to.

2. Will tires be a cause for concern yet again?

The tire situation has been something of a double-edged sword thus far in 2014. On one hand, the increased speeds of the Gen 6 2.0 as well as the introduction of slightly softer tires on behalf of Goodyear has helped make a tire wear a major feature of Sprint Cup races for the first time in a long time. As has been noted, this is a great thing, as tire wear helps promote passing.

On the other hand, the increased load (due to higher speeds and experimental setups) on the now-softer tires has led to some safety concerns. Tire blowouts due to the increased load and wear have been a major issue in 2014, especially on high-speed tracks. The Auto Club race certainly was an example of this. With even higher speeds expected for this weekend’s race at Texas, there is widespread concern that the tires could be in even greater danger.

Goodyear has been confident all weekend long, and brought a special kind of tire that utilizes “multi-zone tread technology” which combines two tire compounds designed to balance traction and durability. So far there has only been one tire issue reported – Kurt Busch had a tire failure in Friday practice that led to him having to go to a backup car – but until the teams get into the actual race, there’s no real way of knowing if the tires will hold up on the long run. Here’s hoping they do.

3. Will Brad Keselowski seek retribution against Kurt Busch?

NASCAR Nation wanted a rivalry. NASCAR Nation received a rivalry. The latest conflict in the NASCAR world was admittedly something of a silly one, as what looked to be an unavoidable pit road incident sent Brad Keselowski into a wild fit of anger against one Kurt Busch. Clearly there is more to this story than just the pit-road snafu, but suffice it to say, we have a rivalry nonetheless, and a pretty darn tantalizing one at that.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this whole ordeal is that Mr. Keselowski pledged to get retribution for what he perceived as wrongdoing on the part of Mr. Busch. It would of course be natural to assume that Keselowski will get such retribution this week in Texas, but I have strong doubts about such a thing actually occurring. I don’t care how angry a driver is at another driver, it is EXCEEDINGLY rare for a driver to get brute-force payback on a track as fast and dangerous as Texas. There is a sort of honor code against that sort of behavior and the garage area doesn’t exactly take kindly to those who violate it. As such, payback is likely not going to happen today.

That being said, do not for a second think that this means Keselowski will race Kurt Busch like a gentleman. Quite the opposite actually. Expect Kez to block, stalk, and disturb Busch in every single way he possibly can outside of wrecking him. Then, when a short track rolls around later in the season, all bets are off. But until then, don’t expect any Daytona 1979-esque behavior. It’s just not realistic in this day and age.

Tony Stewart’s been looking up at the rest of his Stewart-Haas competitors for most of 2014. But does Saturday’s pole run signal a change of momentum for the No. 14?
Tony Stewart’s been looking up at the rest of his Stewart-Haas competitors for most of 2014. But does Saturday’s pole run signal a change of momentum for the No. 14?

4. Will Smoke rise for real today? Is he among the favorites to win?

Historically speaking, Tony Stewart has never exactly been an underdog. It’s just not a role that is suitable to perhaps the most versatile race car driver of the new millennium. Yet for some reason, Smoke’s pole-winning performance in yesterday’s qualifying session has a decidedly underdog-y feel to it, no? Given Stewart’s on-going knee-injury recovery process, along with his recent string of just plain ‘ol lackluster performance, the moniker of “underdog” suddenly seems strangely fitting. Could Smoke be preparing to shock the world once again?

Oddly enough, I think he can. Despite all that has been made of Stewart’s struggles in 2014, his last two races were a big improvement over the opening four, and his performance in all of this weekend’s on-track sessions would suggest he has at least some of his mojo back. Perhaps the recent success of teammates Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch has translated over to the #14 team? It’s certainly possible, given that all three drivers made the Fast 12 in yesterday’s qualifying session.

This could be a telling weekend for Tony Stewart. If he can back up his pole-run with a solid top 5 finish, it would certainly lend credence to the notion that Stewart is getting his groove back after missing half a season due to injury. I’m not going to go as far as to list Stewart as the favorite to win (that distinction belongs to a guy named Jimmie Johnson), but I do believe he will be a factor today based on his weekend-long speed.

Matt Stallknecht’s Pre-Race Predictions for the 2014 Duck Commander 500:

Johnson says his car is even better than the one who dominated with back in October here at Texas, so with that in mind, pencil the #48 as your favorite to win the Duck Commander 500.

1. 48 – Jimmie Johnson
2. 4 – Kevin Harvick
3. 14 – Tony Stewart
4. 2 – Brad Keselowski
5. 22 – Joey Logano
6. 99 – Carl Edwards
7. 24 – Jeff Gordon
8. 88 – Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
9. 16 – Greg Biffle
10. 41 – Kurt Busch

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