Race Weekend Central

Who’s Hot & Who’s Not In NASCAR: Lessons From The Dirt Edition

Michigan International Speedway lived up to its reputation as a fast track and the fast restart by Kyle Larson made the finish worth the wait on Sunday. The rest of the day wasn’t super exciting as the problem of passing the leader seems to persist, no matter what size or what speed a track may have.

Kyle Larson has got it going on right now. Sure, he won his third straight race at Michigan, but what made the win more impressive is that he finished second the night before at the Knoxville Nationals sprint car race in Iowa. Now, let’s put two and two together here. For his first few years in Cup competition, Larson has had trouble on restarts. This year especially, Larson has been a regular on the sprint and dirt car scenes. So I ask the question, is that a coincidence that he now has the restart thing down after driving on the dirt so much this year? I think not. Racing on the dirt has had to sharpen Larson’s instincts at least somewhat and when it came time for that last restart at Michigan, he didn’t have to overthink the situation. He just reacted to the situation and let his talent take over. While the handling of the cars and style of driving on the dirt is completely different than in the Cup cars, the instinct needed to succeed is the same.

The battle for what is at the moment, the last playoff spot, is starting to get interesting because it’s only natural to ask the question of who really wants it? Well, of course, both Matt Kenseth (who is currently in by 31 points) and Clint Bowyer, who is out, but next in line, really do want it. But when one has a bad day, the other has trouble taking advantage of it. The opportunity was there for Kenseth on Sunday when Bowyer was caught speeding on pit road not once, but twice. But a late issue cost Kenseth a top 10 finish and he ended up 24th, one place behind Bowyer. While the odds are against Bowyer to make it on points, he won’t and shouldn’t give up on the points battle because stranger things have happened (as Bowyer will attest) at the final regular season race in Richmond.

Can Clint Bowyer capitalize on any opportunity to make the playoffs? (Photo: Logan Whitton/NKP)

When you first hear the Australian accent of NBC NASCAR announcer Leigh Diffey, the first instinct is to wonder why he isn’t calling the Formula One race. But take a second and put the accent aside, and Diffey does a more than credible job at being the main play-by-play guy for NBC. It’s not an easy job to keep track of what is happening on the track, and also listen to constant directions from the director and others in your ear. But Diffey keeps calm, makes valid points and really seems to love racing. So, forget the accent and actually listen to what he says. He’s worth the listen.

The encumbered Joey Logano says he likes the pressure of having to win one of these final races to make the playoffs. Let’s hope his team thinks the same way. Logano did win on the track earlier this year, but the victory was ruled encumbered for a rules violation as the win and the points did not count in the standings. Logano was considered one of the favorites to contend for the title this year, but the non-counting win aside, it’s still been a disappointing season. He has 11 top 10 finishes in the 23 races this season, but has been 24th or worse in the last three races. Whether those finishes are on the team or the driver, it’s not really the kind of run that indicates Logano is going to respond with a win in one of these last three races.

It’s no secret that it often takes more than talent to land a ride in one of NASCAR’s three top series. It also takes a sponsor . . . or a lot of money, too. So when Darrell Wallace, Jr. won the truck series race and Sam Hornish, Jr. won the XFINITY race on Saturday, it was symbol of what is right and wrong with NASCAR at the same time. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. even said he would give Wallace a ride in the Xfinity Series next year . . . if a sponsor (read someone with money) would come forward for him. While Hornish was not ready for NASCAR when he first moved over from IndyCar, he’s shown he is more than capable of competing at a high level now. But the shame of it all, is no dollars equals no ride. What the sport has come to now reminds me a lot of what IndyCar was like back when it was the king of auto racing in the late 1970s . . . right before a demise that it has never recovered from.

While Kasey Kahne is in the playoffs thanks to his win at Indianapolis, it’s hard to believe at this point that he will be a legitimate contender for the title. Kahne was involved in crash on Sunday that left him with a 38th place finish. But whether it was an issue with his spotter’s communications, or just plain his fault, Kahne caused the wreck by pulling up in front of Daniel Suarez a second too soon. The problem here is that even while he was watching the replay and talking about the accident, Kahne never fully admitted the wreck was his fault. And that just may be the root of problem when it comes to his less-than-stellar time at Hendrick Motorsports.

NASCAR makes its second and final trip to Bristol on Saturday night, the half-mile track that often brings unpredictable results. Wouldn’t it be fun if the final laps came down to a bumping battle between Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch? But that may be just too much to ask for, so we’re going with Kyle Larson to make it back to back wins. This week’s underdog pick who you might not think about pick is Matt DiBenedetto, who has shown the ability to do well on these short tracks, and does the best driver intro.

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