Race Weekend Central

4 Burning Questions: When Will It Be Cole Custer’s Time?

When will Stewart-Haas Racing pull the trigger on Cole Custer?

After two years of silly season turnovers, Stewart-Haas Racing looks like it will be making no changes to its lineup next season.

It would be dumb to make a move. The four SHR cars, together, are dominating on a level that only Joe Gibbs Racing circa 2016 has surpassed in the past decade. Three are in the top 10 in points and Aric Almirola is just two points out of it in 11th. Kevin Harvick is a heavy favorite for the championship and is expected to battle Kyle Busch tooth-and-nail the rest of the year for it, while Clint Bowyer is one of only four drivers with multiple wins this season.

Kurt Busch is in an awkward position. He’s not as old as Harvick, but he’s still going to turn 40 next month, and he just isn’t as good as Harvick is now, either. That’s not to say he’s washed up — he’s still seventh in points — but without a lot of outside funding, it’s easy to see a future where Busch is replaced by SHR’s rising XFINITY Series star Cole Custer in the coming years.

But for now, it seems Busch will extend his one-year contract for next year. Both sides want it to happen but haven’t figured out the fine details just yet. I wouldn’t be shocked if it becomes a Chip Ganassi Racing deal where nothing is announced and Busch just shows up at Daytona; it was pretty late in silly season last year before this current contract was agreed on. Custer should be more than ready after one more season in XFINITY, so it wouldn’t be surprising if there is a bit more drama next season for Custer to move up.

Should a rule change allow drivers in Spencer Gallagher’s position to challenge for a playoff spot?

NASCAR has reinstated XFINITY driver Spencer Gallagher. Gallagher won the annual series race at Talladega Superspeedway back in May but was then almost immediately suspended due to violating the substance abuse policy. Although the team can still compete in the owner point playoffs, Gallagher will not be given a waiver by NASCAR for his missed races and will no longer be eligible for the XFINITY playoffs this fall. Gallagher’s first race back will be next weekend at Kentucky Speedway.

Gallagher hadn’t set the world on fire in his NASCAR career, but he seemed to be gaining momentum before getting hit with his suspension. He’s had an average finish of 9.8 this season and had a great run at Bristol Motor Speedway that ended in what was his first-career top-five finish.

Should Gallagher be given the waiver? No, but that shouldn’t mean he’s locked out of the playoffs this season. If making every race wasn’t a part of the eligibility process, all anybody would need to do is to be top 30 in points in their respective series to be eligible to win and get in.

It’s time to get rid of the all-races clause. It’s from before the advent of playoff points, back when a driver could win Daytona and go on a six-week cruise without it. Now, the playoff points encourage everybody to compete every week anyway.

Instead, the best course of action for NASCAR should be to allow only the top 20 in points to be eligible for the playoffs in Cup and top 12 in the other two national series. There just isn’t as much depth in the lower series; Gallagher is still 14th in points despite missing six races because everybody below him is either part-time, very low-funded or Michael Annett.

If this rule change were to happen, Gallagher would need to make up over 40 points on Ross Chastain. And it could be fun to watch him try! The 2015 Cup season was a Harvick-dominated borefest before Kyle Busch came back and had to rally to make it into the playoffs. A similar situation like that would only help provide interest in a series that doesn’t really generate a lot of it to begin with.

Was Kyle Busch too aggressive?

Last Sunday’s race at Chicagoland Speedway became an instant classic.

Chicagoland does not typically provide the kind of racing seen last weekend. Neither did last year’s Cup race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. I have a theory when it comes to great races at boring tracks: there will always be at least one great Cup race within 10 races of a past one at any one track, regardless of whatever aero package is being used. Chicagoland has this, and it also had that great duel in 2008 between Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson. That’s about it.

Strangely (and not too surprisingly), there have been people online complaining about the finish, in particular the argument that Kyle Busch was being a bit too aggressive with Kyle Larson on the last lap. Of course, those people have very selective memories, because Dale Earnhardt was generally more aggressive than Busch was on that last lap and Earnhardt is still treated as the greatest of all time by many.

Putting Larson in the wall wouldn’t fly in Formula 1, but we’re not in Monaco, are we? NASCAR has always been about being aggressive, as long as lines aren’t crossed. In 2015, Joey Logano spinning Matt Kenseth at Kansas Speedway was a controversial move, but that never made any sense to me. Kenseth was blocking Logano like an old lady in the fast lane in the laps leading up to it, and NASCAR didn’t radio in to tell Kenseth to knock if off. When things escalated like they did at Martinsville Speedway two races later, the line was crossed, and Kenseth deserved that suspension.

None of that — the Kenseth-Logano rivalry or the Chicagoland finish — would have played out the way it would have with the FIA running the show, but I doubt those situations would have even happened if NASCAR was more aggressive with penalizing aggressive driving. It’s like complaining about downs in an NFL game at this point.

What kind of race will we see on Saturday night?

The July Daytona race is one of the most unpredictable Cup races of the year. The other three restrictor-plate races on the calendar take place in the day and have usually devolved into destruction derbies.

It’s all about surviving until the end; Michael Waltrip finished eighth in the Daytona 500 last year in a Premium Motorsports car that couldn’t keep up in the draft. This race is a little more unpredictable than that.

Sometimes it is a wreckfest, but other times it develops into a longer duel and everybody just doesn’t make a move until it’s too late. The only real certainty at this point is that the Fords will have more power than the other manufacturers, and even then a Chevrolet has already won at Daytona this season.

About the author

Michael has watched NASCAR for 20 years and regularly covered the sport from 2013-2021. He moved on to Formula 1, IndyCar, and SRX coverage for the site, while still putting a toe in the water from time-to-time back into the NASCAR pool.

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Is this Cole’s Last Stand?

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