Race Weekend Central

NASCAR Mailbox: Which Race Provides the Biggest Wildcard in the Run to the Playoffs?

Saturday afternoon (July 28) turned out to be a bad one for Noah Gragson in NASCAR’s Camping World Truck Series. The driver of the No. 18 Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota was forced to sit out the race at Pocono. Doctors did not clear him to compete after he had been feeling ill throughout the weekend.

The move by NASCAR, made after Gragson passed out on pit road brings up a discussion on if drivers should have the last word in the decision to race or not. Only they know the strength and fitness it takes to race for hours in these trucks and cars; should doctors ultimately leave it up to them?

Meanwhile, the race to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs is coming down to the wire as we approach the month of August. There are only five races remaining until we get there and there are some races that should give us some surprising names near the front.

The question is, which races provide the biggest wildcard factor out of all of them? Is it the short track in Bristol, the road course at Watkins Glen or somewhere else?

Q: What do you think of the Noah Gragson situation from Saturday? Even though doctors wouldn’t let him race, what is your opinion?

A: I have always been one to say that drivers should be able to make their own decisions on whether they should race or not. Injuries and sicknesses on race day are always a burden to drivers. Having to get a replacement driver at the last second is tough on the teams as well.

Gragson posted on Twitter before the race on Saturday he was doing all he could to try and get in the truck but he just was not able to. He also said doctors did not even give him an option as to whether he was feeling well enough to compete. That is not fair to Gragson. If he felt well enough, he should be able to at least start the race and get out after the first or second lap.

We know when drivers have had injuries or illnesses in the past, they have had to get out of the car after the first few laps because they were not able to stay in due to the severity of their condition. Many used it as a precaution so as not to worsen their injuries. I can think of three off the top of my head with Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2004, Tony Stewart in 2006 and Denny Hamlin in 2013. All three had different situations but Hamlin was the only one who missed additional races. They all had to have relief drivers but, unlike Gragson, they were cleared to race or start at a bare minimum.

No one knows exactly how Gragson really was feeling physically but he was obviously bummed he could not be in the truck. He did say on Twitter that if it was up to him, he would have raced. If a driver says that they are feeling well enough to step into the truck, then they should be able to. I understand why it is a doctor’s decision on whether to clear him or not, but I would ultimately let the driver decide. 

Now, it was not until Tuesday afternoon (July 31) that Gragson was cleared to return, so maybe his illness was worse than we think. I just do not agree with the idea of not allowing Gragson a say in whether or not he competed. I know it’s not the first time and it will not be the last time this scenario comes up. I just hope there is an option next time.

Obviously, if someone is so ill that they can’t stand, then we draw the line. But I don’t feel that was the case here. While it may now be a minor situation now because Gragson being locked into the playoffs (he earned a medical waiver for missing the race) I just do not agree with how the whole situation was handled.

Q: Which of the final five Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series regular season races presents as a wild card?

A: If I had to pick one race that would be a wild card based on what we have seen recently, I would pick Bristol. Many will probably say Watkins Glen with it being a road course, but the last few winners there have been drivers who were fast all season long with the exception of AJ Allmendinger in 2014. The best teams all season have been able to find their way up front regardless of road ringers or outside strategy.

So why Bristol?

Simple. The racing Bristol has had since officials started putting the VHT down on the track has allowed for greater parity. We still see fast drivers near the front but there is always an element of unpredictability. Back in the spring, drivers like Michael McDowell, David Ragan and Kasey Kahne all were in the top 10 at some point throughout the weekend whether it was practice, qualifying or the race. These are drivers that don’t typically run up front, but with Bristol leveling the playing field, it can help someone like that steal a win if circumstances play out just right. 

Kyle Busch won last time at the track, but we saw guys like Bubba Wallace lead the race, which was outstanding for that team. Driving for a single-car team, Wallace is rarely inside the top five or 10 throughout these races. I think the VHT has thrown a curveball to these teams because it causes the track to change drastically throughout the race. Some of the lower-budgeted efforts are able to hit on it and run up front.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say one of the Big Three in Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. or Kyle Busch will not win at Bristol. I anticipate they will still contend, but I believe we will see someone new reach the front. While I think Watkins Glen could produce a new winner as well, I expect that Bristol will give us a better chance at that based on the last few seasons.

Not only do I think Bristol will be the biggest wild card remaining in the regular season; I also think it will be the best race. Short track competition is great right now in NASCAR and Bristol has given us some of the best races we’ve seen in the last few seasons. VHT has been a great addition to some of these tracks such as Bristol and New Hampshire to help improve the quality of side-by-side action.  

That trend should continue in a little more than two weeks and we might see a surprise winner or someone who has not yet won this season that badly needs a trip to Victory Lane. No matter what, though we are in for a great race to the playoffs down the stretch this season.

About the author

Brandon is a 22-year-old from NY and has been a passionate follower of motorsports for 14 years now. He recently graduated from Molloy College on Long Island with a BA in Communications. Working within NASCAR has been a dream for Brandon for a while, and he hopes to be able to live out the dream in the very near future.

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