Race Weekend Central

5 Points to Ponder: Cream Rises, Ford Flounders?

ONE: Truex Restores Natural Cup Series Order

Just as we were about to hit the point of the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season where Bill Murray’s “Dogs and cats living together! Mass hysteria!” line from Ghostbusters would have applied because none of the races were being won by the drivers you’d expect, Martin Truex Jr. calmed everything down by flexing some Joe Gibbs Racing muscle at Phoenix. Though he didn’t have the car that spent the most time at the front (that one was driven by Joey Logano), the No. 19 Toyota did lead 64 laps en route to grabbing the checkered flag.

As a result, Truex is now the first of the expected names to more or less seal up a playoff spot. More than that, though, the Instacart 500 was by and large a case of the big teams ruling the roost. Check out that top 10: three Gibbs Toyotas, all three Team Penske Fords, three Hendrick Chevys and Kevin Harvick. Nary an underdog to be found.

Is it a good thing to have that star power all up front (not you, sponsors, we know you like your marketing dollars to be represented that way)? Probably so. The “this is the wackiest NASCAR season ever” subplot is fun while it lasts, but while sports fans always pay lip service to the idea of parity, other measures of fan interest like ratings and merchandise dollars often tend to show the opposite.

The gut feeling here is that when taken overall, NASCAR probably has it just about right thanks to the different types of tracks on the schedule. Many races end up with the cream rising and underfunded teams having little to no shot at a win. Superspeedways (though not as often as we fans often make it appear) and road courses give them varying degrees of opportunity for rising up and competing with the big boys. Everyone wins, at least in terms of the parity vs. superteams argument.

Right now, the big boys have resumed their perch. All is well … except that not all the superteams actually look the part yet, which brings us to …

TWO: Should Powerhouse Ford Teams be Worried?

Through five races, Ford has exactly one win, and it’s come via Michael McDowell. That means neither Team Penske nor Stewart-Haas Racing has visited victory lane yet. No biggie, right? Plenty of time left in the season, after all, and a glance at the playoff standings shows that all three Penske cars and Harvick are in the postseason field right now, and all pretty comfortably.

But it is weird for five races to go by with neither team snagging a win. In fact, since 2014, the beginning of the current Team Penske era and the first campaign for Harvick with SHR, it’s never happened until right now. The only time it came close was 2017, when Brad Keselowski won at Atlanta but none of the other Big Two Fords chipped in with an early ‘W.’ In 2015, it was hard for anyone else to get in on the fun, with the two teams combining to win four of the first five events.

An interesting side note: Though Harvick was tearing it up early in 2018, that was the only season without a Penske win in the first five races. You may recall that Logano ended up finding his form late and winning the Cup Series championship, so maybe it doesn’t matter.

The Penske camp seems fine. Keselowski and Logano are currently 2-3 in points, and Ryan Blaney seems to have shaken off his poor start even though he is still searching for consistency and late race speed. It feels like only a matter of time before they start winning.

The same could be said for Harvick, who has already finished in the top six four times. At most, he’s a half-step off. His teammates, however, are struggling. While acknowledging the fact that rookie Chase Briscoe is now driving the car that Clint Bowyer wheeled in 2020, the other three SHR rides have combined for zero top 10s — they had five by this point last season.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying that it’s still too early for real concern, but there are some signs of slippage overall. If that’s still true by the end of April, then it might be time to panic.

THREE: To Traction Compound or Not to Traction Compound?

It’s an indisputable fact that among top Cup Series drivers, these are the top three ongoing complaints (note: no judgment on whether they are valid, as at times it appears they certainly are):

  1. Those lapped cars won’t hold their darn lines and are too unpredictable when I come up on them!
  2. Those lapped cars won’t get out of the way when I come up on them! (Yes, these first two are contradictory, which is what makes them so delightful.)
  3. This rules package at [insert track type here] tracks this year sucks!

Alas, there is a fast-rising contender to make this list, and it’s “The traction compound ruined the racing here!”

You didn’t even need to wait for the Cup Series race to hear objections to the traction compound being applied to the track at Phoenix, as the Xfinity Series drivers didn’t mince words when expressing their feelings.

For a less profane, more nuanced discussion, check out what Austin Cindric has to say here:

The thing to keep in mind here is that no track would ever intentionally ruin the racing it’s about to put on. The application of traction compound is supposed to allow cars to run in places they normally couldn’t or wouldn’t, with the end goal of more passing and better racing.

It’s also not a binary decision. Tracks need to decide if they’re going to apply the compound, how much of it to use, and in which racing groove. The more factors that go into those choices, the harder they are to get right.

From a strictly purist’s standpoint, traction compound is easy to vilify. The track is what it is, let the drivers figure out how to get around the fastest and where they need to go to pass someone.

Yet we’ve all seen races where the second part seems to be darn near impossible, which is why traction compound came more and more into vogue over the past few seasons. There are no simple answers here, meaning this debate, and the gripes from drivers who are on the ‘no’ side of it, are only going to continue.

FOUR: What Clint Bowyer Has Done Best in the Booth

Partway through his rookie season as a full-time NASCAR commentator, it’s safe to say Clint Bowyer is who we thought he’d be. He’s a fun-loving, colorful character, kind of like Darrell Waltrip was without lapsing into self-caricature like DW did toward the end. With all due respect to Waltrip, Bowyer is also more insightful and admits when there are things he doesn’t know or is surprised to see from his new perspective. He’s been an overall benefit to the FOX Sports team.

That said — and fully admitting that FOX Sports sometimes runs the funnier parts of their interactions into the ground by trying too hard — it’s quite possible that the best thing Bowyer has done to date is to draw out the louder parts of Jeff Gordon’s personality. Some of it may just be Gordon loosening up as he goes, now that he has been an announcer for … wow, six years. Time flies.

But there’s no mistaking that Gordon appears to be having more fun with Bowyer as a foil. They’ve brought the best out of each other, and mostly just by letting Bowyer be Bowyer.

FIVE: Will We Be Sick of the Dirt at Bristol Before Race Weekend Even Arrives?

Not sure if you’ve heard or not, but Bristol Motor Speedway is going to host dirt races in a few weekends. Like, actual dirt spread over the track! And two of the top NASCAR series are going to race on it!

Sarcasm aside, it’s impossible to think that you couldn’t know about the Bristol dirt races if you’ve watched even a few minutes of NASCAR coverage in 2021 — or even the “Best Season Ever” commercials, which also mention it. It’s understandable since love it or hate it, it’s an experiment that is a big deal and invites impassioned opinions from tons of fans.

The hype level, though, is taking on a life of its own. Not that any FOX Sports execs probably read this column, but just in case, a short plea: Give us a little break from dirt-mania. We know the races are coming up. We’re all going to watch for the curiosity factor alone.

(Also, some of us watch every week regardless.)

We’ll all be plenty fired up for the 27th and 28th. It’s still almost two weeks away. Cut us just a little slack until then. Please and thank you.

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