Race Weekend Central

4 Burning Questions: Can Sheldon Creed Turn His Playoffs Hopes Around?

Will Sheldon Creed point his way into the playoffs?

For Sheldon Creed, it’s been a year of learning in his first full-time season in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. The former NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion’s struggles have been well documented, and in the first 16 races of the year, Creed had more finishes outside the top 20 (nine) than inside (seven).

But ever since Atlanta Motor Speedway, the 17th race of the season, Creed has found his footing. In the eight races since, Creed has scored 50 stage points, three top fives and four top 10s with an average finish of 12.8. After race 16, Creed had zero top fives and an average finish of 20.6.

After the 16th race of the season at Road America, Creed was 17th in points and 98 points below the playoff cut line. At Daytona International Speedway just two weeks ago, Creed was 13th in points, 43 points below the cut line. There were just three races remaining in the regular season after Daytona, and while making up 15 points per race on 12th-place Ryan Sieg wasn’t impossible, it would be a tall order. But in last weekend’s race at Darlington Raceway, Creed came oh-so-close to punching his playoff ticket with a win.

In that race, Creed led 47 laps and had an average running position of fourth before ending up second at the checkered flag. He was out front in the closing laps of the race, and he had to hold off challenges from Noah Gragson and Kyle Larson in the final 15 laps. Larson and Creed went side-by-side into turn 1 on the final lap, with both cars hitting the wall. Gragson was able to escape the calamity to take the lead in the final corner while Creed had to settle for second.

Creed was all smiles with Larson after the race, and although he fell short of his first Xfinity win, Creed now finds himself 16 points behind Sieg with two races remaining. Creed now has a legitimate chance to make the playoffs on points after it looked like he would need to win for much of the summer.

The two final races of the regular season are at Kansas Speedway and Bristol Motor Speedway, and if history is any indication, Creed looks poised for strong results.

Creed’s best Xfinity race came at Darlington, a track at which he scored two Truck wins. He also scored a top-five finish at Pocono Raceway, a track he dominated in the 2020 Truck race before ending up third. Creed never won at Kansas or Bristol in the Truck Series, but he certainly had the speed to do so. He led the most laps at Kansas in the fall of 2020 before finishing second, and he led 189 of 200 laps at Bristol last year before a flat tire on the final restart ended his winning chances.

With past results on his side, Creed looks poised to gain more ground on Sieg if he can bring the car home in one piece the next two weekends.

See also
NASCAR Mailbox: How Should Cup Drivers Race Xfinity Playoff Hopefuls?

North Wilkesboro returns for the All-Star Race. What’s next for the track?

It’s back.

On Sept 8., it was announced that North Wilkesboro Speedway will host the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series All-Star Race in NASCAR’s 75th anniversary season.

Aside from an ill-fated comeback in 2010 and 2011, the track had sat abandoned for more than 25 years. At the end of the 2010s, the facilities were in disrepair and there were weeds growing out of cracks in the asphalt. Any hope of a comeback looked to be over.

That all changed two years ago. Dale Earnhardt Jr. led an initiative in late 2019 and early 2020 to clear the track of its weeds so that it could be scanned and uploaded for use in iRacing. The initiative was a success, and the Cup Series’ iRacing finale in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic was held at the newly uploaded track. One thing led to another, and the pivotal moment came last year, when North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper passed a bill that authorized $18 million in funding for North Wilkesboro.

The track reopened in early 2022, and it saw a sell-out crowd in its opening late model race that featured Earnhardt a week ago. And with this week’s announcement, the Cup Series returns to North Wilkesboro for the first time since 1996.

The news came with universal acclaim but also as a shock. There is still work to be done in upgrading the facilities at North Wilkesboro, and it felt like there would be a long delay before NASCAR returned.

But here we are.

If the 2023 All-Star Race is a success, there is the potential for North Wilkesboro to become a permanent fixture on the schedule once again. In fact, North Wilkesboro should be added to the 2024 Cup schedule if the All-Star Race goes off without a hitch. The Cup Series is down to five short tracks, and North Wilkesboro would be a popular re-addition.

Likewise, North Wilkesboro should also be in consideration for a Truck race. The Truck Series raced at the track in 1995 and 1996 before its closure, and with Craftsman returning as title sponsor, a North Wilkesboro race would be a throwback to the Truck Series of old that was primarily contested on short tracks.

But for now, the track has been resurrected. The anticipation now builds for 2023.

Ford has been invisible on 1.5-mile tracks this season. Will that change this weekend?

The last time the Cup Series raced at 1.5-mile track not named Atlanta Motor Speedway? The Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May.

In fact, there have only been three races, with the exception of Atlanta, at 1.5-mile tracks in the first 27 races of the year: Las Vegas Motor Speedway in March, Kansas in May and Charlotte in May. For a series that used to be full of 1.5-mile tracks, it’s been a while since the series raced at one.

The first three were dominated by Chevrolet and Toyota, as Alex Bowman won at Vegas with Chevrolet while Kurt Busch and Denny Hamlin won at Kansas and Charlotte, respectively, for Toyota. Ross Chastain led the most laps at Vegas and Charlotte, while Kyle Busch was poised to win at Vegas until an overtime restart and split tire strategy shuffled the finishing order.

Ford was nowhere to be found at the front of the field in all three races, and Ford drivers combined for only four top 10s in the three. That included a shutout at Kansas in May, as Austin Cindric was the highest-finishing Ford in 11th.

While Chevrolet and Toyota will be heavy favorites once again, Ford will pose a greater threat this time around.

Kevin Harvick was a non-factor at Kansas in May, but that was when the No. 4 team struggled to find speed. Harvick enters Kansas with two wins on the season, and he is a three-time winner at the track. Joey Logano is also a three-time winner at Kansas, and he has all the momentum in the world, with 315 laps led and five finishes of sixth or better in the last six races. His teammate Ryan Blaney had an average running position of eighth at Kansas in May; he was also running toward the front of the field at Vegas and Charlotte before he was taken out in crashes.

There’s also the potential for wildcards like Chase Briscoe to show up. Briscoe was battling Larson for the win in the Coca-Cola 600 until he spun out from second place with two laps to go, before recovering to finish fourth in double overtime.

Ford has been running better in the last two months, and the manufacturer needs a strong showing with three of its five playoff drivers below the cut line. Look for Ford to make up some ground on the rest of the playoff field this weekend.

See also
NASCAR 101: Toto, I Have a Feeling We’re Back in Kansas

Who are the favorites to win the Truck race at Kansas, and who will fail to make to the Round of 8?

The most recent Truck race was Aug. 13 at Richmond Raceway. The series finally returns Sept. 9 after almost a month off.

The 1.5-mile tracks have seen a variety of contenders in the Truck Series this season, but the favorite for Friday’s race will be Zane Smith. Smith led 108 of 134 laps en route to a dominant win at Kansas in May, and the regular-season champion looks poised to sweep the season. His greatest competition will come from Chandler Smith, who is hot with two wins in the last three Truck races. Smith also won at Vegas in March after leading the most laps.

Chandler Smith’s Kyle Busch Motorsports teammates John Hunter Nemechek and Corey Heim will also be in the mix, as will Carson Hocevar, who led the most laps at Charlotte in May before he crashed during overtime.

For the cut line, the battle will be between Hocevar, Matt Crafton and Christian Eckes. The three drivers are separated by six points, and only one of them will advance. Ben Rhodes is 21 points above the cut line, but unless he runs into early trouble, he should be clear to advance as well.

With the battle coming down to Crafton, Hocevar and Eckes, it will be between Hocevar and Eckes for the final spot. Crafton has struggled to find speed this year, as he has led just six laps this season with a best finish of fifth. Meanwhile, Eckes has scored three top-five finishes on 1.5-mile tracks this season, and Hocevar was just one caution away from winning on one at Charlotte.

If all three make it to the finish, it will be an entertaining battle between Eckes and Hocevar and for the eighth and final spot. Who winds up on top is anyone’s guess.

About the author

Stephen Stumpf is the NASCAR Content Director for Frontstretch, and his weekly columns include “Stat Sheet” and “4 Burning Questions.” Stephen also writes commentary, contributes weekly to the “Bringing the Heat” podcast and is frequently at the track for on-site coverage. A native of Texas, Stephen began following NASCAR at age 9 after attending his first race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Follow on Twitter @stephen_stumpf.

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