Race Weekend Central

4 Burning Questions: Is Hendrick in a Slump?

1. Was penalizing Sheldon Creed after Nashville Superspeedway the right call?

A NASCAR Xfinity Series incident that was largely forgotten about at Nashville Superspeedway on June 24 was brought back to the forefront after Sheldon Creed received a 25-point penalty and was fined $25,000 for intentionally wrecking Sammy Smith.

Xfinity drivers were struggling with grip on a hot Saturday afternoon in Nashville, and it wasn’t out of the ordinary to see someone lose control and wash up the track like Creed did.

The incident went under the radar, as it was one of the most accidental-looking intentional wrecks in recent memory. Creed would’ve gotten away with it too, if not for the digital trail he left behind.

NASCAR has seen an uptick in penalties for intentional wrecks, and whether drivers incriminate themselves over the radio or through SMT data, the result is the same.

Is Creed’s penalty the right call? Well, a precedent of sorts was set at Phoenix Raceway in March, when a 25-point penalty for Denny Hamlin was upheld after he ran Ross Chastain into the wall on the final restart. In both instances, the victim had not wrecked the aggressor earlier in the race.

It feels like a fair penalty given the current say-nothing policy. Creed and Hamlin likely would’ve gotten away with their respective incidents had they kept quiet, but instead, they gave NASCAR the smoking gun it needed.

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Deepdive: The Last Time on the Street Course

2. Could the road course ringers pull off an upset in Chicago?

The wait for the first street race in NASCAR Cup Series history is finally over, as the Cup drivers will tackle the Chicago street course on Sunday, July 2.

Thirty-seven cars are entered for the race, and there are two drivers in the field with impressive road racing pedigrees overseas: 2009 Formula 1 champion Jenson Button and three-time Supercars champion Shane van Gisbergen. Button will make his second Cup start, while van Gisbergen will make his Cup debut.

Button will drive Rick Ware Racing’s No. 15 car with extra support from Ford, while van Gisbergen will become the second driver behind Kimi Raikkonen to try his hand in Trackhouse Racing’s No. 91.

Unlike Button’s debut at Circuit of the Americas and Raikkonen’s premiere at Watkins Glen International, the entire field is heading into the weekend blind. Simulations are one thing, but racing on the real thing with the real car is a whole other animal.

Will the Cup Series’ unfamiliarity with Chicago put Button and van Gisbergen one step ahead of the competition? Even if it doesn’t, the nature of the course is bound to help.

Unlike traditional road courses, street courses have almost zero change in elevation. There are no curbs or runoff areas either, so the drivers will be maneuvering in a tight box. Altogether, track position will be at a premium because passing will be difficult.

With a pit strategy that aggressively pursues track position, it’s possible for both drivers to hold position at the front of the field. However, they will have to put up a solid race pace; pit strategy is only half of the battle. Saturday’s (July 1) practice and qualifying sessions will give a good idea on how Button and van Gisbergen stack up against the rest of the field.

3. How close is Riley Herbst to a Xfinity win, and what about his comments after Nashville?

Josh Berry was announced as the successor to Kevin Harvick at Stewart-Haas Racing. During the press conference, SHR co-owner Tony Stewart had a comment that resonated throughout the Twitter sphere.

In Saturday’s Xfinity race at Nashville, Riley Herbst — who has driven SHR’s No. 98 Xfinity car since 2021 — finished second behind AJ Allmendinger. Herbst tied his career-best finish in Xfinity, and the run his first runner-up result with SHR.

What did he have to say on Twitter after the race?

From an outside observer, Herbst’s choice of words doesn’t look like a coincidence.

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Eyes on Xfinity: Riley Herbst's 'Earned' Finish Might Go Deeper

But while Herbst tied his best finish, he is still chasing that elusive first win. How close is it?

In 124 Xfinity races between Joe Gibbs Racing and SHR, Herbst has scored 20 top-five finishes and 61 top 10s. He’s also scored two poles, but he only combined to lead seven laps between the two.

Even if solid finishes are there, leading is the biggest obstacle between winning and finishing well. Herbst has only 123 led laps in 124 races, and 64 of the laps led came at Daytona International Speedway, Talladega Superspeedway and Atlanta Motor Speedway — drafting tracks.

Herbst did impress at Richmond Raceway in April, as he led 27 laps and was running in the top five all day until he was turned into the outside wall by Brandon Jones on a late restart. He also had an average running position of fifth (the highest of his Xfinity career) despite a finish of 23rd.

It’s been a struggle since the race, however, as Nashville marked Herbst’s first top-10 finish since COTA in March. If he can start putting performances like Richmond together on a consistent basis, he will be knocking on the door of a win.

4. Is Hendrick Motorsports in a slump?

Hendrick Motorsports made its presence known early in 2023, as it won four of the first nine races with drivers Kyle Larson and William Byron.

HMS has scored just one win in the last eight races, however, which came with Byron at Darlington Raceway. Has the team taken a step back since its early power run?

Not for Byron at least. He impressed to the tune of two wins and 385 laps led in the first nine races, and he’s backed it up with one win and 337 laps led in the last eight. He has finished eighth or better in all but one of the last eight races, and he’s only 18 points behind Martin Truex Jr. for the points lead — an edge he would have if not for a 60-point penalty at Richmond Raceway.

Chase Elliott also seems to be on the rise. Sure, he hasn’t spent much time out front with 38 laps led on the season. At the same time, he’s had only one finish worse than 12th since his return at Martinsville Speedway. He’s scored three top fives in his last four races, and he had an average running position inside the top 10 at both Sonoma Raceway and Nashville. There’s still some work to be done in the No. 9 camp, but it is trending in the right direction.

Larson, however? Some of his early speed seems to have disappeared. It’s hasn’t been all bad, as he’s scored three top-10 finishes in a row, his best streak of the season. Simultaneously, Larson has spent less time on top of the pylon, a fact with which he’s been frustrated.

In the first nine races of the season, Larson led 468 laps. In the last eight races, he’s only led 120.

Alex Bowman was red hot to start the season, as he led the points standings after six races and scored six top-10 finishes in the first seven.

Since April, it’s been a different story for the No. 48 team. Bowman has finished outside the top 10 in his last seven races, and he is barely clinging to a playoff spot after missing three races due to injury.

While HMS may not be where it was at the start of the year, two of its drivers are on the rise while the other two are searching for answers.

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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