1. The Fords Aren’t the Problem
There was a NASCAR Cup Series narrative as recently as a month ago that there was something wrong with the entire Ford camp. It was a theory backed up by evidence, seeing as Ford drivers had won two (two!) races all season, and none since Ryan Blaney took the checkered flag in the rain-delayed Coca-Cola 600 in May.
That line of thinking seems silly now. After Chris Buescher captured two straight victories, Michael McDowell looked every bit the class of the field this past Sunday (Aug. 13) at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. Three consecutive wins on three very different tracks — short track, high-speed intermediate and road course — kind of invalidates the idea that Ford drivers can’t compete.
What’s fairer to say is that the powerhouse Ford teams are still struggling relative to expectations. Team Penske is off the pace compared to its own standards. Stewart-Haas Racing is, to be blunt, a mess, one so complete that it’s hard to believe this was one of the top organizations in the sport a few years back.
Conversely, RFK Racing is much better than it was a year ago, as along with Beuscher’s wins, Brad Keselowski is actually competitive again. And while Front Row Motorsports might need more than just McDowell’s Indy triumph to hang its hat on, it sure had that No. 34 plenty fast.
The TL;DR version is this: Fords appear to be fine. It’s some of the Ford teams who still have work to do.
2. Only One Party Should Be Really Mad if Chase Elliott Misses the Playoffs
Even though Chase Elliott was on demon time at the end of the Verizon 200 at The Brickyard, he couldn’t quite chase down McDowell before he ran out of laps. We’re now officially very close to the semi-apocalyptic scenario of NASCAR’s most popular driver becoming somewhat irrelevant for the last 10 races of 2023.
(Yes, Elliott could very well win at Watkins Glen International. No, I don’t think he will, but will give him his flowers if he comes up that clutch.)
It’s not great for the sport as a whole if Elliott isn’t in the playoff field, but NASCAR can shrug it off somewhat and spin it as a chance to shine a spotlight on other drivers. Same for NBC.
Elliott’s fans? They’re not going to bail on him just because he isn’t competing for a championship, and they shouldn’t. Hendrick Motorsports already showed it isn’t that mad that Elliott essentially put himself in this predicament thanks to his off-track extracurricular activities and a very avoidable suspension.
But there is one party who could feel justifiably aggrieved: NAPA Auto Parts.
NAPA doesn’t sponsor every race for the No. 9, but it’s on the hood enough that its relationship with Elliott remains one of the stronger associations between company and driver that still remains in an era of increasingly fragmented sponsorship.
The money NAPA pays doesn’t guarantee that Elliott will make the playoffs, of course, but it had a reasonable expectation that when NBC starts focusing primarily on the drivers still alive for the championship in the weeks ahead, he’d be one of them.
It looks increasingly likely he won’t be, and it’s hard to blame NAPA if it’s a little steamed about that.
3. It’s Win or Go Home for Several Drivers Now
OK, not really “go home” since they still have to race in the final 10 events of the year, but one of the minor downsides to McDowell’s Indianapolis win is that it all but killed off what could have been a fun points battle for the final two playoff spots.
McDowell is now in the postseason. So is Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who is low on playoff points but has a victory in hand. Kevin Harvick and Keselowski are well clear of the cut line, so they don’t have much to worry about.
Bubba Wallace does, but his concern is now much more that there will be a first-time winner than someone catching him in points. He’s 28 points to the good, so while the group pursuing him (which includes Daniel Suarez, Ty Gibbs, Elliott and Alex Bowman) is still mathematically alive, it needs Wallace to wreck out early in one of the next two races or it won’t matter.
Every one of those drivers, save perhaps Gibbs, who hasn’t won yet at the Cup level, could win at Watkins Glen or Daytona International Speedway. A strong argument can be made that Suarez and Elliott are among the favorites on the road course, and while it’s trite to say it, Daytona is Daytona.
There’s just a big difference between “could-win” and “must-win.” And the latter is where everyone chasing Wallace finds themselves now.
4. Are Caution-Free Races Good or Nah?
The decision to remove the cautions at the end of stages for road course races this season was met with almost universal acclaim. The strategy just got too wonky, and laps are so long on road circuits that it slowed things down too much.
That still seems to be the right call, unless NASCAR was to just get rid of stages altogether at these tracks, which seems unlikely (and also unfair, since stage points are a thing everywhere else). The problem, however, is that the whole race might go green, which nearly happened at Indianapolis — there was just one yellow flag for three laps.
Is that actually what fans want? That’s not entirely clear. Jeff Gluck’s poll this week found many fans thought this was a good race, though many of the people who thought otherwise (and even some who liked it) felt one yellow was too few. It’s not ideal to root for people to crash, so there’s obviously no real easy answer here.
What’s hard to argue against is that restarts have been extra exciting with the Next Gen car, and with fewer cautions, there aren’t many of those. Maybe it’s time to start dusting off those old phantom degree cautions again.
Just kidding NASCAR … unless you’re going to do it.
5. Want an Indy Doubleheader? How about Indy 500/Brickyard 400?
There were many, many empty seats (again) for the road course race this year, which inevitably sparked the whole “maybe we should go back to the oval” debate again. It’s almost like people forgot the Brickyard 400 was dreadfully boring more often than not.
This is probably not a hot take: Those empty seats probably aren’t going to fill up just by bringing back the Brickyard 400. Also, the drivers would like to keep the IndyCar/NASCAR doubleheader, which isn’t likely to happen next year.
So here’s a much hotter take: Why not make the Brickyard 400 a doubleheader with the Indianapolis 500?
One way, maybe the only way, to fill the seats again for the Brickyard 400 is to hold it when Indy is the center of the racing universe, and Indianapolis 500 week fits that description perfectly. Hold the Brickyard 400 Saturday and the Indy 500 on Sunday and bam, you’ve likely got big crowds on both days.
NASCAR would have to swallow its pride a bit under that arrangement, but it’s less likely that IndyCar (and really, Roger Penske) would say no if it doesn’t appear stock car racing is trying to muscle it off its biggest day.
Yes, that would mean no Indy 500/Coca-Cola 600 doubles, for those who care about such things. Perhaps more drivers would try the crossover either way, though, between the Indianapolis 500 and Brickyard 400 if they were on successive days.
And surely some would suggest that moving the Coca-Cola 600 off of its Memorial Day weekend would be blasphemous. I’d counter by saying the Coca-Cola 600 is a crown jewel whenever you hold it. Much more drastic action needs to be taken to restore the Brickyard 400 to that level of luster, and making it part of an unmissable package is certainly that.
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