Burning Questions Midway Through the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Season
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From Daytona to Napa Valley, and from Fort Worth to Pocono, we have seen plenty from this 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season.
There was Jimmie Johnson's assertion that his reign as the sport's titan wasn't waning in the season-opening Daytona 500. There was the hype around Danica Patrick. There was Denny Hamlin's serious injury. There was Brad Keselowski's vocal outburst. And there was NASCAR's new Gen-6 model of race car that officials in the offseason stopped just short of claiming would establish world peace.
Then Matt Kenseth had a serious penalty (later mostly revoked), Toyota's engine program went sour and NASCAR's restart policy became a heavy factor in race outcomes.
And all of that occurred just halfway through this season's schedule.
With 18 races and 19 weeks left before the shortest offseason in sports begins anew, the series still has many questions to answer.
Is Jimmie Johnson's Sixth Title a Foregone Conclusion?
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After Jimmie Johnson's fourth win of the season at Daytona, it was hard to see any way someone could beat the No. 48 to the shiny, Tiffany-designed Sprint Cup trophy in Homestead this fall.
After all, it was differing pit strategies that didn't work (Michigan and Kentucky) and one poor restart (Dover) that has kept Johnson from piling up seven wins in the first 18 races of 2013.
But Johnson, as much as anyone, knows that it won't be a walk in the park when the Chase opens at Chicagoland Speedway in October. Johnson's competitive advantage on the field may fall back some to the norm. He may suffer from bad luck. A poor strategy call may bite the team.
Or, like in the eight-race stretch ending at July's Daytona race when Kevin Harvick carved 34 points from Johnson's lead, a competitor just may score more points than him.
Will Brad Keselowski Make the Chase?
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Brad Keselowski certainly enjoyed the satisfaction, accolades and numerous other benefits that come with taking home the Sprint Cup crown after he won his first last season. Unfortunately, one of those benefits isn't an automatic spot in this year's championship fight. He may need one.
At the halfway point, Keselowski has yet to win a race in 2013 after racking up five last season. He's notched just five top-five finishes, but four of them came in the season's first four races.
Keselowski crashed at Richmond International Speedway and triggered a slide through the next 10 races where he finished 15th or worse eight times. The mediocrity and bad luck has dropped the No. 2 to 13th in points.
Keselowski showed last season he's capable of both holding serve and rallying when the pressure intensifies. To ensure a spot in the Chase, Keselowski likely needs a win and zero poor finishes before the Chase begins. With another torn up race car, Keselowski may need two or more wins to get in.
Who Will Earn the Final Two Chase Wild-Card Positions?
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Keselowski's struggles lead us to a big question: Who will be in, and who will be out of the Chase? To find that, we'll look at the drivers who will most likely land one of the Chase wild-card spots.
The two positions (11th and 12th to start the Chase standings) are guaranteed to the drivers with the most race wins this season, currently 11th to 20th in the points after Richmond.
At the halfway point, two drivers on that list (Martin Truex Jr. and Kasey Kahne) are actually 11th and 12th in the point standings. Fortunately for them, they are the only two drivers outside of the top-10 that have won. Unfortunately, they each just have one.
Drivers not currently in the Chase include Keselowski, Jeff Gordon, Joey Logano, Ryan Newman and Jamie McMurray. On the bubble side of the Chase, Kurt Busch doesn't yet have a win either, and Tony Stewart just has one.
Two race wins will likely help any of those drivers in the field, but currently, it looks like Kahne and Truex have the best chance to serve as the wild-card qualifiers.
Can Kurt Busch Actually Make the Chase with Furniture Row Racing?
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Kurt Busch made a wild jump in the point standings at the season's halfway point all the way to ninth. That's good enough—for now—to put him in the select group of 12 drivers who will race for the series title in the final 10 races.
Busch may be the most interesting story to watch between now and then, thanks to both the impressive speed shown by his Furniture Row Racing No. 78 and the startling inconsistency. Still, he's managed four top-five finishes and eight top-10 runs in the season's first half.
Thanks to the ebb and flow of the tight battle in the point standings, Busch will likely need a race win to both net extra points and make him more qualified for a wild-card battle. Regardless, Busch appears ready to run for the title again—less than two years after being fired from Penske Racing.
How Will Kevin Harvick's Final Season with Richard Childress End?
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With both driver and sponsor on the move after the NASCAR season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November—the widely presumed and reported direction is to Stewart-Haas Racing—it was easy from the start of 2013 to expect Kevin Harvick's final voyage with Richard Childress Racing wouldn't amount to much.
That expectation was very wrong.
Aside from two crashes—one in the Daytona 500 and one at Talladega in May—Harvick has been mighty impressive. A pair of wins at Richmond and Charlotte have essentially guaranteed his spot in the Chase, and he's finished 16 of the season's 18 first-half races in 14th or better.
In fact, Harvick outscored Jimmie Johnson in the point standings in the eight races that concluded with the return trip to Daytona.
The team hasn't shown enough raw speed to expect that the No. 29 will go door-to-door for the title. But Harvick is a shoo-in for the Chase and could easily win more in the series' second half. Who knows? Harvick may surprise us again.
Will a Ford Driver Legitimately Contend for the Title?
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Carl Edwards won the season's second race at Phoenix International Raceway. Brad Keselowski—an offseason convert to the Blue Oval—seemed to pick up where he left off from 2012 during 2013's first five races. Aric Almirola seemed primed to put together a breakout season. And Greg Biffle? Well, you expect Biffle to be up front.
Instead, 2013 has been a season largely dominated by Rick Hendrick's Chevrolets and Joe Gibbs' Toyotas.
Ford, with three race wins in the first 18 races and just two drivers (Edwards in third and Biffle in eighth) in the top-10 of the series standings, has been a bit stagnant. The manufacturer's teams have yet to show if they have the speed to make a difference for 10 consecutive races.
There have been signs of positivity. Biffle's win at Michigan International Speedway was built largely on how good his car was during the entire race. And Keselowski's Penske Racing teammate Joey Logano put together a streak of six top-10 finishes in May and June.
The Ford camp hasn't been as fast as Chevrolet and Toyota, but they are starting to come around. Fighting for the championship, however, seems a bit further away.
Will NASCAR Make Safer Walls a Priority?
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The issue of NASCAR not requiring tracks to have every foot of concrete retaining wall buffered by some sort of impact-cushioning barrier—the SAFER Barrier is the most used type—came to a head when star Denny Hamlin suffered a serious back injury in April.
The sanctioning body promised amends as needed, but has to yet to force its venues to do the sensible thing and protect each and every wall with the life-saving technology.
A limiting factor, NASCAR says, is cost. That cost is paid by tracks who host events. In the meantime, drivers keep either hitting the walls that aren't protected (See: Hamlin's crashes at Auto Club Speedway and Daytona) or come close to hitting the ends of the protective barriers (See: Hamlin's crash at Kentucky).
There's little doubt that protective barriers are expensive. But there's also little doubt that NASCAR, as an industry, has the means to finance the devices that have proven to be much, much safer.
Look no further than the $400 million that NASCAR's sister company, International Speedway Corp., is spending the completely re-develop Daytona International Speedway as proof. And if that isn't enough, look no further than the billions of dollars in play as NASCAR wraps up its new television contracts.
Protected walls don't prevent all injuries, but they make racing inherently safer as a durable, long-term solution. NASCAR needs to stop rolling the dice with limited application of a technology they have readily available. The second half of 2013 should be filled with two things: great racing and smart thinking for the sport's future.
One is available without ever cranking up an engine.