Biggest NASCAR Storylines to Watch Ahead of Sprint Cup Series at Richmond
OK fellas, break is over. Time to turn the focus back onto your weekend gig.
The short, eight-race dash from Daytona to Darlington is over, and Jeff Gordon is leading the pack by a slim one-point margin over Matt Kenseth. Neither driver has a win this season.
It’s go time for the 12-weekend spring-into-summer trek that starts this Saturday in Richmond and ends in the mountains of New Hampshire in the middle of July.
The upcoming races are make-or-break-it for the teams that haven’t got a win or aren’t in the top-20 in points. That means the racing will get closer, meaner and hotter.
The next three tracks on the schedule, each profoundly different from the other, offer three different ways to gain ground or screw up prior to the free-for-all known as NASCAR Sprint All-Star race next month.
But first up, the short track at Richmond.
This Time It's Different at Richmond
When the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series teams last visited Richmond International Raceway in late summer 2013, it was the final race before the Chase.
There was also this little incident that took place with Clint Bowyer that involved his teammates at Michael Waltrip Racing, Brian Vickers and Martin Truex Jr.
Once the smoke cleared, Gordon and Ryan Newman were also involved (in a good way) and the whole situation turned into a huge scandal that NASCAR would just as soon the fans and the media forget about.
Forget that last part. I just reminded you about it. Truex Jr. and Newman are on different teams this year, with Truex struggling and Newman yet to show any bite with his new Richard Childress Racing team. Bowyer just got married over the break, and Vickers sits a lucky 13th in points, while Gordon is the points leader.
Everybody loves Richmond because it's a short track, and that means the racing is fast, close and usually ends with a fight, or in last year’s case, a controversy.
Hendrick Motorsports with Only One Win Between the Four Teams
“Mr. Six-Time” Jimmie Johnson may be smiling here, but trust me, his smile would be even broader if he had a win in the bank going into race No. 9 of the 2014 season.
It’s hard to believe that in mid-April, out of the four superstar teams at Hendrick Motorsports, there’s only one win amongst them.
Even harder to believe is that the one win was done by the No. 88 team, and they did it forever-ago, at the first race of the season.
That was back in February.
These guys aren’t holding anything back. When a six-time and a four-time series champion has yet to hoist a trophy in Victory Lane, it becomes clear to see that it is that difficult to win in the Sprint Cup Series.
Hendrick Motorsports drivers have nine wins between them at Richmond: Earnhardt Jr. (3); Johnson (3); Gordon (2) and Kahne (1—it was his first Cup win).
Might we see a Hendrick Chevrolet SS in Victory Lane this Saturday?
Stewart-Haas Racing: When You're Hot, You're Hot
In case you’d forgotten, here’s a reminder of who was the most recent winner on the Sprint Cup Series.
Kevin Harvick's second win of the season, at Darlington, made it so that half of all the Sprint Cup races in 2014 have been won by Stewart-Haas Racing. That's a tough average to maintain, but for now, it easily qualifies them as the hottest organization in the sport.
Now that Harvick and teammate Kurt Busch have won a race, where do these "Three Musketeers" go from here?
Disney World is one option, of course. But, I’m thinking they’d prefer to visit Victory Lane at the next three stops on the Cup schedule, Richmond, Talladega and Kansas, instead.
By the way, there is a fourth driver at SHR. She's the one who sells the most t-shirts. And drives the green car.
Qualifying Show Gets High Marks, but Fans Missing the Real Action
NASCAR’s knockout qualifying continues to receive high marks from the fans, the drivers and crew chiefs.
The fans like it because it makes for a more exciting show on Fridays, when there’s not a whole lot of important action except for practice laps. Drivers and crew chiefs like it because it presents a new challenge to their weekend; it produces usable data and a true winner at the end.
Just about any good driver in the Sprint Cup Series can knock off a great one-lap run. But try doing it at the same time the rest of the field is trying to do the same, then you’ve done something.
Unfortunately, the Fox network television broadcast is several steps behind (as usual) in covering the knockout qualifying. They often report on who just ran a fast lap, but it's only after they’ve run it, rarely while the attempt is being made.
There’s also a lack of coverage of what is going on throughout the garage, especially when there are well-designed decisions being made regarding when to go out to make a qualifying attempt in the later rounds.
Fans at home, with access to a computer, have more information at their disposal during qualifying, but it would be good to hear more from crew chiefs during qualifying.
Perhaps TNT and ESPN will learn about these shortcomings before it’s their turn to cover NASCAR. Why have a great show for the fans, if you don’t have it covered?
Time for Toyota to Make a Statement
Kyle Busch (above) has given Toyota its only real moment of glory in the 2014 season with his win at Auto Club Speedway last month.
For much of the season, it’s been Chevys and Fords in the top-three spots at the end of every Cup race. Denny Hamlin’s runner-up finish at Daytona and Busch’s win at Fontana and third-place finish at Texas have been the only bright spots for Toyota in 2014.
Whether the Toyota engines lack speed or not, as Busch suggested to Fox's Darrell Waltrip (via Larry McReynolds) in a pre-race interview, the box scores for the first eight races of the regular season paint a dismal picture for Toyota.
While most observers of the sport see Joe Gibbs Racing as holding the flag for the brand, many expected Michael Waltrip Racing with Clint Bowyer (16th in points) and Brian Vickers (13th) to make a much better showing.
At Gibbs, last year’s winner of seven races, Matt Kenseth, has yet to see Victory Lane at a Cup race, but somehow he has maintained his second-place spot in points, just one point behind Jeff Gordon. And Denny Hamlin, who looked like the man to beat this season in early action at Daytona, seems to have left a good deal of that magic behind in Florida.
It’s time for Toyota to make a statement.
Can Kurt Busch Keep His Focus?
In less than three weeks from now, May 11 to be precise, it will be the first day of practice for the 98th running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, the Indianapolis 500.
It is hard to believe that even a professional like Kurt Busch (seen above with his boss for the month of May) isn’t thinking about that first time he drives his Andretti Motorsports-prepared IndyCar into Turn 1 at full song.
For Busch, it won't be anything like when he's taking that same turn in his stock car. He lifts when entering Turn 1 at Indy during the NASCAR Brickyard 400. For the 500, in an IndyCar, you have to keep your foot planted to the floor and have faith that your car will stick. If you lift in an IndyCar, it's means your day ends early.
If the Michael Andretti-owned squad did the work, however, Busch should have no worries. It will stick and quite well, in fact.
Busch will be the fourth driver in history and the first in 10 years to attempt the doubleheader: the Indy 500 during the day and the Coca-Cola 600, the longest race on the NASCAR schedule, that same night. It's often referred to as "The Double."
But between now and that first day of practice, Busch not only has this coming weekend’s NASCAR race at Richmond, but the following week’s race—which happens to take place at another nerve-wracking race track—Talladega Superspeedway. Then it’s onto Kansas Speedway before a breather that’s called the All-Star Race.
Busch has already won his spot in the Chase. With that pressure off, it won’t mean he’ll be a slacker in his stock car.
Will his stock car become the distraction as the Indy 500 approaches?
What's Wrong with the Furniture Row Team?
Time is running out for Martin Truex Jr.
At 28th in driver points, the New Jersey native's only path into the Chase in 2014 is by winning a race. It's an outside possibility, but even that looks dim.
Dover International Speedway, site of one of his two Cup victories (the other is Sonoma) is coming up on June 1. And then there’s always another shot at a win on the road course at Sonoma in June.
Unfortunately, 2014 is looking more and more like a throwaway for the driver who has made the Chase several times. You want to call it a “rebuilding year.”
One has to wonder why the team that put Kurt Busch in the Chase last season can’t do better than this?
Rookie Battle Continues
It is a real treat to watch two future NASCAR Cup champions as they begin what will more than likely be a career-long battle against each other.
To have been there when Petty first battled against Pearson or Rusty Wallace battled against Dale Earnhardt Sr. or Darrell Waltrip battled against everybody.
While Kyle Larson (seen above) continues to make headlines with his now-all-too-familiar battles against his namesake, Kyle Busch, Austin Dillon goes about his work quietly, passing cars one at a time as he works his way toward the front of the field. Larson’s style is flashy with a touch of "wreckers or checkers" mentality. Dillon’s style is to be conservative yet productive.
Larson is the hare to Dillon’s turtle.
Granted, we all want to see Dillon get in there and mix it up with the big kids every once and a while. He will get his chance to do that in a couple of weeks at Talladega. The grandson of living legend Richard Childress has learned a lot from the man he calls "Pop Pop" when it comes to racing on restrictor-plate tracks. And Pop Pop himself had the best teacher there ever was—Dale Earnhardt.
Justin Allgaier, Alex Bowman, Ryan Truex and Michael Annett remain footnotes in a season dominated by Larson and Dillon. The recent news by Anthony Marlowe, team principle at Swan Racing, isn’t good for either Parker Kligerman or Cole Whitt. Both are reportedly without a ride for Saturday’s race and beyond—as of early in the week, per Bob Pockrass of Sporting News.
It is a special time for NASCAR fans. The 2014 rookie class just may be the best in over a decade.
Often we do not know when significant history is being made. With Larson and Dillon, we do.
The Pressure Remains on Goodyear
The new Sprint Cup Gen 6 car is extremely fast. A large part of the reason for the speed is that the car is producing more downforce (the use of air pressure that holds it to the ground) than any of its recent predecessors. This high level of downforce creates high load factors (read: stress) on the tires, which are already being pushed to the limits.
The result is an increase in tire failures, most of the time at the most inopportune of moments. Not to make light of the situation, as a tire failure at any time can result in damage to the race car and worse—injury to the driver or a fan in the stands. But, we’ve seen a marked increase in tire failures in 2014, and everyone from fans to crew chiefs are concerned.
“We ask a lot of the tires,” said Alan Gustafson, in a recent phone interview with Bleacher Report. Gustafson is the crew chief for the current points leader, four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon.
“We under-inflate them, play with the camber angles and push them right to the limit and beyond. You’re always asking yourself, ‘Do I push it just a bit more to get that extra tenth (of a second), knowing full well that taking just one extra step is a huge gamble?’ ”
Gustafson is only one of 43 crew chiefs faced with making those kinds of decisions regarding the tires every weekend.
The Goodyear tires are just one critical component on a car made up of thousands of components, many of them designed specifically for each individual team.
Yet, Goodyear is charged by NASCAR to design and engineer tires that work for everyone, including NASCAR’s needs.
Teams want tires that remain perfect for a long run. NASCAR wants them to wear out at a specific rate, as it makes for better racing.
On some weekends the two interests meet somewhere in the middle; everyone is happy, and the racing is good. On other weekends, like the one last month at Auto Club Speedway, the two sides never do find common ground, and everyone feels slightly cheated by the system.
It’s not perfect, it never will be and everyone will continue to complain about the Goodyear tires.
It’s all part of the sport.
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