The Biggest NASCAR Storylines Ahead of the Sprint Cup Series at Michigan II
NASCAR and the rest of the racing world continue to feel the reverberations from what happened in upstate New York last weekend as the Sprint Cup Series regular season edges to a close.
Only four races remain until the Chase begins, and a handful of drivers sit on the proverbial hot seat as the field of 16 takes shape. These drivers are faced with watching the slots available to get in the Chase on points evaporating, making winning a must situation.
Also, Dale Earnhardt Jr. continues to stay hot despite his outside-the-top-10 run at Watkins Glen. Jimmie Johnson’s team isn’t looking too championship-like at the moment. Once the hottest driver in the series, Brad Keselowski has cooled as of late. Meanwhile, questions are rising about whether or not NASCAR should amend its post-accident rules for drivers. Plus, Kurt Busch is already talking Indy 2015.
These are just a few of the stories you’ll be watching as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads back to the Irish Hills of southern Michigan this weekend.
Stewart Saga Continues
After a bit of early confusion last weekend, Tony Stewart wisely pulled out of competition at Watkins Glen, handing the driving chores of the No. 14 Chevy over to Regan Smith.
According to Bob Pockrass at The Sporting News, the investigation into what happened at Canandaigua Speedway continues and is likely to last for some time.
There has been no decision made as to when Stewart will resume his duties as a driver for the organization that bears his name, Stewart-Haas Racing. His name appears on the entry list for this weekend's Cup race at Michigan International Speedway.
Heading into the final stretch of races before the Chase, Stewart had been seen as a long-shot entry into the field of 16. Any hopes of that happening now are certainly dashed.
Do the Rules Need to Be Changed?
As a national television audience watched in horror, several Sprint Cup cars were destroyed during a Lap 57 melee that involved the cars of Ryan Newman, Michael McDowell (pictured above) and others.
As per NASCAR rules, each driver signaled that he was OK by dropping the window net. Although not mandated by NASCAR rules, each driver remained in his vehicle until emergency crews arrived. McDowell had no choice, as his car was damaged so severely that he needed assistance to climb out of it.
Nate Ryan with USA Today reports that it’s likely that NASCAR officials will discuss the circumstances that allowed Kevin Ward Jr. to exit his cockpit and angrily confront Stewart while under yellow flag conditions.
"We always have discussions to become better," NASCAR spokesman Kerry Tharp told USA Today. "NASCAR has a history of looking at situations, and we're not afraid to react to them."
Former Cup champion Brad Keselowski told a national teleconference on Tuesday that such a rule would be hard to police:
Whether it’s racing or society, I’m not aware of any rule or law that works without the ability to enforce it, and I don’t know how you can enforce a rule like that, unless you had robot on the track to grab the person and put him back in the car. The only way you can enforce it is with a penalty system afterwards and really at that point it’s not effective, so it’s a difficult rule to try to make work.
He admitted that he's been in the situation where he's climbed out of his car in anger to confront another driver. But he added that every circumstance is different.
Four More Races in Regular Season
Drivers Greg Biffle (above), Kasey Kahne, Austin Dillon and Marcos Ambrose all sit on the outside of the Chase field of 16 with four races remaining in the regular season.
That's not a comfortable spot to be in when you almost have to get a win to make the field of 16 for postseason play.
Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman, rookie Kyle Larson and Clint Bowyer—who sit 13th, 14th, 15th and 16th, respectively, in points—are in an even more uncomfortable spot. Should another new driver win this weekend at Michigan International Speedway, it will edge a member of this group out of the field of 16.
Kenseth (2002, 2006), Newman (2003, 2004), Kahne (2006) and Biffle (2004, 2005, 2012, 2013) are all previous winners at the two-mile Michigan International Speedway.
Kahne may be in the best spot, as he's won at each of the remaining tracks—Michigan, Bristol, Atlanta (twice) and Richmond.
Jimmie Johnson and Co. Still Off Championship Pace
Another race weekend and another subpar performance from the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team. It has Jimmie Johnson’s fans scratching their heads.
Known for its prowess as a Chase team, this Chad Knaus-led group looks like anything but at the moment. This team hasn’t had a top-10 finish since Kentucky in June. It’s been a disappointing summer, to say the least.
This is normally the time of the year when Johnson and Co. rev up their winning machine for the final stretch.
The long red flag Sunday didn’t play into the team’s strategy at Watkin’s Glen, and Johnson finished deep in the pack a 28th.
One bright spot is that Johnson is the defending race winner at Michigan. And barring some unforeseen circumstance, he is still likely to be a title favorite.
Earnhardt Jr.'s Hot Streak Continues...
Watkins Glen was the first finish outside of the top 10 (11th) in four races for the No. 88 National Guard team.
Still, Dale Earnhardt Jr. remains the driver riding a hot streak in the Sprint Cup Series.
Junior also attributes his team’s race-day strategy to where they finished on Sunday.
"The strategy bit us there. We probably should have come (onto pit road)," said Earnhardt Jr. in a post-race interview, courtesy of NBC Sports. "(Crew chief Letarte) Steve and I think we probably should have come and got tires there. That last stop a couple of guys on new tires beat us. We had a good fast car, real good speed, just got caught out on that strategy there and didn’t finish in the top five. We had a good enough car to."
For most of us, it remains remarkable that a discussion about Hendrick Motorsports’ current hottest driver centers on Earnhardt Jr.
But it does.
...As Keselowski Cools Down
Sprint Cup racing’s former hottest shoe, Brad Keselowski, has had only two top-10 finishes in the last seven races (Sonoma). Fortunately, both of them were wins.
Since Keselowski's sweep of the Loudon weekend, this Team Penske group hasn’t looked Chase-ready. But he doesn’t think it matters.
“Consistency is great for looking and having momentum for the Chase, but in reality it probably doesn’t mean much,” said Keselowski on a teleconference on Tuesday. “We’ve seen Jimmie Johnson enter this stretch of the year even so soon as last year and not have a lot of consistency and go into the Chase and be just fine, so I think from that standpoint we’re focused on wins.”
It’s a great philosophy to focus on—just winning. However, it’s what every other team does. Keselowski might want to think more about focusing on that consistency that he feels doesn’t really matter. Consistency is what gets you wins, and wins are what get you championships.
Rookie Battle Is a Tale of Two Cities
Kyle Larson continues to outperform his rival, Austin Dillon (above), for the Sunoco Rookie of the Year title. Larson’s string of top-10 finishes—three out of the last four races—comes as the number of races remaining before the Chase stands at four.
Larson has been a threat to win since Loudon last month, where he finished a strong third. He was eighth at Michigan in June—a track the series visits this weekend—and 16th at Richmond in May, which hosts the final regular-season race. Larson likes the fast tracks, which favors both Michigan and Atlanta as places where he could score his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series win...and a slot in the Chase.
Dillon, on the other hand, has been consistent but not spectacular. He still struggles with the final segment of a race, when the car isn’t very good. That requires a driver to be up on the wheel more often and, in most instances, carry the car to the checkered flag. This may be an issue with the RCR cars, Dillon’s lack of seat time or both.
Or the game plan might just be for the older Dillon brother to slide in under the Sprint Cup radar this season, without a heavy spotlight shining on him, at least until he’s had the seat time to get better and actually be worthy of the spotlight.
Unlike Larson, who sits 15th in points, Dillon is 19th and probably will need a win to make the Chase this year.
Busch Hints at Another Run for "The Double"
Apparently, Kurt Busch has an itch he needs to scratch.
The Stewart-Haas Racing driver told the website Popular Speed over the weekend that his experience at the Indianapolis 500 created a memory that would last forever. And that he’d like another shot at completing both the Indy 500 and the Coca Cola 600 on the same day. He is one of only four men to attempt the feat.
“It’s a bit too early,” Busch said of how close he is to announcing his Indianapolis return. “Right now, our focus is the Chase and trying to keep others from punching their ticket to get in.”
Busch sits 24th in points but does have his Martinsville win back in March as his ticket to the dance. However, there is math that could have Busch miss the Chase despite his win—although the chance of that happening is slim, and perhaps he is exaggerating his point.
The website quotes Busch’s Indy 500 team owner, Michael Andretti, as saying he’s all for Busch’s return to the Brickyard next May where, as Andretti puts it, “he would be an established favorite.”
Busch needs to return to Indy. One could make a compelling argument that he would have had a front-row start this year had he not had to return to Charlotte to appear in the All-Star Race.