The Biggest NASCAR Storylines Ahead of the Sprint Cup Series at Richmond II
This week, every team that’s not in the Chase still has a chance at getting into it.
Hope springs eternal in every Sprint Cup shop as crew chiefs know that anything can happen and often does during a race.
The sporting world remains focused on Tony Stewart, as the former champion re-enters the day-to-day grind of Cup racing after some self-imposed exile. Questions about the No. 48 team continue to be asked, and Jimmie Johnson may not be the favorite come Chase time. And has Danica Patrick turned the proverbial corner?
These and other stories are what people will be talking about as the Sprint Cup Series winds up the regular season this Saturday night at Richmond, Virginia.
Tony Stewart's Return to Competition, Week 2
Tony Stewart’s return to racing will continue to be a big NASCAR story this weekend as the series heads to Richmond for the regular-season finale.
Although NASCAR marketing and communications staff would like the media to turn its focus on the upcoming Chase, questions remain surrounding the circumstances of Stewart’s return to racing. When asked at a formal press conference for specifics on how NASCAR came to the decision to clear Stewart for competition, NASCAR boss Mike Helton deflected the question—twice. Eventually those questions will have to be addressed once the formal investigation into the death of Kevin Ward Jr. is completed.
Stewart’s return to competition at Atlanta was marred by an early exit due to damages to his No. 14 Chevrolet. Richmond is a good track for Stewart, and while the prognosis for him winning isn’t that great, he’ll likely score a top-10, which will deflect much of the attention he’s currently receiving back to the competition on the race track.
Is the No. 48 Team Ready to Take on the Chase This Season?
The No. 48 Lowe’s team appears to be coming out of its summer mini-slump that saw Jimmie Johnson suffer through one mediocre finish after another.
He’s scored top-10 finishes in his last three races, and the Chad Knaus-directed team almost looks like the six-time championship-winning squad that it should look like. But until Johnson wins a race (he hasn’t been to victory lane since Michigan in June) there will be questions about this team’s success in this year’s Chase.
Usually at this time of the season, the talk would be about which team might have what it takes to beat Johnson’s team. Instead, the talk is about whether or not Johnson’s team will make it to the final round of four in Homestead.
We shall see.
Richmond Is the Last-Chance Dance
With the Chase field nearly set (officially), a couple of drivers sitting just outside the 16-driver cutoff are capable of having a good weekend at Richmond and possibly winning their way into the Chase.
Rookie phenom Kyle Larson (pictured) and veteran Clint Bowyer have bounced in and out of the Chase field over the past month. Both currently sit outside. Of course, a win and they’re in. But a win by either Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman or Greg Biffle would quash their hopes.
If Larson does make the field, he would be the second rookie to do so (Denny Hamlin), adding an exclamation point to a season that is already one to remember. Both Larson and Bowyer are short-track specialists, having cut their teeth on tracks similar to Richmond.
Keep your eyes on both drivers this weekend.
Teams Look for Pit Road Advantage
Denny Hamlin may have finished third in the Oral-B USA 500 on Sunday, but his pit crew was No. 1.
NASCAR keeps statistics on how long a driver takes to drive down pit road, get his car serviced and then leave pit road to rejoin the race. Using those statistics, Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing crew was the best at getting its driver serviced and back into action.
In the past decade, NASCAR’s teams have focused on everything that might give them an edge over the competition, and many have upped their game by having highly trained athletes perform pit stops. While most of us just see them as crewmen, each has a specific function in an elaborate ballet that is performed every time a driver pulls his or her car into the pit box.
Hamlin’s crew repeatedly put him back out ahead of the competition, giving him the track position he might otherwise not have gotten on the race track.
Kevin Harvick, who clearly had a dominant car all night on Sunday, fell victim to a bad pit stop that happened at the wrong time—his final one.
“Our cars are really fast and doing all the things we need to do, but we lost control every time we came to pit road tonight,” said Harvick in a post-race television interview.
Has the Chase Field Already Been Set?
Perhaps no driver felt the pressure of having to make the Chase more than Kasey Kahne. He was the only driver in the Hendrick Motorsports stables that wasn’t in the Chase. The only driver without a win, when his teammates had multiple wins this season.
“Yeah, it was just an unbelievable way to make the Chase,” said Kahne in his post-race press conference. “And to win at Atlanta, it's a tough track, a track that I love coming to. And so, it feels really good to get a victory here.”
As the regular season comes to an end, the teams that will move on to the Chase are the teams that have been running up front. Kahne may have been the only driver who consistently ran up front, yet wasn’t in the Chase. With his entry, the Chase field may very well be locked up.
With only one race left, teams outside the Chase cutoff will gamble to get in—and that will force a mistake being made.
Unless Greg Biffle or Ryan Newman has a horrible weekend in Richmond and Clint Bowyer wins the pole, leads the most laps and wins the race, the Chase field as it stands today is likely to be the same one that will start the Chase in Chicagoland in two weeks.
Is There a Clear-Cut Title Favorite?
Handicapping this year’s Chase field will be no easy task. A quick glance, and no one driver stands out in the way Jimmie Johnson has in the past.
But when taking into consideration several factors including aggressiveness, skill, team depth and the overall dog-eat-dog mentality that every race-winning Cup driver possesses, two drivers stand out above the rest of the field.
Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano.
Harvick had the field looking helpless on Sunday at Atlanta. He’s been good on other 1.5-mile tracks too. Watch for him to drive with authority at Chicagoland, Charlotte, Kansas and the other similar-length tracks.
Logano has totally transformed himself from that nerdy kid into a “get out of my way, I’m going to the front and if you don’t, I’ll drive you into the wall” Team Penske driver in the Paul Tracy mold. If you’re not sure of who Tracy is, here’s a short YouTube video to get you up to speed.
For sure Jeff Gordon has got a fire burning for his fifth title and Brad Keselowski has shown flashes of his incredible talent, but no two drivers have shown that they are championship-bound on a more consistent basis than Harvick and Logano.
With that said, Harvick’s team has an Achilles' heel. Their pit road work has lost them valuable time on the race track and to some extent, races themselves. That needs to be corrected as soon as possible.
Logano has to become better at working with a bad race car toward the end of the race.
And the other driver often mentioned as a favorite? This won’t be the year for title No. 7 for Johnson and company.
Danica Patrick Continues to Show Promise
You have to admit—Danica Patrick might be getting a handle on NASCAR Sprint Cup racing. In her third year in the series, Patrick scored a career-best sixth-place finish at Atlanta on Sunday night.
The former Indy Car driver came back from a lap down not once, but twice to finish among the leaders. She was fourth on the final restart, dropped to sixth and kept her position until the checkers fell.
“I am just so happy for the team,” said Patrick in a post-race television interview. “We have had pretty fast cars for quite a while now and not really great finishes for it.”
Not to be lost is the fact that Patrick did well on a 1.5-mile track. In fact, it might be the toughest 1.5-mile track that the Sprint Cup Series races on all season long. The rest, including Charlotte, Kansas and Texas, might seem easy by comparison.
All quotes are taken from official NASCAR, team and manufacturer media releases unless otherwise stated.
Bob Margolis is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association and has covered NASCAR, IndyCar, the NHRA and Sports Cars for more than two decades as a writer, television producer and on-air talent.
On Twitter: @BobMargolis