Matt Stallknecht · Thursday July 18, 2013
Off week! That’s the phrase every driver in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series will be screaming with delight, for the next few days as they get to enjoy a rare period of time off. It’s a welcome break, during the midst of one of the most grueling regular seasons the sports world has to offer. However, just because the Cup boys are home this week does not prevent the rest of the NASCAR world from buzzing with news and activity. The Nationwide Series will be on center stage this Sunday, instead of the Cup Series with a standalone event at Chicagoland. Meanwhile, the Truck Series will be gearing up for their much-ballyhooed midweek event Wednesday at Eldora. On top of all this anticipation, James Finch has sold his team to a group whom, at press time, has yet to be named. As such, we have a jam-packed slate of questions this week… “off week” be damned.
1. What should we expect out of the Nationwide Series standalone event at Chicagoland?
It is not often that the Nationwide Series runs a standalone event, and it is even rarer for it to be held on a Sunday with no Cup race as support. These sorts of weekends are a huge boon for this series, as it will play host to pretty much the only notable sporting event outside of regional MLB games that the mainstream world will be focused on this weekend. It’s just a bit of a shame that such exposure couldn’t come at a more action-packed racetrack.
Yes, on a weekend that would seem perfectly geared for a standalone road race or maybe even a short track, NASCAR instead chose to send the series to Chicagoland, a cookie-cutter intermediate of the blandest order. But all is not lost! The Nationwide Series cars tend to put on a decent show at the bumpier cookie-cutter tracks, and Chicagoland has developed some rather pronounced bumps on its rough and ever-aging surface. That’s good news for the prospects of passing and tire wear being present in the race.
Will Sunday’s event be a classic? Probably not, but it likely won’t be a snoozer either. Expect to see a fair degree of passing and tires that wear quite a bit over the course of the weekend. Also, with few Cup regulars in the field (Joey Logano, Landon Cassill and Joe Nemechek are the only ones making the trip to Chicago) it stands to reason that a Nationwide regular could have a rare opportunity to steal a win. All in all, it should make for an interesting weekend.
2. What will become of Phoenix Racing?
The big story that has been circulating through the NASCAR world these past few weeks has been whether or not James Finch would be able to sell his Sprint Cup Series team. On Wednesday, that question received an answer… sort of. Finch announced that he had completed the sale of the No. 51 cars to a then-unnamed buyer, and that a separate announcement by the buying party would likely come on Friday.
At the time of writing, the buyer’s name had yet to be released, and it may not be until late Friday afternoon (or even later than that) as to when we have a definite answer as to who the buyer is. Sources have indicated that Harry Scott Jr. of the Turner Scott Motorsports operation was the buyer, but that has still yet to be confirmed officially. The rumor is that Scott bought (or at least pursued) Phoenix Racing with the intent of slowly integrating the former Phoenix operation into a full-fledged, Cup Series arm of Turner Scott Motorsports by 2014. Building on this point, the goal would be to have Justin Allgaier and his sponsor Brandt make the move to the Cup Series in late 2013, when the transition from Phoenix to TSM is completed. The goal would then be to run a full Cup effort in 2014.
While all of that certainly would seem to make sense, we can’t know for sure what exactly this new buyer (assuming it is Scott) will have in store for the team until the announcement is made. It also wouldn’t be inconceivable to think that he was outbid by a richer investor at the last minute, opening up a whole new set of questions as to what that owner could have in store for the team.
All told, this sale will be the biggest story to keep an eye on throughout the weekend, as once the announcement is made, a boatload of information will follow it. Stay tuned.
3. Can anyone break Regan Smith’s hold on the Nationwide Series point standings?
Only a month ago, it appeared as though Regan Smith could do no wrong. His championship lead was huge, about a full race’s worth of points and it didn’t appear as if he would be relinquishing any of it anytime soon. But things change fast in the NASCAR world, and what was a seemingly insurmountable lead for Smith has dwindled to only a 5-point advantage over Sam Hornish, Jr. Meanwhile, the rest of the top 10 has been playing catch up, and the two drivers who seemed untouchable earlier this year (Smith and Hornish) are now in jeopardy of falling prey to the pack of vultures that are sitting behind them in points.
Don’t believe me? Six drivers – that’s half-a-dozen, folks – are within 48 points of Smith going into this weekend at Chicagoland. Four of them are within 24 points of that lead. One bad or good race by anyone in that group could very easily vault them into the points lead or at least within striking distance of it, especially if Smith slips up again.
So what happens now? For the answer, I turn to a side of Regan Smith we’ve seen this year that we are, quite frankly, not used to seeing. Smith is a true title contender who has little to no experience in this kind of situation. With so many drivers close to him in the points right now, Chicagoland is a rather critical weekend for him as far as his chances for the championship goes. If Smith slips up and loses his lead, it will be very interesting to see if he and his team have the chops to rebound and still run effectively within the Rookie of the Year race.
4. Will the Truck race in Eldora be a success? How will it go down?
Even though the ever-so-hyped-up inaugural Truck race at Eldora technically isn’t this weekend, it’s too big of an event at this point to go without mentioning. A big portion for the fan base has been screaming for years that they want to see dirt racing return to NASCAR, and the sanctioning body finally granted those fans their wish. Eldora Speedway will host the first NASCAR national touring event on a dirt track since the 1970s, and it is all going down on Wednesday night. The event is being given the “marquee race” treatment, all with a special name (“The Mudsummer Classic”), a special format (featuring heats and a final 90-lap feature race), a special time slot (Wednesday night) and even special appearances from some big name drivers (Ryan Newman will be piloting a Turner Scott entry).
As for my personal thoughts on NASCAR dirt racing, I will withhold judgment until after the event goes off. NASCAR hasn’t held a dirt race in such a long time that it is impossible to gauge what the competition will look like or how the event will unfold. All I can promise is that wrecks will be aplenty and tempers will undoubtedly be frayed. Oh, and Kyle Larson (who will also be piloting a Turner Scott truck) is the easy favorite to win the thing.
The success or failure of the event will be based on NASCAR’s ability to seamlessly officiate and transition between the heat races and the feature, as well as the drivers’ ability to race effectively on a dirt surface. If NASCAR and the drivers/teams can pull this thing off, it could end up green-lighting a whole bunch of new ideas for use in the Nationwide and Cup Series, namely heat races. It could even bring dirt racing back to the mainstream forefront.
So here’s hoping for a successful Eldora event, as dirt racing on its own offers a nice wrinkle to the NASCAR schedule that could develop nicely in the future if all goes according to plan.
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