Down to Business:
There are very few events in sport I enjoy more than the Great American race. Daytona 500 Sunday is truly a date to be celebrated on the sporting calendar, as 43 drivers go full tilt for five hundred miles for the iconic Harley J. Earl trophy and NASCAR immortality. Having the biggest day in the sport as the traditional season curtain raiser has always felt a little counter-intuitive to me, certainly when compared to the sport’s stick-and-ball cousins, but there can be no question the 500 starts the season in truly grand style and the 2015 edition was no exception. With the big race in the books, thoughts turn to the rest of the season and, with restrictor plates off the engines until Talladega Superspeedway in early May, arguably the true start to the year. What we see transpire next weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway and then in the four following races before the Easter weekend off – Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Phoenix International Raceway, Auto Club Speedway and Martinsville Raceway – will be far more indicative of how the season might unfold. So while the 500 is a genuine jewel in the American sporting landscape; it’s also a glorious 200 MPH distraction before we hit the first stretch of racing that will begin to define the pretenders and contenders for the 2015 Sprint Cup crown.
The Busch Brothers:
Not since Atlanta Motor Speedway in the penultimate race of the 2001 Cup series have we seen a top echelon NASCAR race without a Busch brother. We’ve seen the very occasional race with just one of the irascible siblings, thanks to the odd race suspension or two, but after some thirteen years it was certainly strange to see neither brother line up for the green flag of the Daytona 500. The question of when either Busch will be back remains to be seen and, at the time of writing, there isn’t really a timetable for either driver to return. The severity of Kyle’s injuries, sustained the XFINITY Series race on Saturday afternoon, may preclude his involvement for multiple races but we’ll learn more as the week progresses. As for Kurt, it’s anyone’s guess at this stage. Some are even opining that he might never return to the Cup Series, but that’s a little premature for me. The first one back, you’d think, would be Kyle, and it will be interesting to see if he alters his M.O. and reduces his XFINITY and Camping World commitments when he does. Best wishes to him as he makes his recovery from an injury that SAFER barriers might well have avoided.
Morale Boosting Start for Martin Truex, Jr.:
A battling eighth place finish and running in contention for most of the race was a solid enough start to the 2015 season for Martin Truex, Jr. This time last year in his first race with his new team, the one-car underdog Furniture Row organization, Truex finished dead last in the 500, running a meager 30 laps before his engine expired. The New Jersey native went on to record one solitary top five (fourth place at Kansas in the Chase race) and just four other top 10’s and his winless streak now stretches 57 races back to Sonoma Raceway in June 2013. In an interview in a Denver Post story written by Nick Groke prior to the season, Truex said of his team’s prospects in 2015: “Things will be different… The important thing is, are we built to adapt? I think we are. But until things change, you don’t know. Hopefully our eyes are wide open and our cars are fast.” It seems unlikely that Truex will go out and run in the top-10 each week but with a bit of luck (say at Sonoma in June), Truex might just find a way to race his way into the Chase. And what a story that would be.
Can Harvick Repeat?
In the end on Sunday, it was quiet sort of second place for the defending champion in the Great American Race. Twelve drivers led at least one lap with Kevin Harvick not among that dozen. “I’m relieved for my team that we had a good, solid finish, a good start to the season,” said Harvick of the first loser finish. Second place continues a fine run of results for Harvick who finished up 2014 with a second place and two straight victories and he’s already looking forward to the challenge of Atlanta Motor Speedway this weekend. “I’m excited about, you know, everything that we do on our mile-and-a-half stuff. I’m looking forward to going to Atlanta,” said Harvick. “That’s really what it’s all about, is trying to win a race to get yourself positioned in the Chase, be able to try to win more races if you can do that early enough.” Don’t rule him out from doing just that next weekend. Winning back-to-back championships, however, is another matter entirely. With the exception of Jimmie Johnson’s record breaking five in a row (2006-2010) you have to go all the way back to 1998 and Jeff Gordon to find the last repeat champion. Brad Keselowski, by comparison, didn’t even make the Chase the year after he won his title. Harvick, given the revised Chase qualifying format compared to Keselowski in 2013, will almost certainly make the playoffs by way of Victory Lane. Whether he can parlay that out once more into a Cup crown over the ten playoffs races remains to be seen.
Next Up: Atlanta
When I first typed up this week’s fifth and final point I temporarily wrote my subject as “Next up: Phoenix,” which has for the last four years at least been the second race of the campaign. But in a change to the 2015 Cup Series schedule this year, we are instead heading back east across the country to Atlanta Motor Speedway for the 108th Cup race at the venerable and storied mile-and-a-half circuit. Last season Atlanta was race number 25 on the calendar, a Labor Day weekend Sunday night event, one prior to the Richmond International Raceway Chase field cut-off. It was a race won by Kasey Kahne who nailed down his playoff berth just in the nick of time with a much-needed victory. But with the new rules package this season, and a dearth of off-season testing; teams will head to Atlanta with some trepidation as they work out how good they are, speed-wise, relative to the competition. It almost goes without saying that the usual suspects will be fast but this Sunday’s race will do much more to define how the season might play out in the longer term than the Daytona 500 did. Atlanta typically produces great racing at high speed, so here’s hoping week two is a fine second act after all the excitement of the Great American Race.
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