NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Five Points to Ponder: Down to Business, Busch-less Racing and a Back-to-back Champ?

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.

(Photo: CIA Stock Photography)
It’s been over a decade since we’ve seen a race without er of the Busch brothers in it. We’ll see a lot of it in 2015. (Photo: CIA Stock Photography)

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.

(Credit: CIA Stock Photography)
The Cup Series has raced under the lights at Atlanta recently, but they return to daytime action this weekend. (Credit: CIA Stock Photography)

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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GinaV24

I was disappointed in the ending of the 500, not just because Gordon got wrecked but because after an afternoon of pretty good racing, it all came down to a green white wreckers. When the wreck with 7 laps to go happened, I knew it was likely they were going to have a GWC. Look I have no problem with the race ending under caution, I’d rather have that than multiple attempts at GWC which IMO simply makes for carnage on the race track. Sorry but 3 laps to finish up the race, especially at RP tracks, just seems stupid to me considering they need a full lap just to get up to speed.

I’m guessing that it is going to be more than a few weeks for Kyle Busch to heal up to get back in the car. Let’s face it, that’s his driving leg that took the most serious injury. I hope that he continues to recover and does well.

I’ve never been a fan of Kurt’s so I don’t really care whether he’s there or not. I understand that if you are a fan of his, you are not happy with the way things have gone.

I’m glad that racing will finally be starting now that Daytona is over. Here’s hoping the weather is good for the race – even though this early in March, it will be cold. NASCAR does such weird things with their schedule.

Bill B

I agree with you on the GWC Gina. Combined with the double file restart all the GWC does is take a win away from the guy that most likely deserved it and give a crapshoot opportunity to another driver who may or may not be as deserving.
My number one guideline for NASCAR’s rules is that they have to be fair to the competitors. Meaning that they guy that’s most deserving should win the race more times than not. How exciting the race is for me to watch is a distant second. If I wanted guaranteed excitement I’d be watching reality television not a sport.

GinaV24

Bill, like you, I think that NASCAR should interfere the least amount with the racing and allow it to happen organically if you will, but then I’m not into reality programming at all. Like you I want fairness applied but NASCAR prefers to fiddle with it in the name of “excitement”.

Matt33Fl

I never could understand the sense in moving Atlanta up so early in the season when it’s still winter in that area. They may get an uptick in TV ratings due to being right after the Daytona 500, but I imagine ticket sales will lag.

rg72

Part of me thinks NASCAR is looking for the next Rockingham, where they can give a track what is generally considered the worst date on the schedule and then pull the date when attendance is predictably subpar because of less than optimal weather. Looking ahead, rain showers and temps in the 40s on Sunday. Bruton may get his 2nd Las Vegas race soon.

GinaV24

NASCAR seems to always be looking for a way to dump one track or other – so long as it isn’t an ISC owned track of course.

Od Farmer

Interesting phrase above: “heading back east across the country to Atlanta. . . .” Hmm. A quick look at any reputable map will show that Atlanta is north and a little WEST of Daytona. EDIT, EDIT! Just saying, . . . .

GinaV24

LOL, the writer is geographically challenged I’d say.

Upstate24fan

Now the real season starts. We will get to see who will adjust first to the new rules package. I am a bit concerned for Gordon because all the reports say this package will favor a driver who likes a loose car. It will be interesting to see what handling characteristics the reduction in power and downforce creates.

Dan

Just some thoughts here. I wonder if the injury to Kyle may not open the door for JGR to have a reason to get rid of him without looking bad. He’s a talented race car driver but he may end up damaged goods. Yeah I know, Stewart recovered from his injury and didn’t lose his ride, but he’s the boss. Let’s face it, Busch hasn’t had the best relationship with his crew chiefs or his team when thinks aren’t going his way. As far as Gordon and the new package goes, I always thought he liked a loose set up because he came from dirt track racing. I believe that was talked about early in his Cup career. I recall it was said that Rick Hendrick said when he first saw Gordon on the track it looked as if he was out of control. So unless Jeff has lost his touch I think he’ll do just fine.

dewayne

why would you go red at the end of Daytona with just a couple laps remaining? a gwc was already assured, and the engine expiration and crash did not seem all that monumental. Just wondering

Bill B

My guess is they didn’t want fuel to be an issue. IMO, that should be a risk you take when you don’t come in for fuel. I didn’t think that wreck warranted a red flag. It was only two cars, right?

GinaV24

I wondered that, too. I agree, NASCAR didn’t want the front guys to have a fuel issue but that is supposed to be part of racing. To me, NASCAR’s decision to throw the red flag was a way to manipulate the end.

Arsen Wanker

So, an article on the Daytona 500 and not one mention of the driver that won it, Joey Logano! Hmmmmmm, I find that odd.

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