1) We’ve seen multiple instances this season of NASCAR granting “Chase waivers” for drivers who have missed races for both medical and off-track reasons. But where should the line on those waivers be drawn? How many races should a driver be allowed to miss before they’re permanently considered Chase ineligible?
Matt McLaughlin, Senior Writer: Keep it simple, stupid. If a driver qualifies for the Chase (with one win and in top 30 in points or one of the highest ranked drivers in the top 16 without a win) he’s (or she) is in. If a driver decides to sit out a few races for physical or mental health reasons that distract him from the task at hand, concern about chase-eligibility shouldn’t be an additional issue.
Joseph Wolkin, Contributor: I think five races should be the maximum that a driver can miss. However, I do not agree that a suspended driver should be eligible for the Chase. It takes away credibility from NASCAR, which is basically saying a driver can do something bad enough to get suspended, but they can still win a championship.
Mark Howell, Senior Writer: No waivers should ever be granted. Earn your spot in the Chase as dictated by the all-mighty rulebook.
Kevin Rutherford, Managing Editor: I’m tempted to say that a waiver should be used only in extreme circumstances – like let’s say a driver gets suspended by NASCAR, but then finds that the suspension was not justified, but by then had missed a significant chunk of races. Otherwise? Top 30 in points and won a race; let’s not overcomplicate it and instead use a waiver in only the direst, most unlikely circumstances. In the past, if a driver missed a few races due to injury, it was chalked up to tough luck, you’re not winning the title that year. Drivers shouldn’t be entitled to different treatment these days.
Mike Neff, Senior Writer: This just in, no waivers at all. Win a race and you are eligible for the Chase. Whether you race one race or 26. Will that bite NASCAR in the butt? Possibly. However, the total farce that is currently taking place is a bigger black eye to the sanctioning body. Don’t make a rule then waive it for everyone who can dummy up a quality looking doctor’s excuse in Photoshop. If you want the Chase to be about winning then reward people that win and forget about people who don’t. The teams who want to run the whole season will have a shot on points but do you really need to try and force people to show up and compete in your races?
Phil Allaway, Writer/Editor: Remember last year when Denny Hamlin got the metal in his eye and had to miss Fontana? NASCAR gave him the waiver only because he had attempted to qualify for the race. That’s a fair move to make. They probably should have kept it there. A driver should have to at least attempt to qualify for every race to be eligible for the Chase. By that method, Brian Vickers would be completely ineligible and Kurt Busch would have been ineligible after Atlanta.
Amy Henderson, Writer/Editor: A suspended driver should not get a waiver. Ever. Period, end of story. As much as I believe that Kurt Busch should not have been suspended at the point he was, he was not reinstated because NASCAR had a change of heart. He completed the outlined conditions and was reinstated. Guys who are suspended for failing a drug test can do the same thing: complete the program and be reinstated. Should they get a waiver? Of course not! Can you imagine the outrage from NASCAR Nation if that happened? As for injuries, those are kind of self-policing. While part of me says it should be capped at a month out of fairness to the rest of the field who are racing every week, what are the chances of someone who misses much more than that being in the top 30 in points? And if they can get there, it means they went on a huge tear, suggesting that they are worthy. So that one’s a tougher call.
P. Huston Ladner, Writer/Editor: Gonna agree with McMatt. No need for waivers. If you’ve got a win and you’re in the top 30 in points, regardless of how many races you miss and for whatever reason, you’re in. Quit making it difficult.
2) Now that the drama for Kurt Busch is over… how do you think he’ll actually DO on the racetrack? Will he be in contention to make the Chase, when all is said and done winning at least one race per season or will this special exemption a waste?
Matt McLaughlin, Senior Writer: In reviewing Busch’s season last year his average finish was about 19th and he suffered 6 DNFs, Yes he won at Martinsville but that was his first victory since the Fall Dover race in 2011 when he was still driving for Penske. Yes, another SHR driver (Harvick) is on a tear right now, but look at how Stewart and Patrick are faring to date in 2015. The No. 41 team is the redheaded stepchild at SHR, a team Haas decided to form while Stewart was laid up. If Busch does have an advantage it’s that he’s only missed two races run with the new rules package (Daytona was run with last year’s rules) so everyone else is still scrambling to figure out the “new” cars as well. I wish Busch well but i’m not betting the ranch on him.
Amy Henderson, Writer/Editor: Here’s the deal with Busch. He is always capable of winning. But, in reality, his 2014 season was terrible. Without the Chase reset, he’d have finished 20thin points, plagued by inconsistency, which is something that’s consistent across the board at Stewart-Haas Racing for everyone except Kevin Harvick. There’s something in the organization as a whole that needs to be fixed before they’re all running at the front. That said, Busch will be on a mission to redeem himself, and that can pay off. I think he’ll grab a win and squeeze into the Chase, but I don’t expect a championship-worthy season.
P. Huston Ladner, Writer/Editor: The question with KuBu is what kind of attitude will he bring. Will it be one that is hellbent and saddled with fury, or will he be neutered? If it’s the former, maybe we’ll see something from him; the latter, he’ll probably be riding around in the back with his team co-owner.
Joseph Wolkin, Contributor: Busch is going to have a tough time when he gets back on track – at least for a few weeks. Stewart-Haas Racing has been struggling, with the exception of Kevin Harvick. He’s coming back into the sport three races behind. As of Las Vegas, 30th in points (Jeff Gordon) only has 42 markers, so it is certainly possible for Busch to get back into the top 30. However, the team is incredibly inconsistent. Team co-owner Tony Stewart is struggling mightily early on, and the other two cars haven’t been very impressive. Busch will have the opportunity to run for wins, but Tony Gibson and he might need to take risks that they normally wouldn’t do to get back into Victory Lane.
Phil Allaway, Writer/Editor: Oh, you thought the drama was over for Kurt Busch? Not a chance. There’s still the inevitable lawsuit and civil trial ahead of us. It’s not over by any measure. As for Busch’s on-track performance, step No. 1 will be getting into the top-30 in points. I think he’ll do that in a month or so. Then, he’ll need to win to get in. It’s possible, but not exactly likely.
Mike Neff, Senior Writer: Busch will win a race. Tony Gibson is a great crew chief and Busch is a hell of a wheel man. He’s going to be driven to succeed at this point because, despite his previous difficulties, this time he very well could have been out of the sport for good. He’s going to put it all on the line, because points truly won’t matter, and he’ll win a race or two and make the Chase.
Kevin Rutherford, Managing Editor: You’ll see a fire lit under the guy. No getting around it, dude sucked last year – and I don’t think you’d hear even Busch himself deny that. Now, not only is he three races behind, but he also has that unspectacular season to recall. Gene Haas may be bankrolling this team, but don’t you think even he’d get fed up if 2015 offered similar results as 2014? Busch is a talented driver; I don’t think there’s anyone out there who’d deny that. If he can reach in deep and overcome races missed and seasons squandered, he’s not gonna be awful.
3) Tony, Tony, Tony. The three-time champ has fewer points in three races than Brian Vickers has in one. Diagnose what’s going on with Stewart, the No. 14 car and whether personnel changes need to be made to boost their performance.
Amy Henderson, Writer/Editor: Again, ignore Kevin Harvick for a minute and you’re suddenly looking at an SHR organization that’s not healthy. Even Harvick struggled at times for consistency last year, and the real tale is in how the points would have fallen without numerous resets in the Chase. Harvick would have been a top-5 driver, but the other three SHR drivers were 20th or worse. While that’s expected from Danica Patrick, Stewart and Kurt Busch have four titles between them, so it’s not talent holding them back. Perhaps the team expanded too quickly. Taking on three drivers with different levels of experience and different needs in a car is a huge undertaking, and Stewart not only has to contend with the expansion as a driver but also as team co-owner. Add to that that he spent much of 2014 under 100 percent due to his broken leg in 2013 and the emotional toll of the Kevin Ward, Jr. accident, and you’ve got a driver under a Joey Logano-sized ton of pressure. So while there are changes that need to happen, it’s hard to point only at the No. 14.
Matt McLaughlin, Senior Writer: The problem with the No, 14 car is the nut behind the wheel as we used to say. Stewart simply hasn’t been the same since being badly injured in one sprint car wreck and being involved in that other sprint car tragedy last year. It would probably behoove him to retire from driving in the Cup series and refocus his energies on being a team owner. That’s more than enough work for any one individual. Jettisoning the dead weight of the No. 10 team could also be a benefit to the organization.
Mike Neff, Senior Writer: It is difficult to put a finger on what pulse is there for the No. 14 team right now. For whatever reason, they are just not clicking right now with an organization that has the defending champion running like he owns the series. Whether it is a chemistry thing or just difficulty for Stewart to get a feel for this latest iteration of the car, it is seriously bad for Smoke right now. Considering Stewart has raced and won in every single thing he’s ever driven, the idea that he can’t get the feel for the car seems absurd. That leaves chemistry. We have been spoiled in recent times with the quick success that new driver/crew chief combos have achieved. Perhaps this is just a reminder that it does take a while for these things to click.
Mark Howell, Senior Writer: One thing’s for sure: Tony has struggled to get a grip on the new rules package. That said, I believe the problems lie deeper within the confines of Stewart-Haas Racing. Harvick might be NASCAR’s flavor-of-the-year, but Smoke is coming off both physical and emotional (and potentially legal?) slumps from his addiction to sprint cars. Toss in newly-reinstated Kurt Busch and a need-to-negotiate Danica Patrick, and the mood at SHR is anything but peaceful. Maybe it’s time for some tough, overall personnel decisions. That’s one way to try and get the house in order.
P. Huston Ladner, Writer/Editor: Should Tony continue to race, and he will because of the money it brings in for the team, he needs two things: a psychologist and a trainer. He needs to get his mind-body connection sorted out because right now it all seems out of whack.
Phil Allaway, Writer/Editor: Stewart is not adjusting well to the new rules, as his radio outburst on Sunday proved. There’s going to be an acclimation period. He’s a much better driver than his on-track performance is showing. It’s too early in the season to decide whether or not Chad Johnston needs to go or not, but check back at Talladega. If he’s still this miserable by then, changes will be needed.
Joseph Wolkin, Contributor: This entire organization, with the exception of Harvick, has more problems than it has solutions. It’s that simple. Stewart has never clicked with crew chief Chad Johnston, and getting rid of Steve Addington before the 2014 season has been the difference maker. He needs a crew chief that has a personality similar to him, which is not what you see in Johnston, who notably had only a drop of success with Martin Truex, Jr. before the team jumped to get him. Though Stewart usually starts off the season slow, there is no excuse for finishing outside of the top 25 at two tracks that he has won at before. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. It’s still early in the year and Stewart has a few weeks to try out new things and get things turned around.
Kevin Rutherford, Managing Editor: Probably all in his head, because it doesn’t seem to be a car performance issue. Whatever the motive or the question of intent/no intent at Canandaigua, the result remains the same: Stewart, or more specifically his car, killed someone. Some people take time to come back from that sort of thing. Others never do at all. And with the tragedy not even a year in the rear view mirror, I think expecting him atop the standings would be wishful thinking.
4) No XFINITY Series full-timer has led more than 18 laps total all season. Cup drivers have dominated the last two races. When’s the next time we’re going to see an XFINITY-only driver break through?
Joseph Wolkin, Contributor: The Cup Series drivers have been exceptional as usual in the XFINITY Series early on. However, we are starting to see some XFINITY Series-only drivers start to get momentum back. Reigning champion Chase Elliott has earned back-to-back fifth-place finishes, but he hasn’t shown the speed to win a race yet. With such few stand-alone races, it doesn’t give these young drivers a chance to win, or even veterans such as Elliott Sadler and Regan Smith. If there were more stand-alone races, the racing would be more exciting, and there wouldn’t be less than 15 cars on the lead lap like we have seen with the Cup Series dominance over the past two weeks.
Amy Henderson, Writer/Editor: When’s the next standalone? Yes, that sounds harsh, but that’s what NASCAR has allowed the series to become.
P. Huston Ladner, Writer/Editor: When’s the XFINITY road course that’ll be too difficult for Cup drivers to make? That one seems a reasonable target date.
Matt McLaughlin, Senior Writer: The NXS runs at Iowa on August 1st while the Cup drivers are tied up at Pocono that week. My guess is that will be the first race to be won by a series regular.