1) Much has been said already about the debris cautions during last weekend’s Auto Club 400. Give it to us straight: is NASCAR in the right or the wrong?
Kevin Rutherford, Managing Editor: No doubt: NASCAR has made some questionable calls in years past when it comes to throwing the caution vs. not throwing the caution for debris. I tend to be of the opinion that a good majority of the debris cautions can be verified, but what I think is the real issue stems from how it affects the outcome of the race – which is to say, when such a caution happens toward the very end of the race. If a piece of debris just simply isn’t going to affect the racing groove, ignore it. Let them race.
Phil Allaway, Editor: I talked about the debris that caused the first green-white-checker in Couch Potato Tuesday. There was debris and FOX showed it to viewers. It could go either way. While I definitely wanted the race to end naturally, you just never know what could have happened. Strange stuff has happened already in 2015. Having said that, NASCAR and the TV partners need to do a much better job proving to viewers that the debris actually exists so the WWE references and conspiracy theories stop once and for all.
Aaron Bearden, Contributor: NASCAR is in the wrong, but not by too much. After throwing the two debris cautions, it’s hard to believe we didn’t see a caution for an actual car spinning, but the sanctioning body felt that drivers were safe and wanted to give fans a green-flag finish, so it makes sense from that respect. NASCAR just needs some consistency with calls and its explanations, something it hasn’t yet mastered.
Clayton Caldwell, Contributor: I’m not going to get into the business of breaking down every single caution flag from last Sunday’s race but I am a firm believer that NASCAR does throw caution flags intentionally. I believe that, since the inception of double file restarts, NASCAR throws caution flags when the field gets spread out to make the race more exciting. Most of the time it happens when television is on commercial breaks, and by the time we come back, they’re pitting. Then we get a double file restart that makes the race more exciting. That is something NASCAR and most media members won’t admit.
Mark Howell, Senior Writer: Phantom cautions are part of NASCAR folklore. There are so many eyes on the racing surface, any debris is deemed both real and a threat to safety. NASCAR gains nothing by merely throwing yellows on a whim. We all know the usual result of a green-white-checkered finish: more mayhem, more caution laps, and more of a slow pace. Saying that NASCAR uses cautions to affect the outcome of races suggests that events are fixed. If fans feel that way, maybe they shouldn’t follow the sport.
Joseph Wolkin, Contributor: NASCAR is 100% right to throw debris cautions when it feels it is necessary. The circumstances were quite crazy, but if there’s a piece of debris that can cut tires of the leaders (or anyone else in the field) late in the going, a caution must be thrown. Remember, it isn’t NASCAR’s fault that the TV cameras didn’t catch it.
2) Toyota is off to a miserable start five races in to the Sprint Cup season, with its best driver just 13th in points and no wins. What’s the deal and what’s the fix?
Rutherford: Eh, not a big problem right now, really. There seems to be a bit of a lack of horsepower on the Toyota side, but it’s early – and at the moment, we live in an era of NASCAR where just one win vaults you into the postseason. Even if the progress is slow, all will be well for Toyota as long as it slots a few drivers into Victory Lane by the second Richmond race. At least one Joe Gibbs Racing driver will be part of that group – probably more.
Allaway: The deal is that JGR is the flagship Toyota operation, and it lost its backbone when Kyle Busch went down. Having substitute drivers is never a good thing for an organization. Michael Waltrip Racing is dealing with similar issues because of Brian Vickers‘s ongoing health issues, which he cannot help. It’s a perfect storm of terrabad that no one can really help. There’s nothing that can help the situation but to wait it out. There is no “fix” here.
S.D. Grady, Senior Writer: Both Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin saw the light last week. They did not hold onto the handling as the race continued, but I wouldn’t worry too much about the Toyotas. I would definitely be scowling at those Roush Fords. They are so far behind the field, I don’t know that they’ll catch up by June.
Caldwell: Horsepower. It’s amazing to me how JGR has just sit there and let Toyota Racing Development still make their engines. While it may be a bit of a finanical burden at first, I think JGR would be better off with their own engine program like they did a few years ago. It it now officially over a year since Toyota has won a race on a non-plate track. That is a major problem. I know JGR has the drivers to be competitive. Obviously Busch’s injury affects the team, but they still should be running better than they are. Both JGR and MWR are struggling. You can see the frustration on Clint Bowyer‘s face every week. This is a guy who was really optimistic earlier in the year, but you have to be blind not to see Toyota is far behind the rest of the pack.
Howell: Find the missing horsepower and the wins will follow. It’s only a matter of time. Toyota’s lack of horsepower seems to bubble up from the shop level – it’s not that the cars, overall, get slow during an event, but rather that they unload slow come the first day of practice. Not to cast doubt on the tuners and engine folks at the track, but, as one of my high school teachers used to say, “you can’t make chicken salad out of chicken s**t.” No amount of tuning seems to help the Toyotas gain much of an advantage.
3) With the Camping World Truck Series running its first race of the season on a track at which drivers under 18 years old can compete, who’s someone to watch this Saturday as a possible spoiler to the full-time drivers?
Rutherford: Of the four drivers under 18, Cole Custer is the one who stands out. And why not? Dude’s already won a race in his brief Truck Series career, becoming the youngest winner in series history last year, and he now has JR Motorsports power behind him. Future star for sure, and he’s about to start off his limited season strong. For an alternative, try John Hunter Nemechek. He’ll be a series regular soon enough and his family-owned team has been stout in the past. Joe raised a good one.
Grady: Say hello to Gray Gaulding. Martinsville is Gaulding’s kind of track. Well sponsored by Krispy Kreme for the past couple years, he has been notable whenever he gets on track. If you missed the Battle at the Beach in 2013, you missed an epic run to the finish between Gray and Cameron Hayley. However, don’t dismiss Nemechek or Daniel Suarez; they are newer faces capable of rubbing the wrong bumpers and coming out on top at the paperclip.
Beard: Nemechek. I would also say Custer, but after his dominant win at New Hampshire last year, one can hardly call him a spoiler. Nemechek is the son of Cup winner Front Row Joe, and already has an impressive resumé in his young career, including a Snowball Derby victory last December. Nemechek’s the real deal, and a short track like Martinsville might be just the place for him to prove it.
Caldwell: Nemechek. This kid has a lot of talent and has won some of the countries most premier short-track races in the past year. Nemechek won the All-American 400 and the Snowball Derby in impressive fashion. There’s no doubt this kid has the skill, it’s just a matter if NEMCO has what it takes to compete against the big teams in the series. John Hunter almost won last season at Gateway, and I believe will have a solid run this weekend at Martinsville.
Wolkin: Custer and Nemechek are obviously going to be very competitive throughout the weekend. Gaulding is running his first race for Red Horse Racing, and that team has been known for its short-track dominance, which is something he should be able to capitalize on.
4) Kurt Busch continues to climb since NASCAR reinstated him, nearly winning at Auto Club last weekend. He won this Martinsville race last year. Does he do it again?
Rutherford: If he doesn’t, his teammate will. And no, we’re not talking Danica Patrick (Ha!) or Tony Stewart. Kevin Harvick has been nearly unstoppable this season no matter what series he’s in, and I think the paperclip will suit him well. But if there’s anyone who can threaten him, it’s Busch, momentum on his side in his own right plus a formidable track record. Really, the way he’s been running, it’s just been a matter of time before he breaks into Victory Lane, and Martinsville seems like the best opportunity yet.
Grady: I certainly wouldn’t count him out. Have you ever noticed that an angry Kurt Busch tends to be a competitive Kurt Busch? Yeah. He’s not too happy at the moment.
Caldwell: I believe the race this weekend will come down to – wait for it – a double-file restart late in the race. Since that will most likely be the case, I find it extremely difficult to pick a winner. It’s going to come down to who has the guts to push someone out of the way at the end of the race, which is why I am a little reluctant to pick Jeff Gordon. Although if you go by track record, he and Jimmie Johnson are the two best options to choose. Hendrick Motorsports engines and chassis have won the last seven races at Martinsville, and I don’t think that’s going to change this weekend either.
Howell: Not this time. He’ll run well and be competitive, but victory will elude him. Busch is more than a capable driver at Martinsville, as history demonstrates, but I don’t think Harvick’s mojo has fully bled over to help bolster the No. 41 bunch this weekend. Busch can beat-n’-bang with the best of them, but the best of them will most likely outrun him in Virginia come Sunday afternoon.
Wolkin: Kurt Busch is on a mission, and he is extremely hungry after narrowly missing out on what would have been a very emotional victory for all of Stewart-Haas Racing. He has a great history at Martinsville, and going back-to-back in this race could give him a confidence boost for the rest of the season, which is something the entire team needs (with the exception of Harvick).