Welcome to Friday Faceoff, our weekly NASCAR roundtable where the Frontstretch experts give their take on major storylines surrounding the sport. Here’s a few major questions we’re trying to answer heading into Kentucky.
1) We’ve had a full week to digest the Austin Dillon wreck, its aftermath and reaction from fans, other competitors and NASCAR executives. What changes, if any do you expect to see by the time we roll around to the next plate race in Talladega? Will that be enough (or too much)?
Matt McLaughlin, Senior Writer: I expect an endless string of platitudes and assertions of a thorough investigation. It’ll conclude with the following theory: “Well then, there wasn’t much we could do about that was there?” I expect some sort of token rule change that makes sense on the the surface but doesn’t hold up to closer scrutiny. I’d guess something along the lines of a smaller restrictor plate or maybe bowing to the reality of ticket sales and not selling the bottom 10 rows of seats. Meanwhile, the Sock-puppets will say “all is well,” the Grumble-fish will predict dire consequences, and in the end the truth will lay somewhere in between. As far as a meaningful solution, no I don’t see that in the cards. Not after 28 years.
Phil Allaway, Newsletter Editor: Ever seen Kurt Busch‘s favorite comedy, Spaceballs? In that film, there’s the climatic scene in which Lone Starr (Bill Pullman) and Dark Helmet (Rick Moranis) meet. In a spoof of the infamous scene at the end of The Empire Strikes Back, Dark Helmet tells Lone Starr that he is his father’s brother’s nephew’s cousin’s former roommate. Lone Starr asks Helmet what that makes them. The response? “Absolutely nothing.” And that is what NASCAR will do here. Bupkis. Diddly poo. They definitely don’t like the crash that ended the race on Monday, but they like everything else. Nothing changes.
Jerry Jordan, Contributor: From an engineering standpoint, the catchfence performed as it was designed to do. It kept an approximately 3,500-pound racecar from exiting the track and seriously injuring fans in the grandstands. It was a successful real-life situation and it passed with flying colors. As for the smaller debris, it is disappointing some fans received minor injuries, but the only way to lessen that risk is to raise the seating or move fans further away from the track.
Aaron Bearden, Assistant Editor: I expect to see a whole lot of hoopla, the word catchfence being uttered enough to warrant a drinking game, and a media fervor. But I don’t expect any actual changes to be made. NASCAR’s not going to make adjustments if they don’t feel like they have to.
Mark Howell, Senior Writer: I expect to see added emphasis on the catchfence and protective barriers. Since plate racing and the big wrecks generates big attention for NASCAR, my guess is that the cars and the competition will stay the same.
Vito Pugliese, Senior Writer: My fear is NASCAR will add more spoiler or make the restrictor plate smaller to slow the cars down – something that will have zero effect on this sort of situation. Small planes take off at 150 mph, and when Kyle Larson nearly ended up in the cheap seats he wasn’t going over 180. The issue that has caused our most recent harrowing moments are double-file restarts and the green-white-checkered finish that encourages this sort of madness to begin with. That was brought about “for the fans” as well, so don’t expect that to change. Fans apparently need to see pack racing, and they need to have a green-flag finish, even at the peril of their own safety.
I think changing the rules for plate tracks would help; no more GWC finishes, and if we’re at 10 laps to go or less, a single-file restart. Contrary to popular belief, this sport got pretty far before we went to these sort of endings. Richard Petty‘s 200th win wasn’t a green-white-checkered finish – it was a race back to the caution flag, one that finished under yellow. To quote Sterling Marlin after “The Big One” at Talladega in 2001: “These cars need to be runnin’ 200 mile an hour.” What they don’t need to be doing is going 200 mph, three-wide, 15 rows deep with 35 cars on the lead lap. The insistence on parity and lack of gray area in the construction of these cars, coupled with the restart rules all have played a contributing factor to these sorts of crashes. Large packs, cars acting as ramps, and nobody being able to lift has gotten us to where we are today.
My thoughts? Clear out the first 10 rows of seats, scale back to single-file restarts for the plate tracks, and raise the fences another 20 feet. Just know you will never completely sanitize motorsports. At the point you do, it is no longer a sport.
2) With rain washing out much of Kentucky testing, what in the world are we supposed to expect Saturday night? Do you still agree NASCAR should go with the new rules package after Mother Nature has made a mockery of this week?
Matt McLaughlin, Senior Writer: Obviously, nobody knows what to expect. But in the end, perhaps it’s better to fail when trying to improve things than to succeed in doing nothing. All parties involved are already hedging their bets and saying not to expect miracles this weekend because a softer Goodyear tire that is part of the planned package isn’t ready in time for the race. Oh, and again with Mother Nature and mockery? You want to see Mother Nature’s mockery, look at an Armadillo.
Phil Allaway, Newsletter Editor: It should be interesting to watch, but you’re going to see larger gaps than normal due to some teams hitting the setup while others will wind up off in left field. The rain just bites. Simple as that. But, you can’t do anything about it.
Aaron Bearden, Assistant Editor: Hey, the rules package is the same for everybody. I say NASCAR should just stick with it and run. That said, teams are hoping and praying for at least one hour of practice. (They got less.) NASCAR needs to find a way to thwart off Mother Nature and get these teams some track time.
Mark Howell, Senior Writer: The new rules package should be incorporated as planned. Teams have been working on the changes since they were announced, and that likely included whatever computer modeling they could muster up. Rain has been a given this season, so waiting to try the new rules would put their use in jeopardy.
Jerry Jordan, Contributor: The action at Kentucky should be fairly intense. As one of the crew guys told me before I confirmed with NASCAR’s Steve O’Donnell they were racing the new package regardless, “We have 43 of the best drivers in the world; do you think they can’t figure it out?” That was followed by Matt Puccia confirming most teams have tested the new package at some point, whether at Charlotte Motor Speedway or at Darlington Raceway and they have had cars in the wind tunnel. So, I expect some side-by-side racing and a close finish.
Vito Pugliese, Senior Writer: My initial thought is, why not? It’s Kentucky, so even if it doesn’t work, no great loss as I think we’ve seen three lead changes in the first few Cup races there. Everyone is going to be on a level playing field, and half the field has a technical alliance with one another so how different is everyone’s cars really going to be?
3) Dale Earnhardt Jr. has now won the last two plate races. He sits second in points, behind only Kevin Harvick. So why are we not talking more seriously about Earnhardt as a title contender? Should we be?
Matt McLaughlin, Senior Writer: They say you have to lose a title before you win one and on the Cup side, Earnhardt Jr. has never finished better than a distant third fully 12 years ago. (Yes, he won Busch titles back in 1998 and ’99 but that was with a different team, back when he was 23 and 24.) That being said, given the modern Chase farce there’s always a shot someone could pretty much back into a title and there’s no arguing the No. 88 team has equipment and talent up to the task – though inconsistency remains the albatross around Junior’s neck. To an extent, I have to question his focus and determination. Let’s put it this way; if you were stuck in hopeless traffic and people were beginning to make crazy moves to make it to the next exit, who would you rather see in your rear-view mirror, Junior or his dad?
Phil Allaway, Newsletter Editor: Earnhardt Jr. is about as great at restrictor plate races now as he was back around 2002. However, he’s a little weaker everywhere else than he was at 27. I think Junior will be up there, but he needs to raise his game on intermediates. Like it or not, the dang intermediates still make up half the Chase. They’re most important and Earnhardt Jr. isn’t as good as Harvick or Jimmie Johnson. This weekend is actually quite important. If Earnhardt Jr. can pick up his efforts on intermediates, then I could put him in the conversation.
Aaron Bearden, Assistant Editor: No. Earnhardt has run great this year, don’t get me wrong, but until he can put together a consistent Chase run, there’s no sense trying to blow him up as a contender. Restrictor plate wins are great, but there’s only one plate race left.
Mark Howell, Senior Writer: Junior should be a title contender if he can master the intermediate tracks. Those are the backbone of the Chase.
Jerry Jordan, Contributor: I think Earnhardt Jr. is a legitimate title contender but it is hard to ignore the current defending champion, as well as Busch. Remember, the latter is on track to have the best season of his career. As for Harvick, he and Rodney Childers are clicking much like Johnson and Chad Knaus did a few years ago. If Dale Jr. wins the championship, it will be great for the sport but he will have to outperform some pretty tough competitors.
Vito Pugliese, Senior Writer: Harvick and Johnson are still the class of the field, but as Junior and new crew chief Greg Ives continue to work together, they will both be on the same page as we start to visit these tracks the second time around.
4) 15 races into the season, Jeff Gordon‘s future replacement, Chase Elliott, remains winless and second in the Xfinity Series championship to Chris Buescher. Cause for concern with 2016 looming or is Elliott still on track for long-term success?
Matt McLaughlin, Senior Writer: Elliott (and Ty Dillon) both know where they’re going to be next year and that it pays better. They’re just riding out the string. Buescher is still trying to make a name for himself, throwing his name into the hat for consideration of a future Cup ride. Coincidence? I think Elliott will be fine. He’s a hugely talented driver and seems to have a good head on his shoulders. As for the younger Dillon brother? The magic 8-ball says that “Answer cloudy – Try again later.” As Sgt. Tate said, “It’s all pretty weird, but life is weird and we’re all just along for the ride.”
Aaron Bearden, Assistant Editor: I still believe Elliott is on-track for long-term success. He’s just going through a bit of a sophomore slump. Remember, he lost crew chief Greg Ives to owner Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Cup team, and he’s also come close to winning more than once this season. He’ll get things back on track.
Phil Allaway, Newsletter Editor: I’m not really going to worry about Elliott right about now. The question makes it sound like he’s struggling. He’s second in points. So what if he hasn’t won yet? Heck, Austin Dillon‘s won thrice, Harvick’s won a couple, Kyle Busch hit paydirt. Wins for NXS regulars are rather far and few between. I wouldn’t worry about him. I will say this much, though. We mustn’t discount the Greg Ives effect here. Ives may have made Elliott look better than he actually is.
Mark Howell, Senior Writer: Elliott needs to focus more on the Xfinity Series. The emphasis on his move to Cup next year seems to have seriously affected his title chances this season.
Jerry Jordan, Contributor: Elliott will do fine in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. He is moving into a position that is destined to do well. When Jimmie Johnson came to the Cup Series, he was given the best equipment and had one of the best crew chiefs. The same will happen with Chase. Will he be a champion straight out of the gate? Probably not. But it wouldn’t surprise me to see him win a race next year and qualify for the Chase for the Championship as a rookie.
Vito Pugliese, Senior Writer: Well, Chase won the title as a rookie, so I doubt it. I believe their focus for him lies elsewhere right now, building towards being the replacement for one of the most iconic numbers and rides in all of motorsports – replacing a legend with the son of a legend. Knocking out wins in the second-tier feeder series seems a bit superfluous.