This off week has been fairly quiet (and quick) for the Sprint Cup Series. It provided just enough time for teams and drivers to rest up and prepare for the Chase for the Sprint Cup “Challenger” Round, which kicks off in Chicagoland in another two weeks.
That is, of course, if they’re one of the lucky 11 who have secured a slot in NASCAR’s postseason. For the remaining five drivers who are currently in on points, the plan is to race these two weeks and hold their breath to see if they do in fact make the 2015 Chase grid. Right now, the five that are on the hot seat are all tremendous talents and should be able to maintain the points balance until we get through Richmond. But I’ll get to that later.
This weekend’s race at Darlington will bring back a lot of memories for older fans as NASCAR has gone retro for the stop at the track Too Tough To Tame. Seeing some of the Sprint Cup Series drivers’ throwback paint schemes throughout the off-week was great, and I think we’re all in for a really memorable event on Sunday night. If the cars weren’t enough, NASCAR and TV partner NBC just announced yesterday that the ’70s retro theme will even be present in the broadcast booth. For portions of the Southern 500 on Sunday, viewers will hear the iconic voices of Ken Squier and NASCAR Hall of Famer Ned Jarrett. Pretty cool to say the least.
Now onto this week’s questions sent in from you, our readers…
Q: Greg, Really curious to see where Clint Bowyer will land after the news of the breakup of Michael Waltrip’s team at the end of this year. Where do you see Clint landing, or do you think he won’t have a ride for ’16? Thanks! – Robert L., Cornelius, N.C.
A: Hey Robert, thanks for the question this week. The topic of Michael Waltrip Racing, the demise of a multi-car team in the sport, and what will happen to its employees and the drivers will be a subject we’ll go back to and talk about for years to come.
But the fact is (and there are those who don’t see it this way), NASCAR has seen teams come and go throughout its 67 years. And the simple fact is not all those teams failed because they lacked talented drivers who had won in the past and still could contend.
It’s a business, and sometimes in business things don’t work out as planned. In this case, sponsors and a majority owner who was only supposed to infuse the business (MWR) with working capital and step aside ended up running its day-to-day operations. Or at least that’s the story many fans are hearing by now on what transpired at MWR. The bottom line is a driver like Bowyer, an eight-time winner in the Sprint Cup Series and arguably one of the most marketable athletes, had a sponsor in 5-Hour Energy. 5-Hour Energy committed to staying with him wherever he goes and Bowyer has less to worry about for 2016 and securing a ride than let’s say David Ragan, his teammate this year at MWR.
In the end, I think they both land somewhere. For Bowyer, a rumored third car at Chip Ganassi Racing seems to make sense. After the Rob Kauffman to CGR deal works itself out and things settle down, I really do think you’ll see Bowyer behind the wheel of a Chevrolet for Gannassi and Kauffman in 2016.
Ragan on the other hand will have a tougher road back to Cup racing in ’16, especially if no other new single car teams are launched. A driver like Ragan may need to take his talents to the Xfinity or Camping World Truck series next season. And I think the third driver in that set, Brian Vickers, has seen his last days as a full-time Sprint Cup Series driver with the closure of MWR. It’s unfortunate, but hampered by re-occurring medical issues, with his heart and developing blood clots, Vickers may not be a risk a smaller team is willing to take on.
Q: Hi Greg. Big Jeff Gordon fan and would love to see him have one last ride in the Chase for the Cup this season. Who left on the Chase ‘bubble’ won’t make it in? And who do you think should be careful in the last couple of races before the field is finally set? – Casey H.
A: Hi Casey, thanks for writing. Gordon right now sits in the 15th slot, second to last, in the Chase Grid. Only three top 5s this season has really hurt the No. 24 team’s chances at making it safely within the postseason field.
Is there a chance that Gordon doesn’t make it in? I wouldn’t say never, but with the way he and crew chief Alan Gustafson have worked together this season, it’s seemed to me like there’s been more distraction than concentration with all the hype surrounding Gordon’s last full-time season. The communication breakdown has hurt the No. 24 Chevy this season, and I think it’s a mystery that really only two people inside that team can fix, if they can fix it and quickly. It would be a shame to see a four-time Cup champion, and arguably one of our sport’s all-time greats, not make it in the Chase in his swan song season.
If there are any drivers currently in on points that I think may not make it into the playoffs in two weeks, I’d say watch how Ryan Newman and Bowyer fare this weekend at Darlington. Those two teams (especially Bowyer, who is 16th on the grid), have the most to lose. Newman just hasn’t been able to get back on track from where he was a season ago. Luke Lambert, for all his talent, hasn’t been able to get a grasp of that car and produce what Newman has needed to be competitive for wins this year. He’s another one of those guys who the 2015 rules package may have hurt in terms of what he’s used to driving.
And finally, if there is anyone on the outside looking in right now that those five drivers (Jamie McMurray, Newman, Paul Menard, Gordon and Bowyer) should be watching, it’s probably Kasey Kahne. With Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson both firmly in the Chase and Gordon most likely in on points, Hendrick Motorsports may try to make a push in these last two races to get Kahne in with a win before the regular season ends.
No matter how you slice it, or who you’re rooting for to make it into the postseason field, this year’s battle for the last few slots is shaping up for an epic battle in these next two races at Darlington and Richmond.