Two of the heavy Sprint Cup title favorites, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch, are in danger of falling out of contention after Dover. Is this harmful to the sport and/or the current Chase format?
Vito Pugliese, Senior Writer: If the television ratings are to be believed, not really sure what could make things any worse. The first two races are down over 20% from last year; if the answer is because the races have been on NBC Sports Network, then whose fault is that? I don’t really think it makes a difference that Harvick and Busch are in danger of falling out, as the first two races start out at tracks that are less than inspiring to dedicate an afternoon to during the first two weeks of the NFL season. With that said, I think Busch will squeak by and make it, but Harvick has dug himself quite the hole. If he isn’t in the running I don’t see how that hurts the sport; he isn’t exactly the face of the franchise. If Dale Earnhardt Jr. is out, then it might make a difference, but even if he does, he could win at Talladega or Martinsville, and that probably helps more than anything the Chase has to show for thus far.
Matt McLaughlin, Senior Writer: Let’s start with the obvious: The current Chase format is so convoluted and contrived it’s hard to imagine anything making it more ridiculous. Harvick is obviously going to have to gun for a win and I very much doubt the No. 4 team is going to gamble on fuel mileage or leave him out with a tire rub again. Busch’s situation is nowhere near as dire. It’s between him, Earnhardt Jr., Jamie McMurray and Paul Menard, with a three-point gap separating them going into the event. If I had to bet the rent money on any of that quartet it would be Busch. My guess is that Busch will be hearing a lot of chatter in his ear as to where those other three drivers are running (and NBCSN will annoy the fans with the same) so rather than gunning for the win he’ll just be trying to keep a few spots ahead of the best of the rest of them. Damn, but do I miss the old days when they’d all be going hell’s bells for a win and waiting to see how the points shuffled out afterward.
Aaron Bearden, Assistant Editor: If this had occurred last year, it would’ve been a debacle. However, this season there are as many as eight drivers with a legitimate chance to win it all and be a deserving champion. Losing drivers of Harvick and Busch’s caliber in the championship hunt could hurt a little, but there will still be a wealth of action and stories in the race for the Cup.
Clayton Caldwell, Contributor: I think it is. If you ask most knowledgeable people around the sport, they would say the No. 4 team is a top-three team in the sport. The fact that a blown tire can knock them out of the championship run is hard to swallow. The championship race won’t be as great without Harvick and Busch in it either.
Amy Henderson, Senior Editor: That’s backward; it’s the format that detrimental to the sport for exactly this reason. The champion should be the best driver in the series over the course of a season. As of race No. 28, that’s been Harvick. This is not a stick-and-ball sport; if you want that kind of playoffs, go watch one of those sports instead. One thing that used to set NASCAR apart was just how difficult it was to win a title. Now, you can have a totally mediocre season and be champion when it’s over, while the drivers who were truly outstanding and deserving are watching from the sidelines.
Mike Neff, Short Track Coordinator: Depending on your perspective, it could be or it could justify it. It does seem like it will be a tough pill to swallow if a driver having one of the best statistical seasons in the history of the sport doesn’t make it out of the first round. We’ve seen it before, though. No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament have been knocked out in round two. President Trophy winners in the NHL have been dumped in the first round. The NBA has seen an eight-seed knock off a number one. So as much as some people might like to see it spell the demise of the Chase, it more validates it as a team not functioning at their peak during the playoffs is sent packing.
The appeals panel upheld a penalty for Clint Bowyer‘s Michael Waltrip Racing team this week. Was it a good call, or was the original penalty too harsh?
Bearden: NASCAR stood by its gut and kept the call, which is great so long as the sanctioning body can be consistent about these sorts of calls going forward. NASCAR set the standard against a struggling team, now it needs to maintain it when the big dogs have the same issue.
Caldwell: What was interesting about this penalty is it was never clear until way after the penalty was announced as to what the penalty exactly was for. However, NASCAR has been very stern in its penalties in recent years and this is just another example. How much did it affect the No. 15 team is irrelevant.
Henderson: I’ve never been a proponent of opening tech issues being punished with points because they’re essentially talking point that were earned legally. Opening tech should be a monetary fine, and in the case of blatant cheating (which this appears to be), suspension of the crew chief, but I don’t like the point penalty. The team should have had to forfeit as much of the practice as it took to fix the car, which would have been a huge handicap with just one session before qualifying. But points? That’s a bit much. If the infraction was found after a race it would be a different story; every point they earn should be forfeited, but opening tech? It never even hit the track.
Neff: Seemed completely fair to me. The sound from the garage made it sound like it was a very well known rule and that nobody had a problem with the penalty. It is a shame for the folks that work at MWR because, once Bowyer is out of the Chase, there’s nothing left to fight for. The rats will probably pour off of the ship after Dover this weekend. Or more likely next week.
Pugliese: I think what you saw was an opportunity to enforce a penalty against a team that has nothing to lose or gain, and will not exist in six weeks. I guess it’s good. Probably doesn’t matter though.
McLaughlin: I’m gonna guess if the No. 48 team got caught with the same infraction it would have been overturned on appeal. The fact MWR decided not to pursue its last ditch attempt at a final appeal despite knowing the penalty will keep Bowyer from advancing smacks of a “Who cares? We’re shuttering this joint anyway” attitude. Mike Neff says it ain’t so but I’ll put on the tinfoil cap and say that it’s terribly coincidental that MWR co-owner Rob Kauffman formed the RTA, decided to shut the team down, and put their points positions up for sale right about the same time the bloodhounds in the Room of Doom found this infraction. But I suppose there’s some symmetry here. MWR entered NASCAR racing with a penalty for jet fuel in Mikey’s car and they’re bowing out with another one. Sayonara, Blabbermouth.
2016 will be Tony Stewart‘s last season in NASCAR. Is it time to hang ’em up, and how will Stewart be remembered in the sport’s history?
Henderson: Stewart is one of the best in the sport’s history, a certain Hall of Fame selection, but his contributions to motorsports go so far beyond NASCAR: an IndyCar title and USAC triple crown to go with his three Cup championships. He’s both sensitive and irascible, aggressive and kind. He’s one of a dying breed of racer and will be greatly missed in NASCAR, but he has nothing to prove and has earned his time to just have fun in the sport he loves.
Neff: A driver can hang them up at any time they want to, and Stewart made it clear during his press conference that he’s not quitting, just getting out of the Cup seat. Stewart is going to be running in some of the other big races around the country and possibly around the world now that he won’t have to commit three days to the track every Cup weekend. The sport will remember Stewart as one of the best of all time. He’s the only driver with a Winston, Nextel and Sprint Cup title. He very well could have 50 wins by the time the checkers fly at Homestead next season and will be a first ballot Hall of Fame inductee.
Pugliese: Only a driver knows what it’s time to quit. As H.W. Arnold said, “the worst bankrupt is the man who lost his enthusiasm.” 36 weeks a year is a long time to live in a motorhome, regardless of how nice it is. Even more so when you aren’t running that great, nearly lose a leg, and are involved in a fatal accident. Stewart said yesterday that the events of the past two years had no impact on his decision; whether or not that is rooted in reality only Stewart knows. Sometimes things just stop being fun, and you wake up some morning and think you want to buy a boat. Stewart is one of the last bridges from NASCAR’s meteoric rise to its fall, and subsequent uptick. He’s only the second owner/driver to win a championship in the last 35 years, with two titles as an owner. A capricious personality who can be a total prick one minute, while a soft-spoken, gentle, philanthropic teddy bear the next. In some circles that might call that bipolar, but in our world, that’s just Smoke.
McLaughlin: Only a driver can decide when to hang up his driving booties. That being said, Stewart hasn’t done much to enhance his legacy the last few years. Stewart will obviously be remembered best for his three titles. He’ll likely be the last owner/driver champion as well. But my guess given a couple decades Stewart will be remembered best for his versatility; stock cars, Indy cars, sprints, sports cars, absent the Baja 1000 or the Paris-Dakar rally he’s done it all. Thus I think he’ll be mentioned in the same sentence with AJ Foyt and Mario Andretti, rather than Dale Earnhardt, Richard Petty and Jimmie Johnson.
Bearden: It isn’t time for Stewart to hang them up, it’s just time for him to follow his passion. A glance at Stewart in any given moment in the Cup garage shows discomfort. His time in NASCAR is done. However, his passion for dirt and short-track racing still shows when he appears at Eldora or an All-Star Circuit of Champions race. Stewart might not be done racing, he just needs to race where he’s comfortable.
Caldwell: Stewart will be remembered as a brash driver who had quite possibly the most talent we’ve seen come around. I believe the tapered spacer currently used in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series really hurt Stewart, and part of Stewart’s talent has been handicapped due to that. Add that with the fact of the emotional roller coaster he’s been on for the last year and a half, I think it’s a good idea for him to get out.
Current Xfinity Series points leader Chris Buescher has yet to secure plans for 2016. Should Trevor Bayne or Ricky Stenhouse Jr. be worried?
Neff: Absolutely they should. Neither of them have performed well at all in the Cup series. Stenhouse has three top-five finishes in three full seasons of Cup racing. Bayne has one top five in 86 career Cup races, and that is his Daytona 500 victory. He only has five top 10s in those 86 races. People like to talk about Danica Patrick, but she has more top 10s and poles than Bayne in her Cup career. It is hard to say that Buescher can bring more sponsorship to the table than the other two, but he’s certainly getting it done better than his teammates in the NXS and ought to get a shot.
Pugliese: Only if they have to drive those sorry sleds at Roush Fenway Racing for another year. I don’t put their performance struggles on the drivers; it’s kind of like blaming the quarterback as a defensive lineman streaks by the left tackle untouched and pummels him every game (see Matthew Stafford). Week in and week out there are zero RFR cars in the top 20. And who’s to say that Buescher needs to stay at Roush? It would be a Cup ride and Cup money, but to what end?
McLaughlin: As with anything in Cup racing, this day it comes down to a sponsorship. If Bayne or Stenhouse’s sponsors get antsy about a lack of performance Buescher (or Darrell Wallace Jr.) might get the call, depending on who that sponsor prefers. Roush has three teams right now and is allowed to have four.
Bearden: They should all be worried. RFR is terrible, relegated to B-team status on a good week, and running much worse than that in bad weeks. Could Buescher take Bayne or Stenhouse’s spot next year? Yes. Would it be the worst thing to happen for them? I’m not convinced.
Caldwell: Buescher is an interesting driver because he doesn’t have a sponsor that will follow him along to the Cup Series. I thought the fact that AdvoCare went on his car for several races in 2015 was interesting. I think Bayne should be a little worried as to what AdvoCare will do. As far as Stenhouse goes, he and his team look to be turning a corner a little bit. He’s rattled off a few top 20s in a row and that may not seem like a lot, but it’s a step in the right direction for the team. I doubt Roush would want to break that up.
Henderson: Yup. Neither Stenhouse nor Bayne has given any indication that they are Cup material, and they’ve had plenty of chances. With Greg Biffle aging, and the organization sagging badly, RFR needs some new blood, and Buescher has shown he can run with top Cup drivers in the NXS (his Bristol race was driven almost flawlessly). I’d like to see RFR put Buescher in a car and pick up a talented veteran like Landon Cassill as well.