Many took to social media on Sunday after Jimmie Johnson stayed on track during a late caution. The move gave Johnson the race lead, but also trapped Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. a lap down in fast cars, which was beneficial to teammates Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Is that kind of teamwork acceptable, or should NASCAR have taken a closer look?
Amy Henderson, Senior Editor: I think it’s far likelier that Johnson was counting on clean air trumping fresh rubber and trying to win the race than anything else. Last time I checked, that was still the point, even if everyone is so wrapped up in the Chase that they forget that part. And if it was team orders? So what? I have no problem with helping a teammate in that way. It’s not like he spun out on purpose or pulled over and let a teammate pass for points.
Mark Howell, Senior Writer: Why have teammates if you can’t use them for strategic purposes? That’s been the nature of team racing in Formula 1 for years, so why should NASCAR be any different? Johnson stayed out, took the lead, and showed that he might be gone, but not forgotten. What the No. 48 team did was nowhere near as blatant as Michael Waltrip Racing and Spingate a couple years ago. Now, if Johnson, Earnhardt and Kasey Kahne ran side-by-side to block traffic and allow Gordon to get a much-needed win, then I’d say there’s a reason for NASCAR to get involved. It was nothing.
Kevin Rutherford, Managing Editor: The tin foil is strong here. But too bad for Truex and Harvick if so. Whatever. I ain’t mad.
Clayton Caldwell, Contributor: I thought Johnson was completely in his right to do what he did. He stayed out on old tires to gain track position – and, yes, to help keep some of the stronger cars on the lead lap. My suggestions to the cars, fans and people who weren’t happy about it? Don’t fall a lap down, it’s as simple as that. Johnson knew by staying out, the furthest he could fall back on old tires was 13th. With clean air, you never know what can happen, and you can’t predict how many cars would stay out. I thought the No. 48 was trying to win a race there, nothing more than that.
Aaron Bearden, Assistant Editor: The #BlameJJ is strong with this one. Look, Johnson and Co. didn’t do anything wrong by staying out. He didn’t have a mysterious itch to scratch, and for all we know, the move could’ve been done with winning in mind. If Truex and Harvick have issues with it, I’d suggest they not let themselves get lapped next time.
After Ryan Blaney‘s top-10 finish at Kansas, do you feel like the rookie is ready to move up to full-time Sprint Cup competition? Should he still be eligible to run for Rookie of the Year if he does, and can he challenge Chase Elliott for ROTY?
Mike Neff, Short Track Coordinator: His speed this year has been very eye-catching. Roger Penske feels like he’s ready to move up so that should be good enough to say he’s ready. He should certainly be able to run for ROTY. While he’s run 13 races this year, he’s nowhere near a full season over his career. When Trevor Bayne was disqualified from contention for it, he had run something like two full seasons worth of Cup races. Looking at the success of the Nos. 21 and 25 this season, Blaney absolutely can contend with Elliott for the ROTY.
Caldwell: I love Blaney. I think he is very underrated as far as his talent goes. I hope he can get one ride next year, not two rides where he can go back and forth. With the pending franchising, it’s going to be interesting what goes on with his future. There is no doubt, though, that with a stable ride he should be able to contend with Elliott for ROTY. All of that though depends on sponsorship and the franchising. Should be interesting to see.
Rutherford: I’m not going to go all fanboy-special here for Blaney, but his production both in the No. 21 for the Woods and Penske’s Xfinity No. 22 suggests that if he were to move up, it wouldn’t be an abject disaster of a season. On that basis alone, sure, he deserves a full-time shot in the Cup Series. The time’ll come, whether it’s in 2016, 2017 or 2020 and beyond, so I’m not too terribly worried about the when. And sure, when he does emerge for all 36 races, slap him with the rookie sticker; I think the more we can avoid complicating the selection process, the better. If only declaring for points in one series is going to be a thing, just let it be that your rookie season is the first since you started declaring for points and let it end there.
Henderson: Blaney has been very impressive, and I’d love to see him have a full-time ride in 2016. The problem is, the reported franchising system could derail his effort as the No. 21 is not a full-time team and would not be eligible for a guaranteed entry. A new Penske team would also be left out in the cold if they’re done by longevity, so his best bet would be with the No. 9 (a Ford team) as of now, but there’s going to be competition for him on that avenue. As for the ROTY thing, I think he’s easily as good as Elliott and I don’t think his starts this year should preclude him. How many starts did Danica Patrick have before declaring for the award?
Howell: I think Blaney is a true talent who deserves a full-time Cup ride. If only a major corporate sponsor saw the history and potential at the Wood Brothers’ shop and signed a huge check! Given the relative lack of relevant ROTY competition, It would benefit NASCAR greatly to allow Blaney a shot at Elliott for ROTY in 2016. It’ll likely be a two-dog fight between these second-generation drivers anyway.
Talladega has always been a Russian Roulette wheel of sorts where you never know which driver is headed to the front. Which winless driver outside the Chase, from classic underdog case to struggling top-tier team, needs a win the most at Talladega and why?
Rutherford: Jack! Jack, it’s that so-so racing journalist Kevin. You know that actual chance at a win your team’s been looking for? Well, get a load of this! (All apologies to the screenwriters of Back to the Future.)
Bearden: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. The two-time Xfinity Series champion has been close in the past at the 2.66-mile track, infamously spinning Austin Dillon while competing for third in 2013. No team needs a win in a worse way than Roush Fenway Racing, and this might be its last good chance to get it done. Add on a driver looking to prove his worth as more than Danica’s boyfriend, and Stenhouse could do well to make his way to Victory Lane on Sunday.
Henderson: Outside the Chase, you have to like Johnson’s chances. Clint Bowyer also comes to mind. Among the true underdogs, three drivers with teams who have a legit shot at some glory are David Gilliland, who pushed David Ragan to the win a couple of years ago, so we know he can run up front, and Casey Mears and Landon Cassill, both outstanding plate racers whose 2014 average finishes at Daytona and Talladega were among the top five in the series among all drivers. Any of those three would make a great feel-good story, but unfortunately, that story would be a mere afterthought thanks to the overwhelming Chase coverage.
Howell: After Kansas, I’d have both Matt Kenseth and Dale Jr. atop my top-tier, must-win-Alabama list. As for a non-Chase underdog, I think a Talladega victory by Kyle Larson would constitute Monday morning feel-good sports news. He’s been close; it’s time to seal the deal.
Neff: Who doesn’t need a win? If you have to choose just one I’d say pick anyone from Roush Fenway Racing. Greg Biffle is being asked about retirement. Stenhouse is rumored to be losing his ride. Bayne hasn’t done anything at the Cup level since the upset Daytona victory for the ages. Any one of those three could really use a victory.
Regan Smith recently announced that he will not return to JR Motorsports in 2016. What might that mean for the 32-year-old Smith moving forward?
Caldwell: It changes his game plan. He now needs to focus on just being in a racecar car instead of being competitive. He’s shown he has skill but he doesn’t have the sponsor backing which is key to being in a NASCAR racecar in 2015. He has to be at the racetrack every week to show that he still wants to be in this sport if he wants to be in a big ride again someday. It’s unfortunate because everyone can see he’s done a nice job at JRM, but again talent isn’t all that gets you in a big ride nowadays.
Rutherford: Some rumors have him as a possibility at Richard Petty Motorsports in the No. 9. Certainly would be a solid fit, though I wonder if he’d take it or would rather search for another championship-contending NXS ride. Heck, even toiling in one of Front Row Motorsports’ Cup cars wouldn’t be a terrible idea. That worked out well for David Ragan this year, or at least up until recently. It’s not the end for him, either way. Simply too good for most teams out there to pass up, whether it’s in a part-time gig or otherwise.
Bearden: It means Smith’s running out of funding, which, at his age, is no bueno. Without the championship he so desperately wanted, Smith has done little to live up to the expectations place upon him when he moved to JRM in 2012. Sure, Smith has found success in the form of wins, but in getting beaten by Elliott and failing to find consistency, Smith has provided little reason for prospective owners to give him another shot. Smith’s ceiling is a small-time Cup team, or an above-average NXS team like Roush Fenway Racing. No more, no less.
Howell: It’s not a positive development. A ride with JRM seems to be racing’s equivalent of having a goose that lays golden eggs, and losing that opportunity without a stellar record doesn’t bode well for the driver’s future. I’ve always thought Smith was talented and worthy of decent rides, but unfortunately his overall success has limited his chances with strong, well-funded teams. He deserves better, but such is the vicious circle of motorsports: Winning takes a good team, but you can’t get a good team without winning
Neff: Well, in the short run, it means he better have his resume updated. In the long run, he’ll probably try hard to find a Cup ride, which most likely won’t be there. In the end, he’ll probably end up in the vacant RFR ride or fill in for a lower-tier team. The danger in that is that he gets pigeon holed into a perception that he can’t get it done anymore. That is obviously not true after winning this year but it is a danger.
About the author
Amy is an 18-year veteran NASCAR writer and a five-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found filling in from time to time on The Frontstretch 5 (Wednesdays) and her monthly commentary Holding A Pretty Wheel (Thursdays). A New Hampshire native living in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.
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