With Kyle Busch winning at Martinsville Speedways last weekend, the number of drivers now locked into the Chase stands at five. While the Chase may have its issues and detractors, it’s still how the Cup (and now XFINITY and Camping World Truck series) decide the champion.
It seems kind of wild that just six races into the season that so much of the playoff field is already set. Yet by comparison, and with Busch winning nearly every race in the XFINITY Series, no driver in that series is locked in yet. All five of those races have been won by a Cup regular. At least in the Trucks, two of the three races have been won by truck regulars, namely Johnny Sauter and John Hunter Nemechek.
The disparity in how the fields are being comprised brings a different element of pressure to drivers in each series. Beginning with driver Kyle Larson, sitting 20th in points, there becomes a logjam of drivers who will be desperate to earn a win to make the field as it’s likely that none of them, Paul Menard (21st), Aric Almirola (22nd), Greg Biffle (23rd), or Trevor Bayne (24th), are likely to go on a tear and pull off a bunch of top 5s to jump into the top 16 in points.
For the NXS drivers, they’re playing a points game at this point. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Cup regulars win another two-thirds of the races before their Chase begins, so their goal is going to be looking through the standings and eyeing who is in 13th, Dakoda Armstrong, and whether that driver can make a run into the Chase.
With bonus points only given to wins in each series, claiming the top overall points spot actually means little. Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus have figured out this concept and used a win or bust attitude at Atlanta to steal one, but so far other teams have been slow to catch on.
The question is, as the pressure grows, will anyone start taking the sort of chances that they really should? It’s what this Chase format is supposed to encourage but it seems that many teams still think in a more conservative way. Perhaps the NXS series will be the catalyst for change in that regard.
Happiness Is…The Pits. One of the big things that Martinsville has showcased is the importance of position coming off of pit road. The shenanigans that the drivers and teams pulled off after pitting eviscerates the very concept of racing – though it should be noted that these actions are the result of the double-file restarts. However, the deals that Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth continued to pull off on the restarts shows that the pits may have been more important.
The IndyCar series visited Phoenix this past weekend for the first time since 2005. Seeing as how it garnered a 0.29 rating, or roughly 363,000 viewers, you may have missed it. Though the cars were turning laps around the 20-second mark, the race held little in the way of drama at the front. Just like NASCAR the real action came on the restarts and pit stops.
Because the IndyCar restarts are single file, there could be none of the silliness at the front the pit stops became all the more important. The pits have always been an important place but now more than ever they are the place for racing and that seems a little deflating at times. There’s no easy way to lessen the impact of the work done in the pits but this week’s Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway is another where outside versus inside lane is of the utmost importance – let’s hope the shenanigans are kept to a minimum.
Happiness Is…Vickers. Brian Vickers is a NASCAR enigma. He appears to have talent yet does not show it on a consistent basis. He showed promise way back when at Hendrick Motorsports but left/was maybe pushed to Red Bull Racing when they attempted to make a name for themselves in Cup. There he managed a win at Michigan but struggled with the upstart team. His next move paralleled his time at RBR, as he drove for Michael Waltrip Racing and eventually scored a win for the organization at Loudon. His career then became an afterthought when he was diagnosed with blood clots.
Without a ride for the 2016 season, Vickers has driven Tony Stewart’s ride for four races with half-decent results. His 36th-place finish at Las Vegas may be uninspiring but his 13th at Auto Club Speedway followed by his 7th at Martinsville make it seem like he’s trending up. He’s missed two races and sits 36th in the standings. But consider, if he would have managed just 20th-place finishes in the two races he would be sitting near the 20th spot and possibly challenge for a Chase spot. The question will be whether or not he has done enough to warrant someone giving him a full-time gig.
Happiness Is…Spring. In the poetic sense, spring is a time of optimism and youthful exuberance which is represented by the blossoming of the natural world after being dormant in winter. But spring is also proving to be a rather interesting dichotomy in the NASCAR world. For the past couple seasons, autumn has brought some of the more heated instances in Cup. See: Brad Keselowski/Jeff Gordon; Matt Kenseth/Joey Logano.
Neither of these feuds have lasted into the spring seasons. There’s at least two, if not more, reasons for this attitude. First, the heightened sense of pressure associated with the championship makes drivers a little wound up and prone to making crazy moves. Second, the Cup season is so freakin’ long it’s no surprise that the drivers have gotten on each other’s nerves. But spring brings a fresh sense of things and with it, cleaner, friendlier racing. Martinsville looked nothing like it did in the fall race and it’s likely that Texas will once again be something less frenzied than the Kes/Gordon tango. Enjoy this part of the ebb and flow before it all changes.