NASCAR Race Weekend Central

NASCAR Mailbox: Gauging Tony Stewart’s Chase Chances

Another week and another win for Joe Gibbs Racing. It’s more clear than ever that JGR has become the elite team in NASCAR in 2016. Every week we go to the racetrack and it seems as though a Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota is the class of the field. At Kansas, it was Martin Truex Jr.’s Furniture Row Racing team, which has a major alliance with the organization. Truex’s car led 171 laps and completely dominated the event until a loose wheel forced Truex to pit under green late in the going. He finished a disappointing 14th.

That didn’t matter for Joe Gibbs Racing though, who had two drivers right behind Truex waiting for a mishap. Kyle Busch, who ended up ended up being the eventually winner and Matt Kenseth who ran second for most of the day only to finish fourth. You know things are going well for your team when one of the cars you are affiliated with can have a problem and someone from your team still wins the race. Yeah, life is good for Joe Gibbs Racing right now and everyone else is playing catch-up. Now let’s answer some questions.

Tony Stewart has been decent in his first few races back. He hasn’t shown the speed to win, but will he be able to get into Victory Lane and make the Chase? – Joe F. Daytona Beach, Fla.

It’s a great question but I think at the end of the regular season, Stewart will be on the outside looking in. It was a remarkable thing what Kyle Busch did last season, however, Busch came back to a team that was on top of their game. Toyota Racing Development (TRD) had found something in their engine department as soon as Busch came back and the cars started to perform across the board.

Stewart is coming back to a good race team but one (as I stated earlier) that is clearly behind the JGR Toyotas. Not only that, but with this new lower-downforce rules package, everyone else in the field has eight more races under their belts than Stewart does. While Stewart may be one of the top talents in the garage area, he’s human. Any way you slice it, he’s behind.

There are going to be some really important tracks coming up for Stewart. Both road course races in addition to Pocono and Indianapolis, two tracks with similar setups and driving styles that could bode well for Stewart. He’s done well at both tracks recently and you know in his final race at Indianapolis, Stewart will want to win. He’ll be a factor in both events but I don’t think the No. 14 team is ready to dominate races and win just yet. Had the season started perfectly for him, maybe it would have been a different story.

I believe we will see a better year from Stewart in 2016. I think we’ll see him finish well above the 30th-place points finish that would lock him into the Chase with a win … but he won’t win to get into the Chase.

(Photo: Mike Neff)
Stewart has had some good runs since returning to the driver’s seat after an offseason injury. Will they be good enough for him to make the Chase? (Photo: Mike Neff)

Romain Grosjean is rumored to possibly compete in NASCAR as soon as this year. If he does it, how would he do? Would it be wise for Stewart-Haas Racing to put him behind the wheel in a Cup car without experience in the lower divisions? – Megan R. Chicago

Like any open wheel driver with very little experience in stock cars, I think Grosjean will struggle in his first endeavor into NASCAR. We’ve seen a few open wheel drivers come to NASCAR with very little experience and fizzle out due to lack of preparation and lack of performance.

The best of the bunch, aside from Tony Stewart, was Juan Pablo Montoya. Montoya’s deal is going to be different than Grosjean’s because he’ll still be running Formula 1, while trying to run NASCAR on the side. I’m a believer that you have to commit to one or the other to be successful. If you’re floating between each medium, it’s hard to be successful.

It sounds like Stewart Haas only wants to put him in a car on a road course, which would make more sense because that’s what Grosjean is used to doing. I think in the right situation, he could compete on a road course track, but it would still take time for him to get his feet wet. Stock cars are heavier than what he’s used to.

Even Max Papis, who ran in stock cars previously had a tough time running road courses in NASCAR. He finished eighth at Watkins Glen in 2009 and after the race Papis admitted to his arms being tired towards the end of the event. Will it be the same situation for Grosjean? It’s hard to say exactly.

You also have to wonder how competitive the car will be for Grosjean. Stewart Haas Racing has a four-car operation. Adding a fifth car is an option for a rookie driver, but very rarely are one-race deals competitive. It takes a while for a team to mesh, especially against teams that have been running all year together.

That would be the most competitive option, though. Other options may include the No. 46 car with HScott Motorsports, but I’m not sure that would work because Annett has a contract to run the entire season. Either way, that team hasn’t been competitive in 2016 and that wouldn’t be good for a driver making his NASCAR debut.

All in all, I think Grosjean will struggle. It will be fun to see someone come from a different form of motorsports to NASCAR and try to compete. Grosjean wouldn’t be the first nor the last, but it should be fun to watch nonetheless if it winds up happening.

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