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Friday Faceoff: Are the Toyotas Peaking Too Soon?

The Coca-Cola 600 was among a handful of races to get poor reviews from fans, the majority of which have been night races.  Is it time for NASCAR to reconsider night racing on the schedule?

Mark Howell, Senior Writer: If NASCAR wants to develop an audience of younger fans, tit needs to begin by attracting kids. The best way to attract kids is to entice their parents/guardians into watching and attending races. This is difficult to do when races take the green flag at 7:30 (or later) at night. Such late starts means dissuading children (and their families) from following the sport as much as they might given Sunday afternoon events. Call me old-fashioned, but I always thought Sunday afternoon races were the best way for NASCAR to build its fanbase.

Bryan Gable, Staff Writer: I enjoy night racing.  It creates a special kind of atmosphere and it has become an important fixture of each racing season.  Yet the current aero package seems to work best under hot, slick conditions, with Richmond being the best example.  I enjoy the 600 as a day-into-night race that challenges teams to keep up with changing track conditions, but I like the spring Texas race’s move to Sunday afternoon.  Perhaps night racing is best enjoyed in moderation.

Jeff Wolfe Senior Writer: They may need to a track-by-track assessment on if the new rules package works at night. The Darlington Speedway race last year was a night race run with this type of rules package and it was one of the best races of the year, so the new package can work at night. I like mixing some night races. Attending a night race is one of the coolest experiences an auto racing fan can have.

Amy Henderson, Senior Editor: There should be exactly two night races on the schedule: the Coca-Cola 600 (which should start an hour earlier) and Bristol.  The rest should, without a doubt, be day races, for the simple reason that day races require teams to search more for mechanical grip and that puts the race in their hands.  As I said in my column today, look at the races the fans have complained about the most this year and they are all night races.

Phil Allaway, Newsletter Editor: There are too many night races on the schedule, but everything I seem to hear seems to revolve around having more of them (mid-week races, Saturday night instead of Sunday afternoon, etc.).  I can’t see NASCAR forcing the hands of any of the tracks in this regard.  If you see races moving from the nighttime to daytime, its going to be a move initiated by the track, independent of NASCAR — like Texas, which moved its spring race.

With Martin Truex, Jr.’s dominant race Sunday, there are now five factory Toyota teams in the Chase, but are they peaking too early with the new rules, and will someone else take over before season’s end?

Gable: It’s only a matter of time before another team catches up.  The big five Toyota teams will have more time to prepare for the Chase, but a little momentum by another team late in the season will go a long way toward advancing through the Chase.  Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch look like they are in the best position to challenge Joe Gibbs Racing, but don’t overlook Jimmie Johnson or the TeamPenske drivers, either.

Wolfe: I don’t know if someone else can take over, but the other teams can certainly catch up. It’s hard to believe that the Hendrick cars, Harvick and Kurt Busch at Stewart-Haas Racing and either of the Penske cars won’t be able to make enough progress to be competitive in the second half  of the season.

Allaway: This whole “peaking” thing is complete nonsense.  No, they’re not peaking too early.  Yes, these chaps could keep up the good work until November.  However, if they drop off, it’s not because they “peaked too soon.”  It would be because of a number of factors. Maybe they run into a little bad luck.  Something as simple as a bad batch of parts could screw up an entire weekend.  Hendrick Motorsports is well aware of stuff like that (see: 2002 EA Sports 500, Talladega Superspeedway).  We’ve been seeing the current form from Toyota teams for a full calendar year now.  Everyone else is still playing catch-up.  I could imagine everyone catching up before the season ends, but that won’t be because of the Toyotas going down the john.

Howell: The Toyota teams have certainly discovered a way to benefit from the new aero package, but such an advantage seems short lived. As with most secrets around the NASCAR garage, their secret knowledge is already common knowledge. Rethinking how to vent the undersides of the cars may be the first dent in Toyota’s armor. Removing fans may work to the advantage of both Chevy and Ford teams. Truex’s success at CMS was simply a matter of a team hitting the right combination at the best time. There’s a lot of races left to consider.

The next race on the Cup schedule is at Pocono, one of two tracks at which Kyle Busch does not have a Cup win.  Does he cross it off the list this week?  And who’s more likely to mark off every track on the schedule, Busch or Jimmie Johnson?

(Photo: John Harrelson/NKP)
Rowdy’s knocked a lot of tracks off of his bucket list in the last year. Will he add another new trophy to the case this weekend? (Photo: John Harrelson/NKP)

Wolfe: Kyle Busch will mark them all off the list before Johnson. He’s younger and in his prime, and like all other sports, the success goes to the ones in their prime (ages 27-35). However, I don’t think he will check it off this weekend.

Henderson: I think Busch is slightly more likely to retire with that distinction, though I would not count Johnson out of winning anywhere, ever, though Watkins Glen International has never been kind to him (cue the highlight reel from his rookie XFINITY adventures).  Technically, Busch is the only one of the two who can knock off wins everywhere he raced; Johnson did not win at Rockingham Speedway, which is no longer on the schedule.  Will he tick off Pocono this week?  Possible (he came close last summer), but unlikely; his overall record there is less than stellar.

Allaway: Looking at the career average finishes at the two tracks Busch hasn’t won and the four Johnson hasn’t, I’d argue Johnson has a better chance at covering his BINGO card than Kyle Busch.  Johnson hasn’t won at Kentucky or Chicagoland, but averages a top-10 finish at both tracks.  At Watkins Glen and Homestead-Miami Speedway, he averages roughly 14th.  Busch is worse than a 14th-place average finish at both Charlotte and Pocono (it’s closer to 20th at Pocono). My guess is he’ll at least be competitive this week, but he’s not winning it.

Howell: Kyle Busch could very well win at Pocono this weekend, but the victory will go to someone else named Kyle. Busch seems like a better lock at the Tricky Triangle next time around. As for nailing the schedule sweep, I believe Jimmie Johnson will accomplish it first.

Gable: Pocono has been a thorn in Busch’s side for a while, and he has not finished well lately, so I don’t see him winning this weekend.  I do, however, think he will get a win at every track before Johnson.  There are four tracks where Johnson has not won (Kentucky, Homestead, Chicagoland, and Watkins Glen), and the Sprint Cup Series only visits all of those tracks once a year.  Busch gets two opportunities every season to win at Pocono and Charlotte, so the numbers are in his favor.

A month into his return to the seat, Tony Stewart needs to average a 25th-place-or-better finish and win a race to make the Chase in his final year.  Can the veteran make it happen?

Allaway: Stewart won’t get there, but he’ll get to 30th in the points; currently he’s 60 points behind David Ragan in 30th and has to make up a shade over 4.6 points a week.  That’s easily doable, especially since Stewart is running better than anyone around him in the standings.  I just don’t see him winning in the next three months and change.  He hasn’t shown the necessary speed to win a race anywhere.  While he did finish sixth at Talladega (courtesy of Ty Dillon), his best unrestricted finish has been 12th at Kansas.  I do think he’ll improve as the season goes on, though.

Howell: For as much as I like and admire Stewart, I can’t help but think that Smoke will fall short of making the Chase in his final season. I’d love to see Stewart win a race or two, but the No. 14 Chevrolet seems to be losing momentum faster than it’s gaining strength. It feels like one of those one forward, two back kind of years for Stewart. Smoke will miss the Chase, but my heart hopes he’ll be relevant come Homestead.

Gable: Getting into the top 30 in points will be no problem.  Winning a race is a much bigger issue.  Stewart is still not regularly running up front and contending for wins.  There is always the possibility that he could steal one somewhere, but with his current level of performance, Smoke’s chances at winning and making the Chase are slim.

Wolfe: I think he can get the average finish and reach the top 30. The question will be the win. His best chance will be in the 400-miler at Daytona. So far, he’s had a couple of decent races, but he’s nowhere near threatening for a victory yet.

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Ken

The Toyotas haven’t even begun to show their strength. Look for an all-Toyota final at Homestead. I just wonder which one of the “Big-5” will be sacrificed. While the finger might be pointed at Truex, as he and Furniture Row are only a Gibbs-satellite team. However, I think that, in order to defect any criticism of being bias and keeping the best equipment for his own direct teams, Gibbs might sacrifice someone like Edwards. And if it is an all-Toyota final, I hope Truex triumphs!

Mike

“peaking too soon”. Great, now na$crap is compared to high school track & cross country.

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Kyle Busch will get his sweep before Johnson because he is learning to tame the tracks where he has had major difficulties in the past. He has won his last races at Homestead, Martinsville, and Kansas to check three off his bucket list in the last 14 races. Johnson will not check Watkins Glen off his list without a huge fluke like the way he won at Sonoma. JJ is simply not a road racer and shows no upward trend of becoming one.

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All sports have gone toward adding more night events, because that is what the fans want. The NFL now plays on Sunday night, Monday night, and Thursday night and pretty soon it may be every night of the week. Day baseball is a tradition, but a rarity nowadays. Night racing, like the Chase, is here to stay. People are too busy during the summer days to sit in front of a TV for four hours of tedium. That same tedium is more easily enjoyed with a few pals and a few brews in the evening, either at the track or at home. The new century started 16 years ago. Time for Amy to get on board.

I would move the Coke 600 to Saturday and start it an hour earlier, however, so as to remove it from direct comparison with the more exciting Indy 500, to emphasize the day to night aspect, and to allow more NASCAR drivers to try the double. With the current Chase rules, it is too risky for a driver to hope that rain before, during, or even after the 500 prevents him from starting the 600. The NXS race should be run on Friday instead of leaving the track dark that day for no good reason.

As for Toyota peaking too soon, that is simply wishful thinking. Other teams will catch up to some extent, but Toy teams will not sit still either. And with 5 teams in the Chase, they are free to experiment to the degree they need to stay in front. In the old days of Chevy domination, it was frequently mentioned that the Bow-Tie brigade attracted the best drivers. Same song, different verse. While Hendrick has one young driver in its stable, JGR is stock-piling young talent and finding a place at the table for all of them (having learned from letting Joey go prematurely). Best drivers plus best engineers plus best crews equals best teams.

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