Fifteen races into the 2016 Sprint Cup season, what’s the most memorable storyline? The biggest surprise?
Vito Pugliese, Senior Writer: The most memorable story line thus far should have been Chase Elliott winning back-to-back races at Pocono Raceway and Michigan International Speedway, but rookie inexperience cost him two weeks in a row on the final restarts. In the absence of the next wave of young talent breaking through, I’ll go with the emergence of Martin Truex, Jr. and Furniture Row Racing as a weekly contender and serious threat to win the championship this year. They are to Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota what Kevin Harvick and Stewart-Haas Racing are (well, were) to Hendrick Motorsports and Chevrolet. Sometimes being a satellite team pays off handsomely.
Mark Howell, Senior Writer: The biggest story thus far is the dominance of Joe Gibbs Racing. We should toss Furniture Row into the equation, since that team is a sister organization. The biggest surprises in 2016 have been Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson for running so well and Clint Bowyer for running so poorly.
Amy Henderson, Senior Editor: It’s the improved racing that’s taking center stage. There’s been lots of quality battles throughout the field, and it’s been overall really fun to watch. Add in a pair of stellar rookies and some veterans showing their teeth, and it’s been one of the best seasons in years. I also label the racing as the surprise, because I will admit that I was skeptical before the season of just how big a difference we’d actually see. Stewart-Haas Racing jumping the Chevy ship in favor of Ford was also a shock, but in the long run, I don’t see it making much difference in terms of what fans see on track.
Jeff Wolfe, Senior Writer: Chase Elliott was going to be good at some point, but the fact he has been this good this early in his rookie season has been somewhat of a surprise. That he’s challenged for victories in three of the last four races is just a preview of what is to come. And while this is not a huge deal yet because he will be in the Chase, if you would have told me Kyle Busch was going to have four straight finishes of 30th or worse before the season, I would have had a hard time believing it.
Bryan Gable, Staff Writer: This year’s most memorable storyline has been NASCAR’s quest to reduce downforce and create better racing. I cannot remember the last time NASCAR took such an active role in trying to improve the on-track product. As far as surprises, Chase Elliott is performing better week-in and week-out than almost everyone else. Who saw that coming?
NASCAR made further changes to the aerodynamic package at Michigan (they’ll also be raced at Kentucky Speedway next month). Did those changes make a significant difference to the racing, and should NASCAR pencil it in for 2017?
Wolfe: Anything NASCAR does with the rules to put more of the outcome into the drivers’ hands is a good idea. The big money teams are always going to have an advantage, but if more low down force helps good drivers on the less-financed teams have a chance at good finishes, then that’s a good thing.
Gable: I did not see a big difference between Sunday’s race and the rest of the racing this year, but that was one of the best Michigan races I have seen in quite a while. This newest aero package is a step in the right direction, but if NASCAR could take even more downforce away, I am all for it.
Pugliese: The drivers seem to think so, with a rear spoiler that is no bigger than the one that was on the deck lid of my mom’s 1985 Monte Carlo SS back in the day. Continue to work on the tires and bring those rear quarters in a little to remove some side force, and you’ll have mid-’90s handling and aero again. Kind of. Well, for two months, until they figure out a way to make it all back again.
Howell: The changes at Michigan were positive, but I believe even more can be done. I’m thinking that the key to even better competition can be found in focusing on tire design. There’s no better way to put drivers back into the equation than to affect the level of grip they’re used to having.
Henderson: The changes to the car were without a doubt good. I wasn’t a fan of so many spins and crashes, but at least the cautions weren’t contrived. I still think the tires need work. I’d like to see tires that fall off like in the old days at Darlington or Rockingham, where they were junk after about 20 to 25 laps on a good day. I’d love to see more teams backed into the corner of pitting long before a fuel run is over for fresh tires, or waiting them out a bit longer to keep position and hope for a caution that wasn’t you. If Goodyear can do that and NASCAR sticks with the direction it’s heading now, 2017 looks even better than 2016 has been.
With the Cup Series off this week, the NASCAR spotlight is on the XFINITY and Camping World Truck series in Iowa Speedway. What should fans be watching for in those races?
Howell: Look for teams in both series to take advantage of their standalone weekend and get much deserved attention. Daniel Suarez‘s win last week was huge news. Sponsors need to know that they count in divisions other than the Cup Series.
Henderson: We’ll actually see the teams that run those series get some airtime, but there should also be some pretty good racing to be had; Iowa’s a great track. From a purely sentimental angle, watch the ThorSport Racing teams in the CWTS race. They worked on their trucks in a grocery store parking lot this week after a fire damaged their shop, and a win from that camp would be a story just about everyone could get behind.
Wolfe: For the XFINITY race, Brad Keselowski is the only big Sprint Cup name entered, but that makes him automatically the driver to beat. No offense to Keselowski, but let’s hope an XFINITY regular can pull off a win again like Daniel Suarez did last week. And also, with Sam Hornish, Jr. in the No. 18, he has to be considered a contender. The Truck races are almost always entertaining, and with Rico Abreu showing improvement, wouldn’t it be a bit of poetic justice if he got his first win in the Midwest, where he was so good on the dirt tracks?
Gable: Look for the regulars of those divisions to have their day in the sun. For the XFINITY Series, this is a rare opportunity to snag a win and clinch a spot in the Chase. In the Truck Series, I want to see just how many winners we can squeeze into the regular season.
Pugliese: A non-Cup regular winning.
Let’s talk racing outside of NASCAR. What other racing series should fans be checking out in 2016?
Henderson: If you like finishes so close that you need a slow-motion replay just to see who won, definitely check out some NHRA drag racing. Outside of the pro divisions you normally see on TV, there are Sportsman division races with just about any kind of car you can think up. The races are short, and many of the finishes fantastic. And there are plenty of personalities in the garage to go around. Oh, and if you want to meet them? Just get a race ticket and you’ll have access to just about anyone. Good stuff.
Wolfe: My personal favorite is the USAC Silver Crown cars. They are hardly ever on TV, but if you live anywhere near a track where that series goes, it’s well worth the price of admission. The big cars only have 12 races on the season and go again next at Gateway Motorsports Park on June 25.
Gable: If you like what you saw in the Indianapolis 500, check out IndyCar on a more typical weekend.
Pugliese: Formula 1. If you’re going to sit through three hours of the leader pulling away in clean air on a Sunday afternoon, get up a little earlier and watch the same thing but only invest 90 minutes or so for the whole race. The first two laps are just as good as NASCAR, and the coverage the NBC Sports Network team provides with David Hobbs and Steve Matchett helps frame the race and add some drama which might otherwise be lost.
Howell: Check out Formula E events. This might be the future of all motorsports. The silence is deafening.
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