NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Friday Faceoff: Who’s the Best Driver Without a Ride?

NASCAR said after the races at Iowa this weekend that it’s “happy with the status of Iowa” Speedway as a standalone XFINITY and Camping World Truck Series date. But does the track need a Sprint Cup date, and at what track’s expense?

Jeff Wolfe, Senior Writer: I don’t know if Iowa necessarily needs a Cup date. The Truck and XFINITY races have been pretty good ones there, though I’m sure a Cup date would fill the stands a bit more. If you wanted to take a Cup date away from anywhere, well, subtracting some place like Kansas or Chicagoland speedways, where the races have not been particularly good over the years, might work. Maybe the low downforce package will help at those tracks, but I’m not holding my breath. Though Indianapolis Motor Speedway is scene as a prestigious place to race, the Cup races there in recent years have not been good, so that is another possibility.

Amy Henderson, Senior Editor: As much as I’d love to see more short-track racing on the Cup schedule, a Cup race at Iowa isn’t something I’m in favor of. It would likely compromise the XFINITY and Truck races; they’re so entertaining because Cup drivers aren’t there, so the series regulars get the chance to shine on their own, and the races are super fun to watch as a result. Those series are struggling a bit, and diluting them even further is not something that would be good for the sport in the big picture. Unless NASCAR were to make a Cup race a separate event from the NXS/CWTS weekend, I think for the time being, it would do more harm than good overall.

Bryan Gable, Staff Writer: The Sprint Cup schedule needs a few more short track races than what it has now. Iowa would be a great addition for the Cup Series, but that would create one less standalone weekend for the XFINITY and Truck series, something of which NASCAR also needs more. So ultimately it is not about having Iowa specifically on the Cup circuit but more about the overall variety. In that regard, I would be okay with taking a race away from Chicagoland, Michigan, Texas or Kansas.

Phil Allaway, Newsletter Editor: Iowa Speedway is an unique situation. The track is not part of ISC. NASCAR itself owns it. As a result, date shifting (like taking one date from Atlanta to give to Kentucky) is just not in the cards here. If it were to get a race, it would probably come from Dover, another independent entity, despite being a publicly held corporation. The track would probably need a

(Photo: Brett Moist / NKP)
Does Iowa Speedway deserve a Cup race, despite the fact that NASCAR doesn’t have any plans to put one there? (Photo: Brett Moist /
NKP)

Cup race much more if it was still independent of NASCAR. The drivers would love a 350-400 lap Sprint Cup race in Iowa, but I believe that the track doesn’t have the infrastructure to support it. Sure, you could bring in temporary grandstands, but I think a Cup race at Iowa would require more grandstands and some policy changes, like allowing fans to bring in outside drinks. All cans and bottles are currently banned there with the exception of one sealed bottle of water per person.

The Sprint Cup Series is westward bound to Sonoma Raceway this week. Which driver without a win in 2016 has the best chance to come away with one Sunday?

Henderson:  I know everyone wants to throw the name of road-course whiz AJ Allmendinger in the ring, and if the race was at Watkins Glen International instead, he’d be my pick hands down. But Allmendinger isn’t as strong at Sonoma, where he has an average finish slightly lower than 21st and has had some terrible luck. With the improvement that Chip Ganassi Racing has shown recently, Jamie McMurray is one to watch—he’s an excellent road racer who is sometimes overlooked. If you want a small-team pick, a few drivers in those ranks to watch are Clint Bowyer (who’s also the only Cup driver with a top-10 average at Sonoma) and Casey Mears, whose numbers at Sonoma are slightly better than Allmendinger’s.

Gable: In terms of overall performance, Chase Elliott is the most likely driver to win next. Yet with Elliott’s lack of experience at Sonoma, Allmendinger could be a safer bet for this week. Allmendinger has run quite well at Sonoma with the No. 47 team, even if he does not have the finishes to show for it.

Allaway: Allmendinger is the obvious choice, but I pride myself on going a little further outside of the box than that. That’s why I’m choosing the driver with the best average finish at Sonoma: Clint Bowyer. Yes, HScott Motorsports is not a strong team. Bowyer’s teammate Michael Annett, is quite possibly the worst driver in Sprint Cup right now (and, by extension, probably actively hurting Bowyer’s progression). However, this same team nearly stole Sonoma with Kurt Busch back in 2012, and Bowyer is every bit as good a driver as Busch. Don’t be shocked if he is right up there in the hunt late on Sunday.

Wolfe: Allmendinger will be one of the big favorites at the two road course tracks. While the No. 47 team has shown improvement on other tracks this season, they know the road course is their best chance to win and make the Chase.

Speaking of Sonoma, the road course races have provided a lot of excitement in recent years. Are they becoming the new short track in NASCAR?

Gable: They have been exciting, but it is a different kind of excitement than what you get with short track racing. Short tracks usually have high-contact, close quarters racing.  The road course events have included some of that in recent years too, but they also feature different kinds strategy plays, and equipment matters a little more than it does at the short tracks. NASCAR’s road course racing has come a long way in the last 15 years, but I still think the thrill of short track racing cannot be beat.

Allaway: It seems like it. More Watkins Glen than Sonoma, though, despite the fact that Sonoma drives way more like a short track than Watkins Glen. Sonoma races to me were a little more exciting when they were still on the long course. Today, they’re fuel-mileage runs. Having said that, I still greatly enjoy the action there.

Wolfe: The close racing at the road courses has certainly been entertaining in recent years. I think it’s partly because all the drivers take the road courses seriously now and also partly because of the design of the cars. There’s a lot of close racing, and it’s the one place where a driver can do a bit of a bump-and-run, and everyone understands that sometimes it’s the only way to pass there. So, yes, the road courses have become the new short tracks.

Henderson: I wouldn’t say they’re the new short tracks, because short track racing is still fantastic in its own right, but it’s certainly great to see the road courses finally getting their due as some of the most exciting venues in NASCAR. Road racing is certainly different from oval racing, but it’s plenty exciting and forces teams to use strategy to get a good finish. I’ve always looked forward to the unique challenges of road racing, and it’s nice to see fans appreciating these races more. I’d never replace a short track date with a road course, but I’d love to see at least one more added, especially in the Chase.

A lot of talented drivers have gotten some one-race opportunities recently, and as Sam Hornish, Jr. demonstrated at Iowa, they’re capable racers, but many are without permanent rides in NASCAR’s premier divisions. Who’s the best driver out there without a full-time national touring series ride?

(Photo: NASCAR via Getty Images)
Sam Hornish Jr. proved that a driver doesn’t have to be at the track every week to still be able to make it to Victory Lane. (Photo: NASCAR via Getty Images)

Allaway: Probably James Buescher. He’s the 2012 Camping World Truck Series Champion, and he’s on the outside looking in, likely the biggest casualty of the Steve Turner-Harry Scott, Jr. business relationship implosion a couple of years back. The fact that Turner (Buescher’s father-in-law) died earlier this year probably only made Buescher’s racing prospects worse. He’s got a lot of talent, but it’s like the dude is a ghost in NASCAR circles. He hasn’t driven a race car in 14 months. Apparently  he’s now working as a realtor, and is likely in the best shape of his life after taking up CrossFit, which means that he’s not going to poop out on you late in races. It’s almost like he burned a bunch of bridges on the way out. He’s only 26, still quite young and ready to have at it as soon as someone gives him a call.

Wolfe: Even before his win Sunday, I would have put Sam Hornish, Jr. on that list. The last time he had decent equipment in Sprint Cup was when he drove for Team Penske after Kurt Busch was released from his contract in midseason. Hornish wasn’t great then, but he did regularly run in the top 10 and showed much improvement from when he first came over to NASCAR after leaving IndyCar.  And Hornish’s replacement at Richard Petty Motorsports, Brian Scott, isn’t setting the track on fire this year, so it’s not like he was booted from a good ride.

Henderson: Unfortunately, the reality today is that bringing money is often a surer way of getting a good ride than bringing raw talent. There are several drivers who could win in a national series if they had backing—some of them, like Jeb Burton, have won races in those series. I’d put Burton on the list, along with Hornish, Alex Bowman and Ryan Truex.  It’s disheartening to see John Hunter Nemechek’s truck without sponsorship. While he’s got a ride, you have to wonder what he could do if the team had solid backing every week.

Gable: There are a few people, Hornish included, who could make that claim, but I’ll say Alex Bowman. His Cup results up to this point look pretty rough, but Bowman did a good job squeezing the best finishes he could get out of both BK Racing‘s and Tommy Baldwin‘s cars. Not to mention that all of his XFINITY starts for JR Motorsports this year have resulted in top 10s. It looks like Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was right about Bowman having untapped potential.

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