A Hendrick Motorsports car hasn’t won since Auto Club Speedway, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is still winless and the organization was virtually wiped out in Daytona’s wreck. Is it cause for concern, or is it simply pouring all its focus on experimentation for the Chase?
Amy Henderson, Senior Editor: It’s silly to think that a four-car organization is experimenting for the Chase when just one driver is locked in at this point. Fans of the organization so have reason to worry that HMS has fallen behind a touch right now (and that could change at any time). But in the bigger picture, it’s part of the ebb and flow within the sport. Teams dominate, then other teams find something that work better and they dominate until someone else finds something. Daytona was Daytona; it’s all about luck as far as who gets caught up in the big crashes and who doesn’t. Overall, though, HMS may need to make some tweaks here and there, and I’ve said all along that the biggest mistake the organization has made in years was putting Kasey Kahne in the No. 5 long term when it had Landon Cassill in development, but that’s not the cause of the slump. It’s just a slump, plain and simple.
Bryan Gable, Staff Writer: The fact that Hendrick has not won since March is a little concerning, but it’s clear that there are a few different agendas within Hendrick right now. Jimmie Johnson is almost certainly preparing for the Chase. The No. 48 team has struggled in the postseason the past few years but has historically maximized its level of performance late in the year quite well. I think the team preparing for the races that really matter. Meanwhile, Chase Elliott is running better than anyone expected and is Chase-bound with or without a win. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is likely heading for the Chase as well, but the No. 88 team needs to improve in the consistency department regardless. As for Kahne, the concern should have started weeks ago.
Vito Pugliese, Senior Writer: Every year this theme emerges at some point in the season. If it’s not that Jimmie Johnson has had a slow summer, it was that Jeff Gordon hadn’t been on par with his teammates, or when was the No. 88 going to turn around, blah, blah, blah. It never materializes into anything positive for the rest of the field. They will start building speed again in a few weeks as we lead into the Chase; it happens year in, year out. Elliott could very well have back to back wins at Pocono Raceway and Michigan International Speedway if the cards fell the right way or if he had just a bit more experience. The only Hendrick car that doesn’t stand a chance is Kasey Kahne’s. It’s time to move on and find someone new for the No. 5.
Do you expect Kentucky Speedway’s repave to be any better than previous editions at other tracks, and is there anything that can be learned from past repaves that can keep the racing from being a single-file parade the first few times out?
Gable: This year’s race at Kentucky features more unknowns than a typical repave. The track underwent a slight reconfiguration in turns 1 and 2. Fans probably will not notice a big difference, but the drivers will definitely feel a difference. Throw in a new tire compound and an aero package with even less downforce, and there are a lot of variables that will affect the racing. The best comparison could be the fall 2012 race at Kansas Speedway after NASCAR repaved the track and altered some of the banking there. Saturday night’s race might be a little messier than usual (as the Kansas race was), but who knows if all the changes will really make for a better race.
Pugliese: Only if they randomly grind sections of the corners and don’t tell anyone. The upside with low downforce and a repave is that the speeds will be up and it will be over a lot quicker than usual.
Henderson: I don’t expect much, and that’s a shame; last year’s race was one of the best of the entire season, in part due to the old pavement. In fact, I am a bit confused as to why NASCAR is trying changes to the rules package on a repaved track, because the results may not be a true representation of the package. I’d have liked to see them run at Pocono in August and perhaps at Darlington Raceway. Hopefully I will be proven wrong Saturday night, but I expect the worst race of the year to go down.
The XFINITY Series race at Daytona ended in controversy when the final caution flag flew. Did NASCAR throw it too late? Too early? Or was the call the right one?
Pugliese: If there’s a big wreck on the backstretch and they’re three seconds from the finish line, you might as well let the race come to completion. You can still start moving safety vehicles; the cars were over a mile away from the accident and the race was over. And again, the only time NASCAR has allowed that to occur was at the 2007 Daytona 500, when a caution should have been issued.
Henderson: The caution should have been thrown immediately. If the same wreck had happened with 100 or 25 or even five laps to go, the yellow would have flown the moment the first car got out of shape. It should make no difference what lap it’s on; if a crash is bad enough to warrant a caution, it should fly immediately. Consistency has never been NASCAR’s strong suit, but this is the one area where NASCAR should be at its most consistent. Safety has to come before the show, or someday, a tragedy will become the show, and it’s not one anyone wants to see.
Gable: NASCAR was in the process of making the right call, but backed out about five seconds too early. There did not seem to be an immediate need to throw the yellow flag. I still think NASCAR could have let the leaders race back to the finish line, as the leaders would have had plenty of time to slow down before they reached the backstretch. Throwing the caution flag when they did was not preferable to letting the drivers race or throwing the yellow immediately. Would waiting another five seconds for the race to end really make a difference? Or, if NASCAR had to act in the interest of safety, why was there such a long delay between the crash and the caution?
So far Silly Season 2016 has yet to begin. As the season enters the second half, which teams need to consider big changes for 2017 and beyond, and for whom could changes be the wrong move?
Henderson: I’m not convinced we’ll see a lot of big changes this season, though whether there should be some is another story. I think Hendrick needs to look long and hard at the No. 5 driver, crew chief or both. I’ve heard speculation that Martin Truex, Jr. could be looking for a ride if Furniture Row Racing can’t find an outside sponsor for a second car, because Joe Gibbs Racing isn’t going to let Erik Jones sit too long. Greg Biffle isn’t getting any younger. There will be an open seat at HScott Motorsports for sure, and while it’s a small team, it has shown some potential. I thought in the last offseason that Germain Racing should have made a strong pitch to the then-recently unemployed Darian Grubb. I think Ryan Newman will be under serious pressure to perform, as Ty Dillon is going to move up eventually, and fourth cars haven’t gone over well for Richard Childress Racing. There’s a lot that could happen between now and next season for sure, or it could be a few small moves here and there, with the major players staying put.
Gable: Roush Fenway Racing has improved this year, but I am not convinced its troubles are totally behind. Remember that none of its three drivers are guaranteed Chase participants. I would love to see what Chris Buescher or Darrell Wallace, Jr. could do with RFR Cup equipment, but those opportunities will probably depend on whether or not Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. makes the Chase and how long Biffle wants to race. I have no idea what will become of HScott Motorsports after Clint Bowyer leaves, but its survival could depend on moving up in the Chevy pecking order; a little more technical support would go a long way. There is also a lot of curiosity about where Erik Jones and Ty Dillon might go next year. JGR should not go rushing to make any driver changes. It would be great to see Jones in a second Furniture Row car, but that is dependent on sponsorship and getting a charter. Dillon is in the same boat, but I think the seats of Ryan Newman and Paul Menard will get a little warmer in the next few months. Finally, there are teams like Richard Petty Motorsports and BK Racing that would benefit more from changes behind the scenes than switching drivers. I’ll throw Chip Ganassi Racing in with them as well.
Pugliese: Hendrick Motorsports needs to move on from Kahne. He seems to do well in lesser equipment, however in this case who knows what the focus of the No. 5 is within the Hendrick hierarchy. Chase Elliott is the future, while Johnson and Earnhardt are on the same trajectory career length wise. Kahne is somewhere in the middle, but isn’t even in the same sentence with the other two, let alone Elliott in his rookie season. Might Ryan Newman’s time be running out at RCR? The runner-up Chase finish a couple of years ago was surprising, but the wins have been slow in coming. And by slow I mean nonexistent. He hasn’t won a race since 2013, and hasn’t won more than one race in a season since 2004 – when he won two. With Ty Dillon waiting in the wings, I’d say Rocket Man is about out of fuel with Pop Pop and his people.
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