ONE: Gordon Returns?
Just in case you’ve been living under a rock — at least in a NASCAR context — Dale Earnhardt, Jr. sat out of the New Hampshire race weekend due to concussion-related symptoms from crashes at Kentucky and Daytona. Alex Bowman, who drives the JR Motorsports No. 88 car on a partial schedule in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, filled in and finished 26th after crash damage ruined what was potentially a top-10 finish for the Tucson, AZ born 23-year old. Should Junior still not be back to full health this weekend, a certain recently-retired Jeff Gordon will fill in and assume driver duties for the day. He thought I was kidding at first,” noted team principal Rick Hendrick on his conversation with Gordon about potentially filling in for Earnhardt, Jr. at the Brickyard. ” He was on vacation and I asked him what he was doing next week and he said he’d be in Indy for one of the appearances he has to make. I said, ‘Well, bring your driver’s uniform just in case.’ He said, ‘Are you kidding?’; and I said, ‘No, I’m serious.’ So although I fervently hope Junior is cleared to race this weekend and continue his quest for a playoff place, seeing Jeff Gordon pull on the driving gloves one more time, albeit for a cameo, would certainly be fun to watch. Could Gordon make it a record six wins at the Brickyard? You never know, folks. You never know.
TWO: Smoke Rising
Headed into the Chase in 2011, Tony Stewart was pretty blunt about his chances of winning the title noting that he was just there to make up the numbers and that any shot at picking up a third title was little more than a fairy tale. Well, we all know how that turned out with Smoke winning half of the final ten races on the way to the championship, including three of the final four. So this time around, after an injury plagued start to the year saw him miss the first eight races, could we see an absolutely unexpected fourth title for Stewart in his final year on the Cup circuit? Maybe, just maybe might well be the answer and one crucial component that will aid his quest is the burgeoning relationship with his head wrench Mike Bugarewicz. “He’s doing such a great for a rookie crew chief who’s only got half a season,” said Stewart. “he’s got veteran calls and veteran moves. Really proud of him and proud of this whole team.” So the foundations are looking solid as Stewart closes out his 18-year career and this was echoed in his post race comments, following his fifth place finish. “This is the kind of day we wanted here. We’re getting close.”
THREE: Next Up, The Brickyard
Next up is race number 20 of the 36-race season and a trip to arguably the most famous race track in all the world — the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The Combat Wounded Coalition 400 will be the 22nd time stock cars have raced around the hallowed 2.5-mile circuit. Jeff Gordon won the inaugural race in 1994 and, to date, holds the lead in just about every statistical category you care to mention. He has the most wins (five), top-15’s (12), top-10’s (17), poles (3), laps (3,349), laps lead (528) and lead-lap finishes (19). The only other driver even in the conversation is Jimmie Johnson who has four wins at the famous track. This time last year, in a race won by Kyle Busch as part of a torrid spell where he won five of six races, NASCAR tested a high drag package and for the most part it did not succeed. “I always enjoy racing at Indianapolis but the rules package we had last year … it was a little bit of a shot in the dark,” noted 2011 Brickyard winner Paul Menard in a NASCAR.com interview last week. “Internal cockpit temperatures were at least 10, maybe 15 degrees hotter so we were getting cooked for one [thing] and the cars were just really unstable in traffic so it was really hard to make passes.” Truth be told, I’m expecting something of a processional race. Let’s hope I’m totally wrong. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time.
FOUR: Power Up
Next this week, it’s the Verizon IndyCar Series and a resurgent Will Power. Aussie veteran Power, you might remember, ended up sitting out the first race weekend of the season at St. Petersburg with a misdiagnosed concussion. Given St Pete’s is a track Power has won at twice and typically runs well, it was a big hole for the Team Penske racer to climb out of in a 16-race season with no kind of Chase. Compounding matters, teammate Simon Pagenaud won three of the first five races to establish a large lead over both Power and the contending pack. But three wins in the last four races and a very creditable second place finish at Iowa Speedway (not a track at which Power usually excels) has seen him cut the lead significantly to a manageable 47 points. “Yeah, I would say I’m driving differently to the way I would drive in 2014 when I won the championship,” noted Power after the race… “I just went for it all the time,” the 35-year-old said. “Now I just let the races come to me. I don’t seem to ever get desperate or feel desperate to make something happen. I just do it. Push when you need to push. Always stay within your limits.” And with just five races remaining on the 2016 schedule, don’t be surprised to see Power make it all the way to the top of the standings and a possible second championship.
And finally, a quick word on Eldora, where we head this Wednesday night for the fourth Camping World Truck Series event at the famous old dirt track. This is a race I absolutely can’t get enough off and it is my fervent hope that one day we’ll see a Cup race at this iconic venue (but I won’t be holding my breath, that being said). This time around the name has changed from the MudSummer Classic after issues with MLB’s midsummer classic so now it’s the Eldora Dirt Derby – which is not as good but still not bad. Austin Dillon won the inaugural race in 2013, with Darrell Wallace Jr. winning in 2014 before Christopher Bell won in 2015. Kyle Larson is the only Cup regular in the entry field of 38 but if you’re looking for a sentimental favorite how about the ever young legend Ken Schrader? Wouldn’t it be great to see him get it done on the dirt? Enjoy this one, folks: It’s a special race at a special place.
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