Last week, we talked about the addition of a road course to the Chase, and next week, the series heads to a 2-mile oval, of which there are two on the schedule for three races — but none in the Chase, and there’s only one short track race as well. What would an ideal Chase schedule look like?
Mark Howell, Senior Writer: Michigan, New Hampshire, Dover, Darlington, Bristol, Kansas, Martinsville, Sonoma, Phoenix and Daytona. I always thought ending the season where it began would be a good move. Travel and weather would always be an issue to address, but when hasn’t it ever been?
Bryan Gable, Staff Writer: Start with the Night Race at Bristol. New Hampshire keeps its spot, but we close out the Round of 16 with a trip to Atlanta, because is anyone really happy with Atlanta’s late February date? Charlotte kicks off the Round of 12, followed by Talladega and Martinsville as the second elimination race. For the Round of 8, we’ll go to Sonoma, Homestead and Phoenix. The final race of the year? A second stop of the season at Darlington.
Amy Henderson, Senior Editor: Talladega (superspeedway; get it over with early), New Hampshire (flat mile), Watkins Glen (road course), Bristol (banked half-mile), Dover (banked mile), Auto Club (2-mile, but only as long as they don’t repave and ruin the racing), Martinsville (flat half-mile), Las Vegas (1.5-mile), Phoenix (flat mile but different than New Hampshire) and finish out the year at home in Charlotte. While it can be chilly in Charlotte in November, make it a day race. The emphasis should be on a variety of tracks that test the drivers the most and produce the best racing for the fans. In addition, make Labor Day weekend at Darlington the cut-off race and it would be as good as it can be.
Dustin Abino, Contributor: The Chase should consist of all the types of tracks in NASCAR, except Darlington, because it is so unique. It’s time to take out all of the mile-and-a-half race tracks, because let’s face it, it’s not the best racing. Starting the Chase off at Chicago is fine because it’s a major market. Go to Watkins Glen next and then Bristol to end the first round. Continue the concrete swing with Dover starting the next round, followed by Talladega, and finish the second round off with Auto Club, the best race of the season each year. Start the third round off in Charlotte, go to Martinsville and Homestead to end the third round. The championship race: Atlanta. Can you tell I’m a fan of the worn-out surfaces?
Aaron Bearden, Assistant Editor: An ideal Chase schedule should match the layout of the entire season on a percentage basis. For example, there are two road course races out of 36 events, just a shade under 10 percent of the schedule, so one road course makes sense. Going off of this same premise, the presence of three races on 2-mile ovals indicates that one race should be in the Chase. I’d nominate switching Michigan with Chicago for the Chase opener, but then, what do I know?
Erik Jones signed what looks to be a one-year deal with Furniture Row Racing in 2017, the latest in a series as of late — Clint Bowyer’s HScott Motorsports situation comes to mind, too. Are this type of deals good for anyone other than the elite teams awaiting its new driver, or do they do more harm than good?
Gable: I think the one-year deal has a lot of upside. Furniture Row Racing is a team on the rise, and hooking up with one of NASCAR’s top prospects is only going to continue that rise. Erik Jones may not bring a lot of experience to a new team, but the organization can still lean on Martin Truex, Jr.‘s knowledge. Meanwhile, there is no denying that HScott is way off the mark this year, but that’s not because of Clint Bowyer. In fact, having a driver of Bowyer’s caliber has helped it to squeeze out a few good finishes, including three of the team’s four top 10s. As for Chris Buescher, he’s already an NXS champion. He probably has not had much fun outside of Pocono this year, but getting his feet wet in Sprint Cup now will be great training for the future.
Henderson: These deals don’t do anything for the teams serving as a placeholder. Has HScott Motorsports really benefited from having Bowyer on loan from Stewart-Haas Racing? Short term, they’ve gotten a few better finishes, but long-term, next year they’re back where they were to begin with. They’d have been better off grooming a driver for the seat. Jones has potential to benefit Furniture Row Racing a bit more, but if he takes focus away from Truex and Truex’s performance suffers at all as a result, he’s getting screwed in the deal. I haven’t seen Front Row Motorsports performing as close to the level of Roush Fenway as I’d hoped, either, despite having drivers at least as talented as Trevor Bayne and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. in the seats. Nothing against Bayne and Stenhouse, but RFR should seriously consider both Buescher and Landon Cassill for its house Cup cars sooner rather than later.
Bearden: The affiliate teams that gain a potential star — if for a limited basis — and in doing so get a chance to improve and grow benefit greatly from these moves. In addition, the entirety of the Sprint Cup Series improves, with more top talents rising to the top level of motorsport to compete alongside the elite teams they soon hope to join. Sure, this may take a seat away from another upcoming driver, but the gains each organization achieves in bringing on top-level talent outweighs the loss of an unproven shoe. The only ones that truly lose are the smaller, unaffiliated teams, and that’s a sticky situation that doesn’t currently doesn’t have a solution.
Howell: These kinds of one-year-and-out deals do more harm than good. Sponsors have to ride the driver-go-round, crews have to adapt to new personalities and not-always-positive chemistry, smaller teams have to look for another driver, while bigger teams need to try and hit the ground running. You don’t want your hot new talent bogged down at the rear of the field, do you? All we have to do is consider the 2016 season endured by Clint Bowyer. ‘Nuff said.
In the spring race at Bristol, Matt DiBenedetto surprised with a top-10 finish for BK Racing. Will we see any more surprises this week at the bullring?
Henderson: Bristol is one of those tracks where a good driver can perform, but it’s unlikely you’ll see anyone in the top 10 other than the same old, same old. The big teams still have a huge advantage in qualifying and starting position is so important on a half mile.
Albino: DiBenedetto’s finish was one of the stories of the year, at least at the time. What a great run for that team. I could see someone like Aric Almirola sneaking up and recording a good finish this weekend, possibly his first top-10 finish of 2016. Jamie McMurray might not be a surprise, but two years ago he led the most laps in this race. I’ll throw Cassill in the hat as my one to watch this weekend; he led 20 laps in the spring at Bristol.
Howell: I don’t know if we’d call them surprises, but I’m thinking we could see good runs by Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney. A surprise might be a top-10 finish for Cassill in the other Front Row Motorsports Ford. It’d be great to see FRM maintain its momentum from Pocono, albeit with much less fog and rain.
Gable: It’s Bristol; I have no doubt that there will be some surprises. But it is more likely that the surprise will be a contender getting caught up in a wreck rather than an underdog in the top 10.
IndyCar driver Josef Newgarden said last week that he’d like to run some NASCAR races while continuing to race open-wheel cars and also hinted that as many as two or three NASCAR drivers are considering the Indianapolis 500/Coca-Cola 600 double next weekend, saying that more crossover between he series would be good for both sports. Do you agree, and who do you see testing the open-wheel waters?
Albino: It would be beneficial for NASCAR, because whenever you see a driver attempt the double there is a certain buzz. It’s like living with them for the day — let’s starts off in Indy and then race a marathon at Charlotte. I don’t think an IndyCar driver competing in NASCAR helps either side, and as we’ve seen in the past it hardly ever works out. If it were a one-race type deal, maybe Helio Castroneves coming over would be big for the sport, but I don’t think IndyCar drivers have the magnitude of NASCAR drivers. Larson sticks out as someone who would do the double. Kurt Busch has unfinished business with Indy, and his brother Kyle didn’t rule it out when asked earlier this season. Add Kasey Kahne to the mix, but he needs to figure out his deal with Hendrick Motorsports first, and I highly, highly doubt Rick Hendrick would allow him to compete.
Bearden: Motorsports as a whole benefits when they embrace each other. IndyCar has benefited from both drivers running the double and companion events such as the ICS-Camping World Truck Series weekend at Texas Motor Speedway and the joint weekend with the ARCA Racing Series at Iowa Speedway. As for potential drivers to complete the 1,100-mile May gauntlet, Kurt Busch is an obvious answer after expressing interest in repeating his 2014 feat. Beyond that, Brad Keselowski and Larson have shown interest in the past, with Keselowski testing an IndyCar earlier in the year at Road America, and Kyle Busch acknowledged that running the Indy 500 is on his bucket list, so you can’t rule him out, either.
Gable: Racing is at its best when drivers really get put to the test, so I would like to see the double and more crossovers. As for NASCAR drivers who could run open-wheel cars, the first two to come to mind are the Kyles, Busch and Larson. I wouldn’t be shocked if Keselowski tried his hand at the Indy 500 either.
Henderson: Any time a driver can run the other series, it’s good for both sides. I’ve enjoyed drivers testing the waters in both directions in the past, even if they didn’t set the world on fire (Dario Franchitti, I’m looking at you). I’d love to see drivers try crossing over for races other than Indy. We know Kurt Busch wants to go back, and his car owner supports his efforts wholeheartedly. Could he take his teammate Danica Patrick back to Indy with him? She wouldn’t have trouble finding a good ride. Jimmie Johnson has said he wants to run Indy but his wife won’t let him, so he’d have to do some sweet-talking. I definitely think Keselowski could do it. Casey Mears has also said he’d love one more shot at Indy as well, and he’s a solid open-wheel driver with connections at Team Penske. It would be a lot of fun to see drivers run two or three races in the other series and would be great for racing.