NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2016 Bad Boy Off Road 300

Who… gets my shoutout of the race?

It’s never easy to drive in a fill-in role.  Four-time champion Jeff Gordon can attest to that after a stint filling in for former Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt, Jr.  With the Chase underway, teams outside the championship picture rarely get much airtime.

But over the last couple of weeks, Earnhardt’s other fill-in, Alex Bowman, is giving the No. 88 some strong finishes, coming home tenth at Chicago and 14th at New Hampshire.  Bowman, who was unceremoniously released from Tommy Baldwin Racing before the 2016 season, has also had some impressive runs in the XFINITY Series this season for JR Motorsports.  But with Hendrick Motorsports’ signing of William Byron, will Bowman have a home with the team in the future?  Seems like he’d be a good pickup.

What… is the takeaway from this race?

Could this week’s race be an indication of how the season will play out?  Most of the race was dominated by the Joe Gibbs Racing teams and its counterpart, Furniture Row Racing. The two organizations combined to lead 280 of 300 laps in their Toyotas, but a couple of other organizations showed some strength on the day, with Stewart-Haas Racing ultimately wheeling Kevin Harvick’s Chevrolet to Victory Lane.

Harvick has been hot over the last month, and Hendrick Motorsports two Chase drivers, Chase Elliott and Jimmie Johnson, have quietly crept into the picture over the last couple of weeks.  Could the Chase play out similarly, with somebody else spoiling the Gibbs/FRR thunder in the closing races?  It would be foolish to say the JGR reign is over…but it could be overthrown.

Where… did the pole-sitter and the defending race winner wind up?

Matt Kenseth showed why he’s almost always a threat at Loudon on Sunday.  He didn’t have the fastest car, but was able to get to the front on a pit sequence, and he very nearly stayed there until the checkered flag fell on the day.  Had it not been for a late spin by former teammate Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., Kenseth probably would have cruised to Victory Lane. But the final restart proved to be his downfall, and Kenseth finished second after leading 105 laps, second most of any driver on the day.

Carl Edwards led the first laps of the day, but didn’t quite have the car to contend. Still, Edwards was in position to have a strong finish.  On a late caution, Edwards had a commitment violation which resulted in Edwards having to start at the tail end of the field in 19th spot.  On fresh tires, Edwards was able to work his way back to finish sixth, and he said after the race that he felt like he had a top-four or five car, so the penalty didn’t cost him as much as it might have if he’d had a dominant car.

When… did it all go sideways?

In general, New Hampshire was kinder to the Chase drivers than she usually is—many a time the track has ended a team’s Chase hopes, especially in the last couple of years under the current format. As the saying goes, you can’t win the championship this early in the going, but you can lose it.

While it’s hard to say that anyone threw the title away at Loudon, it likely slipped away for underdog Chris Buescher.  Buescher’s 30th-place finish this week coupled with a 28th-place run last week just isn’t enough when the competition is so strong.  The upside? Buescher said it himself before the race—the worst he can finish in points this year is 16th.  He won a race as a rookie.  That will bring Buescher and his team some attention and hopefully that attention will turn into sponsor dollars for Buescher and Front Row Motorsports.

Why… did Kevin Harvick win the race?

We often talk in racing about how the fastest car doesn’t always win, and that’s true.  But sometimes the fastest car does win, and Harvick had a faster car than Matt Kenseth and was able to drive it past him on the final restart.  Kenseth had been able to hold off Martin Truex, Jr., who had the fastest car for much of the day because the No. 20 car handled better through Loudon’s tight turns, but he couldn’t hold off Harvick once the Stewart-Haas Racing driver was able to get the nose under Kenseth’s No. 20 and get off the corners even with him.  Harvick was able to clear Kenseth and then drive away to the win.

How… likely is it that the top 12 is set going into Dover?

Realistically, probably at least three of the bottom four Chase drivers (Jamie McMurray, Austin Dillon, Tony Stewart and Chris Buescher) are done after next week.  Buescher would need a win, and realistically, so does Stewart, though Stewart’s past success at Dover does give him a glimmer of hope.  Dillon and McMurray are both five markers behind the cutoff, and it’s possible that one of them could move up if Kurt Busch or Kyle Larson falter.  McMurray’s Dover average is almost 10 position’s better than Dillon’s, so he could have a slight edge.

And all of this is only valid if the race goes smoothly for the rest of the Chase drivers.  A crash or a failure for one or more of those currently in the top 12 without a win and everything changes.  Remember last year, a $5 part failed on the No. 48 and took Jimmie Johnson’s title hopes with it…nobody but Truex and Harvick are safe, but barring disaster, it’s likely that the field is just about set.

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