1. Is there a new player in the game?
If Hendrick Motorsports has truly turned things around, this turning point couldn’t come at a better time for the organization … or a worse time for the rest of the field. HMS has found some impressive speed over the last few weeks and was dominant at Charlotte this week. Chase Elliott and Jimmie Johnson have both had the speed to win races.
Elliott has an uphill battle to make the next round in the Chase after getting turned at Charlotte, but with Talladega in the picture, he’s not out of it yet. Suddenly HMS is a championship player, but can the organization close the deal?
2. Will NASCAR tolerate teamwork?
It’s safe to say that not many watching Sunday’s XFINITY Series race at Charlotte actually believe that Austin Dillon made a late pit stop so the team could check his lugnuts prior to postrace inspection. With his brother Ty running behind him and desperately needing a couple of positions to advance in that series’ Chase, Austin’s stop looked like a convenient way to hand Ty one of those spots and gain him another point.
A lot of fans were unhappy with the move, perhaps rightfully so, and NASCAR did implement a rule that prohibits drivers backing off their effort to win. But these things are hard to police. NASCAR can’t prove that Dillon didn’t pit for a missing nut any more than Dillon can prove he did. Still, it’s something to keep an eye on going forward, because there are instances where a well-timed pit stop could certainly alter the Chase scenario for someone.
3. Will Talladega shake things up?
The thing about Talladega is that at least one multi-car crash is pretty much an inevitability. That means that nobody is safe from getting caught up in it, and that everybody, except for Jimmie Johnson and whomever wins Kansas, could have their title hopes dashed in the blink of an eye. But on the flip side, that could be good news for those Chase drivers who ran into trouble at Charlotte, because if the drivers ahead of them have a bad day at Talladega, it puts them right back in the game. That means a strong finish at Kansas could be the key to advancing. Keep an eye on where the Chasers finish this weekend.
4. Where’s Ty Dillon going next year?
Raise your hand if you figured Dillon would slide into the No. 31 at Richard Childress Racing. Yeah, me too. But RCR re-signed Ryan Newman to that spot for the foreseeable future, leaving few other options for Dillon. He could always run another season in the XFINITY Series, where he hasn’t quite set the world on fire, but that doesn’t change anything for the end of 2017 since Newman’s deal is multi-year.
There could be a fourth RCR team in the works, and with a solid sponsor, there is room for growth. However, there would be no charter for a new team, and as of now, it looks unlikely that RCR will go that route. Dillon could land with one of RCR’s satellite teams, most likely the No. 95 at Circle Sport Leavine Family Racing, where Todd Parrott just signed on to be the full-time crew chief. Parrott only wrenched for Dillon’s races with that team previously.
Finally, Dillon could choose to sign with an entirely different organization, which seems unlikely as the top teams already have development drivers of their own in the pipeline.
5. Will Cup drivers affect the XFINITY Chase?
This might be the biggest question on the list this week, and the answer is that they already have. While the battle for position and the final transfer spot was hot and heavy, a handful of Cup drivers were running at the front—Kyle Larson, Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski all ran inside the top 10. Had just one of them not been in the race, Ty Dillon would have advanced in the Chase.
Harvick and Larson had teammates in that Chase mix, so running interference could well have been part of the reason they were there. Team Penske doesn’t have a development program right now, so it was there for no other reason than to take a trophy. NASCAR put a partial ban on the Cup drivers in the season finale at Homestead, making Larson eligible to race while excluding most of the rest of the frequent interlopers.
But is that enough? One selling point of a Chase in the series was that NASCAR promised to limit the Cup drivers, which was perhaps a bit misleading in that most fans probably figured it would be for more than one race. As it stands, they’re not only taking some of the focus away from the title contenders, they’re actually affecting who those contenders are.