NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Who’s Hot & Who’s Not in NASCAR: Rainy Nights Edition

Sometimes the rain taketh away and sometimes it giveth.

Carl Edwards was glad to be on the good side of that precipitation equation in what turned out to be a Sunday night race at Texas Motor Speedway following rain and a slow-drying track.

With his victory, Edwards has joined Jimmie Johnson to make up two of the four drivers who will run for the title at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

But before the series visits Florida, it must pass through Phoenix International Raceway for the final race in the Chase’s Round of 8. There’s a good chunk of drivers hoping to finish the season strong who are white hot entering Arizona, while others are decidedly on the other side of the spectrum.

HOT
Edwards wasn’t the fastest car all night, but he was the fastest car with the fastest pit crew at the right time. Note that it was last year in Phoenix where rain ruined any chance of Edwards making it to the Championship 4 round at Homestead, so he’s felt the rain pain before.

Perhaps Mother Nature gave him a little payback? Edwards was closer to singing in the rain Sunday night. A late pit stop allowed him to take the lead over Martin Truex, Jr. and edge ahead for 36 laps before the rain that everyone knew was coming arrived.

While Edwards declined on a doing his traditional celebratory victory backflip, he did say “awesome” about 206 times in his post-race interview, so maybe that made for the missing backflip this time.

The real question now is: if Edwards does go on and win his first title, will he join Twitter like he has promised?

NOT
While it’s true that NASCAR has tried and is trying to do more to make the races on 1.5-mile tracks at least a little more competitive, that didn’t work at all at Texas Sunday night. Maybe it’s the old pavement, maybe it was the night racing, or maybe it was the tires. Whatever the case, the race was plagued by clean air strategy, which means pretty much every car that came out of a yellow flag pit stop with the lead was going to keep it. Once Edwards’ crew did its job, he all but knew he was going to win the race. It’s not that the drivers and crews aren’t trying to go faster in traffic (they are), but being fast enough to go through traffic and pass the leader is a rare thing on these 1.5-mile cookie cutter tracks.

HOT
I know that complaining about the Chase and the scoring system is a popular, perhaps overdone topic, but when you look at the standings heading into Phoenix, even with just eight drivers eligible for the title, there are all kinds of possibilities. You’ve got one of the race favorites, Kevin Harvick, pretty much needing to win, or he will not contend for the title at Homestead. Then, at least for the moment, you’ve got four drivers within two points of each other fighting for the final two Chase spots. But if Harvick (or, say, Kurt Busch) does win, then that means there will be four drivers within two points fighting for one spot. It’s just the kind of late-season drama NASCAR wanted when it drew up the current points system.

(Photo: Zach Catanzareti)
Tony Stewart has struggled to stay in contention during the last few races of his long, distinguished Sprint Cup Series career. (Photo: Zach Catanzareti)

NOT
Tony Stewart may be one of NASCAR’s greatest drivers in its history, and the fact that he made the Chase in his final season was a great story. But the last three races, it looks like Stewart has mailed it in. Maybe he has realized early on in a race that his car wasn’t going to be competitive and he doesn’t want to get in the way of those still running for the title, but consecutive finishes of 32nd, 26th and 31st are just not Smoke-like. It would be quite the popular victory if he pulled off career win No. 50 at Phoenix or Homestead, but realistically, there’s not much hope of that happening.

HOT
Every now and then in the pre-race ceremonies, you get something a little different and a little special. During the pre-race at Texas Sunday afternoon (before the rain came), the speedway had a Cub Scout troop say the pledge of allegiance as a group. Was it done perfectly in terms of being together or in some kind of harmony? Certainly not. Was it done with a spirit of enthusiasm and sincerity? It certainly was, and you just had to love it. There can never be too many good examples of how to honor our flag and country, and this instance was one of the best.

NOT
One of the issues facing NASCAR now (and, it looks like, probably into the offseason) is the need for a title sponsor. We’ve known for nearly two years that Sprint was leaving but there still doesn’t seem to be a deal reaching the final stages. NASCAR said it still has several interested companies, and it’s hard to say whether that’s a good thing or not. You would think by now it would be narrowed down to, say the last two or three finalists on the list.

It makes you wonder if NASCAR overvalued its sponsorship in terms of the amount of dollars a company wants to spend to put its name on the sport’s top series. It also makes you wonder even more if NASCAR was close to a deal with a company that backed out maybe after seeing declining TV ratings and attendance, sending executives scrambling back to other suitors.

Nevertheless, a lack of a title sponsor almost three months out from NASCAR’s marquee event leaves a lot more questions than answers.

Predictions

The last couple of years, the No. 4 team of Kevin Harvick has come through when the pressure is on, and that will be the case again Sunday at Phoenix. Harvick has been dominant there and he would be the pick no matter the situation, but with a win-or-no-title scenario at hand, Harvick’s got to be the selection. The deep sleeper underdog who you might or might not think about pick is Ryan Newman, who has two top-10 finishes, including a top 5, in the last five races there.

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