After another good show for both the NASCAR XFINITY and Cup series, Auto Club Speedway, a track that’s hosted some of the best races on intermediate tracks in recent years, generated a lot of positive talk. Does the track deserve another shot at a second race?
Amy Henderson, Senior Editor: Whoa there, buckaroo. Yes, the last few races have been fantastic. But remember that the track and its asphalt is 20 years old, and that, what, the last five races have been good? That means that the first 15 or so were… um, not so good. I don’t think a 25 percent success rate is worth a second date when the track is eventually going to need to be repaved, and once it is, the racing will be a lot closer to the borefests fans remember from a decade ago. Two races didn’t go over well before for a reason, and that’s exactly the reason not to try again.
Mark Howell, Senior Writer: I’ve always felt that Auto Club Speedway deserved a second race. One thing I learned during my Cup days was that Michigan International Speedway was a favorite among the majority of drivers because it was a wide two miles of un-restrictor-plated fun. Given that ACS is pretty much a carbon copy of MIS, giving the California facility a second date seems like a no-brainer. If Las Vegas Motor Speedway is worthy of a second race, so is ACS. If anything, making a second “West Coast” swing would be easier on race teams by grouping those events into a mini “tour” like we do with the spring races.
Michael Massie, Contributor: Auto Club Speedway does provide some great racing, but the only way I would want it to get a second date is if Michigan or a mile-and-a-half track lost one of theirs. We do not need any more races at these cookie cutter tracks on the schedule. If there are going to be more races added on the West Coast then put them at Mesa Marin, Irwindale or Kern County. Those are some action-packed tracks and the grandstands are so small that it would actually look like NASCAR races were selling out again.
Kevin Rutherford, Managing Editor: It deserves a second date way more than about half the tracks currently on the circuit that already have two (or in the case of Las Vegas Motor Speedway, tracks that will be getting a second). I mean, as long as it’s not at the expense of a short track, of course. Lift a date from one of the snoozers. I don’t really buy the argument that a repave is in its future, effectively reverting it back to its old, boring self, either. The Atlanta Motor Speedway incident earlier this year will see to that.
The Cup and Truck Series head to Martinsville Speedway, a short track that’s seen its share of tempers. In light of NASCAR’s seemingly relaxed on- and off-track policies, should we expect fireworks this week?
Massie: If Kyle Busch is going to have his vengeance on Joey Logano, it will happen this week. Phoenix International Raceway and Auto Club are both tracks where you cannot wreck someone and go for the win on the same day. It would mess up your car too much. At Martinsville, aerodynamics are out the window, meaning Rowdy can light up Logano’s bumper all he wants. I don’t see anything else happening this weekend though, as it is too early in the season for that much aggression.
Bryan Gable, Staff Writer: There is a good chance that someone will lose their temper this week, but trying to guess who that will be and the extent of whatever conflict arises is a shot in the dark. I don’t think that anyone in the Cup or Truck series has this weekend circled on their calendar as an opportune moment to dish out some revenge. However, if drivers get irritated with each other during the course of the race, then watch out.
Rutherford: Don’t expect them, but get ready to duck for cover just in case. Martinsville tends to be a great show regardless of the year and series, so you’re going to see some killer racing regardless. It’s just a matter of whether or not there’ll be anything extra, that so-called water cooler moment. And yeah, it could happen. But it’s not going to be forced, and folks shouldn’t expect something as a result. Enjoy it for what it is: some good, old-fashioned short track racing.
Howell: I think fireworks are certainly in store at Martinsville this weekend, but we shouldn’t hold our breath for penalties from NASCAR if pushing turns into shoving (or punching). NASCAR is enjoying the free publicity too much to suddenly enforce a slew of behavior-related penalties, and doing so now would be highly hypocritical. Maybe fireworks of the physical sort are the only vestige we have tying today’s NASCAR to the era so many older fans so dearly miss.
Defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson has struggled so far in 2017, but he’s the active win leader at Martinsville. Is this the week Johnson finds his mojo, and if he doesn’t, is it time to hit the panic button?
Henderson: It’s hard to pick a team for a winner that has only limped into the top 10 once this season, and I don’t really see Jimmie Johnson overcoming his dismal start all in one weekend. But if we’ve learned anything from Johnson’s seventh title, it’s that you don’t ever count him out. Panic button? Here’s the thing: really hitting the button means giving serious consideration to a new crew chief, and I don’t see that happening unless Johnson has a change of heart.
Massie: Johnson will put together a good performance at Martinsville. He and Denny Hamlin have to be considered the favorites to win this weekend purely because of track history. However, even if Johnson finishes 38th, he has no reason to hit the panic button until the Chase. So many cars make the playoffs now that Johnson could do less than stellar all of the regular season and probably still gum his way in.
Gable: If Johnson wins or runs well at Martinsville, then good for him and the No. 48 team. If Johnson struggles, here is what will happen: there will be a massive media frenzy about how Johnson has lost his touch, how the team is on the decline for good and how it might be time to split up Johnson and Chad Knaus. Johnson, of course, will win several weeks later (probably at Kansas Speedway or Dover International Speedway, if not even sooner at Texas Motor Speedway) locking the team into the playoffs. Johnson will then remain a weekly contender, reeling off several more wins by the time the playoffs begin, and everyone will wonder why they doubted Johnson when he went through a minor dry spell during the regular season, just like he does every year.
Five races into 2017, some trends are starting to show in the Cup Series, and some teams have made some big gains. Which team has shown the most improvement so far, and who’s on track to keep growing this season?
Howell: Apart from the obvious success of Kyle Larson and the No. 42 Chevrolet, you’ve got to be impressed with the performance thus far of Clint Bowyer. We hoped he’d turn things around once he got behind the wheel of a Stewart-Haas Ford, and Bowyer has been consistently quick all season. Expect to see him in Victory Lane soon. Another driver who seems to be leaning toward success is Ryan Blaney. His second-place finish at Daytona was no fluke, and he’s been running near the front most every week. Look for the No. 21 team to keep building on its performances heading into the summer months.
Gable: Chip Ganassi Racing is off to a great start. Larson has secured a place in the postseason, and Jamie McMurray is on track to contend for a spot in the playoffs. However, given CGR’s long history of inconsistency, I have my doubts about whether the team can keep it up all season. I think Bowyer and Blaney are on the verge of putting together great seasons. Both drivers went into 2017 as borderline playoff contenders, but they will both be in the postseason if they can keep it up.
Rutherford: Here’s another boring answer that touts Chip Ganassi Racing’s success, but how can you not talk about Larson, McMurray and co.? It dawned on me as I watched last weekend: Jesus, this team could actually be a championship-winning organization after 2017. When was the last time anyone thought that about this organization, Ganassi-owned or Felix Sabates-owned? It’s like getting it through your head that Furniture Row Racing actually has chances at winning and isn’t hiring Jerry Robertson anymore. I’m sure we’ll be saying the same thing when Roush Fenway Racing has its magical resurgence in a few years.
Henderson: While I agree the Ganassi gang is looking great, how about a team that’s improved its average finish by nearly 10 positions over the first five races one year ago while operating on a budget that’s a small fraction of what teams like CGR have to work with? I’m looking at you, Go FAS Racing, and I like what I see, a lot. The team that has largely been driver-by-committee for the last several years put Matt DiBenedetto in the driver’s seat full time this year, and the move has paid off in spades. The team finished higher than 30th just six times last season but has already scored five top 30s in 2017. The finishes alone might not look like much, but for a team with next to nothing compared to the big teams, the start to the year has been incredibly impressive.