After the Coca-Cola 600, should NASCAR consider adding an extra stage or otherwise giving more points for a few select races, such as the Daytona 500 and Southern 500, to make the sport’s most prestigious races its most important?
Michael Massie: I would love stage racing to death if the breaks between stages were not so unbearably long. There is all this talk about shortening races, but they would not feel as long if there were not 15-minute breaks every quarter of the race. I like for the marque races to be worth more points, but four stages is too many. How about keeping the 600, the Daytona 500, the Southern 500 and a few other big ones at three stages and making all of the other races two stages? Just split those races in half and have the halfway bonus like there used to be, but with points instead of money.
Amy Henderson: As it stands, yes. Something needs to be done to make the most prestigious races stand out, and making them more valuable to drivers would be a start. I’m not sure adding an extra stage is the way to go, and while we’re on the subject of stages, I hate that the first two are the same length; they need to be different, perhaps one a stretch of a fuel run that’s a bit of a mileage gamble and one long enough to require a green-flag stop. These would be a start. Add some kind of deal to them like the old Winston Million as well, and we’re really talking.
Bryan Gable: There should not be any extra stages, even if NASCAR announces them at the beginning of the season. Awarding additional points by stage running position is only going to amplify the problem of the winner not receiving the most points in a given race. Increasing the raw point totals for the crown jewels would make those races more meaningful in terms of the whole season, but beyond those three, there are other events that have been considered crown jewel races or wins that carry a little more prestige within the NASCAR world: the Brickyard 400, the Bristol Motor Speedway night race, the spring Talladega Superspeedway race and the July Daytona International Speedway race, to name a few. If NASCAR does decide to offer additional points for races beyond the obvious three ones, it would have to make some difficult choices about which races are its marquee events, because having too many special races lessens the value of them individually.
Vito Pugliese: Just have one stage for major races on the schedule but provide the amount of points that winning four stages would. The next task would be deciding which of those races qualify as a major event. Back in the days of the Winston Million and No Bull 5 promotions, they were the Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600, Southern 500, Brickyard 400, the second Talladega event and Richmond International Raceway. The Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600 and Brickyard 400 should remain, and add in Watkins Glen International for a road course, with Martinsville Speedway representing a short track. They have lights there now, and you know a night race is coming. What better way to promote NASCAR’s oldest track with arguably the most history on the circuit?
Great Clips announced that the company will end its relationship with Kasey Kahne at the end of the season. Farmers Insurance is already leaving. Is this the beginning of the end for Kahne at Hendrick Motorsports?
Henderson: Yes, and based on his performance, I was surprised he got the last contract extension. His popularity isn’t enough to keep the money coming in. That said, the smart thing to do would be to keep Kasey Kahne in the seat for one more year, until the end of his contract, because rushing William Byron to the Cup Series would be a mistake. And prepping him for the No. 5 ride also allows Hendrick to do the right thing and put Alex Bowman in the No. 88 next season, a ride that Bowman did everything right to earn in his substitute role last year.
Mark Howell: I’m surprised this whole deal hasn’t happened sooner. Kahne is certainly a talented driver, but the No. 5 has failed to gain any real traction within Hendrick. A sure sign that you’ve overstayed your welcome is when longtime sponsors jump ship, and that’s what Great Clips is doing. The No. 5 was the operation that built HMS (think Geoff Bodine and the 1986 Daytona 500), but so much development has occurred since the team was a big fish in Hendrick’s then-small pond. The moving and shaking of the Nos. 24, 48 and 88 has rendered the No. 5 moot. Sad to see, but it was also quite inevitable.
Pugliese: Yes, and it’s been a long time coming. While nobody would argue that Kahne isn’t a talented driver, he’s also been one of the most hyped drivers in history to not deliver based on the promises. He hasn’t won a race since 2014 and has only won more than two races in a season once in his career — way back in 2006 when Evernham Motorsports had the noses figured out just right on the Dodges that year while the other Dodge teams struggled with balance, when he won a whopping six races. Part of this isn’t all his fault. Evernham merging with Gillett Racing, merging with Richard Petty Motorsports was about as messy as the DEI disintegration occurring about the same time, which had him ready to quite following an especially poor showing at Charlotte when he was sent out with no brakes on the car. Has the No. 5 team been relegated to R&D duty, with seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, most popular driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. and now Chase Elliott garnering all of the focus for the organization? If so, it really doesn’t mater who mans the No. 5 team, but given Earnhardt’s departure after this season, there will be a realignment of those teams. Perhaps next year might hold more promise for him should be remain in the seat for 2018.
Austin Dillon is the second driver this year to take home his first Cup Series win. How many more first-timers are we likely to see this year?
Howell: My money for 2017 first-time winners is on Elliott, Ryan Blaney and — believe it or not — Landon Cassill. Front Row Motorsports is a solid little team whose time is about to come. Daniel Suarez is another driver who could join the winners’ club this season. Once he makes return trips to tracks later in the year, his finishes will improve.
Gable: It is within the realm of possibility that we could have four more first-time winners: Elliott, Blaney, Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez. Yet in terms of what is likely, only Elliott and Blaney will reach victory lane before the year is out. Both drivers, particularly Blaney, have shown a lot more capability to lead races and compete for wins than Jones and Suarez have.
Massie: There will be three more first-time winners this season: Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney and Erik Jones. Daniel Suarez will come close, but it will not be until his second season that he gets it done. Oh and you heard it hear first, Todd Gilliland wins his Camping World Trucks Series debut this weekend at Dover International Speedway. I’m calling it.
Henderson: We’ll see at least one more. Elliott and Blaney look like they could break through at any time, and Jones and Suarez should gain strength as they visit tracks for the second time. Any or all of those four could have that first trophy by season’s end. Also, how about Michael McDowell? He’s definitely a threat to win at either Daytona or Talladega, maybe one of the road courses. Leavine Family Racing has ties to RCR, which has two wins this year, and McDowell is running better than Ty Dillon with presumably less support from RCR. A win for McDowell would be a surprise but should not be a shock to anyone.
Cup Series regular Ryan Blaney won the XFINITY Series race at Charlotte last weekend, the eighth time in 10 races a Cup driver has won. Are NASCAR’s rules limiting Cup drivers in lower series doing their job?
Henderson: They’re working to the degree that at least it’s not the same one or two Cup guys dominating, but more could be done. Drivers with more than two years of full-time Cup experience who made the playoffs the year before should not be eligible for more than three lower-series races with their Cup team the following year. If they wanted to do a couple more one-offs with a non-affiliated team, that would be OK. Rookies and drivers outside the top 16 in Cup points should have a little more leeway, but only Cup rookies should be allowed to run unlimited lower-series races. Fewer companion races would make a difference if the tracks were far enough apart, but the problem with that is standalone weekends aren’t generally very profitable for tracks, and they aren’t going to sign on for a losing proposition.
Gable: The rules have kept drivers like Kyle Busch from running the balance of the XFINITY schedule, but they still do not go far enough. Aside from the glut of companion events that make moonlighting in the XFINITY Series easier, the biggest problem is the provision that the limits only apply to Cup drivers with over five years of experience. Racers like Dillon and Kyle Larson can still run as many XFINITY races as they want, while Blaney, Jones and Suarez can do the same for even longer unless the rules change. Not only does NASCAR need to tighten up the race limit for Cup drivers (I’d say five is fair), it should also mandate that Cup rookies are the only drivers exempt from the limit.
Puglise: It’s quite obvious that having Cup drivers in the field does absolutely nothing to help attendance or ratings; I’d say there were as many paying spectators Saturday for the XFINITY race at Charlotte as there were exiting the Turn 1 short chute at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sunday. Drivers who declare a Cup Series status for the year should be limited to no more than five starts total in any of the lower series combined for the season. It holds no intrigue or interest to see Cup drivers with Cup-affiliated teams dominate races on Saturday to the point that nobody bothers to show up to watch in person or on television.
Massie: The biggest problem with the lower series is all of these companion events. If NXS or the Camping World Truck Series were off doing their own thing at a separate track, then the Cup guys would be less likely to drive in them. Dale Earnhardt, Mark Martin and Harry Gant raced in NXS quite a bit, but it was not as big of a deal back then because they were not out there every single week. I would like to see a schedule where the lower series had about 10 companion events a piece each year and did the rest of their schedules separate. This would make it a much bigger honor and occasion for the regulars in those series when the Cup guys do participate.