NASCAR is reportedly considering a cone rule, which would allow drivers to choose a restart lane as they exit the pits under caution. It’s a rule used at short tracks with success, but is it a viable way for NASCAR to spice up restarts and stop teams from hitting the brakes on pit road to get a preferred lane?
Vito Pugliese: This is precisely the type of thing that gets the gimmick tag slapped on it and will be cited and exploited by critics who bemoan the new NASCAR and its constant fiddling of the rules and racing to try to improve the product. What might be fun for your local short track running 100-lap features is out of place and a little silly at the highest level of national motorsports. Hitting brakes at the end of pit road is gamesmanship enough. Besides, as Denny Hamlin wryly pointed out at his own attempts at slowing down at the exit of pit road to get the preferred line: “Worked exactly zero times.”
Michael Massie: Southside Speedway in Virginia uses the cone rule, and I absolutely love seeing it in the races there. It gives fans something to look forward to during the caution and spices things up on the restart. People keep saying that NASCAR needs to reconnect with its grassroots, and this is a small way it can do so. It will not change the running order all that much, as the second-place driver will still want a spot on a front row. Since the repave that ruined Bristol Motor Speedway, I’ve always felt bad for the cars in third or fifth for the final restart because they were likely not even going to finish in the top five. With the rule, drivers will not be trapped in a bad lane simply because of how they came out of the pits.
Amy Henderson: I wouldn’t mind seeing it at Bristol and Martinsville Speedway, and here’s why: It’s a grassroots rule, and it would make for some more strategy. It gives drivers the chance to maybe get a better finish than they otherwise might. If the top five or six all take one lane and the next guy takes the other and can hang on, they might make a race of it. That’s never bad. Is it a gimmick? Sure, but it’s not the same kind of thing as, say, the playoff system; it allows drivers to better control their own destiny. It shouldn’t be hard for fans to follow, and it’s not artificial; drivers make their bed and lie in it. It doesn’t need to be everywhere, but it could work at the short tracks.
The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series has its final off-weekend of the year this week and a last chance to find something extra for the playoffs. We all know who needs a win to make the show, but which teams already in the playoffs need the biggest boost as summer winds down?
Pugliese: While all eyes are on the Nos. 22 and 14 teams to see if they can pull out a miracle, there are a couple of teams in desperate need of help. The Richard Childress Racing duo of Ryan Newman and Austin Dillon earned their way into the playoffs many moons ago and haven’t showed anything remotely resembling consistent speed of late. Their only hope of making it out of the first round of the playoffs is to capitalize on the folly of others, because they simply aren’t that fast. And Dillon gets caught up in a lot of wrecks. Beyond that, Brad Keselowski has been the best-in-class car for the last couple of months (i.e., non-Toyota), and the blue – er – blanc deuce needs to summon whatever it was that had them on par with the likes of Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Larson earlier this season. Same goes for pseudo-teammate Ryan Blaney. His win at Pocono Raceway was impressive, but he hasn’t spent a lot of time leading races or at the front since then.
Henderson: Anyone driving something other than a Toyota. Those teams have something figured out the others don’t. Toyota dominance aside, the driver I see struggling the most in the playoffs is going to be Dillon. RCR in general isn’t quite at the level of top Chevy teams Chip Ganassi Racing and Hendrick Motorsports, and Dillon, well-driven win aside, just doesn’t look ready to make any kind of title run and will need to find something to make it past the first round.
Bryan Gable: Winning at Indianapolis Motor Speedway has not changed the trajectory of Kasey Kahne‘s season. That victory is his only top-10 finish in the last 14 races. Hendrick has not been lighting it up recently, but we know that Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team can flip the switch and elevate its game whenever the playoffs roll around. Kahne has never displayed that ability, so his final playoff appearance with HMS will likely be a short one. The same thing goes for the RCR drivers. There may be a little hope for Newman, who has managed to grind out a few strong finishes in recent weeks. Dillon’s season, however, has been a major disappointment, especially considering the progress that the No. 3 team made last year. Expect to see Dillon eliminated after the first round.
Samarth Kanal: The focus will be firmly on Hendrick, as its drivers haven’t shown the form expected of such a dominant outfit lately. Johnson normally excels in the postseason, but with an average finishing position of 22nd since his win at Dover International Speedway in June, Johnson needs to stop the slide before it gains momentum. Kahne doesn’t have a stage win to his name yet, and Chase Elliott may narrowly scrape into the playoffs in what has been a lackluster season so far for the No. 24.
We hear from time to time that the drivers currently in NASCAR’s top series are less relatable than those a generation ago. Is this true, and if it is, why is that the case, and is there a solution?
Massie: With the exception of Dale Earnhardt Jr., most of the drivers that came out in the early 2000s were hard to relate to. However, the current crop of youngsters are highly relatable. Did you see Blaney’s prank calls he did on Darrell Wallace Jr. and Larson? That is something I would have done if I were in his situation. And Wallace’s reaction was similar to the way one of my buddies would react: with an expletive-filled response. Granted, those are three drivers who worked really hard to get to where they are and didn’t have daddy’s money propelling them forward like many drivers do today. All of the young drivers would be more relatable if this were the case for them all.
Henderson: It’s true. Part of it’s the money drivers make, but the image has changed. Look at Dale Earnhardt, who, while he made millions in NASCAR, was often seen working on his farm, cleaning the barn or throwing hay to his animals. No matter what else he was doing with his vast business empire, that image resonated with people, because it made him seem a lot like them. Contrast that with another seven-time champ, Johnson, who comes from very blue-collar roots, but that matters less to fans than the image he presents now, and there’s nothing blue collar in that. Fans see Johnson traveling or with his family in one of their multiple homes, and he doesn’t seem much like that blue-collar kid anymore. Instead, fans see another corporate figure, and that just doesn’t resonate. Larson’s comments about signing at merchandise haulers not being lucrative enough also highlighted this. To fans, being able to meet their heroes shouldn’t be about the money, and it’s disheartening to read that that’s the only reason the driver is interacting with them.
Gable: Relatability is in the eye of the beholder. When I started following NASCAR, I liked a lot of the veteran drivers because they seemed so unlike most other professional athletes. Racers like Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace, Dale Jarrett, both Labonte brothers, Ricky Rudd, Bill Elliott and Bobby Hamilton seemed like ordinary guys who could have lived down the street from me when I was growing up. The way they acted off the track seemed so ordinary that you never would have known they were professional racecar drivers. Fast forward about 20 years, and I get a similar vibe from drivers like Larson, Blaney, Elliott, Erik Jones, Wallace, William Byron and Alex Bowman. The difference is that they all seem like guys I would have met in a college dorm or remind me of my own friends. So the question is why I have struggled to relate to the middle group of drivers, the current veterans of the sport. Maybe it’s because there are not as many people in my life of their age group, so I see them only as racecar drivers. But psychoanalysis aside, nobody should make blanket statements about how relatable the drivers are. Every fan’s experience is different.
Kanal: Drivers now may well be less relatable to NASCAR’s key demographic, aged 50-plus and predominantly located in the south. According to Yougov, percent of NASCAR fans fit those two criteria. It’s not surprising that they won’t relate to the younger flock of drivers who aren’t all from the south and don’t share their background and culture. Larson, as an example, is a brilliant, talented racing driver, but he may not draw in that fanbase for those reasons alone. However, if NASCAR wants to appeal more to 18- to 49-year-olds not solely from the south (and not exclusively located in America), these current drivers are plenty relatable. A more diverse crowd responds better not to good ol’ boys but to a more diverse field of drivers, which we have now.
The XFINITY Series is the only NASCAR national division in action this weekend, racing at Road America. Which team in need of a boost is most likely to get one this weekend on the road course?
Gable: Blake Koch is in good shape to make the XFINITY playoffs, but the No. 11 team could use a little more momentum for when it begins. Koch had a respectable run at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, so maybe he could be a surprise winner at Road America.
Kanal: Sitting at the bottom of the playoffs is Brendan Gaughan, who has a pretty solid Road America record, having placed second in 2016 and won in 2014. RCR needs that boost. and Gaughan is most likely to provide it this weekend at Road America.
Pugliese: I’m putting my money on Gaughan and the No. 62 RCR Camaro. He was putting together several top-10 runs at the road courses of Watkins Glen and Mid-Ohio before getting wrecked out at Bristol last week. Gaughan won at Road America in 2014, and a repeat performance of that day would give the South Point Casino team some much needed momentum heading into the playoffs.
Massie: A few weeks ago, I was flirting with the idea that the Joe Gibbs Racing NXS cars were so much better than the rest of the field that Gibbs could stick a monkey in the car and it would still win. Then I remembered that Matt Tifft is in a Gibbs car and had done absolutely nothing at that point. My tune changed slightly when Tifft went out and finished third at Mid-Ohio. While he clearly has not figured out oval racing, Tifft showed some talent on a road course. Maybe this weekend’s race at Road America is exactly what the rookie needs to build up his confidence.