Kasey Kahne will drive the No. 95 for Leavine Family Racing in 2018, replacing Michael McDowell. Will Kahne be able to take the team to the next level, and what will McDowell do?
Amy Henderson: If Kasey Kahne brings a big-time sponsor, then it will help from an equipment standpoint. But take a close look at the actual numbers, and Kahne —in top-of-the-line Hendrick Motorsports cars — and Michael McDowell are having virtually identical seasons in terms of average finish and head-to head finishes. McDowell is having that season in an underfunded car, so I’m not sure Kahne is going to be much different. Bottom line: Kahne potentially adds a lot to the bank account but not all that much in the driver’s seat. McDowell will find a seat with a smaller team because of how well he’s run this season, but I don’t see an upgrade being available.
Vito Pugliese: McDowell has actually fared better than Kahne since Kahne’s Brickyard 400 win, and nobody would confuse Leavine equipment for Hendrick stuff. McDowell was actually running in the top 10 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway too before being collected in one of the many late-race accidents. That said, a change of scenery and the need to perform to get back to a top tier ride will help Kahne resemble the form he showed when running the single-entry Red Bull Racing No. 4 in 2011 while he was waiting for the No. 5 Chevrolet to open for him.
Michael Massie: I don’t like the move because I believe loyalty goes a long way, and McDowell has been the guy to get Leavine to this point. However, it is a great move for the team. Money equals speed, and Kahne will bring more attention and potentially more sponsorship to the team. Also, if Hendrick is still paying Kahne’s salary for 2018, then that is more money LFR will have to spend on other things. McDowell would be best served to try to take a full-time XFINITY Series ride for a team like Richard Childress Racing since there aren’t many great rides left in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
Bryan Gable: Having Kahne in the driver’s seat instead of McDowell will be a benefit in the long run for LFR. Kahne has gone through a few rough seasons, but his ceiling as a driver is clearly higher than McDowell’s. While it is unlikely that Kahne will reach the playoffs next year in the No. 95, he should keep LFR on its current path of incremental improvements. As for McDowell, his best bet is to try to find a ride in the XFINITY Series. After all, racing for top 10s or even wins in the second-tier division has to be more appealing than running at the back of the pack in the Cup Series.
Chase Elliott will be without crew chief Alan Gustafson this weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway due to a suspension for a post-race infraction at Chicagoland Speedway. What will Gustafson’s absence do to Elliott’s title hopes?
Pugliese: The net effect won’t be much, simply because there are several other playoffs competitors that had miserable days at Chicagoland, namely Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Kahne and Ryan Newman. Hendrick has a deep bench and historically has posted wins with interim crew chiefs. It’s a 300-mile race, which lessens the margin for error, so eliminating strategy and pit road mistakes is probably most important for the team this weekend. The No. 24 HMS team finished 11th there a couple of months ago, and all it needs to be focusing on is getting through this weekend and not doing anything that puts it in a bad spot for Dover International Speedway next weekend. Chase Elliott was fifth there in June, with teammate Jimmie Johnson winning for what might have been the 98th time at the Monster Mile, so he should be OK.
Massie: Elliott needs a new crew chief anyway. Is Gustafson a great crew chief, or did he simply benefit from having future Hall of Fame drivers Kyle Busch, Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon drive his cars? Regardless, he and Elliott have not produced a winning formula. The fill-in is Kenny Francis, who won a lot of races with Kahne. With Francis and championship-winning crew chief Darian Grubb returning on top of Hendrick pit boxes this week, those teams will see a large spike in performance.
Gable: All Elliott has to do is get out of New Hampshire with a decent finish, and he does not need Gustafson for that. Elliott has done a great job at Dover in his brief career, earning top fives in all three starts at the Monster Mile. If he avoids disaster, he will advance to the second round easily, and we will quickly forget that Gustafson was even absent.
Henderson: Elliott will be fine as long as he avoids trouble on track, and that’s not something you can pin on a crew chief. It’s not as though Francis has no experience. His bigger problem is how far behind Hendrick as a whole has been as the playoffs roll on and the lesser teams get weeded out. I’ve seen estimates that the tape on Elliott’s spoiler was worth as much as two tenths of a second a lap, which is actually a fairly sizeable advantage, and he still finished second. Do the math.
Brad Keselowski was in the spotlight for remarks about Toyota teams having a clear advantage. Is there stock in his claims, and should NASCAR step in?
Massie: Elliott’s team cheated and still wasn’t in the same zip code as the No. 78. The Toyotas are so much better than the rest of the field that it is starting to make me wonder whose palms they are greasing to get through inspection each week. Brad Keselowski isn’t making some super controversial statement; he is just stating the obvious that even a person with no knowledge of NASCAR could observe. We think it is much more controversial because of the Toyota camp’s over-exaggerated responses. If NASCAR does not step in soon then the next eight races are pointless, as the four Toyotas in the playoffs will make up the Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Gable: Keselowski’s comments would carry a lot more weight if all six factory Toyotas were the fastest six cars on track. That clearly is not the case. The Nos. 78 and 18 may be the cars to beat on the intermediate tracks, but right now they are in a class by themselves. The No. 11 is perhaps a half step behind them, followed by the Nos. 20 and 77, then the No. 19. But with all due respect to Daniel Suarez, I don’t see him outrunning Kevin Harvick, Kyle Larson or Keselowski on a regular basis. The superiority of Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch is less about a manufacturer advantage and more about teams that have found the best setups. That is part of auto racing; not everybody is going to have the best setup all the time. And no, we don’t need competitors running to mother NASCAR telling it to reign the fastest teams in, especially during the postseason. Remember, excessive hand-wringing about manufacturers having aero advantages was part of what led to the minimal brand identity in the Car of Tomorrow, and nobody was happy about that.
Henderson: From the standpoint of purely watching the races, it’s pretty hard to watch the Toyotas and not wonder why they’re winning week in and week out and running away with races even if they don’t win. Given that the two top Toyota teams work closely together and share data, it’s hard to say whether the advantage comes from those teams finding something nobody else has hit on or whether the advantage comes from the Toyota engines or bodies themselves. If it’s the former, well, shame on everyone else, but if it’s the latter, NASCAR does need to be looking, and if there is something, find a way to correct it. It doesn’t need to return to the level of the car wars of the ‘90s, but it doesn’t help anyone to let one manufacturer gain a ridiculous advantage. Parity between manufacturers is not the same thing as parity — or lack thereof — between teams. If one team finds something, fine, but if one has an advantage simply because of the cars it runs, not so fine.
Pugliese: A lot of people might not like Keselowski or how he puts things, but it’s hard to disagree with what he said if you look at the data. He didn’t say that Toyota was cheating, he simply said they had a competitive advantage that wasn’t being addressed by NASCAR. Don’t think so? When Truex was having to come from behind after his second pit road issue on Sunday at Chicagoland, he was 2.2 seconds behind leader Harvick’s No. 4 Ford. 11 laps later, he drove by him to take the lead. Over the course of the next 18 laps, he extended his lead to 3.3 seconds over the now-second-place car of Elliott and whatever tricky spoiler tape nonsense he had going on. Considering he was working traffic, passing the leader of the race and driving away from another car that just got fined for a performance modification, that’s about spot on Keselowski’s claim of being .3-.5 seconds a lap faster than everyone else.
NASCAR is rolling out a new inspection process this fall to be implemented next year that consolidates the template and laser inspection into one automated station. Is this kind of automated process good for the sport, or is there a risk in removing the human element?
Gable: The laser element of inspections has become a complete joke. In its attempt to measure cars with precision, NASCAR has really created an imprecise situation that has left competitors confused and fans frustrated. Just get rid of the lasers entirely.
Henderson: My fear with the new camera station is that if a car isn’t positioned just right, it’ll get a false reading, similar to what teams claimed was the case with the laser station this season. A car should not fail inspection because it’s a half inch off center in the inspection bay. If the cameras can compensate to a degree better than the current system, and it actually saves time, I don’t have an issue with it as long as humans are looking at any issues before failing the car summarily.
Pugliese: It will work if they do one thing: Take the laser out of it. These are stock cars; templates are enough. Measuring every square inch of the cars has not reduced cost or improved the racing. I am skeptical of anything whose calibrations are altered by riding around in the back of a semi over pockmarked Midwestern roads during the course of the season. Hopefully it will still speed up the process, but again, more rules and regulations aren’t helping things get better on the track or in the garage area. Not saying it needs to be a free-for-all, but the sport seemed to have a bit more flavor to it when fabricators were able to do their thing. With the potential of composite bodies in the not too distant future, much of this might all be a moot point anyway.
Massie: What’s next? Driver-less cars going around the track? This is stock car racing, not Formula 1. It is time to stop treating these cars like they are spaceships and get back to regular cars with regular inspections. In Virginia, we have a yearly state inspection for our cars. Mechanics conduct them, and it is a hassle to get through sometimes, but the human element allows for you to still pass and people can relate to that. If it had an automated inspection, then there would not be any cars on the road in the state; no one would pass. I can’t relate to an automated inspection process, and neither will fans. NASCAR has some of the brightest engineers in the sport. It is time to once again allow them to do their thing and loosen up this whole inspection process.