This week’s race at Dover International Speedway is the first elimination day of the playoffs this year. Heading in, Austin Dillon, Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch and Kasey Kahne are sitting below the cut line. Do they stay or do they go, and if they do stay, who else goes?
Amy Henderson: Dover doesn’t produce the big crashes it seemed to years ago, but it’s still the type of track where things can go wrong very fast. A wreck or two could change the complexion of the playoffs pretty dramatically. Barring that or a mechanical failure, though, those are your bottom four, and for the most part, their season-long performance bears that out. They’re probably the first four who should go home.
Christian Koelle: The only driver out of this group that’ll really step up will be Austin Dillon. Kurt Busch has just dug himself too much of a hole, while Ryan Newman and Kasey Kahne were already in the hole to begin with. The fourth driver to be eliminated will probably be Kevin Harvick. Harvick hasn’t been The Closer this year, and it worries me for his playoff future.
Michael Massie: Unless bad luck intervenes, Newman is going to get it done. He is only one point out, and he demonstrated in 2014 with Kyle Larson that he will knock someone out of the way for one spot. Newman is too much of a veteran and a clutch driver to be eliminated this early in the playoffs.
Bryan Gable: Of the four drivers who are currently below the cut line, only Newman will advance. Dillon has had a really lackluster season and cannot be counted on to run well when he needs to the most. Kahne would likely need to win to get to the round of 12, and that most likely won’t happen at Dover. Busch could advance with a good run, but the No. 41 team has been so hit-or-miss all year that he is difficult to trust too. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. will probably drop out at the expense of Newman.
Last weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Joey Logano had to sit out final practice on pit road after failing inspection too many times on Friday. NASCAR has said it’ll revisit the penalty next year. Should it be changed?
Massie: In all my years of watching NASCAR, this may have been the single dumbest thing I’ve seen. We’ve had nationwide campaigns and laws to ensure that people do not leave their children or pets in the car on a hot day. NASCAR just undermined all of that by punishing a driver by making him sit in a car for an hour on a pretty hot day. Somewhere out there, a parent probably saw that and will punish their kid the next time they act up by locking them in the car for an hour. The logic will be that NASCAR uses it as a punishment so it must be harmless. If I were Joey Logano, I would have gone home. He’s not in the playoffs anyways, so what does it matter?
Gable: NASCAR should change the penalty, but it should also wait until the end of the year to do so. Lessening a penalty during the middle of the year is not fair to the competitors who have already been hit with it. Besides, I recall Erik Jones and Landon Cassill both having to serve one-hour practice penalties at Richmond Raceway several weeks ago, and nobody complained about them sitting on pit road in hot cars or called the punishment childish. Why is it a problem now? The situation with Logano got blown way out of proportion considering that NASCAR actually followed its own rules. If the sanctioning body changes the penalty now, it would be another instance of NASCAR’s inconsistency, and fans would still be up in arms.
Henderson: NASCAR should make one change: The driver shouldn’t have to sit in the car. I liked having the car sitting on pit road, though. One, it’s a reminder to the other teams what happens when you don’t bring a legal car, and two, it keeps the team’s eyes and hands off of it. Docking practice (and I’m fine with docking practice if a team can’t get the car legal) doesn’t mean much if the team can work on the car in the garage or even stand there looking at it and contemplating possible changes they could make. Punishment needs to mean something if it’s going to deter teams, so a little public humiliation and not being able to put a hand on the car are OK with me.
Koelle: That punishment was a little childish. There are better ways to punish someone, but did the driver really cause them to miss inspection? Why are we punishing the driver then? NASCAR needs to evaluate a punishment to hut both the team and driver without doing anything like making the driver sit at the end of pit road for a whole session.
Even with three wins early on, defending Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson has had a pretty dismal season by his standards. Can he turn it around this weekend at Dover, a track at which he holds the all-time wins record?
Gable: We go through this discussion every year. Jimmie Johnson always comes into the playoffs in a bit of a slump and then lights it up during the last few weeks of the season. He and the No. 48 team may not win at Dover, but they will be fine even if they do not.
Henderson: I hate to be the lone pessimist here, but look at last week: Johnson restarted 13th on four new tires on the final restart and couldn’t pass a single car. The team isn’t making the kind of genius calls it used to, and while Johnson drives the wheels off his cars every time out, he can’t make speed where there isn’t any to be found. I’d never write him off at Dover because he’s too good to do that, but the team isn’t firing on all cylinders. They can make the third round on consistency, but without a win, I don’t see Johnson in the mix at Homestead-Miami Speedway for a repeat.
Koelle: He won’t turn it around this weekend, but he’ll keep it consistent. He’ll move on to the next round and go to Charlotte Motor Speedway, where he’s really good, and win or at least hit that switch. Johnson will definitely be a threat in the coming weeks.
Massie: Johnson started running better the second the playoffs started. He’ll probably win Dover, but if he doesn’t, then he will win somewhere else soon. I bet Johnson doubles his season total of wins before the year is over.
Last week, Furniture Row Racing made the decision to shutter the No. 77 team and sell its charter, while a few other teams are also on shaky financial ground, including Richard Petty Motorsports and BK Racing. Team Penske is expanding to three teams and newcomer StarCom Racing has expressed intent to run the Cup Series next year, so right now it looks like the car count will be roughly the same as this year, but is the status quo a sign of stability or shaky ground for the sport?
Koelle: It’s all at the expense of that wonderful charter thing. Remember in 2015 when the charter wasn’t used and we had 43-44 cars? Well, when the charter system was introduced, a few teams merged like Circle Sport and Leavine Family Racing, which turned two cars into one. That move downsized the field, and it was good back when we had more than 40 cars show up every week, but now it’s basically pointless. Notice a team that has a charter makes the race the same way a driver without a charter does most weeks. The only difference is the payout given at the end of the season. It’s not shaky ground but more like stability for at least a few seasons.
Massie: StarCom Racing is not going to last. It’s another company that thinks it can throw around money like Red Bull and produce a winning race team. It won’t get the return on its investment and will drop out after a few years at most. The Cup Series is going to have less and less cars every year until the costs and dependence on sponsorship drops immensely. I’ve said it before and I will say it a thousand more times: NASCAR needs a spending cap per team.
Gable: The sponsorship situation in NASCAR is really troubling right now. Seeing Furniture Row likely scale back to one car is bad enough, and RPM’s situation is troubling too. Don’t forget that Richard Childress Racing might drop down to two cars. I would not be surprised if BK Racing folded entirely during the offseason, and I have serious doubts about how often StarCom Racing will actually make it to the track. Considering that Kurt Busch is still on shaky sponsorship ground and Matt Kenseth might not race at all next year, it is time for NASCAR to rein in the costs of competing in the Cup Series, not to mention the overall influence of the sponsors.
Henderson: Look, at the end of the day, teams have nobody to blame but themselves for the situation they’re in. (Well, they have each other, but you get my point.) When a few sponsors forked out two or three times what teams had been running on to a few top teams, the cost for everyone to be even remotely competitive skyrocketed overnight. It wasn’t terribly long ago that $10-15 million was big-team money; now that’s mid-tier cost. It’s not a model that was ever realistically sustainable long term, and everybody is suffering now. The sport absolutely needs to control costs, but finding an enforceable way to do so isn’t so easy.