NASCAR Race Weekend Central

4 Burning Questions: Will Kyle Busch Earn 3rd Straight Win of 2017 in Charlotte?

Will Kyle Busch Score Third Straight Win of Season at Charlotte?

It happened when most doubted him. When he was deep in a points rut and had much ground to make up.

When the odds seemed to be against him, that was when Kyle Busch scored three consecutive wins in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. This was 2015 when he came back from his lower-extremity injuries that February to win at Kentucky Speedway, New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Indianapolis Motor Speedway in succession that July.

With a championship won in the meantime, Busch has done some growing since then and has recently returned to his week-in, week-out winning ways in 2017. And for this weekend’s Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Busch will attempt to win three in a row for the second time.

Can he do it? If this was Formula 1, a three-peat of victories isn’t a huge deal when you’re one of the top two-to-three teams. But in NASCAR, even if you’re in the best equipment, consecutive wins alone only happen once or twice a season. For Cup, it’s been nearly two years since Joey Logano pulled it off in fall 2015.

But Busch has been on a tremendous run lately, as shown in Victory Lane the last two weeks of the playoffs at New Hampshire and Dover International Speedway. But going back even further, the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota hasn’t finished outside the top 15 since crashing out of the lead at Indianapolis in July. Since then, he’s captured all four of his 2017 wins and has led every race since.

However, Charlotte hasn’t been an easy place for Busch to score a victory, as it’s the only track at which he stands winless in his Cup career. Through 27 starts, Busch may have three runner-up and 11 top-five finishes, but a win just hasn’t come through.

Could Busch’s All-Star Race win lead to a points win on Sunday? Or will the win streak end and a winless streak continue after 500 miles?

Is There Increased Awareness of Stage Points in the Round of 12?

Since it was announced preseason that points would be awarded twice mid-race, the talk of stage racing has made the rounds as it should. It has played an integral role in deciding the race winner each week while setting the playoff grid for the final 10 weeks.

But perhaps its true effect wasn’t shown until last week at Dover, when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. got he caution he needed while the leaders came to pit road. With that hint of luck, Stenhouse held on to finish fourth in Sunday’s first stage, earning seven points.

Wouldn’t you know it, Stenhouse and Ryan Newman would be fighting two points apart for the final transfer position in the final laps. Turns out these stages can be the true factor in advancing toward a championship.

With stage points behind showcased in such a straightforward manner last week, will it be even further ramped up in the Round of 12? We did just eliminate four struggling teams from the group and will now shrink the remaining teams by more than 30 percent after Kansas Speedway in three races.

Looking at the lineup heading into Charlotte, the first race of the round, stage points can be the deciding factor for guys like Jamie McMurray, Stenhouse again or even a Ryan Blaney or Jimmie Johnson, who have been good but haven’t been winning for several months now.

In fact, even Chase Elliott comes into Charlotte below the cutoff of eighth, having only two points to pick up. With a guy of Elliott’s stature in a tough spot, the concern is real for most of the grid, as only 17 points — 17 positions — separate 12th from fourth. Heck, you could earn more than that on stage points alone on Sunday. Scary from the team’s perspective, thrilling from row eight of the grandstands.

How Will Alex Bowman Treat XFINITY Opportunity in Charlotte?

Alex Bowman will finally get another start in a points race in 2017. And he’s got a big task ahead for 2018, so it’s about time.

Finishing third in the non-points Clash at Daytona in February, it’s been more than seven months since he’s turned laps in competition, last running the No. 24 in the Camping World Truck Series at Atlanta Motor Speedway. That streak will end this weekend at Charlotte when Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s replacement for next year will race for Chip Ganassi Racing in the XFINITY Series.

Though it’s not a one-race deal bent on impressing car owners for a job, Bowman has a little bit of catch-up to play in Saturday’s Drive for the Cure 300. As mentioned, 2017 has been a quiet but exciting year for the 24-year-old. He’s been off the track for a while, but he’s replaced that with simulator work for Hendrick Motorsports, and even a simulator can keep a driver up to date in such a time.

But this weekend is different. Different ride, different series, different circumstances. The No. 42 Chevrolet has been wicked fast this year in both Cup and XFINITY, with Kyle Larson leading the XFINITY team to three wins this year while rookie Tyler Reddick recently grabbed a powerful win at Kentucky Speedway.

The equipment will surely be there at Charlotte and later this year at Phoenix International Raceway. But so will the driver, as Bowman performed with JR Motorsports in 2016, earning seven top-10 finishes in nine starts.

But how will Bowman treat these two races? Is he out to solidify his name in the potential 2018 contenders or are these races merely warm-ups to the bigger ride to come in four months?

Will Team Penske Lead the XFINITY Field Again in Charlotte?

Recently, Team Penske is the first team to show up in the XFINITY Series at Charlotte and the last ones to leave.

That’s because it’s had some Victory Lane responsibilities to handle after scoring victory at NASCAR’s home track. Drivers Blaney and Joey Logano have won back-to-back at Charlotte for Penske, giving the two-car team momentum entering Saturday.

One of those winners is returning for 300 miles this weekend, as Blaney is back in the No. 22. The driver who will join Penske in the Cup Series in 2018 has been epic on the XFINITY side this year, with seven top-two finishes in only nine starts. Two of those finishes were wins at Charlotte in the spring and Dover last week. You can’t not call him the guy to beat, right?

If he isn’t, Sam Hornish Jr. could be near the top on Saturday. He’s driving the No. 12 Ford this weekend for the first time, having made his four starts this season in the No. 22. With plenty of Cup and XFINITY experience behind him, along with a win this year at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, Hornish has the potential for another on Saturday.

But before you place him in the same group as Blaney, just know that 2017 hasn’t been a good year for the 38-year-old. Outside the Mid-Ohio win in August, Hornish has yet to finish in the top 30 in three other starts this year. In fact, the string of rough finishes resembles his time with Joe Gibbs Racing in 2014, winning at Iowa Speedway before finishing 30th or worse in three of his next five starts.

Is Hornish blowing what could be another top opportunity or will he turn it around when he can at Charlotte? Perhaps Blaney is a perfect teammate for him this weekend.

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