With Joey Logano’s third Talladega win coming this past weekend, he is now in the playoffs. After a dismal end to his 2017 season, is Logano all the way back to peak form and is he the best driver at Team Penske right now?
Mark Howell: I’d say the best driver at Penske Racing award should be shared between Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney. While Logano won last week, it’s been Blaney who has shown more consistent strength during the season thus far. I can’t help but think the ghost of Richmond 2017 continues to float around the shop at Penske; the No. 22 bunch has struggled to regain its mojo. Talladega was a good start, but you can’t help but think that NASCAR is remembering and watching.
Amy Henderson: Take a look at the standings for this year… who’s got more top-10 finishes than any other driver? Logano, who’s second in points. He’s been super consistent, and that’s a big part of being a contender, and his Talladega win wasn’t exactly a huge out-of-the-blue surprise. But “peak form?” I need to see a couple of wins on a track that isn’t Daytona or Talladega first. He’s well on his way to a really good season but needs to seal the deal with another W or two.
Matt McLaughlin: Going strictly by the numbers, Logano is averaging a 6.7 finish this season, which is pretty remarkable. For comparison’s sake, Brad Keselowski is averaging a 16.6 result and Blaney is averaging a 13.1 result. But Blaney has led 364 laps to date this season, while Logano has only led 201 and Keselowski has led 139 circuits. Once Blaney gets better at finishing off what he starts, he may be the sport’s next superstar.
Mike Neff: It is a common perception that Logano is in the playoffs, but at this point, he is still not guaranteed. Two wins lock you into the playoffs if you attempt all of the races. If there are more than 16 winners, Logano could miss out. That said, he has been running extremely strong all year. Even though he hadn’t won before this weekend, he has been battling at the front, including two stage wins at Richmond. Logano and the Ford camp are at the top of the sport right now. We’ll see where they are in September to decide how back he is.
NASCAR opted to change the size of the restrictor plate in advance of Sunday’s GEICIO 500 to slow speeds down after Jamie McMurray’s practice crash. Will we ever get to a time when cars will run without restrictor plates in any form or capacity, and if so, why or why not?
Howell: Call me an idealist, but I assumed NASCAR would drop restrictor plates once they adopted electronic fuel injection back in 2012. It seemed that having control over fuel flow/spray would eliminate the need for plates. As such, one can only think that NASCAR secretly hopes for the big wrecks and practice rolls that make sports news highlight reels. There’s no business like show business, I guess, even with EFI.
Henderson: In reality, I don’t think NASCAR wants to get rid of the plates. The “excitement” they create (or carnage, whichever you prefer) is just too tempting for the sanctioning body to throw away. Take plates away and it’s like the field would break up into much smaller packs, and spread out. NASCAR sees a teeny-tiny margin of victory as a great race, and it may be a great finish to a race, but if 20 cars got taken out along the way, I’d argue the “great race” part. NASCAR has the technology and ability to reduce speed enough to safely race without plates, or at least it could with some R&D. That the sanctioning body have never once run an actual test at Daytona and Talladega to try other options should tell you all you need to know.
McLaughlin: When you take a 358 cubic inch V8 engine and wind it up to 8800 RPM the cars are going to be flat out flying. NASCAR could lower the banking at Daytona and Talladega to allow the races to run un-restricted at sub-200 mph speeds, or it could use some sort of crate engine designed to produce about 450 horsepower and accomplish the same thing. I will say that if NASCAR insists on reducing (or even increasing) the size of the plates between final practice and the race, it ought to give the teams an extra emergency practice session to sort out the changes. The unknowns at the start of the race Sunday were among the reasons the race was so tepid and lame.
Neff: Not unless NASCAR figures out a way to limit the EFI on the V8 engines in the cars, or switch to a smaller engine. Unfortunately, both of those options are not guaranteed to ensure that the plates wouldn’t be necessary. There are some aero options that could be implemented, but it doesn’t seem like the sanctioning body is actively pursuing that. It has been over 30 years since we started using the plates that were supposed to be a temporary bandaid. It is a hell of a wound that needs a bandaid for that long.
Spencer Gallagher won his first ever XFINITY race this past weekend at Talladega, putting him in the playoffs. However, four days later he was suspended indefinitely by NASCAR. What does this mean going forward?
Howell: Spencer Gallagher is facing the options provided by NASCAR policy. He can pull a “Dinger” by admitting his sins, going through sanctioned rehab and getting another chance to drive, or he can pull a “Mayfield,” deny his sins, push back against NASCAR and pretty much disappear from view. Looks like he’s opting for the former. He’ll be back.
Henderson: If Gallagher was truthful about a one-time indiscretion, the Road to Recovery program shouldn’t take him terribly long to complete. He’s in a better position than AJ Allmendinger was in that his family-owned team isn’t likely to fire him, and his family-owned sponsor isn’t likely to dump him. Based on other timelines, the test was probably from Richmond, not Talladega. While NASCAR doesn’t need to release the substance, it should release the timing of the test. If Gallagher would own up to the substance himself, it might go a long way toward how fans will embrace him in the future, so something to keep in mind.
Neff: We saw Allmendinger come back within six weeks after being suspended. Provided his team doesn’t bench him for the year, then Spencer will get back behind the wheel and race the rest of the year. The interesting development would be if he wins after returning from suspension. Would NASCAR then grant him an exemption as a means of rewarding him for playing by their rules? We’ll have to wait and see.
Heading to Jimmie Johnson’s best career track in Dover this weekend, he will most likely be a threat to win. If he doesn’t compete, is it officially time to hit the panic button for the No. 48 camp?
Howell: Dover is the ideal launching pad for Project Jimmie Johnson to rocket toward Victory Lane (sorry, but Frontstretch podcast references to Skylab this week have clouded my thinking a bit). This is the week for Johnson to make things happen. While it may not be officially “panic” time, the button is certainly within the next six races or so. The time for some No. 48 magic is now.
Henderson: Yes. And if neither Johnson nor Chase Elliott, who has been a beast at Dover every time he’s run there, have enough speed to be real contenders, Hendrick Motorsports may have a lot more on its hands than a driver-crew chief combination that may have run its course in conjunction with the current package and the loss of a long-time car chief. I expect Johnson to be a contender this weekend, but I expect Elliott to be a bigger one.
McLaughlin: If all the other Chevys were dominating races and gunning for wins, (particularly his teammates) there might be some cause for alarm but as it is “panic” might be premature. Throughout his career, Johnson has endured some slumps and there’s general consternation among the racing media that the time of his time has come and gone but at least to date Johnson is like Freddy Krueger. He always comes back.
Neff: It is not time to hit the panic button, yet. The Chevrolet camp is still a bit out to lunch with this new body. If other Chevy teams start battling for wins and Johnson isn’t among them, then you can start to panic.