1. Road courses have gained a reputation as being wild, unpredictable affairs, but Sunday’s race at Sonoma Raceway was neither. Do you think there was a specific reason why that happened?
Vito Pugliese: Two cars that were in another league speed-wise coupled with stage racing that wasn’t conducive to setting up a thrilling finish. If we’re after action, make the final stage a 10- to 15-lap affair. Another option would be to not stop the cars at the end of each stage and let things play out. A lack of cautions and wrecks were a bit unusual this time around. These drivers are more skilled at road racing than ever, the cars are built that much better and the chance of failures has been seriously reduced.
Michael Finley: Sonoma just isn’t that great of a road course as far as exciting racing goes. That doesn’t mean there hasn’t been good racing there in the past; Tony Stewart’s final Cup win in 2016 and Terry Labonte’s last stand in 2007 come to mind. But generally, it’s just not as exciting as its longtime counterpart on the schedule, Watkins Glen International.
Matt McLaughlin: One of the obvious culprits was stage racing. The proper strategy in a road course race is like a mystery novel. Adding the stage breaks is like jumping ahead and reading the last chapter in the middle of the story. There’s also a whole lot of drivers and teams who have apparently decided they are racing for points, not wins, with so few winners at the Cup level this year. If a driver and team are willing to sacrifice a good finish to accumulate stage points with an eye toward the last 10 races of the season, it will invariably reduce the excitement in the non-playoff races.
2. The underdogs had some highlights this weekend. Will Rodgers beat several Cup regulars to win the K&N Pro Series West race, Chris Buescher finished 12th in Cup on Sunday and Chad Finley finished sixth on Saturday in his third Camping World Truck Series start. Which did you find most impressive?
McLaughlin: Hello? Hello? Is this thing on. What’s more impressive, winning or something, anything else? Will Rodgers won the West race at Sonoma a week after winning the K&N Pro Series East event at New Jersey Motorsports Park. That’s clearly it.
Coburn: From Chad Finley not racing in the series in two years to finishing sixth, that seems most impressive . A lot of the top trucks had problems, which helped, and the depth isn’t that deep, but still.
Finley: Finley’s run in the Truck race was pretty darn impressive, as it came with a part-time team and with Finley not having a lot of seat time in his career on the national level due to a lack of funding. Hopefully he’s able to use the PR from this to maybe get a company or two interested in investing in him for some more ARCA Racing Series starts or maybe even a full-time Truck ride down the line.
Frank Velat: I’m gonna give a nod to Chris Buescher here. Rodgers was coming off a win in the East Series, so he’s clearly capable. Finley was certainly impressive, but several trucks had trouble. If I told you Sunday morning that Buescher was going to be the highest-finishing JTG Daugherty Racing car, you would have had me committed. Despite winning his first career XFINITY Series race at Mid-Ohio, Buescher is hardly thought of as a road course aficionado, which makes his 12th-place run much more surprising.
3. Martin Truex Jr.’s crew chief Cole Pearn essentially baited Kevin Harvick’s team into pitting because he knew the No. 4 crew was eavesdropping on its radio. Should teams be permitted to listen to competitor communication?
Finley: It’s the closest thing a NASCAR team can do as a trick play. The No. 4 team has talked a lot in the past few months and has backed it up in results, so it’ll be interesting to see if tensions start to really boil over here between the two teams in the second half of this season.
McLaughlin: NASCAR no longer allows teams to scramble their radio transmissions as Junior Johnson used to do. Listening to their favorite teams on the scanner during a race is hugely appealing to a segment of the fans, so to deprive them of the chance to do so would further lessen interest in the sport. If those channels are going to be open and unscrambled, it’s a fool’s game to try to keep teams from monitoring each other’s radios. They could have a team member in the parking lot texting what they’re hearing on other team’s channels.
Coburn: A rule against it seems impossible to enforce, so yeah, eavesdrop if you need to. Anything to gain an advantage.
Pugliese: Yes. Quarterbacks draw defensive linemen offsides in every game, and that’s essentially what the No. 78 team did. As dominant as the No. 4 car was, it should have just waited for the No. 78 to stop, knowing that was its only real challenge the rest of the race. If anything, it just helped cement the protocol for everyone prior to the next road course race.
4. The racing community was rocked by the death of sprint car driver Jason Johnson this weekend. Some NASCAR stars, like Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell, occasionally moonlight in sprint car races. Do you think NASCAR team owners should permit their drivers to participate in such events?
McLaughlin: Let’s face it: Cup drivers aren’t engaged in pillow fights on a stack of air mattresses on Sunday afternoons. There’s always the chance of injury (or worse) in any form of motorsports right down to Hobby Stocks on a low-banked, quarter-mile dirt track. Racecar drivers want to race even during their downtime. If they prefer to play golf six days a week, maybe they should have joined the PGA.
Finley: As much as I love to see drivers from any series come on over and race something else — whether it’s Kyle Busch going down to race dirt late models or Billy Johnson racing at Sonoma last year — I wouldn’t want my driver to go race for somebody else. As an owner, I’d be investing at least $10 million per year in a driver to come out and compete in Cup every week. What is racing at Knoxvile going to do for sponsors or the vast majority of casual fans who only care about Cup? It’s actually a bit greedy for drivers to do, all things considered.
Pugliese: As a fan and an observer, I absolutely get why these guys like doing it. Driving an 800-hp garden tractor, and being good at it, looks like a crazy amount of fun. From an team owner’s perspective, there is no way in hell that I would permit a driver to set foot in those cars if they were under contract. I wouldn’t care about the romanticism my driver would have about real grassroots racin’ — you’re being paid millions of dollars to perform a job at the highest level, and hundreds of people’s livelihoods depends on you showing up and racing weekly. If you want to play in the dirt and drive something other than the car that is engineered, built and sponsored solely for you, either wait until retirement or relocate to a different series. Through all the examples in recent years of life-altering accidents in sprint cars, from Jason Leffler and Bryan Clauson’s untimely passing to Tony Stewart’s two unfortunate incidents, these should serve as a warning and a contract clause for a Cup driver. Yes, racing is an inherently dangerous activity, but choosing the one that can launch you out of the track and into things is a different dynamic altogether.
Coburn: If I were an owner, I wouldn’t let my drivers race sprint cars during the season because of the risk of injury. In the offseason, they can run whatever they want — go-karts, late models at the Snowball Derby or midgets at the Chili Bowl.