ONE: Night Racing
Let’s be honest, fellow NASCAR fans; this summer stretch of racing can feel like a little bit of a slog. Sure, we have a great variety of tracks, including the road course at Watkins Glen, the Lady in Black — arguably the best track in the sport — and then, of course, the Bristol night race.
But even with some iconic events on the schedule, there’s still a strong feeling it’s the dog days of summer. People feel they’re just waiting for the real event to begin with the start of the NASCAR playoffs at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in September.
So while I realize it’s far from a new suggestion, isn’t summer the perfect time of the year for midweek night racing? Plus, there’s the side benefit of potentially being able to condense a really long annual schedule.
Realistically speaking, we’re looking at 2020 and likely 2021 before any significant change happens. That’s because the 2019 schedule is out and five-year agreements with the 23 tracks don’t expire until the conclusion to the 2020 season.
Still, as NASCAR looks to shake things up, summer night racing seems like one of the few changes out there that A) could be made relatively easily in terms of a schedule change; B) would probably still draw healthy crowds, especially during the school holidays; and C) would not be a divisive change in the garage area.
I also think it would be pretty well received among the people who watch. Pretty much any alteration – even a slight one — to any part of NASCAR typically draws the ire of a plugged in, always on, lightning-quick-to-react fan base. But I really think that midweek racing would be a concept that would be widely embraced.
What do you all think? Am I way off base? Or do you agree? Let me know below.
TWO: The Parity of the Big Three
If I’m honest, part of me has absolutely not enjoyed the domination of the so-called big three in 2018. The sheer speed and, to other drivers in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, soul-crushing supremacy of Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch has cast a pall of inevitability over races this season. Seemingly the only question each week is which of them will take the stage points and the checkered flag. (And then, ultimately, the big prize at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November.)
Given Truex’s first victory of the year, an all-important mile-and-a-half track at Kentucky Speedway it seems as if the one area of advantage — cookie cutters so prevalent in the playoffs — for Busch and Harvick to date is now chalked off the list. Take a look at their respective results in 2018 and you can’t help but be struck by their sheer parity across every significant statistical measure.
Kyle Busch: Five wins, 13 top fives, 15 top 10s, three poles
Average Start: 8.3, Average Finish: 8.1
Laps Led: 948, Playoff Points: 30
Kevin Harvick: Five wins, 14 top fives, 15 top 10s, two poles
Average Start: 8.6, Average Finish: 8.9
Laps Led: 1,040, Playoff Points: 27
Martin Truex Jr.: Four wins, 13 top fives, 13 top 10s, four poles
Average Start: 10.5, Average Finish: 9.4
Laps Led: 564, Playoff Points: 25
Just about the only point of differentiation is laps led, where Truex trails by a decent margin. That said, in the last four races Truex has finished first twice, second and fourth with 256 laps led. It’s fair to say that he continues at this clip, he’ll be all caught up before we begin the postseason.
The real question is whether or not any driver from the chasing pack, Kyle Larson and Clint Bowyer, for example, can catch up. Will anyone truly challenge this dominant trio? At this stage, it doesn’t seem that likely.
THREE: Dixon Eyes Fifth Title
For the third time in six races, savvy veteran Scott Dixon took the race victory on the streets of Toronto this past weekend and, in doing so, extended his points lead to a healthy 62 markers over second-place driver and 2017 IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden. The New Zealander’s lead over Alexander Rossi in third is 70 points. He’s also got 91 and 93 markers, respectively, over fourth place Ryan Hunter-Reay and Indy 500 champion Will Power in fifth. Rookie Robert Wickens is a distant sixth, 125 points off the lead.
Just five races remain on the 2018 schedule and the next race is at Mid-Ohio, where Dixon has won a staggering five times in eleven previous visits. He also has the most wins on the year with three and, unsurprisingly, a series-best average finish of 4.5.
So is it time to crown Dixon the champ? Not so fast. The Chip Ganassi Racing veteran is aware the season is far from over.
“It’s an easy trap to fall into [thinking the title is locked up already]… You just got to treat it as one race weekend, go there with the mindset of being fastest in the first practice, second practice, being fastest in qualifying. Definitely can’t get complacent,” said Dixon. “With the competition, it can turn so quickly. All it takes is for me to make a mistake or the car to have a mechanical problem, which, last year at Mid-Ohio, that’s where we lost the lead in the championship.”
Of course, Dixon’s lead was wafer thin in 2018 – just three points. But, as he rightly notes, things can change quickly in auto racing. Nothing, repeat nothing, is a sure thing until you’re holding the trophy in Victory Lane.
That said, there’s no question Dixon is in pole position to pick up a record fifth crown.
FOUR: Next Up, Loudon
Next up, we head northeast to the 1.058-mile flat track of New Hampshire Motor Speedway. For the first time since 1996, the venue will have just one MENCS race this year, their all-important playoff date removed from the schedule.
This weekend will mark Cup race number 47 at Loudon, a streak that goes back to July 1993. Rusty Wallace, just for the record, won the inaugural edition. Amongst current drivers, six have won three times: Ryan Newman, Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch and Kyle Busch. Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano and Clint Bowyer all have a pair of victories while Kasey Kahne and Brad Keselowski have one win apiece.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, series veterans Kenseth and Johnson have the most top 10s at the track (21) with Kenseth leading the way for top fives (12). Kyle Busch has led the most laps (973) with Newman in second (722).
Looking for a darkhorse? One driver to watch this weekend might just be Daniel Suarez. In his only two previous visits to the Magic Mile, the Joe Gibbs Racing sophomore has finished sixth and eighth.
FIVE: Vive La France
Finally, a quick word this week on the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Congratulations to France on an epic 4-2 victory in the final over Croatia, who had a tremendous and perhaps unexpected journey to the biggest single game in world sport. France’s victory on Bastille Day, the country’s national day, was their second ever and first since their 1998 victory on home soil.
I grew up living and breathing football so for me, these one in every four-year soccer extravaganzas are absolutely manna to the soul. My home country of England failed at the penultimate hurdle, losing to Croatia 2-1, after extra time. But it was great to watch the positive impact of the Three Lions exciting run to the semifinals — including a long-awaited penalty shoot victory over Colombia in the Round of 16.
All told, for fans of the beautiful game, the 2018 edition of the World Cup was a thrilling tournament with a series of upsets, unexpected results and, ultimately, a worthy winner. The four-year countdown starts here and, I promise, no more soccer in my NASCAR columns!