Now that Chase Elliott is off the schneid following his first career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series win, who will the next first-time winner be?
Clayton Caldwell: Alex Bowman. He’s been much more consistent this year than Dale Earnhardt Jr. was a year ago in that car and just recently signed a multi-year extension with the organization. That should help this team grow and get better. You have to believe before his contract is up, Hendrick is going to find itself again. He’s got more experience in a Cup car than his teammate William Byron, too.
John Haverlin: Bowman. He’s one of the most experienced Cup drivers in the field who has yet to win at NASCAR’s elite level. When he dominated the ISM Raceway race in November 2016, we saw he has potential. Hendrick is starting to find some speed in its Camaros, and the No. 88 will be the next car to make its long-overdue return to Victory Lane.
Wesley Coburn: While Bowman is a good choice, Daniel Suarez will be able to ride his recent momentum (and Joe Gibbs Racing’s overall power) to become the latest first-time Cup winner, maybe even at Bristol Motor Speedway, since he’s recorded five top-10s in six XFINITY Series races there. One of Suarez’s three NXS victories came at Michigan International Speedway, so I wouldn’t rule him out completely this weekend, either. Most of the other winless active drivers are in underdog equipment or at best mid-pack equipment (Ty Dillon, Michael McDowell, Darrell Wallace Jr). Of drivers on their way to Cup racing, it’s a tossup between Christopher Bell and Cole Custer on who gets a Cup win first.
Vito Pugliese: Wallace. His results this season have been mainly finishes in the mid-20s, but he has a knack for putting himself in the right place in restrictor plate races, and there’s a big one in Alabama coming up in a couple of months. Let’s not forget that display he put on at Bristol earlier this spring, driving up through the field and passing the reigning king of the coliseum, Kyle Busch. Had the No. 43 RPM team not ran out of tires with one stop remaining, he could have been a top five contender that day as well.
Amy Henderson: Suarez. He reminds me a little of Matt Kenseth in that he can be under the radar all day and suddenly be in the top 10 or top five, and he’s been strong on a variety of tracks. He’s putting himself in the right position more and more often, and he’s in a JGR Toyota. All of those are ingredients to success. I have enjoyed watching Suarez progress, he’s a smart driver, and he seems to learn from his mistakes and not repeat them. As for the rest of the drivers who have yet to win, they mostly fit into one of two categories: drivers who are good enough to win but don’t have the equipment (Bowman, Byron, Wallace, maybe McDowell and Matt DiBenedetto) or drivers who haven’t shown they’re ready to win at the Cup level even if they did have the cars (Dillon, Gray Gaulding and a host of part-timers).
Watkins Glen International produced some of the best racing we have seen this season and is rare to disappoint. Would you support a second date at the Upstate New York road course?
Caldwell: I was on the edge of my seat Sunday, don’t get me wrong, but let’s not go crazy by adding so many road courses it begins to look like Formula 1 or IndyCar. I would still prefer a short track race over a road course any day of the week.
Haverlin: I love Watkins Glen as much as anyone, but one date is enough. The track has enough trouble trying to find dates for all the racing series that want to visit it as it is; IndyCar lost its date in favor of the Pirelli World Challenge this year. Plus, a second date would probably take away some of anticipation and excitement NASCAR fans have each year. Imagine if there were two Christmases or two Thanksgivings per year; the holiday would lose a bit of its luster.
Coburn: I’m not as familiar with Watkins Glen as a lot of other people here, so take this with a grain of salt, but I would think that a second date would severely hurt attendance the same way that New Hampshire Motor Speedway’s fell, and it would take away from the excitement overall if NASCAR raced a road course twice in one year. Swapping the ROVAL at Charlotte Motor Speedway into late summer and pushing the Glen to the fall in the playoffs might be a good compromise.
Pugliese: We don’t need a second date at Watkins Glen — or a lot of other tracks for that matter. I’d prefer the series to look at adding another road course (not a ROVAL) at another venue — be it Road America, Road Atlanta, a dirt road, the road in front of my house, you name it. If we’re going to keep things in the north on road courses, let’s go north of the border and add Circuit Gilles Villeneuve to the schedule. That was a track that never disappointed on any lap, let alone a race. It’s time we rally behind exporting the Cup Series to Canada.
Henderson: No, but the Glen absolutely should have a playoff race, and there should be another actual road course (infield road courses don’t count) on the schedule. Montreal produced some fantastic racing. Road America or Mid-Ohio are possibilities as well. A more balanced schedule is sorely needed, and that means more tracks, not necessarily more dates for the same tracks.
NASCAR CEO Brian France was arrested for DUI and possession of Oxycodone pills Sunday night and is on an indefinite leave of absence. How do you think France should be involved in the sport going forward, and should NASCAR take any additional actions?
Caldwell: NASCAR should speak a little more than it has on the situation. Nowhere in the two-sentence press release did it come out and say France is getting the help he needs nor did it say what he has to do to get back his role as CEO — or if that is even possible. Those questions have to be answered, which is why a press conference is the correct next step in all of this. I don’t think France should come back as CEO, but I wouldn’t rule out, if he gets the necessary help, a return to a prominent role in the sport.
Haverlin: France shouldn’t be involved going forward, and he needs to enter a recovery program.
Coburn: Given the recent trend of CEOs being fired or resigning due to single misdeeds, I hesitate to say that NASCAR should fire him, but if it’s true that this was part of a pattern and not simply an isolated incident, then yes, France should not be in the position of CEO. This sport is about driving cars really fast, and the organization’s (theoretical) leader being convicted of a DUI sends a terrible impression.
Pugliese: Some say it was the worst possible time with the sport being up for sale — er, seeking investors — but it’s happened at just the right time. The notion of him taking an indefinite leave of absence is redundant at best. It was more of a coincidence that the series happened to be in New York that weekend, rather than him being three hours away from the track. From the Car of Tomorrow, a championship format that averages a change once every few years, to consistent oddball behavior, it seems like the right time to reassign leadership responsibilities in Daytona Beach. At the very least, it would add some semblance of stability and improve decision making, if not morale.
Henderson: A big part of me wants to see Jim France step in an undo all the wrongs his nephew did to the sport — the playoffs and most of the other gimmicks that have been added over the years — but it’s not quite the right time. If NASCAR chooses to oust Brian France, then it should consider other wholesale changes, but as of now, nothing is permanent, and making these changes might not be either. Should it oust him? Again, as much as I’d like to say yes and be rid of him, I’m not sure it’s the right thing to do just yet. Giving France a chance to face and fight whatever demons he has and then make a final decision is the best choice — and that means status quo for the immediate future, even if that’s not what race fans want to hear.
AJ Allmendinger finished 15th on Sunday and was never a factor to win. Is it time we stop labeling him a favorite to win whenever we head to a road course?
Caldwell: Yes. Do people realize he has just three top-five finishes in 20 road course starts in the Cup Series? He is good at Watkins Glen, but when you look at his results at Sonoma Raceway, it’s crazy to label him as a favorite there. At Sonoma, he has an average finish of 24th. That improves to 10th at Watkins Glen, but when I think of a road racer, it means they have success at all road course races, not just one track.
Haverlin: Yes. AJ Allmendinger isn’t in a fast enough car. Road course winners have been the drivers in the fastest cars the last few years. The driver element has lost its importance, and therefore, road course ringers such as Allmendinger and McDowell, unfortunately, have a slimmer chance of showcasing their talents.
Coburn: Definitely. JTG Daugherty Racing is a midpack team, and road courses have been part of the schedule long enough for drivers to learn how to race them, especially given tools like iRacing. Allmendinger is 36, so he likely has around six to eight years left of Cup racing, but his reflexes will slow down as he ages Combined with his rather average NASCAR career stats and the skill of top drivers like Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski, whatever dominance Allmendinger once enjoyed is long gone.
Pugliese: Yes, but not because of his ability. He’s driving a car that isn’t capable of competing for a win. He’s then forced to seriously over compensate for the car’s shortcomings and has to be at 110 percent the entire event. Not unlike Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. at restrictor plate tracks this year, he recognizes this is his one chance to make it happen and earn a playoff spot, not to mention winning a race. It’s not much different than when Marcos Ambrose was driving that car or the No. 9, which is no fault of either driver.
Henderson: Yes, but not because of anything to do with Allmendinger as a driver, because he is talented and should be a threat at Watkins Glen every time out. He doesn’t have a car capable of winning anywhere except perhaps a restrictor-plate track. He had damage before things even really got started Sunday, so it’s not really fair to say he wouldn’t have finished better. Also, Allmendinger is a great road course driver, but he never really figured out Sonoma in the same way as he did the Glen, so between that and his lack of good cars, calling him a favorite at every road race is a bit of an overstatement.