Race Weekend Central

5 Points to Ponder: A NASCAR Unknown (For Once)

ONE: The Roval Awaits

Despite all the week to week drama inherent in NASCAR, the truth is not much really — and I mean, really — changes. But this weekend, we truly have a difference maker: a brand-new track, a first-time road course in the post season and as the final race of the first segment, one with significant playoff implications. “This might be one of the most important playoff races in NASCAR history,” noted Frontstretch’s Michael Finley last Friday, and he isn’t wrong.

We haven’t had a new track quite like the Roval in as long as I can remember. “I don’t know if I’ve seen more talk about something than the roval, really,” said team owner Joe Gibbs.

“I think everybody is just nervous because it’s very slick,” noted Kyle Busch of this weekend’s race. ”Like when we go to Sonoma, Sonoma doesn’t feel this bad. When you go to the roval, though, you’re just on edge the entire time. It feels like ice. You’re never comfortable.” And it’s a theme echoed by both Joey Logano and AJ Allmendinger following testing in July.

“There’s going to be some areas where we’re going to wad some stuff up, and being in the playoffs it’s going to be quite the race,” said Logano. “We’ll see how this thing goes, it’s going to be interesting.” Allmendinger agreed: “I think there’s going to be a lot of contact, for sure…Through the infield, it’s fairly narrow.”

The only really comparable “playoff” wild card race we’ve had was when Talladega Superspeedway was the final race of the second stage of the playoffs (which thankfully it isn’t anymore.) And even though “expecting the unexpected” defines a typical race at Dega, there’s a newness about the Roval that makes this weekend’s race almost impossible to handicap and leaves us with many more questions than answers. And for me, that’s the best part about Sunday is that we have no idea what to expect. Who will be fast? Who’ll struggle? Who will wreck early? Who will kill their playoff push? All these questions will be answered this Sunday afternoon and for those on the cusp of advancing, it will be a real white-knuckle ride. Should be fun to watch.

TWO: So Close for Dale Jr.

In the end, it wasn’t to be for Dale Earnhardt Jr., who led a race-best 96 laps in the NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Richmond International Raceway and finished a very creditable fourth. The 19-year Cup veteran (631 races, 26 wins) returned from “retirement” for a one race sponsor commitment deal midway through his first successful season as a NBC Sports broadcaster. And for a while, it certainly looked as if Junior was going to pick up the win but he was shuffled out of contention on a late race restart and had to settle for fourth place. Earnhardt Jr. was much more interested in discussing family and not finishes, post-race.

“That was the best thing for me tonight… Being with Isla, it meant a lot to me. She obviously won’t remember this but she will have the photographs and all that stuff….I don’t know what she’ll think about my racing career and how that will register with her since she won’t get to experience any of that. We had to have one race together. It was pretty important to me personally.”

All told, then, it was a seamless return for Junior and while it didn’t end up with what would have been a tremendously popular victory, Junior can be proud of his efforts and more importantly he’ll have family pictures to treasure for a long time to come.

THREE: Denny Downer

A quick glance at the points standings would suggest Denny Hamlin’s championship hopes are well and truly extinguished after a disappointing pair of races to open the post season. Hamlin wrecked at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and finished 32nd in the playoff opener and followed that up with a disappointing lap-down 16th place effort at a track at which he usually excels.

“I’m not worried about the playoffs,” Hamlin said. “I’m just worried about running better. With our teammate winning, and us running like a bag of shit, it’s just disappointing every week. We were just bad all day.” A forthright assessment from Hamlin, who doesn’t typically mince his words when discussing his form – or lack thereof in this case.

To some extent, it’s been the story of Hamlin’s season. While teammate Kyle Busch challenges week in, week out, Hamlin has struggled in race mode. He’s qualified really well – in the last season races he has three poles, a second, third, seventh and tenth but his race results see him sliding in the wrong direction. Hamlin has won at least one race in every full-time season (for a total of 31 career victories) but he’s batting 0 for 28 in 2018 and outside of the race at the Brickyard, hasn’t really threatened for the win.

All of which leaves us with a vital season defining race ahead this Sunday. And the summary of what Hamlin needs is pretty simple: “We probably need to go there and win,” he noted.

FOUR: Newman Rides On

When news broke that Ryan Newman would not be returning to Richard Childress Racing in 2019 following five seasons with the team, part of me wondered if this was the moment the Rocket Man hung up his driving gloves after 18 wins, 19 years and 612 Cup Series races and counting. But as it turned out, my idle prognostication was way off the mark with the news that Newman had signed a multi-year deal with Roush Fenway Racing to replace the Matt Kenseth/Trevor Bayne combination in the number six Ford Mustang.

“They’re willing to listen and make the right decisions collectively [to improve],” Newman said of his decision to join. “Everybody puts that effort forward, it’s just a matter of how well you do it. … Jack Roush and Roush Fenway Racing has proven to be a staple from a car and engine standpoint and I don’t see any of that changing. That’s why it was an easy decision.”

RFR team president Steve Newmark concurred. “We were approached from a number of drivers, but for us the clear-cut favorite was Ryan,” he said. “At this point, where we look at where we are … we just felt like Ryan was the right person to come in and perform immediately.”

FIVE: Finally, A New President

It was a big week last for Steve Phelps who was elevated to the role of NASCAR President from Chief Operating Officer at perhaps the most crucial time in the sport’s history. Phelps, who has worked at NASCAR since 2005, will replace current incumbent Brent Dewar who will be transitioning into an advisory role for 2019. He will oversee all competition and business operations and report into Chairman and CEO Jim France.

With all the questions swirling around the sport (attendance, TV numbers, sponsor woes) there’s no question this is a tough challenge – perhaps the toughest ever to face a president of the sport. Here’s hoping he can help combat and turn around some of the issues.

About the author

Danny starts his 12th year with Frontstretch in 2018, writing the Tuesday signature column 5 Points To Ponder. An English transplant living in San Francisco, by way of New York City, he’s had an award-winning marketing career with some of the biggest companies sponsoring sports. Working with racers all over the country, his freelance writing has even reached outside the world of racing to include movie screenplays.

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NASCAR, ugh. Can they make the calmest of folks mad with lack of common sense! Yes they can! Good luck with that stupid “Roval”. PFFTTT.

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