Who… should you be talking about after the race?
If you were suffering from déjà vu during the final laps at Watkins Glen International on Sunday, you probably aren’t alone. One year ago, Chase Elliott battled Martin Truex Jr. to the checkers for his first career win and Sunday, they did it all over again in the GoBowling at the Glen.
Truex was the only driver with a car that could match Elliott’s late in the going and he certainly kept Elliott honest, forcing him to drive without error. Even one slip could easily have changed the result in Truex’s favor, but Elliott didn’t make a mistake. Neither did Truex and the pair treated fans to the type of race Watkins Glen has become known for in recent years, with a heated battle lap after lap and plenty of action in the field.
Elliott and his team played the race perfectly, including a pivotal final pit stop, which could easily have been their undoing as Truex could have gained all the advantage he needed in the pits. But they were as flawless as Elliott, who had exactly the amount of fuel he needed to race to the end, and stopping one lap before Truex proved to be the right call. A year ago, the win at the Glen set up two more for Elliott. Could he be heating up just in time for the playoffs?
Sometimes, drivers become an easy target for others. They gain the reputation of someone who can be pushed around, and other drivers take advantage of that. Sunday, Bubba Wallace gave notice that he was not one of those drivers. After a couple of incidents with Kyle Busch where Wallace felt that Busch had not raced him cleanly, Wallace let Busch know he didn’t appreciate Busch’s style of racing by sending him around.
Busch’s day wasn’t over; he just missed a top-10 finish, but he also had a run-in with William Byron on Sunday, who also didn’t like Busch’s reaction to an early tangle where Busch spun trying to out-brake Byron in turn 1. But it was Wallace who sent the message loud and clear that he’s not a pushover, something that may give him some confidence moving forward. If nothing else, he’ll get some airtime this week.
What… is the takeaway from this race?
Road courses used to be a bit of an oddball on the schedule. A lot of fans didn’t like them, and teams were frustrated because they had to prepare special cars for just two weeks of the year, a significant investment. But that’s changed recently.
Over the last few seasons, the road courses have gained popularity among fans. Why? Simple: they’ve been really good races. Not every single one, but a lot of them have been really, really fun to watch.
And what’s not to like? Road racing features strategy, braking zones that set up passes, different drivers in the picture, and, recently, hot battles for the win at a lot of them. The last remaining road course on the Cup circuit, the Charlotte ROVAL was a major wild card in the playoffs last year with a wild finish that allowed the winner to slip through from third to take it all.
But as much fun as this kind of racing has become, let’s stop just short of adding more to the schedule. Not because they wouldn’t be great races, but because the relatively small number of road races is what makes them special. An IndyCar-esque schedule isn’t something NASCAR should pursue. Sometimes it’s best to leave people wanting more. And on that, the road courses deliver.
Where… were the other key players at the end?
Recent road-course king Truex found himself closing in on a second win on the right-handers this year, as he moved to within a car-length of Elliott at times late in the race. He was particularly formidable through Watkins Glen’s bus stop chicane, doing everything he could to intimidate Elliott into making a mistake. Elliott didn’t make one, but neither did Truex, who drove as perfect a race as fans have come to expect. He came up a little short this week, but with a road course average finish of 1.5 so far this year, he’ll be the favorite heading to the ROVAL.
All-time active track winner Kyle Busch didn’t make a lot of friends on Sunday. First, he tangled with Byron, spinning out after diving under Bryon for a pass. Busch let Byron know he wasn’t happy; Byron parried with a (poorly-executed) bump of his own. Later in the day, Busch had more of the same with Wallace, eventually getting turned by Wallace. Busch rallied back to finish a solid eleventh, but for a driver who expects to win, a rally is no consolation prize.
Ryan Blaney, who had to come from behind after unapproved adjustments on the No. 12, made it look easy. It took a while, but by the end of the second stage, Blaney was in the top 10. By the end, despite a run-in with Jimmie Johnson, Blaney was fifth, a very strong finish to what could have been a difficult day.
When… was the moment of truth?
It’s a move that smacks of desperation: a crew chief change just a month before the playoffs, but for Johnson, trying to make the playoffs for the 16th straight year, it might have been the right move.
Johnson had a top-10 car and if not for contact from Blaney that sent him into a tire barrier, he’d likely have had a finish in that range. But that’s not really anything to write home about.
What was worth noting, though, was the communication between veteran champion Johnson and new head wrench Cliff Daniels, who at 31 is the youngest crew chief in the series. Even with three spotters in the mix, Johnson and Daniels seemed to mesh better than Johnson ever did with Kevin Meendering. Daniels sounded like a leader from the get-go, in a role that could easily be intimidating given that Johnson is no novice and knows what he wants in a car.
Whether it was the change on the pit box or the playoffs looming large on the horizon, Johnson showed real fire on Sunday. He was upset with Blaney, threatening to “kick his ass” on the radio after the incident and confronting the younger driver after the race with a not-so-veiled threat to repay Blaney in the future.
“I don’t know what the problem is. He just drove through me…and spun me out. And clearly, that has big implications with what we are trying to do for the playoffs right now, so clearly not happy with his actions,” Johnson said afterward.
“We scored points in both stages which was nice. We were setting up for top eight to top 10 and got drove through. He claims it was just racing. So I can hardly wait to go racing. Everybody stay tuned.”
That’s more passion than Johnson has shown in a long time. The fire that he once displayed has been notably absent this year, but it was rekindled Sunday. It’s too big a leap to expect wins anytime soon, maybe not before the end of the year. But improved performance and a driver with the passion he once had? That’s a solid goal.
Why… should you be paying attention this week?
Eventually, something’s gotta give in the Toyota camp. Right now, there are five top Toyota teams (four for Joe Gibbs Racing and one at satellite Leavine Family Racing). All of them finished in the top 11 on Sunday at Watkins Glen.
So, what’s the problem here? There are six drivers trying to land those same five seats for 2020. And nobody deserves to lose one.
Kyle Busch, Truex and Denny Hamlin are all signed with JGR and have no worries. Erik Jones has said he’s in negotiations to stay and things look good, but all it takes is one sponsor hesitating to change things.
Matt DiBenedetto is having a career year to date with LFR. He scored his fourth top 10 in the last seven races Sunday. That’s more than the organization had in the last two seasons combined. The team isn’t getting everything JGR has and it’s making what it does get work. DiBenedetto is 23rd in points, ahead of teams from Richard Childress Racing, Germain Racing and JTG Daugherty Racing, among others.
Which leaves Christopher Bell, who’s waiting in the wings for JGR, as the domino that could determine two or three other futures. While a third year in the Xfinity Series would do nothing to hinder Bell’s career, that’s not the norm much anymore, so that leaves Toyota and JGR a couple of other options. One, they could leverage either Bell or Jones into the No. 95 with the promise of more from the team alliance next year. Or they could work with LFR to add a second team, as they did with Furniture Row Racing for Jones.
That’s a more expensive option, dependent on sponsorship. But it could be the better one all around. If LFR added the team in exchange for more support, it gets better and with two teams’ worth of data, that’s enticing. DiBenedetto would keep the ride he’s earned, and Toyota would get another car on the track. Meanwhile, JGR would have a home for one of its youngsters until the end of Hamlin’s contract.
Hopefully, this will get resolved before the playoffs because dragging it out doesn’t do anyone any favors. It’s also one to watch because it could set the ball in motion for other silly season moves as well.
How… many winners will we see in the final four races of the regular season?
For fans who like variety, the summer has been a treat. The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series has seen nine different winners in the last nine weeks. Will that continue for another four?
Looking at who’s hot right now, the drivers who haven’t won this summer haven’t been setting the world on fire.
The list could hit 10 at Michigan this week, and that’s not a stretch. Joey Logano won the first race there, and Team Penske is typically strong, so a win from Blaney or Brad Keselowski (who has won, but not in the last nine weeks) is hardly a bold expectation.
If the streak makes it to Bristol, though, that’s a harder sell. The Busch brothers pretty much own the place, with a combined 14 wins at the bullring. The last time a driver not named Busch won Bristol was in the spring of 2017. And that was Johnson, who doesn’t exactly have luck, momentum or really anything on his side.
If hypothetically, Blaney wins at Michigan, Keselowski is the defending winner at Darlington and Indianapolis, so he could add his name to a still-impressive list of different winners. But beyond that, it’s tough as nobody has really stood out as looking to be on the verge of a win lately. So while the streak is fun and great for the sport, it’s probably going to come to an end.