Who will win themselves a grandfather clock this week?
A couple of weeks ago in this column, it was noted that there were just three lead changes at Martinsville Speedway in the spring race. While I don’t think that number is going to go into double digits this weekend, there’ll definitely be at least a little more excitement, with it being a playoff race this go-round.
Brad Keselowski utterly dominated that race, leading 446 laps en route to his first victory of the year. But with Keselowski eliminated from the playoffs, Team Penske is going to put more focus in its other two teams for this weekend. And of the two, Joey Logano will defend his win from a year ago with yet another that will lock him into the Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway
Outside of the dominant Team Penske cars, Denny Hamlin has enjoyed a lot of success at one of his home tracks. Hamlin is in the middle of a career season, and winning at Martinsville Speedway would be the cherry on the sundae. Chase Elliott’s success at the racetrack has been well documented, finishing second in the spring race this year and almost winning in 2017. But none of that success has included a grandfather clock, and it’s hard to put him as one of the true favorites in the field without having one in his living room.
Why are bottom tier cars so slow?
There is a big problem in NASCAR right now, one that isn’t given a lot of press until they become too obvious not to mention: slow cars.
There is a crazy speed difference between the top 25 in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and the other 11-15 depending on the week, and especially between the top 30 and the other six to 10. And it seems that not only are these cars slow, but more importantly, they won’t get out of the way.
Why is this? Well, my theory is that attitudes of talented drivers coming up through the pipelines have changed dramatically. Back in the day, if you had a chance at getting in a Cup car, you took it. Bobby Labonte moved up with a new team named Bill Davis Racing, Harry Gant’s Cup break came Jack Beebe’s Racing Hills Farms team, and Jeff Burton’s first couple of seasons were with the lightly-regarded Stavola Brothers team.
But now, look at where we’re at. All of these NASCAR Xfinity Series drivers are racing with Justin Allgaier every week; he moved up to Cup with a team that ended up having no business at that level. And now, he’s never going to be given a legitimate chance in great Cup equipment.
Same with guys like Corey LaJoie and Landon Cassill, who have careers but are never getting looks for bigger Cup teams. And while a lot of this has to do with funding, that’s not as big an issue once you get in the top 20-or-so Cup teams now, with established sponsors.
You only have once chance at a first impression when it comes to those established sponsors. Who can blame the drivers if this is the situation? What good would it do a guy like Noah Gragson to run 20 laps down with Rick Ware Racing?
And a lot of the guys coming up through the grapevine already have long-term contracts with their team or manufacturer, which wasn’t really a problem 20 years ago when not every top NXS team had a Cup connection, but here we are now.
Well, with none of the better NXS drivers wanting anything of those lower-tier Cup rides, here come the geeks.
You know the ones. The guys not named Ross Chastain who race for RWR, Jay Robinson and the really shady Spire Motorsports. The teams that really don’t have the funding to compete at this level of motorsport, yet barf out multiple cars every week that are driven by competent drivers maybe half of the time. For every Timmy Hill, there’s three or four Quin Houffs racing for these guys.
So when these teams employ these drivers who have no business being in a Cup car, it leads to bad results. Meaningless results. And ultimately, hey, it’s not these drivers’ fault for taking a job. They’re not necessarily bad at those jobs, just not ready for them.
At the end of the day, the one conclusion to come to is a simple one: blame the teams.
Bless all of these smaller team owners’ hearts, they’re good people (with the exception of Spire). But they’re not going to grow. They’re never going to get better. They’re always going to putter around and do much of nothing before shutting their doors down.
The only team that has started from the bottom and made it to being competitive on a weekly basis in the last time 30 years was Furniture Row Racing. The rags to riches story doesn’t really happen in racing. And when it does, like with FRR and possibly Leavine Family Racing, it only happens when a much larger team takes them on as a satellite.
In conclusion, a lot of people in the industry hate the idea of cutting teams from the Cup Series because that cuts jobs, and that’s understandable. But maybe that’s going to be the right way for the sport to progress for now. In the future, maybe when NASCAR becomes bigger again, those teams can come back. But for now, I’d be fine as a viewer if the field was cut to 32 Cup cars as the maximum field size.
Can Ankrum hang on in the Trucks?
The most interesting championship battle in NASCAR right now is in the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series. Just two points separate the driver in last of the round of six drivers for the final cut-off spot.
And with Spencer Boyd getting a surprise win at Talladega Superspeedway, nobody has locked a spot in the championship four at Homestead. Brett Moffitt is the closest to doing so, with a 46-point advantage over that sixth-place driver, Chastain. But that can be wiped away with an untimely wreck this weekend.
The biggest wild card of the six drivers is clearly Tyler Ankrum. As much momentum as the young driver has carried and sustained through these playoffs, Ankrum’s only two finishes at Martinsville in the Truck Series were 18th last year and 19th in the spring race earlier this year, results he has to improve on if he’s going to advance to the next round on points.
If any of the six drivers advance to the championship four at Homestead with a Martinsville win, it’s going to be Chastain. Chastain won a stage in the spring and really seemed like the only guy who had any shot at eventual winner Kyle Busch that whole day. The aggressive style Chastain is known for will be a big plus for his chances at the paperclip, as long as he’s smart as far as when to use it.