How far can Kevin Harvick advance in the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs?
Luken Glover: A 65-race winless streak and struggles from Stewart-Haas Racing? That does not matter when it comes to Kevin Harvick, who snapped that skid at Michigan International Speedway. Harvick made a statement with that win and proved he still knows how to get it done. This was superior timing to break through as the playoffs near. Harvick is tied for third in the series for top 10s with 12. He may not be a title favorite, but a Round of 8 appearance seems very realistic right now.
Josh Roller: Harvick will likely advance into the Round of 12. But Ford’s struggles to reach victory lane throughout 2022 will begin to show in that round. However, Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers are capable of squeezing out a win, and at the very least max points, to move into the Round of 8. Beyond that, they’ll need help from their competitors by virtue of poor finishes. Harvick will be eliminated in the Round of 12.
Stephen Stumpf: Harvick’s playoff performance will depend on how much progress the No. 4 team makes in the upcoming weeks. Harvick pulled off the shocking win at Michigan, but he has led just 51 laps all season. Winning speed has eluded Harvick for much of the year. However, Childers said post-race the team has made progress in recent weeks and that Harvick has had a much better feel for the Next Gen car than he did at the start of the season. For now, the team’s ceiling appears to be the second round. But if Harvick can start leading laps and running toward the front more frequently in the upcoming weeks of the season, the odds of him going on a deep playoff run will only go up.
Amy Henderson: I want to say he won’t go very deep; he’s been solid this year but not great. But the Next Gen has changed the game; it’s been exceptionally hard for any driver to get on a real hot streak, and very few drivers are having what you might call a great season. Look at Denny Hamlin: if not for his two wins, he’d be having a miserable year. This win made Harvick hungry again, so he at least clears the first round.
Is Kyle Busch’s pending free agency affecting his on-track performance?
Andrew Stoddard: It has to be a factor. Job-related stress can have a negative impact on anyone’s performance, regardless of profession. It just so happens that Kyle Busch’s stress is very visible to the outside world. That said, there are other variables to consider. Toyota teams have underperformed at times this season, especially on road courses. Some of the responsibility should also fall on crew chief Ben Beshore, who has made some head-scratching decisions since taking over in 2021. For example, his choice to take four tires while other top teams took two or no tires last weekend at Michigan put Busch in a position to get caught up in that early wreck that led to the No. 18 team’s fifth finish outside the top 20 in the past eight races. Solid plans for 2023 will help Busch and his performance, but there are other adjustments to be made if he is to be a championship contender.
Henderson: Something is definitely affecting his performance, and I’d put my money on a combination of that and the Next Gen car. It’s hard not to be distracted when you’re spending time between races fielding questions and trying to navigate a tough situation. Busch has always been prone to getting inside his own head, and the added stress has to be on his mind, especially given Ty Gibbs‘ solid performance subbing for Kurt Busch in the No. 45. We all know we’re looking at JGR’s future in Gibbs; it’s just a matter of when and in what car.
Mike Neff: It probably has a small amount to do with it. That Busch hasn’t gotten a handle on this new car is the bigger problem. But the Toyotas have recently shown speed, which could lead to success at just the right time for Busch and his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates.
Stumpf: Even if Busch and JGR are mum on his performance woes and the contract situation, the results speak for themselves. Busch is now riding a streak of eight consecutive finishes outside the top 10, the longest streak of his career. Even when Busch appeared to get positive momentum going at Pocono Raceway, his second place result was taken away through a disqualification. The contract situation has certainly played a part in the poor performance, but NASCAR is also a sport of momentum; one positive result may be all that the team needs to start turning things around.
Glover: There have been some circumstances out of his control, plus Toyota’s road-course performance has been less than stellar, affecting Busch during his recent slump. As the NBC analysts have said recently, Busch has been making some uncharacteristic mistakes lately, such as spinning out twice on his own at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Busch can heat up real quick, though, and he very likely will return to his former self when his plans are set.
For the second straight weekend, some drivers battled intense heat. Should NASCAR investigate better ways to keep drivers cool? If so, what would be a possible solution?
Roller: You’ll never be able to eliminate all the heat, but yes, steps should be taken to investigate ways to naturally cool the drivers. If a cool suit fails, that’s on the team, not NASCAR. It is then up to that team and driver to decide whether to pit to remove the cool suit or not. But if that requires the driver to get out of the car and doing so means the team retires the car, NASCAR has to change that rule. The Next Gen car us a work in progress, and changes to improve the car in a variety of ways is needed. Teams and drivers can’t be allowed to fully police themselves in matters of driver safety and comfort. Cars don’t need air conditioning, but there needs to be a target temperature range NASCAR should aim for within the cars. Some days the outside temperature will be hotter and other days it will be cooler. These drivers are athletes and most do take steps to be physically ready for extreme conditions, but a bit of regulated assistance can’t be a bad thing.
Neff: The more modern cars have been a battle for the drivers and cooling because they are so air tight in the greenhouse. If NASCAR wants to cool them down, simply take out the passenger side window. The temperature will drop dramatically.
Stoddard: Throughout the season, drivers, teams and fans have noticed quite a few wrinkles in the Next Gen car that need to be ironed out over the next several months, and the heat in the car is one of them. NASCAR and its research and development team definitely need to set aside some time to address driver safety in the car as it pertains to both crashes and heat. Is there a way to add additional resources to cool off the driver? Is there a way to make it easier for drivers to hydrate in the car? Can there be changes made to the Next Gen car and its parts to make the driver more comfortable? These are all questions that need to be asked and answered. While it is normal for drivers to be tired after a race, it should not be normal for them to be lying down by their cars or taking trips to the infield care center after the race for fluids. Just like concussions, the heat in the car could be another factor that could start shortening drivers’ careers.
Stumpf: The solution to the overheating problems, much to the chagrin of TV networks, is not starting races at 3 p.m. ET in the summer. There are no problems with these start times in spring and autumn, as the temperatures are usually cool enough to where drivers don’t have issues with the heat of the car. But when drivers have to battle 90-degree heat in a car that is already overheated, it is not a good situation for anyone involved — and that includes the drivers, fans, and personnel at the track.
Who is a good candidate to replace Noah Gragson in the No. 9 JR Motorsports Chevrolet in the NASCAR Xfinity Series next year?
Neff: There are a ton of quality drivers to choose from. Carson Hocevar is the real deal for sure — a young, talented driver who is very good with the fans and sponsors. He seems ideal for the position. Christian Eckes has formerly raced under the JRM banner. He would look rather sporty in the No. 9 as well.
Glover: Drew Dollar has been rumored to the ride, as he would bring sponsorship money. There aren’t too many options from the Truck Series unless someone decides to switch the manufacturer for which they drive. If JRM wants a young driver, someone like Ben Rhodes would be a good option. Rhodes has ties to JRM when he ran in the Xfinity Series for it in 10 races in 2015. If it wants someone with experience, drivers like Jeffrey Earnhardt or Ty Dillon may be possibilities.
Stoddard: I am going to throw out a wild card name that people may not immediately think of: Kyle Weatherman. The young driver from Missouri has taken a No. 34 Xfinity entry that was struggling to crack the top 30 with Jesse Iwuji behind the wheel and brought it to respectability. Weatherman came home in eighth at New Hampshire, the first top 10 for Jesse Iwuji Motorsports, and he has also proven to have qualifying speed with an eighth-place starting spot last weekend at Michigan. If this is what Weatherman can do in backmarker equipment, imagine what he could do with arguably the best equipment in the Xfinity Series. Also, he is a part of the vast Chevrolet stable of drivers. While Weatherman might not be the flashiest prospect, he may well be the most intriguing candidate for that No. 9 car.
Henderson: I admit, I wouldn’t have picked Dollar as some signs are pointing to, but then I wouldn’t have taken Noah Gragson back then either. Hendrick Motorsports is a young team and doesn’t seem to have room for a new driver anytime soon, and I can’t see Dollar being JRM’s choice if it goes to the Cup Series. Hocevar is another driver in the rumor mill, and while he’s talented, he needs more time to learn. If I ran that circus, I’d look for a veteran driver, and one is available in Dillon. A good Xfinity ride could only improve Dillon’s value to a Cup team a year from now.
Roller: Leaving funding out of the equation, Hocevar is a top contender. But he’s borderline if he needs another year in Trucks before being completely ready to go Xfinity racing. Maybe JRM shifts Sam Mayer to the No. 9 car and the No. 1 becomes a pieced together effort with Hocevar running a partial schedule? Outside of the Chevrolet camp, Zane Smith and John Hunter Nemechek are excellent options for the No. 9.
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