Friday, August 21, 2015

Ch-ch-changes: Five Questions for Bristol

(Credit: Jared C. Tilton / Getty Images)
There’s nothing more liberating—and terrifying—than making a life-altering decision.

When you’re faced with two roads to travel, it’s hard to choose. Would it be better to go with the familiar? Or is diving into the unknown worth it?

Life begins at the end of your comfort zone. It’s time to start living.

I discuss changes in this week’s Five Questions, along with silly season predictions and Joe Gibbs Racing. I also answer Twitter questions from two awesome followers. It’s Bristol weekend, baby!

What does 2016 hold for Bowyer and Ragan? News broke in the NASCAR world Wednesday morning. After Michael Waltrip Racing co-owner Rob Kauffman bought into Chip Ganassi Racing, Waltrip announced that his team won’t run full-time in 2016. It’s never a good thing when an organization leaves the sport. Waltrip advised driver Clint Bowyer to seek another ride for next season, and David Ragan’s been searching already due to his contract being a one-year deal. Where will they end up? For Ragan, it’s hard to tell. He’s a great spokesman for any brand, and he knows how to bring cars home. There aren’t many competitive rides open at the moment. He might need to be patient and wait for something to open up. In the meantime, he could head to a smaller team and help build them up.

Bowyer’s future could be a bit clearer due to some garage chatter. The rumor is that after next season, Tony Stewart will retire and focus on himself and owning Stewart-Haas Racing. Both Jenna Fryer and Jeff Gluck have talked about this move. If that happens, then Bowyer could slip into the No. 14 in 2017. That leaves next year open, so he’d be searching for a temporary home, much like Kasey Kahne did with now-defunct Red Bull Racing before heading to Hendrick Motorsports. Despite all the possibilities and talk, one thing holds true—NASCAR will miss MWR.

Could NCWTS and NXS survive without support from NSCS regulars? The top three series in NASCAR invade Bristol this weekend, meaning that some drivers will attempt the sweep. This is something many fans complain about, claiming the Sprint Cup Series drivers ruin it. @AaronBearden93 wondered on Twitter if the NASCAR Camping World Trucks Series and NASCAR Xfinity Series could self-sustain without those big names filling the field. As much as people hate to admit it, the Cup guys need to be in the field. It draws more viewers; ratings go up when Kyle Busch is racing against the up-and-comers. Another positive is that it gets the older drivers interested in funding some of these youngsters. Think about Kyle Busch Motorsports or Brad Keselowski Racing. Look at all the talent they’ve supported. Those Cup drivers wouldn’t be owners in the Trucks series if it weren’t for their avid participation. Some may think they take a lot of wins away, but they also give back. That’s why it’s important they run these races.

Can Joe Gibbs Racing continue their dominance at Bristol? There’s a new sheriff in town, and it goes by the initials JGR. The Toyota-powered team is going strong, dethroning HMS and SHR as the ones to watch. However, Bristol is the place where positive trends go to die. This place can screw up everything a driver has built up. Will these four drivers fall victim to that? My gut says no; Busch, Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards all have previous victories at “The Last Great Colosseum,” and they know how to survive here. Kenseth, Hamlin and Edwards need to do just that, considering they’re all locked into the Chase. Things are different for Busch because of his points standing. He has to maintain a spot in the top 30 to qualify for the 16-car playoff field. Bristol can either help or hinder him. The good news is that he’s fantastic there. For the time being, it’s safe to say JGR can continue their streak … unless another team comes to life. Their biggest threats are the teams previously mentioned, Hendrick Motorsports and Stewart-Haas Racing. These Chevrolet organizations may find their respective strides as quickly as they lost them. This is when everyone needs to stay on their toes and keep their heads in the game.

Who can prevail from the other side of the looking glass? With only three races until the Chase begins, the pressure is more than on—it’s cranked up to 50. Teams are scrambling to make the 16-car field. Who can make it? Looking at the last few tracks—Bristol, Darlington Raceway and Richmond International Raceway—gives us a rough idea. Those trying to get in are Kahne, Greg Biffle, Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon, who finish out the top 20. After his stunning performance at Michigan International Speedway, Dillon is keeping himself in talks. The major obstacle is his 60-point deficit behind Almirola. The others are at most 45 points behind with Larson bringing up the rear. It comes down to Biffle and Kahne. Both have done it before, yet the two drivers aren’t having the best seasons. I’m going with Kahne on this one due to how out-of-touch Roush-Fenway Racing is. Hendrick Motorsports is known for its ability to contend. They could come back from this semi-slump they’re in and push the No. 5 into the Chase field. Shoutout to @knotts_jeff for the awesome question!

Is Danica Patrick’s new sponsor a step in the right direction? Patrick and SHR announced a new primary sponsor for the No. 10 next season—Nature’s Bakery, a food company that produces fig bars in various flavors. There are a few races open on her car, but the sponsorship is currently around $18 million. That’s huge for both the brand and the driver. There are several big takeaways from the announcement.

First, this is a sign that new brands are interested in the sport and want their names on cars. We’ve had a few standby sponsors for the past 10 years, and that’s great. However, the sport can’t move forward without new money flow. This is a sign that NASCAR isn’t dead on the business front—and cue the large sigh of relief. This also benefits Patrick in a way bigger than imaginable. Since she entered the sport of racing, people have dragged her down. They use her gender, her GoDaddy ads, anything they can use against her. Adding this sponsor shows she’s ready to go in a new direction with her image and career. She’s now a woman who promotes a health bar, which compliments her yoga- and healthy food-oriented Instagram. This marks a new era for the driver, and that can positively affect her performance on the track.

Finally, this sponsor is a fantastic contrast to the fast food restaurants and beer names we see every weekend. Obesity is a growing problem in America, and many know this—they just don’t take action against it. People joked that NASCAR fans don’t eat fig bars. This may be true, but it’s also the point. If people switch out their mid-afternoon Doritos binges with Nature’s Bakery bars, that’s a great move to integrate healthier habits into their routines. After that, they might buy a box and join a Zumba class. This is a domino effect that signals good things for NASCAR, Patrick, Nature’s Bakery and the fans.


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