Friday, September 11, 2015

Pre-Chase Jitters: Five Questions for Richmond

(Credit: Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
The Chase is almost upon us.

After the thrilling night at Darlington Raceway, NASCAR is headed to Virginia to race at Richmond International Raceway. The short track has closed the regular season for years now, so many drivers know how to handle this track. Racing under the lights adds to the intensity drivers—and fans—are bound to feel as the laps wind down.

However, there are still a few unknowns. What will we see Saturday night? Can the spring winner take the checkered flag again? What about Denny Hamlin?

I answer all these questions and more in this week’s Five Questions.

Can the eldest Busch go for the Richmond sweep? Kurt Busch is locked into the Chase, but he has a lot of work to do. With two wins, the Stewart-Haas Racing driver’s performance has been a bit of a roller coaster. Some weeks are good, and some weeks are not-so-good. One of his wins came at Richmond in the spring. He led 291 of 400 laps then, and he hasn’t led that many since that race. Another win would place him higher in the Chase reshuffle. He definitely has the ability, but I don’t know if the No. 41 team is where they were at the beginning of the season. Nevertheless, he should do well, so I’d put him on your fantasy team.

Can McMurray contend in his first Chase appearance? The Chip Ganassi Racing driver has much to celebrate once he takes the green flag Saturday night. Starting the event locks him into the Chase on points, a first for Jamie McMurray. The real questions, however, is beginning to come through: can he actually contend? The entire No. 1 team has been remarkable this season, and McMurray has consistency down to a science. But the Chase is about winning. I don’t know if he can move onto the second round with decent finishes, much less compete for the championship. If the team can pull off a revamp and start collecting victories, then it’s possible.

Do teams need to limit drivers’ extracurricular activities? Once again, Denny Hamlin has torn an ACL--the right one this time--an injury he sustained to his left leg in 2010. This occurred while he was playing basketball. The news is raising a lot of questions about teams putting clauses in their contracts about other physical endeavors. This is a stupid idea. One, this would have to include participation in NASCAR Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series races which would equal a loss in money for both teams and drivers. Another issue is that Hamlin’s love for basketball is just like Jimmie Johnson’s running and biking regimen. The only question is whether Hamlin didn’t stretch or fuel himself properly, which is highly unlikely due to his very healthy lifestyle. Limiting the extracurricular activities is crazy.

Will Richmond excite or disappoint? Despite being the cut-off race, the late summer Richmond race doesn’t produce the thrill that many fans desire. Chase scenarios are usually tied up, and the racing isn’t the typical short track flare we’ve come to expect. The last time something crazy happened at Richmond was the scandal with Michael Waltrip Racing and Clint Bowyer. This year won’t be different from years past; on top of Chase drivers playing it somewhat safe, the aero package for this event isn’t anything special. I know NASCAR wouldn’t want a new package to interfere with championship seeding, but it could’ve made it must-watch TV. We saw how amazing the racing at Darlington was, and we should see that every weekend. Unfortunately, this weekend might not be like Darlington. Richmond will have to differentiate itself in some way and play off the pre-Chase jitters many will experience. We’ll have to wait and see how.

Is NASCAR getting down low? Thursday brought an interesting Instagram post from a NASCAR engineer. The test car apparently has “low downforce + low sideforce + low yaw,” which should be music to fans’ ears. It would mimic the racing seen at Darlington. NASCAR polled the garage area and the media, and both groups agree this package, with the right tires, would produce the best overall racing. As I mentioned last week, this is a sign that the sport recognized its mistake. That is a feat in itself. Now they’re making changes fans actually like?! Who are you, and what have you done with the old NASCAR? From what the Instagram caption said, this car will be tested at Kansas Speedway in the next few weeks. So hold your breath until then. 


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