Friday, November 13, 2015

Fatal Mistakes: Five Questions for Phoenix

(Credit: Chris Trotman/NASCAR via Getty Images)
This is the weekend where mistakes are fatal.

If you’re one of the top four -- other than Jeff Gordon -- you know you can’t make any stupid slip-ups. Scraping the wall, a long pit stop, or racing a little too hard is unacceptable. On the other hand, any missteps by fifth through eighth can smash their NASCAR Sprint Cup Series hopes before they truly begin.

This Chase isn’t for the flippant or fainthearted. It’s for those who can withstand the pressure and claim victory despite the odds.

Everything is coming to a head this weekend at Phoenix International Raceway, the last race before the final event. Who can get in by the skin of their teeth? Which young gun can make a statement? Is NASCAR on its way to improving the lower series? These are the questions swirling in fans’ minds, and I discuss them in this week’s Five Questions.

Are tires the main concern for championship weekend? The race at Texas Motor Speedway was full of interesting developments, mostly due to multiple tires blowing. It was an unpredictable element that shook up the championship standings. However, will that happen at Homestead-Miami Speedway? The tire from Texas will also be used at Homestead. To some, that's a concern—but it shouldn’t be. The two tracks are totally different animals. You can’t expect the same tire to repeat its actions next week. Also, there’s the factor of rain; a green surface at Texas could have played a part in the tires cording. Let’s worry about that after this weekend, okay?

Should the Chase format extend into the two lower series? Two news stories came out this week, branching from the same idea—expanding the Chase format. First, the rumor mill said that NASCAR is thinking about adding a playoff format to the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. Then, the news that the sport wants to add it to the NASCAR Xfinity Series came out. This sounds good in theory, but is it the best idea? For the NCWTS, no; that series is in a great spot at the moment and doesn’t need any help in the excitement department. However, this might not be a bad idea for the second tier. Xfinity needs something to revitalize its sense of competition, and this idea is a start. The only catch? The proposed idea would ban all NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers from entering the events. This is what many people—including myself—have wanted for a long time, but it will kill the series. Sponsors want those names, and the Cup drivers bring in new talent with their respective teams. My suggestion is to limit the number of starts they can make in the series. That provides the best of both worlds. Either way, it’s nice to see that NASCAR is thinking about the other series and wants to improve them.

Which young gun will impress in the NCWTS event? The lower-tier series is full of budding talent this weekend; Rico Abreu, Ross Kenseth, and William Byron are some of the names that will fill the field. As the focus shifts to crafting these young drivers, many are eager for their Phoenix performances. How will they do? All three will impress, but I’m putting my money on Byron. He just won the NASCAR K&N East championship and will wheel the Kyle Busch Motorsports No. 9 truck. He’s with a powerful team, and that will push him ahead of the others. However, I won’t be shocked if there are some growing pains this weekend. These three will get used to the vehicles and the track slowly but surely.

Is Kyle Larson on the verge of a breakthrough? Despite a less-than-perfect record, the driver of the No. 42 for Chip Ganassi Racing has been making gains. Larson has improved on his mid-race performances yet fails to have the results to match. This could be the weekend where the result mirrors his consistency throughout the event. He does very well at Phoenix; he claimed 10th in the spring event, and he was running well last fall when Ryan Newman got into him. This is Larson’s best chance at ending the year on a high note and getting the vibes for 2016 going. There’s a time where everything starts falling into place, and that time is this weekend for Larson.

Who can make the most out of their last chance? Carl Edwards, Brad Keselowski, Kurt Busch and Joey Logano are on the outside looking in. Their best bets are to win—which will be difficult with Kevin Harvick’s dominance at Phoenix. As it comes down to the wire, who can save themselves and advance to the final four? If any of them want to move on, they’ll have to win. That’s almost a certainty. That being said, Logano probably has the best shot; his whole season has led up to this moment, and he will shine. He’s had the best season out of the four and can race under pressure. That’s if the current top four can be shaken up. It’s all coming down to Phoenix, and this is where the Chase earns its money.  

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