Friday, March 18, 2016

March Madness: Five Questions for Auto Club

Credit: Todd Warshaw/NASCAR via Getty Images   
March Madness.

While this phrase conjures images of basketball for some, it makes me think of NASCAR. Why? Because last week’s finish was one of the craziest things I have ever seen. It was everything we think of when we discuss the sport, and it was great competition. The weekend before that saw a dust storm and a skillful win.

However, this NASCAR "March Madness" isn’t over.

As we head to Auto Club Speedway, we should prepare ourselves for whatever may happen—because who knows what insane thing will occur to close out this month?

In this week’s Five Questions, I tackle some XFINITY stars, the close finishes in the Cup Series, and more ahead of Fontana. Let’s see what we can get into.

When will Suarez claim his first XFINITY win? Have you seen who is leading the NASCAR XFINITY Series points? Joe Gibbs Racing driver Daniel Suarez currently leads the field by eight points. Suarez’s two top fives and four top-10 finishes created the gap. Although he hasn’t led any laps yet, you have to wonder when we will see him in victory lane. We know Suarez can do it due to his intense driving style.

Throughout his rookie year, Suarez perfected his driving talents and figured out how to use them to his advantage, so his sophomore season should be full of opportunities for victory. Getting up front is not the issue, but getting around Kyle Busch is, which is a whole different ballgame, and easier said than done. Suarez is a threat wherever he races, whether it be on a restrictor-plate track such as Daytona International Speedway or the one-mile oval of Phoenix International Raceway. This diversity can help him excel. His first XFINITY win is not an "if" but a "when." The "where" is a bit harder to pinpoint. 

Who will continue their second-tier success? We’re now a month into the schedule, and drivers have raced at a variety of tracks. Some surprising names have mastered the first few XFINITY races. Justin Allgaier, Brandon Jones, Brendan Gaughan and Brennan Poole all stand out to me. Allgaier, Jones and Poole are all in first-year scenarios while Gaughan is surging amid rumors of sponsorship struggles. Out of these four, who can remain consistent? These are some powerful cars and teams, but JR Motorsports is the one that rises above; the organization is good when it comes to XFINITY competition. JRM driver Elliott Sadler is also second in points, so the equipment is stout. Allgaier is most likely the one who can go the distance.

What’s up with the close Cup finishes? The close finish at Daytona ramped up everyone’s excitement, but nobody thought it would happen again at Phoenix. Carl Edwards and Kevin Harvick dueled it out, slamming doors as they crossed the finish line. Two fantastic—and historically close—finishes within one month. What’s up with that? Well, Daytona’s finish happened because it’s Daytona. The Phoenix finish happened because of low downforce, desire and urgency. The new package flexed its muscle at the end of the race. Although that doesn’t necessarily make for a good overall race, it’s still refreshing to see a competitive finish. Also, there was so much raw emotion in that final lap. Edwards—who tends to race conservatively most of the time—was desperate to taste victory and resorted to banging doors. It was awesome. I don’t know if we’ll see that again, but I can’t wait to see if we do.

Can Dillon keep his hot streak going? With all the excitement in the Cup Series recently, it's no surprise that Austin Dillon has flown under the radar. The Richard Childress Racing driver has already accumulated one top five and three top 10s this season. This success is starting to create some buzz, and the same question keeps coming up: Can Dillon maintain the momentum? This weekend might produce a bump in the road. In his two starts at Auto Club Speedway, his average finish is 13.5. However, it is not far from another top-10 result. Over the course of the season, we will see Dillon get stronger and more competitive, and this is a necessity at this point. With youngsters Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott capturing the spotlight, the driver of the No. 3 has no time to waste. If he wants to remain relevant, he has to keep collecting these great results.

Is the fifth time the charm for Busch? This guy will not go away, will he? Four top fives in the first four starts of the season prove that Kyle Busch isn’t slowing down after his 2015 Cup championship. However, these results are not good enough; the JGR driver is anything but passive, and nothing less than first will do. It’s obvious that his equipment is good. There's no question that he is back to his winning ways, claiming three wins in the XFINITY Series so far. Can Fontana be the place where Busch stops being the bridesmaid? It is highly likely, but we shouldn’t freak out if it isn’t. His last two starts at Fontana were victories. He is very in-tune with the track, and he will certainly be a competitor come Sunday. If something gets in the way and prevents him from getting that win, it is not the end of the world. This is the driver that knocked out FIVE wins after missing half the season due to a broken leg and foot. I don’t think anyone is doubting his ability to win in 2016, but will it be this weekend? My gut says "Yes," but my gut could be wrong—and the trophy might be a few more weekends away.

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