Friday, March 11, 2016

West Coast Swing, Part Deux: Five Questions for Phoenix

(Credit: Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)
Outrageous wind and dust storms? What’s next, a Sharknado? Considering Arizona is a dry state, I think that’s unlikely.

After some interesting weather at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, NASCAR heads to part two of their West Coast Swing. Phoenix International Raceway, a one-mile oval with a dogleg, has been the site of memorable wrecks and surprise winners. With a spring date and a spot in the Chase, this weekend will be a good measure of who will be strong during the championship fight.

There's a lot to cover in this edition of Five Questions, including the dreaded NCWTS gap, Cup domination in XFINITY, fans hating on Brad Keselowski because they can, and more. Let’s get started, shall we?

Should NASCAR fill the gap in the Trucks schedule? If your Friday nights are less thrilling, it’s understandable; the Camping World Truck Series is off until its Martinsville Speedway visit during the first week of April. I’m going to state the obvious—that’s a long time. As much as I want to see the Trucks out there, it isn’t possible. The tight budgets within the series only allow a few swings out West, and those are later in the year. We can dream all we want, but it’s not viable. However, there’s an upside to this hiatus—absence makes the heart grow fonder. This helps build excitement, and it will definitely be rewarded come April. The CWTS event at Martinsville is a can’t-miss race, and I’m already pumped.

Is it time to get mad at Cup-affiliated teams in XFINITY? Nick Bromberg of Yahoo! Sports wrote an eye-opening piece about Sprint Cup domination in the NASCAR XFINITY Series. He presents a very convincing argument—that Cup-affiliated teams are what is causing the competition imbalance. Nowadays, a top-tier team has their hand in some XFINITY organization, like Hendrick Motorsports does with JR Motorsports. Some relationships are subtle, such as Kaulig Racing getting their engines from ECR. Although Bromberg makes sense, is it logical to get mad or even protest? As Brad Keselowski and Martin Truex, Jr. both pointed out on Twitter, their careers started with those types of teams. This is how competition has evolved, and it won’t stop until limits are put in place—and the probability of that happening is quite small. Unless NASCAR forces Kyle Busch to race for RSS Racing or some other small team, this is how it is.

Do we have a heated ROTY battle shaping up? The race for Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year has turned interesting over the past few weeks. Although many people thought Chase Elliott would dominate right out of the gate, Ryan Blaney holds the lead with 37 points. Elliott—who has struggled a bit the past three weeks—has 30 points. This shouldn’t be that surprising; Blaney has driven a limited Cup schedule for Wood Brothers Racing before his full-time gig, giving him more experience with the level of competition. Now, I’m not saying he’s going to run away with the ROTY title. It is very early in the season, and many things can happen. Elliott and the No. 24 team could get a handle on things and start racking up top 10s or Blaney could have a few missteps. It's still up in the air, but that makes it something worth watching. I can’t wait to see how it plays out.

Will people hate on Keselowski for any little reason? Brad Keselowski’s win at Las Vegas Motor Speedway wasn’t a unanimous favorite for various fans. Some were just angry that the Team Penske driver won, but others were mad about what happened afterward. Keselowski—who is quite vocal about his support of soldiers and veterans—normally holds the American flag out his window during his celebratory lap. Last Sunday’s strong winds knocked the flag to the ground. Although he immediately stopped the No. 2 and picked it up, people lost their freakin’ minds. I understand there are a lot of negative people in the world, but let’s get real here. Keselowski is proud of his patriotism and shows it in various ways, with this celebration being one of them. To suggest he did this on purpose or get angry about the oops is idiotic; the wind was crazy, and Keselowski doesn’t control the weather, people. This all ties back into fans hating the Penske driving for stupid reasons. The 2012 Sprint Cup champion doesn’t care about that. All he wants is to win and to support his country, and he did both on Sunday.

Harvick vs. the field: Who will prevail? Kevin Harvick has a target on his back going into this weekend. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver—who is third in points—won the last two spring events at PIR. With an overall Phoenix win count of seven, it’s safe to say he’s the one to beat. Despite this,  numerous drivers could give him a run for his money. As previously mentioned, Keselowski won last weekend. He and teammate Joey Logano finished in the top 10 in the 2015 spring race at Phoenix. Ford might flex their stuff this weekend. Or could it be Jimmie Johnson, who finished 11th last March? He and the track haven’t gotten along since the repave, but that may change.

While all of these drivers could charge to the front, my pick is Martin Truex Jr. He did well last spring and is on the top of his game at the moment. Crew chief Cole Pearn is serving his suspension this week but will be in communication with the No. 78 team throughout the weekend. It will be as if he never left. Furniture Row Racing has turned into a consistent competitor and will capture a win this season. If Truex wants to grab it this weekend, he will have to fight Harvick for the trophy.  

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