Friday, April 8, 2016

Getting the Groove Back: Five Questions for Texas

Texas Motor Speedway on Thursday, Debbie Ross for Skirts and Scuffs
The cars race tight under the lights *clap clap clap clap* deep in the heart of Texas.

Does anyone else think that should be the Texas anthem? It highlights two of the best things about the Lonestar state – close battling and night racing.

The NASCAR Sprint Cup and XFINITY Series both invade the state this weekend, racing under the stars at Texas Motor Speedway. With XFINITY coming off a long break and Sprint Cup running low downforce, there are a lot of expectations for both levels to put on a fabulous show. Will they prevail?

In this week’s Five Questions, I discuss Kyle Larson, mayonnaise, neon numbers and much more. Put on your cowboy boots and settle in for a rowdy time.

Should Larson race Trucks more often to strengthen his Cup performance? It is no secret that Kyle Larson impressed this past weekend – during both races. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver wheeled the No. 24 in the Camping World Truck Series and finished fourth in the caution-filled event at Martinsville Speedway. The next day, Larson knocked out his first top five of 2016 with a third-place result at "The Paperclip." He later revealed that racing the GMS Racing truck helped him prepare for the Cup race, which he missed last year due to medical issues. This makes me wonder if he should participate in the series more often to bump up his performance. It seems good in theory, especially at tracks where the extra time will help (like short tracks). However, this would just be another Cup regular invading the lower series, right? Wrong; people weren’t up in arms about his run because he isn’t Kyle Busch, and he drove a smaller team’s truck. GMS Racing benefited from having their organization and sponsors in the spotlight. As I’ve said before, if NASCAR made Busch race in an underfunded car/truck, fans wouldn’t be as angry. There is no certainty that Larson will run another Truck race, but he got a much-needed boost from last Saturday’s run.

Can an XFINITY regular steal the show? The XFINITY Series is back on Friday night with some action under the lights. The entry list has some notable Cup drivers on it, including Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski. Despite common belief, this doesn’t mean one of them will take home the trophy. In the last two spring XFINITY events at Texas, Erik Jones and Chase Elliott found themselves in victory lane. Is this a coincidence or trend? Either way, it bodes well for the series regulars who have stepped up their game this season. Drivers like Daniel Suarez, Elliott Sadler and Justin Allgaier are the top three in points and getting closer to victory lane every weekend. With XFINITY regulars preceding them in victory, it should give them more confidence. All three are in good equipment and have momentum from their strong 2016 starts. If I had to put my money on one XFINITY driver to beat the Cup guys, it would be Suarez; Joe Gibbs Racing’s program in the second-tier series is on a whole other level at the moment, and teammate Jones was the last regular to shoot the celebratory pistols. However, Elliott and Allgaier aren’t far behind.

Earnhardt Jr., trendsetter? For the second time in almost two weeks, NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver went viral this week with a clever sponsorship plug. The Hendrick Motorsports driver tweeted about his favorite sandwich, mayonnaise and banana – with Hellmann’s-brand mayo, of course. The tweet sparked discussion –  even becoming the subject of a Twitter Moment – and proceeded the announcement of his new partnership with “Blessings in a Backpack,” a nonprofit that helps feed children in need. He enjoyed the responses, as did his sponsor. His announcement that he will donate his brain to CTE research after he passes also caused a buzz. Earnhardt Jr. is producing some interesting content on the social media site – and other drivers should take notice. While he’s influencing athletes to donate their brains and pushing fans to try his sponsor in a unique way, other drivers aren’t as creative. They should take a lesson from the No. 88 driver, who’s ahead of the game despite jumping on the Twitter train very late. The current digital culture runs with anything interesting that gets mentions and retweets rolling in, and he’s playing into that. NASCAR would be in the social media conversation more often if other drivers followed suit. It’s time for everyone to do their part and start posting about mayo and banana sandwiches – well, not really, but you catch my drift.

Is Roush on the rebound? There was a time when Texas was Roush Fenway Racing’s playground. The team has nine victories, 38 top fives, and 59 top 10s at the 1.5-mile track. After recent struggles, many wrote the organization off and assumed it would never recover. Could what seemed impossible be happening? Martinsville resulted in a top-15 finish for Greg Biffle. The long-time RFR driver has struggled for the past few seasons, yet last weekend offered a glimmer of hope. Although finishing 12th might not be important to some, it signifies the organization coming into some strength. Teammate Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. brought in better results in the first six races as well; he captured 10th at Atlanta Motor Speedway, and he finished fourth at Auto Club Speedway. Keeping this pace would put him ahead of his 2015 stats. Although we never figured out what put RFR into the slump, it seems like they’re slowly coming out of it. There are signs of life at Roush Fenway Racing, but can they hold on? It is possible. This weekend will be a good gauge of their progress and what issues they may encounter since the majority of the Cup schedule (including the Chase) is made up of 1.5-mile tracks. Texas will be the true test of their improvement.

Will the yellow No. 48 help Johnson gallop into victory lane? A bright sight will make fans shout for joy this weekend. Hendrick Motorsports driver Jimmie Johnson will sport his iconic yellow No. 48 this weekend, throwing it back to his most dominant era. Johnson fans are ecstatic, yet everyone else is terrified. Will the neon numbers give Johnson his groove back? Although it will seem like they have magical powers, the fact of the matter is that Six-Time is in perfect form this season. He’s already punched his Chase ticket with the Atlanta victory, but he hasn’t slowed down. His win at Auto Club proves that. You always expect Johnson to be a threat, but something strikes me as different for this team. They are more focused and determined than in recent years – but similar to his consecutive championship days. And we haven’t even discussed his ridiculous record at Texas. Six wins, 13 top fives and 19 top 10s are hard to dismiss. If he wins on Saturday, some will pin it on the flashy yellow No. 48 on his racecar. However, it’s the numbers and the current team demeanor that puts some more oomph into this team’s championship run.

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