Friday, June 24, 2016

Capitalizing: Five Questions for Sonoma and Gateway

Credit: Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR
by Kristen Schneider

This weekend will require you to divide up your attention – but only between two of NASCAR’s three series.

With the NASCAR Xfinity Series off, the Sprint Cup and Camping World Truck Series are taking the spotlight in two separate locations. Each one brings something different to your TV sets this week, so get ready for some thrills. The Trucks invade Gateway Motorsports Park on Saturday night in a stand-alone event bound to pit series regulars against each other. On the west coast, Cup goes road course racing at Sonoma Raceway and tries to find the perfect rhythm in Wine Country.

Of course, there are questions to ask – and I have them here for you in this week’s edition of Five Questions.

Is Byron’s success the sign of a new era? William Byron is the hottest name in the NCWTS at the moment, after capturing his third win of 2016 last week – in his rookie season. That’s pretty impressive for someone who started their career on iRacing. His success signals the new age of technology. In addition to online programs enhancing drivers’ performance, the new digital dashboards, driver-adjustable track bars and pit road cameras are other examples of the ever-changing landscape of racing. NASCAR has hit its peak with all the recent innovations and should keep moving forward. Byron is just one of many iRacing users who have true talent, and they may have a place in the sport with these changing tides. NASCAR is still behind IndyCar and F1 when it comes to technological advancements, but the sport is making tremendous progress in the 21st century.

In Jones versus the Truck series field, who will prevail? With Trucks solo at Gateway Motorsports Park, we should see a series regular get that win – right? Not exactly. Erik Jones will wheel the No. 51 for Kyle Busch Motorsports in place of Cody Coughlin. Coughlin is leading the point standings in a local series and decided to run those races in order to extend his points lead. Jones was free due to the XFINITY Series being on break. Is he a serious threat? Heck, yes. Just like his boss, this kid will challenge for the win in whatever vehicle he sits in. However, there’s only one Jones. The Truck field is full of hungry, talented drivers who want to secure their Chase spot – and they won’t let Jones stand in their way. Drivers like Byron, Matt Crafton, and Timothy Peters are ready for the challenge. As skilled as Jones is, I’m taking the field on this one.

Are road course ringers a thing of the past? It’s the first road course race of the year, and drivers are gearing up to take on Wine Country. The entry list is filled with the usual suspects – and that’s the unusual part. Wasn’t it just yesterday that road course experts would land rides and compete in these events? Those days are long gone, as the drivers that excel on the twisty tracks are those we see every week. The ability to adapt to various types of venues is vital when chasing a championship, even though there isn’t a road course in the Chase. I’m still bitter about that, by the way. Over time, teams decided to use those road course drivers as mentors and spotters instead. Their role has been reduced, that’s for sure. Road course ringers are still important – but in a different capacity.

Will Joe Gibbs Racing’s dominance extend into road course country? There’s no doubt that JGR is the hottest team around, with each driver securing a slot in the Chase already. Everyone is trying to overpower them, and they may believe this weekend to be the prime opportunity. Are their predictions correct? Well, look at JGR’s Sonoma credentials – especially their win with Kyle Busch last year that set off his championship run. The Toyota team has some success there, but their drivers aren’t exactly road course experts. Their four cars will be fast, but I can’t say that human error won’t come into play. Out of the four, my eyes are on Denny Hamlin. After winning the Daytona 500 in February, the only other notable thing he’s done is gather 11 speeding penalties in the span of 10 races. The No. 11 team can use a boost, and this weekend’s results will prove if they’re on the way to championship form. The other three JGR drivers should do quite well and keep the organization afloat in California.

Can former Sonoma winners rebound? There are three drivers that need to salvage their subpar seasons – Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne, and Clint Bowyer -- and it could happen since they’ve each been victorious at Sonoma. Stewart’s final season hasn’t improved much since his return. Although he has a Chase waiver, he still needs to enter the top 30 in points to use it. If he gets a win, that should move him closer to that goal, and a strong run would rejuvenate his team’s morale. The same can be said for Kahne. The Hendrick Motorsports driver hasn’t found much success in the No. 5, with his best finish of 2016 being fourth place – twice. There are some glimmers of hope, but there need to be more if they want to make the Chase. Kahne’s dirt tracking experience will be his best friend, as it will help with his car control in the turns. All three of these guys are dirt veterans, but Kahne will need to rely on it the most. Bowyer, however, needs a complete 180-degree fix. A strong run would do wonders for his team – and “a strong run” for him is a top 15. It’s baby steps for the No. 15 crew, but sometimes that’s all you can make. This trio needs help getting into the Chase, but this weekend could be the boost they need, as long as they capitalize on the twists and turns. 


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