Friday, July 15, 2016

Making the Right Choices: Five Questions for New Hampshire and Eldora

New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Credit: Robert Laberge/NASCAR via Getty Images
NASCAR is in New Hampshire this weekend. Wicked.

The Sprint Cup and Xfinity Series head to New England, home of mile-long New Hampshire Motor Speedway. As the top two levels watch their fuel gauges, the Camping World Truck Series prepares for their biggest race of the entire year – the mid-week event at Eldora Speedway. Each series has tight battles occurring within their Chase standings, emphasizing each race’s implications. One mistake can bruise a driver’s chances at making the Chase field, ending their chances at the title.

Can these racers make the right choices to keep their dreams alive?

As we approach the weekend, I’m asking questions about Eldora, Alex Bowman and more as the sport goes to Loudon. Grab a bowl of clam chowder and read on.

Which Truck regular will do the best on dirt? One of the best races of all-time takes place next Wednesday. The Camping World Truck Series heads to Eldora Speedway for their only dirt track event of the season – and it’s full of series regulars looking for a Chase berth. Some may have a better chance than others. If so, who? My eyes are on Daniel Hemric, who nearly won at Kentucky Speedway. He also finished fifth at Eldora last season. Another driver to watch is Rico Abreu, the Sprint Car star in his first full-time Truck ride. Of course, you can’t count out last year’s winner Christopher Bell. Those three are on my list of drivers to watch when it comes time to sling some dirt.

Who is the stronger JGR Xfinity driver? The Xfinity Series joins Sprint Cup at New Hampshire this weekend, and the series has been interesting the past few weeks. I’m not necessarily talking about the racing, either; Joe Gibbs Racing driver Erik Jones hasn’t done as well as many predicted, and it’s a bit shocking. His mistakes – pit road penalties, wrong place at the wrong time – started back in the spring but are even more apparent in the second half of the year. This begs the question – who is the strongest Xfinity driver at JGR? Daniel Suarez has excelled while Jones falters. The 2015 Sunoco Rookie of The Year scored his first Xfinity victory this year and hasn’t slowed down, becoming very consistent over the past few weeks. At this point in time, one has to believe Suarez is stronger. However, if Jones and his crew can get it together, they will definitely come back with a vengeance.

How will Bowman do with double duty? A somewhat quiet week turned chaotic when Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced his absence from the Sprint Cup race on Sunday. The Hendrick Motorsports driver went to a neurologist after experiencing concussion-like symptoms and was advised not to participate in the race at New Hampshire. Because of this, JR Motorsports driver Alex Bowman will drive the No. 88 in the Xfinity and Sprint Cup events. Bowman – who raced two full-time seasons in Cup before joining JRM this season – has impressed while sharing the No. 88 JRM Chevrolet, collecting notable finishes and fighting for wins. What should we expect from him this weekend? He will manage the pressure well and get the job done both days. It’s been a few weeks since his last Xfinity race, but that won’t be an issue; he can get a top five on Saturday easily. Sunday is the kicker because it will be his first Cup start in top-notch equipment. Although the opportunity came at someone else’s expense, Bowman will charge forth and give it his all. The team is probably aiming for a top 15 finish at most, but don’t be shocked if he pops into the top 10. This is a great chance for Bowman, but I must praise Earnhardt Jr. for sitting out this weekend; this sends the message that concussions are no joke and that athletes should put their health first. He’s making the right choices – in sitting out and in choosing his replacement. We wish Dale Earnhardt Jr. a speedy recovery.

Will fuel mileage determine the winner once again? Team Penske driver Brad Keselowski pulled off the win at Kentucky Speedway by saving just enough fuel. He’s pretty good at that. Will New Hampshire follow suit? History says yes; races in Loudon tend to require much calculation on the crew chief’s part. We haven’t had as many races depend on fuel mileage this season, but this weekend will force everyone to whip out the calculators. Last year, Kevin Harvick ran out of fuel in the final laps, allowing Matt Kenseth to fly by. It will be a similar scenario this year, so teams should have their notebooks – and TI-84s – ready to go.

Is Keselowski the title favorite? Speaking of the 2012 Sprint Cup Series champion, he’s pretty hot right now; Keselowski’s win at Kentucky gives him the most victories of 2016. He is at the top of his game, you have to admit that – but is he ready to get another championship? The driver of the No. 2 is currently ready. However, the championship isn’t decided right now. There is still time for a challenger to enter the picture. Harvick is a strong bet, and Carl Edwards has been on point. Keselowski will have to fight them – and others who surge in the following weeks. With this in mind, I would say he is the title favorite right now. If he can keep up this recent streak, he will only strengthen his chances are winning another championship. Edwards is his biggest threat; his consistency in 2016 is remarkable, and he should have two more wins this season – with Kentucky being one of them. Keselowski may be out front at the moment, but the No. 19 isn’t far behind. The Team Penske driver needs to start pulling away before JGR fills up his rear-view mirror.

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