Friday, July 22, 2016

Shake Off the Dust: Five Questions for Indianapolis

Credit: Rainier Ehrhardt/NASCAR via Getty Images  
Despite the belief that it was impossible, last week’s craziness was upstaged by this week’s antics. Not much happened except that the sport’s most popular star is out for two more weeks, one of the biggest races is coming up, and the Camping World Truck Series raced on dirt.

Nothing too crazy.

As the Sprint Cup and Xfinity Series head to Indianapolis Motor Speedway, I’m asking questions about more dirt races, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s impact, Jeff Gordon and more.

Do we need more dirt races in NASCAR? No. The answer is no. As much as I enjoyed the Aspen Derby on Wednesday night, we don’t need to throw Xfinity and Sprint Cup cars on dirt. The aero packages for the top two series aren’t near perfect yet, and people want to put stock cars on dirt? No, just no. It’s a CWTS exclusive – as it should be.

Can someone save the Xfinity Chase? So, the season is half over, and it's time for teams to focus on the impending Chase. For those in the Xfinity Series, teams in the top 12 don’t even have to worry; basically, everyone makes the championship field. Due to the series’ lack of competition, only three series regulars have won – and they all drive for Cup-affiliated teams. Currently, Kaulig Racing driver Blake Koch sits in 12th, 197 points out of the lead. That’s great for the small team, don’t get me wrong, but it cheapens the Chase idea when you have only three drivers getting in on wins.

With that in mind, I wonder if a Xfinity regular can salvage this playoff format and grab a victory this weekend. Sadly, it’s very unlikely. Kyle Busch, Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick are all on the entry list. Even Paul Menard, a former Brickyard 400 winner, is running the Xfinity race. I need another series regular – preferably someone who hasn’t won yet in 2016 – to prove to me this series needs the Chase. I need proof, and I’m not optimistic that it will come this weekend.

Should other athletes follow Earnhardt Jr.’s lead? Dale Earnhardt Jr. will sit out the next two races, with Jeff Gordon filling in. The decision came after the Hendrick Motorsports driver experienced nausea and balance issues this past week. Although it’s heartbreaking to see him sit out more races, it’s the safest thing for him to do. He has received much praise for putting his health first, which marks a historic moment for athletes in professional sports. Many athletes may feel bound by their contracts and play through serious – or even life-altering – injuries. The situation with Earnhardt Jr. and owner Rick Hendrick shows what happens when owners care about the athlete’s well-being rather than their results. This is also proof that athletes need to listen to their bodies. No athlete should be afraid to sit out a game or race because of possible repercussions. As much as I love this sport, that’s all it is – a sport. There will be other races for Earnhardt Jr. to run once he’s healed. I wish him a speedy recovery, and I hope other athletes follow suit.

How will Gordon perform in first race since retirement? Hey, so this Gordon kid filling in for Earnhardt Jr. is pretty freakin’ good. His return to the racetrack stems from terrible circumstances, making it difficult to enjoy the moment. However, you have to think about how much butt he’s going to kick at Indy. In his first race not in the No. 24, Gordon is one of the favorites on Sunday. Will he have to shake off the dust? I doubt it; it’s not like he’s been shelved for 10 years. He can get back in the groove during the practice sessions. The No. 88 team knew Gordon would wheel the car, so they should be well prepared for this race and next weekend at Pocono Raceway. He will be competitive, there’s no doubt about that. Welcome back, Jeff.

Who will smooch the bricks on Sunday? Ah, the Brickyard 400, one of NASCAR’s “crown jewel” events. It will be interesting to see how the racing compares to years past – but it will be even more interesting to watch who prevails. As previously mentioned, Gordon will be stout in the No. 88. If he doesn’t contend for the win, it’s due to a pit road issue or an accident. Another competitor with a strong chance for victory? Tony Stewart. He's gotten hotter and hotter since his win at Sonoma Raceway. A legit championship threat, Stewart’s final Indy race could end in another victory. If I have to choose between the two future Hall of Famers, I have to go with Stewart.

Now, there’s always a dark horse, and mine is Ryan Blaney. He’s had some strong moments over the past few weeks, and the results don’t show it. The No. 21 team is near the Chase cutoff, and this could be where they have a solid weekend. History will be made this weekend, and one of 40 drivers will make a permanent mark. 


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