Friday, August 26, 2016

Can't Script It: Five Questions for Michigan and Road America

(Credit: Jonathan Moore/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Another split weekend means storylines galore for NASCAR’s top three series – and lots of predictions.

The best thing about the sport of racing is unpredictability. When machines circle – or zig-zag – around a track at 100+ miles per hour, there is no wiggle room, no cushion. Racers try to create a margin of error, and that’s when the good stuff happens. It’s the stuff we see in track commercials and NASCAR compilations on YouTube. The good, thrilling stuff, but it is more than wrecks and crashes. It’s Denny Hamlin beating Martin Truex, Jr. by a nose at Daytona. It’s a Camping World Truck Series rookie heading to victory lane for the first of many, many times. It’s Tony Stewart finding victory in his final season.

You can’t script that stuff – and why would you want to?

Since we don’t know what to expect, we daydream and try to put the pieces together. Or we ask five questions and attempt to answer them as accurately as possible. This week, I discuss Byron’s move, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., and much more in this (long overdue) installment of Five Questions.

With Byron on the move in 2017, who is KBM’s next big thing? One of the biggest “silly season” moves involved rookie Byron. The current Kyle Busch Motorsports wheelman signed a multi-year contract with Hendrick Motorsports, promoting him to JR Motorsport’s XFINITY program in 2017. This is a fantastic move for Byron, who is learning at an accelerated rate. However, it also begs the question – who will fill his shoes? Kyle Busch certainly has an eye for talent, with Byron and Erik Jones on his list of discoveries. It will be hard to follow those up. Despite this, the future of KBM is already there; Christopher Bell has consistently proven himself with strong finishes and a handful of victories. He is definitely a budding talent, and Busch should utilize him while he has the chance. As for filling Byron’s seat, there is no telling who KBM will hire. A healthy Matt Tifft could assume that role, but that is the only person on my radar at this point. Byron’s move will shake up both CWTS and KBM in 2017, and it is time for the organization to start thinking of their Next Big Thing.

Who is in the prime position heading into Road America? The schedule leading up to the XFINITY Series Chase is borderline criminal; from drenched Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course to Bristol’s chaotic ways to Road America’s twists and turns, it is a rough road to secure a slot for the championship. This weekend’s trip to Elkhart Lake is one race closer to the playoffs – but it won’t be a picnic. Not only is it a road course, but also rain may play a factor. If this race is anything like Mid-Ohio, drivers beware. One driver who shouldn’t worry is Brendan Gaughan, who finished eighth at Mid-Ohio. The guy is a road-course aficionado who’s won at Road America before. On top of that, he’s coming off a fifth-place result at Bristol. Bristol. It’s been a good season for the No. 62 team, with three top fives and 11 top 10s. A win would sweeten his championship point standings; he sits fifth now, but a victory means bonus points. He is going into this weekend in a good place, and signs point to him excelling at Elkhart Lake. Out of all the drivers, he will fare the best in the (hopefully not pouring) rain.

Does Stenhouse, Jr.’s runner-up result signify progress? Switching gears to the Sprint Cup Series, there’s another guy on fire; Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. finished second at Bristol, tying his career-best result, also at Bristol, back in 2014. What a way to honor his best friend, Bryan Clauson. Is this a sign that Stenhouse is coming into his own? It could be, but it’s most likely a representation of Roush Fenway Racing’s 2016 progress. The organization’s short-track program is great, but they lack in other areas such as intermediates. Strong finishes by Trevor Bayne and Greg Biffle support this theory. It’s nice to finally see Stenhouse do well, but you can’t say he is on the fast track to victory without more evidence. What happens at Michigan may sway my opinion, however. The team as a whole is working better, but it’s hard to say there’s overall improvement when the organization flourishes at certain layouts.

Who is slipping as the Chase nears? Did the Chase sneak up on anyone else other than me? Oh yeah, a few Sprint Cup drivers who aren’t doing so hot right now. Those who are locked in the Chase probably think they have nothing to worry about – but they’re not exactly correct. Those going into the playoffs with momentum will outperform those who are lacking. Who is in the hot seat at the moment? That would be Coca Cola 600 dominator Martin Truex, Jr. Since that impressive victory, he earned one top five and a handful on top 10s. A Bristol finish of 23rd doesn’t bode well, either. The one thing on his side is Charlotte – and tracks just like it – in the final 10 races. This year’s stats are edging closer to his 2015 numbers, but something is suddenly missing from the No. 78 team. I don’t know what it is, but they need to find it before Chicagoland if Furniture Row Racing wants that trophy.

How will Bowman follow up last Cup appearance? NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., was not cleared by doctors this week and will miss the next two races. Jeff Gordon is slated to continue driving the No. 88 at Darlington Raceway, but a prior commitment prevents him from racing at Michigan. Because of this, Alex Bowman will return to Hendrick Motorsports this weekend. He hasn’t been in the car since New Hampshire, so what should we expect from him? Well, his prior Michigan results are promising; his three XFINITY visits produced two 14th-place results and a seventh-place finish. Decent numbers, right? I could see some issues in practice, but the fact of the matter is Bowman isn’t a rookie. He’s raced in Cup full-time and is a smart driver. Good things should come out of this weekend for him if he can weather the storm that is the No. 88 team; even before Earnhardt was injured, that group struggled and failed to claim a victory. It would be hard to blame any issues on Bowman – or Gordon for that matter. They’re working with what they got. Bowman can avoid any big team mishaps and bring a smile to the faces of No. 88 fans. His sixth-place qualifying effort, the No. 88 team's best start since Dover in May, certainly shows promise. 

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