Friday, September 9, 2016

A Little Bit of Craziness: Five Questions for Richmond

 (Credit: Rainier Ehrhardt/NASCAR via Getty Images)
It all comes down to this.

Every year, a cloud hangs over Richmond International Raceway. It brings doubt, pressure and a little bit of craziness. The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Chase cutoff is Saturday night, and there are only 16 slots available for the opening round. Nothing can prepare these drivers for the stress they will experience throughout the night. How can they even focus?

The NASCAR Xfinity Series is also at Richmond, and the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series is off. Although these series aren’t the main stars of the weekend, I’m still asking questions about them.

What about that fight? Can Sadler win it all? How about Harvick’s rant? This and more lies ahead in this edition of Five Questions.

Should NASCAR be embarrassed by Nemechek/Custer fight? Everyone has their version of this incident, but here’s what I saw – hard racing and a smidge of anger. John Hunter Nemechek wanted that win badly, and he was willing to take Cole Custer to the wall for it. We all know what happened next. As entertaining as the tackle was, it begs the question of whether it is good for the sport – or if NASCAR should be embarrassed. This comes up every time there is a physical confrontation, and my answer is the same each time. Of course, it’s good for the sport; TV networks will use that clip to promote the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series for at least a year. I can’t stand it when people in and around the sport state their objections about the fighting but use it in commercials to try to fill the seats and increase the ratings. Pick a side and stick with it. That fight was nothing more than a great burst of emotion – and you have to love that.

With a win under his belt, can Sadler become championship favorite? That long-awaited win finally came for Elliott Sadler, who has been through the ringer the past few months. His career has been a roller coaster, but the win at Darlington Raceway solidified his championship chances. He held a huge points lead before that, with strong runs widening the gap. The win was simply the cherry on top. He will certainly be a factor in the title battle, but can he stay with the competition? Absolutely. There is nothing that Sadler can’t do at this point. He went from the cusp of retirement to victory lane in a matter of weeks. If he can do that – especially with his mother in the hospital – there is nothing the JR Motorsports driver can’t do. The next few tracks are either good for him or the organization, so his chances are high. Don’t be surprised if he pulls off a few more wins, too. We’re sending positive thoughts to the entire Sadler family at this time as Sadler’s mother continues to heal.

Which underdog team is more prepared for Chase battle? Two dark horses emerged from the shadows Sunday night – and both finished in the top three. One of them – Martin Truex Jr. – captured his second victory of 2016. The driver of the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota remained in the Top 10 until it was time to strike, and it paid off. That’s how he has treated this season since his Coca-Cola 600 win. It’s been a quiet season despite the trophies and obvious strength. Truex’s team now has momentum as the Chase starts, and they should with their top-notch mile-and-a-half program. However, another underdog has surged to the forefront over the past two weeks: Kyle Larson. Many would consider Chip Ganassi Racing to be an upper-level contender, but Larson’s inexperience puts an asterisk next to their Chase slot. This isn’t a negative factor at all. In fact, it may give Larson an advantage; there is less pressure on him to succeed during the final 10 races. Everyone expects him to do well, yet nobody is breathing down his neck to win a championship because of his youth. He’s got years and years to build up his résumé, but I have a feeling he wants to get a head start on racking up the achievements. Of the two, who has the better chance of making the most of their Chase bid? It’s difficult to say, but my gut tells me it's Truex. Joe Gibbs Racing dominated at the beginning of the season, and they are still one of the top organizations at the moment. FRR’s alliance with them makes them JGR Jr., and that’s a scary thought to everyone, not just Larson. My money’s on the No. 78.

Is Harvick’s tongue-lashing of his crew what they need? Kevin Harvick dropped the mic on Sunday night, spitting vitriolic comments about his pit crew. “I’m over being a cheerleader,” he said. That’s a hefty statement from Harvick, who has had problems with the crew’s performance in the past. He was angry, so he spoke out. That’s nothing out of the ordinary, especially for the driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing car. Is this public shaming what the team needs? No, but it seems to be working; two crew members were replaced by members of teammate Danica Patrick’s crew. It got the job done, but some are concerned that his comments will hurt the team in the long run. It hasn’t done that before. The 2014 Sprint Cup Series champion has always spoken off the cuff, and he has found success anyway. Different strokes for different folks, I say. Are his actions classy? Not particularly, but I doubt he cares. Harvick wants a crew that will help him earn another championship – and if he has to speak harshly on TV to get their attention, then so be it.

Are teams risking too much for little advantages? It’s becoming apparent that teams are pushing the limit – and they’re getting caught. Ryan Newman was penalized 15 points after failing post-race inspection at Darlington. His small lead is now a threatening deficit going into Richmond. Larson got the same penalty, but his win lessens the blow (or makes it non-existent). Each week, someone is failing post-race inspection. That means that either teams are pushing too far, or there’s something wrong with the laser inspection system. It certainly could be the latter, and I think that might be the issue. However, teams are doing more and more to gain the slightest advantage because the competition is so close. It began with yanking side skirts and hip-checking on pit stops, then it was the lugnuts, and now it’s the serpentine on the victory lap. Teams are pushing so hard to somehow one-up their competitors. How can they not when there’s practically no risk involved? Look at Larson’s penalty – it doesn’t mean anything since he’s locked into the Chase with a win. If these Chase-qualified teams are doing something fishy and getting caught, then they should face steeper penalties. With the Chase starting after this weekend, things may get more and more sneaky. I think NASCAR missed the boat on nipping this in the bud. Let’s see how the next 10 weeks play out.


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