Friday, September 16, 2016

Chicago Clash: Five Questions for Chicagoland

(Credit: Johnathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
by Kristen Schneider

Even with everything going on in this crazy world, NASCAR saves the day.

The top three series do battle in Joliet, Illinois and prepare for a thrilling end to the 2016 season. As Trucks and Xfinity set their inaugural Chase fields, Sprint Cup is already a step ahead. For 36 drivers, the stressful part is set to begin.

As I think about NASCAR competition, it’s always interesting to think of situations with an outside perspective and apply it to a bigger picture. Sport lends itself well to this crazy life we’re all living.

I discuss that and more in this week’s Five Questions. Let’s get at it.

Could Cole Custer pull off a Chase-worthy run? After the incident at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park, JR Motorsports driver Custer sat outside the Camping World Truck Series top eight. This weekend was his final shot to make the Chase field – and a familiar face was in his way. John Hunter Nemechek was eighth in the standings, six points ahead of Custer. What a coincidence. Although he might have wanted to retaliate against Nemechek, the youngster had to focus on the task at hand, and that was winning. With his 2017 plans set, Custer probably wanted a championship to sweeten the season even more. He wouldn't have contended for that if he'd allowed his hot head to prevail. Although Custer did keep his head, it was not his night. Despite a valiant effort all the way to the green-white-checkered end, his ninth-place finish wasn't enough to get him into the Chase. 

Will Chicagoland become “the race” for Xfinity? The potential for a fantastic weekend is there, and NASCAR nation is on the edge of its seat to watch it unfold. The Friday and Saturday races hold the most weight, and their inaugural Chase fields are set after the events. The NASCAR Xfinity Series needs an event that sets itself apart from its parent series. Can Chicagoland Speedway’s slot on the schedule be that race? The answer is no – for this season, at least. Their 12-car field is practically set, not easily lending itself to drama. There’s also the issue of a Sprint Cup regular most likely winning, but don’t get me started on that topic. If NASCAR tweaks the Xfinity Series Chase format a bit – such as cutting the field down – this race next year will be one fans circle on their calendars. However, the Chicago Clash doesn’t garner much praise when it comes to the second-tier series.

How will the RFR Xfinity fare in last regular season event? Two of the most interesting tenants in the 2016 Xfinity Chase are Ryan Reed and Darrell Wallace, Jr. The Roush Fenway Racing drivers are closing in on making the field – something their Sprint Cup counterparts failed to do. This unique situation makes me wonder how the young stars will do, and if they have a shot at the title. Unfortunately, that might be an empty claim. Wallace’s season has been inconsistent thus far, with good runs peppered into a bunch of 20th-place finishes. It doesn’t feel like a championship-like season for him, but anything can happen. Reed, however, has had his best season to date. Although he has only one top five and four top 10s, he's shown consistency. He spent the majority of 2016 hovering around 12th place, and that was good enough to put him in the 12-car field. With his success new, it’s a stretch to say Reed will contend for the title – but anything can happen. That’s why there’s a Chase, right?

Which first-time Chaser has the best shot at contending? Talk about a stacked Cup field, right? It’s insane to look at the fresh faces in the field. Chris Buescher, Austin Dillon, Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott are all making their first appearance in the Chase field, and their average age is, like, 12. Despite being awestruck, I have to wonder who is there to fill spaces, and who is there to actually contend. When comparing competitive rides and year-long performance, it basically comes down to Larson and Elliott. Shocked, right? Larson has come alive since his first win, and it’s hard to deny the young man’s determination, which goes a long way in racing. Elliott, on the other hand, hasn’t won (yet) and beats himself up pretty freakin’ hard. His multiple top-three and top-five finishes make it hard to doubt his abilities. Hendrick Motorsports’ equipment is superior to Chip Ganassi Racing’s, which gives Elliott the ultimate advantage. HMS didn’t show much "oomph" during the middle stretch of the year, but they’re notorious for laying low until later on. Larson might have that win and momentum, but Elliott has the power and hunger.

Are Ryan Newman’s comments going to fade away? This is a topic that’s difficult to address because I still have a hard time believing Newman made those comments. I can’t stop thinking about them, even after NASCAR called he and Tony Stewart into the hauler Friday afternoon for a “quick discussion.” The two are over it, I get that – but I’m not. Newman’s comments were influenced by anger, but they were still off the wall and completely inappropriate. It rubs me the wrong way. This isn’t to say that I wanted NASCAR to fine Newman. He’s allowed to speak freely, and it didn’t help that Newman didn’t see the replay before getting thrust in front of the camera. Penalizing him would limit his free speech. However, this isn’t going away, even if the two are good now. That video clip will be around forever and continue to harm both Stewart and Newman’s reputations after they’re out of the sport. This whole situation just shows that anger isn’t an excuse. Emotions run high, and that’s what we love about racing. However, sport is a microcosm of society, meaning this situation reflects what’s going on in the world. It makes you think about what you say, and the when and why of it all. Keep that in mind when you want to scream your face off – and maybe Newman will remember it, too. 

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