Friday, September 23, 2016

Judgment Day: Five Questions for New Hampshire and Kentucky

Credit: Todd Warshaw/Getty Images
It’s all about the Chase, baby.

While we tend to focus on the overly-entertaining Sprint Cup Series, the two lower series have battles brewing, and they need a little love, too.

Chase season is officially underway, and there’s no telling what will happen next. Who emerges as a title favorite in the first playoff race for the Camping World Truck and Xfinity Series? Are there non-Chasers in Cup that will shake things up? This sport is full of storylines, but will any of them come to fruition?

You can’t really predict these things – but that won't stop me from trying. Here’s this week’s edition of Five Questions.

Is Byron the title favorite? The NCWTS is preparing for battle, with a stacked field of eight fighting for the title. At the top of the Chase Grid is William Byron, the young Kyle Busch Motorsports wheelman who nearly has Rookie of the Year locked up. He came in and tore apart the competition during the regular season. As he enters the Chase as the top seed, many expect him to be the one to beat. That’s great and all, but is his success sustainable for the long haul? Yes, but it won’t be easy to cultivate; the other seven contenders are there for a reason, you know. Matt Crafton is right on his heels, and he knows how to win a title. You have other young guns that are just as hungry. Teammate Christopher Bell has the same speed and driving style, while John Hunter Nemechek has an undeniable on-track ferocity. Byron might be the favorite, but you can’t give him the championship just yet.

With Kentucky as the Chase opener, can Xfinity find its groove? The Xfinity Series Chase also kicks off this weekend, and it will definitely stand out. While Trucks and Sprint Cup head to New Hampshire, Xfinity takes center stage in Kentucky. The field of 12 races Saturday night in a bluegrass battle – or will they? It is hard to predict because the series hasn’t been up to par. Since Elliott Sadler’s win at Darlington Raceway, it seems like the series regulars are going through the motions and not creating much drama. Things should ramp up this weekend, especially with Kentucky’s surface. Many drivers were playing it safe, trying to keep their Chase slots. Now that fear is gone, and it's time to focus on that championship. Hard racing will be abundant this weekend. Only one Cup driver, Ryan Blaney, is slated to do double duty, and many low-seeded Chase contenders are ready to prove they are in the championship fight for a reason. Brennan Poole is fantastic at Kentucky, while Brendan Gaughan wants to prove he’s not retiring for a reason. Once the Chase starts, we’ll see it was worth watching drivers play it safe.

When the going gets tough, who gets going? The Sprint Cup Series started their Chase last week, and it didn’t go well for a few drivers. Kevin Harvick had a terrible race; he started from the back, and failed to get better. He finished 20th, a bit off from the “raging bull” mentality he claimed to use for the 10-race playoff. Jimmie Johnson faltered as well, leading plenty of laps yet committing a speeding penalty in the race’s late stages. Other drivers who didn’t do so hot include Chris Buescher, Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon. Can anyone in this group recover in New England? Harvick has the best shot, considering his solid record at Loudon – one victory, eight top fives, and 16 top 10s. Long story short, he’s good. Johnson boasts strong stats as well, wielding three wins, 10 top fives, and 19 top 10s. A recovery is in the cards. However, the other three have a challenge on their hands. Out of that trio, Larson has the most momentum and team unity at this point. His first win pushed him forward, as if solidifying his status as a Cup driver. He drives with more confidence, and that’s not good for everyone else. Sometimes adversity propels people forward – yet only a few know how to do it correctly.

Can non-Chasers disrupt the flow in Sprint Cup? Spoiler alert: there are more than just 16 cars participating in the next 10 races. That became apparent last weekend when three non-Chase drivers – Blaney, Kasey Kahne and Alex Bowman – infiltrated the top 10. Just look at that group. Blaney was in the running to make the Chase, and he has the speed and ability to capture a victory. Meanwhile, Kahne’s playoff chances were crushed at Richmond after a phenomenal run. Their team spent the entire regular season trying to get it right, and they might have hit on something. Bowman is the most impressive driver in this contingent, as he is going above and beyond his job of simply filling in for Dale Earnhardt, Jr. He isn’t just keeping the seat warm, he’s auditioning for his next gig. He does a dang good job, too. These three have what it takes to break up the Chase party, so don’t be surprised to see their names in the top 10 – or even victory lane – sometime soon.

Did NASCAR just earn some credibility? NASCAR made changes to the post-race inspection protocol this week, sparked by Johnson and winner Martin Truex, Jr. failing the laser portion after Chicagoland. The sanctioning body adjusted the prerequisites for penalization, something other drivers complained about throughout the year. The immediate reaction from fans is that it was too late, and the constant corrections from NASCAR are both confusing and deterring. That’s how I felt, too – but then I stopped myself. The fact they admitted a mistake and made adjustments is a gleaming example of progress. It’s okay for them to mess up – it is a sport run by humans, and there’s bound to be lapses in judgment. For the first time in a while, they owned up to it. I see it as growth, and I hope the drivers, media, and fans do, too. Judgment Day came knocking at NASCAR’s door, and they shocked a lot of people. I approve.

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