Friday, September 2, 2016

Shooting for the Stars: Five Questions for Darlington and CTMP

Credit: Sarah Crabill/NASCAR via Getty Images
by Kristen Schneider

Grow that Richard Petty mustache and dust off those platform shoes because it’s time to throw it back.

For the second year, the entire industry will use Darlington Raceway’s Labor Day date to honor NASCAR’s past. From paint schemes to firesuits to facial hair, drivers – along with crew and media members – embrace the sport’s yesteryears. It’s a fun time that’s also full of groovy racing. This weekend marks the second-to-last race of the regular season, and that translates to "go time." For some, it is past that point. For others, a sliver of hope still remains. Who can cut through the tension and punch their ticket?

While the NASCAR Sprint Cup and Xfinity Series throw it back, the Camping World Truck Series is going international. Their Chase is getting interesting as well, and the road course may throw a wrench into some drivers’ dreams of success.

I discuss Chase Elliott, a silent Xfinity champ contender and more in this week’s edition of Five Questions.

Which CWTS team excels in Canada, eh? Oh, Caaaanadaaaa. The Trucks are invading our northern neighbors, racing at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park for a solo weekend. The twists and turns hold many unknowns for the 32-truck field, and ‘tis the season for the unexpected. Many young drivers – and drivers without wins – feel hopeful after Brett Moffitt’s thrilling first victory last weekend. Who will use that newfound optimism to cause a stir this weekend? I’m looking at Daniel Hemric, who has a top 10 at CTMP. The Brad Keselowski Racing wheelman is currently seventh in the Chase Grid, the highest-ranked driver without a victory. It’s been a strong year for him, and a win is right around the corner. Hemric has five third-place finishes, and that has to pay off at some point. CTMP might be the place where it all falls into place – if he can capitalize on the track’s spontaneity.

Is Allgaier a silent title contender? While the Trucks go north, Xfinity follows Sprint Cup down south. Their Chase is closing in as well, yet a prominent title contender has not made himself known; Elliott Sadler extended his regular season points lead, yet Daniel Suarez keeps nipping at his heels. After last weekend, Brendan Gaughan holds momentum for the playoffs and could give the top dogs a run for their money.

One racer is laying in the weeds – and his JR Motorsports machine is rising to the challenge. During the season thus far, Justin Allgaier accumulated nine top fives and 19 top 10s, eclipsing his 2010 Xfinity numbers. Last year he ended the season fourth in points. He only finished outside the top 10 three times so far, and that’s impressive. How many drivers have that kind of consistency? The only issue is the Chase system is meant to reward wins, not solid finishes. He will line up fourth once the Chase gets underway – but a win would do wonders for his team’s confidence, which is already pretty high. Allgaier wants wins – any real racer does. He waits in the wings at the moment but could step up his championship chances with a victory.

Can Jones strengthen his championship chances before the Chase? Since I mentioned the Xfinity Series’ most consistent driver, let’s talk about the other end of the spectrum. If Erik Jones isn’t winning, he’s finishing back in the 20s and 30s. Mistakes like speeding penalties and being at the wrong place at the wrong time hinder his stats and drag a strong contender down. Jones has nothing to worry about championship-wise; he can’t mathematically fall out due to his three victories. Once the Chase starts, though, he needs dependability to capture that series trophy. The Joe Gibbs Racing star is simply that – a star. Despite that, I don’t see him winning the championship if he and his team make those types of mistakes. There is time to switch it around, though, and Jones is probably beating himself up for all those speeding penalties. That’s just who he is – and he is also the type to get stuff done.

Will Elliott ever be content with second place? These young drivers tend to beat themselves up, yet none are as savage as Chase Elliott. He tore himself apart on Sunday and acted as if it was the worse race of his life – despite leading 31 laps and claiming second place. His previous race at Michigan International Speedway went the same way, and his reaction did, too. Some believe his disappointment shows determination. Others think it proves he’s bratty.

Jeff Gluck of USA Today wrote an open letter to the rookie, saying, “People knew you were good, but I’m not sure many expected you to be this good. You should be proud. The thing is, I’m not sure you are.” That line perfectly encapsulates how a majority feel about this situation – myself included.

Elliott holds himself to a high standard. How could he not? With a famous father and an iconic predecessor, it must be hard to ignore the mountainous feats that came before you. For him to grow as a driver and as an individual, he must ignore Bill Elliott and Jeff Gordon. He can’t get hung up on their achievements when he’s conquering his own goals. The youngster who crawled around the garage and sat on Dale Earnhardt, Sr.’s lap is now closing in on his first Sprint Cup victory – at 20 years old. Thousands of people are impressed with that – and Elliott should be, too. It’s easy to justify his emotions, yet the big picture should thrill him as much as it excites those who will watch him race for decades to come.

How will Larson follow up his first Cup victory? It’s about dang time. Kyle Larson, dedicated wheelman and jack-of-all-racing-trades, earned his first Sprint Cup Series win at Michigan. The first-time winner choked back tears in victory lane, and his emotion moved everyone else. Whenever a driver claims his first victory, the first question everyone asks is, “Is this a fluke, or is this just the beginning?” The answer is obvious in Larson’s case. His trip to victory lane was a long time coming, and this is the spark inside the powder keg. However, if you’re still skeptical, this weekend will probably convince you. In his two starts at Darlington, the Chip Ganassi Racing driver has two top 10s. Combine that with momentum, and you have another victory just waiting for the No. 42 Chevrolet. It may be more realistic to expect a top five, but hey, I like to shoot for the stars. 

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