Friday, September 30, 2016

Synergy: Five Questions for Dover and Las Vegas

(Credit: Jeff Curry/Getty Images)
by Kristen Schneider

We meet again, Miles the Monster.

NASCAR splits their series up yet again, but the two tracks will provide plenty of action that aligns quite nicely with the current Chase standings.

Sprint Cup and Xfinity return to the northeast for the weekend at Dover International Speedway, battling steep banking and intense situations. Both championship scenarios are getting quite interesting, with the series favorites having completely opposite weekends. While that goes on, Camping World Truck Series drivers head out west for their Las Vegas Motor Speedway visit. Under the lights in Sin City? This ought to go well!

There are many headlines coming out of this championship season, and it continues with this week’s edition of Five Questions.

Can Hemric recover from a rough Chase start? Brad Keselowski Racing had a rollercoaster day at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, with Tyler Reddick scoring a fourth-place finish and Daniel Hemric relegated to 28th. Not a good Chase showing for the Ford driver. However, there’s hope this weekend -- although he's only visited this track once, he captured a top 10 in that lone start. If that doesn’t convince you, look at the speed BKR has shown all year long. Hemric’s stats already best his 2015 numbers, and the season isn’t over yet. With a Xfinity Series career on the horizon, this kid is one of the strongest young guns in the Camping World Truck Series right now. There’s time to recover, and Hemric has the ability to take advantage of every opportunity presented to him. His truck will be near the front come Saturday night.

Who will rebound faster, Jones or Dillon? The first race of the NXS Chase went south for Erik Jones and Ty Dillon; the two wrecked together at Kentucky Speedway, dismantling strong runs for both championship hopefuls. Dover International Speedway is a difficult place to right your title path, but both of these drivers are capable. If we had to bet one which one will finish better, though, who would be the best pick? Jones is the safest pick, solely because of Joe Gibbs Racing’s strength this season; he is fast and in contention for victories every single weekend. He has also visited the winner’s circle at the Monster Mile. On the other hand, Dillon isn’t chopped liver, either; he has more races under his belt at this track – seven, to be exact – and has speed this year as well. The driver of the No. 3 has one thing Jones doesn’t, and it’s not a good thing. Dillon is experiencing a lot of pressure right now, with trying to get his 2017 plans in order. He is set on moving to the Sprint Cup Series, but he hasn’t show enough Xfinity success to sell me on that dream. He is a talented driver. He wouldn’t have survived this long in the sport if he wasn’t. There is more uncertainty on him than there is on Jones, who is moving up next year via Furniture Row Racing. A championship would increase Dillon’s chances of finding a Sprint Cup home, but the pressure may be too much. Nevertheless, Jones is more reliable and consistent on-track, probably making him the one most likely to bounce back.

Can Koch pose a long-term threat? Well, well, well, look who’s coming on strong. Blake Koch finished 11th at Kentucky, further solidifying himself as "The Little Engine That Could." The fact he and his brand spankin’ new Xfinity team made the Chase playoffs is impressive itself. Kaulig Racing didn’t exist before this January, and look at their competitiveness. Koch has been the XFINITY underdog that pops into the top 10 whenever you forget about him – and now he’s contending for a championship. His consistent top 15s and handful of top 10s makes one wonder if he can pull off strong enough finishes to stay in contention. The team’s technical alliance with Richard Childress Racing gives him a decent shot, and this is where crazy things – like a small team making it to the final round – happen. It will take some crazy form of synergy to trigger it, but never say never, right?

Will Hendrick gain even more momentum? Guess who finally flexed his muscle at New Hampshire? Six-time Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, that’s who. The Hendrick Motorsports driver finished eighth last Sunday, finally showing his Superman suit once again. HMS was quiet most of the season after his early victory – even when rookie teammate Chase Elliott also made the playoffs. Now, the whole organization has come alive, with Kasey Kahne finding the top 10 and Alex Bowman flourishing in his replacement role. The organization is shining at Chase time – just like they’ve done every year since it began. HMS didn’t create the concept of sandbagging, but they’ve perfected it. Despite the varying opinions on this strategy, it definitely works best for their team. You can expect all four cars to keep rising to the challenge – but Johnson and Elliott will be leading their group, of course.

Is complaining the best medicine? It’s Kevin Harvick’s Chase, and he can cry if he wants to. After his critiques of his team and performance, Harvick captured the victory at NHMS, securing a move to the second Chase round. This beats last year’s scenario, when he had to win at Dover to make it – and actually did so. That sort of pressure is off – but another type keeps his crew going. With a driver like Harvick, the No. 4 team has difficulty pleasing him. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. If the 2014 Sprint Cup champion was OK with disappointing pit stops and decent runs, I would question his commitment and passion. Harvick doesn’t enjoy losing – like the other 39 drivers out there. However, he takes it even further by demanding perfection. Is this a bad thing? It can be, especially when you only have so many crew members at your disposal. If Harvick vents his frustrations, it relieves any built-up pressure – even if he does it to the media chasing him through the garage. It seems to work for the former champion, and there is nothing wrong with using a solid strategy. As long as the team understands and responds, and doesn’t let it get to their heads.


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