Friday, October 28, 2016

All or Nothing: Five Questions for Martinsville


Credit: Jeff Zelevansky/NASCAR via Getty Images  





by Kristen Schneider
 
NASCAR is going from the sport’s largest track to the smallest, but the intensity is anything but shrinking.

Talladega Superspeedway wasn’t the chaotic show many expected. There was a sigh of relief from teams who were spared from the wrecks that did occur. This weekend will test if they can make it through another dance with disaster. Martinsville Speedway is tiny but fierce, and crazy things can happen at this paperclip-shaped venue.

So many questions are hanging over this weekend as the Sprint Cup and Truck Series run at Martinsville. I attempt to tackle a few in this week’s edition of Five Questions, so read on – if you dare.

Will the elder NCWTS statesmen wake up? If you’re a fan of the Truck Series veterans, you probably aren’t a fan of the current Chase Grid; Timothy Peters, Matt Crafton and Johnny Sauter are near the bottom after the reset. Of course, this means youngsters William Byron and Christopher Bell are at the top of the heap. This is a bit strange, because experience usually overrules youth, but that isn’t the case today. Can Martinsville be the place for the older group to step it up? Yes, and it’s going to be tough to deny them. With five wins among the three of them, the odds are in their favor. They're all strong this season – and anything can happen at a short track.

Where did Kennedy come from? One name not previously mentioned is Ben Kennedy – and that pretty much sums up his Chase performance. He is in this round, and his performances are solid and consistent, yet quiet. He scored his first career victory at Bristol Motor Speedway, and he collected four top fives and nine top 10s. Did you not notice that? Well, neither did I, and that’s his M.O. this season; he's a silent, yet serious, threat. His average Chase finish is 11.5, which is decent considering how others are doing. That's in line with his 11th-place finish in Martinsville’s spring race. He also finished fourth at Texas Motor Speedway earlier this season. A win is feasible within the next two races, and that would put him in the final four – something many probably didn’t consider when filling our Chase Grids. Fast and consistent wins the championship, right?

Which eliminated drivers can redeem themselves at The Paperclip? Between the two series, six drivers failed to advance to the next round of their respective Chases. Now they all have the same goal – to go out and kick more butt by winning. Martinsville may be the perfect place to do that, as short tracks  provide both chaos and opportunities. Who will play spoiler? In Trucks, put your money on John Hunter Nemechek. He’s won at The Paperclip before, and he's as aggressive as they come. The kid wants to catch a break – and catch some owners’ eyes in the process. On the Cup side, Brad Keselowski is one to watch. After winning four races during the regular season, the 2012 Sprint Cup Series champ fell out of the top eight after two difficult weekends in a row. His teammate, Joey Logano, is still in the Chase and was strong in last year’s October race. Keselowski has never been the type to lay low, so he won’t end the season silently. Although the hype surrounding the Chase is quite deafening, there are others waiting to strike by claiming the checkers.

Did Joe Gibbs Racing drivers break the 100-percent rule? There is a lot of controversy surrounding the race at Talladega Superspeedway – and it doesn’t involve excessive carnage. In fact, it's about the exact opposite. JGR drivers Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth rode around in the back of the field and collected top-30 finishes, advancing to the next round of the Chase. This angered some people, who claimed their strategy broke the 100-percent effort rule. Others weren’t as offended and chalked it up to smart racing. The latter are right. Why? Because times have changed, and this isn’t the era of “all or nothing.” With the Chase and rising cost of racecars, the desire to play it safe and advance is more prominent than the urge to win a race trophy. That trio had the right mindset. Why would they risk it all and possibly be eliminated if they managed to skate by on a worse finish? Their other teammate, Denny Hamlin, had to run up front to secure a transfer spot – and he accomplished that alone. Although they weren’t “good teammates,” the three of them had a good strategy. People are just mad it actually worked.

Is NASCAR’s latest rule the answer to our prayers? Early Wednesday morning, the industry received word of a major change. Sprint Cup regulars with five or more years of NSCS experience will be limited to 10 NASCAR Xfinity Series and seven NCWTS events. The rule, which will take effect next season, is an attempt to remedy the fans’ anger toward Kyle Busch, Hamlin and others who seem to be hogging the lower series wins. As you can gauge by fan reactions, it’s a big freakin’ deal.

My thoughts? This is a move in the right direction. It proves that NASCAR is listening to the fans and wants to create an enjoyable event. Also, if Cup guys race in fewer events, there will be a broader variety of winners. Those are the positives. Now here’s the bad news. Sponsors won’t like this move, which will affect team funding and who gets the opportunity to drive for these organizations. This rule doesn’t touch on the dominance of Cup-affiliated organizations, either. There may also be an initial dip in interest due to some fans hating this idea and boycotting the series. Overall, the rule has potential to do great things for the Xfinity and Truck Series. If the level of competition can rise to the occasion, there will be nothing to fret about. At this point, it’s up to the remaining drivers to put on a show worth watching. 

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