Friday, October 7, 2016

Home Again: Five Questions for Charlotte

Credit: Robert Laberge/NASCAR via Getty Images
by Kristen Schneider

The NASCAR Xfinity and Sprint Cup Series head back to the sport’s hub in Charlotte, N.C., to inch closer to the championship.

Charlotte Motor Speedway is an important stop on both schedules, so there's a lot of anticipation surrounding the mile-and-a-half track. Four Xfinity drivers will be out of the fight when the checkered flag falls. In Sprint Cup, all the drivers want to get the Round of 12 off to an impressive start – to counteract any mistakes that may follow.

There is a lot on the line this weekend, and I’m here to preview it with this edition of Five Questions.

Can Sieg hold onto his speed? The cutoff for round one of the Xfinity Series Chase is this weekend, and four drivers are looking for a way to stay alive. One of them is Ryan Sieg, driver for family-owned RSS Racing. Many assume the small organization will be one of the first teams cut, but Thursday afternoon added a twist to that theory. Sieg was fastest in first practice at Charlotte Motor Speedway, beating out Erik Jones and Ty Dillon. Talk about surprising! Although it’s a promising sign, one has to wonder if the No. 39 can keep it up on Friday night – and save himself. It’s a long shot, and with Charlotte being the cutoff race, every team in jeopardy is bringing their best stuff in an attempt to combat their previous mistakes. Sieg’s equipment can’t compare to that of Jones, Dillon, and Brandon Jones. Their teams are on a whole different level. However, the fact those three drivers are in danger of getting cut is quite remarkable – and that proves anything is possible. Sieg and his team have made noticeable gains this year, and it has been a successful season no matter what happens next. He wants to move on, and it’s possible if the chips fall the right way.

Is this hole too deep for Erik Jones? Meanwhile, pressure is mounting for a Joe Gibbs Racing driver. When the season began, nobody guessed that Jones would be in this position – but the No. 18 team’s missteps throughout 2016 made it clear the championship battle wouldn’t be easy. Jones’ inability to manage pit road led to this hole, and now he’s clawing to get out. Is it possible? Well, yeah. He has to run a perfect race and most likely win to make it to the next round. His equipment is top-notch, and he’s already won multiple times this season. Less than 10 points from the cutoff, he doesn’t have any more room for error and will likely drive that way – something he could have done all season long to avoid a situation like this. Nevertheless, it will be entertaining to watch Jones race his butt off.

How will Stewart complete his sign-off season? On the Sprint Cup Series side, their eliminations have come and gone. Chris Buescher, Jamie McMurray, Kyle Larson, and Tony Stewart failed to make the top 12. All four drivers had interesting stories while in the Chase, but Stewart’s is, of course, the most captivating. This is the three-time champion’s final season, yet he won’t capture another title to add to his résumé. That doesn’t affect his legacy in any negative way, though, and Stewart should focus on finishing strong – which is completely possible. The No. 14 team might be struggling, but two of their teammates are in the Chase. They will probably start sharing more notes to help end Stewart’s season on a high note. Also, Smoke won’t go down without a fight. He's disappointed with the Chase results, but he also mentioned his team is getting better every weekend. Don’t be surprised if Stewart pulls off another win to cap off his final season.

Who is most prepared to take on Truex? Ok, so Martin Truex, Jr. is on a roll. Two victories in three Chase races, not counting his dominant wins at Charlotte and Darlington Raceway earlier this year. Guess which car he’s driving this weekend? That’s right, his Coca-Cola 600 machine. Although he’s the favorite to win the title and this weekend’s trophy, it’s not set in stone just yet. Kevin Harvick is looking stout as well, claiming the Bank of America 500 pole. In addition to the No. 4, there is another contender lurking – Brad Keselowski. He caused a stir this week when he pointed out the lack of reward for leading the regular season points. This made me realize just how strong Keselowski has been this year, as it somehow got lost in the chaos of Truex’s rise and the JGR power. Team Penske is creeping out of the shadows, and Kez’s aggressive style will be rewarded as the battle goes on. At the moment, Truex is the title favorite, but Harvick and Keselowski are on his tail.

What should we expect Saturday night? This is the main question being asked, and that’s because it’s the one everyone wants to know. Unfortunately, it isn’t easy to answer. Regarding on-track action, mile-and-a-half layouts are hit or miss in 2016. This aero package works well on some cookie cutter tracks. On others, not so much. Also, night races aren’t doing so hot, either. The racing will be fast with less passing if it takes place Saturday night. However, there is a chance weather could push it to Sunday, making another doubleheader. That arrangement could produce better action if it happens. I’ve already discussed major players for the Cup event, but Alex Bowman is an underdog if I’ve ever seen one. The young driver starts second in the No. 88 and is making a strong case for any possible 2017 rides. The fact that this kid doesn’t have plans for next year is shocking. He’s done so well in this position and proven his talents. It’s a shame he hasn’t secured anything, but that could change soon. Another spoiler could be Kasey Kahne, who qualified 12th and has a strong track record at Charlotte. It’s going to come down to who has the fastest car over the course of the evening (or afternoon), so it will be thrilling to watch it unfold. 


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