Friday, March 17, 2017

Backtrack: Five Questions for Phoenix

(Credit: Chris Trotman/Getty Images)
We finally have something exciting to talk about, don’t we?

No matter who you are and what opinions you hold, you were shocked Sunday when two former teammates caused a brouhaha on pit road. Martin Truex, Jr.’s win was cool and all, but it didn’t draw blood and get featured on Good Morning America. Sorry, Truex.

Will there be an encore at Phoenix International Raceway, and is NASCAR’s lack of response a good thing? There are still some unanswered questions hanging around from last weekend – like if NASCAR needs to make boxing gloves part of the uniform. I address those, along with some new inquiries, in this week’s Five Questions for Phoenix.

Swerving at Indy? Every week, a new rumor leaks out and causes a bit of chaos in the NASCAR world. This week’s news was that Indianapolis Motor Speedway is considering changing up the Brickyard 400 in a big way. IMS execs want to run future Brickyards on the track’s road course. This is up in the air and wouldn’t be for this season, but fans have a lot of feelings – and for the first time in a long time, a majority of them are positive. The NASCAR industry agrees that the Brickyard isn’t as thrilling as it used to be way, way back in the day. Maybe this is something that could shake it up. Obviously, this isn’t set in stone, but fan reaction could push the IMS group to one side or the other.

With no Cup veterans in the field, are NXS regulars set to flourish? Narrowing in on Phoenix brings a rush of joy. No Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series veterans will participate in the NASCAR Xfinity Series race on Saturday! This is fantastic news – and we all know why – but there’s a catch. Cup drivers who aren’t considered veterans are still racing. That means Austin Dillon, Ty Dillon, Daniel Suarez, Erik Jones, and Ryan Blaney are running the event. Sigh. Although the chance of an NXS regular winning is higher than normal, what are the odds of them outrunning Jones and Suarez in Joe Gibbs Racing equipment? All these drivers did their time in the second-highest series and earned their stripes. It’s time for them to get out of the way and let young drivers earn theirs. Yeah, yeah, it’s about what the sponsor wants and what the owners need, but it’s not exciting to sit down and know who’s going to win. It’s not exciting to watch two Cup guys (veterans or otherwise) duke it out for the victory. This stuff numbs fans’ emotions, making NXS not appealing. *shrugs* Oh well.

Will Harvick rebound at his strongest track? Despite having good runs, Kevin Harvick hasn’t had a good year thus far. He wrecked at Daytona International Speedway, then sped and finished ninth after dominating at Atlanta Motor Speedway, and his day at Las Vegas Motor Speedway ended with carnage. He can’t finish what he starts, it seems. If there was one place to springboard his 2017, this is the place to do it. In case you forgot how good Harvick is at Phoenix, here are his stats. In 28 starts, he holds eight wins, 13 top fives, and 17 top 10s. Six of those victories came in the last five years. The only thing holding me back is the engine. Yeah, last week I talked about Ford making a comeback – then Danica Patrick blew an engine, the first one of Stewart-Haas Racing’s inaugural Ford season. Those things are impossible to predict, you know. Either Harvick keeps the bad luck going and struggles at his easiest track, or he runs away with it.

Is payback imminent? It’s been a while since NASCAR had a real fight (sorry, Townley and Gallagher – your extreme hugging match doesn’t count), so the industry lit up with hot takes when former teammates Kyle Busch and Joey Logano got into it on pit road. In case you’re out of the loop, the two raced each other hard on the last lap, and Logano made a move the 2015 Cup Champion didn’t like. He went to his car after the race and swung at Sliced Bread. A NASCAR official held a scrappy Logano back as his crew took Busch down. The incident left Rowdy with a bloody forehead. Jeff Gluck caught the whole thing on video, and the fight went viral. Should we expect a part two? My gut says yes; Logano and Busch are aggressive and hold onto incidents. Tensions existed when they both raced at JGR, and it’s coming to a head. Will payback come this weekend? That’s when the doubt creeps in. I don’t think the driver of the No. 22 is eager for retaliation. He said the two talked it through (haha, OK), but it’s still early in the season for these two winless drivers. He’ll bide his time and strike back later. Heck, it might be next season before we see an on-track response. I don’t think this continues at Phoenix – but I don’t think it’s over, either.


Are no penalties a good thing? Off the track, the response from the NASCAR sanctioning body was … non-existent. They decided against handing down penalties to Busch and Logano. Of course, the response was split down the middle. Some people are thrilled because the sport and its tracks will ultimately use the fight for promotional opportunities. Others are mad missing lug nuts result in larger fines and punishments than physical altercations. They also worry about their children seeing the fights. I understand both sides, and I’m not sure where I fall on that spectrum. However, I can say with certainty this is setting a strong precedent early into the season. Very early. So early, in fact, that NASCAR might encounter a few issues down the road and will have to backtrack. Obviously, I wasn’t in the room when the big wigs discussed possible punishments, but I have to wonder if they thought about what this means in the long run. Not just later in the season – later in the decade. We always talk about the ‘Boys Have At It’ era and then the Chase era and then all these different spans of time. In actuality, those “eras” we reference with fondness never lasted long. NASCAR is constantly changing, making adjustments whenever they see fit. Some are small (like lug nuts), yet others are large (revamping the Chase format and subsequently axing the ‘Chase’ name). Not remaining stagnant is great; however, the frequency makes the sport and those in-charge look wishy-washy. When you’re trying to sell yourself in a job interview setting, for example, people ask, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” NASCAR needs to think about that question and ask if their decisions are pushing them in the direction of that vision. Solidify the goal, shift the focus.

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