Friday, March 3, 2017

Prioritizing: Five Questions for Atlanta

(Credit: Matt Hazlett/Getty Images)
What a week it’s been in the racing world.

No, the crazy changes and announcements didn’t continue into the season. The 2017 season opening weekend threw everyone for a loop. Sheet metal dented and Daytona dreams ruined, it’s time for drivers – and the sport – to look ahead and put that all behind them.

I have a few questions lingering from that weekend and what it means in the long run. Let’s address the two surprise wins (and the one unsurprising victory), along with some other tiny details, in this week’s Five Questions.

Does Grala’s win spell success or trouble? Eighteen-year-old Kaz Grala captured his first NASCAR Camping World Trucks victory last weekend at Daytona International Speedway, with only 10 starts under his belt. He weathered the carnage-filled race and scored a win out of it. Sounds good, right? Well, others didn’t think it was so sweet. Twitter filled with comments of “That’s what happens when you have a lot of money,” and others with a similar tone. The reaction to Grala’s win was split between joy and disdain. This leads me to wonder if this rift will be glorified this season. Out of the three top series, Trucks rewards money and a steady flow of funding the most. With a majority of Truck teams not affiliated with Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series organizations and doing it on their own, it’s easy for someone with funding to get ahead. Something tells me this will be an on-going trend this season, with racers getting fed up with the divide.

Will a second Daytona win jumpstart Reed’s career? The carnage continued on Saturday, with the NASCAR Xfinity Series boys putting on a heck of a show. Roush Fenway Racing driver Ryan Reed won after starting on the front row, capturing his second win in his NXS career and at Daytona. He previously won at the restrictor plate track in 2015. The following season was his best to date, with seven top-10s under his belt. Now, 2017 is off to a pretty good start – can he keep that going? Probably not this weekend, that’s for sure. His average finish at Atlanta Motor Speedway is 16.3. That’s not bad, but it isn’t phenomenal, either. A lot of Daytona winners are one-hit wonders, but Reed’s hit the bullseye twice. That could be a sign of growth and increased ability – or it means he’s a really, really good restrictor plate guy. The win should give the No. 16 team a little momentum, but he still has a lot of growing to do.

Who didn’t wreck at Daytona? The weekend’s main attraction took place on Sunday and proceeded to tear up a lot of sheet metal. Kurt Busch led a small pack of cars to the checkered flag, with only 15 cars on the lead lap. Some Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series notables who remained in contention until the end are Busch (obviously), Chase Elliott, Kasey Kahne, Joey Logano, and Ryan Blaney. They survived the storm – which could be a good sign for the 2017 season. The names that stick out the most are Kahne and Blaney. The driver of the No. 5 needs a decent year; his time at Hendrick Motorsports has been everything but impressive, something that still makes people scratch their heads. His finish on Sunday is notable because it was his ninth top-10 finish. Out of 27 starts, that’s a decent-sized percentage. Atlanta is a good track for him as well, with three wins under his belt. Maybe he can ride that high into this weekend. Blaney’s hard charge at the end of the Daytona 500 reaffirmed the thought many people have whenever he’s on track – this kid is the real deal. If he can keep the No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford upfront, it’s safe to say it would surprise no one. Sometimes not wrecking at Daytona is luck, but other times, real racers grasp the opportunity.

Can Busch complete the comeback? No one was surprised when the elder Busch brother broke his restrictor plate drought with the biggest race of them all. Close many times, he failed to close the deal and solidify his status as a NASCAR notable – until now. As he danced in the multicolored, confetti rain, I thought about the rollercoaster Busch’s life has been over the past five to 10 years. He’s been at the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. From ripping up the Associated Press’s transcription to getting in a Sporting News writer’s face to being falsely accused of domestic violence, Busch has battled his emotions time and time again. His image and future suffered until he straightened up. Now, as this newly-married man basks in one of the greatest accomplishments a racer can ever achieve, it’s easy to see winning the Daytona 500 is the least impressive thing he’s done. If he can rise from the ashes as he’s already done, there’s nothing Kurt Busch can’t do. I look forward to watching him chase the championship trophy.

Is NASCAR satisfied with chaos? As we look forward to all Atlanta can offer, part of me fails to accept Daytona. Although it entertained and fulfilled its purpose of crowning a victor, it didn’t feel right. Every three or so laps would bring a caution and more carnage. Nothing about that seems right. It wasn’t the stage implementations themselves that caused the mess; rather, I think drivers overthought the effects of the stages and ended up driving over their heads. On the fan side, long-time watchers disliked it and said it was awful. However, it drew in the occasional viewer, even impressing two Buzzfeed writers enough to warrant an article. That definitely increased the number of eyeballs on the sport. Atlanta won’t present the same type of show, which I’m okay with – but is NASCAR? At this time, it seems like they’re prioritizing overall image before the racing product. There’s nothing “wrong” with that per se, but I’m curious to see if this continues and what the reaction is among NASCAR diehards. 

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