Friday, April 28, 2017

All Good Things: Five Questions for Richmond

(Credit: Drew Hallowell/NASCAR via Getty Images)
By Kristen Schneider

The week we’ve anticipated finally came – and it’s produced more questions than answers.

After a thrilling weekend in Tennessee, NASCAR went from riding high to tumbling into the dreaded gray area again. This isn’t a negative thing (as I’ll discuss later), but it came at a shocking moment.

The timing – rather than the actual news – was the shocking part.

As we work to process Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s announcement, we also visit another racetrack this weekend. I talk about two drivers with potential, the state of the sport, and a son’s legacy in this week’s Five Questions.

Can Hemric build on his strong showing? If you thought Daniel Hemric’s rookie season would underwhelm, well, it sucks to be you. The newest Richard Childress Racing driver clinched a Dash 4 Cash prize at Bristol Motor Speedway this past weekend, and he finished fifth after battling up front all afternoon. This makes for one top-five and three top-10s through seven races, a decent start to an Xfinity career. It’s always hard to anticipate how a driver will do in a new series, but Hemric has taken to NXS very well. I want to see if he’ll ride the momentum into Richmond – a track he’s never encountered. However, the No. 2 team has a solid foundation to build upon. There’s a lot to look forward to for that group.

Is Bowyer close to a breakthrough? It’s been a rough few years for Clint Bowyer, so it's nice to see him do so well. The newest driver of the No. 14 for Stewart-Haas Racing is making steady progress in 2017; he’s already collected two top-fives and four top-10s, eclipsing last year’s stats. It’s no secret he’s waited for this season to come – and he won’t let it go to waste. With that momentum, Bowyer could capture his first victory since 2012 this weekend. At Richmond, he has two victories, four top-fives, and 12 top-10s in his 22 starts. He is adjusting to the equipment well, and he’s found a rhythm with the No. 14 crew. Don’t let Bowyer’s subpar performance in recent years overshadow his impressive stats.

Is NASCAR falling into a dark hole? After the news broke, the cries of “the sport is doomed!” almost drowned out the sobs of Junior fans. All I could do is roll my eyes and sigh. That’s the same response I gave when people instantly tweeted about Alex Bowman taking over the No. 88 next season. Some people won’t wait for the dust to settle to start jumping to new conclusions. I refuse to view these recent developments as a bad sign – not because it’s great news, but because of all the new possibilities. We all know I can rip into NASCAR and cut the crap, but this isn’t one of those times. I truly believe this is good for the sport. It pushes NASCAR off the ledge and forces them to fly or fall. We can’t cling to Earnhardt Jr. anymore and hope his star power will keep the series afloat. There are so many young, talented drivers in our sport today that deserve fanfare. Earnhardt even emphasized that in his press conference. This is nowhere near the end if the sport invests time and marketing into these young drivers; it can lead to a huge payoff.

Who’s the next driver to retire? This is a week where the thought process kicks into overdrive and you begin to question everything – like if your driver is the next one to call it quits. I’ll go out on a limb here and say no, your driver won’t call a surprise press conference a la Carl Edwards and step down tomorrow afternoon. However, it is time to start thinking about who is next – not because we want them to retire, but because we are genuinely curious and pensive. That said, remember when the rumor was that Matt Kenseth would announce his retirement? And then he announced a new sponsor? Well, people thought it was a “I’m out, bye!” moment because he’s been in the sport for a long time. One of the older drivers left, Kenseth is most likely the next one to go – but I don’t think it’s anytime soon. He’s still competitive, and that’s a huge factor in these drivers staying around. Also, the sport needs his dry humor during these turbulent times.


How will Earnhardt be remembered? This is the biggest news since a concussion sidelined Earnhardt last year. It’s a surreal feeling; we all knew this day would come – sooner rather than later, after the 2016 season’s happenings – but the fact that it’s now a reality is difficult to grasp. The sport’s biggest star (and that’s a title that can’t be negotiated) will leave at the end of the season, and it’s a tough pill to swallow. As crazy as it is, Earnhardt made the right decision. He thinks it’s time to leave the sport, and he’s giving fans forewarning so they can cherish his final season. That is respectable in every way. Despite not winning a Cup championship, Earnhardt secured his place in the NASCAR Hall of Fame long ago. His biggest victory came in the form of a change, one life forced him to undertake. Ever since February 2001, we’ve watched Earnhardt grow and find himself – with an entire sport resting on his shoulders. There were dark times that nearly consumed him – until he met Amy. Over the course of a few years, the driver of the No. 88 transformed into a man content with life and who he is and what he has accomplished. That is how I will remember Earnhardt – and that is why I thank him for giving so much to a sport that expected so much during the darkest days of his life. All good things must come to an end, and having Earnhardt was better than good; it was a fantastic honor. 

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