Friday, May 12, 2017

Legitimacy: Five Questions for Kansas

 Credit: Jamie Squire/Getty Images    
By Kristen Schneider

Kansas Speedway may not have restrictor plates and dogs in victory lane, but that doesn’t make it less (or more!) of a track compared to its fellow venues.

Each track has an element that makes it unique, whether it be the configuration or some other factor not actually related to the surface. Some tracks are more different than the rest; we visited one last week.

All that aside, a win at Kansas is special. This weekend has a lot of factors, from tires to missing crew chiefs. And hey, the Truck Series is back! As we look forward to what they and the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series drivers have to offer, here are some questions to keep in mind.

Did you forget about the Trucks Series? It’s been way too long since we’ve witnessed the glory that is the Camping World Truck Series. Their last race was over a month ago, and Cup regular Chase Elliott took home a grandfather clock. Chatter on my timeline suggested surprise when the Trucks hit the Kansas asphalt for practice; they completely forgot about the series in general. Now, that can lead into a different discussion, but let’s recap where the series stands at the moment. Johnny Sauter, who finished second at Martinsville Speedway so long ago, sits atop the point standings. He holds three playoff points. Kaz Grala claims victory at Dayton International Speedway but is fifth in the overall standings. Christopher Bell won at Atlanta Motor Speedway and is only four points behind Sauter. Congratulations, you’re now up to speed on the entire 2017 Camping World Truck Series season.

Wear, oh wear, did these tires come from? Both series have brand new tire pairings this weekend, which can either be good or bad in the sense that we don’t know how they’ll play out. In Cup, left sides were used at Charlotte last October and feature more grip. The right sides have two types of tread, endurance and traction – which means less wear, more grip. From a fan perspective, that makes things hard to predict; tire wear is associated with more cautions and, more importantly, strategic calls. On the Truck side, they’re more use to their left sides, which they ran at Kansas last May. The right sides are completely new, although they feature the same tread compound as the lefts. They were also changed to mimic the Cup tires, so we know what to expect – kinda.  

How will Team Penske do without their crew chiefs? How are things over at Team Penske? Er, not so swell. Two penalties will sideline Todd Gordon and Paul Wolfe this weekend at Kansas Speedway. That’s not a good look. But, it’s mostly about who’s behind the wheel, right? That’s probably up for debate. Let’s look at the stats for these Penske boys before we get worried. Former Cup champ Keselowski has one win, two top-fives, and seven top-10s in 14 starts. His victory came in 2011, and his finishes since then are wishy-washy at best; it difficult to predict how he’ll do. Last year’s May race resulted in 10th, while the No. 2 team brought home a 38th-place finish in the fall event. You can’t nail down their performance at that track. When you look at Logano’s numbers, there is an easily identifiable increase. In 15 starts, the driver of the No. 22 clinched two wins, six top-fives, and six top-10s. Logano accomplished those feats after he joined Penske in 2013. Last May’s visit ended with a 38th-place finish, but he redeemed himself in the fall by earning a third-place result. All in all, these two will manage well without their crew chiefs – ‘well’ in relative terms, I mean.

Where the heck is JGR? There is something weird happening in the sport right now, and it includes Joe Gibbs Racing – because they’re not really included. Here are some teams that won already in 2017: Chip Ganassi Racing, Richard Childress Racing, and Roush Fenway Racing. JGR isn’t on that list, and that is a bit concerning. They haven’t been in the conversation that much, either. I could spout off ideas of what’s wrong and how to fix them, but it all seems pointless. Remember the last time people thought this Toyota team was slipping? They ramped it up when it mattered. Whatever is wrong, they’ll fix it. Sometimes I wonder if we worry too much.

Does Busch’s side comment ring true? Speaking of JGR, I have a few things to say about one of their drivers. Kyle Busch almost won last Sunday. Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. executed the final laps better than Rowdy after contending all afternoon. He did start on the pole, remember? Well, it slipped Busch’s mind. In his post-race interview, he said, “We go to a real racetrack next week,” implying that Talladega Superspeedway is not a ‘real’ track. Whatever that means. While this is a typical post-race sound bite from Busch, that’s no excuse. As unpredictable as Talladega is, that characteristic doesn’t discredit the on-track results. They happened, and they matter. I’m tired of people saying restrictor plate racing isn’t real racing; it’s as legitimate as any other type, but it takes a bit more strategy and a willingness to throw it to the wind. Stenhouse’s situation is unusual – winning the pole, running up front and actually capturing the victory – but it’s still legit. Busch would agree if he ended up with a trophy. 

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