Friday, July 21, 2017

Silly Season picks up speed: Five Questions for Indianapolis

Alex Bowman and Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Texas Motor Speedway, November 2016
credit: Lisa Janine Cloud for Skirts and Scuffs

by Lisa Janine Cloud

Kristen Schneider is on the road this week, so she graciously consented to allow me to step in and ask five questions that are burning a hole in my brain. Thanks, Kristen, I hope you had fun at Eldora!

Speaking of Eldora, congratulations to Matt Crafton, who piloted the No. 88 Menard’s Toyota Tundra to a Stage 1 win and then his first Eldora Dirt Derby victory. Moonlighting in dirt late models the last few years finally paid off with that coveted Golden Shovel trophy Wednesday night.

The No. 88 was in the news for another reason today as a major domino fell in the maze that’s this year’s Silly Season. Hendrick Motorsports revealed that Alex “The Showman” Bowman will replace Dale Earnhardt Jr. behind the wheel of the No. 88 Nationwide/Axalta Chevy in 2018, to the delight of Bowman’s growing cadre of fans. The move isn’t a huge surprise given Junior’s endorsement of the young driver, but until the announcement was official, speculation ran wild about who would get that call.

That speculation leads us to the actual questions for this week.

Where will Matt Kenseth land when the Silly Season music stops? With the No. 88’s seat filled, Kenseth’s down one option for 2018. He could still land in an HMS ride if Mr. H. buys out the final year of Kasey Kahne’s  contract. Perhaps he’ll fit in with the other champions at Stewart-Haas Racing, if Danica Patrick hangs up her helmet. Furniture Row is a possibility as well, but at this point it’s all just speculation.

Can Bowman build better chemistry with crew chief Greg Ives than Junior had with Ives? 
Let’s be real here. Regardless of what Junior said out of the car about his relationship with Ives, if you’ve listened to the 88 scanner during a race, you know that the two just never gelled. At first soft-spoken Ives seemed, to this listener at least, to be intimidated by Earnhardt Jr. He didn’t instinctively know what to stay to calm his driver the way Steve Letarte did. When Bowman drove the No. 88 last season during Junior’s absence, he and Ives seemed to communicate well. Those were special circumstances, though, so it remains to be seen whether Bowman and Ives click long-term.

Will restrictor plates and aero ducts make the Xfinity race at the Brickyard watchable?
Per NASCAR, the Xfinity cars package for Indianapolis Motor Speedway features a ⅞ inch restrictor plate like the ones used at Daytona and Talladega, aero ducts on the lower front bumper area, and a taller spoiler-splitter combination. Seems rather complicated to me, and I’m not sure how restrictor plates will affect racing the corners of a flat track designed for open-wheel cars -- but at this point, it can’t get much worse, can it? The chances of NASCAR stock cars racing at Lucas Oil Raceway again are essentially nonexistent, so why not give plate racing a chance?

Can Kyle Busch break his winless streak and put his name in the history books at Indianapolis Motor Speedway? The No. 18 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing will feature the Skittles livery this weekend, as Busch attempts to put his team in the history books as the first to win three consecutive Brickyard 400s. Jimmie Johnson leads active drivers with four Ws, two back-to-back. Jeff Gordon leads all drivers with five wins spread across 20 years, 1994 - 2014. But no driver in ANY regular touring series has ever won three races in a row at the hallowed Brickyard: not AJ Foyt, not Rick Mears, not Helio Castroneves. Only Mark Martin in the IROC Series won three consecutive times at Indy. With JGR on the rise again, as evidenced by Denny Hamlin taking the checkers at Loudon, perhaps Rowdy will be trying to get Brexton to kiss the bricks on Sunday.

Will another first-time winner complicate the playoff picture? Whether it’s a first-time-this-season winner or another first-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup winner, a different face in Victory Lane this weekend will stretch everyone’s nerves almost to breaking. Drivers such as Kyle Busch and Kenseth were expected to take a trophy or two this season, but haven’t yet done so. Joey Logano has a win, but it’s encumbered and doesn’t really count for anything. Junior’s had some flashes of potential, but nothing that would signal a win is imminent. Meanwhile, Chase Elliott, Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez lurk near the front week in and week out. It’s not a matter of if they’ll win, but when. Where better to get that first trophy than the prestigious Brickyard?

Tune in to NBCSN on Saturday, Jul 22 at 3:30 PM E.T. for the Xfinity Series Lilly Diabetes 250 and on Sunday at 3:30 PM E.T. for the Brantley Gilbert Big Machine Brickyard 400.



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