Friday, June 22, 2018

Five Questions before Gateway and Sonoma

Credit: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images
by Lisa Janine Cloud

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series winds its way around the road course in the wine country of Sonoma, California, while the Camping World Truck Series returns to the Gateway Motorsports Park in St. Louis, Missouri. Okay, so the racetrack is really in Madison, Illinois, but that’s just a technicality. The 1.25-mile oval sits just about five miles east of the famous Gateway Arch, which rises 630 feet above the west bank of the Mississippi River in St. Louis, only a short distance from the home of Anheuser-Busch, aka the King of Beers.

Credit: Jeff Curry/NASCAR via Getty Images

West Coast vs. Midwest. Wine vs. beer. Road course vs. oval track. Race trucks vs. race cars. Saturday night under the lights vs. Sunday afternoon in the sunshine. NASCAR fans are set for what is truly a weekend of contrasts.  

Will age and treachery ... er, skill ... prevail over youth and vitality in the Truck race?
Last week at Iowa, only three drivers in the top 10 were over 30: Johnny Sauter (40), David Gilliland (42), and Stuart Friesen (34). Winner Brett Moffitt is 25 and defending race winner John Hunter Nemechek just turned 21 a couple of weeks ago. Yet the veteran, Sauter, holds the series lead in points, while Friesen and 33-year-old Grant Enfinger sit in fourth and fifth respectively. Sauter does have the most top-five finishes at Gateway, and Matt Crafton (42) has the most top 10s, but not since Kevin Harvick took the checkers in 2010 has a driver over 30 scored a win there. 

Who will the crowd at the "Villa Lighting delivers the Eaton 200 presented by CK Power" race at Gateway cheer for louder? 
Local driver Kevin Donahue of Chesterfield, Missouri, piloting the No. 63 Mittler Bros. Machine & Tool/Extreme Oil Chevy for local team Mittler Brothers Racing, or Jordan Anderson of Forest Acres, South Carolina, whose No. 3 Chevy carries local sponsorship from the Bommarito Auto Group alongside Lucas Oil? The Mittler Brothers have been in the Truck Series since 1995, while the Bommarito Auto Group put beaucoup sponsorship dollars into Anderson’s team and racing at Gateway in general. Regardless, the real winners are the fans who get to see some great racing at a track that is working hard to establish itself as a top-tier facility.

Will there be a new winner at Sonoma in the Toyota/Save-Mart 350?
Only six drivers have visited Victory Lane in 2018. Oddly enough, four of them are among the seven active drivers who have won at the track formerly known as Sears Point (Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., and Clint Bowyer). Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson, and Kasey Kahne have all taken home the wine-bottle trophy, too.
The only repeat winner among active drivers, Kyle Busch, will have his hands full with defending race winner Harvick, defending series champion Truex Jr., and most recent race winner, Bowyer. Who out of the rest of the field can keep up? We’ll see on Sunday.

Can Jimmie Johnson find his golden horseshoe? 
Or his mojo? Or even lead another lap? For a driver who has led between 9000-10,000 laps a season since his rookie year, it’s painful to look at the stats and see Seven-Time with the number “2” under laps led for the season. Matt DiBenedetto has led three times as many laps as Johnson so far in 2018! 
We’re 15 races in, and not only has Johnson not won, he’s only gotten within sniffing distance twice with top-five finishes at Bristol and Charlotte. However, the No. 48 team is heading in the right direction point-wise. Having started the year in 36th, Johnson and his guys sit 12th, so maybe being in his home state will bring him some luck.

At the risk of repeating myself, can youth win over experience on the twists and turns of the season’s first road course?
Young drivers such as Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney and Erik Jones have gotten a lot of publicity this season, but so far, the race winners have all been over 25. Joey Logano and Austin Dillon are both 28; Logano is the younger of the two by about a month, but he’s a 10-year veteran. Dillon is in his fifth full season like Larson is, but he’s three years older.

By comparison, Harvick has five wins in 2018 and appears to be in his prime at 42. Bowyer’s 39 and Truex is 38, each with 13 full seasons and two wins this year. A four-time winner so far in 2018, Kyle Busch is only 33 but has 14 full Cup seasons under his belt. 

What difference does all that make? 

To me, it seems like the hype around the hot young drivers has provided ample motivation for the more seasoned competitors to show everyone that to be the man, you have to beat the man.

Tune in at 8:30 p.m. ET Saturday on FS1, MRN and Sirius XM NASCAR Radio for the Camping World Truck Series and at 3 p.m. ET on FS1, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

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