The Biggest NASCAR Storylines Ahead of the Sprint Cup Series in Pocono II
Even before the smoke dissipated from Jeff Gordon’s celebratory donuts at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sunday, the other 42 teams of the Sprint Cup Series had turned their attention to the coming weekend’s return to Pennsylvania’s "Tricky Triangle"—Pocono Raceway.
The GoBowling.com 400 marks the return to the race track where they raced as recently as June. With a notebook full of information from that race, the second Pocono race is often far more competitive than the first.
But, before practice begins on Friday, there are several storylines demanding attention in NASCAR.
Team Penske’s Indy disappointment, the re-emergence of the Joe Gibbs Racing teams in the Brickyard 400 and Jack Roush’s Sunday-morning carnival show are some of the storylines we’ll be following this week.
First, up, however—Dominance, thy name is Hendrick.
Hendrick Horespower Dominates Brickyard 400
How is this for statistics:
- All four Hendrick Motorsports drivers finished in the top 15 in Sunday’s Brickyard 400—Jeff Gordon (first); Kasey Kahne (sixth); Dale Earnhardt Jr. (ninth); and Jimmie Johnson (14th).
- Kahne led the most laps (70) and, as we know, he was on his way to his first Brickyard 400 victory, until the final restart.
- Race winner Gordon led 40 laps. Hendrick powered cars led a total of 127 of 160 laps. That’s mighty impressive.
Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet engines powered five of the top 10 finishers in the 2014 Brickyard 400. If you look at the top 20, it was eight. Nearly half of the current field of 16 qualified for the Chase are powered by Hendrick motors.
Horsepower means speed. Speed wins races. Winning races means championships.
With six races remaining in the regular season, and despite the way that the Roush Yates Ford motors have powered Team Penske’s Ford Fusions to five wins, it’s a pretty safe bet to say that the 2014 Sprint Cup champion will be powered by a Hendrick Chevrolet engine.
Team Penske Disappoints
Going into Sunday’s Brickyard 400, Team Penske was optimistic that between the red-hot Brad Keselowski and his equally strong teammate, Joey Logano, a victory was within its reach.
Between its two cars, Team Penske led a total of 10 laps. Logano finished fifth; Keselowski was 12th.
“We fought through a lot of adversity today. I don’t know, I think if the race would have played out a little better we probably could have ran second or third,” said Keselowski in a post-race interview. “I’m not sure we really had anything for the 5 or the 24, but it’s hard to say. We were right there otherwise and have a lot to be proud of.”
It was a fitting postmortem for a frustrating day. It appeared as though the Team Penske Fords suffered with same thing the rest of the Fords in the field dealt with—a lack of horsepower.
Logano’s success may be attributed to his driving style and how he likes his car to be set up. He was able to show his strength when he needed to. However, as Keselowski pointed out, the Hendrick cars were just plain superior to the rest.
Keselowski should be optimistic about the coming week. He had a second-place finish at Pocono in June, and he did sweep both races at New Hampshire. Logano on the other hand blew up an engine at Pocono. His strong run at Indy means he could end up being a wild card for Sunday’s race.
Are the Gibbs Cars Back to Stay?
Among the biggest disappointments of the 2014 season has been the inconsistency shown by the three Joe Gibbs Racing teams. Granted, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin have won races. But, last year’s runner-up to the title and winner of seven Cup races in 2013, Matt Kenseth, remains winless this year and is still hoping to qualify for the Chase on points.
On Sunday, all three JGR Toyotas ended up in the top 10, finishing two-three-four (Busch, Hamlin and Kenseth, respectively) behind race winner Gordon.
After the race, Busch acknowledged that while he was the best JGR car, he had nothing for the race winner.
“There was no catching the 24 (Jeff Gordon),” said Busch in a post-race interview. “I mean, the 24 was in a league of his own. He was able to make passes and the guys that could make passes like that have the best cars here. There was no doubt that he should have been the winner.”
Toyota’s engines have, in the past, shown that they can be as competitive as any others on the big tracks such as Daytona, Talladega or Indianapolis, and the JGR trio has shown that this season.
Hamlin is always competitive at Pocono. He finished fourth in June. However, the next two races on the schedule, Pocono and Watkins Glen, may not be true barometers of whether or not JGR has moved its program forward either in the engine department or in the building of cars that are more responsive to adjustments. Michigan in mid-August and Atlanta on Labor Day weekend are much better indicators.
By then, it will be sink or swim for Kenseth, who really needs a win to secure his seat at the table come postseason action.
The Clock Is Running Out on Making the Chase
Time and races are running out for teams that hope to make it into the Chase this season by winning a race or two. Only six races remain before the first round of the Chase at Chicagoland Speedway on September 14.
The two gents sitting and chatting in the photograph (above) are two drivers who need a win to lock them in.
Roush Fenway Racing driver Greg Biffle, who has made the Chase six times before (the last was in 2013), sits 17th in points and is winless. That's not a good position to be in. Clint Bowyer has made the Chase five times (the last was also in 2013). Bowyer sits 10th in points, and if the season ended today, he would make the Chase on points. Yet a win would make things a lot more comfortable.
Brian Vickers (18th), Tony Stewart (19th) and Jamie McMurray (21st) are all on the outside looking in.
In the past, Stewart would shine when the summer months arrived, preferring to race on a hot slick race track. He continues to recover from a serious injury and will likely not make the Chase this year. Vickers and McMurray unfortunately face race tracks between now and Richmond (the final race of the regular season) that have not been friendly to them in the past.
Worth watching is the battle between Rookie of the Year candidates Kyle Larson (13th in points) and Austin Dillon (14th). Both could end up making the Chase field on points, but they face the threat of being displaced from the field by a new race winner.
The new format for Chase qualifying, introduced this season, makes the next six races critical for a dozen or so drivers and offers a true delight to watch for fans.
Timing of Roush Fenway Announcement Comes Under Question
Exactly what was the motivation behind team owner Jack Roush making an announcement about his racing organization’s 2015 lineup on the morning of one of the season’s most important races?
Major media outlets covered the announcement, but some questioned its timing.
Some might want to write it off as a huge mistake made by an inexperienced public-relations staffer who thought it could be a good idea to make the announcement while there was a large contingent of the sport's media present.
While we’d like to give the RFR public-relations staff the benefit of the doubt on this one, it is hard to dismiss the awkward timing. Was there no one on staff who suggested that the timing of the announcement might cause a bigger stir than its actual purpose?
Or was there a more disturbing reason for its timing? Could it have come on the heels of Carl Edwards making it official to team owner Roush days earlier that the ink was indeed dry on a contract for Edwards to race for another team? And that in his anger, Roush hastily ordered an impromptu presser to announce that Edwards would not return?
Whatever the reason, the announcement from RFR that its lineup for 2015 was going to be veteran Greg Biffle, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Trevor Bayne hardly seems newsworthy. News of the 2015 lineup was, for the most part, a foregone conclusion given the previous announcement of Bayne driving the No. 6 car for RFR in 2015 , Stenhouse having a contract and Biffle repeatedly expressing his wishes to remain at RFR.
With its racing teams unable to shoot straight, its public-relations department showing its naivete and no new major sponsorships for 2015, the wheels appear to have come off the Roush Fenway Racing train.
It's time for its namesake to take charge and make the necessary repairs or the future of this organization is bleak indeed.
Stewart-Haas Racing Steady as She Goes
Times are good for team owner Tony Stewart and Stewart-Haas Racing.
Two of his drivers, Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch, appear headed to postseason play. Stewart himself remains in contention for the Chase until the checkered flag falls at Richmond, hopefully as he crosses the finish line first.
Even Danica Patrick, once regarded as being forever a mid-pack driver, or even worse, a glorified start-and-parker, has stepped up her game on the all-important 1.5-mile tracks. And while it’s not yet time to predict a Patrick win on one of those circuits, SHR teammate Harvick’s coaching has apparently paid off.
Her qualifying efforts on all tracks has improved and a prediction of a win on a restrictor-plate track, where Patrick has looked the most competitive up until now, doesn’t sound too far-fetched.
Unfortunately for Busch, whose successful reinvention of himself has brought him scores of new fans and a new admiration from both fans and media alike since his attempt at “The Double” in May, things are not so bright.
Since his win at Martinsville way back in March, Busch has had only two top-10 finishes, both on big tracks (Pocono and Daytona—third place at both). Five DNFs, mostly earlier in the season, have hurt his points standings, and the 2004 champion sits 25th in points. If not for the win…well, this could be the making of a classic, forgettable NASCAR season—nevermind his triumph at Indy in May.
Two drivers in the Chase is better than none. Three would be even better, but Stewart might be just as content to sit it out this year while he continues to heal. Dealing with the stress of those final 10 weeks will be a lot easier without worrying about having to go rounds in the Chase.
Race Team Alliance Isn't Going Anywhere Anytime Soon
NASCAR Chairman Brian France believes that doing business with the newly formed Race Team Alliance (RTA) isn’t the right thing to do, since talking to one voice that represents many “isn’t the way it's been done in the past.”
Apparently France, in his haste to dismiss the potential power of the RTA, wants others to forget that the alliance, while speaking as one, represents input by many different voices in the sport—voices of some very smart and, more importantly, very powerful people.
Jeff Gluck with USA Today points out that NASCAR’s most influential team owners don’t agree with France’s view of how things should be done.
It’s been suggested that the team owners are eyeing a bigger slice of the $8.2 billion television-revenue package that begins next season to help offset continually rising costs. Shrinking sponsorship dollars are no longer covering those costs, including such basic expenses as travel and transportation for teams that are constantly on the rise.
France has made it clear that he will continue to keep an open dialog with individual team owners on all subjects. However, it will be interesting to see what will happen when the RTA approaches NASCAR with an idea that obviously will save money all around. Will NASCAR accept a suggestion from a group it has yet to legitimatize, or will it bite off its nose to spite its face?
Elliott Heats Up Nationwide Championship Race
Second-generation driver Chase Elliott continues to impress, as the Nationwide Series enters the second half of the 2014 season.
Elliott, who drives for JR Motorsports, which is owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr., is the son of future NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott. The younger Elliott has shown the poise and patience of a driver much older, this due to his father's tutelage.
His car owner told Mike Vega with The Boston Globe, “He has real potential to be one of the biggest stars of the sport one day.”
Elliott currently leads the points over an exceptional field of Nationwide Series championship contenders, several of whom are former Sprint Cup regulars. Among the top five in points is Regan Smith, Elliott Sadler and Brian Scott. Both Smith and Sadler have been to the big show while Daytona 500 winner (currently sixth in points) Trevor Bayne is scheduled to return full time next season with Roush Fenway.
Lately, NNS races have been dominated by Kyle Busch who frequently competes in the NNS due to sponsor commitments. But as the younger Elliott matures, he poses a real threat to win every week, even beating the occasional Cup drivers racing in the NNS. It makes watching the undercard race, which this weekend is in Iowa, a more entertaining proposition.
Bob Margolis has covered NASCAR, IndyCar, the NHRA and Sports Cars for more than two decades as a writer, television producer and on-air talent. All quotes are taken from official NASCAR, team and manufacturer media releases unless otherwise stated. Additional information obtained from official media guides and/or other official sources.
Follow Bob on Twitter: @BobMargolis