The Biggest NASCAR Storylines Ahead of the Sprint Cup Series at Bristol II
Just when things in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series couldn’t get any hotter or controversial, here comes Bristol.
Known for fast and furious action both on and off the track, Bristol’s short-track race will cap a week filled with several stories worth watching.
Time is running out for several former Chase drivers. The Tony Stewart story continues to make news, while we'll discuss the worst kept secret in racing—Edwards to Gibbs and its impact. Jimmie Johnson is still not showing championship form, and is Jeff Gordon really the top seed for the Chase at the moment?
These stories and more will be on everyone’s radar this week, beginning with...
Stewart Saga Continues for the Third Weekend
As the investigation continues into the accident that claimed the life of racer Kevin Ward Jr., Stewart-Haas Racing continues to move forward.
Veteran driver Jeff Burton substituted for Tony Stewart in the No. 14 Chevrolet at Michigan International Speedway. Eventually there will have to be a permanent replacement named to give the team some continuity.
Debate rages on in the NASCAR community as to whether or not Stewart should just sit out the rest of this season or hang up his driving gloves altogether.
Longtime publisher of the Sports Business News Howard Bloom says that Stewart will need to make a decision about his future soon.
"(Here's what) Stewart should do: Return to racing immediately or announce that he’s going to miss the balance of the 2014 Sprint Cup season. If Stewart believes he can’t race, that’s his decision to make."
Both Burton and Stewart’s teammate Kevin Harvick felt compelled to weigh in on the story this week, with both drivers pointing fingers at the media for their coverage.
The media coverage notwithstanding, Stewart does need to make a decision soon. Stewart's fans have always been supportive, and their allegiance to the Hoosier has been steadfast. It might be best for him to sit out the rest of the season and re-evaluate his future once the options become clearer.
First Real Test of New NASCAR Rules
The Irwin Tools 500 will be the first real test of NASCAR’s new rules against drivers climbing out of their cars following a wreck.
It’s expected that everyone will abide by the new mandate, given the threat of harsh penalties and in light of the recent tragedy.
The last thing NASCAR needs is a photo going out on the wires of an angry driver who has just climbed out of his race car and is standing on the race track.
Now, fighting or arguing in the infield or on pit road, that is a different story. It's likely that we'll see some hot tempers as the countdown toward the start of the Chase is only three weekends away.
Clock Continues to Tick on the Regular Season; Three Weekends Left
Time is running out on the drivers sitting just outside of the Chase cutoff.
No one is feeling the pressure more than Hendrick Motorsports driver Kasey Kahne. Not only is he winless, while his three teammates have three wins apiece, but one has to question whether the chemistry is gone between Kahne and longtime crew chief Kenny Francis.
An interesting battle to watch going forward is the one between the two top contenders for the Sunoco Rookie of the Year award, Austin Dillon and Kyle Larson. Headed into Bristol, both are winless and outside the Chase cutoff. Dillon is 13th in points, while Larson is 14th. Neither driver counts Bristol among his best tracks.
Also in a difficult spot is Greg Biffle, who is winless and sits 11th in points. If the Chase started today, he would be the 16th seed. Biffle needs a strong showing at Bristol, which means he needs to win. His teammate Carl Edwards won there in March, so the Roush Fenway Racing cars do have the setup.
And speaking of Edwards...
Is Joe Gibbs Racing Ready to Take on the Chase?
Tuesday’s announcement that Carl Edwards would join Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) may have been another of the sport’s worst kept secrets, but it will have no impact on this organization’s current problem.
If the Chase started today, all three JGR drivers would make the field—with Kyle Busch seeded eighth; Denny Hamlin ninth and Matt Kenseth 13th. Busch and Hamlin have wins, while Kenseth is winless. All three drivers have had mediocre summers, and none has shown the kind of performance he'll need to be competitive in the Chase.
After the excitement of Tuesday's announcement is gone, the confetti is swept up and the champagne bottles have been thrown in the recycle bin, the sobering reality that this organization currently looks like it will fall flat on its face during the Chase.
Chase Teams Ramp Up for Toughest Postseason Ever
As some Cup drivers continue to have to fight to get into the Chase and others already in the field seem unprepared, the top-seeded drivers all appear to be locked and loaded for postseason play.
Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson and Joey Logano (seeded one to five, respectively) are charging toward the Chase with a full head of steam.
Even Johnson, whose top-10 finish (ninth) on Sunday at Michigan showed signs of his team turning around, is ready.
All five scored top-10 finishes at Michigan; Johnson, Logano and race winner Gordon combined to lead a total of 175 of the race’s 200 laps.
These top five account for 14 of the 23 points-race wins this season.
With the new Chase format this year, the final four drivers who emerge as the championship contenders in Homestead are likely to be bruised and bandaged, but it’s easy to see that the winner will have definitely earned the title.
Are Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 Team on the Rebound?
The No. 48 Lowe’s team had its best showing at Michigan since...its last showing at Michigan, when Johnson walked away with the winner’s trophy.
This has been a miserable summer for Chad Knaus and Company, with mechanical issues and tire woes plaguing nearly all of their outings in the month of July.
“The clock is ticking, and we’re running out of time,” Johnson said in a post-Michigan media release. “But we have fast race cars and they keep saying we show it during the race, but the results haven’t been there. This was a good recovery for today, but it’s certainly not we want to be.”
Johnson even showed a bit of his fighting side (or maybe it was frustration) on Sunday when he had a post-race "conversation" with Richard Childress Racing driver Ryan Newman. The RCR driver had been dogging him in the final laps of the race, yet Newman felt Johnson was at fault.
"Anybody who has watched this sport long enough or has been in a race car out there understands the frustration that comes along with racing Ryan," said Johnson after the race. "Just normal Ryan stuff."
This is a group with a reputation for stellar results when the weather turns cool. Johnson has said that nine of the 10 Chase tracks are his best tracks. The exception? Talladega, of course.
Make no mistake about it: This team will be ready when the green flag flies at Chicagoland in September.
Gordon Emerges as Chase Favorite
Leading 68 of 200 laps on Sunday, including the most important—the final one—veteran Jeff Gordon took on Team Penske driver Joey Logano and reminded the youngster that he still had what it took to drive deep into a Turn 1 at Michigan International Speedway.
Logano may have thought that his much older rival for the win would flinch on the critical final restart, which would require some fender-to-fender brawling before a race leader would emerge.
Gordon showed both his experience and his cojones in winning at Michigan. And he cast a subtle reminder to the rest of the Chase field that the fire that burns bright within the 43-year-old will burn them should they venture too close.
For the past several years, Gordon has yearned to put a fifth Sprint Cup on the mantle. What may have been missing was the complete package—a crew chief who can give him a comfortable and fast race car, a support team on race day that was nearly perfect and the right mental attitude that is needed to push him to the limit.
Gordon has all of that and more right now.
NASCAR Buzz Lights Up the Media
A. J. Allmendinger’s feel-good, Cinderella-story win at Watkins Glen followed by Jeff Gordon’s old versus new win at Michigan capped two tumultuous weeks for NASCAR and auto racing, which has unfortunately been cast in a negative light.
The old adage of “any news is good news” doesn’t apply here, as the story of Stewart’s tragic accident has dominated the coverage of NASCAR for much of the past two weeks.
The Stewart accident has put NASCAR Sprint Cup racing up on the radar of sports editors, television producers and others who had previously not given the sport a second glance. For some, the drama of the Chase has captured their attention, and we even see morning news shows like Morning Joe on MSNBC and Fox and Friends showing race highlights on Monday mornings—something they rarely, if ever, did previously.
Perhaps this new focus on NASCAR Sprint Cup racing will help to paint a more positive image for auto racing in general and turn the focus back on what promises to be the most competitive and dramatic Chase for the Championship in the sport’s history.
All quotes are taken from official NASCAR, team and manufacturer media releases unless otherwise stated.
Bob Margolis is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association and has covered NASCAR, IndyCar, the NHRA and Sports Cars for more than two decades as a writer, television producer and on-air talent.
On Twitter: @BobMargolis