CRANDALL: Cup takes a break, so Iowa goes crazy

Image by LaBounty/LAT

CRANDALL: Cup takes a break, so Iowa goes crazy

Insights & Analysis

CRANDALL: Cup takes a break, so Iowa goes crazy

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With the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series having the weekend off, it seemed highly unlikely anything to come out of the Xfinity and Truck Series event at Iowa Speedway would be that attention-grabbing. But a week’s worth of headlines and thoughts have emerged.

Ross Chastain and his Niece Motorsports team became the first ones stripped of a win under NASCAR’s new penalty system. Coming into the year, officials rolled out a new policy that included inspection taking place after the race’s conclusion, with the race-winning team losing the victory and its benefits if the vehicle failed inspection.

Chastain dominated Sunday afternoon for both stage wins and what would have been his second career victory in the Truck Series – until the front of the No. 44 Chevrolet was found to be “extremely low”, per NASCAR officials. So, until the team’s appeal is heard at 9 a.m. Wednesday and a final decision is made, Chastain gets last place points and is still in the basement when it comes to fighting for the playoffs. Just recently he declared for truck points and needs to get in the top 20 in points and win a race to be eligible for the postseason.

Naturally, the team is claiming damage led to the truck being outside the rules. Truth or lies, it’s an unfortunate twist. Chastain has a grown a nice following given all that’s happened to him in the last year, from going toe-to-toe with Kevin Harvick, to winning a Xfinity Series race with Ganassi, then getting and losing a full-time Ganassi ride, and now the #MelonManChallenge of getting in the truck playoffs.

Up and down. Good and bad. At this point, Chastain must be used to waiting for the other shoe to drop.

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As Chastain was celebrating – for the time being – Johnny Sauter and Austin Hill were having a conversation in the NASCAR hauler. The two had issues in the previous race at Texas when Hill got loose underneath Sauter and knocked the No. 13 into the wall. In Iowa, it was Sauter sending Hill for a ride up the track before Hill came back and spun Sauter a few laps later. Sauter then wrecked Hill under caution.

Sauter was parked for the rest of the afternoon, and deserves whatever else NASCAR gives him.

Iowa was not Sauter’s finest moment. Image by LaBounty/LAT

Don’t start with the “boys, have at it” talk. Drivers should not be going at it under caution when other drivers may be letting their guard down, and safety vehicles are entering the racetrack. Settle the dispute face-to-face and stop using the truck, which a driver doesn’t have to fix, as a weapon. Sauter has every right to be mad, but the way he handled it wasn’t right and just because he’s one of the most entertaining drivers in the sport doesn’t mean he gets a free pass to do whatever he wants.

Regardless, whatever NASCAR ends up ruling will bring a new set of talking points because penalties for previous on-track incidents have been all over the board.

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Do you know who does have the right to do what he wants? Kyle Busch. The owner of Kyle Busch Motorsports has every right to call out his drivers publicly, and those drivers should be running better and winning in Kyle Busch Motorsports equipment.

Busch caught everyone’s ear a few weeks ago in saying Harrison Burton, who has 25 career starts, and Todd Gilliland, who has 35 career starts, “ain’t done (expletive).” The equipment isn’t a problem, as KBM has the best trucks in the field. The resources aren’t an issue with Toyota support. Between Busch and all the experienced personnel employed there, every driver who comes through the shop door has an excellent brain to pick.

So where’s the breakdown? Busch wins in his trucks and so can Greg Biffle, who did so in Texas in his first start in the series since 2004. And while playing the experience card is tempting, there have been other young drivers to come through the KBM system who have won races and competed for championships: Darrell Wallace Jr., William Byron, Erik Jones, and Christopher Bell to name a few.

Is the clock ticking on Todd Gilliland? Image by Baker/LAT

It is not outrageous for Busch or anyone else to expect results from Burton, Gilliland, or whoever may get a shot in one of the other trucks. For most of Sunday, Burton and Gilliland were also being shown up by a driver making his first career start with KBM, Chandler Smith. Smith started from the pole due to a rainout and then led 55 laps and twice came from the back into the top 10.

In one race, Smith led more laps than Burton and Gilliland have led all year – and combined! Burton didn’t lead a lap at Iowa and finished third, Smith was eighth, and Gilliland, who also didn’t lead, was 10th.

Burton has an average finish of 10.5 this season with six top-10 finishes in 10 races. Gilliland has an average finish of 12.6 with five top-10 finishes.

Welcome to the big leagues, kids. There are no participation trophies here. Perform or be called out by your boss and probably fighting for your job.

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The above conversation also applies in the Xfinity Series for Brandon Jones. The driver of the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota hasn’t done squat with an organization that puts championship-caliber equipment on track, or even when Jones drove for Richard Childress Racing in 2016-17.

The lack of performance stands out even more this season because Jones has zero wins and an average finish of 15.6 while teammate Christopher Bell, who contended for the title last season, continues to rack up victories and laps led. Jones has led 224 laps since joining JGR. Bell has 11 wins and 1,519 in the same number of races.

Then you have Harrison Burton making his second career start in Iowa and finishing fourth. Burton was 10th in his debut back at Bristol. Both times Burton finished ahead of Jones.

Jones has 118 starts in the series with no wins, two poles, 41 top-10 finishes, and 287 laps led. He has finished 10th, 16th, and ninth in the points.

Again, it’s not a reach to be expecting more from someone driving a very capable car.

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The usual influx of Cup Series drivers in NXS races can take away from the natural development of a true championship battle. Not this year. To borrow a phrase used routinely last season in Cup, there is now a “Big 3” in the Xfinity Series.

Xfinity full-timers like Bell and Reddick are more than capable of creating headlines. Image by Jarrett/LAT

Tyler Reddick, Christopher Bell, and Cole Custer aren’t just sitting at the top of the point standings, they are at the top of the running order every week. All three have multiple wins and between the three they’ve led 1,624 laps this season. The average finishes read 4.7 (Reddick), 9.1 (Bell), and 10.2 (Custer).

These three are likely to be whom the field is chasing as the playoffs approach and then begin. Then comes the fun part of seeing if any driver, like Joey Logano did last year in Cup, can be the foil. No matter how it plays out though, the sport is better served when it has Xfinity Series regulars who are actually performing and not a forced story because Cup Series drivers can’t compete for the championship.

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Last but not least is a conversation that always pops up when NASCAR visits Iowa: When does the track get a Cup Series date?

Please, make it stop.

Iowa would probably be a great host, but why does it need to be? Just because Xfinity and Trucks are doing it? Then it’s no longer unique. Like wanting to add more dirt races because Eldora is always a hit when the trucks head to Ohio.

Nine out of 10 times both Xfinity and Trucks put on a great show in Iowa. But pump the brakes because that doesn’t mean the Cup Series would do the same thing. Yes, the schedule needs some new venues with the emphasis being on new. A good look should be given to racetracks around the country, and even in Canada, before settling on one the sport already has.

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