CRANDALL: Taking stock of NASCAR's return

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CRANDALL: Taking stock of NASCAR's return

Insights & Analysis

CRANDALL: Taking stock of NASCAR's return

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NASCAR has run eight races since restarting its season a month ago, and things have been non-stop since the green flag dropped in the first race at Darlington Raceway. But given recent social events, penalties and suspensions, there have been just as many off-track headlines. Time to take stock.

  • The All-Star Race is moving to Bristol Motor Speedway this year, and it will be the first time the race will run on a short track. And what a perfect short track. Bristol has been putting on great racing the last few years, and the All-Star Race needs great racing. That has been missing at Charlotte Motor Speedway, with the last segment typically being 10 laps of the leader running away off the restart. I don’t expect that to be the case at Bristol. While this move was forced by NASCAR’s need to adapt to COVID-19, choosing to go to Bristol is what you’d call making the most out of a situation.
  • Speaking of Bristol, new dad Austin Dillon tweeted late Monday night that the choose cone might make an appearance in the All-Star Race. The choose cone would allow drivers to pick which lane they wanted to restart from. Certain tracks are more lane sensitive than others, and a choose cone is intended to eliminate the practice of drivers slowing down when coming off pit road to try and land in the lane they want. If the first 15 drivers all want the top, then the 16th driver in line can take his chances by lining up as the first driver on the inside. NASCAR has used the All-Star Race as its test for rules they’ve wanted to look at implementing in the past, and for a good reason. It’s a non-points event, so it doesn’t affect the integrity of the championship season. So, if the choose cone is next in line, let’s see what happens.
  • One last thought on the All-Star Race and trying things. NASCAR is going to allow teams, at their request, to adjust their paint schemes by placing the number to the far right on the door, next to the rear tire. Hopefully, this is a one-race experiment. A car number is a driver’s identity, and while giving sponsors more space along the side of the car is nice, moving and even changing its size ruins the character of said car and number everyone has come to recognize through the years. NASCAR has changed so much about its race cars over the years, and not all for the better. Nowadays, we have banners across windshields, fewer contingency decals than ever before, and even different color splitters, and spoilers for playoff drivers. The worst change has to be the addition of winner stickers – and the fact that drivers mention those stickers in interviews. A professional sports league handing out stickers to its winners and doing photo ops in victory lane. Oy.
  • With his third win of the season, and second since NASCAR returned from hiatus, Denny Hamlin now leads the series in playoff points. Hamlin is in his 15th year with Joe Gibbs Racing, and as has been well-documented, is still chasing that first championship. Yet he said after winning at Homestead that it’s not championship or bust: he takes more stock in putting together a great season than how things play out in a winner-takes-all finale. Hamlin had a great season last year with six wins, and he’s halfway there in 2020, only 12 races in. With 40 career wins and three Daytona 500s to his name, it’s starting to feel like even without a championship, he’s made his case for being one of the best in the Cup Series.

Championship or no championship, Hamlin is staking out a place among modern NASCAR royalty. Chris Graythen/Getty Images.

  • Where in the world has Matt Kenseth gone? Just as quickly as he arrived back in the Cup Series, he has disappeared. Kenseth finished 10th at Darlington Raceway in his first race with Chip Ganassi Racing, and in doing so, made all those who believed Kenseth and crew chief Chad Johnston could contend every week all the more confident. However in the last seven races, Kenseth has just two top-16 finishes and is 30th in the standings. This could be a case where not being able practice each weekend is hindering Kenseth and the team from adjusting on their car and improvement from race to race, and if so, that’s unfortunate and will make for a much more formidable task of becoming contenders. The team and driver are perfectly capable, but they haven’t been showing it.
  • The deeper the season goes without practice or qualifying, the more spoiled some of us get, and not just because it makes the weekend a simple matter of sitting down and watching a race. The drawn-out three-day weekend is not missed. The lack of practice, though, doesn’t seem to be severely impacting the racing, at least not in a negative way. Seeing which teams have their cars ready off the hauler and which ones need a few pit stops to get in the ballpark has added to the viewing experience. Martinsville was the perfect example, with some teams so far off the mark they struggled all night, while others who were a lap down at the end of the first stage used every lap to climb back into contention by the end. In recent weeks, we’ve seen the likes of Richard Petty Motor Sports and Front Row Motorsports have some great runs, and while they are working hard to improve their teams, the weekend format is helping their competitive cause.
  • Have you looked carefully at the point standings lately? As the Cup Series starts getting into the stretch run to make the playoffs, the battle to get into the postseason on points could get interesting. As it stands going into Talladega, Aric Almirola sits 13th in the standings with 303 points. It’s only a 112-point difference to Ryan Newman at 25th in the standings. In between, there are some big-time drivers and teams (William Byron of Hendrick and Erik Jones of Gibbs are two who stand out) who need to pick up the pace if they want to make the playoffs. Otherwise, they face the possibility of being overtaken by underdogs like Tyler Reddick, Chris Buescher, Bubba Wallace, John Hunter Nemechek and Michael McDowell.
  • Richard Childress Racing has picked up the pace. One of the teams benefitting from the new Camaro body, the organization has also been running solid races. Austin Dillon is 16th in points with four top-10 finishes while rookie Tyler Reddick is 17th in points with three top-10 finishes. Both teams look like they can contend for a playoff spot. That is a significant improvement compared to last year, when the organization earned only nine top-10 finishes and didn’t place a car near the postseason.
  • Homestead-Miami Speedway is probably NASCAR’s best mile-and-a-half facility. Although the low downforce package doesn’t translate well to some other tracks, like Charlotte or Atlanta, the race last Sunday was good. The best racing with the best package, however, was in the Xfinity Series at Homestead. Two races in two days didn’t disappoint, with drivers able to come through the field, rip the fence or run whichever lane the driver wanted, and put on entertaining battles for the lead and the win.

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