Our experts weigh in on four of the biggest questions in NASCAR this week:
Turn 1: Erik Jones took the Camping World Truck series points lead with his win Saturday in Ontario. What chance do you give him to finish it off and win the title?
Ricky Craven, ESPN NASCAR analyst: It’s a two-horse race between Erik Jones and Matt Crafton. Tyler Reddick has done a very good job but cannot match the speed of Jones or the experience of Crafton. Jones has the speed to win the title, but also the pressure. With that said, if Jones doesn’t beat himself, he’ll win this year’s title. I give him an 80 percent chance of wearing the ring.
Ryan McGee, ESPN.com: 50-50. Every week Jones finishes in the top 10, and every week Matt Crafton is in the rearview mirror. I think it’ll come down to the two races before the Homestead finale, Texas and Phoenix. Granted, Jones is so young it makes his pool of data pretty tiny, but it’s obvious that Phoenix is his best track and Texas is among his worst. Meanwhile, Crafton has pretty much made his living on the mile-and-a-half tracks, and that’s half the tracks remaining. So, stay tuned…
John Oreovicz, ESPN.com: I’d say Jones is the favorite. He is already good and will only get better. I will be surprised if anyone beats him to the championship.
Bob Pockrass, ESPN.com: It’s 50-50 that Jones will win the title, with Matt Crafton and Tyler Reddick having an equal shot among the challengers. Jones has appeared to have the strongest truck throughout the year; Reddick has had one of the most consistent trucks; and Crafton, well, he typically gets the most out of his truck every week but has had an uncharacteristic string of wrecks and hiccups. Jones has everything he needs to win the title — he has quality equipment and the talent. It’s just a matter whether he can stay out of trouble and avoid mechanical failures.
Turn 2: What do you think of the throwback Darlington theme?
Craven: Brilliant. It’s the right time at the right place. No track on the schedule has a deeper history; no track on the schedule challenges drivers more; and few races on the schedule carry more meaning for the winning team and driver. The Southern 500 at Darlington on Labor Day weekend with the throwback paint schemes has the potential to be the race of the year.
McGee: Love it. Love it. Love it. It’s been a long time since a non-Daytona, non-Chase race got this much buildup. Props to everyone at Darlington Raceway. Others might try to take credit for all of this, but the Darlington folks started putting in the real legwork months ago, recruiting teams and sponsors and media partners to go all-in on the idea.
Oreovicz: It’s excellent. The retro paint schemes bring back warm memories of watching or reading about NASCAR when I was a kid. Liveries change so often these days, making this not difficult at all to pull off, and I suspect it’s going to be really popular with the fans. I’m looking forward to the Ken Squier/Ned Jarrett call of a portion of the race, too — what a neat idea!
Pockrass: It is a great idea. And what happens with great ideas is people embrace them. That is what has happened with Darlington and NBC getting behind it in the early stages. It might be a little hard to figure out who is in what car, but that could happen any weekend in this world of rotating sponsors and paint schemes.
Turn 3: Cup Series teams just had their last off weekend of the season prior to 12 consecutive race weekends. Should NASCAR build a late-season break into the schedule?
Craven: Only if the break were placed behind the Richmond event to allow the sport more time to promote the 10-race Chase. I would be an advocate of that in place of the week we just had.
McGee: Nope. I think this pre-Darlington break was a good one. They need to keep the train running all the way through to the end if they want to maintain any momentum. I hated it when they had a break leading into the Chase. All the excitement from so many thrilling Richmond cutoff nights just went pffffft … and right when football was getting cranked up.
Oreovicz: I think so, perhaps at the midway point of the Chase, or after the sixth race so it would occur between rounds. The teams deserve a break, and I’m sure everyone involved in the sport would enjoy a fall weekend off with family. Keeping the season the same length as it is currently, but dropping a few races to create additional breaks during the year, would be my ideal scenario.
Pockrass: Having a weekend off between the Chase cutoff and the start of the Chase would allow for more promotion heading into the NASCAR postseason and also give NASCAR an insurance policy if for some reason a race had to be postponed earlier in the year. But it’s not a necessity and nothing screams that there has to be an off weekend late in the year. While a possible midway break during the Chase might be nice, the season is long enough and NASCAR needs to build momentum during the Chase by racing every week.
Turn 4: Why did it take so long for NASCAR to move the Labor Day race back to Darlington?
Craven: Not sure, but I’m sure of this. Few things are more powerful in sports than the power of tradition. This race is synonymous with Labor Day weekend. Moving it to a spring race felt like inviting Santa Claus to Halloween.
McGee: Because going back meant admitting a mistake. NASCAR doesn’t like that. Otherwise, we would have gone back to the 2014 aero package six months ago.
Oreovicz: Probably because NASCAR doesn’t do anything until NASCAR decides it’s a good idea, no matter how popular the idea might be to the masses. But this is another sign that NASCAR is actually listening to its constituents a bit more these days.
Pockrass: Stubbornness and refusal to admit failure would be my best guess after one of NASCAR’s most head-scratching moves in trying to build the sport. NASCAR should have never messed with this tradition in the first place. NASCAR didn’t belong in California on Labor Day weekend. It didn’t belong in Atlanta. It belongs in Darlington, South Carolina. And it’s back. Finally.