Our experts weigh in on four of the biggest questions in NASCAR this week:
Turn 1: Of the drivers without a win, who has the best chance to win Richmond and get in the Chase?
Ricky Craven, ESPN NASCAR analyst: Clint Bowyer and Kasey Kahne are the two drivers either on the bubble or on the outside looking in with the best shot at a Richmond Hail Mary. Both drivers have plenty of incentive. Kahne faces the uncomfortable circumstance of being the only Hendrick Motorsports driver not battling for a title. Bowyer? Well, he needs a job. Both are capable of winning, but more pressure won’t help. For these two drivers in particular, Richmond may feel more like race no. 36, rather than race no. 26.
Ryan McGee, ESPN.com: Kasey Kahne. They have the resources. I have a lot of faith in his crew chief, Keith Rodden. And he’s been in this spot before, going into Richmond on the bubble — or in, this case, outside of it trying to get in.
John Oreovicz, ESPN.com: Jeff Gordon. He’s presumably going to make the Chase on points, but wouldn’t it create the kind of magical storyline that NASCAR so often seems to luck into? The other interesting storyline, in light of recent history at Richmond, is Clint Bowyer. Wouldn’t it be ironic if he really earned the win that soon-to-be-defunct Michael Waltrip Racing so badly needed earlier this year at the track where the team’s fall from grace began?
Bob Pockrass, ESPN.com: Kasey Kahne, but it’s not a very good chance. He is the only driver outside the current Chase field who has won in the past 21 races at Richmond — and that came 21 races ago in his first Cup win in 2005. He was sixth in the spring, but he hasn’t led enough laps to make anyone think he’s a factor. Of the winless drivers tentatively in the Chase on points, Ryan Newman and 2008 Richmond winner Clint Bowyer are the best bets.
Turn 2: Can Hendrick Motorsports catch up to Gibbs, Penske and Stewart-Haas for the Chase?
Craven: Absolutely! In fact, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson are destined for at least the third round. Jeff Gordon can join them if he gets a taste of success early. We can reavalute their chances after race six of the Chase, but you would be making a critical mistake dismissing HMS before the Chase even begins.
McGee: Yes. But I think that gap has widened more than anyone could have expected. I did expect that Gordon, Kahne and even Earnhardt might struggle long-term with this rules package as opposed to last year’s looser-handling feel. But I didn’t expect Johnson to fade like he has. He has one top-5 since the start of summer. And there have been several seasons now in which they have slowed in the second half. In the recent past, they’ve have a hard time “flipping the switch” when the Chase started. We’ll see about this year.
Oreovicz: Rick Hendrick acknowledged this week that his team is behind, and it’s a tough time in the season to be playing catch-up. It’s also an unusual position for the Hendrick group to be in and a pretty solid test of its character. It’s unusual for Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and even Jimmie Johnson to be talked about as potential early round Chase casualties based on performance. But it would also be a mistake to count them out, especially the 48.
Pockrass: Here’s the thing: Hendrick doesn’t have to catch up until four races remain in the Chase to win the title. So in that sense, it has time. Hendrick likely won’t as an organization catch the Gibbs cars or SHR’s Kevin Harvick, but there is the potential for Dale Earnhardt Jr. as his relationship with crew chief Greg Ives continues to grow. It would be stupid to count out Jimmie Johnson, but he hasn’t led a lap on a non-restrictor-plate oval in 10 races. The one thing in Hendrick’s favor? It hasn’t finished well in the races with the experimental aero packages this year, and none of those will be used in the Chase.
Turn 3: With Michael Waltrip Racing folding, is it time to rethink the “max four cars per team” rule to ensure the most competitive and full fields?
Craven: It would be nice, but I’m afraid the horse has left the barn regarding this topic.
McGee: No. I don’t know what that would really do under the current model, and I also don’t think they’d want to set the precedent of having megateams when we hit the franchising era, which seems to be coming sooner than later. I don’t think any teams are in a position to be fielding five or more cars, and I don’t think that long-term, that’s even a good idea. The way it is now, those big teams are putting resources into the smaller teams, like I think we’re about to see with RCR and Ty Dillon. I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all. We keep the diversity of teams and team owners up, but spread the wealth some when it comes to resources.
Oreovicz: I think so, but if the limit isn’t four cars, what is it? Or should there be no limit? Letting the rich get richer might prolong the era of 43-car fields, but that’s not going to last forever. Some teams — notably Joe Gibbs Racing — have more drivers on the roster than Cup seats, and JGR and the likes of Hendrick and Stewart-Haas probably have the desire and ability to expand beyond four cars. However, it’s interesting to note that Team Penske has chosen to focus on two cars rather than try to run as many as possible.
Pockrass: Yeah, but not increasing the number of teams an organization can have. There should be 22 two-car organizations with a limit of an alliance among three organizations as far as chassis and technical data. An engine supplier (such as Hendrick Motorsports) should have no limit on the engines it can supply. The investment to start a three-car or four-car organization likely discourages potential investors. A single-car organization typically can’t compete against a four-car organization (look how long it took Furniture Row to do that, and it likely will be a multiple-car organization in the next few years). Coming in and investing in a two-car organization to compete against other two-car organizations seems much more feasible.
Turn 4: What do you think Clint Bowyer should do next season?
Craven: Jack Roush needs Clint Bowyer, Clint Bowyer needs Jack Roush. There’s no quick fix for Roush Fenway Racing, so hiring Bowyer in the prime of his career gives you several years of value from a driver capable of battling for Championships. For Clint, the most important component of landing another ride is making the next oppurtunity your last, only then can it potentially be your best. In other words, there’s no point in landing another ride unless you can plan to be there for several years. That allows you to be invested in the team, grow with the team, celebrate with the team.
McGee: Take whatever he can get until something better comes along, and perhaps what he thought he’d settled for ends up being something great. That approach has worked out pretty dang well for his former teammate, Martin Truex Jr.
Oreovicz: It’s tempting to say take a year off to hunt, fish and be a full-time dad, but reality dictates that Bowyer take the best ride that comes his way. It’s unlikely to be with a top-tier team, or even a mid-tier Cup team, unless it comes at the expense of another driver. Wherever he lands, it’s bound to be an entertaining ride.
Pockrass: He should drive for Richard Petty Motorsports. The team has shown it can challenge for Chase spots with Aric Almirola. HScott Motorsports has the Hendrick alliance and might be a little more Bowyer’s grass-roots speed, but if he’s doing a one-year deal and basing it on current performance, RPM would be the way to go. That being said, it probably means he’s going to HScott.