Our experts weigh in on four of the biggest questions in NASCAR this week:
Turn 1: Is there any reason to experiment more with the high-drag package after its poor performance at Michigan and the drivers’ seemingly intense dislike of it?
Ricky Craven, ESPN NASCAR analyst: No! It’s too expensive, and too time-consuming for crew members. With three races remaining in the regular season, all efforts and focus for NASCAR teams need to shift toward the Chase. Experimenting with rules package to the degree we saw at Indy and Michigan should be contained in the months of April, May and June. July and August rules need be chiseled in stone other than that which relates to safety. Let’s spend the next three races focused on who does or does not qualify for the Chase.
Ryan McGee, ESPN.com: No. It didn’t work, the teams hated it, and the fans hated it even more. So, other than that, it was great.
John Oreovicz, ESPN.com: No. Find a dumpster big enough to fit 43 9-inch spoilers (with wickers) and banish them from the track forever. Aside from looking ridiculous, the big spoiler did nothing to improve the racing, and at Michigan, you could argue that it “spoiled” the August race. It didn’t help things much at Indianapolis either, and it’s too bad the drivers were not permitted to tell the world what they really thought about the high-drag package because that probably would have been a lot more entertaining than the racing it produced.
Bob Pockrass, ESPN.com: No. This package faced an uphill battle from the start with the drivers wanting the opposite. While the drivers shouldn’t dictate the rules, it is critical that they have confidence in the aero package. They didn’t have confidence in this one, especially without a true test in the weeks prior to Indianapolis and Michigan. After two lackluster races, there’s no appetite from either drivers or fans for another race experiment.
Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: No. I appreciate NASCAR’s effort to forge change in the quest to produce the best product. That’s the only way the industry will be sustainable — good racing. Bill France Jr. used to say it every day — everything else is an extension of the on-track product. I’m not sure that’s the philosophy in every area anymore. It should be. So good on them for trying. But they’re standing in the box, 60 feet away from Clayton Kershaw, and that particular at-bat was a three-pitch strikeout. They’ve seen a few pitches now. Time to adjust and take another swing.
Turn 2: Which driver is most likely to edge out JGR’s Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth at Bristol — both of whom have more wins there than most?
Craven: Momentum is clearly with the JGR drivers, so let’s expand the favorites to include three-time Bristol winner Carl Edwards.
McGee: It’s gotta be Kevin Harvick. All he keeps doing is finish top 3 every week and he was the quickest car at Bristol in the spring, which ended up becoming a night race. It would also behoove folks to keep an eye on the Penske cars. Both Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski are getting it cranked back up to their spring success levels. Logano is the only guy to interrupt the current Kyle/Kenseth domination and BK loves Bristol.
Oreovicz: I’ll take Brad Keselowski, who not only has the mentality to bump his way to the front, but to handle any potential repercussions.
Pockrass: Kevin Harvick. He’s still the driver that to beat until someone else rattles off 10 top-5s in a 15-race stretch. Oh, and he led 184 laps at Bristol in April.
Smith: Their other teammates, Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards. Since 2009, Gibbs drivers have 17 short-track wins — 10 more than any other team.
Turn 3: Danica Patrick says she hopes to make the Chase next season. Is that a reasonable expectation? Is the problem more her or her team?
Craven: It’s not unreasonable that Danica Patrick makes the Chase in 2016. Fact is, she has made progress each season in the Sprint Cup Series. But championship drivers are not made overnight. Harvick, for example, would probably challenge for wins with Danica’s car, but he is years ahead of most drivers in understanding the many factors — the car, the track, tire wear, restarts, etc. — that make winning possible. If Danica’s progress continues, she will battle for a final points berth into the Chase. In the meantime, she needs to continue leaning on all of her three teammates for answers and support. Equally important: She must finish races! I’m pulling for her.
It’s been her and she admits that. I will always wonder where she’d be development-wise had she been allowed to spend more time in the Xfinity Series on the Chase Elliott plan instead of rushing up the ladder. I think the Chase is a realistic goal within the next couple of years. If I’d come to you a few years ago and told you Paul Menard would be in the 2015 Chase, you would’ve laughed at me. That’s the plan she needs to be aiming for — 12th place them to death and get in through the back door.
Oreovicz: I think making the Chase in a fourth full year of Cup Series competition in quality Stewart-Haas Racing equipment provided by Hendrick Motorsports is a reasonable expectation for any driver. That’s more than enough time to learn the ropes, especially with the technical resources at their disposal. If Danica is still running 21st in the points at this time in 2016 with yet another year of stock car experience under her belt, it will be fair to conclude that she is probably never going to develop into Chase material.
Pockrass: It’s reasonable that Patrick could make the Chase, but she would have to improve considerably or have everything fall her way to get in with a victory. She has shown improvement this year. Clint Bowyer has an average finish of 17th and currently has a spot in the Chase. That’s doable for her. But she will need to not lose spots on restarts and finish in the top 25 on days where she’s totally out to lunch.
Smith: By no means is it unreasonable, but it’s not likely. Countless fans criticize her ability, but the truth is, in today’s world, it just takes one win for a playoff berth. She can win on a plate track. Her improvement as a stock car driver is obvious. People often look at numbers for clarity. They want to compare her to Harvick and Kurt Busch. “She has the same equipment!” That, to me, is what’s unreasonable. Context is more important to me than numbers. Her numbers have improved, but numbers don’t tell her story. Comfort does. Confidence does. She’s improved massively in both areas, but is still in the infant stages of stock car racing. She’s learning and improving. She’s shown that improvement. People want to disparage this opinion and say it’s enabling, it’s taking someone else’s opportunity, she doesn’t belong or doesn’t deserve the opportunity. That’s naive at best and inaccurate at worst. She can drive. And as long as she can sell, too — especially with a new company bringing new dollars into the sport — she’ll have wheels.
Turn 4: Should NASCAR have tried the low-downforce package at some of the Chase tracks?
Craven: In spite of drivers advocating for a lower downforce package, I’m not convinced the owners were on board with such a change. The expense would have been enormous — not to convert the cars, but to pursue and explore for a competitive advantage. Smaller teams like the No. 78 car of Martin Truex Jr. may have suffered because of it. I agree with the decision to compete in this year’s Chase with the existing rules package.
McGee: They definitely should have been testing it more this year. Had they stuck with the original plan then it would be ready and we’d be seeing it in the Chase. But they didn’t, so we won’t. So … on to 2016!
Oreovicz: No. I don’t believe it is fair to the competitors to introduce midseason technical changes unless they are safety related. Teams and manufacturers also incur significant costs when those changes happen. I think NASCAR would be better served by shifting its focus to getting the package(s) right for 2016 and beyond rather than trying to spice up the show in the short term for a few tracks where the racing isn’t as close and pack-like as Brian France would like.
Pockrass: Yes and No. NASCAR should have been testing the low-downforce package throughout the year, which was the original plan. If that had happened, there’d be no question that the teams and Goodyear would be ready. They’re not ready now, so it was the right decision to stick with the 2015 rules. But a quick decision earlier this year to stop testing 2016 packages has ended up biting NASCAR.
Smith: No. Grab a bat. See Question No. 1.