NASCAR Roundtable: Will there be a surprise winner at Road America?
Our team of experts debate some of the biggest questions in NASCAR this week.
After his sweep of Bristol last week, has Kyle Busch established himself along with Kyle Larson and Martin Truex Jr. as the favorites to be in the final 4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November?
Jim: I think Kyle Busch was already headed in that direction to begin with, simply on the strength of his team's speed and consistency this season. The wins - two in the last four races - just cement my thinking on the issue. Clearly, Busch, Truex and Larson have separated themselves from the rest of the pack. Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson are capable of making the finale as well but their results have been more haphazard of late.
Lee: Absolutely. There’s not one track on the circuit where I would bet against Kyle Busch. He’s just that good. Plus, he’s won a points race on every track except for Charlotte. Regardless of the current standings, I still wouldn’t count Jimmie Johnson out. Forty-eight of Johnson’s 83-career Cup wins have come on playoff tracks including at Homestead last November to win his seventh championship.
Tim: I thought he was a contender before his pair of recent wins as he’s be about the only driver that’s been as fast as Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Larson this season. Now that he and crew chief Adam Stevens have been able to put complete races together and get some wins, I like his chances as much as anyone’s to win the title.
Nick: Without a doubt. Kyle Busch has actually surpassed Kyle Larson in my mind as more of a favorite alongside Martin Truex Jr. The Toyotas are on it right now and these guys are two of the best talents behind the wheel in 2017.
As the Cup Series faces its final off-weekend of the season, what has been the biggest storyline in your mind this season for NASCAR's top division?
Jim: The continued dominance of Martin Truex Jr. and the development of Furniture Row Racing into one of the Cup series' top organizations. The odd part of it is, due to circumstances out of its control, FRR may well return to a one-car operation next season with Erik Jones' return to the Joe Gibbs Racing fold. I would like to see FRR continue to field two cars - their continued health in fielding competitive teams is good for the sport in general.
Lee: The changing of the guard in NASCAR is by far the biggest storyline because it’s a direct correlation to the current economics of the spot. Seventeen of the 40 Monster Energy Cup Series drivers at Bristol were under 30-years-old. Most of these drivers are making considerably less than drivers were earning a decade ago. But with sponsorship fees dropping, driver salaries have to take a hit as well. On the other side of the story is the number of first time winners breaking through in Cup. With the higher salaried veterans being bumped by the youth movement, it’s also opening the door for new faces in the winner’s circle such as Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ryan Blaney and Austin Dillon. It won’t be long before Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez and Ty Dillon join that list.
Tim: While I feel the sky is not falling, I think the financial trouble teams are having is just the tip of the iceberg for some teams this season. That being said, I still feel the story of the season in the Cup Series is the emergence of new faces winning races and running up front on a consistent basis. This is good for the sport and its long-term future.
Nick: As Lee said, the changing of the guard has really been a big story. Familiar faces are on their way out while rising stars step up to the plate. But beyond that, the sudden surge of Kyle Larson from occasional contender to man to beat has been unexpected.
The Xfnity Series heads to Road America this weekend where we've seen surprise winners of this event over the past few years. Could we have another this weekend and who do you think it might be?
Jim: Road courses in and of themselves have the ability to produce new and unexpected winners and I wouldn't be surprised to see another one at Road America. While Austin Cindric is a rookie in the Truck series, he has plenty of racing experience in sports cars at Road America and will be competing in Team Penske's No. 22 Ford. He's also running the ARCA race this weekend. It would not shock me to see him pick up a win in his first Xfinity Series start.
Lee: Austin Cindric was a last minute add to the Team Penske roster but with his sports car background, he could surprise people this weekend at Road America. Cindric, 18, will be supported by crew chief Greg Erwin and the same winning team (although not the same chassis) that Sam Hornish had for his victory at Mid-Ohio earlier this month.
Tim: While Austin Cindric could surprise many with his experience on road courses, I’m going with Brendan Gaughan. He’s won there before scoring his first NXS win there in 2014 and I think he can do it again.
Nick: Road course racing is all about unpredictability. If you're going to get a surprise winner, road courses are a good place to look. As everyone else has said, watch out for Austin Cindric. It may be his debut, but he is a proven road racer and he'll be in Penske equipment. As for a regular, I'd put my money on Brendan Gaughan.
Brad Keselowski surprised everyone by announcing he would shutter his truck team at the end of the season. Do you think we could see other teams not return as well in 2018?
Jim: Difficult to say right now. There are plenty of drivers to go around but everything depends on sponsorship money. The lower the division you go in NASCAR, the longer it generally takes before details are ironed out regarding the next season. Spec engines and composite bodies could help some teams in NASCAR's lower divisions with their financial situations, but you wonder whether others will be hurt by the potential loss of manufacturer support. Ford's departure from Trucks with the loss of BKR certainly won't help that series.
Lee: The closing of Red Horse Racing was a hard hit for the Camping World Truck Series. It was sad to see an owner such as Tom DeLoach pour his heart and soul into the business as long as he could before shutting down in May. But Keselowski’s announcement was devastating. Given the success that Toyota has enjoyed by using truck as a development series, one would think that Ford would want to follow suit. It’s surprising to me that more support wasn’t thrown behind Keselowski to do just that. If a Cup driver can’t afford to put crate engines in his trucks, it certainly doesn’t bode well for team owners trying to survive on a shoestring budget.
Tim: I hope it doesn’t happen but I could very well see another team decide to not return. As tough as it’s been for Cup teams to find sponsors, imagine that double on the truck series. I must admit I was very surprised by the Keselowski announcement. With the backing of Ford and renewing deals with their returning sponsors moving forward I thought everything was solid for the future. That right there is a sign of how things must be in the series. I just hope we don’t see another team have to make this difficult decision.
Nick: I really hope not. Losing both Brad Keselowski Racing and Red Horse Racing is a big enough hit. I can't say if any other teams are on their way out, but NASCAR needs to quickly find a way to make the CWTS more affordable for owners. It produces some of the best racing and of course, some of the Cup Series' future stars.
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