Can Thunder Valley spark some heat into NASCAR's 2018 season?
It’s been a Monster-ous week for NASCAR after announcing their title sponsor has signed a one-year extension to remain through the 2019 season. What happens after that is a bit of a mystery, though. The sport claims they’re working on a new business model that caters more to teams and sponsors; it could be a smokescreen for “we don’t want to go through the negative press of haggling for a measly $20 million every year.” The title sponsorship of the brand isn’t what it used to be.
But for the first time in a long time, the sport has some positive sponsorship news to trumpet. Mere weeks after Lowe’s announced they’re leaving the No. 48 team and seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, someone has stepped up and said they believe in NASCAR’s direction to stick around long-term. It’s hard to attract potential new backers when the old ones don’t feel like sticking around.
Can that momentum carry over to the racetrack? Despite a one-groove repave in Texas the sport staged one of its better intermediate races of the season this past weekend. On the track, Kyle Busch finally ditched his bridesmaid label, proving he could beat three-time winner Kevin Harvick in the process. Harvick himself was the victim of poor luck on pit road and faulty pit guns, themselves the focus of conversation this week along with flat Goodyear tires.
What wasn’t the main water cooler topic of conversation? What happened off the track. Sure, Chase Elliott may have earned his second L1 penalty of the season, but it wasn’t enough to nudge other main topics off the front pages.
Now, if only NASCAR can get a little bump-and-run nudge for the win at Bristol. We’ve seen it, time and again, how this race can inject a little livelihood into this sport. There was the Kurt Busch-Jimmy Spencer race in 2002, where Busch’s punch forward to take the win led to a lot of punching later on.
The bottom line is Bristol’s day race can get just as hot and heavy as its summer classic. With the landscape cleared a bit of major sporting events a solid race here would go a long way towards propelling NASCAR back into the national spotlight.
58th Food City 500
Time: 2 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Bristol Motor Speedway (Bristol, Tenn.)
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Kyle Busch
Busch finally got over the hump with his Texas triumph over Harvick. But a closer look reveals the No. 18 Toyota has been right on the heels of his rival all season. Busch has five top-3 finishes in a row, leading 340 laps during that stretch and has a series-leading 89 stage points. His only run outside the top seven all year was a 25th in a crash-filled Daytona 500.
Could Busch vs. Harvick make it all the way to Homestead in November? It’s certainly possible.
Who’s at the Back: Hendrick Motorsports
The four-car team took a Texas-sized tumble last week with no driver running better than 10th. Jimmie Johnson got taken out in a wreck; Alex Bowman found himself in the middle of one by lap three. Chase Elliott ran a respectable 11th but a second post-race penalty in seven races left him scoring just 13 points. At least rookie William Byron showed some promise (10th) but even he has underperformed a bit after torching the competition in XFINITY and Trucks.
As noted above, Monster Energy triggered their one-year option to remain the sport’s title sponsor through 2019. Terms of the deal were not disclosed. The company claimed they were “eager” to remain part of the sport over the long-term but is still deciding additional involvement. That includes primary sponsorship of Kurt Busch’s No. 41 Ford beyond this season.
Chase Elliott was hit with an L1 penalty after Texas for a failure of his rear window brace. The second major issue for the No. 9 team this season cost them 20 driver and owner points. Crew chief Alan Gustafson is out for the next two races and was hit with a $50,000 fine. Kenny Francis will serve as interim crew chief.
The Monster Energy All-Star Race will have a new handling package this year that includes restrictor plates. The NASCAR exhibition at Charlotte Motor Speedway next month will run with a similar setup that the XFINITY Series used at Indianapolis last summer with great success. Time will tell if it translates to one of the sport’s legendary but beleaguered 1.5-mile ovals where competition has suffered in recent years.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Average number of cars to finish on the lead lap through seven MENCS races this season.
Average number of cars to finish on the lead lap through seven MENCS races last season.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
It’s hard to bet against pole sitter Kyle Busch considering recent momentum and his Bristol track record. Six wins here are a career best for any MENCS track and he won the night race last August. But buyer beware; Busch has a tendency for checkers or wreckers here. Four of his last six starts have ended in crash-related DNFs.
Often times in a middle-tier guy you’re just looking for consistency. It’s exactly the type of stability Jamie McMurray has provided during much of his career with Chip Ganassi Racing. Coming off a season best third-place finish at Texas, McMurray heads to Bristol on track after a sluggish start. And his track record here? How about seven straight top-15 finishes, including 148 laps led back in 2014? I don’t expect McMurray to contend for the win but back-to-back top-5 finishes would go a long way to launch him back into NASCAR playoff contention.
It’s easy to forget about Joey Logano here as he’s not the flashiest guy on short tracks. But don’t overlook him. Five straight top-15 finishes in Thunder Valley also come packaged with a win from 2015.
How about Erik Jones? Last August’s night race sensation, Jones wound up losing the win to Busch but led a career-high 260 laps. After a strong top-5 finish at Texas last weekend can this young talent keep the good times rolling?
It’s been a few years now since Matt DiBenedetto wowed NASCAR nation, posting a sixth-place finish at Bristol with a wildly underfunded team (BK Racing). The team may be different now (Go FAS) but the underdog label is still very much the same. Still, it’s worth a flyer considering a strong top-15 effort at Texas combined with a respectable career Bristol average finish of 20.3.
What Vegas Thinks
Kyle Busch has the edge at 3/1 odds followed by (surprise!) Kevin Harvick at 9/2. Kyle Larson in third is a very respectable 6/1.
What I Think
How about a first-time winner? Erik Jones finishes what he started last August and take his new No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota ride to Bristol Victory Lane.
(Top photo courtesy of ASP, Inc.)