The weirdest thing happened on Sunday at New Hampshire, one of the slickest tracks on the NASCAR circuit. On a day with blistering heat, drivers struggling to maintain traction on the 1.017-mile oval, there was a total of two spins (Paul Menard and Alex Bowman, whose No. 7 car pancaked the wall on the final lap). Only one car failed to finish the race, as five of the seven cautions we saw were for “debris” or “fluid” on the track. In multiple cases, “debris” turned out to be nothing more than a driver water bottle.
NASCAR took the drivers to task this week, claiming they’ll take a “closer look” at drivers trying to manipulate yellow flags by throwing out debris. But how about taking a closer look at when you throw the yellow? Those bottles, positioned well off the racing line, were limited safety hazards to the competition. Any driver will tell you that if you want to find debris on the track, you can spot some; everything from excess rubber to hot dog wrappers accumulates throughout the day when there are 43 cars and 70,000 fans surrounding the racetrack.
At least NASCAR television is showing the debris each time, a simple courtesy fans didn’t get just a couple of years (or even races) ago. But there’s a huge difference between a water bottle and a giant piece of scrap metal on the racetrack. The latter will absolutely cut a tire down immediately; a plastic bottle outside the racing groove is far less of a risk. Throwing the yellow each time there’s a teeny piece of something somewhere sounds like excessive panic, the local school hall monitors gone wild.
Which leads us to the real reason “debris” has become such a big factor. When’s there’s limited passing, like on Sunday, limited unpredictability and little action on the racetrack, what better way to produce some than bunching up the field? Double-file restarts produce the best action under a rules package where passing is like Mission: Impossible. With no drivers losing control, the product of a car that may be too easy to drive at times the only way to produce those restarts is finding those water bottles.
No wonder why NASCAR needs that new rules package. They can crack down on plastic all they want but fans don’t come to the races to have drivers recycle. They want them side-by-side, slamming fenders and racing the bejesus out of each other.
Let’s hope the new rules produce that.
Through the gears we go…
FIRST GEAR: Kyle’s Killer Run Toward The Chase
I’ll admit, I was skeptical Kyle Busch could make the top 30 in points this season. Missing the year’s first 11 races put him at an incredible disadvantage. But now, after his third race win at New Hampshire, clearing that hurdle appears a mere formality. With seven races left, Busch needs to gain less than 60 points on rivals David Gilliland and Cole Whitt to reach 30th place. Considering how underfunded those drivers are it would take a series of wrecks and misfortunes for Busch to stay behind them at this point.
The question now becomes, with Busch entering the 16-driver Chase, whether he’ll be a title contender. Early returns say yes, considering New Hampshire is a Chase track and how Joe Gibbs Racing has closed the gap on the field with NASCAR’s new rule packages. The jury is still out on what setup the sport will use in the Chase but any sniff of a switch to low downforce and Busch may become (gulp) the title favorite. It’s a scary thought for NASCAR, worried about how fans will embrace a champion who missed the first third of the season.
SECOND GEAR: Big Miss For Michael Waltrip Racing
Sunday was supposed to be a big moment for Michael Waltrip Racing. Clint Bowyer, seemingly a longshot to make the Chase, had fought himself into the field in recent weeks. David Ragan qualified third in the No. 55 car, a team that’s a previous New Hampshire winner and was in position to pull a huge upset. It appeared MWR was riding JGR’s coattails at Toyota, as their four-car compatriots had found a surge in speed with the Camry.
Instead, MWR fell flat on their face Sunday. Bowyer, who hit Jeff Gordon during a bizarre incident inside the garage Saturday, never seemed to recover from that bout of bad luck. His car was all over the track, hitting the wall and other cars en route to damaging the right rear. A 34th-place finish actually took him out of the Chase, two points behind Aric Almirola and 28 behind Paul Menard. The distance between him and Menard is important; Busch’s charge to the Chase will make Menard, not Almirola the bubble driver the second the three-race winner climbs into the top 30.
For Ragan, his car was never competitive, sliding back at the start and needing to fight just to finish 18th. He’s failed to lead a lap since coming over to replace Brian Vickers in mid-May and done little to convince MWR executives he deserves a contract extension. So will Vickers, out due to blood clots, wind up returning to the seat at some point? Could the team make a run at Danica Patrick with Stewart-Haas Racing struggling to find her sponsorship? Or will Bowyer, frustrated over this season-long slump, start looking elsewhere? MWR has already switched crew chiefs but a more serious shakeup appears inevitable.
THIRD GEAR: Hendrick’s Road To Recovery
The past two weeks haven’t been kind to Hendrick Motorsports engines and chassis. Joe Gibbs Racing smoked them at Kentucky, taking four of the top five spots; then, no HMS driver led more than two laps Sunday at New Hampshire. Six-time champ Jimmie Johnson, who’s often struggled there, suffered through a pit road speeding penalty and wound up 22nd. Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne were invisible while Dale Earnhardt Jr., despite running fifth claimed “more speed” was needed from the outfit to stay competitive.
Are HMS and partner Stewart-Haas Racing, both of whom excelled under the old rules package, in trouble? Hold the phone. Indy’s up next, a track they’ve owned for much of the past decade and a place where the new “high-drag” rules package gives them a chance to redeem themselves. Chevy has won the last 12 Brickyard 400s and half of those have come courtesy of HMS. All eyes will be on Gordon, considered a native of both California and Indiana, as he wraps up his career on the 2.5-mile speedway. The race’s defending champ, Gordon has struggled this season and needs a victory to lock himself into the postseason without relying on points.
Should the No. 24 team falter, Johnson is there to step up; he’s won three of the last seven at Indy. And how about points leader Kevin Harvick? He’s got an Indy victory from 2003. Something tells me this Chevy outfit will be just fine….
FOURTH GEAR: Dirt Trackin’ It
The past few years, the best part of Indianapolis hasn’t been the big Cup race but rather a small one happening down the road over in Northwest Ohio. Eldora Speedway hosted NASCAR’s Truck Series Thursday night for a dirt track showdown held in front of a packed house. Young Christopher Bell held off Bobby Pierce as cars spread three-, four-, even five-wide to keep fans on their feet all night. It was the perfect mix of young drivers, series veterans and even Cup regulars, as Austin Dillon and Brad Keselowski made the 32-driver field.
In the midst of another A+ performance, the question is raised again why NASCAR doesn’t have a dirt track race for the Cup Series. With so many struggles at intermediate tracks why not throw a midsummer classic in there for the Cup field and see what happens? Dirt track racing produces parity, allowing even the smallest teams like the Mittler Brothers’ No. 63 and Pierce to run up front. This race had fresh faces, continual action and an unpredictable finish, the type of competition the Cup Series badly needs these days.
Looking for Tony Stewart to turn the corner this weekend? Don’t bet on it. Indy may be one of Stewart’s best tracks, living up to his name as a hometown hero, but he hasn’t even led a lap there since 2011… The focus will be on Jeff Gordon at Indy but don’t forget about Kasey Kahne. Kahne, still searching for his first victory at the Brickyard 400 led a race-high 70 laps last year… Carl Edwards, Sunday’s pole sitter at New Hampshire, may finally be showing some signs of life. He’s quietly put together back-to-back top-10 finishes for the first time all year with his new No. 19 Toyota outfit…Behind Clint Bowyer, it looks like every other winless driver in the standings will have to reach Victory Lane to make the Chase. Greg Biffle, the next man behind Bowyer in the Chase race is 65 points back of Aric Almirola with seven races left and 91 behind Paul Menard. That deficit appears insurmountable.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.