“NASCAR repave.” It’s two words only asphalt companies seem to appreciate these days.
They want to run far, far away. Hearing those words sends fans running, drivers frowning and crew chiefs wishing they could avoid the new asphalt for, oh, about the next five years or so.
That’s a long time to wait for a sport already suffering through a difficult 2017. Texas Motor Speedway, this weekend’s stop, is the latest repave “victim,” a place where shiny new blacktop comes at the cost of side-by-side competition. Speeds are up; the track is wider, but the size of the racing groove? That’s down significantly, causing near-impossible passing conditions while drivers have to navigate a whole new beast down in the Heartland.
“It’s a little treacherous,” Trevor Bayne told the NASCAR Wire Service after one of Friday’s practices. “You come in, and your crew chief wants feedback, and you're like, 'Man, I'm just trying to survive right now.'
“It requires every ounce of your focus and attention. [The racetrack] will bite you.”
Just ask a quartet of Cup Series contenders, each of whom smacked the wall in Friday practice. Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, rookie Erik Jones and Denny Hamlin found themselves in trouble on the 1.5-mile oval, reconfigured in a way that forces drivers to change their entry into the turns.
Will the groove, like the asphalt come in over time? Of course. But it’s not changing anytime soon, certainly not this weekend and that makes the storyline at Texas one of treachery. The old speedway, in the late 1990s was known for major wrecks; simply making it through 500 miles was an accomplishment.
Expect a return to that old-school style of racing Sunday as track position and simply racing the track will be paramount. After a relatively clean start to the season post-Daytona I hope those fabricators back at the shop weren’t planning on an extended Easter break vacation.
Plenty of them are about to work overtime. More importantly, we’re about to find out if “NASCAR repave” can lead to a rebound for sagging attendance at TMS. Will a year filled with bad news on the ratings front turn around with Sunday’s challenge?
Based on past history, the sport needs a “rewrite” in order to make Sunday a success story. Get ready for a rocky ride at TMS, the latest place where “new” means “nuisance” in today’s NASCAR.
O’Reilly Auto Parts 500
Time: 1:30 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Texas Motor Speedway (Fort Worth)
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Team Penske
Ford’s leading 1-2 punch continued to throw haymakers Sunday at Martinsville. Brad Keselowski, the first driver to win two races this season, earned the first grandfather clock of his career. Joey Logano, who ran fourth, earned his fifth top-10 finish in sixth races. That’s tied for the series lead with, guess who? Keselowski. Add in the Wood Brothers satellite team driven by sophomore Ryan Blaney, sitting a strong seventh in the standings and it’s clear Team Penske has come out swinging to start 2017.
Who’s at the Back: Kurt Busch
Do we have another case of the Daytona 500 curse? Busch, this year’s winner, has gone four races without a top-10 finish, wrecking hard at Martinsville en route to 37th. He’s sitting 19th in points, the worst of any driver with a victory this season and holds a paltry average finish of 20.7. Keep in mind other major drivers who won the 500, like Matt Kenseth in 2009 and Jeff Gordon in ’05, failed to make the playoffs in the same year. Busch has a much better shot, considering the near-automatic bid given to race winners, but you never want to be the lowest guy on the list.
Is there trouble in NASCAR’s tech line? Nine drivers, over 20 percent of the starting field for Sunday, didn’t make it through inspection in time to make a Texas qualifying lap. That means 32nd on back will be stock full of top-level talent, including Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chase Elliott, and points leader Kyle Larson. NASCAR refused to relax the rules despite such a large backup; claimed Earnhardt Jr., “We failed. That’s life.”
The NASCAR Hall of Fame opened fan voting this week for its Class of 2018. Fans can vote between now and May 22 by clicking here (http://www.nascar.com/halloffame.html) for the five nominees they feel should be selected. Their final tabulations will count for two percent of the vote when the experts come together to finalize the 2018 class on May 24.
Rookie Corey Lajoie got a new crew chief this week. Randy Cox will be on top of the pit box beginning this Sunday at Texas after the first-year driver has had a rocky start to the season. After six races, Lajoie sits 34th in points and has wrecked in all but one race so far this season. His best run? Just 28th Sunday at Martinsville, four laps off the pace. Doug Richert and Ryan Dubois had shared time on top of the box for the first two months of the year.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Position in the points for Dale Earnhardt Jr. after six races. Earnhardt still has yet to earn a top-10 finish, the latest he’s gone in a season without doing so.
Laps led this season by Kyle Busch, the most of any driver on the Cup circuit. Busch, sitting sixth in the season standings, has yet to win a race this season.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
If there’s ever a time for Joe Gibbs Racing to get back on track, it would be now. Kyle Busch is the defending Texas race winner and he’s got five straight top-5 finishes here. Denny Hamlin once pulled a season sweep at the tri-oval and has 12 top-20 finishes in his last 13 starts. Even Matt Kenseth, who doesn’t have a win here since 2011, had an average finish of 9.0 down in Fort Worth last season. The Toyotas struggled in practice, cracking up a number of racecars, but it’s a long way from Friday to Sunday.
Not liking the Camrys? Take Kevin Harvick, the pole sitter for Sunday’s race and another driver who desperately needs a good run heading to Easter break. He’s got five straight top-10 finishes in Texas and has led 110 laps in the process. And there’s always Jimmie Johnson, Mr. Fort Worth with six Texas victories but who was a ho-hum 11th in the race here last fall.
Kasey Kahne has had his act together this season and now comes to a place, a 1.5-mile oval that is typically his bread and butter. Kahne was top 10 in both Texas races last year, has four straight top-20 runs with Hendrick Motorsports at the track and even won earlier in his career, wayyy back in 2006. A return trip to Victory Lane is unlikely but expect the No. 5 team to deliver some stage bonus points, at the very least for your fantasy team.
Remember the JGR talk from just a few short paragraphs ago? Daniel Suarez, just a rookie, is driving the No. 19 Toyota Carl Edwards took to Victory Lane here last fall. He’s been showing signs of improvement as of late and is a true dark horse to put together a top-10 run should he survive Sunday’s expected carnage.
What Vegas Thinks
Oddshark has both Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch tied at the top of the odds chart at +650. Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson, and Joey Logano are right behind at +700 in what most expect to be a “wide open” race.
What I Think
I picked Busch last weekend and he came close, fading to second late after dominating large portions of Martinsville. This time, he gets the job done and takes Texas in a race where at least 10 cars fail to finish due to wrecks.
— 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.
(Photo by ASP Inc.)