NASCAR hopes the first of two weekend Pocono races brings the focus back to on-track competition
NASCAR has been leading the national news all week, for reasons that have nothing to do with Saturday's Pocono Organics 325 at Pocono Raceway. Unless you've been living under a rock, you're well aware of the noose incident, subsequent FBI investigation and determination that no hate crime was committed against African-American driver Bubba Wallace.
There's plenty written on the subject. Feel free to go here for my take on what went down. But with both the NASCAR and FBI investigations in the rear-view mirror, I'm going to follow what NASCAR President Steve Phelps said in closing during his latest press conference.
It's time to focus on racing.
In the midst of a news-filled week, what got lost is one of the sport's best races on a superspeedway in the past 10 years. Ryan Blaney won by 0.007 of a second in Monday's GEICO 500 as the top 15 cars essentially whooshed by the finish line three abreast. Aric Almirola crossed it sideways in what amounted to an ending tough to recreate even in NASCAR Heat.
The clean, hypercompetitive race in the midst of a new rules package should have left stock car racing the talk of the town. Instead, the heat's been on the sport because of everything else off the racetrack: banning Confederate flags, the discovery of a noose in the garage area and the way the subsequent investigation was handled.
That equated to a missed opportunity to promote the number one reason fans do tune in each weekend: the racing product itself. As the NFL knows all too well, looking back to a multi-year dip in numbers over the national anthem controversy, mixing sports and politics for too long carries risk.
The reasoning actually doesn't have much to do with which side of the fence you're on in these debates. It's that the debate itself gets carried out in a forum where fans are looking to be entertained. Sports, for so many, serves as a distraction from the problems of everyday life. The last thing people want is for those stressors to sneak into the place they go for entertainment.
Let's say you go somewhere for a massage. It becomes your happy place and you return there for an hour once a month. But all of a sudden, in the same room two people start arguing loudly next to your massage table for the entire time you're there. How long do you put up with it before finding a new place to go? Or ditching the massage altogether?
That's the pickle NASCAR finds itself in now. The best thing that could happen in its first doubleheader Cup weekend of the modern era is two races that match Monday's excitement from Talladega Superspeedway. Without racing, after all, NASCAR's wouldn't have a platform to make the changes they seek in the world.
Let's hope Pocono gives the world a reason to watch.
Pocono Organics 325
Time: 3:30 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Track: Pocono Raceway (Long Pond, Pa.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Ryan Blaney
Less than two weeks ago, I was admittedly hard on Blaney for failing to close out races where he could have finished up front. Well, mission accomplished for him (and egg on my face) after a Manic Monday at Talladega. The No. 12 car was clearly the fastest on track, leading a race-high 63 laps, and Blaney put himself in position when it counted.
Now, that win clinches a playoff spot and adds legitimacy to a season that's one of the best on the circuit. Blaney's seven top-5 finishes tie Denny Hamlin for the series lead and he's risen to third in the point standings, just 25 behind Kevin Harvick.
The playoffs will ultimately determine how far Blaney has come. But races like Talladega move mountains in terms of whether people perceive him as a true title contender.
Who's at the Back: Austin Dillon
The speed for Richard Childress Racing is there; rookie teammate Tyler Reddick has put himself in playoff position. But Dillon, despite the joy of fatherhood (wife Whitney gave birth this month), has struggled under the weight of tough luck. Two incidents not of his making, at Martinsville and Talladega, left him with runs of 37th and 39th. Earning a total of two points, those DNFs saw him plummet out of the playoffs and down to 18th in the standings.
The noose investigation is now complete. The FBI determined Tuesday evening that no hate crime was committed from the discovery Sunday morning at Talladega Superspeedway. Instead, the noose had been hung and sitting there in garage stall four since October 2019. NASCAR President Steve Phelps, in a news conference Thursday, expressed regret that he didn't use the word "allege" in his initial claims that a hate crime was committed before Monday’s rain-delayed GEICO 500.
After some heavy criticism surrounding the investigation, NASCAR released a photo of the rope Thursday which made clear it was, indeed, a noose in the garage area. Phelps also made clear he would make the same decisions if faced with a chance to do it all over again. He also reinforced the most important moment was the driver unity surrounding a universal push of the No. 43 to the front of the grid Monday in support of Bubba.
"I don't think that anyone should hang their head at all," Phelps said. "I think that everyone should hold their head tall on this, stand tall with Bubba on this and stand tall as an industry. That's what we're going to do."
Bubba Wallace, in a teleconference Friday morning, spoke to some of the criticism surrounding the incident. Despite only hearing about the noose after the fact, never involved in its direct reporting, the driver has been the source of plenty of criticism on social media.
"They're afraid of themselves," he said of his critics. "They're afraid of change. Sometimes those are the people that you can't help throughout all the chaos in the world. Those are the ones who need the most help. But, you quickly realize they don't give a damn about you and I don't give a damn about them."
NASCAR by the Numbers
Winners in the season's first 13 races after Ryan Blaney's Talladega win. Those drivers also occupy the first eight spots in NASCAR's point standings, the first time such a weird coincidence has happened under the modern playoff format (2014-present).
Lead changes in Monday's race at Talladega. That's the most in any Cup race here since tandem drafting was a thing in fall 2011 (72 lead changes then).
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Kyle Busch started his Pocono career 0-for-25. Since then? He's won three of the last five races, leading 274 laps in the process and finished no worse than ninth. With Blaney winning at Talladega, Busch is the highest-ranked driver in points still winless this season. Expect him to change that this weekend.
Pocono is one of three tracks where 2014 Cup Series champion Kevin Harvick hasn't won (0-for-38). But seven top-10 finishes in his last eight starts have Harvick knocking on the door of victory lane. With a playoff spot secured, Harvick can put a little boom-or-bust effort into knocking this track off his bucket list.
William Byron remains on the playoff bubble as he still seeks his first top-5 finish of 2020. Can Pocono be a place he breaks through, flashing the speed the rest of Hendrick Motorsports has showcased this season? He's got three straight top-10 finishes at the triangular-shaped track, the most for him anywhere on the Cup circuit.
Another driver fighting for his playoff life (and potentially his 2021 Cup Series future) is Erik Jones. Guess who also has three straight top-5 finishes at Pocono? Just like at Darlington last September, Jones really needs a win to clinch a playoff spot and quiet down the Silly Season chatter surrounding the No. 20 Toyota.
Tyler Reddick isn't driving like a Cup Series rookie, holding on to the 16th and final playoff spot halfway through the regular season. Driving a No. 8 car Daniel Hemric took to seventh place at Pocono last July, Reddick's Richard Childress Racing team is well-positioned to keep building on their 2020 momentum.
All eyes will be on Bubba Wallace after all that's happened over the course of the last two weeks. Pocono hasn't been the best track for him (no top-20 finishes in five career starts). That said, the No. 43 has been performing expectations at several racetracks since NASCAR’s return from COVID-19. He might be a cheap – and a smart – fill-in on your fantasy roster.
What Vegas Thinks
Kyle Busch leads the way with 9/2 odds for the first Pocono races according to vegasinsider.com. Kevin Harvick is next up with 7/1 odds, tied with Martin Truex Jr., Chase Elliott, Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin have 8/1 odds.
Looking for a longshot? Reddick's RCR teammate Austin Dillon is sitting at 100/1. Stranger things have happened.
What I Think
Kyle Busch is the type of wheelman you can't keep down for much longer. After going winless in Cup through 13 races, I say he cleans up by winning not one but two races and sweeping the doubleheader.
No matter who comes out on top, expect the drivers good on Saturday to stay near the front the following day.