One of NASCAR’s biggest problems in 2018 is also one of its most frustrating. It’s a woman wreaking havoc on their races, viewership, and reputation; she strikes without mercy and is all-powerful. There’s little, if anything, the sport can do about her other than pray.
Who thought Mother Nature could become such a mortal enemy? But her choices – err, downpours – have been lethal for NASCAR in its bid to rebuild an audience this season.
Bristol Motor Speedway last weekend was the latest to suffer through a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race delayed by rain. We’ve had two such events in eight races, a third run under the constant threat of red flags (Atlanta) and countless practices and qualifying sessions washed out.
It’s a problem seemingly without a solution; these cars can’t run safely on these high-speed ovals with rain tires. But the weather also kept millions from watching arguably the best race of the season Monday. Kyle Busch’s bump and run on Kyle Larson for the win at Bristol is what gave Thunder Valley its nickname. The race had the perfect mix of mashed-up fenders, side-by-side action and unpredictability that made this track one of the sport’s great colosseums.
But it was a once 160,000-seat facility noticeably empty as the forecast simply kept fans away. And for those who bought a ticket, then couldn’t stay until Monday? It makes you wonder how many will come back. Bristol is notorious for price-gouging hotels where hundreds of dollars were wasted just to stay for half a race.
But what can you do? Again, it’s hard to problem solve the sport’s weather woes. You’re not going to build domes over these tracks and rain tires just simply seem untenable. A game of bumper cars would turn demolition derby as it would be near impossible to keep them under control.
Sure, you can run rain tires on road courses, but those tracks make up just eight percent of the sport’s 36-race schedule. Not only will that ratio not change until at least 2021, when the sport’s current track agreements expire, but NASCAR will always be a primarily oval series.
Sometimes, bad weather simply equals bad luck. But for a sport that’s in need of a Golden Horseshoe to rebuild its audience it would be nice to see the sun peek out a few weeks in a row. One out of four races (25 percent) is far too high a rain-delay number to have – especially when both postponements centered on marquee events.
Toyota Owners 400
Time: 6:30 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Track: Richmond Raceway (Richmond, Va.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: 2017 Championship 4
Kyle Busch now has two wins after surging through the field late in Bristol. His six straight top-3 finishes have him on top of the MENCS point standings; that end-of-season bonus would give him the edge over Kevin Harvick.
But Harvick himself is no slouch. Three wins, a series best through eight races, leave them going punch for punch. Add in defending champ Martin Truex Jr., this year’s Fontana winner, and the reigning Championship 4 has won six of the first eight races on tour.
Even the odd man out, Brad Keselowski, sits a solid fifth in the standings. This quartet is making a strong case to reappear as the Homestead title contenders a second straight year.
Who’s at the Back: Chevrolet
Larson’s bump down to runner-up at Bristol is par for the course for these new Camaros. No Chevy driver other than Larson has led more than 40 laps this season; seven-time champ Jimmie Johnson has led zero. They’re a distant third in manufacturer points behind Ford and Toyota and their top team, Hendrick Motorsports, remains a step behind the curve.
Can the Bowtie Brigade turn it around? They had 17 cars entered at Bristol, the most of any manufacturer. But sometimes, quantity doesn’t mean quality as these teams struggle to adjust to a new model.
Related Content on Frontstretch.com: Ford Must Avoid Chevy's Mistakes
Ford is following in the footsteps of Chevrolet and introducing their NASCAR XFINITY Series model into Cup competition. One year after Chevy’s Camaro upgrade, the manufacturer will run Mustangs beginning with the 2019 season in a match they say combines “America’s sports car with America’s top racing series.” It’s just the fourth model Ford has run in Cup during the sport’s modern era (1972-present) joining the Thunderbird, the Taurus and the Fusion.
Former Truck Series regular Timothy Peters will return to NASCAR next weekend at Talladega. Peters will run the No. 92 car for Ricky Benton Racing as the team attempts to run their second Cup race. Sponsorship will be provided by Advance Auto Parts as RBR looks to build on their 14th-place finish at Daytona with David Gilliland. Peters, 37, would be making his first start in the Cup Series.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. finds himself more secure at Roush Fenway Racing this week as most of his primary sponsors signed long-term extensions. SunnyD, Fastenal and Fifth Third Bank joined together in a deal that keep them backing his No. 17 Ford through the 2021 Cup Series season. While owner Jack Roush will be 79 years old then such a long-term commitment makes it clear RFR isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Career start for Martin Truex Jr. in the Cup Series this weekend at Richmond.
Average finish this season for Clint Bowyer, the best of his NASCAR Cup Series career and third best overall behind Kyle Busch and Joey Logano. Bowyer averaged a 15.5 average finish last year (he missed the NASCAR playoffs).
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Kyle Larson might be a man on a mission this weekend at Richmond Raceway. A few days after watching the win slip away at Bristol the No. 42 Chevy seeks revenge at one of his best racetracks. Larson won the pole in his first career Cup race at Richmond and has never finished lower than 16th in eight career starts. Add in a win last fall (his first) and I’d expect Larson to run up front early and often Saturday night.
Looking for a backup? You can’t go wrong with the Championship 4 grouping we mentioned earlier in the column. Kyle Busch has four career wins here; Kevin Harvick has three. Martin Truex Jr. led 198 laps here last fall before a late wreck wiped out his chance to win; Brad Keselowski has won here as recently as 2014.
The moral to this story? There’s good choices virtually everywhere you look on top of the list.
Related: Toyota Owners 400 DraftKings Lineup
Looking for a time to jump back on the Jimmie Johnson bandwagon? How about now. The No. 48 team is coming off their first top-5 finish of the year at Bristol and has a history of consistency at this racetrack. While Johnson hasn’t won here since 2008 he’s run 11th or better in seven straight Richmond races. Close to half (41 percent) of the time, he’s run inside the top 10 with a reasonable career average finish of 15.6. Short tracks are where ailing Hendrick Motorsports can make up for their speed deficit with driver talent; now is when Johnson has his best value in daily fantasy.
Richmond was one of Aric Almirola’s best tracks with Richard Petty Motorsports. He earned four top-10 finishes here in 12 career starts despite never leading a lap at this track. Could he be even better in 2018 driving for the best team on the circuit in Stewart-Haas Racing?
Poor Michael McDowell. A top-10 effort with an underdog program was wasted at Bristol; he was wrecked out of the race on lap 3. McDowell is hoping for better this weekend at a track where he’s run top 20 in two of his last three starts. His Front Row Motorsports No. 34 team has proven they’ve got a quality short track program; teammate David Ragan ran 12th at Bristol. His low cash value in daily fantasy makes him a great dark horse pick.
What Vegas Thinks
According to Vegas Insider, Kyle Busch has 7/2 odds to win Richmond with Kevin Harvick close behind at 9/2. Hometown boy Denny Hamlin sits third with 13/2 odds at press time.
What I Think
I think Kyle Larson is ready to rumble. The young star makes up for his late-race stumble at Bristol and dominates Richmond to give Chevrolet its first win since February’s Daytona 500.
— 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 firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Top photo courtesy of ASP, Inc.)