Parker Kligerman joins Dale Jarrett, Slugger Labbe, Nate Ryan, Ato Boldon and Carolyn Manno from 5:30 – 7 p.m. today on NASCAR America. Kligerman, Ryan, Steve Letarte and Dustin Long discuss this week’s hot topics.
If you were on Kyle Busch’s team, what would be your mindset? Frustrated the team is winless this season or encouraged by the fact the car has been fast and in position to win races?
Steve Letarte: If I was the crew chief, I’ve been in that position before and I think the important thing is you be honest with your guys. You let them know it’s OK to be frustrated. You should be frustrated. You want to win, you expect to win, you’ve had cars fast enough to win, but you need to temper that frustration by showing them how bad it could be. I’d give them some examples of teams that just don’t have the speed. I’d show them how many laps we’ve led and continue to give them reason to be excited to go back to the race track, but at the same time I’d encourage their frustration because it’s real. I think if you hide from it, it’s just going to get worse.
Parker Kligerman: Simply, keep doing what you’re doing. In my opinion, this is the sole in-house JGR car that has rid itself of the speed woes of earlier this season and has only been held back from victory lane by circumstance. I will go on a limb to say the No. 18 will win at least one race before the regular season is done.
Nate Ryan: If you are employed by a master motivator such as Joe Gibbs, you will maintain a positive mindset despite all the adversity and agony this season. Busch feasibly could have as many as eight victories this season if execution and events had broken a different way. Gibbs will keep the focus on being in position to win so many races rather than having so many that were lost. The recent improvement of his teammates (Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth ran well at Michigan) lessens the pressure on Busch carrying the banner at Joe Gibbs Racing, and the team’s resurgence will be stamped by a Busch win within the next three weeks.
Dustin Long: To go this long without a win would be frustrating. This team is built to win and expected to do so. Adding to the frustration is how this stretch could hurt this team win a championship. Look at all the playoff points that have slipped away in this winless streak. For as good as this team has been — Busch has led at least double-digit laps in each of the last six races — the No. 18 crew needs to see a reward for all its work. And see it soon.
Name one driver you will be watching in the coming weeks and why.
Steve Letarte: Without a doubt the 88 of Dale Jr. has to be the biggest one. He had a good run at Michigan but didn’t really gain a lot of points and that’s my fear for the 88. I don’t see them pointing their way in. I just don’t see it. There are too many good cars that haven’t won a race. I think the 88 is going to have to look for victory lane. I’ll be keeping my eye on the 88 to see if they can turn that good run at Michigan somehow into a win.
Parker Kligerman: Dale Earnhardt Jr. And no it’s not because of him being so popular. I believe over the next 11 races we will either see a resurgence out of the 88, or we are saying thanks for participating. As the rest, the focus moves onto the playoffs and eventually who will be in the 2017 champion. But, for the 88 fans, there is hope. I can confidently say that at Michigan the 88 was a top-five car. If he was able to get track position in that race (not being the first car on two tires) he would have easily finished in the top-five speed wise. Add in the great recovery through the field in the final couple laps to get to ninth and this momentum is exactly what they need going into two unique races. Lastly, I believe he has actually had one of the best average finishes at Sonoma in the last three years – maybe we are talking about Dale Jr.’s first road course win come Monday?
Nate Ryan: Matt Kenseth. Is this the last season of his career? His last season at Gibbs? The answers are scant about the veteran’s future, but the 45-year-old has indicated he wants to keep driving, and his results during this upcoming stretch might carry a long way in determining how he closes an impressive career on the premier circuit.
Dustin Long: Kyle Larson. Does he show he is a true championship contender? Can he and his team continue to hold an advantage on the field or will they be caught heading toward the playoffs? All signs point to Larson being a leading title contender at this point, but how often have you seen someone excel in the first half of the season only to fade at the end and not be in the championship hunt?
With 11 races left until the playoffs start, these drivers are outside a playoff spot: Clint Bowyer, Erik Jones, Trevor Bayne, Daniel Suarez, Kasey Kahne, Ty Dillon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Which of these is most likely to make the playoffs?
Steve Letarte: I think it’s Erik Jones. I think he’s driving the best equipment of that group, going off how fast (teammate) Martin Truex Jr. is. I like Daniel Suarez and the same argument could be made for him, but I think he is just a little down in the experience level of Erik Jones. I don’t know the reason why, whether it’s the fact that Erik Jones had more time to mentally prepare for the Cup Series where Daniel just found out in January. But in that list, I feel the best about Erik Jones finding a way to bounce his way in.
Parker Kligerman: Clint Bowyer, as he has been the fastest of this group consistently. I would say his main foil could come in the form of an Erik Jones win or stretch of solid races. But with Bowyer’s prowess at Sonoma, I think he will start to build solid momentum and propel himself into the playoffs.
Nate Ryan: Bowyer should be able to scratch his way back into a playoff berth, and Jones has matured quickly enough that the speed might allow stealing a win in the next three months. Short of a Daytona swan song by Earnhardt, I can’t see postseason spots for any of the rest.
Dustin Long: Dale Earnhardt Jr. wins a race to make the playoffs. It most likely comes at Daytona, but if not there, it will happen before the playoffs begin.