What’s your take on the performance of Hendrick Motorsports with the playoffs two weeks away?
Nate Ryan: Darlington was disappointing for the team, but it still is too early to tell. Hendrick didn’t lead any laps in the 2016 Southern 500, either, but when the playoffs opened at Chicagoland Speedway two weeks later, Chase Elliott and Jimmie Johnson led 193 of 270 laps. It’s conceivable the team will flip the switch again.
Dustin Long: I’m with Nate. The performance has been disappointing, but then you look at what Jimmie Johnson and Chase Elliott did last year at Chicagoland Speedway and Johnson’s overall record and it’s hard to count this organization out. Still, it is troubling to see all of its cars struggling to find speed.
Daniel McFadin: HMS has 13 top fives this year —but none since Kasey Kahne pulled out a win at the Brickyard six races ago. They haven’t had the speed to be a consistent presence in the top 10 for months. At this point I’ll be surprised if Jimmie Johnson, who hasn’t finished higher than 10th since he won at Dover in June, is able to make a lot of noise in the first round outside of Dover.
Jerry Bonkowski: Even though there will likely be at least three HMS drivers to start the playoffs, it doesn’t mean that any of them will reach the final round. Sure, Jimmie Johnson has three wins, but no other top fives — and just four other top 10s. Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised to see two, if not all three, HMS drivers fail to advance past the first round.
Martin Truex Jr. has accumulated 52 playoff points with one race left before the postseason – a total far better than any other driver. Does this make him a sure bet to advance all the way to Miami and race for the championship?
Nate Ryan: It would be virtually impossible for him to avoid advancing to the second round, making the third round should be a top-25 cinch, and advancing to Miami shouldn’t be a tall order for this team. A poor finish in the third round probably still knocks out Truex, but he could average a top 10 and easily be racing for a championship for the second time in three years.
Dustin Long: Not a sure bet, but it will give him enough of an advantage to get to at least to the third round. I would be shocked not to see the No. 78 team racing for the championship in Miami.
Daniel McFadin: Truex should be able to waltz through at least the first two rounds, especially with his strong tracks Dover, Charlotte and Chicago waiting for him. But as the final four laps at Darlington showed, it doesn’t matter how good you’ve been in the first 3/4 of race. Anything could trip you up between Chicago and Miami.
Jerry Bonkowski: Truex has had an outstanding regular season and is definitely one of the favorites going into the playoffs. But, if he stumbles in the first round, he could make an early exit like Jimmie Johnson did in 2015. No one is a sure bet in this format, even Truex.
Sunday’s Southern 500 finished with more than 100 laps of green-flag racing. What’s your take on NASCAR being more selective on when it calls debris cautions?
Nate Ryan: It’s commendable. NASCAR should holster the yellow flag for debris whenever possible. Sunday’s finish was a good example of how a track with high tire wear naturally produces drama over the course of a long run without the necessity of re-racking the field with restarts.
Dustin Long: I like that NASCAR has been more selective. It changes the dynamics and strategy. You can still have chaotic finishes (Indy), but by letting the race go green, you can also get a finish like Sunday at Darlington with Denny Hamlin chasing down Martin Truex Jr. for the win.
Daniel McFadin: The lack of mysterious debris cautions is commendable, even if it may or may not have taken criticism from Dale Earnhardt Jr. in a post-race Periscope session (and other complaints) after the June Michigan race for NASCAR to take stock of what it throws cautions for.
Jerry Bonkowski: On the one hand, I like that NASCAR is being more selective with debris cautions. But on the other hand, more than 100 laps of green-flag racing can be a detriment, as fans’ attention spans are short. Plus, it’s hard to beat a late-race restart for excitement and how the race ultimately plays out.