Dustin Long

Bump & Run: 2017 NASCAR accolades

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Who is your driver of the year?

Dustin Long: William Byron. While Martin Truex Jr. had the best season, I’m just amazed at what Byron has done with such little experience. Yes, he’s been in top equipment but he’s still had to wheel the car. What Byron already has done makes me wonder just what is to come.

Jerry Bonkowski: Martin Truex Jr. No other driver came close. One of best feel-good stories in NASCAR since Alan Kulwicki won the Cup championship in 1992.

Daniel McFadin: Martin Truex Jr.. Eight wins, his first Cup title and too many career-best stats to list in the most memorable driver campaign over a full season in recent years.

Nate Ryan: Martin Truex Jr. His 2017 ranks with Jimmie Johnson‘s 2007 as the best season of the 21st century in the Cup Series. From start to finish, it’s the best since Jeff Gordon‘s 1998 masterpiece.

 

Who is your rookie of the year?

Dustin Long: William Byron. See previous answer.

Jerry Bonkowski: William Byron. Has made it look easy thus far in his career. Now comes the real test with his promotion next season to Cup racing and Hendrick Motorsports.

Daniel McFadin: William Byron. Won the Xfinity title with four wins, the most among series regulars and once again proved how quickly he can adept to a new level of racing.

Nate Ryan: William Byron. Shows signs of being the most adaptive and talented driver of his generation. When Kyle Busch is praising your “race craft” at the tender age of 19, you are special.

 

Who is your crew chief of the year?

Dustin Long: Cole Pearn. Was strong throughout the season and finished it with a split-second pit call that put Martin Truex Jr. in position to win the championship and close out a fantastic season.

Jerry Bonkowski: Cole Pearn. Overcame adversity several times, kept his cool most of the time, planned strategy methodically and if he or team made a mistake, admitted it and moved on. I truly believe he and Martin Truex Jr. have another one or two more championships in them. 

Daniel McFadin: Cole Pearn. In the first year of the stage format, he figured it out quicker than anyone and schooled the field all season long with Martin Truex Jr.

Nate Ryan: Cole Pearn. For his mastery of stages alone, he earned this crown. But for many other reasons — from his low-key and unthreatening affability that allows him to work seamlessly with Joe Gibbs Racing with a disarming ease … to his disdain for hierarchy that grants his co-workers empowering autonomy that other crew chiefs refuse to cede … to his simple choice of T-shirt over firesuit (“I don’t plan on getting on fire.”) as anti-establishment crew chief attire — he is changing the paradigm of being a team leader in NASCAR.

 

After seeing this playoff format for the first time, is there anything with it or related to it you’d consider changing for next year? Why?

Dustin Long: I’m fine with how it went. Let’s be careful of changing things for change’s sake.

Jerry Bonkowski: While I like the stages format, I feel that each race should be broken down into three stages of equal length. In other words, if it’s a 267-lap race, it should be divided equally to where each stage is 89 laps. Also, I’d like to see lap counting stop after each of the first two stages and resume on the ensuing restart, unlike what we see now where the second and final stages oftentimes log six or seven laps under caution before a restart for the next stage. 

Daniel McFadin: I like this format immensely after just one season. The only change I would like to see is making sure caution laps after stage conclusions don’t count. Starting a stage with four to five laps already ticked off takes away from the fan experience and gives less race for drivers and teams to work with.

Nate Ryan: A minor quibble: The “format” for selecting a champion didn’t change, just the manner in which points were accrued to determine one. That said, the addition of playoff points and stages worked well, producing the most worthy field of championship contenders yet and a deserving champion whose bona fides were tested as much or more than any other since NASCAR switched to a playoff-style structure in 2004.

Staff picks for today’s season finale in Miami

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Here’s a look at who the NBC Sports staff is picking to win today’s Cup race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Nate Ryan

Martin Truex Jr. wins the championship. Denny Hamlin wins the race.

Dustin Long

Martin Truex Jr. wins the race and earns his first Cup title.

Daniel McFadin

Martin Truex Jr. wins his first Cup title as Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s Appreci88ion Tour ends in Victory Lane after the No. 88 starts from the rear of the field.

Jerry Bonkowski

Brad Keselowski holds off Martin Truex Jr. to win the championship, while Matt Kenseth wins what potentially may be the final race of his NASCAR Cup career.

Bump & Run: What to be watching for in Cup title race

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What is one thing you be watching closely among the Cup championship contenders this weekend in Miami?

Nate Ryan: How much they are focused on their cars vs. how much they seemed focused on each other, whether it’s comparatively or for mind games.

Dustin Long: The crew chiefs. The decisions they make will play a significant role in putting their driver in position to win a championship or take them out of it. 

Daniel McFadin: Whether the four championship contenders can run up front all night. I feel like this year might be the first time in the elimination format that the championship winner won’t win the race.

Jerry Bonkowski: How much their teammates will help, especially when it comes to potentially impeding the other championship contenders, could be one of the biggest deciding factors of who is crowned champion. Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch both have three teammates each to help them, while Brad Keselowski and Martin Truex Jr. have one teammate each. The championship could come down to – to borrow a line from The Beatles – which driver gets by the most with a little help from his friends.

If Martin Truex Jr. doesn’t win the Cup title, how would you view his season?

Nate Ryan: Even without a championship, Truex will be remembered as having one of the 10 best seasons in the Cup series during the 21st century. The guess here is that he wins the title, though.

Dustin Long: Incomplete. The dominant driver doesn’t always win the title, just look to last year for the most recent example, but winning the championship would make this a great season for Truex and company. Without a title, it’s a very good season but one that likely will be overlooked by many.

Daniel McFadin: It would be a huge disappointment, especially given how much of the season Truex has led the standings through his dominance in race and stage wins. But it would still be a career-best year as the team has battled multiple off-the-track issues, culminating with team owner Barney Visser missing the title race as he recovers from heart surgery.

Jerry Bonkowski: Even if he falls short of the championship, Truex will have nothing to be ashamed of. He’s had a career season, one that will go down in NASCAR annals as nothing short of excellent. He has established himself as one of the best and most successful drivers in the sport and has a future that looks brighter than ever. This was not a fluke year for MTJ; it’s a sign of potentially even greater things to come in 2018.

How do you explain the last four races for Kyle Larson?

Nate Ryan: The engine failures were just misfortune. Texas appeared to be the case of a driver going beyond the limits after getting frustrated with the handling of a potentially winning car going away, and Martinsville never has been his strong suit. It’s fair to presume if he isn’t eliminated at Kansas, his results probably would be better, but with less to play for, it can have an adverse impact.

Dustin Long: There’s a bumper sticker for this. Stuff happens, or something like that. Larson’s fall has been swift and complete. Some of the issues can be related to being eliminated from title contention.

Daniel McFadin: Extremely out of character, but not surprising for a team eliminated from playoff contention early. Larson’s mind is already on the offseason and the team is likely working on setups for next season. Larson not being in the title race is more disappointing than the likelihood of Truex not winning the title.

Jerry Bonkowski: Has any reporter asked Larson whether he broke any mirrors about a month ago? There’s no logical explanation for the bad luck and misfortune he and the No. 42 team have had. There’s one way to look at it — maybe all of this year’s bad luck will turn into nothing but good luck in 2018.

Staff picks for today’s Cup race at Phoenix Raceway

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Here’s a look at who the NBC Sports staff is picking to win today’s Cup race at Phoenix Raceway.

Nate Ryan

Denny Hamlin. Seemed to have the fastest car in practice and certainly has the will to erase the memory of the 2010 collapse that started in this race.

Dustin Long

Kyle Busch. Not going to see a driver win to earn a spot in the championship round today.

Daniel McFadin

Kevin Harvick keeps his momentum going and claims his ninth Phoenix win.

Jerry Bonkowski

Jimmie Johnson pulls the big upset and roars on to Miami.

Bump & Run: Who completes Championship 4 field?

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Who will be the fourth driver to advance to the championship round in Cup?

Nate Ryan: Denny Hamlin. Phoenix has haunted him in the past as where his championship bids have gone south, but this time the 1-mile track will stoke a comeback for his team. He will earn major stage points in the first two segments, allowing him to put the pressure on Brad Keselowski with a strong finish. Or, he might just win outright there for the first time in five years.

Dustin Long: Brad Keselowski. He won’t lose his advantage on the others.

Jerry Bonkowski: Brad Keselowski punches his ticket to the Championship 4 round at Phoenix. The only real potential threat to Keselowski’s bid is if seven-time NASCAR Cup champ Jimmie Johnson reaches back in his bag of tricks to win in the Valley of the Sun. And knowing how Johnson has found ways to do the impossible numerous times in his career to date, don’t count him out. Keselowski sure won’t.

Daniel McFadin: I see Ryan Blaney finding a way to hop over Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin to be the second Ford driver in the championship round.

How significant was it that Martin Truex Jr. lost a race on a 1.5-mile track so close to Miami?

Nate Ryan: As Truex indicated in his postrace media session, it can be downplayed significantly. He got beat on the final run but was in the ballgame before that at a 1.5-mile track where the Toyotas weren’t that strong this season. He already is looking forward to Miami, where he had a strong test two weeks ago.

Dustin Long: If nothing else, it gives Kevin Harvick’s team confidence and anything positive this late in the season can be a good thing.

Jerry Bonkowski: Much ado about nothing. Sure, he didn’t win for a seventh time on a 1.5-miler this season at Texas, but is second place really a sign of a sudden turn of poor performance? Remember, Truex made a mistake with 10 laps left, allowing Kevin Harvick to pass for the win. Had it not been for Truex’s mistake, he potentially could have won Sunday.

Daniel McFadin: While it’s eyebrow raising that Truex lost, it’s not that big of a deal. Texas is one of the two 1.5-mile tracks he didn’t win at this year in either race there, along with Atlanta. He also didn’t win the Coke 600. Truex still has the most consistent speed, and I would take him in any head-to-head battle with the remaining playoff drivers after Kyle Larson was eliminated.

(Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

Who has a better chance of winning either of the last two races: Matt Kenseth or Dale Earnhardt Jr.?

Nate Ryan: This is tighter than it might seem. Either could win Phoenix – Kenseth probably should have won there last season, and Earnhardt’s No. 88 nearly did … and he won Phoenix in 2015. Kenseth is a better bet at Miami, but in all likelihood, it probably will be a championship-eligible driver who wins there.

Dustin Long: Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Phoenix. The champion – or Kyle Larson – likely will win in Miami.

Jerry Bonkowski: Had it not been for a dumb team mistake at Kansas, Kenseth could potentially still have a chance to reach Miami. But since that is no longer an option, what better way for Kenseth to close out his career than with a final win — especially since he hasn’t had a win yet in 2017. As for Junior, he may have a shot to win at Phoenix, given his past success there. But with his struggles this season, as much as I’d like to see him win one last time, I just don’t see it happening. But you have to admit: if he were to win at Miami, it would be one of the best storylines ever seen in NASCAR: one driver being crowned season champion and Earnhardt winning in his last career Cup race.

Daniel McFadin: Matt Kenseth. The No. 20 has been more competitive all year. But don’t sleep on Earnhardt. The No. 88 team has finished in the top five in two of the last four races at Phoenix, including Earnhardt’s 2015 win in a rain-shortened race. Alex Bowman finished sixth in this race last year after leading 194 laps, so the No. 88 team has a good grasp of what works there.