Steve Letarte and Jeff Burton, who will be on NASCAR America from 6 – 6:30 p.m. ET today on NBCSN, join Nate Ryan and Dustin Long in discussing key subjects in NASCAR in this week’s Bump & Run.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is 25th in the points and has not finished better than 14th in a race this season. While most figured it would take some time for him after missing half of last season, what kind of concern is there with how the No. 88 team has started the season?
Jeff Burton: My concern is that it seems to be a Hendrick problem as well. Chase Elliott, the way I see it, is by far the best-running Hendrick car. You have Chase and that team and the other three aren’t performing. That’s my larger concern. Where is the help coming from to get Junior and his team where they need to be? I think there’s real reason for concern. You look at where they are in points. You look at where they are running in the race. It hasn’t been good so far. Certainly got to find a way to be better. Everybody obviously wants to make the playoffs. Right now, their best shot is going to be pointing their way in or Daytona or Talladega. I haven’t seen anything that tells me they’re fast enough to win a race. Certainly time, but they’ve got to get going.
Steve Letarte: The goal, obviously, is to get off to a good start. The concern, more than about where they’re finishing, is how their speed stacks up. At Daytona, they had good speed. At Martinsville, they had good speed, but there have been some other tracks where they have been mired back there in maybe sixth to 15th. I don’t think there should be grave cause for concern at this point, but you never want to use your mulligans early. That’s what I look at. They’ve kind of used their mulligans early. Can he make the playoffs? It has yet to be seen over the course of the summer, but everyone with that type of resources are afforded a couple of hiccups, and I think this team has used most of those early in the season.
Nate Ryan: He ran well at the Daytona 500 before crashing, so he still could make the playoffs via Talladega Superspeedway and Daytona International Speedway. There naturally must be some concern, but the mitigating circumstances here (Dale Jr.’s return from a half-season layoff; Hendrick Motorsports still working to find its groove across the board) should quell some of the angst about an inauspicious beginning to 2017 for the No. 88 Chevrolet. Earnhardt qualified well at Phoenix Raceway and seemed to be improving at Martinsville Speedway before a wreck.
Dustin Long: Dale Earnhardt Jr. understands his predicament, saying in a video after the Martinsville race that he’s in “one hell of a hole” in points. Worse, he’s not shown the speed teammate Chase Elliott has or even Jimmie Johnson has on a consistent basis. The benefit is that there’s still many races left before the playoffs. He has some time, but this team needs to show more in the coming weeks, or the pressure will build.
Kyle Busch was not pleased about how Ricky Stenhouse Jr. moved him out of the way and cost him a stage victory — and a playoff point — at Martinsville. Busch said “Race car drivers are like elephants, they remember everything.’’ What should Stenhouse expect from Busch?
Jeff Burton: The same that he was willing to give Busch. There is no rule that says you can’t do what Stenhouse did, but there is a consequence. When you make that move, it can come with a price. It’s a huge difference being the free-pass car and being on the lead lap at Martinsville. It’s a big difference, huge difference from wherever he started to being the last car on the race track. Now you’re worried about getting lapped again. I understand why Stenhouse did what he did, and I also understand why Busch is upset about it. The thing that always interests me about things like that is that everybody is watching. It’s not just the driver that you moved out of the way, it’s all the other drivers watching, saying, ‘Stenhouse is willing to move him out of the way, so he would be willing to move me out of the way.’ There’s no rule. Drivers have to develop their own code of what they think what is acceptable, but then they have to be willing to live by that code when it happens to them.
Steve Letarte: I think if you are Stenhouse, as you race around him, you have to understand there’s going to be very little give and take. I think Ricky is one of the first drivers, and we’ll continue to see it, it’s going to redefine how you race the leader. That’s what happens when you have a guaranteed yellow. You know you’re coming to the yellow. That’s not a move Ricky Stenhouse makes in the middle of a green-flag run, but he knows he’s coming to the end of the stage, and he wants to save his lap. I think it’s healthy for NASCAR when Ricky Stenhouse puts himself and the effort of Roush Fenway ahead of racing with great etiquette. He even said that was a turning point in the race for him. I think he needs to understand that he now has set the bar of what is acceptable racing, so I wouldn’t expect a lot of room when racing Kyle.
Nate Ryan: He probably will expect a bump or worse the next time they are racing for position, and Stenhouse likely won’t be grousing about it. He understands that turnabout often is fair play in racing.
Dustin Long: He should expect what he gave Busch and likely more. The key is Busch won’t pay Stenhouse back until it hurts Stenhouse like Busch felt losing the stage and one playoff point could hurt him.
With six of 26 regular-season races complete (nearly a quarter of the regular season), what’s something that stands out to you that people might not be talking about as much?
Jeff Burton: I think that Daniel Suarez has been very quiet in being effective. I know coming off of Martinsville, where he had a terrible weekend, it’s easy to forget that. No one is really talking about Daniel Suarez and how he replaced Carl Edwards. He replaced one of the biggest names in the sport. Cup is way harder than Xfinity. In my world, those seventh-place finishes at Auto Club and Phoenix and even in the races prior to that, he sneakily was effective. I personally like rookies whom you kind of look up to at the end of the day and say, ‘Hey, he finished eighth. He finished 10th.’ I think he’s done a better job than the points say.
Steve Letarte: I think the major shift in young drivers. Kyle Larson is highlighting that class, but his unbelievable start has overshadowed some really good runs. Erik Jones has been very good. Ryan Blaney has been very good.
Nate Ryan: The performance of rookie Erik Jones. Some insiders probably would say he has been as impressive as Kyle Larson through the first six races of his first full season in Cup.
Dustin Long: Clint Bowyer has been Stewart-Haas Racing’s top finisher in three of the last four races. After his dreadful year last year with an underfunded team, Bowyer is being rewarded for his patience.
Watch Steve Letarte and Jeff Burton on NASCAR America today from 6 – 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN.