Jeff Burton and Steve Letarte, who appear on NASCAR America from 5:30 – 6 p.m. ET today, join Nate Ryan and Dustin Long, to answer this week’s questions.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has finished 30th or worse in five on the season’s first nine races and is 24th in the points. How much is his back against the wall a third of the way through the regular season?
Steve Letarte: Going into Talladega, it’s really hard to answer this question because Dale has to be looking at this as a huge opportunity to get to Victory Lane, and I think a win cures everything in the current format.
I don’t think it’s time to panic yet, but when NBC comes on the air on the Fourth of July weekend, which will be the last restrictor-plate race before the playoffs, if they’re still on the outside looking in without a win, I think the pressure heading into that weekend will be huge. Not pressing the panic button yet, but I think there’s more importance on this Talladega race weekend for the 88 than maybe in years past.
Jeff Burton: I’d say it’s very much against the wall. It’s putting him in a position of having to win. They’re getting to that position where they have to find a way to win if they want to get themselves in the playoffs. Points are becoming more difficult to get. I think it puts a lot of pressure on Talladega. I think it puts a lot of pressure on Daytona. I think it puts a lot of pressure where he typically is really good.
Nate Ryan: It’s must-win, and Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway might loom as his best opportunity for making the playoffs in his final season. Daytona in July also will offer another strong shot, but it’s hard to point at another track beyond those two as a strong possibility for a breakthrough victory. He can win anytime he starts at Talladega and Daytona (and probably had a car to win the 2017 Daytona 500 before wrecking).
Part of the problem here is the struggles of Hendrick Motorsports. All four of its cars were out to lunch (and mostly outside the top 10) at Richmond. That will preclude the hope of success at most unrestricted tracks and also virtually negates any hope of Earnhardt making the playoffs on points. However, if the team quickly can hit on something and get it implemented in its Chevrolets, Earnhardt historically has run well at Dover, Michigan and Pocono. But there are other tracks (Sonoma, Watkins Glen, Darlington, Charlotte) where an out-of-the-blue win seems much less likely.
Dustin Long: There’s still plenty of time to make the playoffs. Hey, Tony Stewart missed the first eight races last year and made the playoffs, and Kyle Busch missed the first 11 races in 2015 and won the title.
It’s not about making the playoffs at Hendrick, though, it’s about winning championships. With the new points structure, his back is against the wall because he’s falling further behind drivers who have scored playoff points via stage wins or race wins. Those playoff points likely will play a key role in who advances throughout the playoffs. Earnhardt has work to do, but there is some time.
Denny Hamlin, noting the struggles Joe Gibbs Racing has had this year, said that this weekend’s restrictor-plate race at Talladega is “honestly, probably the best chance I have at winning until a few months from now.’’ Do you agree with his assessment?
Steve Letarte: I think that’s a veteran driver deflecting some of the pressure off his team or trying to motivate his team, I’m not sure which. I think they’re closer to winning than Denny is letting on, but he’s also the only guy behind the wheel that knows how his car is driving. Perhaps he’s trying to just define how aggressive he’s going to be at Talladega pre-showing up for the event. I don’t think Joe Gibbs Racing is that far off, but he did say a couple of months and not a couple of years. A couple of months is only the middle of the summer. I would expect to see Joe Gibbs Racing winning races before the playoffs.
Jeff Burton: Things change. I think if you look at the year as a whole, I think you could say that. Watch the last year with Jimmie Johnson. Good race car drivers and good race teams find a way to make things happen. So, yes, I think that’s a fair statement. Three weeks from now, we could be talking about Denny Hamlin winning two in a row. I never trust the pessimism of a driver.
Nate Ryan: Well, this is the guy who picked North Carolina to beat Gonzaga in the NCAA championship before this year’s tournament began.
Hamlin knows the cars well and also is known for speaking accurately and bluntly when asked to provide an assessment. He probably is right that it will be until late summer – Joe Gibbs Racing probably is aiming for the Brickyard – before Toyota Racing Development and the team roll out the next generation of good stuff that will lift the organization back into weekly contention.
This season feels very similar to 2014 when JGR muddled through and won only two races (including one for Hamlin at … Talladega). That remains fresh in the drivers’ minds, and it probably informs some of why Hamlin is gauging the improvement over months instead of weeks.
Dustin Long: Yes. I think the three races after Talladega — Kansas, the All-Star race and the Coca-Cola 600 will be critical for Hamlin and Joe Gibbs Racing since all those races are on 1.5-mile tracks. The key is to show improvement to build throughout the summer.
Since JGR placed all four drivers in the top 10 at Texas in November (Carl Edwards won), the organization has not had a top-five finish in the four races at 1.5-mile tracks since. Admittedly, Kyle Busch was in place to finish in the top five at Las Vegas before the last-lap incident with Joey Logano but it’s clear JGR has work to do on these tracks.
Trevor Bayne and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. hold the final two playoff spots after nine of 26 races in the regular season. Do you think either of them will make the playoffs?
Steve Letarte: I think one Roush Fenway car has odds to make the playoffs. I don’t think there’s room for two even though they hold those spots now. I think we haven’t seen everyone win who we will see win, and that is going to change the playoff picture. I’m not sure they have winning speed yet, but if they can continue to run like they are, show some consistency and really continue to move the ball forward is the key. Where they’re currently at is barely making the playoffs. If they continue to improve, maybe one of them can solidly make the playoffs.
Jeff Burton: I think the best chance for them to make the playoffs is to not have a lot of new winners. The more people that get in by points, the better chance they have of getting in by points. They have shown definitely an uptick in performance, but they haven’t shown winning speed. If you say they have to get in by winning, I think that starts to be problematic for them. I think one of them gets in by points. I think it will be difficult for both of them to get in by points.
Nate Ryan: One of them will: Stenhouse. His improvement is real, and he finally seems to have blended the raw talent with wise decision-making. His rally from an early spin to another top 10 at Richmond (fourth) shows the moxie in his game this season – just like his bump on Kyle Busch at the end of Stage 2 at Martinsville Speedway.
The key will be if Roush Fenway can keep building fast Fords to keep pace. Last year, the team fell off a cliff after May.
Dustin Long: Admittedly, it’s hard to see both making it at this point. That said, I like what I’ve seen from this organization. It is making steady progress.
Roush hasn’t shown the speed to contend for wins. Instead, they’ve taken advantage of some pit calls to score strong finishes. Key is to avoid trouble and bad days. If they can be consistent — and as Nate notes, they struggled after May last year — then Roush could have a car in the playoffs for the first time since 2014.
Watch Jeff Burton and Steve Letarte from 5:30 – 6 p.m. ET on NASCAR America on NBCSN.