Do you like the 2018 season in NASCAR’s premier series?
The answer is subjective, but its parameters are essentially objective.
Every response will involve some combination of the dominance of Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr., the failures of other contenders trying to match The Big Three and the struggles of everyone else in making hardly any gains.
There have been more than a few suggestions on satellite radio and social media that this has made for a predictable or maybe even tedious refrain.
So let’s try rephrasing the question with entirely new wording.
Did you like Sunday’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway?
All of the recurring themes that have formed the overarching narratives of 2018 were encapsulated in just under three hours on the 1.058-mile oval, and it crystallized into a highly entertaining show at a track that has fallen short on drama a few times in recent Cup races.
New Hampshire wasn’t the best race of the season – we’ll let the slobberknocker finishes of the Daytona 500 and Chicagoland Speedway duke it out for that title — but it certainly is in the conversation for the top five (at least, according to one popular unscientific sampling of several thousand loyal Twitter followers).
Regardless of where you stand on the merits of a season built upon a trio of drivers winning 75 percent of the first 20 races, Sunday proved there is promise when the limited cast of leading roles and their supporting players work in concert to paint a 301-lap mosaic punctuated by plot twists and caution flags that were perfectly timed.
The perfectly executed bump and run by Harvick on Busch was merely the exclamation point on a race with familiar storylines but yet still an unpredictable bent.
We’ve seen Aric Almirola’s team squander race-winning cars before, but not in two major mistakes (first by the pit crew, then by the driver) – the culmination of a daisy-chain series of events touched off by teammate Clint Bowyer’s mechanical problems.
The struggles of Hendrick Motorsports’ Chevrolets have been well documented, but New Hampshire brought the team’s first stage win and the solidification of three Camaros in provisional playoff spots on points.
Yes, it helps when Harvick, Busch and Truex are battling to stay at the front instead of steamrolling the field. But even when they are excelling, the races still can be compelling.
Consider how many times The Big Three (who, by the way, still haven’t finished 1-2-3 in a race) have finished in the top five together this season. Of those eight races, two are among the year’s best (Chicagoland and New Hampshire) and two were at least in the top half (Martinsville and Phoenix). A case can be made that Sonoma, which featured some a memorable strategy duel between Harvick and Truex, was underrated. Pocono could be labeled as average.
There is no defending Las Vegas and Kentucky. Throw in Busch’s rout at Charlotte and possibly Truex’s thumping at Fontana as being less than engrossing.
That’s four races in which The Big Three’s victory dominance might have had an adverse effect on delivering a captivating race… but at least four more (and possibly five) in which their excellence might have been a major enhancement.
That was especially true at New Hampshire, where Harvick, Busch and Truex always seemed to be forcing the action without always being at the center of it.
So do you like the 2018 season in NASCAR’s premier series?
Objectively, it seems fair to at least let the rest of the season unfold before subjectively judging its worth.
Some of the pushback on bringing an Xfinity or Cup race to Eldora Speedway seems to be rooted in the optics of a return to dirt racing being equated with regression. That seems to be the case for Richard Petty, who watched NASCAR’s premier series evolve into exclusively pavement mostly in the name of progress roughly four decades ago.
It’s understandable that dirt would be synonymous with substandard for Petty, who raced far too many dusty ovals with rundown facilities than he probably cares to remember.
But it’s a deeply flawed perception to simply dismiss Eldora as bush league because of its surface. Though built in 1954, it’s a retrofitted 21st-century jewel that sprouts from the farmlands of Darke County in western Ohio.
Since buying the half-mile oval nearly 14 years ago, owner Tony Stewart has plowed millions into renovations on par with many speedways on the Cup circuit. In the last few years, it’s added a new infield care center with state-of-the-art equipment that would match track hospitals at Daytona or Indianapolis (and with a dedicated helipad for medical transport), a new HD video screen, a first-class media center and a three-story building with 16 suites.
Its races are available via live streaming, and its PA, lighting, drainage and well systems have been significantly upgraded. There are more improvements planned, and Stewart surely would ramp those up if granted another national series race by NASCAR.
Beyond just meeting the standards of a regulation-issue sanction agreement, dirt tracks such as Eldora also should be given credence because there also is a healthy appetite for well-produced throwback racing. Petty’s comments Tuesday came at a NASCAR Hall of Fame unveiling of his team’s retro 1972 paint scheme on the No. 43 that Bubba Wallace will drive in the Southern 500.
Darlington Raceway’s nostalgia-driven renaissance on Labor Day should be all the proof needed that there’s no shame in going back to the future for NASCAR.
The caution that effectively determined Sunday’s race at New Hampshire came 30 laps after the yellow flag remained holstered for a similar incident but with an important difference.
When Ricky Stenhouse Jr. hit the Turn 4 wall on Lap 225, it was in the midst of a green-flag pit cycle that was completed when Clint Bowyer scraped the wall between turns 3 and 4 on Lap 256 to set up the final shootout.
While NASCAR said it was the debris field caused by Bowyer’s incident that triggered the yellow, teams surely took notice of how the race was called during what could have been the race’s last round of pit stops.
Given that a yellow flag caused by a brush with the wall at Richmond last September cost Martin Truex Jr. a victory, teams undoubtedly are recording each NASCAR officiating decision as a data point for determining how to handle strategy for the playoffs.
Parker Kligerman said on NASCAR America last week that Roush Fenway Racing had shifted into using the No. 6 Ford as its test bed as the team tries to qualify Stenhouse for the playoffs.
That makes Kenseth’s drive to 15th after qualifying 31st at New Hampshire intriguing. While he still ran behind Stenhouse for much of the race until his teammate hit the wall, the result and the car’s reliability had to be encouraging for Roush.
If he is to succeed in making the playoffs on points over the final six races of the regular season, Stenhouse needs more speed and no failures. If the experimental parts that went the distance on Kenseth’s car Sunday are a durable new option, anything might help for Stenhouse at this point.
It falls in the category of “good problems to have,” but Christopher Bell’s ongoing success in the Xfinity Series eventually could lead to some difficult decisions for Joe Gibbs Racing and Bell’s hearty supporters at Toyota Racing Development.
Bell almost certainly will spend the 2019 season in the Xfinity Series, but if he has another year like 2018 (particularly if he captures the championship), it’ll virtually demand a promotion to the Cup Series in 2020.
It’s hard to envision how JGR opens a spot in its driver lineup by then, but if Bell truly appears to be the next Kyle Larson, these things do have a way of getting sorted.
At the beginning of 2016, it also would have been hard to envision Daniel Suarez and Erik Jones in Cup rides at JGR two years later.