Bump & Run

Bump and Run: Biggest surprise, disappointment of 2019

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Biggest surprise and disappointment in the first half of the regular season?

Nate Ryan: Surprise — Alex Bowman. Disappointment — Erik Jones

Dustin Long: Surprise — The lack of cautions from accidents, particularly multiple cars, with the field closer and the blocking so prevalent. Disappointment — That Stewart-Haas Racing remains winless after winning 12 races last year. SHR has three stage wins this season compared to eight at this point last year.

Daniel McFadin: Surprise — That Circuit City still exists as a primarily online store and will return as a full-time sponsor for Shane Lee in the Xfinity Series. Disappointment — That Ross Chastain didn’t declare for points in the Gander Outdoors Truck Series. He’s the only Truck Series driver who has finished in the top 10 in all eight races so far and he’d be locked into the playoffs with his Kansas win.

Jerry Bonkowski: Biggest surprise — Kurt Busch has been outstanding since coming to Chip Ganassi Racing. It’s only just a matter of time before he reaches victory lane. Biggest disappointment — Bubba Wallace was primed for a strong season, but he’s done nothing but struggle for much of the first 13 races – his advancing to and finishing fifth in the All-Star Race notwithstanding.

Who will you be watching closely in the second half of the regular season?

Nate Ryan: Kyle Larson

Dustin Long: Kyle Larson. He’s on a 59-race winless streak and holds the final transfer spot for the playoffs. Can he and his team be stronger to ensure a playoff spot and be relevant in the race for a championship?

Daniel McFadin: Alex Bowman. After no tops 10s in the first nine races, he has four straight leaving the Coke 600. I think he could be very dangerous going forward.

Jerry Bonkowski: Jimmie Johnson. I feel confident that he’ll not only break his 72-race winless streak that dates back to Dover in spring 2017, but that he’ll be part of the final four heading into Miami for the season-ending championship race. The seven-time champ is a hot streak waiting to happen.

Will all 16 drivers in a playoff spot now make the playoffs? If not, who outside a playoff spot will make it?

Nate Ryan: At least one from the trio of Erik Jones, Ryan Newman and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. will make it and possibly all three.

Dustin Long: No. Erik Jones will find his way into the playoffs.

Daniel McFadin: No, I think one or two drivers outside the top 16 will sneak in, and I guess Erik Jones and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. right now.

Jerry Bonkowski: No. I think Ryan Newman has a good chance if he develops better consistency in the second half of the regular season. Likewise for his Roush Fenway Racing teammate, Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Bump & Run: Was Clint Bowyer justified to be upset with Erik Jones at Kansas?

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Was Clint Bowyer justified to be angry with Erik Jones for blocking on the last lap at Kansas, or did Jones have a point that the current style of 1.5-mile racing demands such moves?

Nate Ryan: Both drivers could make legitimate cases for their actions. Bowyer absolutely cut Jones a break by backing off on the last lap and giving up a shot at finishing second, which had to be hard to swallow at the home-state track where the Stewart-Haas Racing driver is so desperate to win. But Jones’ point on the aggressive and risky moves required by the drafting package also is well taken. As Cup drivers adapt their racecraft to this style, and if there are more races similar to Kansas, it’s likely there will be more instances such as these. That could be good for rivalry-building in NASCAR but frustrating for those behind the wheel.

Dustin Long: Welcome to racing with this rules package. If there are more late-race cautions, expect more extreme maneuvers and blocking. Bowyer had every right to be upset, but Jones had every right to defend his position. Until NASCAR starts penalizing drivers for blocking, expect these types of moves to continue.

Daniel McFadin: It was the last lap of an overtime finish. I expect a driver to do whatever they can to advance their position or protect their position in that instance. Bowyer has every right to be annoyed, but that’s racing. 

Jerry Bonkowski: I understand both drivers’ arguments. Bowyer has never won at his home Cup track and was pressing for a top-three finish. Jones, who has struggled at times, was looking for his best finish of the season (and wound up tying it). This is yet another example why NASCAR should implement rules against blatant blocking.

 

There have been six different winners as the Cup Series nears the halfway point in the regular season. How many drivers will qualify for the playoffs via wins when the regular season ends?

Nate Ryan: There will be 10 and here are my four predictions of those winners: Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer, Kyle Larson and Erik Jones.

Dustin Long: Ten drivers will make the playoffs via wins.

Daniel McFadin: I’m going to go with 11 drivers qualifying via wins.

Jerry Bonkowski: Given that there are 14 more races left in the regular season, I believe we’ll see four or five more different winners. In addition, several of the frontrunners to date may go into slumps themselves, which could further shake things up (much like Kyle Busch finished 30th at Kansas after 11 consecutive top-10 finishes). 

 

Is Brad Keselowski right that many wins are coming soon for Alex Bowman, or did the way the No. 88 driver lost at Kansas underscore that Bowman still needs more improvement?

Nate Ryan: Three consecutive runner-up finishes show that Bowman and his team are consistently putting themselves in position to win, but the Hendrick Motorsports driver rightfully was beating himself up after Kansas. Beyond being able to register fast laps with a good car, managing restarts and traffic are essential to being a winner in NASCAR’s premier series. Bowman struggled with both Saturday: losing the lead to teammate Chase Elliott on a Lap 229 restart and then losing the race to Keselowski by misjudging a lapped car on Lap 261. That makes it harder to declare he’s on the verge of a breakthrough.

Dustin Long: Bowman’s recent run has been impressive but he needs improvement — as many drivers who have limited experience running at the front. 

Daniel McFadin: At this point it feels inevitable that Bowman will steal a win somewhere (possibly Pocono). But Bowman does need more experience when it comes to leading in Cup. His 63 laps led were his most in a race since he led 194 at Phoenix in 2016 when he was a substitute driver for Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Jerry Bonkowski: I agree with Keselowski that Bowman will win — and soon. Some may say his Talladega runner-up was a fluke, but there’s no denying he drove his butt off for second-place showings at Dover and Kansas. But Bowman still needs improvement; he learned a valuable lesson in the way he was snookered by Keselowski at Kansas. It’s a lesson he likely won’t forget any time soon.

Bump & Run: Will Talladega win start Chase Elliott on a roll?

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Chase Elliott won the playoff races last year at Dover and Kansas — the next two races on the schedule. After his Talladega victory last weekend, do you believe he could be starting on a roll?

Nate Ryan: Yes. Elliott’s team seems to thrive off momentum (which is always a nebulous concept in auto racing but seems real in some instances). Regardless of whether he’d won at the next two tracks, expect Elliot’s surge to continue.

Dustin Long: Teams say momentum is meaningful in a sport that can be so grinding. While that will help, there’s still the matter of trying to beat the cars of Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske on the track. Coming off a win helps make that task seem easier for the No. 9 team. Wouldn’t be surprised to see the performance improve but not sure it will lead Elliott back to victory lane immediately.

Daniel McFadin: I’m somewhat skeptical. While he has an average finish of 4.3 at Dover (his best at any track) Elliott’s two top fives this year have come at Martinsville and Talladega, which are drastic departures from what the series experiences regularly. His only other top 10 so far was a ninth at Las Vegas. I expect to see improvement at Dover but not a win for Elliott.

Jerry Bonkowski: Not necessarily. It’s much easier to compare Dover and Kansas than Talladega and the other two. That being said, Elliott’s win at Talladega will certainly boost not only his team’s morale, but also that of Hendrick Motorsports overall.

 

NASCAR has held the yellow flag (at least initially) for a head-on crash on the last lap of the past two races at Talladega (Matt DiBenedetto last October; Ricky Stenhouse Jr. on Sunday). Should officials go that far to ensure a green-flag finish?

Nate Ryan: Common sense says no. Every second matters in accident response time, and it would be impossible to determine instantaneously that DiBenedetto and Stenhouse were fine after such heavy impacts. If driver safety is a top priority, that risk should outweigh the desire to deliver a green-flag finish. But there’s also been seemingly little pushback on NASCAR from drivers and teams about this policy, and if they’re OK with it, then it’s hard to fault NASCAR. There is some measure of risk assumption as a race car driver, but those risks also should be minimized as much as possible in the moments immediately after hitting a wall at 190 mph.

Dustin Long: Officials had more time to analyze Stenhouse’s wreck before making a decision to throw the caution flag because of Talladega’s size. NASCAR needs to be careful in overanalyzing such scenarios. Yes, it’s preferable to finish under green but driver safety must always be paramount.

Daniel McFadin: The caution needs to be put out for any impact with the wall that immobilizes a car. If it’s a harmless spin, no need for a caution. But the safety and well-being of a driver should be more important than a green-flag finish. It’s better to be safe than sorry.

Jerry Bonkowski: They likely held the flag because of Talladega’s size. You likely wouldn’t see the same thing happen at a smaller track like the next few on the schedule, including Dover, Kansas and Charlotte. Frankly, I’d like to see a yellow come out immediately due to a wreck on the last lap, rather than try and hold it like it has done so the last two races at ‘Dega.

 

Now that Chevrolet teams are working together, what must Toyota, which has the fewest cars in the field, do to combat the strength in numbers of Chevrolet and Ford in the next speedway race in Daytona in July?

Nate Ryan: There isn’t much that can be done, but with 100 fewer miles and cooler conditions at night, the July 6 race could play out much differently than the Daytona 500 with a de-emphasis on the importance of teamwork.

Dustin Long: Just like in any sports, the strongest and best do not always win. Strategy can overcome such obstacles. Toyota might have to come up with a different strategy to counter the challenges. What that will be? Toyota and its teams have a couple of months to figure that out.

Daniel McFadin: If there’s strength in numbers, Daytona might be the right time for Toyota to field a second car through Leavine Family Racing with Christopher Bell behind the wheel. But even that won’t help if you lose multiple cars in early wrecks.

Jerry Bonkowski: Toyota — and Ford, for that matter — definitely took notes on how their Chevy counterparts performed at Talladega. And they will definitely apply those notes to Daytona in July. Because Toyota has fewer cars, they in theory have to work harder.

Bump & Run: Recounting most memorable Cup races

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What are the two or three most memorable NASCAR races you attended?

Nate Ryan: June 21, 1997, California Speedway: New NASCAR sensation Jeff Gordon christens Roger Penske’s new racing palace with a victory in its inaugural race weekend that also was the first Cup experience for many in attendance (including this writer). July 7, 2001, Daytona International Speedway: In one of the most feel-good moments in NASCAR history, Dale Earnhardt Jr. wins the first Cup race held at the track since his father’s death there five months earlier. Aug. 7, 2005, Indianapolis Motor Speedway: Tony Stewart finally breaks through at the hometown track that tormented him for a decade, climbing the fence after a Brickyard victory that became the signature moment of his second championship season. 

Dustin Long: The inaugural Brickyard 400 at Indy in 1994 with that massive crowd, Dale Earnhardt trying to lead that opening lap, the Bodine brothers brouhaha and Jeff Gordon winning it. The October 2000 Talladega race that Earnhardt rallied from 18th with five laps left to win. July 2001 when Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the first Cup race at Daytona after his father’s death.

Daniel McFadin: My first NASCAR race ever in 1997 with the inaugural Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway when I was 6. Flash forward to 2011 for my first race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. I witnessed Paul Menard‘s surprise Brickyard 400 win over Jeff Gordon. But as an adult, the most exciting race I’ve ever attended was last year’s inaugural Cup event on the Charlotte Roval. The final lap is one of the wildest things I’ve ever seen and probably will see in the near future.

Jerry Bonkowski: The 1988 Checker 500 at the then-Phoenix International Raceway. It was Alan Kulwicki’s first career Winston Cup win and he celebrated by performing the first-ever “Polish Victory Lap,” where he drove in the opposite direction around the 1-mile track before going on to victory lane. The 1994 Brickyard 400. It was near-magical with a sellout crowd watching the first time NASCAR had ever raced upon the greatest racetrack in the world. The 2011 Ford 400. Tony Stewart won the race and captured his third career NASCAR Cup championship. But after the race was the most surreal setting I’ve ever seen in racing. As Stewart celebrated his win, it was also announced that crew chief Darian Grubb was being fired. It was such an awkward scene, but to Grubb’s credit, he handled it like the true pro he is, answering all questions — even the ones that involved his firing.

 

Talladega, Dover, Kansas, All-Star Race and the Coca-Cola 600 are the next five Cup events. What will you be watching for in this next stretch?

Nate Ryan: Whether the Gibbs-Penske stranglehold is broken.

Dustin Long: What team or teams can get to victory lane that don’t run for Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske. Can Kyle Larson shake his poor start and be a factor? Also will be curious to see how the package fares in these races, particularly the 1.5-mile tracks. 

Daniel McFadin: I’m interested to see how the rules package performs at Charlotte a year after its early draft was introduced in the All-Star Race. This package was introduced to improve competition on 1.5-mile tracks, with Charlotte being one of the main culprits. The All-Star Race and the Coke 600 will be the most significant tests for the package yet for me.

Jerry Bonkowski: Whether teams that have struggled or haven’t enjoyed better overall success in the first quarter of the season start to rebound. Will we see upward movement in the standings and better performance from guys like Jimmie Johnson, Chase Elliott, William Byron, Alex Bowman, Austin Dillon, Daniel Hemric, Bubba Wallace, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ryan Newman and others? To me, the key race will be the 600. If teams that have struggled up to now don’t start turning things around by the Memorial Day weekend race, will their seasons essentially be lost by then?

 

Talladega is Dash 4 Cash race in the Xfinity Series. Drivers earning Cup points are barred from competing in 12 of 33 Xfinity races (Dash 4 Cash races and final eight races of the year). Is that enough?

Nate Ryan: Too many. Would prefer to see the trend toward restricting lower-level starts be reversed. 

Dustin Long: Don’t need to further bar drivers scoring Cup points from any other Xfinity races.

Daniel McFadin: I’m for limiting Cup drivers as much as possible in Xfinity, but the 12 races overall is reasonable given the significance of those races. Only alteration I’d propose: Outside those races, Cup drivers with more than five years of experience can’t compete in consecutive races.

Jerry Bonkowski: Given that Cup regulars with more than five years of full-time experience in the series are even more restricted — to just seven starts per season in the Xfinity Series — yes, I feel that’s enough. Cup drivers doing any more than seven Xfinity starts — not including Cup regulars with less than five years of full-time Cup experience — would water down the chance for the Xfinity regulars to shine on their own.

 

Bump & Run: What should NASCAR do about inspection violations before race?

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Eight of 37 cars failed inspection before the Richmond Cup race and lost their starting spot. Is there a better way for NASCAR to handle such infractions to limit talk before a race being about penalties?

Nate Ryan: There has to be a solution, and whatever it is, NASCAR needs to implement it quickly. Switching from headlines about woes in postrace inspection to woes in prerace inspection is an improvement, but the preferred solution should be no headlines about inspection at all. 

Dustin Long: Until NASCAR figures out a way to do things differently, inspection failures will dominate talk before a race, especially if it involves more than 20% of the field as it did at Richmond.

Daniel McFadin: Unless you change the penalties for failing inspection (again), the cars will fail regardless of if you hold qualifying inspection right after qualifying or on race day. Only real solution I can think of is to have inspection before qualifying and for that to be the only inspection until after the race. That would just continue the endless cycle we seem to be in on the issue.

Jerry Bonkowski: It’s just the nature of the beast, particularly when you have such a large number of cars that failed pre-race inspection. The larger the number of cars penalized, the greater the attention that is placed upon the situation by the media. Perhaps more attention should be focused on what NASCAR could do to improve and streamline the overall inspection process. And if it has to swing the pendulum even further, increase penalties to keep crew chiefs from playing games with their cars. Kick out the crew chief from the race, or perhaps hold the car for the first five laps of the race. That will change things in a hurry.

NASCAR tried another format for Cup qualifying at Richmond, limiting each round to five minutes. Should this be the format at most tracks the rest of the season?

Nate Ryan: Makes no difference here as long as the focus is on qualifying results and whoever won the pole position, not on the process for getting there. 

Dustin Long: Whatever it does, NASCAR needs to get out of this rabbit hole soon.

Daniel McFadin: I’m 50/50 on this. I’d prefer the first round being 10 minutes at anything larger than 1 mile, which allows teams to make more than one run – but that’s based on the premise drivers won’t wait until the final minute to make their first.

Jerry Bonkowski: Five minutes works fine on short tracks. Not so much on longer tracks of 1.5 miles and greater. That’s why I believe open qualifying should be replaced by having two to four cars (depending on the size of the racetrack) go out at a time for two or three qualifying laps. This creates attention and a kind of race-within-qualifying excitement among fans to see which driver can “beat” the other drivers, so to speak.

There’s been a lot of talk about what Joe Gibbs Racing will do with its Cup lineup for next year with Christopher Bell’s continued success in Xfinity, but Cole Custer has won twice for Stewart-Haas Racing in Xfinity. What kind of dilemma could SHR face with its driver lineup for 2020?

Nate Ryan: With no disrespect to Cole Custer, he has yet to show he is in Christopher Bell’s league, nor is there the external pressure of a huge investment in his development to avoid letting a coveted prospect escape (as is the case with the millions Toyota Racing Development has spent on grooming Bell). Because Custer is related to the SHR executive Joe Custer and effectively sponsored by team owner Gene Haas, the dynamics are incomparable. If Custer shows enough promise for promotion, the team probably could make room in Cup next season, but there is no sense of urgency as exists with Bell.

Dustin Long: Gene Haas said last year that Cole Custer needed to win more often. If Custer continues to do so, it will make him a more inviting driver for a team, whether that is SHR or another Ford operation.

Daniel McFadin: Cole Custer is already in his third full-time Xfinity season, which makes him middle-aged in Xfinity driver years. While we’re not privy to driver contract lengths, Kevin Harvick is locked in to at least 2021, Daniel Suarez is in his first and Aric Almirola continues to be strong in his second year. Clint Bowyer probably has the biggest question mark being in his third year with the team. Gene Haas will have to decide who’s a better long-term investment: A 39-year-old Bowyer or a 21-year-old Custer. Bowyer grabbing some wins this year could complicate that.

Jerry Bonkowski: One potential option could be embedding Bell with another Toyota team such as Leavine Family Racing in 2020, like when Erik Jones was with Furniture Row Racing in 2017. I think you’ll see a similar embed of Custer with another Ford team, perhaps Front Row Motorsports. Or, because Custer’s father, Joe, is a top executive at SHR, it would not surprise me to see Daniel Suarez shifted to another Ford team to make way for the younger Custer at SHR.

The IndyCar race at Long Beach ended with series officials penalizing Graham Rahal one spot for blocking Scott Dixon on the last lap. Should blocking be a penalty in NASCAR?

Nate Ryan: No. Different series, different cars, different tracks.

Dustin Long: Nooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo. Don’t need any more judgment calls for NASCAR to make.

Daniel McFadin: Heck no. As much as Tony Stewart may have despised it, blocking is a racing maneuver. If a driver doesn’t like it, just show your displeasure with a love tap to the rear bumper.

Jerry Bonkowski: Yes, particularly if it puts the driver being blocked and other trailing drivers at risk of crashing. I’ve long felt that egregious blocking should be penalized. But if that were to happen, it could open a Pandora’s Box of additional issues, such as bump-and-run moving an opponent out of the way. How would NASCAR draw the line between egregious blocking/bumping and legitimate blocking/bumping?

Jimmie Johnson ran in Monday’s Boston Marathon. What is another event you’d like to see a NASCAR driver attempt to take part in someday?

Nate Ryan: Denny Hamlin in a PGA Tour event and paired with Michael Jordan.

Dustin Long: Kyle Larson as a bobsled driver. Also, Denny Hamlin in a PGA Tour event.

Daniel McFadin: Since Ryan Newman is sponsored by Oscar Mayer, he should enter the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest on July 4.

Jerry Bonkowski: The Baja 1000 is the first one that comes to mind. That, to me, is the most grueling combination of man and machine. I’d also like to see more NASCAR drivers try their luck in the Indianapolis 500 and, conversely, do “the double” by racing later that same day in the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte. Lastly, although it would be difficult due to the Cup schedule, I’d also like to see some of the best golfers among Cup drivers try their luck at The Masters.