Bump & Run

Bump and Run: Time to be concerned about Kyle Busch’s winless drought?

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Kyle Busch is winless in his last 10 Cup races — his longest drought since 2017. He said after Saturday night’s race that “we’re flat out getting our ass kicked by our teammates so we’ve got to get better.” What kind of concern do you have with this team as the playoffs near?

Nate Ryan: Not too much concern. It was expected there would be a dropoff in results at some point for Busch. While it’s surprising he struggled at Bristol (though still scored a top five), and it comes on the heels of a disappointment at Michigan, he had blazing speed at Watkins Glen, Pocono and New Hampshire but without the results. Better to get the “slump” out of the way now before the playoffs begin for the No. 18.

Dustin Long: Minimal. His average finish is 8.3 during his “drought” and he averages 37.3 points per race, which is the equivalent of a fourth-place finish (with no stage points). Can understand if he’s frustrated but would not count this team out at all.

Daniel McFadin: None. Kyle Busch has finished in the top five or top 10 in five of the last six races. He’ll be fine. 

Jerry Bonkowski: I have mixed emotions. It’s hard to feel bad for Kyle Busch, given he’s leading the points. But at the same time, could he potentially have peaked too early in the season with his four wins? Or is he just in a slump and needs a big win at a place like Darlington or Indianapolis to get back on track? Sure, he’s struggled to reach victory lane of late, but it’s too early to start holding a tag day for the younger Busch brother.

Could Matt DiBenedetto become NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver this year, taking the title from Chase Elliott?

Nate Ryan: Highly unlikely he wins, but he could crack the top 10 or maybe even the top five.

Dustin Long: I don’t see it happening. Matt DiBenedetto’s popularity continues to grow but it still has a way to go to reach Chase Elliott’s level.

Daniel McFadin: As enticing as that story would be, I don’t see it. He didn’t even win the All-Star Race fan vote in May, losing to Alex Bowman. He’s got a lot momentum right now, but I think Chase Elliott would have to remove his name from contention for that to happen.

Jerry Bonkowski: While there’s no question Matt DiBenedetto has been one of the best feel-good stories of the season, he’d have to win Darlington or Indy (or both) and then a couple of playoff races and make it all the way to Miami in the final four before he’d have a shot at unseating Elliott. Still, I can easily see DiBenedetto finishing No. 2 to Elliott no matter how the rest of his season goes.

Who will score their initial Cup victory first: Matt DiBenedetto, William Byron, Daniel Suarez or someone else?

Nate Ryan: William Byron, sometime before the end of this season.

Dustin Long: William Byron. I like what Matt DiBenedetto has done lately but the equipment is behind what fellow Toyota team, Joe Gibbs Racing has, so it will be hard to beat that. Byron’s Hendrick team could be one to watch in the coming weeks. Remember how well Chevrolet teams worked together at Talladega in the spring? Byron’s teammate, Chase Elliott, won that race. Could things set up for Byron at Talladega in the playoffs?

Daniel McFadin: My gut is to say William Byron, but Matt DiBenedetto has outperformed both of them by a mile over the last two months. I’d watch out for him at Talladega, the Charlotte Roval, Richmond and maybe even Martinsville. I’d like to see him put together impressive runs in consecutive weekends rather than every other race.

Jerry Bonkowski: I’d love to see Matt DiBenedetto do it at either Darlington or Indianapolis to get himself into the playoffs. But honestly, given their success this season, my pick would be either Daniel Suarez or William Byron as the next first-time Cup winners.

Bump & Run: Who is having a better season? Martin Truex Jr. or Kyle Busch?

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With four wins apiece, which Joe Gibbs Racing driver is having the better season, Kyle Busch or Martin Truex Jr.?

Nate Ryan: The points, playoff points and top 10 tallies point to Busch, but Truex gets this nod because he is improving as the season unfolds while making a largely seamless transition to Joe Gibbs Racing. Busch’s No. 18 Toyota has been more consistently excellent, but Truex’s No. 19 team seems slightly more playoff ready.

Dustin Long: It’s easy to get the sense that Martin Truex Jr. and crew chief Cole Pearn are figuring things out, but I’ll take Kyle Busch for having the better season at this point. Busch has led more laps, had more top-three finishes, more top-five finishes and more top-10 finishes than Truex.

Daniel McFadin: Truex has won four of the last eight races, but he struggles in the races following his wins. Meanwhile Kyle Busch has been incredibly consistent through 16 races, failing to finish outside the top 10 just once at Kansas. We’re still waiting to see Busch find his kryptonite.

Jerry Bonkowski: Busch is having a statistically better season than Truex and has been at or near the top of the points for much of the season, but they’re equal where it counts the most. What’s more, they play off each other so well, you’d never know they’re first-year teammates.

 

Do stages need to be re-evaluated for road-course races, particularly Sonoma?

Nate Ryan: Yes. There has been only one “natural” caution over the past 246 miles of Cup racing at Sonoma Raceway. It seems as if having two scheduled yellows in a race that emphasizes strategy might be adversely disrupting the driver behavior and rhythm of an event in which action can be dependent on the randomness of cautions (and this could apply to any race that features green-flag pit stops without losing a lap). While the Sophie’s Choice of going for the win vs. amassing points adds an interesting wrinkle, it also seems too preordained and rote, eliminating some of the tactical genius and unexpected twists that make road-course racing fun.

Dustin Long: I’m not convinced this needs to be done. I do like seeing which teams will toss aside potential stage points for the chance to go for the win and pit shortly before a stage break. If nothing else, stage breaks do provide two restarts and restarts are often some of the most exciting moments in a race. You really want to eliminate two restarts a race?

Daniel McFadin: I think so. With NASCAR keeping in place that caution laps during stage breaks count towards the lap count, Stage 2 at Sonoma had only 15 competitive laps under green compared to the first stage’s 20. I’d add five laps to the second stage there and have the final stage be 45 laps. It’s still significantly longer than the first two stages. 

Jerry Bonkowski: Yes. Personally, I feel stages don’t work well in road course races, especially at a place like Sonoma, which saw a half-mile larger track this year for the first time in more than 20 years (due to adding the Carousel). Road course races should be a constant, moving episode and not interrupted by stages. And if it proves fans like the racing more without stages, it may be something to look at when the major changes come around in 2021. 

 

With the first Cup race of the year on a road course behind us, what’s one road course you’d like added to the Cup schedule?

Nate Ryan: Road America already has proved worthy of the Xfinity Series and also provides a NASCAR-IndyCar doubleheader opportunity. If the category were expanded to street races, Toronto already hosts stock cars with NASCAR’s Canadian series.

Dustin Long: Road America. 

Daniel McFadin: Laguna Seca, baby! It was my favorite road course as a kid and I’d love to see a Cup car navigating its variety of turns, especially the Corkscrew. Would three California Cup races, with two on road courses be healthy for the sport? Probably not. But I still want to see it.

Jerry Bonkowski: Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, or Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas. I’d be happy with either — actually I’d be the happiest if both were on the schedule.

 

What has been the best story in NASCAR this season?

Nate Ryan: Ross Chastain, and if there’s justice in the near future, his story should continue to unfold on a bigger stage than a third-tier series.

Dustin Long: The development and domination of the Big 3 in the Xfinity Series — Christopher Bell, Tyler Reddick and Cole Custer — and the questions of where they’ll race next season.

Daniel McFadin: Without a doubt Ross Chastain and Niece Motorsports. With its Gateway win, the small team will more than likely compete in the Truck Series playoffs. They could deliver a second consecutive Truck Series title from an underfunded team as the giants of the series – Kyle Busch Motorsports, GMS Racing and ThorSport Racing – struggle to find victory lane with their full-time drivers. If you’re a fan of old school motorsports stories, there’s one playing out with this team.

Jerry Bonkowski: It’s a close call, but I am going to go with Tyler Reddick having a slight edge over Kyle Busch in best overall story of 2019.

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.