Dustin Long

Bump and Run: What should be done with the Clash?

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What should be done to the Busch Clash: Eliminate it, change the format or keep it the same?

Nate Ryan: A new format is needed because (as Kurt Busch wisely noted) when an exhibition race billed as no-holds-barred devolves into an exercise of analytics and strategy, something is amiss. Either shorten it to a trophy dash-style distance as it originally was intended. Or turn it into a series of heat races, or better yet the first in a series of heat races over several days to eliminate the unnecessary down time and re-emphasize the qualifying races in Speedweeks.

Dustin Long: If there’s still a value in the event — and I have some questions about that — then the race should be at least 35-40 laps. It’s still short but it’s long enough that handling can play a role in the race. If you don’t want handling to be a factor than go shorter.

Daniel McFadin: Simple: make it shorter. 75 laps is too long and in no way does the event feel like an intense shootout. Monday morning on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, Chase Elliott‘s crew chief, Alan Gustafson, explained why for much of the race the Chevrolet teams were in their own group lagging behind the Ford and Toyotas. He said there was no reason to race then. Turn up the heat by turning down the lap total. And as Kurt Busch suggested, throw in cash rewards at certain lap intervals (which was done in the early days of the Busch Clash). 

Jerry Bonkowski: After 41 years, I think the Clash has run its course. As we saw Sunday, it almost always and needlessly destroys a number of good cars and doesn’t really serve a true purpose in that the winner – or anyone else in the race – gets little more than a trophy and cash for winning. They receive no points, no automatic berth in the Daytona 500 or anything else. What I would like to see is the Clash be eliminated and see the Duels take more prominence.

Name a driver who failed to make the Cup playoffs last year that you think will make the playoffs this year and why.

Nate Ryan: Jimmie Johnson. Even if he doesn’t win, crew chief Cliff Daniels already has safeguarded the No. 48 against missing on points, and it just won’t seem right if the seven-time champion doesn’t have at least a shot at going out with an eighth title.

Dustin Long: I’m intrigued with the combination of Chris Buescher and Luke Lambert at Roush Fenway Racing. The organization needs to take a step forward but these two can help lead that charge.

Daniel McFadin: I’m going with Jimmie Johnson. He and Cliff Daniels showed enough progress late last year that I believe they’ll have no problem making the playoffs in Johnson’s final full-time season.

Jerry Bonkowski: Jimmie Johnson will make the playoffs in his last season as a full-time Cup driver. After missing the playoffs last season, my sense is that Johnson, his team and all of Hendrick Motorsports will do everything they can to get the No. 48 into this year’s playoffs.

What do you think is the biggest change entering this season?

Nate Ryan: The schedule. The first warning will come next week as teams head directly to the West Coast instead of getting their usual breather of a short hop to Atlanta. Homestead-Miami Speedway will be another significant signpost next month, and the need for acclimation will continue to ratchet up (Indianapolis in July; two consecutive weeks off in midsummer) until the final 11 weeks, which will force completely new approaches with a new regular-season finale, two fresh cutoff races and a first-time championship at Phoenix.

Dustin Long: The schedule. For all the reasons listed by others here.

Daniel McFadin: The playoff schedule. It’s teed up by the regular season finale at Daytona and then we get a playoff run that includes: Darlington, Richmond, a little track called Bristol, the Roval, Talladega, a penultimate race at Martinsville and then the finale at Phoenix. If not for the third round featuring consecutive races on 1.5-mile tracks, I’d say that’s the best playoff lineup you could ask for.

Jerry Bonkowski: Not having one series entitlement sponsor for the first time since Winston came into the sport in 1971, followed by Nextel, Sprint and Monster Energy between 2004 and last season is the biggest change in my mind. Instead, there will be four sponsors who will share segments of this year’s season, while the overall series will be simply called the NASCAR Cup Series.

 

Who is your favorite for Cup Rookie of the Year?

Nate Ryan: He won’t be regarded as the favorite, but Tyler Reddick would be my pick.

Dustin Long: Christopher Bell to win a close battle.

Daniel McFadin: My gut tells me Cole Custer. I have more confidence in Custer competing for an organization like Stewart-Haas Racing right now than Tyler Reddick at Richard Childress Racing or Christopher Bell at Leavine Family Racing, a satellite of Joe Gibbs Racing. SHR’s Cup operation is just stronger right now than the other two.

Jerry Bonkowski: This is a tough one. All three of the top rookies – Tyler Reddick, Cole Custer and Christopher Bell – are worthy candidates. Reddick won six Xfinity races last season for Richard Childress Racing, but stepping up to the Cup Series is another story: RCR went winless in Cup last season, won just one race in 2018 and has only three total Cup wins since 2014. Reddick – and RCR – will have to take their game up several notches if Reddick is to win Rookie of the Year honors.

Bump and Run: Debating driver of the year for Cup, Xfinity, Trucks

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Who is your driver of the year in Cup?

Nate Ryan: Denny Hamlin. Starting with his second Daytona 500 victory, he put together the best start-to-finish season of his career. Kyle Busch is a worthy champion, but many of the big moments in the 2019 season will be remembered as Hamlin’s.

Dustin Long: Kyle Busch. While his playoffs were underwhelming, he came through to triumph in Miami to win the championship. The title capped a season where he won the regular-season crown, captured five wins, scored 17 top-five finishes, had a series-high 27 top-10 finishes, won a series-best 12 stages and led a series-high 1,582 laps.

Daniel McFadin: Martin Truex Jr. He won the most races (seven), the most races in the playoffs (three) and fought back to a second-place finish in Miami after his bizarre pit road miscue with his tires. While he didn’t win a title, he did pad the numbers he’s accumulated over the last four years, including his series-leading 23 wins (edging Kyle Busch by one).

Jerry Bonkowski: Sure, he struggled far too much, especially in the second half of the season, but when you win the regular season championship and the overall championship, it’s hard to vote against Kyle Busch.

 

Who is your driver of the year in Xfinity?

Nate Ryan: Tyler Reddick. Not because of his championship but the way that he did it. Becoming the first to win consecutive titles with different teams spoke volumes. 

Dustin Long: Christopher Bell. He had the most wins (eight), most laps led (2,003), most stage victories (22) and most top-two finishes (13).

Daniel McFadin: Tyler Reddick. I almost went with Cole Custer, who went from winning one race last year to seven this season. But Reddick showed you can win a championship and still vastly improve the next season, and he did it with a different team.

Jerry Bonkowski: I’m going to go against the grain and pick Christopher Bell over two-time champ Tyler Reddick. I felt Bell was slightly more consistent, plus he had more wins than Reddick. Cole Custer had a very good season as well, but I think in the whole big scheme of things, my driver of the year was Bell.

 

Who is your driver of the year in Trucks?

Nate Ryan: Kyle Busch. In his incessant drive for perfection, this season (albeit heavily truncated) might be the closest he ever gets.

Dustin Long: Kyle Busch. Five wins in five starts. Led 575 laps, which was better than any other driver in the series except Ross Chastain. Busch ended with a 1.0 average finish. ‘Nuff said.

Daniel McFadin: Ross Chastain. He got a late start on the points race after he switched his declaration from Xfinity to Trucks after eight races has passed. Then he went on to make it to the Championship 4 despite not winning a playoff race.

Jerry Bonkowski: Even though he came up a little short for a second straight championship, I’m picking Brett Moffitt. He was strong down the stretch, led all drivers in top fives (13) and was tied for most wins (4) with Austin Hill among series regulars.

Bump and Run: How many Cup championships will Kyle Busch win?

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How many Cup championships will Kyle Busch win in his career?

Nate Ryan: He says he wants five, and I think he’s young enough to get there and has the chops to make Championship 4 consistently. It’s impossible to predict how many, though, because of the one-race showdown — as his 2019 title (which he won despite not having the best car) underscores. As long as he keeps putting the No. 18 in position, he should win at least one and probably two more before he turns 40.

Dustin Long: Three. This winner-take-all format just makes it so difficult for anyone to collect several series titles in a row. In the future, the gold standard for drivers will be three titles and Busch will get there.

Daniel McFadin: I think Busch can at least get to four titles before it’s all said and done. Repeating in this format is hard, he’s the first to do it in six years. But given that Busch has been in the Championship 4 in all but one year under the elimination format is evidence enough for me that if anyone can get more than two it’s him.

Jerry Bonkowski: At 34 years old and having won two titles in the last five years, I think it’s very possible Busch can win another two, maybe even three more championships in his career. Even though he’s now raced full-time in Cup for 15 years, he is so competitive that I don’t see him retiring for at least another 10 years. There’s lots of championship opportunities to be had in that period of time.

What will you most remember about the Cup championship race years from now?

Nate Ryan: The fastest car didn’t win because its pit crew put the tires on the wrong side. And the next strongest contender to the champion took itself out of the running because it asked a team member to do something extraordinarily difficult during the 12-second frenzy of the season’s most critical pit stop.

Dustin Long: The mistake by Martin Truex’s team with the tires and how sedate Kyle Busch’s demeanor seemed to be after he won his second series title. After being declared an underdog by many and ending a 21-race winless streak, one expected Rowdy to celebrate in a manner that would have included a bit more directed to those doubters.

Daniel McFadin: Martin Truex Jr.‘s tire mishap. In almost 25 years of watching and six years of covering NASCAR I can’t remember that happening in a race. For something so fluky to hamper Truex’s championship chances is remarkable. It proves anything can happen in a winner-take-all race.

Jerry Bonkowski: It was one of the calmest, most relaxed times I’ve ever seen Kyle Busch. He knew what was on the line and went out and simply did it. He didn’t get overly aggressive or tried to overdrive his car. He merely was patient, waited for the right opportunity, grabbed it for the taking at the right time and sailed on into the history books. One other thing: while the other three Championship 4 drivers and crew chiefs constantly talked about why they deserved to be the champs in interviews during the week leading up to the race, Busch and Adam Stevens were fairly quiet, didn’t fret about the 21-race winless streak and let their actions ultimately do the talking for them that needed to be done. That’s the way to do it.

Who wins a championship first: Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney, Erik Jones, Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin, Alex Bowman or William Byron?

Nate Ryan: Chase Elliott, maybe as soon as next year.

Dustin Long: Denny Hamlin. Think Toyota’s advantage carries over to next year with many other teams more focused on preparing for the NextGen car in 2021. Hamlin will finally get his moment as a champion.

Daniel McFadin: It’s a tossup between Hamlin and Elliott. Aside from Hamlin’s winless season in 2018, he and Elliott at this point feel like the only drivers who can put together consistent seasons worthy of a championship. Elliott’s steadily improved over the last three years, winning six times, while Hamlin just produced his best year in a decade. My gut says Hamlin.

Jerry Bonkowski: This could be the hardest question we’ve had all year because it could just as easily be phrased “who among these drivers will never win a championship?” You may be surprised at my answer, but I’m going with William Byron. I think another year or two with Chad Knaus and he’ll be ready to be considered a true championship contender. I’m less optimistic that any of the others will win a title any time soon.

Bump and Run: Who will win the Cup championship trophy?

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Who do you think will win the Cup championship Sunday in Miami and why?

Nate Ryan: It just feels like Denny Hamlin‘s year.

Dustin Long: I’m sticking with the pick I made before the playoffs of Denny Hamlin winning the title. Two wins and six top-five finishes in the playoffs shows this team is strong enough to win the title and Hamlin has erased any doubts of him handling the pressure on such a big stage. Come Sunday, NASCAR will celebrate another first-time Cup champion.

Daniel McFadin: Denny Hamlin. His hiccup at Texas aside, it’s felt like momentum’s been on his side this year starting with his Daytona 500 win, propelling him to his best season in nearly a decade. Hamlin just feels at ease this year, no matter what’s thrown at him. His performance on Sunday exemplified that.

Jerry Bonkowski: Denny Hamlin. If there’s been one hallmark this season, it’s that he’s risen to the occasion when he needed to the most. I just get the feeling that after so many shortcomings in his career, this will finally be the year Hamlin comes through. All three of his challengers are former past champions. Now it’s the Virginia kid’s turn to shine in the Florida sun and earn his long overdue first championship.

Who do you think will win the Xfinity championship Saturday in Miami and why?

Nate Ryan: Christopher Bell. His team has had the most time to prepare and took advantage by leaving its car chief in North Carolina to work on its Toyota for the title.

Dustin Long: A year after finishing second to Tyler Reddick, Cole Custer returns to Miami to capture his first series tittle.

Daniel McFadin: Tyler Reddick. He’s won in every way imaginable this year and usually done it when he didn’t have the best car. The only difference between a potential title this year and last season is that it won’t be a surprise.

Jerry Bonkowski: Sentimentally, I’d like to see Justin Allgaier win. He’s kind of been the Denny Hamlin of the Xfinity Series, having come so close so many times, but never cashing in. But it’ll take a near-miracle for Allgaier to beat Christopher Bell in his Xfinity swan song. So, I’m picking Bell.

What is the more remarkable achievement: Joe Gibbs Racing tying Hendrick Motorsports’ record in the modern era of 18 wins in a season or JGR putting three drivers in the Championship 4 race?

Nate Ryan: Having three-quarters of the championship field in such a treacherous playoff structure might not happen again.

Dustin Long: Winning 18 of 35 races (and five of the nine playoff races) in what is supposed to be the most competitive era of the sport is the more remarkable achievement. JGR doesn’t place three of its drivers in the championship race without that season-long dominance that helped its drivers build playoff points and continue that success in the playoffs.

Daniel McFadin: The 18 wins. Putting three drivers in the final is impressive, but it’s not completely a surprise because Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch have been three of the best drivers this year and make up 17 of JGR’s 18 wins. That they were able to reach 18 wins with Erik Jones only winning once is astounding.

Jerry Bonkowski: There wouldn’t be three JGR drivers in the Championship 4 if it wasn’t for their combined 18 wins (includes one win by non-finalist Erik Jones). The latter is obviously the most remarkable achievement.

Bump and Run: Does NASCAR need to make more judgment calls?

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Questions have been raised the past two Cup playoffs races about a driver spinning to create a caution. Does NASCAR need to do anything?

Nate Ryan: Establish some parameters and stick to them. Either everyone needs to know it’s OK to spin intentionally with a flat tire to cause a caution if it didn’t merit an initial yellow from the tower, or NASCAR needs to enforce its own rules on purposeful cautions with extreme prejudice. The best course of action is probably the former (for reasons that Tony Stewart and Kyle Petty have articulated well), but that message should be conveyed subtlely.

Dustin Long: The last thing NASCAR needs is an integrity issue in the playoffs, particularly with one race before the Cup, Xfinity and Gander Outdoors Truck Series championship fields are set. In that light, it makes sense to do what some might say would be an overreaction and state that any driver that causes a caution that seems suspicious on any level will be dealt a minimum two-lap penalty. The topic at ISM Raceway or in the championship races in Miami can’t be about cautions that alter those races but the racing on the track.

Daniel McFadin: Only if NASCAR can determine the spin wasn’t done in an effort to prevent further damage to the driver’s car and others. Logano and Wallace had tires going down. If they keep going and don’t (allegedly) spin on purpose, it’s possible the tires cause significant damage to their cars, resulting in debris being distributed on the track and possibly damaging other cars.

Jerry Bonkowski: NASCAR has to remain vigilant and penalize drivers if there is enough reasonable suspicion that the spin was intentional. For example, with Bubba Wallace at Texas, it appeared he indeed had a tire going down. I didn’t see that as an intentional action, but something he couldn’t control. NASCAR did not think it was intentional, too, and as a result did not penalize him. If a driver intentionally spins, or gives the appearance he did so, NASCAR should have a driver pit his car immediately and have its pit officials examine tires to see if indeed there was an issue with the tires that led to the spin.

 

Which driver among those outside a transfer spot — Denny Hamlin, Ryan Blaney, Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott — do you believe has the best chance at ISM Raceway to advance to the championship race?

Nate Ryan: Denny Hamlin. Still feels as if it’s his year.

Dustin Long: Denny Hamlin. Not going to bet against him and crew chief Chris Gabehart after all they’ve accomplished this season.

Daniel McFadin: Ryan Blaney. While Kyle Busch won the spring race, Blaney led 94 laps, including 44 in the final stage before he was overtaken by Busch and finished third. 

Jerry Bonkowski: Denny Hamlin.

 

What do you make of these playoffs? Joey Logano scored his first top five of the playoffs at Texas but is in position to make it to the championship race, while Denny Hamlin has one win and five top fives and could fail to advance to the title race.

Nate Ryan: They’ve reaffirmed the importance of playoff points in the first two rounds, but also that they still can’t save a driver from a poor finish n the third round.

Dustin Long: Unpredictable. The playoffs have provided a roller-coaster of emotions and storylines. Kyle Busch benefitted from a strong regular season and remains in contention despite an underwhelming playoffs. The Hamlin-Logano storyline has added to the playoffs in the last couple of weeks. Who would have thought that the title race could have the same four drivers as last year?

Daniel McFadin: Chaos! I love it. These playoffs have followed no script you could have predicted before they started. Two playoff drivers got their first wins of the season during the postseason and they’re among the final eight. It’s not like last year where it was assumed the “Big 3” of Busch, Harvick and Truex would make it and they did. While Harvick and Truex are in, there’s genuine tension over whether Busch can do the same. I can’t wait to see how it goes down.

Jerry Bonkowski: While I believe in the sport’s integrity, I admit some fans may be turned off if Logano reaches Miami and Hamlin doesn’t based solely on wins this season or overall performance during the playoffs. And if Logano wins another championship while guys with more wins – Martin Truex Jr. (7 wins), Kevin Harvick (4 wins), Hamlin (5 wins) and/or  Kyle Busch (4 wins) fall short again – the Cinderella storyline can only go so far before it turns off more fans, as well.