Jerry Bonkowski

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 and Run: Was Chad Knaus wrong to goad William Byron to retaliate?

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Was Chad Knaus wrong to essentially tell William Byron to stand up for himself vs. Kyle Busch at Watkins Glen and hit Busch’s car?

Nate Ryan: Yes, as Jeff Burton and Kyle Petty said on NASCAR America, Knaus has a greater responsibility as not just a crew chief but mentor for the 21-year-old Byron. While encouraging his driver to be assertive was fine, demanding a specific course of action that put his car at risk was unwise with Byron, who will follow orders from a seven-time champion crew chief with an overachiever’s zeal.

Dustin Long: Yes. One of the things you often hear is that drivers shouldn’t let spotters drive the car. The same standard should be applied to crew chiefs. Emotion should not dictate decisions.  Chad Knaus’ comments over the radio — where every team member could hear the order — put Byron in a corner. If he didn’t follow through, would his team feel as though Byron wasn’t doing all he could to defend them? That doesn’t help team dynamics. Of course, going off to hit somebody and possibly damage one’s car doesn’t do anyone any good. Busch saw Byron coming from behind, slammed the brakes and that increased the damage to Byron’s car when he struck Busch. This all could have been avoided if people — starting with Knaus — had better control of their emotions.

Daniel McFadin: While it maybe didn’t work in execution, I think it had the desired impact Knaus was seeking: A teaching moment where a veteran crew chief told a young driver to stand up for himself. Byron proved under his nice guy demeanor is someone who isn’t a pushover.

Jerry Bonkowski: No. Knaus was merely getting Byron to stand up for himself. While the delivery of that message went awry and Byron wrecked his own car — and his chances of winning — it still is refreshing to see Byron send a message to both Kyle Busch and the rest of the Cup Series that he won’t be pushed around. Byron has been somewhat tentative at times since coming to the Cup Series. This could be a watershed moment for him. 

Biggest shock at Watkins Glen: Bubba Wallace’s actions and comments about his incident with Kyle Busch? Jimmie Johnson’s comments about Ryan Blaney? Something else?

Nate Ryan: Wallace’s comments were nearly as striking as his revenge on Busch, and the latest in a series of high-profile incidents that are ensuring the No. 43 driver’s relevance even without results.

Dustin Long: Bubba Wallace’s comments were attention grabbing, but what Jimmie Johnson had to say about Ryan Blaney was more personal than we’ve seen the seven-time champion often go with a competitor. That provided the greatest shock value. It just shows the pressure Johnson and the No. 48 team feel in their bid to make the playoffs.

Daniel McFadin: Johnson’s comments for sure. The only other time I can remember him having even a mild post-race interaction with another driver was with Kurt Busch at Pocono in 2011. “Just keep filing things away. I remember this stuff,” Johnson said then. “There’s a couple of guys out there that have been pushing their luck, too.”

Jerry Bonkowski: I lean toward Bubba. The irony is Kyle Busch gave Bubba his first big chance and first full-time NASCAR ride in the Truck Series in 2013 and 2014. Still, Wallace had the right to stand up for himself and wasn’t going to be pushed around or intimidated by his former boss. Something tells me, though, that this isn’t the end of the Busch-Bubba feud. Rather, it may just be getting started.

If one race is enjoyable, should NASCAR consider a doubleheader weekend at Watkins Glen in the future?

Nate Ryan: Love the idea, though it probably would require striking a race from another track. If NASCAR were open to the concept, there are some ISC tracks that should have only one race (namely, Michigan).

Dustin Long: Let’s calm down folks. Let’s wait to see how this plays out at Pocono next year. Let the bugs get worked out on the doubleheader weekend schedule and then take a hard look at it. An issue at Watkins Glen is the cars take such a beating on the curbs that teams might need another car to run the second race there. Is that feasible for all teams ˜to have a second car race ready? Let’s just see what needs to be done before running off and adding a race to that weekend at the Glen.

Daniel McFadin: Yes, please. Watkins Glen is a relatively short race. At 90 laps and with four cautions, Sunday’s race only took 2 hour and 14 minutes to complete. If the Pocono doubleheader is successful, the Glen should be the next candidate. 

Jerry Bonkowski: While I normally would say yes, this is a unique instance. Sure, Watkins Glen is a great track and great venue to watch a race. But at the same time, why give WGI (or Sonoma or the Roval) a second date on a doubleheader weekend when the Cup Series could expand its road course footprint to other tracks such as Road America, Road Atlanta, Barber Motorsports Park or the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course? I definitely like the doubleheader weekend concept and hope NASCAR adds more to the schedule, but the tracks chosen and the reasons to do so have to make the most sense.

Bump and Run: Is inverting the starting lineup a good idea?

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The starting lineup for the second Pocono Cup race on the doubleheader weekend there next year will be set by inverting the lead-lap finishers from the first race. What do you think of that decision?

Dustin Long: I’m fine with it. The distance for the second race will be long enough (350 miles) that those in the back will have a chance to work up to the front. Hey, it’s not like this is has never been done in racing. Short tracks around the country invert their starting fields in features. I’m all for new ideas in NASCAR and seeing if they work.

Daniel McFadin: I’m completely fine with it. Since teams will be using the same cars in both races, it helps ensure we don’t see similar versions of the same race play out over the course of the two days. Also, it may give teams that don’t see the front of the pack hardly ever at least some time in the spotlight. Had this been done this year, Michael McDowell and Daniel Suarez would have started on the front row in a hypothetical second race.

Jerry Bonkowski: While I like the idea in theory, in practice it could be suspect. What happens if a driver in the first race has no chance of winning and decides late in the race to slow down and falls in terms of positions – yet stays on the lead lap – to give himself a better start in the Sunday race? Fans, media and other teams could have a problem with that. It will be interesting to see how this experiment works, especially if we see more doubleheader weekends at other tracks in the future.

Nate Ryan: It’s a good twist, though it might need some tweaking (as Jerry notes above).

 

Hendrick Motorsports’ announcement Monday that it was changing crew chiefs on Jimmie Johnson’s team marks only the second time since 2010 that the organization has made an in-season crew chief change. What do you think of the move?

Dustin Long: Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team are not just about making the playoffs. They are about winning championships. Who would consider this group a championship contender at this moment? There’s your answer on the need to make the change at this point of the season.

Daniel McFadin: My first reaction upon reading Cliff Daniels’ bio and his history with the No. 48 team was why wasn’t he the first choice to replace Chad Knaus? It seems to me it would have allowed for a much smoother transition into the post-Knaus era for Johnson. It’s fascinating that a seven-time Cup champion is now paired with the youngest crew chief in the series, the opposite of the pairing between Knaus and William Byron, who is the youngest full-time Cup driver.

Jerry Bonkowski: Something had to be done, otherwise Johnson will not make the playoffs. And there’s no guarantee that a new crew chief will accomplish just that. When I first heard of the crew chief change, my first thought was Chad Knaus was coming back with Jimmie. If anyone could get Johnson into the playoffs, it’s Knaus. But I’ll be optimistic that Cliff Daniels will be up to the task and hope for the best.

Nate Ryan: The timing is curious — a road course race in the midst of a playoff points battle hardly seems the optimum place for a crew chief’s Cup debut — but the reasoning is simple. As he strongly hinted after New Hampshire, Johnson had reached the performance ceiling with the leadership of his current team after 21 races.

 

The Cup series is up to eight different winners in the last eight races. Will the streak continue this weekend at Watkins Glen (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN)?

Dustin Long: Streak continues. Even though the top four in points have won during this stretch, there are enough drivers who can win at the Glen. Throw in some clever strategy and that could open the opportunities to a few others.

Daniel McFadin: My gut feeling is we’ll see the streak end, but Erik Jones is on a hot streak now and he finished fifth at the Glen last year. If it does continue, it’ll be through him.

Jerry Bonkowski: I thought for sure the streak would end at Pocono, but it didn’t. Because Watkins Glen is more of an equalizing race than most races on conventional ovals, I think it’s likely we could see a ninth consecutive different winner. But that will likely be the final race for this streak before it’s broken the following week at Michigan.

Nate Ryan: Between Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Joey Logano, there will be too many strong contenders to keep the string alive. Brad Keselowski will have a fighting chance, though.

Bump and Run: Will Jimmie Johnson make the playoffs?

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With six races left in the regular season, where do you stand on Jimmie Johnson’s playoff hopes?

Nate Ryan: It seems dim for the No. 48, especially considering this is among the seven-time champion’s worst stretch of tracks in Cup. His best average finish over the next six tracks is at Darlington Raceway, where he hasn’t finished in the top 10 in five years. He probably will need some major help if he wants to qualify via a points berth.

Dustin Long: Whether Jimmie Johnson makes the playoffs isn’t the issue. Even if he makes it, he shows little sign of being a title contender. That’s the issue. Johnson is about championships not just making the playoffs. 

Daniel McFadin: I don’t believe he’ll make it. He hasn’t been consistent enough, though his mechanical problems at New Hampshire were no fault of his own. I think his best shot at getting a win will come at Bristol. Otherwise, he’s in trouble.

Jerry Bonkowski: I still think Johnson makes the playoffs, although he may not be locked into the 16-driver playoff field until after the deciding race at Indianapolis. Part of the problem is Johnson’s team has been so inconsistent. He finishes third (Daytona) and fourth (Chicagoland) and then has consecutive 30th-place showings at Kentucky and New Hampshire. While unlikely to happen, I’d love to see Johnson be reunited with Chad Knaus. Maybe that would do the trick.

 

Can we just say it: At this point it’s OK to dump someone to win a race? Agree or disagree?

Nate Ryan: Agreed (and always have, as long as the winner accepts that the consequences could include retribution). That said, there also is honor in trying to adhere to a code of ethics that excludes a bump and run (a la Denny Hamlin on the last lap at New Hampshire).

Dustin Long: It’s OK to do whatever a driver wants. They just have to deal with the consequences. Maybe that comes back as a payback in the playoffs and costs them a chance at the championship. Or maybe the move helps lead them to the title. It’s risk vs. reward but there certainly seems to be acceptance with being more physical on the last lap.

Daniel McFadin: Absolutely, bumpers are on cars for a reason and this is NASCAR not IndyCar. That said, it depends on the track. I’m fine with it at a place like New Hampshire. I’d be less likely to be OK with it at tracks larger than Darlington. 

Jerry Bonkowski: Disagree. If we start allowing “legal” dumping, where do you draw the line? What’s next, prohibiting blocking? Or how about prohibiting side drafting? Remember how much of a controversy erupted when NASCAR first allowed and then rescinded bump drafting? I’ve always felt that if you have to dump someone, you and your car are not good enough to win or make a legal pass.

 

There have been seven different winners in the last seven races. Do you foresee the streak continuing this weekend at Pocono?

Nate Ryan: Many possibilities for continuing the streak at Pocono. A case easily could be made for Denny Hamlin, Erik Jones, Clint Bowyer, Daniel Suarez, William Byron and others.

Dustin Long: Streak continues.

Daniel McFadin: I think the streak continues with Erik Jones getting his first win of the year. He placed third there in June and has five top 10s in the last seven races.

Jerry Bonkowski: Unless weather becomes an issue that could lead to a rain-shortened race much like Justin Haley‘s win at Daytona, no.

Bump and Run: Forecasting race for final playoff spots

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Erik Jones moved into the final playoff spot with his third-place finish at Kentucky. Seven races remain until the Cup playoffs begin. Will the 16 drivers in a playoff spot now be the same 16 when the regular season ends?

Nate Ryan: Unlikely, but there probably won’t be that much volatility. Jones probably will make it, but Ryan Newman seems a solid bet to bounce another driver.

Dustin Long: No. With drivers in positions 14th-18th separated by a total of 12 points, I expect some changes in the coming weeks.

Jerry Bonkowski: No. There is still way too much uncertainty remaining in the next seven races. We could still see a number of drivers earn their first wins of the season, which would greatly shake up the playoff standings. I’m convinced we won’t know the 16-driver field until after the final playoff-determining race at Indianapolis.

Daniel McFadin: No, I believe drivers like Ryan Newman and Daniel Suarez can get back into the top 16, especially Newman, who has settled into a very consistent groove over the last few races.

 

Which is more surprising: Jimmie Johnson is in danger of falling out of the playoffs or Stewart-Haas Racing has yet to win this year?

Nate Ryan: The latter, especially considering Stewart-Haas Racing enjoyed its greatest season in 2018 with four winners and probably the best across-the-board team in NASCAR. Some regression naturally was expected with a driver change, but to be winless past halfway is astounding. Despite his two-year winless streak, Johnson seems to be performing better than at this point last year, and missing the playoffs for the first time always seemed a possibility after the No. 48’s first crew chief change in 17 years.

Dustin Long: Didn’t see Stewart-Haas Racing’s inability to win a Cup race more than halfway through the year.

Jerry Bonkowski: I’d say Stewart-Haas Racing’s inability to reach victory lane is more surprising, particularly with Kevin Harvick not having won even one race after winning nearly one-quarter of last year’s races. He’s been close several times, but hasn’t been able to seal the deal, which is a mystery to many. As for Johnson, while he may be in danger of not making the playoffs, I still believe he makes it. Whether he advances past the first round, however, is a different story — unless he can win in each of the first three playoff rounds.

Daniel McFadin: Stewart-Haas Racing without a win. They won 12 times last year, so I would never have expected this kind of drought, which is now the latest in a season they’ve ever gone without a win. Johnson, on the other hand has been struggling for more than two years with his own winless streak. 

 

Tyler Ankrum won the Truck race at Kentucky and has received a waiver to be eligible for the playoffs. The waiver is for missing the season’s first three races because he was not 18 and could not race at Daytona, Atlanta and Las Vegas because of an age restriction. Are you OK with NASCAR granting him a waiver?

Nate Ryan: Absolutely. Both for the sake of Ankrum and NASCAR (which certainly needs a winning teenager in the playoffs of a developmental series), he should be eligible on the good faith of starting every race since turning 18. The rule requiring drivers to attempt every race is in place ostensibly to dissuade winners from taking races off; Ankrum’s situation certainly isn’t in violation of its spirit.

Dustin Long: I’m fine with it because he missed less than 20 percent of the regular season, but I don’t think a driver that misses more than a third of the regular season because of an age restriction should be granted a waiver. If so, where’s the limit? Will it be OK for a driver to miss half the regular season because they don’t turn 18 until then and still make the playoffs if they win?

Jerry Bonkowski: I have mixed feelings. While I’m glad to see Ankrum get a waiver to compete in the playoffs, I also think of how many other young drivers — regardless of the series — who have been prevented from getting waivers based upon their age over the years. I would hope that by giving Ankrum a waiver, NASCAR will make it a policy going forward to continue doing so for other young drivers faced with similar circumstances.

Daniel McFadin: It sure seems NASCAR loves giving out waivers. But if it didn’t give them out, especially in the Truck Series, the playoff field this year probably wouldn’t have very many race winners in it. Were Ankrum not given one and had NASCAR not approved Ross Chastain‘s mid-season points declaration for Trucks, there would be only three drivers – Johnny Sauter, Brett Moffitt and Austin Hill – in the playoffs off wins. We could also have a conversation about allowing Ankrum in the playoffs despite having multiple start and parks this year with NEMCO Motorsports.