This week our staff takes a look at some of the hot topics in the world of NASCAR. We discuss Jeff Gordon’s current status as a substitute driver for Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart’s chances for another championship in his final season. We also look at possible prospects for the recently announced Stewart-Haas Racing’s 2017 XFINITY team and question NASCAR’s decision that moved the XFINITY Series event from O’Reilly Raceway Park to Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
We are joined by guest contributor, James Burton. Burton is a former ARCA pit reporter who covered the Talladega events for three years as well as the first Mobile ARCA 200. He was with WTDR 92.7 FM from 2011-13 and is currently with Jacobs Media Services.
First Gear: After subbing for Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Indy, Jeff Gordon’s next (and likely last) race in the No. 88 will be at Pocono. Is this the last we’ve seen of Gordon in a Sprint Cup car? Should Hendrick have put more focus on Alex Bowman in the 88 car instead?
Given that the race after Pocono is a road course, I’d put my money on Jeff Gordon – the all-time winningest road course racer in NASCAR history – being in the car for Watkins Glen. Although given his track record at The Glen since 2001, I would think it wise to let someone else drive the car.
I wrote a piece recently explaining why I didn’t want to see Gordon back in the car again, at least not in NASCAR, and I also took to Twitter to say Hendrick Motorsports should’ve put Alex Bowman in the car after his drive at Loudon. So you probably knew where I stood on this. – Tucker White
I want to say yes. The fact that Gordon has come back to sub for Earnhardt sort of diminishes the impact of his final season. I was sort of hoping he’d go the Rusty Wallace route and be done with it all. Still, I’m holding onto hope that maybe he will be done once and for all after Pocono. Maybe then he’ll be done for good. As for Bowman, Loudon wasn’t enough of a shot for him. On one hand, put him in the car more. He’s a heck of a driver who knows how to take care of his stuff. Then again, as James pointed out in his comments, maybe put him in the car for the shorter, flatter tracks if Earnhardt has to sit out longer. – Joseph Shelton
I don’t think it’s the last time we’ll see Jeff Gordon drive in a Cup series race. With how few development drivers Hendrick employs (as in none), there’s a good chance Gordon will be called on again if somebody has to miss a race. Because of that, I’d rather keep Gordon in the car over Alex Bowman, who hasn’t really proven himself yet past a couple of great runs in JR Motorsports equipment. – Michael Finley
I think so, barring more injuries from other Hendrick drivers. Gordon said he kept getting his butt kicked on restarts, so you can tell being out of the seat has changed his perspective a little bit. He’s got one race to go before he goes back into retirement, so you never know if he could go out there and dominate. Three weeks ago when Bowman filled in for Earnhardt the first week, it was mentioned it was the first time that neither an Earnhardt or Gordon had been in a race since Dale Earnhardt Sr. sat out four races in 1979. What they failed to mention was that David Pearson drove the No. 2 car those four races and he qualified on the pole at Michigan and won at Darlington. Is that banking on good omens and superstition? Absolutely, but superstition is pretty commonplace in this sport and Gordon’s no slouch at Pocono.
As for Bowman, I think Hendrick made the right decision. This is a kid who has thus far had a ‘meh’ Cup career, but honestly deserved a chance to drive for one of the big dogs. Had it been short to mid-sized tracks past New Hampshire, then yes, keep Bowman in the car. Gordon in at Indy and Pocono was and is the right decision. Even if Earnhardt doesn’t get a waiver (which let’s be honest, he will) then the owner points will have the best chance to remain the same. – James Burton
Second Gear: It’s looking more and more like Tony Stewart is shaping up for the upcoming Chase. With the way that he is running, does he have a chance for the championship?
I think the jury is still out on this one. He’s starting to post more consistent top-10 runs, but I see him being where Jeff Gordon was a year ago, just cracking the top-10 at the end of the day. With that being said, I think the only track that would hinder a title run is Talladega, which as we all know is its own animal. – Tucker White
Stewart is building momentum. Obviously, in the past he’s kicked his season into gear during the summer and it’s looking like this could be the case again. It’s not going to be anything like his dominance in 2005, but we could be looking at a repeat of his 2011 season; mildly consistent, something of a sleeper, then once the Chase kicks in, he’s the guy to beat. – Joseph Shelton
Anything that can happen in the Chase will happen. Jeff Gordon had no momentum at all going into his final Chase last season and ended up making the final four. Stewart is no stranger to coming out of nowhere to compete and win in the Chase- just look at his 2011 season. He went from saying he didn’t deserve to be in the Chase to hoisting the Cup just a few months later. – Michael Finley
Stewart is in the position he needs to be. Back when he returned he had to win and average a 22nd place finish in order to make the top 30 in points. He’s won and he currently sits 27th in points with six races before the cut off. In five of the last six races he has finished no worse than 11th and even his 26th at Daytona hasn’t caused him to falter much. The momentum seems to be in his favor as he has won at all the upcoming six tracks at least once.
Does he have a chance at the championship? He’s Tony Stewart. Of course he does. The trick is staying out of trouble at the tracks that will bite you. He has one restrictor plate track left on the schedule that comes at a crucial cut off point. You survive Dega and transfer, then you have a chance at Homestead. – James Burton
Third Gear: With the announcement of Stewart-Haas Racing fielding an XFINITY Series entry in 2017, who are some likely candidates to fill in the seat?
The first one that comes to mind right away is Cole Custer. With his father being an executive at Stewart-Haas Racing, he’s probably leaving the JR Motorsports camp at the end of 2016, although I’m not sure if he’s ready to make the jump to the XFINITY Series.
A more likely candidate would be Jeb Burton. He was in contention for a Chase spot before sponsorship dried up and his ride in the 43 car went the way of the dodo. Of course, depending on contract status, drivers like Darrell Wallace Jr., Ryan Reed, Daniel Hemric and Tyler Reddick could fit the bill as well. – Tucker White
With the Penske ties I could see Reddick or Hemric in the car. Reddick has seniority and a couple of Camping World Truck Series wins under his belt, but Hemric is solidly consistent, sitting third in points with nine top-10s in 11 starts. I see a lot of potential with him if he heads to the XFINITY Series. – Joseph Shelton
I can see Cole Custer running a partial season while running full time in the trucks for fellow Ford team Brad Keselowski Racing. Clint Bowyer seems to be open to running lower series races, while Harvick has said he is not running in the XFINITY Series after this season. Finally, Tony Stewart has said he is open to running XFINITY races and would help provide the team with some sponsorship. – Michael Finley
The first people to look at will be the truck drivers for Brad Keselowski Racing. Since SHR is basically replacing Hendrick for Penske as their “parent” team, you’re going to have talent such as Daniel Hemric or Tyler Reddick fighting for that ride. If I had to choose between the two I would go with Reddick as he has seniority with the organization. Another possibility might be to see Bubba Wallace jump to another Ford camp. Wallace has had mild success at Roush but SHR might be the atmosphere he needs to break through to the XFINITY win column. – James Burton
Fourth Gear: On Saturday we were faced with yet another lackluster XFINITY race at Indy. Did NASCAR make a mistake in moving the division to Indianapolis Motor Speedway instead of leaving them at O’Reilly Raceway Park?
Alex, I’ll take “Questions that deserve a DUH response” for 1000. I don’t care how big the purse is for the XFINITY Series at the Brickyard. The product we get at the Brickyard does not justify it. The lackluster product is compounded by the fact that the XFINITY Series is at its worst.
I watched the ARCA race that was held at Indianapolis Raceway Park last Friday and it was a pretty entertaining race. That’s more than I can say for what we got at the Brickyard. I say either move the XFINITY Series onto the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course or take it back to Indianapolis Raceway Park or whatever it’s called now. – Tucker White
Yep. Yep, yep, yep. I don’t understand the logic in bringing Indianapolis Motor Speedway to the XFINITY Series and it hasn’t been fruitful in the slightest. Kyle Busch has won three of the five events there, with Brad Keselowski and Ty Dillon winning the other two. Every race there has been forgettable and I think it was a mistake to leave O’Reilly Raceway Park.
In trying to make the XFINITY schedule more like the Sprint Cup schedule, they’ve robbed the division not only of good racing but also of its own identity. We didn’t need IMS on the XFINITY schedule. We didn’t need Pocono on the schedule. If anything, if they wanted to create good racing in the series they should have made sure the schedule stood apart from the other divisions and retained its own identity. Simple as that. – Joseph Shelton
Considering there was much better racing at ORP and just as many if more fans actually in attendance, they made a pretty big mistake. – Michael Finley
Absolutely. To put it in perspective, let’s compare it to a bowl game. Just because the Dr. Lane’s Bath Salts for Menopause and Spider Bites Bowl is played at the Rose Bowl stadium doesn’t mean it’s going to be as epic as the actual Rose Bowl. It’s just another page in NASCAR’s failed attempts at what equates to “no driver left behind.” You race at the Brickyard when you’re good enough to make it Cup. Plain and simple. – James Burton
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