Our experts weigh in on four of the biggest questions in NASCAR.
Turn 1: Which Chase bubble driver is feeling the most pressure following Pocono?
Ricky Craven, ESPN NASCAR analyst: Chase Elliott has had a miserable month and a half, made a few mistakes, and his interviews suggest he is putting too much pressure on himself. It’s healthy to be self-deprecating at times, but the young man seems too much on edge, his judgment behind the wheel a few times the past month indicates to me he is trying too hard to do too much. Long term, this guy is a big winner in our sport. Short term, he needs to discover his limits and operate within them.
Ryan McGee, ESPN.com: Greg Biffle had really gotten it going in July with three straight top-10s, his first top-10s of the season. But he wrecked at Indy and then finished 25th at Pocono, a track where we’ve seen him save seasons in the past. He’s not good at Watkins Glen, so we’re going to be looking at a Hail Mary situation for him at Bristol, Michigan and Darlington. I’m not sure that team has a Hail Mary in them.
John Oreovicz, ESPN.com: The driver who is putting himself under the most pressure seems to be Chase Elliott. He came close to winning a couple of times, and since then, it looks like he’s been pressing, which has led to mistakes and misjudgments. It will be interesting to see whether he can regroup and regain his early season form in the races leading up to the Chase.
Bob Pockrass, ESPN.com: Kyle Larson. It appeared that if he kept running fairly well, he should be good for the final Chase spot. Now with Chris Buescher winning, he could end up fighting teammate Jamie McMurray for that final position. And if a driver outside the top 14 wins at Watkins Glen, he’ll probably need a win to make the Chase.
Turn 2: We’ve heard a lot about Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney. What’s the outlook for Chris Buescher?
Craven: Chris is half a step behind these two, primarily because of the equipment he is in. With that said, Buescher has done “more with less” than perhaps any other in our sport. I’ve always been impressed with his methodical/logic-based approach to driving a race car. It earned him an Xfinity Series title in NASCAR last year … perhaps it could in Sprint Cup one day if he could land in cars as capable as the 21 and 24.
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Matthew Willis previews this weekend’s race at Watkins Glen by outlining the drivers he’s watching in practice and qualifying.
Rookie Chris Buescher pulls off unlikely Pocono victory
Chris Buescher’s weather-shortened victory at Pocono Raceway on Monday was as popular with other drivers in the garage as it was unlikely, writes Bob Pockrass.
McGee: His talent is unmistakable, but, all due respect to Front Row Motorsports, he needs a better ride. It feels like we might have some unexpected Silly Season moving and shaking coming. I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets some top-shelf numbers popping up in his caller ID.
Oreovicz: He knows how to finish races, and that skill, when coupled with the right crew chief and strategist, can win races. For the short term, Buescher’s outlook is heavily dependent upon whether Roush Fenway Racing can return to being a front-running team. If RFR picks up its game, Buescher is a safe pair of hands for the team’s future.
Pockrass: Same as it was before Pocono. He will be in a Roush Fenway car by 2018 as Greg Biffle’s deal ends after 2017 and if no reason exists to keep that relationship going. Trevor Bayne‘s improvement this year — he currently sits as the top Roush Fenway driver in points — makes an argument to sponsor Advocare and Roush Fenway that he deserves a contract extension, regardless of what Buescher does. If Advocare doesn’t renew, then Buescher’s win could boost his chances of Roush Fenway landing sponsorship for him in the No. 6 car.
Turn 3: What’s your take on the later start times next year in Sprint Cup, many of them at 3 p.m.?
Craven: I applaud any move that helps recapture growth, or at least interrupts declining trends. One has to assume a lot of effort went into making these decisions … right???
McGee: I was working at NASCAR when the meetings took place about the later start times the last time around. The reason it was started was to grab West Coast viewers and the occasional primetime crossover. It was ultimately abandoned because fans had a hard time tracking when races were going to start. So, we’ll see because it feels like it’s all over the place again. The 10 Chase races hit five different starting times and only start at the same time back-to-back twice. But I do like the idea that in the fall Sunday races will start in the middle of NFL games instead of starting head-to-head at 1 p.m. ET. That’s never a fight NASCAR will win.
Oreovicz: I don’t care for later race starts because I think they are not friendly to fans or participants. If a 3-1/2-hour race green flags at 3:40 p.m., not too many people are going to make it back to their homes that night unless they are flying private. An extra night on the road costs time and money. My guess is that late start times will adversely affect attendance, so I hope that NASCAR and the television networks are happy with whatever they perceive they are getting from them.
Pockrass: When the move to consistent start times was announced in 2009, then-Fox Sports Chairman David Hill said: “It’s become clear to us that traditional, early Sunday afternoon, start times are favored by NASCAR fans who both attend races and watch on television.” What’s changed since NASCAR scrapped later starting times? Fox says: “A lot of things that were true about television seven years ago are not necessarily true today. Our interpretation of all the current available data is that we are better served by having some races start later in the day when more people are watching TV.” Call me skeptical that the data now is more prophetic than a decade ago. One thing NASCAR must do: It must encourage drivers and teams to do everything they can to connect with fans in attendance.
Turn 4: If Dale Earnhardt Jr. can’t return after Bristol, should Jeff Gordon continue in the seat?
Craven: Only if his heart is in it. I’m troubled by Dale Earnhardt Jr. having the final few innings of his career interrupted by injury. I’m becoming at least a little concerned that Jeff is filling in because he is “such a loyal soldier,” so to speak. I do not want to see Jeff put himself in a compromising position. But if he is enthusiastic toward this situation, then he is the absolute perfect man for the job!
McGee: I wrote a column about this that I’m still catching flak for, but I still feel the same. I think it is so admirable that Gordon has filled in and none of us should have ever expected anything less from him during an incredibly difficult time for the entire organization. And having the winningest road-course racer of all time at Watkins Glen feels like a no-brainer. But every week that ticks by is another week that the 88 team moves away from making the Chase and every week Gordon is in the car feels like another week of crossing fingers and hoping nothing goes wrong. His seat belt came undone at Pocono. I love seeing Gordon out there. But I think there’s always been a time when the practical thing to do is put a kid in that car. I think that’s now.
Oreovicz: He’s in for the next two races, but if Junior doesn’t make it back soon after that, it’s time for Hendrick to start thinking about the future instead of the past. Whether he comes back next month or next year, the end of Earnhardt’s career is in sight. Grooming young talent in the form of Gordon and Jimmie Johnson has worked for Hendrick in the past, and with Johnson also older than 40 and underachieving Kasey Kahne not much younger, it’s time for HMS to start building for the future. Problem is, most of the upcoming young talent is contracted to Toyota.
Pockrass: No. He has done enough to help the team and also have ideas for the direction Hendrick Motorsports should go to improve performance. The team should have put in Justin Allgaier at Bristol — the guy had a top-10 there last year in an HScott Motorsports car. Give other drivers a shot and use the car as a test car the rest of the way. Even if that means losing a spot in the owners championship, what can be learned could help win the actual one.