Track Smack: More than Sweet 16 post-Richmond?
May 29, 2014, David Caraviello, Kenny Bruce and Alan Cavanna, NASCAR.com
Editor's Note: Track Smack is a weekly feature that will showcase a panel of NASCAR.com experts providing their analysis from the previous week, while also looking ahead. In this edition, NASCAR.com's David Caraviello, Kenny Bruce and Alan Cavanna examine whether more than 16 drivers will win races before the end of the regular season, whether the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing team will have the consistency to content for a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title and who should replace Trevor Bayne at Wood Brothers Racing.
1. Jimmie Johnson last weekend became the 10th different winner in the sport's top series, and 14 races still remain until the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Will we see more than 16 winners before the playoff arrives?
Alan Cavanna: All we have to do is look to last year. In the 14 races from Dover to Richmond, there were six drivers who got their first win of the season. So clearly it can happen. And with the caliber of drivers still looking for wins, I think it can.
David Caraviello: I've been with Carl Edwards with this one since the beginning -- yes. With each passing week, I'm becoming more convinced that we're going to see more than 16 winners in the regular season. I know the historical trends indicate otherwise, but circumstances are different this year. The racing is different. It's going to be a sweet 17 (or more!) when we get done at Richmond on Sept. 6!
Kenny Bruce: We need six more winners? With guys such as Matt Kenseth, Kasey Kahne and Clint Bowyer still searching, it's possible. But I don't think it's likely. We may see a few more -- four, max. Still, I've been impressed with the variety we've had so far this season.
Caraviello: Kenny, you will not pour cold water on this. Kenseth has been running more than well enough to win, so has Kahne (in spots) and Brian Vickers. Clint's coming around. Greg Biffle's got to get it together at some point. And we still have two road courses and one plate race left in the regular season, and anything can happen in those events.
Cavanna: Gotta be more than four, Kenny. Eight drivers who won last year have yet to win this year. I'll add Clint Bowyer, Marcos Ambrose (at Watkins Glen) and a Kyle Larson win to the list. That's 11 potential winners, not including a possible wild-card winner at Daytona. Six or seven of them can do it.
Bruce: There are guys that have won before this year ... but based on the way they've run so far this season, I wouldn't be surprised to see a handful among the 16 drivers who make the Chase end up winless this season. Alan, potential don't pay for the groceries, my friend.
Caraviello: Alan does not buy his own groceries. He has a service for that.
Bruce: He parks in front of the door. I've seen his type. At some point, the drivers who haven't yet won will stop swinging for the fences and just try to protect what they've got. Thus, no 16 winners.
Cavanna: Oh please, I don't make Caraviello money. And I don't think all 11 on my list will win. But certainly six of them can.
Caraviello: My cabbage is in the produce aisle. I think the key to all this may be Michigan and Pocono, and whether we see a sweep at each of those tracks. And goodness, we haven't even mentioned Tony Stewart, who's still out there in the goose-egg column. Then again, if Jimmie makes it two-for-two this weekend at Dover -- watch out. All it's going to take is one guy getting on a roll to bring all dreams of 17 to a halt.
Cavanna: Watkins Glen and Richmond will go to first-time winners. That leaves 12 races, and four drivers to get to 16. It's happening. I know it like I know the layout of the supermarket.
2. A loose wheel at Charlotte relegated Kevin Harvick to his third runner-up finish in as many weeks. Can what seems the strongest team in the Sprint Cup Series manage enough consistency to win the title?
Cavanna: The loose wheel was the setback, but if he comes out of the pits a spot or two higher on the final stop, he has a much better shot at the win.
Caraviello: Speaking of teams that could get on a winning streak and make the previous topic a moot point -- for all their struggles, the No. 4 team still seems like the leading candidate. Those guys are beasts every race, if something doesn't bite them -- be it a part failure, or a mistake like last weekend. I still think they're perhaps the most potent program in the garage area, but can they make it last over 10 races when it counts?
Cavanna: Consistency and unity need to be the focus of the summer for the 4 team. You have to keep the driver happy. He's doing his part. But when Harvick is publicly complaining about the crew each week, it can go either way. Either the crew gets its stuff together, or it gets worse. These same issues in September will cost him a title.
Bruce: Here's where I would be concerned if I was part of the 4 team: Once the Chase begins, you need a win or top finishes to continue to advance out of each three-race segment. One misstep can end your title chances at that point. Of course, the same holds true for everyone in the field. Based on what they've accomplished of late, that might not be a problem for Harvick and his team. So I've basically said they could exit surprisingly early, or win it all.
Caraviello: I cannot imagine the 4 team being the kind of group prone to implode -- Harvick and Rodney Childers are just too professional, and too good at what they do, for that. But I'm with Kenny -- the elimination factor looms large here given what we've seen from these guys to this point. All it would take is one issue in those first three Chase races to knock them out altogether. That's got to be a concern as they build toward the Chase. Who's good enough to win the title? That's one thing. Who's consistently strong enough to prevent getting eliminated? That's another.
Cavanna: The easy answer is just go out and win a Chase race in each round. The 4 car is capable of that. But they're leaving wins, not just top fives, on the table.
Caraviello: But given all the laps they've led this year, if they button down the details -- man, could those guys be a beast. They already are, but they're showing double-digit win potential without the issues.
Bruce: The good thing for that group is they've got all summer to iron out any issues. And the problems they have had from time to time aren't that bad. They've made mistakes, which can be corrected. They aren't looking for speed or out to lunch in terms of what they need to catch up to the competition.
Caraviello: To be fair, Alan, how many teams could you point to right now saying, they could win a race in each Chase round? Maybe the 4, the 24, the 48, and the 22? And everyone else is knocking on the door?
Cavanna: There's no "fair" in Track Smack!
Caraviello: You're telling me!
3. Trevor Bayne will move to Sprint Cup full time next season with Roush Fenway Racing. Who should be his replacement in the Wood Brothers' part-time No. 21 car?
Bruce: David Pearson. OK, maybe the Silver Fox isn't ready to climb back behind the wheel. Just a thought.
Caraviello: When it comes to Trevor Bayne's tenure with the Woods, that Daytona 500 victory will always stand out above everything else. But underrated has been his ability to consistently get a part-time team into races. They had to make it on speed every time, and Trevor made it look like no sweat. That's not easy, and that's what they'll need from their next driver, assuming they remain part time.
Cavanna: With manufacturer loyalty in play, the most obvious choice seems like Ryan Blaney. It gets him some great experience. But, maybe Blaney gets his own Cup deal for next year somewhere else.
Caraviello: It's got to be somebody who can jump in the car and show speed. This isn't a full-time team with the luxury of points for a less-experienced driver to fall back on. Jack Roush mentioned his Nationwide Series rookies Chris Buescher and Ryan Reed, but I don't know if either of them could keep the No. 21 as consistently competitive with the full-time teams in qualifying as Bayne did.
Cavanna: If they don't go with another prospect driver, why not go with Sam Hornish Jr.? He's got the experience, and will still have a desire to prove himself. I think a driver who uses the No. 21 ride as an audition for Cup will produce positive results.
Caraviello: The Woods are very faithful to Ford, which is what suggested they go part-time in the first place. So I'd think Bayne's successor would come from within the Ford camp, which currently does not include Sam Hornish Jr. Of course, who knows what changes in the offseason.
Bruce: If there's a pipeline from Ford, it probably begins over at Roush Fenway Racing. Chris Buescher? He's been pretty impressive in Nationwide this year. You want to give a guy Cup experience, get him ready to move up at some point. I think he fits that particular template.
Caraviello: As much as we'd all love to see Pearson back behind the wheel and his five pieces of gum taped to the dashboard, I'm with Alan here. Ryan Blaney is the no-brainer, assuming he's headed for a full Nationwide deal with Team Penske next season. That would allow the Woods to use him for their limited schedule, and he would almost certainly pick up right where Bayne left off. That is, unless Roger Penske has bigger immediate plans for him.
Bruce: I don't see the Penske tie-in, guys. Always got the impression that there was more of a Roush Fenway/Wood Brothers relationship there. But that could be due to the Bayne situation.
Cavanna: None of us has mentioned a veteran or experienced driver. Do we all agree that's the wrong way to go?
Bruce: Under the current circumstances, Alan, I don't see the payoff for putting a veteran driver in the car. If the team were to run the full schedule, it would make sense. But with a limited number of races, it's the perfect place to groom an up-and-coming driver.
Caraviello: As far as an older driver -- who? Someone out of Nationwide? From the lower-level Cup ranks? The younger drivers just seem to provide better options. And Alan, once being an up-and-coming driver himself, surely you understand that. After all, he's the only guy we know who drives a quarter midget to the grocery store.
Bruce: Is that where the phrase "clean up in aisle four" originated?
Cavanna: Champions live forever! (Even New England quarter-midget champions.)
Caraviello: That still doesn't give you the right to park at the curb at the Whole Foods.