Track Smack: How will the Chase look after Sonoma?
June 18, 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.
1. After seeing new winners in 10 of the first 12 weeks of the season, we've now had repeat victors for three straight races in a row. Which trend will we see at Sonoma Raceway?
Alan Cavanna: I think we see a new winner, but only because we're going to a road course. Previous Sonoma winners Clint Bowyer, Kasey Kahne and Martin Truex Jr. all still need victories, and can get them again. Plus, you know this is one of Marcos Ambrose's best shots at making the Chase, and the same goes for AJ Allmendinger.
David Caraviello: More new winners! And maybe not who you think, either. For all the talk about the guys like Marcos Ambrose with road-course backgrounds, it's been the oval-track guys who have historically fared better at Sonoma. So maybe someone else like Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr. and Kasey Kahne, who have all won at this track recently.
Kenny Bruce: Easy to say, guys, but maybe more difficult to occur -- especially given how much better some of this year's top-tier teams seem to be than the rest of the field. There's definitely a competitive gap. That being said, road-course racing does seem to bring out some teams' strengths that might not otherwise come into play on the ovals.
Cavanna: Allmendinger and crew used one of their tests just for this race a few weeks ago. With the new Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup format, it pays to put absolutely every resource toward one event. With that incentive, I think we see a new winner.
Caraviello: Yeah Alan, AJ and that 47 team poured a lot into testing for this race -- to the point where they flew redeye directly to Pocono for the first day of that weekend. But even with all the knowledge they gained, is that team strong enough to win? I guess we will find out.
Bruce: Lot of talk, DC, this past weekend going into Sunday's race at Michigan. But then it didn't pan out. I think that team is still trying to find its footing. I like the Truex Jr. angle. In spite of the team's results this year, he has proven he can get around that place. As for Ambrose, if it's one of the few "best shots at a win," is there more pressure this weekend?
Caraviello: Given the way Marcos has performed at Watkins Glen in recent years, you'd think that might be his better shot. So perhaps he has something of a cushion this weekend -- albeit a very thin one.
Cavanna: Absolutely, Kenny. There's nothing in Ambrose's track record that will lead us to believe he'll win anywhere else this year. He's got two great shots. He better keep the car on this year, though.
Caraviello: You look at the stats at Sonoma, and maybe there are some surprise contenders in store -- guys like Ryan Newman and Greg Biffle, who haven't really been a factor all season. Their average finishes at Sonoma are better than you might think. They haven't really had the speed to contend on ovals -- but will that matter as much here?
Cavanna: Between the two road courses, the speed/power here will matter less. If anything, we've seen Sonoma become a strategy race right form the drop of the green flag. First one to his/her final fuel window will be in great position.
Bruce: Probably not, DC. Look at how many of the previous races have come down to the end with several guys battling for the lead. You gotta have the horses, but you've also got to be able to get around the track while making fewer mistakes than your opponents.
Caraviello: If I had to choose two guys who haven't won to lay Monopoly money on, I'd take Jamie McMurray and Brian Vickers. Both have been good on road courses, and both have been strong at Sonoma before. They haven't really had a shot to win there, but both drivers are very capable. And in all those turns and all that action, anything can happen.
Cavanna: I hope we have a Chase interloper. Nothing wrong with a good underdog story.
Caraviello: I'd guess the horsepower difference might matter more at Watkins Glen, which is like a superspeedway with more turns. Sonoma may very well come down to who takes out whom -- as has so often been the case recently in whine country.
Bruce: I see what you did. Nice. We'll likely have some of that, and a small brush fire on the back somewhere as well.
2. Paul Menard won the Nationwide Series race at Michigan, and then finished fourth in the Sprint Cup Series event. Is he Richard Childress Racing's best hope for a playoff bid?
Caraviello: These RCR guys are tough to figure out. They're all hanging around in the points, but they hardly lead any laps and haven't really been a threat to win. I could see one scenario in which all three of them make the Chase, and another in which none of them do.
Cavanna: Well said, DC. I'm not a Menard-believer just yet. We've seen a good first-half from him before. Last year at this point he was 11th in points. This year he's 13th.
Bruce: I think he's a legitimate hope, but not sure if he rates the top spot. Ryan Newman hasn't been great, but also hasn't been terrible. I think the 31 team could strike at any time. There will be tracks better suited to Menard's team, and I think the same goes for young Mr. Austin Dillon.
Cavanna: The expanded field certainly helps Menard's chances, and I think he has the consistency to do it. But in terms of "best chance," I'm sticking with Ryan Newman. He's been there, done that and I think the new relationship with crew chief Luke Lambert will continue to improve.
Caraviello: This is a team with two top-five finishes between its three drivers -- and Menard has both of them. Of the three RCR drivers (who have led a combined 58 laps all season) Menard has led the most laps. If we don't get many more repeat winners, maybe Paul makes it on points. If not, maybe another Brickyard miracle is in store.
Bruce: Newman's won at least one race for four consecutive seasons. OK, he's won only one race for four straight years. But I think they're gaining on it. Menard certainly did himself a huge favor at Michigan to get back inside the top 16. Now the key is to continue to hold the spot, or move up.
Caraviello: Guys, a bigger question -- why don't RCR cars run at the front more often? Even Kevin Harvick didn't lead that many laps, which is how he earned that "Closer" nickname by striking so often at the end. This season, their inability to run consistently at the front has been even more glaring. What's going on there?
Bruce: It's horsepower, for the most part. Dillon won the Daytona pole, but I'm not sure how much of that translates. They did a tremendous amount of testing at Chicago, trying out new engine packages. But how long does it take to find gains in the engine room? I don't have any idea.
Caraviello: Yeah, Kenny, and it doesn't matter the driver -- the issue has always been the same. I will say this: the RCR folks have done a nice job of staying the course in the wake of Harvick's departure. They haven't fallen off the map like many thought they would. They're competitive, and have three cars that seem capable of winning -- if only they could get to the front a little more often.
Bruce: Seems it's been the case for RCR that when they have slipped in the past, it takes them a little while to get turned around. But then all of a sudden, there they are again.
Cavanna: Without Kyle Larson taking all the headlines, we'd be praising Austin Dillon for his rookie season. It's been quiet but steady, and he does well at finishing races. As for Menard, it's just one of those "believe it when I see it" scenarios. I don't think "checkered flags" when I think Menard. Not yet.
Caraviello: I think "beards and Leinenkugels."
Cavanna: And sideburns! He'd be my facial hair idol -- if I could grow facial hair.
Caraviello: All I know is, if Paul does make the Chase, his winter beard has got to be worth a few extra bonus points.
3. Darrell Wallace Jr. won a slam-bang return to Gateway Motorsports Park for the Camping World Truck Series. More evidence that the circuit's focus should shift back toward shorter tracks?
Cavanna: I think you'd be hard-pressed to find any race fan who wouldn't want more short tracks in all the top levels of NASCAR.
Bruce: First of all, a tremendous race. Congrats to all involved in making the move back to Gateway. Secondly, for the life of me I don't understand why the series doesn't run more short tracks. Seems when folks realized how popular and exciting it was, they carted it off to the bigger tracks. And sucked some of the life out of it.
Caraviello: It certainly didn't hurt. Between the finish and the tiff between Erik Jones and German Quiroga that preceded it, that might have been the best race of the weekend. Give NASCAR credit for going back there. And give the track's new management credit for reviving the facility.
Bruce: I think you bring the Trucks to the same markets as Cup races, but maybe not the same tracks. But imagine if instead of Charlotte, the Trucks went to Hickory. Or, for gosh sakes, Bowman Gray.
Caraviello: I think they've tried, Kenny. Iowa has been a huge hit, Eldora has been embraced, and the Rockingham experiment seemed to work until it fell apart. I just wonder how limited they are due to the demands a national-series race places on a facility.
Cavanna: Kenny, you touch on what may be the problem with adding more short tracks. Often they'd have to be stand-alone events. But if you can find a short track in the same market as a Cup race, I think that's an awesome idea.
Bruce: Iowa and Eldora are great examples, DC. But I think Rockingham was a tough sell from the get-go. And still too big, in my opinion.
Caraviello: Let's all remember, the roots of the Truck Series are in shorter tracks -- this is a circuit that started at places like Tucson and Milwaukee and Mesa Marin. You'd think the Raceway Park outside Indianapolis might return to the radar screen eventually. The Trucks fit at shorter tracks better than they do anywhere, but how many of those shorter tracks today can provide the right environment for both competitors and fans?
Cavanna: And, fellow Smackers, we shouldn't ignore the fact that the Gateway race had no Cup regulars. I think that added to the racing. Young drivers, equal abilities. It was a great show.
Caraviello: But should a NASCAR national series really be going back to places with wooden grandstands and relatively substandard fan amenities? Not sure about that, regardless of the action some of these short tracks might be capable of producing.
Bruce: When it comes to the Trucks, the fans aren't asking for wider seats, huge TV screens that blot out the sun and top-shelf concession fare. They come to see great racing at an affordable price. It cuts both ways, though. To host a race, a track has to figure it can make back what it costs to put on.
Caraviello: Yeah, it's a tough balance, Kenny, as we saw with the Rockingham experiment. I honestly think NASCAR is making an effort in this direction, but it's not going to happen overnight. Gateway was another great step. Heck, let's see the Trucks go back to Sonoma. They've raced there before, after all. Give Erik Jones and German Quiroga the chance to go after it in 12 turns!
Bruce: Well, one thing's for certain -- the series rarely disappoints. Shorter season, shorter fields and some of the best racing. Is anyone paying attention?
Cavanna: Blame Kyle Busch? Everyone else does.
Caraviello: Even when he's not there!