Track Smack: Should NASCAR race in the rain?
June 26, 2014, Alan Cavanna, David Caraviello and Kenny Bruce, NASCAR.com
NASCAR.com writers discuss racing in the rain, Brendan Gaughan's breakthrough win at Road America and whether or not Matt Kenseth will revisit Victory Lane at Kentucky
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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. NASCAR teams bolted on rain tires for just the third time ever during the NASCAR Nationwide Series event this past weekend at Road America. Should the sport attempt to race more often in inclement weather?
Alan Cavanna: I like the idea of keeping it to one, lower series. Call me traditional, but I don't like the idea of trying it in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. The NASCAR Camping World Truck Series has an event on dirt. It gives that race and series an identity. Let rain racing exist as a possibility for the Nationwide cars.
David Caraviello: Yes. Let's do it. Daytona and Talladega in the rain! Imagine the spectacle! Bristol, with sparks and spray flying at the same time! Hey, that seems to be what some fans clamor for, right? But let's get real here -- this deal is a rarity for a good reason.
Kenny Bruce: I think the current progression (hello, Air Titan!) is the best approach. Try to reduce the delay, when possible. Road-course attempts have been crazy, but at least they gave the effort. But on big ovals, high speeds, wet weather? Nah, I don't want to see that. Remember the All-Star Race that began with rain in Turn 1?
Caraviello: Exactly, Kenny. This is really a non-starter on high-speed or high-banked ovals. I mean, the physics of it just don't add up. I understand the allure, but you're talking about a less-than-ideal situation even attempting something like this on a big oval track, or one with high banks.
Bruce: Some of these guys have a hard enough time keeping their cars under control in dry conditions.
Caraviello: Amen, Kenny Bruce. Road America is certainly proof of that. Let's be honest, the novelty of it all is cool. Drivers seem to get a kick out of trying it, at least for a short period of time. But it hardly put on the best shows. Guys at Road America said they could hardly see. Then the weather changes and it all becomes a tire strategy game. Is that really what fans want? I find that tough to believe.
Cavanna: Agree, David. And I'm not sure it adds to a competitive race. When I think of rain races, I think of drivers having to learn on the fly, sliding, possibly spinning out. I want to see drivers attacking and making big moves to pass. I'm not sure if rain racing creates that.
Caraviello: Alan, we all remember that race in the rain in Montreal a few years ago -- guys' windshields were fogging up, cars were sliding all over. I get that the big plus here is that it moves the show along, and certainly it's better than sitting there under red. But what kind of show are you getting?
Bruce: You can't race in the rain, or roller skate in a buffalo herd. Or so I've been told.
Caraviello: You want to try this a few times a year on road layouts in the Nationwide or Truck ranks, fine. But not in Sprint Cup. Not with wins getting guys into the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. We have enough wild cards as it is.
Caraviello: Yeah Kenny, maybe we can borrow Laverne and Shirley from Dale Jr.'s spread and let you find out for real!
2. Which was the bigger surprise this past weekend: Brendan Gaughan winning at Road America for his first Nationwide victory, or Dale Earnhardt Jr. winging his way to a personal best third-place finish at Sonoma?
Caraviello: Got to be Gaughan, right? I get that he used to be an instructor at Road America and had some rain racing in his background that helped him Saturday, but the dude still hadn't won at the national level in 11 years. As much as a crapshoot as that race can be, the winner was still something of a surprise.
Bruce: As impressive as Earnhardt Jr.'s result was at Sonoma (almost called it Sears Point there), I've got to give a hat tip to Mr. Gaughan. Didn't dawn on me until after the fact that the guy had never won in Nationwide before Saturday.
Cavanna: Not to have Junior Nation mad at me, but I'm going with Gaughan. The Nationwide Series race is generally stacked with ringers in good equipment, and Gaughan brought home the checkered flag against them all.
Bruce: Stunned we all agree here. Apparently the new apparel from JR Motorsports has yet to reach our respective desks.
Caraviello: Brendan's last national series victory before Saturday was a Camping World Truck Series event at Texas in the fall of 2003. It's been a long while for the guy, one reason he was so emotional afterward. As for Dale Jr. -- the guy is an elite racer having one of the best seasons of his career. He's a factor every week. Sonoma just fell into place.
Cavanna: We know what kind of equipment Dale Jr. is in. Given the year he's having, it's not a huge surprise that he'd run well. You can't say the same about Gaughan. The RCR Nationwide program had only one win before last Saturday, although it was the week before with Paul Menard.
Bruce: When it comes to road courses, I was thinking Dale Jr. had fallen into the Sterling Marlin mode -- not good on them, don't like them, no reason to get better since there are only two on the schedule. That no longer appears to be the case.
Caraviello: I think when it came to Dale Jr.'s "winging it" strategy, too many people perceived that as a negative. Really, it freed the No. 88 guys to try anything. They were playing with house money Sunday, so should we really be surprised that Earnhardt tied his best-ever result on a road course? We all perform better when we're not all stressed out, right? At least, I do on PlayStation 3.
Cavanna: The most surprising aspect of the weekend was how many cars Dale Jr. hit en route to his podium finish. We don't often see that from him.
Caraviello: Yeah, he wasn't afraid to get a little physical Sunday. But given what we've seen on that track lately, I wonder if that's the mindset you have to have. He certainly wasn't alone in that regard.
Bruce: The fact that Earnhardt was fast in both practices (fifth and seventh, I think) probably eased his concerns a bit. He didn't qualify that well, but he knew he had a fast car.
Cavanna: A top-three at a road course just proves this is Dale Jr.'s year (that's me getting back on the good side of the Nation).
Caraviello: And before we drive away from Road America for another year, how about shout-outs to Alex Tagliani, Kevin O'Connell and Andy Lally for scoring top-10s. Tags did a great job rebounding after running out of gas earlier. Always fun watching those road course guys mix it up, sometimes to the chagrin of the regulars.
Bruce: Comment most overheard in Sonoma media center as race wound down: "Who is Kevin O'Connell?"
Caraviello: I loved his work in "Entourage."
Cavanna: I think Kenny is more of a "Deadwood" fan.
Caraviello: He's certainly capable, given how well he's run this season -- despite the fact that he's still without a victory -- but I don't know if three Sprint Cup races at Kentucky are really enough of a sample size to determine who might have an edge over everybody else.
Bruce: It's the only track with "road construction next 1.5 miles" INSIDE the facility. Surprised MK has yet to win, but I don't see it changing this week. The Joe Gibbs Racing group as a whole hasn't been fast consistently this year.
Cavanna: Nothing in the last two months would lead me to pick a JGR car at an intermediate track. Given the recent horsepower of Hendrick Motorsports, I think you'll see the winner come from that stable.
Caraviello: One key to remember is that Matt's victory last year came in a rain-delayed day race, and all fingers crossed that this one goes off Saturday night as scheduled. So we'll likely see very different track conditions from the event that unfolded a season ago.
Bruce: Kenseth does have good numbers at other 1.5-milers this year -- top-10s across the board, I think -- but seems to be missing that "go for the throat" speed needed to put away the competition.
Cavanna: Is a winless Kenseth (so far) the most surprising aspect of 2014? He had seven wins last year. I'm confident he'll get his wins this year, but I can't predict where it will happen.
Caraviello: Yeah guys, seems all the Toyotas are playing catch-up a bit on speed, which has bitten Kenseth somewhat on 1.5-milers. Still, he finds a way to remain in the hunt. And remember this: Dale Jr. might have had the best car in last year's event until a freak accident when somebody else's tire came off the car and thwacked his No. 88 in the nose. So watch out for NASCAR's Most Popular Driver, once again.
Bruce: The fact that this will only be the fourth time Sprint Cup folks have been to Kentucky means a lot of them are still trying to build up notes. Toss out last year's thanks to the rule changes. It could be anybody's race to win.
Caraviello: Maybe even Kevin O'Connell, which would qualify him for the "Vinnie" Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Oh wait, he's not entered.
Cavanna: David, I should note that I picked the 88 car in this week's NASCAR.com Preview Show …
Caraviello: Alan may be a new co-owner of JRM before this Smack is over, he's sending so much love their way. Just don't forget all us little people after you've made it big, Cavanna!
Cavanna: All mere coincidences, I assure you.