Track Smack: An issue of age, speed or just racing?
July 17, 2014, Kenny Bruce, David Caraviello and Holly Cain, NASCAR.com
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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. Morgan Shepherd has taken some heat after his crash that took out Joey Logano this past Sunday at New Hampshire. Is this an issue with minimum speed, maximum age, or nothing at all?
Holly Cain: NASCAR has insisted that Morgan has passed all the same requirements to drive as his competitors, so it may be that this comes down to minimum speed as Jeff Gordon suggested this week. Certainly, it's something that should be addressed at least.
David Caraviello: It's an issue caused by haves and have-nots being on the race track together, which has been a reality for as long as racing has been around. Contending cars always have to deal with their less-well-off brethren. Joey could just as well have gotten into an incident with an 18-year-old driver, which would have caused the same issue. Not sure Morgan's age really has anything to do with it.
Kenny Bruce: Not the first time a guy running up front has had contact with a slower car and been knocked out of a race as a result. Wondering what the responses from folks would be had it been someone other than Morgan Shepherd. Probably "that's racing."
Caraviello: Yeah, I think you're right there, Kenny. If anything, we seem to see this kind of thing more frequently in the Nationwide and Camping World Truck circuits, where contending drivers have been taken out by incidents involving younger, more inexperienced, or less-funded guys. The Ryan Blaney accident at Kansas comes to mind. Good cars always have to watch out for the not-as-good cars -- it's just a fact of racing life.
Cain: There have been other instances with much slower cars being rolling obstacle courses. But is that just part of racing? That may be the issue.
Bruce: The thing that struck me about the incident was listening to Morgan and his team on the radio prior to the incident. They were constantly talking about what changes could be made to the car to get it to handle better in the turns. It wasn't as if Morgan was just out there making laps.
Caraviello: Clearly racing carries with it a different kind of risk, but people need to understand that no sport really has a maximum age. Athletes in all walks hang on as long as their skills and wherewithal will allow them to. If Morgan passes all the physical tests, who are we to say he can't race?
Bruce: I specifically asked team owner Roger Penske about the incident after the race. He wasn't happy that it happened, but didn't place any blame on Morgan. There's a huge difference between a driver just moving into the series and a guy trying to stay out of the way when his car isn't cooperating.
Cain: As we all know, if the races were run on roller skates, Morgan would school them all.
Caraviello: That's exactly what we need -- Shepherd and Logano settling this at a roller rink. I'll bring the disco ball!
Cain: From your living room, no doubt.
Bruce: Disco Duck, DC?
Caraviello: I've been waiting for a reason to pull those bell bottoms out of the closet!
2. Brad Keselowski's victory at Loudon was his second dominant performance in three weeks, and tied him for the series lead in wins. Is he establishing himself as the favorite for the Sprint Cup Series championship?
Cain: At the very least, Brad is serving notice. I think he always had to be considered a contender and we hear so often about peaking at the right time. The question is, what does he have for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup? Certainly, winning on Chase tracks such as New Hampshire have to be encouraging for Team Penske.
Caraviello: OK, I'm not sure we want to go that far quite yet, but Brad is certainly making his case as the primary foil to Jimmie Johnson. For all the success Dale Earnhardt Jr. has had this season, winning races will become the priority during the Chase, and JJ and Brad K have proven they can do that with the most regularity. It could be a heck of a two-man battle, if it comes down to that.
Bruce: Agreed, David. I'm not ready to jump on the BK bandwagon as a championship favorite, but then again, I'd be hard-pressed to put anyone in that category. But his recent efforts have certainly put his team among those that should be considered legitimate contenders.
Cain: There is just something about the 48 team -- okay, maybe the six trophies -- that makes me feel they remain the team to beat. Even when Jimmie hadn't won yet, there was no sense of panic, just a workmanlike feel of, we'll keep improving and be there when it counts.
Caraviello: Not intending to discount anyone else, but it's so much fun when Brad and Jimmie are pitted against one another. They're like oil and water. Brad's comments late last year on what he thought Matt Kenseth needed to do to beat the 48 -- implying Jimmie didn't like to be raced hard -- encapsulated it all. JJ tries to play the straight man, Brad tries to wield the needle. If we get more of that, then everybody wins.
Cain: And this certainly wouldn't be the first time Brad and Jimmie have settled a title between them.
Caraviello: For Brad and that No. 2 team, it goes beyond the race wins -- that group has five finishes of third or better in their last seven starts. That's stout, people. They're hitting on all cylinders right now, with another flat track coming up in Indianapolis, and a bevy of 1.5 intermediate layouts still to come.
Cain: And those are also Jimmie's playgrounds. Particularly Indianapolis, where a win would be a huge statement for him.
Bruce: If anything, the No. 2 team seems to approach each race less of a mindset of "let's see what we can learn for later" and more of a "let's win the race." BK vs. JJ? It could get interesting if it came down to that. But of course, it won't be a two-team battle simply because of the new format.
Caraviello: True, Kenny. But I'm also noticing a pattern here -- Brad arrives as a serious title contender after breaking his ankle. This year, he gets on a roll as he cuts his hand. Hoping next year he doesn't decide to hack off a finger for the sake of performance.
Cain: He could make it a little easier on himself.
Bruce: You always hear drivers say they'd "wreck their own mother" to win a race. Never heard anyone say they'd give up body parts.
Caraviello: We always knew Brad Keselowski was an original.
3. Erik Jones won the Camping World Truck Series race at Iowa to make it nine-for-nine this season for Toyota, and 11 in a row for the manufacturer dating back to the end of last year. Who is going to stop this onslaught, and when?
Bruce: The Truck Series is still a focus for the Toyota camp. Remember when the company made the move to NASCAR, it began in the Truck Series and evolved from there. They've still got skin in the game, I guess you could say. Which really doesn't answer your question, David.
Caraviello: Given that the next Truck Series race is at Eldora, and that's a different animal that brings all kinds of different drivers out of the woodwork, you'd have to think the streak could very well end on the Rossburg dirt. Austin Dillon did win there last season in a Chevrolet, after all. And the format and the surface prove great equalizers.
Cain: Agreed, I think Eldora changes the game. That is the best shot for a different manufacturer.
Caraviello: But beyond that -- man, those Toyotas are tough right now, as the Iowa race clearly showed. Ryan Blaney is a heck of a driver who gave Jones quite a battle -- when the leaders had some lapped traffic to work around. But when it was clear race track ahead, Jones took off. That's been kind of a pattern this year, given how strong those Kyle Busch Motorsports entries are in particular. And Kenny is absolutely right -- Toyota wins in the Trucks because the manufacturer puts an emphasis on it. Rather than knocking them, that's something to be applauded and emulated, particularly if people want to continue to see a Truck Series that's vibrant and entertaining.
Bruce: So Eldora is where we see the streak end? It's definitely the Truck Series version of a "wild card" race. Blaney, Joey Coulter, and Dillon, for instance, are more than capable at making it into the winner's circle -- and not just at Eldora.
Caraviello: And let's be fair, Toyota's drivers are pretty good, too. Busch is an all-timer, Jones is a future star. Defending champ Matt Crafton is in a Toyota. So is German Quiroga, perhaps the best Truck driver without a victory. So they're loaded in more ways than one. Among the other manufacturers, Ford driver Blaney still shapes up as the best chance to end the streak -- assuming it ends eventually. Barring that, put 'em all on roller skates and make 'em try to beat Morgan Shepherd.
Cain: Just don't do that on dirt!
Caraviello: Are we sure no one has yet proposed dirt roller skating to the folks at Eldora?
Bruce: Bay City Bombers, anyone?