Track Smack: Roush, Eldora and who's No. 1?
July 31, 2014, David Caraviello, Kenny Bruce and Holly Cain, NASCAR.com
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1. With two victories, a fifth Brickyard title, and the points lead, Jeff Gordon believes his team is the best in the Sprint Cup Series. Is it?
David Caraviello: It's certainly in the argument. It probably says something that Jeff and the No. 24 guys were still able to win Sunday with a few slip-ups on pit road, including one instance where the fuel man lost his grip on the can. A fast car, though, makes up for a whole lot, and Jeff certainly had that Sunday.
Holly Cain: When you put it like that ... hard to argue. Except there are a couple of other drivers that could make a good case. Jeff is where he needs to be right now -- and in an enviable position -- but I still think Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr., plus Brad Keselowski are on their game, too.
Kenny Bruce: How do you define best? Week in and week out, I think the 24 team is superior, but there are weeks when a Kevin Harvick, Keselowski or Johnson goes out and just slays the field. The problem for those guys has been they haven't done it practically every weekend. Gordon's been by far the most consistent, and that's the difference.
Cain: I agree, Kenny. That's what will make the Chase so interesting -- the ability to win every week.
Caraviello: But the best team? There are a few things that might give me pause in that regard. Jeff drove like a bat out of heck Sunday, and he had the restart of his life to win it, but restarting as a whole is far from his strong suit. He's down the list a bit in terms of top-fives and laps led. Jeff and the No. 24 guys are capable of taking advantage of any scenario presented to them. They have enough to get to Homestead. A large piece of the equation, though, is the power under the hood.
Bruce: Give me a driver that is average or better on restarts in a great car and the rest will take care of itself. Witness, as you said, DC, the team's ability to overcome the pit road adversity Sunday. Shades of teammate Johnson there. Maybe Sunday was all about having a great car. But that aside, I still think their week-to-week performances put them at the top.
Caraviello: There's clearly a top four right now -- the teams of Gordon, Keselowski, Johnson and Earnhardt. You could throw a blanket over all those guys. Determining the best among them comes down to nitpicky little details, which at this level are all capable of making a difference.
Cain: I really believe that's where the crew chief will be a major component too, David. I think strategy and handling championship pressure will be as key as horsepower. That is, all things being equal, of course.
Caraviello: Alan Gustafson had that car on rails at the Brickyard. It was perfect. He didn't need to rely on strategy like so many others did. But the time will come when strategy plays a major part, and you'd think guys like Steve Letarte and Paul Wolfe would have the advantage in that regard, just because of what they've shown us on the past.
Bruce: That's what was so interesting about the race. How many times have we seen teams use unusual, or unexpected strategy to put themselves in position to win? The 24 team was more concerned about putting the fastest car on the track. I'm sure they had a plan, but it was the fallback and not the focus.
Caraviello: Indeed, Kenny, it's hard to argue with a team that's led the points 13 of the last 14 weeks. And Indy is a statement victory in more ways than one -- it's where teams begin rolling out new cars with an eye on the Chase. And if Gustafson can keep rolling out cars like that -- watch out.
Bruce: Right-oh on the new cars, DC. Strong folks at Indy will likely be strong down the road. Maybe the better question, even if we don't all agree there, is -- who's No. 2? OK, some other time.
2. Roush Fenway Racing announced Sunday that Carl Edwards would not return next season. What is the 2015 outlook for Roush with a stable of Greg Biffle, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Trevor Bayne?
Caraviello: Lots of selfies, "Twilight" movies, and whatever else the 20-something kids are into these days, I would guess. It's going to be a very different Roush team than what we've seen in the past. This used to be the most veteran-laden group on the circuit back in the Edwards-Matt Kenseth-Biffle days, but clearly that won't be the case anymore.
Cain: On paper, it looks like Roush has decided to focus on potential and is building for the future. However, in this sport, it's all about what can you do now. Both Stenhouse and Bayne need to "bring it" and Biffle needs to regain the form he has shown in years past. He may really shine as the definitive leader and new chemistry could be a spark for this team.
Bruce: Crazy young, right DC? With the exception of Biffle, that's a lot of youth. But having drivers you can mold isn't bad thing, as long as you realize positive results might be delayed. Then again, it's not as if Stenhouse (former Nationwide Series champ) and Bayne (former Daytona 500 winner) have never sat in a Cup seat before.
Caraviello: And all this doesn't even include Nationwide drivers Chris Buescher and Ryan Reed, who are barely into their 20s. At competition meetings, Biffle is going to feel like the old dude who wandered into a rave.
Cain: Can you relate to The Biff on that?
Caraviello: No comment, Holly! Though I might own a few glow sticks.
Bruce: No one holds up lighters anymore, DC? I'm behind the times. But I think you have something there, Holly. Bringing drivers along is fine as long as you have someone in the group that's got experience and can win races. Biffle doesn't just want to be that guy -- he has to be that guy.
Caraviello: Two years ago, this was a team that boasted three bona fide title contenders. Next year you're looking at two young guys who are works in progress, and a veteran who's coming off an uneven year. That's a huge difference, and the expectations probably need to change as a result. What's a reasonable expectation for Stenhouse or Bayne next year? Getting to that Austin Dillon/Kyle Larson level, you'd think, and staying competitive and on the fringes of playoff contention. Though who knows, Biffle may thrive in that mentor's role.
Bruce: Biffle the mentor? I could see that. I think the expectation for Bayne and Stenhouse is to contend for top-10s. Make the Chase. For real. If you're not one of the best 16 teams, what are you doing? If Bayne slides into what's now the 99, and that groups remains intact, we know it can contend.
Cain: While those two younger drivers may have some time to figure it out, I think Greg feels more urgency. For the first time he will be the "lead" Sprint Cup driver at Roush and I'm betting he thrives in that role.
Caraviello: Well, at 44, who wouldn't feel urgency in a competitive environment? Those windows in which any athlete can contend for championships don't remain open forever. Unless you're Jeff Gordon, evidently.
3. After another spectacular Camping World Truck Series race at Eldora Speedway, owner Tony Stewart argued it's time for the Nationwide and Sprint Cup circuits to bang fenders at the dirt track. Is he right?
David Caraviello: What a timely topic, given that we discussed the merits of weeknight Sprint Cup races just last week. Hey, it would be all kinds of fun. But as long as the playoff format at NASCAR's highest level maintains a win-to-get-in component, not sure a points race on dirt would exactly be fair.
Kenny Bruce: Nope. Are we regressing here? Didn't we just get rid of dirt a couple of years (OK, decades) ago? Teams are already tasked with building road course cars and restrictor plate cars that aren't used anywhere else. Why ask them to build cars for a single dirt race? I love the idea, but the reality of it is it's not the direction the sport needs to go in at this time.
Cain: Seems like -- while a great idea in theory -- the teams may not welcome the extra preparation that one-off would mean. However, a race in the dirt this year would put Tony in the Chase!
Bruce: How's that, Holly? Do promoters earn a Chase spot?
Cain: Just thinking Tony would be pretty hard to beat in the dirt.
Caraviello: He'd have to get past Kyle Larson first.
Cain: And that would get pretty interesting.
Bruce: Two words: Norm. Benning.
Cain: Point. Taken.
Caraviello: Listen, this kind of thing sounds tailor-made for the Nationwide Series. Invite all the interloping Cup drivers you want. Have a big 'ol time. Get Kyle Busch and Larson and a bunch of other guys out there to mix it up at a standalone. But not Sprint Cup, not with a win-and-in playoff format. As Kenny suggested, that would seem a backward step.
Cain: I like that David. Great idea.
Bruce: Because the Nationwide Series teams have so much more money to throw around (said Mr. Fuddy Duddy).
Caraviello: I mean, clearly Eldora could handle it. They've done a masterful job with the Truck race, and I'd think they'd do just as well with a Nationwide event. Of course, as Mr. Fuddy Duddy points out, cost seems more an issue on the Nationwide side than in another other national series, so you might find some resistance to the idea in the garage.
Cain: I think the benefits and buzz could outweigh the concerns.
Caraviello: I just want somebody to give Eldora the $25 million so Tony can build a dome over the place. Might get a little dusty in there, but hoo boy, would that be a scene.
Cain: How about a retractable roof?
Bruce: No doubt, Eldora folks have exceeded everyone's expectations as far as putting on the event. Better than some in Nationwide and, yes, even Cup. But outside of the uniqueness of such an event, I don't see the gains.
Caraviello: I'm about to throw one of my glow sticks at Mr. Fuddy Duddy.
Cain: I think the Nationwide Series should have one race a year that's wholly unique and this would fit that bill. Race on a new road course another season, etc. ... spice it up, create interest and challenge the Cup guys that drop in.
Caraviello: Good idea, Holly. Let's send them someplace like Montreal. Oh, wait ...
Bruce: An "all-star" Nationwide race, perhaps? Bring your dirt car, and your own glow sticks.
Cain: I was thinking more like a racing-starved market. I have a couple in mind. And for you, David, we can hold a rave in the infield the night before.
Caraviello: The Biff and I have on matching tank tops and skinny jeans and are ready to go!