Roundtable: Reflections ahead of NASCAR's regular season finale

Our team of experts debate some of the biggest questions in NASCAR this week.

Roundtable: Reflections ahead of NASCAR's regular season finale
Race winner Joey Logano, Team Penske Ford
Race winner Joey Logano, Team Penske Ford
Clint Bowyer, Stewart-Haas Racing Ford
Clint Bowyer, Stewart-Haas Racing Ford
Erik Jones, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Matt Kenseth, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota Erik Jones, Furniture Row Racing Toyota
Race winner Austin Cindric, Brad Keselowski Racing Ford
Austin Cindric, Brad Keselowski Racing Ford
Austin Cindric, Brad Keselowski Racing Ford
Austin Cindric, Brad Keselowski Racing Ford
Race winner Austin Cindric, Brad Keselowski Racing Ford
Race winner Austin Cindric, Brad Keselowski Racing Ford
Race winner Austin Cindric, Brad Keselowski Racing Ford
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Martin Truex Jr., Furniture Row Racing Toyota
Martin Truex Jr., Furniture Row Racing Toyota
Martin Truex Jr., Furniture Row Racing Toyota
Martin Truex Jr., Furniture Row Racing Toyota
Joey Logano, Team Penske, Shell Pennzoil Ford Fusion
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet Kasey Kahne, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Kasey Kahne, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Joey Logano, Team Penske Ford

Entering the final weekend of the MENCS regular season, do you expect fireworks at Richmond International Raceway? If yes, how aggressive do you think one of the drivers who needs a win to advance will be at in the race?

Jim: Only once since the advent of the Chase in 2004 has a driver won their way into the playoffs with a victory in the regular season finale, so from that standpoint it appears unlikely it will happen. If it does, the most likely candidate to do it would be Joey Logano, since he won the spring Richmond race. And possibility is Clint Bowyer who has won twice previously at Richmond, but he has led less that two dozen laps this season, which makes it unlikely.

Lee: If we see fireworks, my guess is it will stem from the younger drivers not the veterans. While it would certainly enhance story lines, I wouldn't be surprised if the drivers that are already locked into the playoffs simply stay the course. However, Erik Jones, Joey Logano and Clint Bowyer need a Hail Mary win to break up the parade of Chase Elliott, Matt Kenseth and Jamie McMurray. Jones has the equipment to accomplish the task. A Logano sweep at Richmond vindicates his encumbered win from the spring. 

Nick: Looking at the names on the outside looking in, I wouldn't be surprised if their desperation causes some fireworks. Joey Logano, Clint Bowyer, Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez, Trevor Bayne and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are all in a must-win situation and are all capable of winning given the right circumstances. Let's not forget that Logano won the last time the series visited RIR.

Tim: I think Joey Logano will do just about anything to sweep at Richmond this season, especially since his spring win as later ruled encumbered. I don’t think he’ll be a ‘dirty’ driver, but I feel like he and crew chief Todd Gordon will try different things in the race. If not Logano, I feel Erik Jones might get in the playoffs by scoring his first Cup win at Richmond.

Austin Cindric showed how hungry he was to score his first NCWTS win and made controversial contact with Kaz Grala on the final lap. It was the fifth consecutive race that has produced contact on the final lap at CTMP. What do you think makes that track so conducive to so much action late in their races?

Jim: No one has been able to "run away" with the races there. And if you can stay close to the leader, particularly on a road course, there are numerous opportunities where the leader has to slow to turn, which in turn produces more opportunities for the trailing cars to attempt moves to grab the lead. For some reason, numerous drivers are willing to take that gamble at MoSport.

Lee: There’s a lot of parity in the truck series among the top teams which keep the best road course drivers relatively close together. With the high speeds, different elevations and tight turns, drivers have a tendency run into each other throughout the course of the race — and that elevates tensions as the laps wind down. All of the truck winners have been age 20 or younger at CTMS. Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney and Erik Jones have graduated from the tour and have gone on to have successful Cup careers with top teams. Does that make it ok? Maybe not but it signals to the next group of up-and-comers that the bump-and-run is acceptable. Cindric entered the race knowing he had to win to transfer into the playoffs and CTMP was his best opportunity to do so. 

Nick: It's a such a diverse track with long straightaways and tight corners, making it difficult to really get away from those that are chasing. Also, Cindric was trying to get his team into the playoffs, so he wasn't just going for a race win. I think the 'pass' was poorly executed, but this format encourages that sort of racing. Ad hey, we're still talking about the race later in the week, so I'd say that's a successful event from NASCAR's perspective.

Tim: There has been a lot of comments on social media this week, but I’ll remind everyone, if that was Dale Earnhardt Sr. the same thing would have probably happened last Sunday at CTMP and all the other races as well. Maybe he could have waited until another turn on the track, but Cindric did what he had to do to get the win and make the playoffs. Fans should be happy with the passion these drivers are showing.

How surprised are you that Dale Earnhardt Jr. has really struggled this season since his retirement announcement in the spring?

Jim: I am somewhat surprised to the extent Earnhardt's team has struggled with performance. He was only 13th in points when he stepped away for half a season last year and to think he was simply to go return immediately to contending for race wins on a regular basis was a little far-fetched. Hendrick Motorsports' on-and-off-again struggles this year haven't helped his cause any, either. I did expect him to run more consistently in the top-10 and top-five, however.

Lee: I’m not surprised at all. First, Hendrick Motorsports is off. Second, I don’t know how comfortable I would be behind the wheel after having multiple concussions and knowing my next wreck could leave me incapacitated. Honestly, I would have been happy if Junior had decided to sit this year out. He had every right to.

Nick: I didn't expect him to come out of the box swinging, but I am extremely surprised with how much that No. 88 team has struggled. They've just been off this season and unfortunately for Junior, it happens to be his final season. Hopefully, he can snag one last victory before his Cup career comes to an end though.

Tim: I honestly thought Dale Jr. would have gotten a win, but clearly something is off with that team. Although Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne have scored wins, all four cars haven’t been setting the world on fire either.

As we get ready to set the top 16 for the MENCS playoffs, although Martin Truex Jr. has been dominant this season and has already clinched the regular season title, do you predict he'll be in the final four at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November. 

Jim: With the way the No. 78 team has run the past two years, it would be near impossible for Truex not to make it to the Homestead finale. He will enter the playoffs with an enormous playoff point cushion - one that he is only likely to add to as the playoff races go by. He would have to have at least two consecutive terrible races to even be in trouble, which is unheard of. Never mind the fact that he is likely to win in the playoffs and they wins will also automatically advance him to the next round, regardless of points.

Lee: Truex will sail off into the final four with ease. His top competition down the stretch will come from Kyle Busch, who is in equally stout equipment and had made a successful championship Cup run just two years ago.

Nick: Barring an absolutely catastrophic round, he will be part of the final four at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He has accumulated enough bonus points to give him a very nice cushion, something he lacked when his engine blew and ended his title hopes at Talladega Superspeedway last year.

Tim: It would take some terrible luck and problems over several races for Truex Jr. to not make the final four. However, we rarely see a team that has performed as strong as Truex and Furniture Row has done just ‘fall off a cliff’ once the playoffs start. While it’s not 100%, I fully expect Truex to be part of the final four at Homestead-Miami Speedway. 

As we enter the final regular season Cup race of the season, what has been the biggest disappointment this season in your eyes?

Jim: I find the continued struggles of Joey Logano's team very perplexing. That team was contending for wins virtually every week until he won at Richmond. And then since, hardly at all. Yes, NASCAR penalized the team for a rules violation following Richmond, which could explain some of their prior good performance. But one would think the team would at least run as well as Brad Keselowski, considering they are on the same team and share all data. Yet in some races, the performance differences between the two drivers seems like night and day.

Lee: I’m shocked at the lack of performance from Hendrick Motorsports. Although Kasey Kahne became the second driver to pick up a win for the company, all four cars seem to lack speed right now. Chad Knaus said last week the organization was working to improve qualifying but none of the four drivers transferred past the second round in time trials. Jimmie Johnson’s 18th-place start was the best for HMS and none of the drivers finished on the lead lap or in the top 10. While I’d never count Johnson out in the playoffs, if the team is using the second half of the season to prepare for the final 10 races there’s no indication they’ll be competitive with the Toyotas. Sure, two of Johnson’s race wins — Texas and Dover — are tracks that will return in the playoffs. However, the team hasn’t posted a top 10 since July at New Hampshire. 

Nick: Joey Logano. At the beginning of the season, he was a team favored to make the final four yet again, but here we are looking at the very real possibility that he won't make the playoffs at all. I doubt anyone saw that coming.

Tim: I’m really surprised how Joey Logano went from in contention almost every week to a team that appears to be ‘searching’ for what is going on with their cars. I would say secondly would be Hendrick Motorsports, but I think there’s a combination of factors that contribute to that team, but I also expect Jimmie Johnson to contend for title No. 8.

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