Our experts weigh in on four of the biggest questions in motorsports as the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series heads to Indianapolis Motor Speedway:
Turn 1: Is it panic time for Joey Logano? Does he make the playoffs?
Ricky Craven, ESPN NASCAR analyst: It’s not panic time, but it could be real soon if an unexpected driver wins or Logano and his team continue to suffer mechanically. This team and driver belong in the playoffs, but the craziness that is 2017 may force them into a safety mode as opposed to exploratory. And the fact is this team currently doesn’t have the speed to win a title. I believe they make the playoffs. I’m not convinced they can go past the second round in their present form.
Ryan McGee, ESPN.com: Yes, time to panic. No, he doesn’t make it. What he does have going for him is that he won the last race at Richmond, which is once again the cutoff race for the playoffs. What he doesn’t have going for him is that the springtime win was during the day, apparently he was cheated up, and he’s cracked the top 20 only three times in the 10 races since then. Encumbered, indeed.
Bob Pockrass, ESPN.com: A little. But he has raced when on the brink of elimination before, and typically when the time comes to doubt Logano, he performs. He could certainly win Richmond with a legal car in the regular-season finale. Expect to see him in the playoffs.
Matt Willis, ESPN Stats & Information: One of my favorite Simpsons quotes is when news reporter Kent Brockman asks an “expert” if “it’s time for everyone to panic?” The expert simply replies, “Yes, I would, Kent.” While I might not be advocating for everyone to “crack each other’s heads open and feast on the goo inside,” like that expert later did, I think it’s time for Logano to look for opportunities to win, and not just race for points. There’s only five spots left for drivers to race into the playoffs on points. Logano is 52 points behind Matt Kenseth for the last one and at least 100 points behind Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott and Jamie McMurray, who are currently 12-13-14 in the playoffs. If a driver behind him wins at Watkins Glen (A.J. Allmendinger?), that bubble floats further away from where Logano sits now.
Turn 2: Who’s your championship favorite at this point? Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Larson or somebody else?
Craven: Each of these drivers are at the head of the class, and week in and week out they demonstrate speed. Martin Truex Jr. is a step ahead of Larson in terms of experience and having been in the championship race. I believe that matters come late October.
McGee: It’s Truex, if for no other reason than because he and his team own the advantage of been there, done that. That team was the surprise member of the Homestead final four in 2015 and has spent the two years since thinking about what it would do differently when it got back. Oh, and he’s also been hoarding stage points like a maniac.
Pockrass: Truex because of the number of playoff points he has. Currently with 13 more playoff points than the rest of the field — and 20 more than all but four others — he has a reasonable chance of advancing on points throughout the playoffs. And his ability to remain calm should help come time for the finale at Homestead.
Willis: Give me Truex. For one, he’s running away with the series lead in laps led, but also in the fastest laps led categories. He’s also shown a dominance on the 1.5-mile tracks that make up half of the playoff schedule. And, he’s not dealing with the issues Larson is on getting through inspection that could possibly lead to costly penalties, or with having to change parts of his car to adhere to the rulebook.
Turn 3: Did you like the PJ1 traction compound being used at New Hampshire? Should more tracks use it?
Craven: Yes, I think it is working and I think it’s complementing the product. I’m of the opinion that more attention needs to be directed toward the tracks and a little less toward the cars. Drivers can only take what the track will give them, and the track giving them options provides entertainment.
McGee: I like it, but right now it’s like cheap bubble gum. It’s awesome at the start, but doesn’t last long enough. I think the concrete tracks should all use it. The asphalt tracks only need to dig it out on occasion.
Pockrass: It seemed to improve the racing at New Hampshire, but it didn’t last the whole race. It appears more effective on concrete, so Bristol, Martinsville and Dover certainly could benefit. If it can help any part of a race, it’s worth it, and as NASCAR and tracks continue to use it, they might find a way to make it last longer.
Willis: It’s a temporary fix, but I’m all at throwing a number of ideas out there to try to make for a better on-track product. The truth, as always, is in the numbers. According to NASCAR’s loop data, there were 2,092 green-flag passes in last Sunday’s race. That’s 25 percent more than the playoff race last year (1,677) and 58 percent more than this race last year (1,324).
Turn 4: Time for the Brickyard 400 this weekend, does NASCAR racing at Indianapolis still have appeal?
Craven: From the drivers’ perspective it plays a critical role being on the schedule. It is among the most coveted events. I can speak firsthand to the experience of competing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It’s like no other! I’m not dismissing this weekend’s race at all, but I do believe this race is too important to be stuck in the middle of the summer, and it being the final regular-season race in 2018 will prove very, very healthy.
McGee: Whenever there are cars on the racetrack at Indy, there’s appeal. Unfortunately the race that transpires there usually doesn’t do much to keep that appeal going. I’m not a fan of moving the playoff cutoff race from Richmond to Indy. And now Charlotte has beaten IMS to the punch on using the roval. I’m not sure what the right move is to improve that situation. Maybe the September move will work. If nothing else, it should be a little cooler for the fans who do show up.
Pockrass: Yes. It is racing at Indianapolis, so it has appeal, but it’s limited as the current NASCAR car has consistently underwhelmed. If people are going to choose one race to attend at Indy, it will be the Indianapolis 500, based on the history and the racing. The change in date for 2018 to the regular-season finale in September is an attempt to add some juice to the weekend, but NASCAR faces an uphill battle at Indy, one that certainly won’t go away if NASCAR and the track make the foolish decision to use the Indy road course starting in 2019.
Willis: The track is more special than the racing is good, but it’s important for NASCAR to be a presence at the track. They’re not going to fill the track to its capacity of 400,000, but to see a young, upcoming driver such as Larson or Chase Elliott be able to kiss the bricks, or run on the same ground as A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti is just cool. If a driver like that grew up idolizing those drivers, you don’t want to force them into a choice of either racing in NASCAR, or being able to win at Indianapolis. Appreciate the history and tradition and look past the fact the track just isn’t built for stock cars.