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NASCAR Cup Series

RAPID REACTION: Misery to Majesty

What’s in a Name?

Kevin Harvick didn’t get his moniker by accident. “The Closer” donned his cape in the late stages of the race to get the job done. After a start less-than-stellar start to the Chase in Chicagoland, the “Happy” one shed misery to majesty and locked himself into Round Two. Is this the start of a Championship run? Too early to tell. It was the little things like bad pit stops and penalties that bit the No. 4 team during the season. But you can never count out a champion when it’s time to crown one.

The Best Offense is a Good Defense

Ask anyone in the garage and they’ll tell you that Ryan Newman is the toughest guy to pass. He’ll race you hard and make you work for the track position, even if he’s down a lap. Today, Kenseth was the tough one to pass — but for a different reason.

Today’s runner-up is arguably the best defensive in the series. When he wants to keep a spot, he’ll likely keep it. It’s called “stealing the line.” Kenseth can gauge his follower’s weak points on the track and make him drive there. Such was the case with Martin Truex, Jr. The ability to coax another driver into a space he can’t go is an art form. While Truex ultimately got the spot, he used up a lot of rubber doing it.

Fear of Commitment

With the caliber of drivers in the Chase, it’s going to come down to who makes the least amount of mistakes. You have to be nearly mistake-free if you want to wear that crown in Homestead.

Carl Edwards’ commitment line penalty sent him to the rear of the field and caused him to restart his day. While ultimately finishing 6th, who knows what might have been if Cousin Carl didn’t get nabbed.

Thanks for Showing Up Again

Not really Chase-related, but what’s up with Kasey Kahne? Four consecutive top-ten finishes for the No. 5 team. They’re probably the hottest team in the series that nobody talks about. But, as the cliche goes, better late than never — especially when young William Byron is going to need someplace to eventually sit.

Bowman the Showman

Alex Bowman is regularly part of the conversation. Filling in for Dale Jr and sharing the duties with Jeff Gordon raised the bar nearly beyond reach. But Bowman can touch it standing on his tippy-toes.

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Development Journalists

Larson Heats Up In Indy

It was a good week to be Kyle Larson.

On Wednesday, Larson took home a win at Eldora in the Camping World Truck Series, then contended for the win in the XFINITY Series on Saturday and finished fourth. Then on Sunday, the 23-year-old ended up fifth in the Sprint Cup Series race.

Entering Sunday, Larson needed a solid day as he was coming off a stretch of two races with finishes outside the top 15. The No.42 spent the majority of the event inside the top 10 and avoided the late race incidents.

“I don’t know that I was expecting much more than a top five,” Larson said. “I didn’t know we’d have that speed in our car. And we were probably a fifth- or seventh-place car. But I was able to get some good restarts there at the end. It was just a solid day for the whole Target team. The Energizer Chevy was good from the start, which helps. We qualified good for once, and it was just a solid weekend.”

The fifth-place finish serves as a majoring stepping stone for both Larson and Chip Ganassi Racing as a whole. Larson has not only erased a 25-point gap to the Chase cutoff, but currently qualifies for the Chase with a 10-point advantage over Kasey Kahne. So for the time being, CGR has both Larson and Jamie McMurray in the Chase.

With just six races remaining to the cutoff, a story to watch will be whether the Ganassi teammates end up making the Chase. Larson and McMurray have five top 10s each in 2016. However, in two full-time seasons, Larson has yet to make the Chase. Perhaps this will be his year.

Mitchell Breuer is a POPULAR SPEED Development Journalist

EMAIL MITCHELL AT mitchell.breuer@popularspeed.com

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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NASCAR Cup Series

Stewart’s Momentum Continues In New Hampshire

Tony Stewart‘s impressive comeback continued this weekend at New Hampshire as he captured a second-place finish in Sunday’s New Hampshire 301.

Stewart started the day 12th and spent a good portion of the race outside the top 10. But, as the race progressed, ‘Smoke’ continued to make his way through the field and steered clear of any late race trouble, keeping the No.14 Haas Automation Chevy clean.

“We took a chance at the beginning, and the plan was to take two on the first stop, and it really bit us. We got back to about 22nd, I think, and from then on it was just kind of fighting our way back,” said Stewart post-race. “Nobody really took two until, I don’t know, late in the race there were guys — I guess when Denny stayed out, and a bunch of guys in front of us took two tires, and the 22 and 78 and us I think were the ones on four or something like that. We were able to start picking our way through there, and that was really good.”

With the finish in sight, Stewart would show his strength by quickly moving from sixth to third on the final restart, and then pass by Joey Logano with two laps to get to second.

Stewart credited the strong finish to rookie crew chief, Mike Bugarewicz and all of the work he put in throughout the weekend.

“Yeah, we had a much better Haas Automation Chevy today than what we had yesterday. Buga [Mike Bugarewicz, crew chief] did a really good job. I went off and went to Eldora for the King’s Royal last night. He kept sending me a couple of texts, he was working as late here as I was working late at Eldora. It really paid off.” said Stewart.

Stewart’s runner-up finish served as yet another example for his return to form since injuring his back during the offseason. The three-time Sprint Cup champion says his team’s confidence is only growing as they begin to pick up steam midway through summer.

“I feel like we are getting better each week now. Buga is doing a great job on the box. You can see the confidence not only in him, but all the guys on the team. Our Chevys are fast right now, I feel like we are gaining on it.” said Stewart. “What we said, I don’t know when we said it, we were talking about you crawl before you walk, walk before you run, run before you jog, and jog before you sprint. We are definitely running right now. I feel like we are getting pretty close to this sprint at the end.”

More importantly, the runner-up finish now places the Stewart 67 points ahead of 31st in the driver standings putting himself in even better position to make the Chase in September.

Mitchell Breuer is a POPULAR SPEED Development Journalist

EMAIL MITCHELL AT mitchell.breuer@popularspeed.com

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Truex Confident with Chase Chances Coming Down to Phoenix

After an eventful weekend in the Lone Star state, @MartinTruex_Jr proved that he was still in it to win it.

The driver of the No. 78 Furniture Row/Visser Precision Chevrolet finished eighth at Texas Motor Speedway and remains in that coveted top four in the Chase standings, just six points behind leader Jeff Gordon.

Truex Jr.’s weekend started with a relatively poor qualifying effort, starting the race in the 23rd spot with a time of 27.608 seconds and a speed of 195.595 miles per hour. The disappointing starting spot was also compounded by the lack of practice due to rain.

In spite of those challenges, Truex had a fast car when the checkered flag flew.  He quietly but quickly worked his forward throughout the AAA Texas 500. By Lap 18, Truex was in the top-10 and by Lap 22, he cracked the top five, where he stayed until the closing laps of the race.

“We had a really fast car all day,” Truex said. “We didn’t qualify well and not having any practice on Saturday (due to a wet track) was a little bit of a concern. But our crew chief (Cole Pearn) and his talented staff of engineers rose to the challenge and once again gave me a competitive car.”

In fact, Truex was so competitive during the race that he actually began to tussle with race leader at the time Brad Keselowski, who had led a track record of over 300 laps. Truex and Keselowski raced head to head in the latter part of the race, at one point even trading some paint.

“We just rubbed a little bit there in the tri-oval,” Truex said. “No big deal at all. We were both racing hard. Good hard racing-rubbing a little.”

“Rubbing is racing. It was fun.”

That tussle, which caused Truex to fall back and out of contention for the lead, was just the start of the solo team driver’s problems. He then suffered a double loss, that of a loose right-front wheel as well as the loss of power steering.

“Once the right-front wheel started to shake I realized I had a serious problem,” Truex said. “And then the power steering went away.”

“I wish I could have hung with Brad a little longer, but my right front wheel starting shaking. We were lucky to hang on and get what we did because with five laps to go, the power steering quit working; it broke a fitting or something.”

“One of those weird days where I thought we had a shot at the win. Our car was real fast at the end of the race. Just a loose wheel and the power steering killed us.”

With the double whammy in full swing, Truex decided he just needed to get his Chevrolet to the checkered flag and salvage the best finish possible for himself and his team.

“At that point I just wanted to hang on and get the car to the checkered flag. I had to conserve at the end, running about 70 percent just to make sure we got to the finish line with all the wheels on the car and not lose a whole bunch of points.”

“It’s a shame we let this slip away, but on the other hand I guess it could have been worse.”

And instead of being much worse, Truex was able to hold onto that fourth and final position in the points standing. With one race remaining in the Eliminator 8 round, he currently sits four points out of second, three points from third, with a seven-point cushion over fifth place driver Carl Edwards.

“We’re still in good shape but it sure would have been nice to have those five or six points that we lost,” Truex said after recording his 22nd top-10 of the season. “Nobody said this was going to be easy.”

Truex, as with his other seven competitors, will now turn his attention to the last race of the season before the championship run at Homestead. And the driver of the Furniture Row team is all about the upcoming race at Phoenix.

“It’s all going to come down on who can perform and survive Phoenix next week,” Truex said. “We feel good about Phoenix — we had a good test there recently.”

“We are in good shape,” Truex continued. “Certainly we would have like to have finished where we should have today. We should have run top-three and should have had a shot at winning. All-in-all, we didn’t beat ourselves.”

“We are still in it. We will have to go to Phoenix and run hard and put together a really good run.”

EMAIL MARY JO AT mj.buchanan@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW MARY JO ON TWITTER: @maryjobuchanan

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, it’s owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Aric Almirola Quietly Races His Way to a Top-Five Finish at Dover

@Aric_Almirola was the highest finishing non-Chase driver in Sunday’s AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway, racing his way to a fifth-place finish and staying under the radar in the process.

The fifth place finish was the third top-five of the 2015 season for 31-year-old from Tampa, Florida. His finish was overshadowed by the drama in NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup Series championship, which Almirola was a participant in in 2014 after winning a rain-shortened race at Daytona International Speedway.

Almirola has not had the success this season he had hoped for, despite nearly racing his way into the Chase at Richmond International Raceway, a race he finished third in. His finish on Sunday was his second top-five finish this season at Dover International Speedway and his third top-10 finish at the concrete mile.

“That was a good run for us,” Almirola said after the race. “I’m really proud of the guys. That’s two top-fives in a row here at Dover. It was a really good job.”

Much like in the spring race where he started 23rd and raced his way to a fifth-place finish, the veteran racer had to do the same thing again on Sunday. He started Sunday’s race in 18th and methodically worked his way up through the field throughout the duration of the 400-mile race.

“It was a really good job,” Almirola explained. “We just struggled with getting the car in the race track most of the day and right there at the end four tires paid off for us. That was some really good adjustments by Trent and the guys and the pit crew did a good job getting me off pit road and just a really solid day for us.”

Almirola and the Richard Petty Motorsports team now look ahead to Saturday night’s Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Almirola’s best career Charlotte Motor Speedway finish was an 11th place in the 2014 Coca-Cola 600. Earlier this season in the 600-mile marathon race, Almirola finished 17th.

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NASCAR Cup Series

Aric Almirola Contends at Richmond, Fails to Make Chase on Late Restart

RICHMOND, Va. — Aric Almirola says he would have done whatever it took on that final restart to move past Matt Kenseth in order to win the Federated Auto Parts 400 and make the Chase for the Championship.

Entering the weekend at Richmond, the only hope Almirola had to make the playoffs was to win and he and crew chief Trent Owens put themselves in position to do just that by restarting third on the final shootout with 17 laps remaining.

But Kenseth appeared to jump the restart, zipping away from both Almirola and second-place Joey Logano, cruising to his fourth victory of the season. Almirola faded back to fourth, where he was at the time of the final caution with 25 laps to go.

But what if Kenseth hadn’t went early; what would Almirola have done to put himself in the Chase if he had restarted better?

“Anything,” Almirola said. “I got a bad restart and the 20 got a really good jump and it caught me by surprise. I hated that it happened because I was certainly going to put the bumper to him because I had nothing to lose.

“I was going for the win. I was willing to do whatever it took but just wasn’t close enough.”

Almirola, who finishes the regular season 16th but out of the Chase, felt Kenseth may have warranted a penalty

“Yeah, he jumped the start,” Almirola said with conviction. “He fired like three or four car lengths before the restart zone, which caught Logano and myself off guard. But he did what he had to do and NASCAR didn’t call him on it and he went on to win the race.

Even though Almirola felt Kenseth jumped the restart, he doesn’t blame him. Almirola admitted that he was time his own jumped restart and was simply caught off guard.

“I laid back and tried to creep up and get a run on him and as I was trying to time it, he fired. He did what he had to do but NASCAR didn’t call it.”

“But it didn’t matter. Those three cars ahead of us (Kyle Busch, Kenseth and Logano of Joe Gibbs Racing) were much faster throughout the race but we were just as fast on the long run. Our weak point was the first 20 or 30 laps of a run and it was 20 lap shootout at the end.”

For his part, Kenseth didn’t deny that he jumped but admitted that it had nothing to do with Almirola but Logano — who had beat him on several restarts throughout the night.

“I wasn’t going to go late,” Kenseth said. “The No. 22 car (Logano) had so much speed on the restart and I just didn’t want to get beat by that again.”

As for Almirola, the Richard Petty Motorsports No. 43 team will not make the Chase in back-to-back seasons but that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t expect to continue challenging for wins.

“I have optimism at every track we go to, to be honest with you,” Almirola said. “We ran good at Chicago last year. We’re going to Dover where we ran top-5 earlier this year. We have some really good tracks coming up.”

EMAIL MATT AT matt.weaver@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MattWeaverSBN

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NASCAR Cup Series

McMurray’s Strong Run in Richmond

@jamiemcmurray drove his No. 1 Energizer Chevrolet to a fourth-place finish when the checkered flag waved for the Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond International Raceway.

He rolled off the grid ninth for his 375-career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series start and looked to expand on his successfully competitive beginning to the 2015 season. In nine starts, he has grabbed two top-fives and four top-10s.

McMurray is extremely pleased with his team’s performance and admits that he was initially concerned with how things would turn out, especially with a new crew chief atop the pit box. It can take some time for a team to adjust to this type of change. However, the matchup seems to be working out better than anticipated.

“You know, last year I thought was probably my best year in Cup racing, even though we didn’t have the wins that we did in 2010. I thought consistently we were the best. When we did the crew chief change, I was a little bit nervous about what was going to happen,” he said.

“But Matt [McCall] has done an exceptional job. Honestly our cars are probably better this year than they were last year, and he’s done a really nice job of calling the races and giving me a really fun car to drive that’s fast,” McMurray continued.

The Joplin, MO native led two times for a total of four laps and maintained his track position inside the top-five for the final 180 laps of the race.

How does he feel about his chances of making it to the winner’s circle in the near future?

“You know, honestly, I look at every week like we’ll have a chance to win. The 4 and 41 are extremely quick, but I think we proved today that we have a team and a car capable of, put in the right position, to compete with those guys. I’m really happy with my team. The 42 ran well last week at Bristol. Our whole group is really strong right now.”

McMurray is currently sitting ninth in the driver’s standings, 93 behind points leader @KevinHarvick.

EMAIL UNIQUE AT unique.hiram@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER @UniqueHiram

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NASCAR Cup Series

Truex and Furniture Row Grab Second Consecutive Top-10

@MartinTruex_Jr rolled off the grid 14th for the start of the Folds of Honor Quiktrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. He drove his No. 78 Furniture Row Chevrolet to a sixth-place finish, marking his second consecutive top-10 for the 2015 season. The team grabbed an eighth-place finish in Daytona last week.

“It was a good day for us. Obviously a good weekend, in general. Felt like we had good speed all weekend long. The guys made good decisions. Everything has been going really smooth. It’s nice to start off the year with some momentum,” said Truex.

“Really thankful for all the hard work put in over the off-season to kind of turn this program around. Really happy with Cole Pearn [crew chief] running the ship. Have to thank Joe and everybody back in Denver for working hard in the off-season to get us where we needed to be,” he continued.

During the first 120 laps of the race, Truex ran inside the top-15 and the lowest he would drop to was 22nd just 20 circuits later. On Lap 160, the Mayetta, New Jersey native cracked the top-10 and never looked back.

In testing on Thursday and the two weekend practices, the No. 78 team struggled some with car handling especially on short runs.

“We were off a little bit in the test day on Thursday. Felt good about the car on the longer runs, which is where we were best today. Didn’t have that short-run speed. Little things here and there. Cole and our engineer Jazzy did a good job all weekend, made good decisions.”

“They tune on the car throughout the weekend. We constantly go it better each run. Today again we made some good gains through the race. At the end of the day, it was good work by all the guys. That is what we need to keep doing.”

Next week, Truex is heading to Las Vegas Motor Speedway where he has nine starts, two top-10s and led five laps. How does he feel about the current momentum carrying over into that race?

“This is just a good start to the year for us again so we can start building on this, start building some consistency. If we can run towards the front each and every week, we’ll put ourselves in position to win some races. That’s ultimately what we’re here for. Again, just credit to all the guys back in the shop, all the guys on the team,” he said.

He is currently sitting fifth in the driver’s standings, 13 points behind leader @joeylogano.

EMAIL UNIQUE AT unique.hiram@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER @UniqueHiram

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Editorial

Team Xtreme Heads to First Daytona 500

Sunday’s group qualifying was a nightmare for @ReedSorenson36 and Team Xtreme Racing.

After sustaining damage while entering the track, Sorenson made a move to block @ClintBowyer in order to keep his car in a pack to put up a fast time. The two cars then made contact and crashed hard into the Turn 1 wall as other frantically attempted to avoid them.

Disappointment couldn’t accurately describe what Sorenson felt as he walked through the garage area. His only car for Speedweeks was in a heaping mess and drivers were sounding off about the outrageous events of qualifying. How could a driver and his team possibly feel any sort of optimism after the events that had transpired?

After all, Team Xtreme Racing had never made it into the Daytona 500.

Yes, it’s a young team trying to slip through the cracks and make their presence known in the Sprint Cup Series. Since the team debuted in late 2012, it’s been nothing but struggle and misfortune. Time and time again, the team has been knocked down yet they still manage to find a way to stand back up.

This was supposed to be the year that they could shine, with group qualifying making the field as competitive as ever. Now, the team was in desperation mode to get a car ready to race in Thursday’s Duels.

It took a lot of long hours in their Mooresville, North Carolina shop to get ready for the Duel. All the team strived for was for the chance to race for the Daytona 500 – one of America’s biggest sporting events.

The No. 44 Golden Corral Chevrolet would have to start near the back of the field for the second Duel with no guarantee that their newly built back-up car would be coming back in one piece. 60 laps would decide their fate and could possibly set the tone for the rest of their season. Sorensen avoided getting caught up in several accidents and managed to find himself at the front of the pack at the end of the race. His car crossed the line in seventh, meaning he was locked into the Daytona 500.

It didn’t matter that Hendrick Motorsports had just dominated the evening, and it definitely didn’t matter that @DanicaPatrick and @DennyHamlin were feuding on pit road. Team Xtreme Racing and Reed Sorensen will be getting to compete for the race of their life and team owner John Cohen will get to go to Daytona.

Cohen has never been to a Daytona 500 in his life. He wanted to go to the race when he knew his team would be locked into the show. Today, it’s in the hands of Reed Sorensen to complete his dream.

The dream hasn’t gone exactly like Cohen would have wanted it to. Regardless of the adversity, his car is in the biggest race of the season and is competitive enough to race for the win. It won’t be an easy task but the bar has been set high for the team and they’re willing to do what they have to in order to come away from The Great American Race victorious.

Given everything that’s happened to the team in less than a week, it’s the true underdog story of the Daytona 500. From destroyed and knocked down to racing into the Daytona 500, Team Xtreme Racing has done everything necessary to prove they can do big things on Sunday.

A win in the Daytona 500 for Team Xtreme Racing would be one of the biggest upsets in the history of American sports. The story would rank with the New York Giants ending the New England Patriots’ undefeated season in Super Bowl 42. It would even rank with a low seeded team upsetting the University of Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament this season.

Regardless of what happens in the 500 mile race, Team Xtreme Racing has already done something that most small teams would struggle to do. Coming to Daytona and displaying the unity and tenacity they have is something that few teams have the strength to do.

Sorensen will have a major task on his hands, though veteran spotter and POPULAR SPEED visionary Mike Calinoff will do his best to guide him to victory lane. Calinoff has previously been on the spotters’ stand for two Daytona 500 wins in 2009 and 2012 with @MattKenseth.

Everything is in place for Sorensen to pull off the upset of a lifetime. The only problem is that 42 other drivers are trying to achieve the same goal that he is. Today, the words and the stories won’t matter; it’ll all lie in the hands of Sorensen to see if the glass slipper still fits.

Categories
Editorial

Weaver: 2015 NASCAR Christmas Wish List

By Matt Weaver — It’s been over a month since @KevinHarvick was crowned Sprint Cup Series champion in South Florida and the holiday season is in full-swing, a chilling reminder that the off-season is nowhere near its annual checkered flag.

While Christmas is always about family and giving, it’s no secret that we all make wish lists. For many of us who cover or enjoy NASCAR on a regular basis, those lists inevitably involve our favorite sport and the things we would like to see added to the fold over the next calendar year.

With that said, it’s going to be hard to ask for too much following a wild 2014 season. Despite a variety of changes to the weekly complexion of the sport, NASCAR was brought closer to its roots than it has been in a long time and that was a good thing.

Winning arguably matters more than it ever has in the modern era and the stakes increased the intensity between teams both and off the track. The new NASCAR has some quirks that may need addressing in the future, and while there has been too much change over the past decade, a little tweaking is both expected and healthy.

In that spirit NASCAR Santa, here is a list of things I’d like to see over the next 12 months:

REPLACING SPRINT

As announced late last week, Sprint will be leaving as the title sponsor of the Cup Series at the end of the 2016 season. This situation will not likely resolve itself by late 2015 but it’s absolutely imperative that NASCAR does more than just simply accept the highest bidder.

The new partner has gigantic shoes to fill in following the footprints left by RJ Reynolds and Sprint-Nextel. In addition to spending a tremendous amount of money in stock car racing, both brands were also instrumental in activating NASCAR to a new audience in different periods of growth.

It could be argued that Winston was responsible for taking NASCAR national while Sprint-Nextel molded the sport into a telecommunications giant in its own image. The next entitlement partner will have to be just that, a partner, more so than a financial backer, something the folks in Daytona Beach certainly already know.

SECOND TRUCK SERIES DIRT RACE

NASCAR Executive VP/Chief Racing Development Official Steve O’Donnell has recently suggested that a second race on dirt is still a possibility for the Camping World Truck Series — and frankly they need it.

Despite having just one race on a non-paved surface — at Eldora Speedway — many teams continue to build a specialized truck just for the Mudsummer Classic. While most of them later convert these chassis into short track or road course entries, the amount of resources spent on just one race seems a little impractical.

That combined with the entertainment value provided by Eldora makes a second race at a venue like The Dirt Track at Charlotte Motor Speedway or Knoxville Speedway a no-brainer.

A truck race at the Charlotte dirt track would seemingly be an ideal fit due to the lack of travel for teams alone. It would be a perfect complement to All-Star Race festivities, replacing the currently existing Trucks race on the big track.

Meanwhile, if there was ever a dirt facility designed with NASCAR in mind, it would be Knoxville Raceway, an eight-degree-banked half-mile located in Iowa with impressive media and hospitality options, with an infield to sustain everything that NASCAR requires for an event in the post-modern era.

And for those suggesting that a second race on dirt would dilute the Mudsummer Classic, when was the last time anyone truly said the sport had too many short tracks or road courses — similar novelties in the bigtrackitis-infected modern NASCAR?

They don’t.

A CHAMPIONSHIP 4 THAT TRULY FEATURES THE BEST IN THE SPORT

As exciting as the inaugural elimination Chase proved to be, it had some glaring flaws in Year One, admitting no-win Ryan Newman and one-win Denny Hamlin into the final round over the likes of six-win Brad Keselowski and four-win, non-chase champion Jeff Gordon.

On one hand, the case could be made that Newman and Hamlin performed when it mattered the most while Gordon and Keselowski lacked both the wins and consistency needed to chase a championship under this new format. On the other, Gordon and Keselowski were ultimately penalize for racing for the win at Martinsville and Texas respectively, encouraging teams to opt for a more conservative approach moving forward.

NASCAR shouldn’t tinker with the format until a larger sample size can be analyzed. With that said, it won’t hurt to ask Santa to deliver a more statistically impressive final four entering the Homestead finale next season.

INCREASED CHATTER OF SCHEDULE UPHEAVAL

It’s the rumor that just won’t go away — the one where NASCAR is open to drastically altering the schedule with a new television contract in place, despite every denial from the likes of Brian France and Steve O’Donnell.

The newly-reworked schedule isn’t terrible but also feels like more of the same from over the past decade with only Joliet, Kansas and Kentucky being added over the past 15 seasons. It still has too many cookie-cutter intermediates and tracks that arguably do not deserve a second date based on interest and the on-track product.

StreetsA case could be made that venues like Iowa Speedway, Road America and Montreal would all make great additions to future Cup schedules — anything to diminish the era of the mile-and-a-half that has dominated NASCAR in recent years.

(I’m not backing down on my request for a street course event either. Look at the attached photos and tell me that a Vegas street race wouldn’t be a spectacle. If NNS can race at flat Montreal, a Cup race on the right streets wouldn’t be out of the question.)

 

FEWER DEBRIS CAUTIONS

Asking for fewer debris cautions is an admittedly tricky request but it’s also one that needs to be included nevertheless.

When it comes to safety and competition, the officials who man Race Control would rather be proactive than reactive. Thus, if they suspect there is something on the track that could possibly pose a safety hazard or negatively affect the outcome of a race, they are rightfully obligated to demand the caution.

As one NASCAR official put it in a private conversation with the author at Homestead, “we will never apologize for placing the safety of our fans and participants first,” and they should be commended for that stance.

On the flip side, NASCAR legitimately set a record for the most cautions in the final 20 percent of events this past season and there is a steady perception among several drivers in the garage that officials sometimes use that noble stance as a crutch to tighten the field for the stretch run.

Regardless of where the truth lies, fans and competitors should not have to question the validity of breaks in the action. Fewer debris cautions would be a fine addition (err subtraction) to the overall state of the sport next season.

CONTINUED GROWTH AND PROSPERITY

The 2014 season was one of the most dramatic and exciting campaigns in the history of the sport. You can agree or disagree with the changes, but it’s hard to argue that the end result was not entertaining and produced a worthy champion in Harvick. The sport has much to build on entering the 2015 season with a new schedule, television partner and intense championship format.

Hopefully the sport can take the momentum from the Chase and translate that energy into the full season next year. A healthy NASCAR is good for us in the media, the fans and everyone with a vesting interest in the sport.

Hopefully Santa will place some of that growth and prosperity under the tree in a few days. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays everyone!