Five non-Chase NASCAR stories for the final 10 races
With NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup getting ready to kick off this weekend in Chicago, almost all of the stock car racing world is focused on the 16 drivers competing for a championship. The other 27 drivers will find themselves an afterthought on a weekly basis. But just because the chance for a title is gone doesn't mean the remaining teams do not have something to fight for. Another Left Turn looks at five stories worth following as the season heads to its conclusion.
#1. Which driver will launch their 2015 season over the final 10 races of 2014?
It happens every year. A driver left out of the Chase buckles down and finds the kind of speed that can launch a team the following year. In 2012, Kyle Busch just missed out on making NASCAR's playoffs. The failure could have doomed the team to mediocrity. Instead, Busch scored seven top five finishes in ten races and had the best season-ending run of his career. The #18 team carried that momentum into 2013, where Kyle finished fourth in points- the best of his career. Last year, Brad Keselowski likewise missed out on the Chase but captured five top ten finishes and his only win of the season during the Chase. This year, he won four races and took the top overall Chase seed.
So it's highly likely that some driver left out of this year's Chase will make themselves heard this year. One interesting candidate for the run is Kyle Larson. The rookie nearly snuck into the Chase at Richmond and has been in the hunt on more than one occasion this season. His teammate, Jamie McMurray, is another possibility. With Hendrick power under the hood, both will have the kind of horsepower needed to get on a run.
#2. What now for Smoke?
The Ontario County Sheriff's Department recently announced that their investigation into the death of Sprint Car driver Kevin Ward Jr. will continue for at least another week or two. Yet their office seems loathe to charge Stewart with a crime based on their announcements to date. In fact, they went so far as to say that they knew of nothing to justify criminal charges at this point.
Yet their investigation will ultimately be turned over to the District Attorney's office for a final determination. The DA's decision will be as much a political one as it is a criminal one. Mr. Tantillo hasn't yet indicated which way he's leaning. Will he risk filing no charges and the accompanying political heat for dispensing more “celebrity justice”? Or will he file charges that the evidence may not fully support and risk a loser case in court? The next month should provide an answer.
#3. Who's going to be the rookie of the year?
With both Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon missing out on the Chase, the race to be top rookie is the main prize ahead of both drivers. Justin Allgaier has an outside shot to make it interesting as a three way race as well. Three of his best four finishes this year have come in the last six weeks and as Harry Scott's team starts visiting tracks for a second and third time, the results should be even better.
Dillon brought the #3 back to Sprint Cup racing with much fanfare earlier this year, starting on the pole at Daytona. But it has been Larson who's shown the most speed of late- and done so in a year that many thought might end up being a year too early for the young driver. Can he hold off Dillon over the final ten weeks? Or will Dillon break through and give #3 fans the first of many trophies to come?
#4. Can Michael Waltrip Racing start its long climb back?
After finishing an exhausting third place at Richmond, Clint Bowyer admitted that even if he made the Chase, he was no threat to win a title. Toyota in general and MWR in particular has seemed a step slow compared to the Penske Fords and Hendrick Chevys. The teams may still be struggling from TRD's decision to dial back the horsepower in favor of reliability a year ago (despite protestations to the contrary). To finish first, the teams have to first finish, putting a damper on the risk-taking that often leads to the last hundredths of a second that separate winning from 20th place.
But MWR has suffered more than the average Toyota team. They lost a major sponsor, suffered tremendous public embarrassment, and have one fewer driver contributing data at the track every weekend. The team has looked far more like its 2007-2011 self than the rising power it has been since Bowyer joined in 2011. Can Clint and Company find what they've been missing with the pressure off?
#5. Will Danica Patrick finally earn her place at Stewart Haas Racing?
Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch are both safely in the Chase. Without the tragic events of early August, it's likely that team owner Tony Stewart would have been there are well. The team's fourth driver, Patrick, remains viewed by many as an undertalented driver taking up an elite ride based solely on her sex appeal. And while her contract with the team goes through 2015, her sponsorship with GoDaddy is up for renewal at the end of this year.
Patrick sits a disappointing 28th in series points as of today- two spots behind Stewart, who's missed three races. There is not a single driver behind her that's driving equipment anywhere near as good as hers; the next four spots are Allgaier, David Gilliland, Michael Annett, and David Ragan. It's hardly a who's who of NASCAR's best teams and it's an indictment of her second year performance.
Yet there are a (very) few reasons to hope that she may well have turned the corner. She has three top ten finishes so far this year, compared to a single one in 2013. Moreover, she scored a career-best sixth place finish at Atlanta and has finished in the top half of the field in all but one of the last five events. It's hardly running up front and winning races but if Danica is to ever get there- or even stay at SHR- it's a necessary first step.