Our team of experts debate some of the biggest topics in NASCAR this week.
After a wild race at Talladega Superspeedway on Sunday, there are several drivers needing a win to stay alive in the Cup playoffs. Of the bottom four drivers: Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., and Jamie McMurray -- who do you think has the best chance of moving to the Round of 8?
Jim: I believe Kyle Busch is in the best position. Even though Kansas hasn't always been a kind track to him, out of the four drivers in the most trouble, he has shown the most speed this season and has run very competitively on the 1.5-mile tracks. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if the final transfer spot came down to an on-track battle between Busch and his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Matt Kenseth.
Lee: Kyle Busch — no doubt in my mind. While he didn’t enjoy a love affair with Kansas Speedway in his earlier days, in Busch’s last five starts in the Sunflower State, he has one win and five top-five finishes. Over that same stretch, his average qualifying effort is 4.6.
Nick: The obvious choice is Kyle Busch, but I believe that bottom four will remain the same after the Kansas Speedway weekend. Jimmie Johnson holds that final transfer spot and I highly doubt that No. 48 team is going to make a mistake. It's going to take a race win and although Busch does have a win there, he's also endured quite a bit of misfortune at the speedway.
Tim: Although he struggled for a long time at Kansas, I think Kyle Busch will be the one who has the best chance of advancing. He scored a win there last year and has finished well there recently. If Kyle Busch runs into trouble, I also think Kenseth could advance.
With the Round of 6 now set in the Truck Series, who do you see as the favorite of the group to advance to the final four?
Jim: Clearly, Christopher Bell continues to remain the favorite. The longer this season goes on, the more impressive he and his Kyle Busch Motorsports team have looked. Martinsville can be a difficult track for many but even though Bell hasn't won there, he has finished in the top-five in two of this three starts there.
Lee: Christopher Bell has been solid all season — and has led the standings for the last eight races. He’s really blossomed under the direction of Rudy Fugle. And after 19 races, Bell has won five times with a remarkable 26.3-percent average. He finished in the top five 68.4-percent and has only failed to finish in the top 10 only twice — after he went three-wide at Dover when he made contact with Grant Enfinger and when his engine blew up at Canadian Motorsport Park.
Nick: Christopher Bell remains the driver to beat, no question. But if anyone is going to beat him, it's going to be a proven veteran like Johnny Sauter.
Tim: I think the championship is basically Christopher Bell’s to lose. Johnny Sauter will give him a run for his money down the stretch, but I just don’t see another team and driver that has things clicking like Bell and his KBM team right now.
NASCAR Vice-President Steve O'Donnell led a contingent of NASCAR executives last week to China to observe the opening of a course in the country. NASCAR has held exhibition races in the past in Japan and Australia, however, do you think we'll ever see points races in the Far East?
Jim: No. If we can't get points races any more in Canada or Mexico for NASCAR's three national series, I don't see one across the globe. An exhibition race? Maybe, but the host country would likely have to foot the bill for all the teams' expenses. It's certainly possible somewhere like China could do that.
Lee: Never say never. Perhaps an Asian tour could come about similar to the Euro tour. But an exhibition race would be in order before a point race ever came to fruition. For a company that talks about cutting costs, the expense to take the Cup series overseas would be prohibitively expensive. There’s not enough tow money in the world to make a race in China cost effective.
Nick: I'd love NASCAR with more of an international flair, but Jim is right, it's highly unlikely when the Cup Series isn't even in Canada or Mexico. And the cost of travel when you're crossing an ocean would be huge and since all recent discussions are about cutting costs, I don't see this happening.
Tim: I think we could see an exhibition race down the road in Asia but I don’t see a points race ever going there. Now, I could see a race in Europe down the road. The foundation has been set with the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series gaining popularity and educating European fans to the world of NASCAR.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. might have just had his best chance to score a final win this year at Talladega and finished seventh. Do you think he could still score a win before he retires from full-time driving in November?
Jim: Anything is possible. The way most of the season has went, I would say Earnhardt's chances would be next to nil in the five races remaining. However, his team - and Hendrick Motorsports in general - seems to have found some gains in recent weeks. My guess is if an Earnhardt win comes anywhere, it comes at Martinsville.
Lee: With Talladega in the rearview mirror, Junior’s best shot of winning might just be Texas Motor Speedway. Sure, a Talladega win would have made for a happy ending, but why not at the track where he earned his first Cup and Xfinity Series wins? No, it hasn’t been a great farewell season for NASCAR’s favorite son. But his only top-five finish this season came a Texas in April.
Nick: It's still possible. This is NASCAR -- anything can happen. And with tracks like Martinsville, Phoenix and Texas still to go, I wouldn't count him out.
Tim: He might have a chance at Martinsville Speedway at the end of the month and then I think that will just about do it for his chances of getting a win. I hope I’m wrong because his fans would love to celebrate one more win and it would be good for the entire NASCAR world to see Dale Jr. go out with one more win. His former teammate Jeff Gordon did it at Martinsville as well and it would be good to see. I hope it happens.
As NASCAR moves into its final month of the season, what has been the biggest surprise/disappointment of the season so far across any of the national divisons?
Jim: Even with his past success, the way Martin Truex Jr. has dominated the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season has been the most surprising to me. I guess they did so well the last two years, it was hard for me to believe it could get better but they have proven me wrong. And while I was a big supporter of Stage racing from the start, I have been pleasantly surprised at how much it has really changed the strategy during races. Every sport rewards performance throughout the entire event - there's no reason why NASCAR should be any different.
Lee: Clint Bowyer was the biggest disappointment of the season. After the upgrade in equipment he received moving to Stewart-Haas Racing this year, Bowyer couldn’t perform well enough to earn a spot in the playoffs. Sixteen spots and Bowyer doesn’t transfer into the post-season? Frankly, that’s unacceptable. After finishing a season-high second-place back-to-back at Sonoma and Daytona in mid-summer, Bowyer has scored just one top-five finish (Watkins Glen) in the second half of the schedule. I would like to see SHR move Mike Bugarewicz to the No. 41 team with Kurt Busch and see what they could accomplish next year. Bowyer worked with Billy Scott at Michael Waltrip Racing and it might be a better fit.
Nick: I liked seeing all the new winners and contenders early in the season, so chalk that up as a good surprise. As for disappointments, the lack of drama in the playoffs. Toyota has been dominant and I think it would actually do the playoffs good if a big name like Busch gets eliminated. So far, everything that has happened has been fairly predictable.
Tim: I am surprised with how much the stages in races have changed the strategy and the action within the races. As a self-proclaimed ‘old-school’ guy, I must admit I enjoy the extra intangibles the stages have brought in all three national series. I’m also happily surprised to see Martin Truex Jr. do well this season. It’s a nice change in the storylines this season to see him and his team dominate like they have this season.