NASCAR Roundtable: Homestead reflection and a look towards the future
Will Martin Truex Jr. winning a title be good for NASCAR and will Dale Jr. leaving hurt NASCAR?
Martin Truex Jr. has won the 2017 NASCAR Cup title. How big of a story is this for NASCAR?
Jim Utter: It's a great story, a story of perseverance for a driver who came up through NASCAR's ladder system and climbed the highest mountain. The circumstances surrounding Truex's quest - everything that has happened in his career, at Furniture Row Racing this season and his longtime girlfriend's battle with ovarian cancer - is a story that will resonate with race fans and non-race fans alike. He is a truly genuine guy with little pretense and I think he will make a great ambassador for the sport.
Lee Spencer: There are so many layers to this story but the bottom line is NASCAR has crowned a very deserving champion and championship team. Considering that Barney Visser founded a single-car team in what is now the Xfinity Series in 2005 and built it into a title contender in the last decade is miraculous particularly given that Furniture Row Racing is outside of the Carolinas. Although the team got off to a shaky start that first season with Truex, they banded together to support the driver. Cole Pearn was promoted to crew chief in 2015. He led Truex to the Playoffs for the first time in three years and just the third time in his career. They advanced to the Championship 4, but Truex acknowledge they were underdogs entering Homestead. FRR switched to Toyota the following year and Truex celebrated his return to the Camry with a career-best four wins—only to be topped this season by eight victories and his first Cup title. Truex, 37, embraces his Jersey roots. He has a laid-back style and genuine personality that will resonate well with the masses.
Nick DeGroot: This is a fantastic story and for so many reasons. In my opinion, this was the best outcome for NASCAR at Homestead. Besides the fact that Martin Truex Jr. is so genuine and will be a great ambassador, his story is such an interesting one. As a driver, he has had to claw his way to this point, facing so much uncertainty and struggling for years. And beyond that, the human interest story is even more fascinating. Truex and Furniture Row have endured so much off the track. There's also a David vs. Goliath aspect. This team rose from the middle of the pack to be the ones to beat every week, ultimately beating the guys from which they get support from.
Tim Southers: I think it’s a great story to see a smaller team get the title, and also considering what Martin Truex Jr. has been through the past couple of years. He lost his sponsor and a ride due to something that he had nothing to do with at Richmond in 2013. This shows racers and fans that anyone and any team can still win in NASCAR.
Elliott Sadler and Kyle Busch both felt that other drivers cost them a chance at winning the championship in their respective series. Do you agree with them or feel like Joey Logano or Ryan Preece did nothing wrong?
Jim: I understand the frustration by both drivers. Wouldn't it be perfect if only the drivers involved in the championship were on the track competing? But it's never going to be that way. And since it's not, neither Logano or Preece did anything wrong in my opinion. They are out there racing to win - isn't that point of the 100-percent rule? And each of them has an obligation to their respective team and its sponsors to do the very best they can.
Lee: Absolutely not. Those drivers have to answer to the people that write their checks. It wasn’t fair for Sadler to say Preece wasn't racing for anything when the No. 18 Toyota was still in the owner’s title hunt. As for Busch, Logano wanted to end the season on a high note. In most years, the No. 22 Team Penske crew would have made the Playoffs and possibly the final four. If Logano’s car had been as solid as Kyle Larson’s the outcome might have been different.
Nick: Here's how I see it. I have major respect for Kyle Larson backing off and not throwing himself into the middle of the Truex/Busch battle. However, I wouldn't have had an issue if he chose to go for the win either. Logano and Preece did nothing wrong. They didn't drive erratically, they just raced hard. They have their own agendas and I can't fault them for running their own race. Busch and Sadler are going to be upset -- they wouldn't be human if they weren't. But ultimately, you can't blame Logano and Preece for not pulling over.
Tim: I think Ryan Preece just did what fans have asked from NASCAR drivers for years – hard driving for every lap. I think Preece did what he was asked to do and that was drive the car as hard as he could to try and help the team win an owner’s championship. While fans might not car about an owner’s championship, but the team and sponsors do care and for that reason I feel Preece did nothing wrong.
Three of the four drivers at Hendrick Motorsprorts next season will be under the age of 25. Who do you think will have the most success and why?
Jim: Chase Elliott is primed and ready for a boatload of success - and has been since he began his Cup career. I think he could have his breakout moment at literally anytime. Given that, I am super impressed with William Byron's talent. He put on a clinic in the Xfinity Series season finale to hold off a tough and experienced veteran. He never seems rattled, he is grace under pressure. In fact, I'm not sure I've even seen him really get mad from something that's transpired in a race (but it will come). Byron will be nipping at Elliott's heels next season.
Lee: Chase Elliott. He’s been close so many times and I think the third year will be a charm for Elliott, who turns 22 next week. His fifth-place in the standings made him highest finishing Chevy driver this season and with a new Camaro coming expect Elliott to be even more competitive in 2018.
Nick: Chase Elliott. He was on the cusp of title contention this year and I see 2018 as the year he will breakthrough and win multiple races. He's got the talent, the drive, the equipment and his time is now. But William Byron as the wildcard. He seems able to adapt impressively quickly and who knows, he might just assert himself despite being the newest Cup driver at Hendrick Motorsports.
Tim: Just because he has the most experience, I feel Chase Elliott is ready for a breakout season in 2018. I do think Alex Bowman and William Byron will win and be successful, but I think Elliott will win multiple races next year.
Martin Truex Jr. just won his first title, so who do you think will be the next first-time champion in NASCAR's premier division.
Jim: Joey Logano. The guy has done virtually everything except with the championship. He struggled this season more than he has almost any other year he has been at Team Penske and he still won a race (although it didn't get him in the playoffs). At 27 years old, he has a tremendous amount of experience already that will serve him well when he gets another shot at a title. I believe he'll have many more opportunities before his career is over.
Lee: Among first-time champions, my money is on Joey Logano. Had it not been for the run in with Matt Kenseth in 2015, I believe he would have already won a title.
Nick: Interesting question. I have three prospective first-time champions for 2018: Joey Logano, Kyle Larson and Denny Hamlin. It's only a matter of time before Logano becomes a champion and they're going to be motivated to put this dreadful 2017 season behind them. In 2014, he had a chance. In 2015, he had an even better chance. In 2016, he's had his best chance yet. It will happen. As for Hamlin, he's had multiple shots at the crown already. I expect he'll have more in the future and will eventually get the job done. But Larson would be my pick. If he had made it the final four, I can almost gurantee we'd be calling him a champion already. And the day he finally makes it to Homestead is a day where the competition better worry.
Tim: I agree that Joey Logano is probably the next driver to get a title. I just hope he’s battling Denny Hamlin at the same time, who’s still looking for his first championship. That would be a heck of a battle.
How big of a loss is it for NASCAR to lose Dale Earnhardt Jr. as a driver?
Jim: I'm not sure it will be has big as everyone thinks. Dale isn't leaving the sport, he's just vacating the one area that he has spent the most time in the sport so far in his career. But he plans to be intensely involved with the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports team and HMS in general, as well as his JR Motorsports Xfinity Series organization, which will continue to compete for series wins and championships. And then in the second half of the season, he will be a frequent presence on NASCAR TV broadcasts. No, he no longer is racing, but in some ways, Earnhardt's influence on the sport will only get bigger next season.
Lee: With all the existing and new talent, the sport will persevere. Earnhardt is beloved by the fan base and will likely win a 15th Most Popular Driver Award next week in Las Vegas. But as he has said time and again, he’s not going anywhere. Fans will get their fill of Earnhardt in the booth next season and even have the opportunity to see him race in select Xfinity races. There’s no way to quantify what Junior has meant to the sport but we’re all fortunate he won’t be going too far away.
Nick: From a talent perspective, the sport will not suffer at all. But the question that needs to be asked is the loss of star power. Guys like Jones, Byron, Bowman and so on don't pull the same amount of weight in that area as the names like Gordon, Stewart, Kenseth and Earnhardt do. Now those latter four didn't become superstars overnight and I could definitely see the young guns reaching that level eventually, but they aren't there yet. There will be a void no question, but nothing that time won't fix. NASCAR will endure and prosper, as it's always done through the changing of the guard.
Tim: I think it will hurt some, but not as bad if he left the sport all together. He’ll be around and will work with NBC. From a ratings standpoint, I think we’ll see a drop-off but not as bad as some believe. I think he’ll still move the meter so to speak in the sport without driving.
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