Our experts weigh in on four of the biggest questions in motorsports as the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series heads to Michigan International Speedway:
Turn 1: With Ryan Blaney locking in a playoff berth (assuming we don’t get 17 winners), who’s the big name who should be sweating making the playoffs?
Ricky Craven, ESPN NASCAR analyst: Dale Earnhardt Jr. carries the weight of the world because all his fans hope for a Jeff Gordon-type final season from the perennial Most Popular Driver. With 12 races remaining, Dale is closing in on a win-or-bust mentality as it relates to a playoff spot. That’s tremendous pressure to compete under.
Ryan McGee, ESPN.com: A few weeks ago I told Junior it wasn’t time to freak out. With Daytona, Michigan, Bristol, etc. all still on the schedule between now and playoff time, it still isn’t time to panic … but if y’all are biting your nails and the pits of your Diet Dew T-shirts are getting swampy, I wouldn’t blame you.
Bob Pockrass, ESPN.com: Is there any other name than Dale Earnhardt Jr. in response to this question? Dude is 133 points out of the current cutoff by points and has led 10 laps all year. Daytona is his best — only? — hope to get into the playoffs.
Matt Willis, ESPN Stats & Information: Don’t look now, but NASCAR’s worst nightmare might be coming true. Joey Logano, who has an “encumbered” win that won’t count for playoff consideration, is sitting right on the playoff bubble. Since his win that wasn’t a win at Richmond, Logano has finished outside the top 20 in all five races. And those finishes weren’t flukes. He’s tied for 20th in fastest laps run in the series in those five races.
Turn 2: There’s a lot of young winners and likely soon-to-be winners in NASCAR. With Silly Season gearing up, where will they all fit?
Craven: The most compelling question regarding Silly Season is who drives the 88, Earnhardt’s car. I don’t think it will be an organic decision, I believe that team and sponsor need instant gratification. I still believe Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is the best fit for that seat. Take politics, contracts and allegiances aside. Stenhouse becomes an annual title contender driving Hendrick cars.
McGee: It seems inevitable that Ryan Blaney is headed to Penske, right? I hope that opens the door for Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. to slide into the Wood Brothers ride. And there could be a pair of rides open at Hendrick sooner than later for the likes of William Byron and Alex Bowman. Whether or not Erik Jones stays put at Furniture Row or moves to Joe Gibbs Racing, it feels like a ride will be open in the Toyota camp for someone in the near future. However it all shakes down, this youth wave is too big to hold back.
Pockrass: The biggest question is Erik Jones — does Joe Gibbs Racing make room for him by not extending Matt Kenseth‘s contract and does Jones even want to leave Furniture Row, where he’s having success? Ryan Blaney could move over to Penske if Penske wants to start a third team, although it wouldn’t be all that much different than racing for the Wood Brothers as an affiliate.
Willis: The Ryan Blaney to Penske rumors are aplenty, but I think Erik Jones eventually to Joe Gibbs Racing is the next major move. Kyle Larson remains a huge X factor as well. He seems committed to Chip Ganassi Racing, but would a Hendrick offer be too much to pass up?
Turn 3: With only 28 trucks racing at the stand-alone race in Texas (four fewer than the maximum field) and Red Horse Racing shutting down, is there concern for the long-term future of the Truck Series?
Craven: There should be deep concern regarding sponsorship for not only trucks, but Xfinity and Cup teams. People are spending money again, unemployment is below 5 percent, cruise ships are at capacity across the planet, advertising appears vibrant on many levels, yet corporate America has not returned to NASCAR sponsorship the way it once did. Social media is dominating our world, our children, our grandchildren, our wallets. The money directed toward that audience had to come from somewhere. Perhaps NASCAR? Lack of sponsorship has the potential of paralyzing momentum in all three series.
McGee: Sure there’s concern. There has to be. Forget the sponsors who aren’t there. Look at the sponsors who are there. The one year I worked in Minor League Baseball I learned how to quickly measure the health of a team’s sales staff. If every outfield billboard was tied to a vendor or every ad in the game program was from a company owned by the guy who also owned the team, that was bad. I see that in every corner of the Truck Series. They lost their way years ago when they abandoned their unique schedule, which was to run in non-Cup Series markets. I’m not sure if they can ever get that identity back. You get a glimpse of it during Eldora week, and then it falls back into being largely a Cup weekend support series.
Pockrass: There is concern for the long-term future in every series when looking at sponsorship. If NASCAR doesn’t find a way to increase sponsor value in any series, they all are in trouble. As far as the trucks, there are only a few sponsors that are not either related to the driver or are a vendor for the manufacturer. The trucks will remain a place where drivers with money have a place to play amid select drivers who have manufacturer support.
Willis: I don’t think there’s a great long-term future for the Truck Series. Just look at the number of major Cup Series team owners that dabble in trucks. It’s none. The health of the series depends on drivers like Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski, who are using it as a proving ground for talented young drivers who don’t otherwise have rides. But you could argue that’s what the Xfinity Series is for, instead of it being an opportunity for 3-5 Cup drivers to dominate every week.
Turn 4: If you voiced a car in the movie “Cars,” what would the name of your character/car be?
Craven: Spee Dee.
McGee: Flyin’ Ryan McOlds. Because my favorite car make will always be Oldsmobile and like those Cup veterans about to be replaced by younger models — a list that includes Lightning McQueen in “Cars 3” — I ain’t as young as I used to be.
Pockrass: Bob CarInTheGrass. Because that is where I would end up if driving.
Willis: There’s only one position for the Stats & Info representative on this panel, and that’s the role of the on-board computer, an Automated Number Generating Engine Racer, or ANGER. Or maybe to go full pun with my name, lend my vocal cords to an open-wheel car and call me Matt WillPower?