5 burning questions for Sunday’s Ally 400 (3:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, MRN)

Will Sunday’s Race Look Like Darlington?

A lot of people are wondering what Sunday’s race will look like. A 1.3 mile concrete oval that really resembles a cross being a D-shaped cookie cutter with a racing surface like Dover and Bristol. NASCAR hasn’t raced here since the Trucks and Xfinity Series’ last raced on the track in 2011. INDYCAR hasn’t been back since 2008. So, what will this race resemble?

A lot of drivers think it will look closer to Darlington than anything else. There will be tire fall off on a track with a similar size. But, just how much will this race look like last month’s Goodyear 400? We don’t know that answer until the checkered flag falls this weekend.

Who Are The Favorites?

In saying that above, if Sunday looks like Darlington, then watch out for Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Larson. They looked the best last month and have really done a good job at Darlington in general. Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick all won Xfinity Series races at Nashville too.

You can’t go wrong with who looks good on the season thus far to nab your favorites. It’s a new track, so the guys with the most resources and speed this season normally shine in these scenarios.

Will This Stretch Of Racing Shape Championship Front Runners?

I don’t think so to be honest. I feel like we can’t judge championship caliber drivers between now and the end of the regular season now. I mean, think about it. We have two inaugural races (Nashville, Road America) in the next three weeks. You have a doubleheader at Pocono, a track that is like none other. A second trip to Atlanta, a road course in Watkins Glen, a road course at Indy, Michigan which is another track like anywhere else to follow in the regular season finale at Daytona.

The only track you could really take anything over from over this stretch is Loudon in July as you can compare that to Richmond and Phoenix, but anything else is pretty much irrelevant.

So, with 11 winners this season, this could be a stretch to where we see more.

Will Anyone Outside The Top 16 Make Their Ways Back In?

We begin NBC Sports’ portion of the schedule and that means that we’re basically halfway through the 2021 season. With that said, only 10 races remain in the regular season. The focus really turns to the playoffs and who looks like they’re going to get in and who doesn’t. Right now, we have 11 winners for 16 races. That leaves five wildcard spots but one of which is almost certainly reserved for Denny Hamlin.

That’s because the regular season champion gets an automatic berth. Normally, by this part of the year, the person dominating the overall points standings has a win by now. Hamlin does not. He does hold a 76 point lead in the standings and I don’t really see him giving up that many points any time soon. He’s also +318 over the cutline, meaning that you can pretty much write his name in with a Sharpie into the postseason. It’s really four open spots and even those are starting to separate themselves from the rest of the field.

Kevin Harvick is +152. Austin Dillon is +105. His RCR teammate, Tyler Reddick, is +67 while Roush Fenway Racing’s Chris Buescher holds the 16th and final spot at +60. Does anyone new bump their ways back in?

At this rate, I say no. The saving grace of this being a run away is that we do have three more road courses, an inaugural event this weekend at Nashville and another on one of those three road courses in Road America in two weeks to go along with Daytona to close out the regular season. Anything can happen in these races. But, will it?

The drivers on the outside looking in are really going backwards. Matt DiBenedetto’s last five finishes are 19th, 24th, 23rd, 18th and 23rd respectively. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has seven finishes of 17th or worse in his last eight tries. He has one top 10 all season. Kurt Busch and his Chip Ganassi Racing teammate of Ross Chastain have a combined two top fives and six top 10’s all season. Combined. Busch, has 12 finishes of 13th or worse in his last 13 starts. His last top five came on the Daytona road course in February.

Ryan Newman’s last four finishes on the season have been 23rd, 24th, 27th and 33rd. Bubba Wallace has had his best three races in the last four, but he’s had no top 10’s yet this year either. Daniel Suarez has had two top 10’s and one top five, but he’s well over 100 points behind the cut line.

Ryan Preece had two top 10’s in the first two races of the season but none since. His best finish is 14th after Daytona with nine finishes outside of the top 20 in that span. Erik Jones has two top 10’s all year, same for Cole Custer who’s top 10’s are actually 10th place results. Aric Almirola has been dreadful this year with terrible luck. His last six results on the year are 29th, 37th, 37th, 26th, 22nd and 27th.

Does it sound like any of these drivers can get hot and catch someone on the inside right now? The guys that they’re chasing are Hamlin (9 top 5’s this season), Harvick (5 top 10’s last 7), Dillon (4 top 10’s last 8), Reddick (5 top 10’s last 7) and Buescher (3 top 10’s last 6).

Plus, among the guys trying to get back into the top 16 of the playoff standings, it’s growing more and more likely that they’ll have to win to do so. But, with those guys mentioned above, six of them have never won a Cup race before. One of them has just two career wins and none since 2017. Another is in his second year and has just one win (Kentucky). A third hasn’t won since 2018. A fourth hasn’t won since 2017 at Phoenix.

The key is, only Busch has been a consistent yearly winner among them. But, look at how his and his teammate’s cars are running right now. Even with some wildcard races left, do you think any of them can put themselves in contention to capitalize on a fluke win?

That’s why I side with we’ll have no new drivers in the top 16 moving forward. This is your playoff field.

Are We Giving HMS Too Much Credit Right Now?

Hendrick Motorsports is doing so well right now, we’re questioning on if they can sweep all four spots into the Championship 4. The thing is though, I pause to wonder if we’re getting too far ahead of ourselves right now. Yes, what HMS is doing is nothing short of great right now. I don’t want to take anything away from their on track success over the last few months. But, in terms of championships and final four’s, are we giving them too much credit before we even get that far?

I do think there’s a case to be made that all four make it to the Round of 8. But, once in the Round of 8, can they really advance all four drivers? I mean, you have to look at the path to the Championship 4 (Texas, Kansas, Martinsville).

We’ve not raced at Texas yet this year but we have Kansas and Martinsville. Larson led 132 laps but got into the wall while battling for the win in the end. He can very much win there. His other teammates that day led a combined zero laps and finished 5-9-18 with Larson the worst finish in 19th among them. For Martinsville, they did place three cars in the top five but they also led a grand total of nine laps all day. Denny Hamlin led 276. Martin Truex Jr. led 20. They went 1-3.

Plus, JGR looks to have the best equipment on 750 tracks. Hamlin led 207 laps in Richmond with Truex leading 107 himself. Alex Bowman stole a late win, but the strength goes to JGR for the whole race. At Phoenix this past March, Hamlin led 33 laps and Truex Jr. 64. Joey Logano led 143 laps himself. Truex won there too with Hamlin in third, just like Martinsville. HMS drivers went 5-7-8-13 with one lap led all day.

HMS is at their best on the 550 package and they do have two 550 tracks in the Round of 8. That helps. But how many can they get there and how do they fare in those races.

Hamlin has four top three finishes of 750 tracks. Truex has four top fives including two of which being wins. Logano has a top six in every 750 race including four top three’s. When we get to Martinsville and if these three are still around, aren’t these the favorites for the championship?

I also like what I’m seeing out of Kyle Busch too. He won at Kansas, was 10th in Homestead, third in Vegas, fifth in Atlanta and third in Charlotte on 550 tracks. It’s the 750’s that’s been his struggle. Again, there’s two 550 tracks in the Round of 8.

Kevin Harvick has four top 10 finishes in eight races on the 750 package as well as four top 10’s on the 550 package.

I wouldn’t necessarily count either of them out yet either.

Plus, on playoff tracks this season, HMS led no laps at Darlington, 10 laps at Richmond, 150 laps at Vegas, 132 laps at Kansas, nine laps at Martinsville and one lap at Phoenix. Larson accounted for 236 of those laps led.

You can make a strong case for Larson then, but what about the other three?

Elliott’s finishes on these tracks are 7th, 12th, 13th, 5th, 2nd and 5th respectively. Byron’s are 4th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 4th and 9th with Bowman’s 17th, 1st, 27th, 18th, 34th and 13th.

That’s why I pause to say that HMS can continue this all the way to Phoenix. Most of their success during this span is on tracks not hosting a playoff race including what they did in the last points paying race at Sonoma a few weeks ago in earning a fourth straight 1-2 result.

Plus, it actually pays to have a slower start to a season for some reason. Just last year, Elliott had just one win through the first 22 races. He won the title. In 2018, Joey Logano had one win in the first 32 races but won the championship. Truex Jr. had one trip to victory lane in the first 17 races of the 2017 campaign. He won the championship still. Jimmie Johnson in 2016 was 2-for-29 in 2016 and Harvick 1-for-30 in 2014. They both were champions in those seasons.

The thing is, during the playoff era, five of the seven champions won five times during the season. One of them won just three times. Only twice in seven years did a driver that won the most races during the course of a season actually win the title itself.

What’s that say?

This is still more wide opened than you think. Hamlin, Busch, Logano and Harvick could have a say in this come October/November and you never can count out Truex Jr. either. That’s five drivers and if you add the four at HMS, not all of them can even make the Round of 8.

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