5 things I’m watching for Sunday’s Verizon 200 (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC, IMS Radio Network)

Hendrick Motorsports

Heading into COTA back in March, it was an early test to the Next Gen’s parity. We’ve seen it prior, but would it also end Hendrick Motorsports’ road course reign. Prior to COTA, HMS had accumulated 9 road course wins in the last 11 tries including being 1-2 on that very track in 2021. They’re since 0-for-3 with this new car on 3 different tracks?

Can they pick up a victory in Sunday’s Verizon 200 (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC, IMS Radio Network)? They led 43 of the 95 laps a year ago but didn’t take the win due to late race cautions ruining their strategy.

Also, they’re finding their groove again on road courses.

Chase Elliott was 4th, 8th and 2nd respectively on the 3 road courses run this season. Kyle Larson was 29th and 15th at both COTA and Sonoma, but he was also 4th in Road America too.

Elliott also has 5 straight top 2 finishes on the season including 3 of the 5 being wins. Larson has 3 top 5 finishes over the last 5 weeks too.

HMS has been the top NASCAR team on these hallowed grounds and looking for a 1st win on the road course on Sunday.


DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA – FEBRUARY 15: Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #19 Bass Pro Shops Toyota, drives through the garage area during practice for the NASCAR Cup Series 64th Annual Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 15, 2022 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Toyota And Ford’s

Chevy stands out above the rest on road courses, but I’m also watching the other 2 manufacturers too.

4 of the 6 full time cars for Toyota are locked into the playoffs. With 5 races remaining in the regular season, 2 of which are on road courses and another at Daytona. That’s not great news other than Bubba Wallace’s best shot a victory coming in Daytona. Other than that, he will struggle in Indy and Watkins Glen. Same for Martin Truex Jr. except he will likely struggle at Daytona though as well.

Truex is 0-for-33 in his Cup career at Daytona and has 6 combined top 5 finishes at Daytona and Talladega.

The question now is, did Toyota do much to improve their road course car between Road America and Indy?

Out of 6 Toyota drivers, none of them had a top 15 in Sonoma (18-26-27-30-31-36) and their top finisher in Road America was 13th. They went 13-17-18-27-29-35 that day. With having Indy this weekend, Watkins Glen next month and the Charlotte ROVAL in the playoffs, is this a concern for them?

They’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure this deficit out and from what it sounds, there’s not much that they can do about it.

So, how do you approach Indy this weekend then? Do you have to go off strategy and hope for some good luck while doing so? Do you elect for stage points and punt on track position in the final stage? Or, do you just temper your expectations and strive for top 15’s instead of top 5’s or 10s?

How do they respond too after thinking they finished 1-2 in Pocono and putting to what they thought was 5 cars in the top 10 that day?

I’m also watching the Ford camp too when not many people may be. With Toyota’s struggles being showcased, maybe a Ford driver can steal a win at the Brickyard on Sunday.

Team Penske would surely love to get a win on his own track here. Ryan Blaney was 4th in COTA, 6th in Sonoma and 11th in Road America to make me start to believe in him on road courses again. He also had a top 5 here last year at that too. Austin Cindric is a road racer by nature and was 8th, 5th and 7th respectively in the 3 road course races run this season at that. He also won the Xfinity Series race on this very track here a year ago too. Joey Logano has struggled on these tracks though in 2022. His 3 road course finishes in 2022 are 31st, 17th and 27th respectively.

What about Stewart-Haas?

Chase Briscoe could have won this race last year. However, SHR hasn’t fared as well in 2022 on road courses.  They went 11-19-23-20 in COTA, 4-13-14-21 in Sonoma and 10-14-14-28 in Road America.

RFK Racing could have a say in things. Chris Buescher was 2nd in Sonoma and 6th in Road America. Brad Keselowski should have had a top 10 in both races too.

Michael McDowell for Front Row Motorsports won at Road America in the Xfinity Series before and was 3rd in Sonoma and 8th in Road America this season too.

That’s really why it’s up to Blaney, Cindric, Buescher, Keselowski and McDowell for the Ford camp. 4 of the 5 are winless in 2022 which is why I have my eye on the blue ovals.


AUSTIN, TEXAS – MARCH 27: Ryan Blaney, driver of the #12 Menards/Richmond Water Heaters Ford, Tyler Reddick, driver of the #8 3CHI Chevrolet, Cole Custer, driver of the #41 One Cure Ford, Chase Briscoe, driver of the #14 Mahindra Tractors Ford, Chase Elliott, driver of the #9 Llumar Chevrolet, and Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #19 Bass Pro Shops Toyota, race during the NASCAR Cup Series Echopark Automotive Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on March 27, 2022 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images)

Points Battle

With the potential of a new winners, the guys on the playoff bubble that have already won has my attention. If we get 17 or more winners during this regular season, then someone that has won a race already will not make the postseason.

We have 14 winners already and with 2 road courses (Indy, Watkins Glen) and Daytona among the 5 regular season races left, all we need is 3 more 1st timers and someone will be bumped.

Right now, Kurt Busch is that someone. After missing last Sunday’s race at Pocono he falls to 17th in the overall standings. He’s the last driver in points that has 1 win on the year. Chase Briscoe leads him by 2 points. Austin Cindric leads Busch by 10. Tyler Reddick is next after that with a 24 point advantage over Busch. Daniel Suarez is 17 points clear of Reddick.

However, with him missing Sunday’s race now too, how much ground does he lose? When does it come insurmountable?

Then you have Ryan Blaney (+105) and Martin Truex Jr. (+83) holding onto the final wildcard spots. Kevin Harvick (-83), Aric Almirola (-140) and really anyone on back has to win to get in.


ELKHART LAKE, WISCONSIN – JULY 03: Tyler Reddick, driver of the #8 3CHI Chevrolet, celebrates in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Kwik Trip 250 at Road America on July 03, 2022 in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

New Winners Streak Could Come To An End…

We’ve seen 14 race winners this season already. 3 of those occurred at road courses with 3 different drivers winning the 3 races. A common theme among them are each scored their 1st career Cup win that day.

Factor in AJ Allmendinger’s win here last year which was his 2nd Cup win and Christopher Bell’s in Daytona in February (2021) and you get 5 of the last 10 road races being won by a driver scoring their 1st or 2nd win on them.

Do we see another one on Sunday?

Winless drivers entered for this weekend’s race? Ty Dillon (0-for-187), Corey LaJoie (0-for-185), Harrison Burton (0-for-22) and Todd Gilliland (0-for-21).

Dillon has finished 20th, 23rd and 20th in the 3 road course events in 2022, LaJoie was 36th, 34th and 34th himself while the 2 rookies fared: 17-28-22 (Burton) and 16-24-25 (Gilliland).

With HMS’ emergence on road courses again and Trackhouse being arguably the top team on them in 2022, I think the winner comes from someone who’s already won a race this season.


Chaos

Last year we saw a ton of chaos in the infield section of the Verizon 200. Most notably was the Turn 6 curbing that was launching cars and making the ones that didn’t get airborne when going over the curbing wildly erratic.

IMS officials blamed the NASCAR drivers for being too rough over that section of the track while NASCAR somewhat placed the blame back on the track.

“We’ve not ever really had an issue with those curbs at all,” track President, Doug Boles said. “The only curb we ever had an issue with was drivers’ left on exit,  which we haven’t seen in a couple of years. We look at that curb between every session. We look at it at night and in the morning. There was no indication earlier today there was even anything wrong with that curb.

“So it was a little bit of a surprise for us when during the race we started having an issue.”

The other series that race that portion of the track are more about finesse over that portion of the track. They don’t tend to run over it. A NASCAR, well they go right over the top to cut the corner.

“We had our problems today,” Scott Miller said.

Did the updates to that area of the track help alleviate this now? These new cars can’t afford to tear up the bottom of their vehicles by running over it.

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