Sunday’s Verizon 200 (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC, IMS Radio Network) race preview

INDIANAPOLIS — Denny Hamlin got payback on Ross Chastain. Then NASCAR got payback on Joe Gibbs Racing for a DQ of both Hamlin and 2nd place finisher Kyle Busch. That penalty was light compared to the L-1 and L-2 penalties leveled against both Petty GMS cars (L1) and Michael McDowell (L2).

Translation?

Pocono was a race to where teams were pushing the limits on the new Next Gen and NASCAR stepped in as they should.

You also have Kurt Busch missing last weeks and now this week’s races due to concussion like symptoms. As a result, Ty Gibbs made his Cup debut and will make his 2nd Cup start on Sunday. Busch’s younger brother, Kyle Busch, enters the month of August without a solid future. He and JGR are no closer now than they were months ago.

Those are some big storylines heading to Indy this week but one flying under the radar is that no one is as hot in NASCAR right now than Chase Elliott. The 4-time reigning Most Popular Driver has 3 wins in the last 5 races. The 2 he didn’t win? He finished 2nd. He’s scored wins in every which way.

He lucked out by Joe Gibbs Racing electing to pit in the final 10 laps under caution in Nashville. Elliott stayed out and stole the win that night. 2 weeks later he swept both stages at his hometrack in Atlanta but had to make a last lap pass to win. 2 weeks after that, he was handed a win at Pocono in a race he didn’t lead a single lap. Due to Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch’s cars being disqualified after crossing the finish line 1-2, Elliott was gifted the win.

He doesn’t want the trophy from last week. Elliott doesn’t feel like he deserved the win but will take the 5 playoff points tonight that go with it.

The other 2 races he didn’t win in this span? He said he didn’t do a good enough job of keeping Tyler Reddick behind him in Road America. Reddick led only the final 16 laps on July 3. 2 weeks after that, he also felt like he didn’t do a good enough job in the end at Loudon. Christopher Bell passed him for the win with 43 to go and would never look back.

Now, we head to arguably Elliott’s best race tracks – a road course.

Since the start of the 2020 season, 24 different drivers have won at least one NASCAR Cup Series race, but three drivers, Elliott, Kyle Larson and Denny Hamlin, are tied for the series-most wins with 11 victories each – totaling 33 of the 93 races run (35.4%).

Chase ElliottDenny HamlinKyle Larson
TrackSeasonTrackSeasonTrackSeason
Daytona RC2020Daytona2020Las Vegas2021
Charlotte2020Darlington2020Charlotte2021
Charlotte RC2020Homestead2020Sonoma2021
Martinsville2020Pocono2020Nashville2021
Phoenix2020Kansas2020Watkins Glen2021
COTA2021Dover2020Bristol2021
Road America2021Talladega2020Charlotte RC2021
Dover2022Darlington2021Texas2021
Nashville2022Las Vegas2021Kansas2021
Atlanta2022Richmond2022Phoenix2021
Pocono2022Charlotte2022Auto Club2022

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 too.

6 of those 9 wins came from Elliott who 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. 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 afternoon.

They can’t sleep on a Trackhouse Racing though. They’re 2-for-3 on road courses this year with Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez dominating on them.

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA – AUGUST 15: AJ Allmendinger, driver of the #16 Hyperice Chevrolet, (L) and Matt Kaulig, owner of Kaulig Racing celebrate by kissing the yard of bricks after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Verizon 200 at the Brickyard at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on August 15, 2021 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

What about Kaulig? AJ Allmendinger won here last year and had a top 3 going until the final lap at COTA, had a top 10 in Sonoma before some late race troubles and did have a top 10 in Road America.

Nevertheless, you’re likely going to have to beat a Chevy powered car.

See, Chevy has a leg up on the competition on the road courses. If you go back to the 2019 race at Watkins Glen and end at Road America on July 3 of this year, Chevy has won 13 out of the last 14 Cup Series races on road courses including 9 straight.

They’re 3-for-3 this year. They won the final 6 of 2021. They won both in 2020 (Daytona, Charlotte) and the final 2 of 2019 (Watkins Glen, Charlotte).

Can they show more dominance this weekend?

Another trend to watch is first time winners. All 3 road courses this year produced one.

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).

Another reason for the Chevy camp? The Toyota’s have struggled on these tracks this season. How much did they 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.

Does that help the Ford’s then?

They’re struggling. Joey Logano has gotten cold with 4 straight finishes outside the top 20. He’s also struggled on these tracks though in 2022 too. His 3 road course finishes in 2022 are 31st, 17th and 27th respectively.

Maybe his teammates can pick up the slack. Ryan Blaney has gotten cold again too with 3 of his last 4 finishes being outside the top 10. However, on road courses this year, 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. 

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.

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