NASCAR Pre-Race Media: 5 burning questions for Sunday’s Go Bowling at The Glen (3 p.m. ET, USA, MRN)

Will Hendrick/Toyota Get Shutout On Road Courses In 2022?

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.

Throw in JGR into the road racing equation of the past car and you get out of the last 18 road course races run entering this season, they or a satellite team (Furniture Row Racing) had won 14 of them.

They’re since 0-for-4 with this new car in going 2-3-4-7-12-18-28-29-32-38 in COTA, 8-9-15-16-18-26-27-30-31-36 in Sonoma, 2-4-12-13-16-17-18-23-29-35 in Road America and 16-31-32-35 for Indy.

Hendrick went 1-2 in COTA, 1-2 in Sonoma, 1-2 in Watkins Glen and 3-4 in Indy just last year. Chase Elliott had won six of the last 11 road course races in general at that point with the only four that he didn’t win being last February in Daytona when he led the most laps but was screwed for a caution being displayed for rain in which he was going to cruise to an easy victory. The other was a runner-up in Sonoma and Watkins Glen as well at Indianapolis to where he had a top two car that day before the last race chaos.

Kyle Larson won 3 of the 7 road course races himself last season and now doesn’t even have a top 10 to show for it in 2022.

Does the Next Gen car take away their past advantages though?

It did in COTA but since Sonoma, they appear to be reemerging. Yes, Trackhouse Racing has won 2 of the 4 road course events with RCR taking the other 2. However, Larson and Elliott looked stronger in Sonoma. Elliott was 2nd in Road America and Larson in 4th. Elliott lined up 2nd on the 2nd to last restart at Indy too.

Are they back?

This could be the race they need to show it.

HMS has won the last 3 at Watkins Glen. Elliott has 3 straight top 2 finishes. Larson has 3 straight top 10’s. Byron has 2 top 8’s in 3 tries.

For Toyota’s case, this has been a miserable season for them in terms of road course races. In 2 of the last 3 road races, they failed to put 1 of their 6 premiere cars in the top 10. The top finisher in Sonoma was 18th. The best in Road America was 13th. While Wallace was scored with a top 5 at Indy, the rest went 11-12-14-17-21.

Is there anything that they can do to alleviate this or is this the way it’s going to be here and again in Charlotte on the ROVAL during the playoffs?

For Watkins Glen, they’ve actually been good here over the years. Christopher Bell was 7th last year as a rookie. Kyle Busch has 5 top 7 results in his last 6 tries, Martin Truex Jr. has 5 straight top 5’s including 3 of his last 5 finishing either 1st or 2nd. Denny Hamlin has 3 top 4’s in his last 4. Kurt Busch has 7 top 11’s in his last 8.

However, this weekend may be damage control.

RICHMOND, VIRGINIA – AUGUST 14: Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Mobil 1 Ford, celebrates in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond Raceway on August 14, 2022 in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Is Harvick The New Championship Favorite?

Kevin Harvick went 688 days between victories. Now, he heads to Watkins Glen with a pair of wins in a 7 day span. Harvick won at Michigan. Not truly a surprise in the sense that he’s been so dominant there lately. The win at Richmond was more eye opening. Yes, he finished runner-up there this past spring, but his last win on the .75-mile Virginia oval was way back in 2013.

To come out and win Sunday’s race and do so a week after ending a winless drought to me is making a statement. Harvick has entered the championship chat.

It’s all about getting hot at the right moment and that moment could be time for the 2014 series champion. He maybe got too hot too soon in that 2020 season to which he won 9 times but failed to make the Championship 4.

Maybe what he’s doing now is peak Harvick. He started out slow but it wasn’t like they weren’t trying. In 2020, they had the speed early on. During the season, it would have been hard to find areas for the 4 car to improve upon. Others were searching and in turn passed them from the 2nd round forward.

That plus NASCAR changing the inspection process and now a new car made life difficult for Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers to find that advantage back. However, with a seasons worth of notes accumulating and now visiting tracks a 2nd time, they’re back in the hunt.

Richmond was a key to showing that.

What’s scary for the field is, 7 of the 10 playoff races are return trips. Even scarier, Phoenix is still the championship race and that’s a place Harvick has won 9 times at. We’ve always said that if he can get there and already be in the Championship 4, then watch out. He has a realistic shot of getting there.

Phoenix runs like Richmond and Harvick has a pair of top 2 finishes at Richmond this season. Earlier this year at Phoenix, Harvick restarted in the top 3 late but didn’t have a great car on restarts to which he slid back a bit by the end. You’ve got to think they’ll have that car better this time around.

The other track Phoenix races like is Loudon, a place he was 5th at last month for his 8th top 5 in his last 9 starts there.

Harvick would be the man to beat moving forward….

Harrison Burton at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway a few weeks ago

Will Blaney AND Truex Jr. Miss Playoffs?

Ryan Blaney sits 2nd in points. Martin Truex Jr. is 4th. Right now, just 26 points separate the 2 for the final playoff berth with Blaney leading Truex with 2 races remaining. However, could there be a scenario to where both actually miss this year’s postseason?

Actually, yes. A good chance of that happening too.

The easiest path for either one of them to make it is to win. However, Watkins Glen isn’t it. Toyota’s have struggled on road courses in 2022 and Blaney has just 1 career road course victory which came on the Charlotte ROVAL.

Daytona isn’t it for Truex either. He’s a combined 0-for-73 on them between Daytona, Talladega and the 2 races at Atlanta this season. Blaney has a solid chance of winning Daytona at least but it’s a lottery still too.

Also, in 4 of the last 5 road course races, we’ve seen some newness to victory lane as well. On top of that, 3 of the last 4 races at Daytona have seen a 1st time winner including 7 of the last 10 overall winning either their 1st or 2nd career Cup race in general. 6 of the last 11 road course races were won by a driver scoring their 1st or 2nd career win including 5 of the last 6 at that.

That has everyone on edge in terms of the playoff mix. 15 drivers have clinched spots but what if we get 2 new winners over the next 2 weeks? I can certainly see that happening.

You can’t discount someone like Michael McDowell. He’s a road racer by nature and was 3rd in Sonoma, 8th in Road America and 8th again at Indy. For Daytona, he won the 2021 Daytona 500, was 5th in the 2019 Daytona 500 and 9th in the 2018 Daytona 500. Furthermore, since July 2014, the Arizona native has 7 top 10 finishes in his last 15 Daytona starts and with teams like Leavine Family Racing and Front Row Motorsports at that. He was 7th in February as well as 8th in Talladega this spring too.

Chris Buescher has 1 career win (Pocono 2016) and was runner-up to Suarez in Sonoma, 6th in Road America last month and 10th at Indy. He also has five top 10 finishes in his last 10 Daytona starts and coming off of a runner-up in Richmond.

Brad Keselowski, Aric Almirola, Harrison Burton, Ty Dillon, Corey LaJoie, Justin Haley and Erik Jones are all ones to watch at Daytona but maybe not so much this week.

Austin Cindric is quite possibly the top one to watch. He was 8th, 5th, 7th and 2nd in road course races this season and won the Daytona 500 back in February. He led a group of 3 rookies to finish in the top 4 the last road course out at Indy last month.

Buckle up, because we could see some new drivers winning again.

What’s The Best Strategy?

If the 4 road races this season are any indication, the race winner won’t score stage points in the opening stage. Just one of the winners have even led a lap in that stage. 2 of the last 3 didn’t lead a lap until the final stage.

However, this week may look different. How do you run this race?

Those 18th on back in points can’t make the postseason by pointsing their ways in. So stage points are irrelevant to them which means they’ll punt on those bonus points to position themselves in the final stage.

What about those with wins already? Do they really need stage points? If you’re locked in and not jockeying for bonus points for regular season standings, what do you care about stage points?

That’s why this may be a straight forward race in terms of strategy. Not many drivers care about stage points this week on a track that you can go off strategy on. That’s why I expect a lot of guys needing wins to swing for the fences.

BROOKLYN, MICHIGAN – AUGUST 07: Bubba Wallace, driver of the #23 McDonald’s Toyota, Erik Jones, driver of the #43 FOCUSfactor Chevrolet, Ryan Blaney, driver of the #12 Menards/Cardell Caninetry Ford, and Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Busch Light Apple #BuschelOfBusch Ford, race during the NASCAR Cup Series FireKeepers Casino 400 at Michigan International Speedway on August 07, 2022 in Brooklyn, Michigan. (Photo by Mike Mulholland/Getty Images)

Should Playoffs Change Again?

The debate in the industry is if the structure of who makes the playoffs should change again. There’s a very real shot that we get more than 16 winners this regular season. In theory, it could bump out someone who’s already won a race. Is that fair?

Some say, yes. It makes every regular season race exciting and even more meaningful knowing that just because you won doesn’t mean you can pack it in until the playoffs. You may need to win again and at the very least, you have to stay off the bottom of those in the standings who’ve already won.

However, who’s to say on the flipside of the coin that you don’t just award anyone with a win in the regular season to advance and eliminated any amount of number to get it down to 12 for the 2nd round.

Say we have 20 drivers eligible, you cut 8 of them in the first round which only adds to the excitement and intensity level of those 3 opening round tracks. Or have a criteria of drivers who finish in the top 5 of regular season points accumulated to be playoff eligible.

2 of the top 4 drivers in points may not make it. Is that fair? NASCAR wanted a playoff system that is more geared towards winning but they also wanted to reward points too. Eliminating those who were consistent isn’t a wise idea either.

That’s why the system is worth being looked at. 2022 has completely went away from where NASCAR was founded. It’s all about winning where points no longer matter.

I have a hard time with Ryan Blaney not being in the postseason if he finishes 2nd in points but has no wins. Same for 4th placed Martin Truex Jr.

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