Inside the Pit Box: Indianapolis and the Road Course of Doom

Road Course racing seems to be all the rage today, no? 

As a fan who enjoys road courses, I am not complaining one bit.  

Last Sunday the latest chapter in The Cup Series rich history was written when the 3400lb stock cars made left and right turns at historic Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the first time. It comes a year after the Xfinity Series made their maiden voyage around the course to rave reviews. This marked the first time in 26 previous visits that the Cup Series did not run on the famed 2.5-mile oval.  

The race itself? It had about as many twists and turns as the course. Surprise stage outcomes, track damage, cars going airborne, multiple red flags, last lap drama and an unbelievable finish. There were teams that battled back from adversity and teams that scored their first top 20 finishes. However, as many things change, a few things were the same as they are week in and week out. All eyes were on Kyle Larson Sunday, who was fresh off of a victory in the NOSville Nationals the previous night. He returned to Indy around 3:30 AM and estimated that he had about 4 hours of sleep before he was up for qualifying early Sunday morning. He lead for a good portion of the day, leading 28 laps in total en-route to a 3rd place finish. Chase Elliott continued his strong road course season, leading 14 laps and ended up with a 4th place result. 

Current leader of the Sunoco Rookie of the Year standings Chase Briscoe made his return home to Indiana a competitive one. Along with notching his best qualifying effort of the season (2nd), he lead 13 laps and was in contention for his first career win, and more importantly a spot in this year’s playoffs. A late race restart and contact with Denny Hamlin would throw a wrench into those plans. As Hamlin and Briscoe charged into turn one on first lap of a green-white-checkered finish, Briscoe veered off into the grassy area. How he reached that area is a hot topic of discussion. If you were to ask the 14 team, they’d say they were forced off by the 11 and were simply rejoining the track. If you ask the 11, they’d tell you he went beyond track limits. That’s the theory race control went with and penalized the 14 team with a stop and go penalty. On a road course, that is simply giving the position back. After rejoining the track, Briscoe would follow Hamlin through the course and would eventually contact Hamlin’s bumper and send him through the grass as well. At that moment, NASCAR decided to park the 14 car, and the race continued for the last lap. That gave the lead to former Cup Series winner and noted Road Course expert AJ Almendinger. Almendinger would fend off a hard charging Ryan Blaney for his first cup series win since 2014 at Watkins Glen and the first win in the Cup Series for Kaulig Racing, who plans to go full time in Cup in 2022. While there was elation in the Kaulig camp, there seemed to be a growing cloud along pit road as Denny Hamlin and Chase Briscoe exited their cars. On one side you have Denny, who leads the regular season points but has no wins to show for it. For the rookie Briscoe, there was a lot of hype to live up to for this race. He’s driving the 14, a number almost as synonymous as the oval itself. His owner is Tony Stewart, a multi time champion and winner at the Speedway whose hero AJ Foyt drove that number to victories in the Indianapolis 500 and race wins in NASCAR. Racing at your home racetrack in front of your own Fan Club had to be a source of nervousness too. In the end, the two settled things by agreeing to disagree on what happened. No punches were thrown, and they talked it out like gentlemen. What happens from here remains to be seen. In this instance it seems like Hamlin would have more to lose in retaliation than Briscoe, who will need a win in the remaining weeks of the regular season to qualify for the playoffs. As a virtue of Almendinger winning the race, Hamlin has clinched his place in this season, though he remains in a tight race for the regular season title with Kyle Larson.  

Now that we’ve caught up on the on-track action, let’s go to the mailbox and see what we have. This is a new feature here at Pit Box Press and hopefully it turns out pretty well. We’ll try to do this weekly or as time permits.  

Avery (@ABrugh94 on Twitter) asked: Do you see a change in crew chief ahead for Bubba Wallace? Just wondering how long of a leash Michael Wheeler will have going forward. 

I wouldn’t say that Wheeler’s seat is on fire, but I would say that it’s on a low simmer right now. The team is currently 21st in points, which would be a solid season for a first-year team. However, this is no normal first year team. This is a team owned by six-time NBA Champion Michael Jordan, who before Daytona in February said he expected at least two wins this season. Lofty goals come with a lot of eyes, and immense pressure. It’s been said several times, but the team didn’t get its cars until late in the offseason and we’re still in a Covid schedule that doesn’t have practice or qualifying unless we’re headed to a new track. While technology has come a long way, it still doesn’t take the place of on track experience. I would give 23XI until the 1st quarter of the 2022 season to make a decision on Wheeler. If the results aren’t there by then, I would move on.  

Marc (@MarcTalksCars on twitter) asked: Which drivers are poised to surprise us in the Next Gen era? 

Great question. There are a lot of variables that I would use to describe a surprise. With the new car, I could see drivers like Tyler Reddick, Christopher Bell, Daniel Suarez, William Byron and Justin Haley finally showing consistency. It’s hard to pin who will be the most successful, because so far all we’ve seen is single car testing on several types of racetracks. Ask me again around April of next year and I might have a better answer for you.  

Jay (@darttripper on twitter) asked: Who do you consider the best crew chief of all time?  

I have several answers, but I’ll narrow it down to one for sake of those reading. Smokey Yunick was one of the best crew chiefs of his time, and not just because of some of the creative ways he found to get over on NASCAR. Like the saying went back then: if you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying. 22 wins in 98 starts, and he was also a big proponent in NASCAR safety after the death of Fireball Roberts. Though he left NASCAR in 1970, he left a great mark that is still felt in NASCAR today. 

Iszy (@IHLYaaakov on twitter) asked: What’s been the major hurdle this season for Harvick- why so different than last year? 

I don’t think there’s actually been a hurdle for Harvick, along with the rest of SHR. It’s more of a case of holding their cards close to their chest and banking on a big 2022 with the new car. It reminds me of how Hendrick was a few seasons ago when they seemed to be well behind Gibbs and SHR. A few years, 20+ wins and a championship later, it seems as if Hendrick is back. I know the results aren’t there for SHR (1 win this season between four teams), but I wouldn’t sound the alarm just yet. 

Renee (@SockPops on twitter) asked: What does AJ’s win on Sunday tell us about Kaulig Racing’s potential success in 2022

Kaulig’s motto in racing is “Trophy Hunting”. They’ve proved that a bunch in the Xfinity Series, and now they’ve proved in the Cup Series. However, there’s still work to be done and it will remain to be seen how they tackle a full season and not just sporadic starts. I expect them to at least be a top 15-20 car in their first season and as they grow and we learn more about the Next Gen car compete for victories in the years to come.  

JT (@ttaylor_jordan on twitter) asked: Do drivers use muscle memory when driving on tracks, especially road courses? I believe so. I would have to ask an actual professional, but it would seem that unless a track has been reconfigured or repaved differently that most drivers would find some tracks easier than others as far as driving lines and places where they feel comfortable on tracks.

And that’s it for the mailbox this week. If you’d like to submit a question for the mailbox, you can follow me on Twitter @philenespanol. Submissions start right after the race and will run until Tuesday evening.

Featured image from @NASCAR on Twitter.

Published by Phillip Spain

A 25 year veteran in the world Motorsports, Phil loves anything with an engine. When he’s not watching cars, he’s out with family.

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