Welcome to The Good, The Bad and The Ugly where I’ll be reviewing the previous three races on the NASCAR Cup Series schedule and answering your questions. This is similar to the mailbag from last season, but it’ll give you all a better sample size of races to see if your questions and my answers come to fruition. Without further ado, let’s get started.
- Three weeks, three thrilling finishes: Sunday’s Pennzoil 400 capped off a month in which NASCAR saw almost an instant return on investment with the Gen 7 race car (It’s no longer the Next Gen, it’s here now. It’s okay, y’all) with Alex Bowman defeating Kyle Larson by .178 seconds in the closest finish at Vegas since 2019. Unlike the prior few seasons it wasn’t just the late caution that made the race exciting, rather the race itself had tons of intrigue. Kyle Busch looked great in the second and third stages after a rough going in the first stage. Ross Chastain looked like a great bet to win his and Trackhouse’s first race after leading a race high 83 laps until a late adjustment and pit stop relegated him to a third place finish. Vegas fell in line after the close finishes at both Daytona and Fontana, leaving a few fans to feel as if it was never the tracks that were the issue, it was the car and the engine package. The first short track is ahead on the schedule with the last race of the west coast swing in Phoenix, so we’ll have at least a small sample size of what to expect the rest of the way.
- Parity may be near: The Fontana race saw a stat we hadn’t seen in NASCAR in a long time. There were nine different teams in the top 10 at the end of the race. The early surprises included RCR, Trackhouse, PettyGMS, JTG Daugherty and after a rough 2020, SHR had two cars in the top 10. While the race was won by a Hendrick driver, it was good to see different teams getting some of their best finishes in years. NASCAR promised that the playing field would be a little more level with this new car and so far they haven’t lied. It’s early, but fans of some of the smaller underdog teams should have a reason to celebrate.
- Damage doesn’t mean your day is over: When Bubba Wallace finished second at Daytona, it was sans a front fender. The damage came with less than 10 laps to go in an incident with Stenhouse and Keselowski. Bubba was convinced the front end was killed, but crew chief Bootie Barker wasn’t convinced. The damage was okay enough for Bubba to continue on and get within .036 of his first Daytona 500 victory. The same situation would happen at Fontana in almost the same situation. He would go on to finish 19th. At Las Vegas he wouldn’t be so lucky after a late race incident with the right front would leave him in 25th, but it shows the resiliency of this new car. Kyle Busch spun early in the race at Vegas but his car would go on to lead 48 laps and finish fourth. Want a good finish? Turns out a little damage may be the key.
- Blaney’s Luck: Honestly, there hasn’t been much bad. So I had slim pickings to choose from. Well, there is one thing but let’s save that for the ugly portion. Ryan Blaney has had an interesting start to his season so far. For what feels like the third season in a row, he was corners away from winning the Daytona 500, before getting uprooted by teammate Austin Cindric and wrecking the car just after the line. He started towards the front at Fontana and ended up with an 18th place finish and his day ended early at Vegas after having nowhere to go to avoid a spinning Brad Keselowski and his result was a 36th place finish. If the playoffs started today he’d be in 13th. It’s not season ending by any means but we all know consistency is key.
Tire Expectations Fall Flat: All three race weekends this season have had a myriad of tire issues. We’ve seen drivers lose as many as six laps trying to crab walk the new rims and destroyed tires back to the pits, with several needing a push back to the pits. NASCAR has said they will be looking into a fix, but after Kyle Busch’s crash during practice that required him to use a backup that was just a parts car for JGR, that fix can’t get here soon enough.
@Walker_Skeeter on Twitter asks: Which driver has been the biggest disappointment so far? The most pleasant surprise?
If we’re looking at points so far and amongst the playoff drivers from 2021, Kevin Harvick would be on the outside looking in if the playoffs started tomorrow, with no stage or playoff points yet. It’s still early and he did finish seventh at Fontana but that said, poor finishes and lack of stage points can make it seem like it’s getting late early. Early surprise? Erik Jones and PettyGMS. On the outset of the season, I felt like the entire team (Ty Dillon included) were really only here to make starts and get experience. Boy was I wrong. Strong finishes out of the gate for Erik and leading a bunch of laps at Fontana has me cautiously optimistic for the remainder of the season. That said…
@Ranjowe49 on Twitter asks: Why is Jones vastly outperforming Dillon? Is there a factor in the engineering or is the talent level that much different between the two?
On the surface you could say Erik has the advantage at PettyGMS because he has a year under his belt with the RPM team. However, they are working out of the GMS shop and with a new car. He also has a new crew chief in Dave Elenz. Dillon’s team is probably suffering from the lack of information so far for a two car operation in it’s first season. Where things seem to be looking up is that their alliance with RCR is paying dividends already for both organizations. I’d check back after Talladega and see if it’s time to ring the alarm for car 42.
Featured photo from Pat Vallely.