Our experts weigh in on four of the biggest questions in motorsports as the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series makes its lone visit to Kentucky Speedway:
Turn 1: Which Gibbs driver wins first? Other than rookie Daniel Suarez, who is in the most trouble?
Ricky Craven, ESPN NASCAR analyst: Kyle Busch will be the first Gibbs driver to win because he has enough of a points cushion to drive more aggressively late in a race. We are reaching a point in the season where Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth may begin feeling the pressure, competing a bit “back on their heels,” so to speak, where they are less willing to take risks late in a race and more focused on capturing points. Welcome to July and being winless. Matt has the toughest climb from here.
Ryan McGee, ESPN.com: Gotta be Shrub, right? He’s been so close so many times. And the man in trouble is Kenseth, who has not been so close so many times. The fact that he keeps crawling up the standings while not ever finishing in the top 10 is the most Kenseth thing ever.
Bob Pockrass, ESPN.com: Kyle Busch. He can’t come so close to winning all these times and not end up the first to win. Matt Kenseth appears in the most trouble, based on his points position that has him in by just three points at the moment.
Matt Willis, ESPN Stats & Information: It’s hard not to take Kyle Busch, considering he’s second in the Cup Series with 746 laps led this season. Going back to 1990, only one driver has led that many laps in a season without winning (Jeff Gordon in 2010). Add in his two wins and 5.2 average finish at this week’s stop, Kentucky, and that win could come on Saturday night.
Turn 2: Did the Xfinity finish this weekend sour you on the overtime line?
Craven: It did not because I was aware of the rule prior to the green flag dropping and I understand the circumstances and consequences of everything involved. I know this business is heavily weighted on entertainment, but the price of entertaining fans can’t come at the risk of car owners seeing race car fields turn into junkyards at restrictor-plate tracks by fans demanding finishing races under green.
McGee: I don’t think I’m as sour on the rule itself as I am sour on the people who keep telling me how sour they are on the rule. That probably means there’s a change coming, because in recent years NASCAR has shown plenty of willingness to react to fan reaction. That had some impact on how we ended up with that line in the first place.
Pockrass: A little. The OT line isn’t the most pressing issue of the day, but if NASCAR returns to having to take the white flag, that would work for me. Maybe have the OT line at the half-lap distance for all tracks for the third or fourth attempt?
Willis: I was already souring on the overtime-line rule, but last week’s Xfinity Series finish squeezed a little lemon juice on it. I like NASCAR’s effort to not end races under caution, but what I don’t like is when a caution flies on the final lap and I have to wait to figure out if the cars have passed an arbitrary point on the track. I would be OK at just having the field revert to the last scoring loop in that case to give a little more clarity.
Turn 3: William Byron has won back-to-back Xfinity races. Should he be in a Cup car in 2018?
Craven: William Byron could go into cup driving the No. 5 car next year. I know it’s just a numerical decal on the side of the car, but he doesn’t need the pressure of driving the 88 car. Although there’s risk in moving up too quickly, there’s an equal risk staying in one place too long. This kid is a winner! I would not need another year of Xfinity to confirm his worthiness.
McGee: Nope. Let the boy incubate a little longer. The ditch that runs alongside the road of NASCAR history is littered with debris left from the careers of kids who were moved into Cup too soon.
Pockrass: No. He needs to continue to develop without the pressure. But sometimes sponsors and the situations don’t match with what should happen. So he could be in a Cup car in 2018 and do a solid job. But in a perfect world, Hendrick Motorsports should put him on the same path as Chase Elliott.
Willis: NASCAR is full of examples of drivers getting promoted to the Cup Series too soon and struggling. Joey Logano managed to bounce back, but it took a team change to get him there. Casey Atwood wasn’t so lucky. Hendrick could have two seats open next year, but with Byron being just 20 at the start of next season, there’s no rush to put him in a car. It would give Hendrick an opportunity to give another driver a chance in any available car as a trial run.
Turn 4: How critical is Kentucky for teams gearing up for the playoffs?
Craven: I would say it’s more critical for Joe Gibbs Racing and Penske (specifically Joey Logano) than most of the other teams. As goes your mile and a half program so goes your chances of a title. Kyle Larson, Martin Truex Jr. and Jimmie Johnson don’t need Kentucky to assure themselves going forward. Logano, Kyle Busch, Hamlin and Kenseth might!
McGee: Not as critical as it usually is. Yeah, it’s still the last 1.5-miler on the schedule before the playoff, but it’s also just undergone an extreme makeover, so the data won’t transfer as easily. Instead, that slight curveball might be more critical for the borderline teams looking for some sort of opening that will allow them to sneak into the playoffs.
Pockrass: Not all that critical. Yeah, it’s the last 1.5-mile track until the playoffs, but as a repave with different turns, it won’t tell too much of where teams will rate come the playoffs. It could serve as a place where teams experiment and learn, but they have time with Pocono, Michigan and Darlington in the coming weeks to be ready for Chicagoland and the playoffs.
Willis: I think it’s actually really important, more so than you’d think for a track in July that the series doesn’t visit during the playoffs. The last time the series raced at a 1.5-mile track was at Charlotte in May. The next time after Saturday will be the playoff opener at Chicago in September, but it will be the first of five races on 1.5-mile tracks during the postseason, as the series will also go to Charlotte, Kansas, Texas and Homestead.