Sep 6, 2013; Richmond, VA, USA; NASCAR Sprint Cup driver Tony Stewart in the garage during practice for the Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway. Mandatory Credit: Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

BTF Opinions: Staff Weighs in on the Latest Hot Topics in NASCAR

Every so often, the staff of Beyond the Flag will come together to give our readers our opinions on the biggest stories in racing. Below you will find the second installment of “BTF Opinions.” Enjoy! ~Katie

Chase Bubble: Who will make it in?

Katie Copple: Looking at the points going into Richmond, the only driver in the top-10 who doesn’t have a win and is in danger of falling out would be Kurt Busch in tenth. With Gordon on his heels, also without a win, its all a matter of who performed better Saturday night when the Checkered Flag waves. From Dale Jr in seventh on up, the points are basically locked in. Joey Logano and Greg Biffle sit eighth and ninth with one win a piece so even if they have a bad day and fall out of the top 10, they are almost guaranteed in via the wild card spots. Currently, Kasey Kahne and Martin Truex Jr hold on to the WC spots. Kahne, with two wins is basically locked in to the Chase. With two wins, he is guaranteed a WC spot. Martin and Ryan Newman, also with one win is another battle that you won’t want to miss Saturday night. Newman sits right behind Truex and with similar results this season, the WC spot will come down to who finishes higher.

William Babbington: After all my picks from last weeks article seemed to be completely wrong, I really don’t have a clue. But I think Kahne and Truex Jr will claim the wildcard spots. As for the current drivers in the Chase I’m torn. I am surprised by how well Logano did at Atlanta and really expected him to struggle. I think that will give him the confidence to put in a good run at Richmond and stay in the top 10. The only driver who I think might fall out of the top 10 is Greg Biffle. Kurt will finish ahead of Jeff Gordon both have the experience in these situations and know how to get the job done so I see both just squeezing in.

Daryle Hier: When you start analyzing the Chase and those that are on the bubble, it becomes a quagmire.  So to simplify it, there are five spots – eighth through tenth and the two wildcards.  Let’s agree that Joey Logano and Greg Biffle who are eighth and ninth with a win each are in, plus Kasey Kahne with two wins is clinched into the Chase as one wildcard.  Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon, who are without wins, battle for the tenth spot with Busch grabbing it.  So that leaves us with Martin Truex Jr. and Ryan Newman, each with a win, fighting for the last wildcard.  Newman is steadier and has had more success at Richmond right now, so he earns the last spot in the Chase.

Les Bailey: I think with two wins, Kasey Kahne is a lock for one of the wild Cards. The second could get interesting if Kurt Busch has some early problems in Richmond. The second wild card belongs to Martin Truex Jr if Busch or Gordon don’t win Saturday night. The 10th position is up for grabs. KB needs to keep track of Gordon and hope he doesn’t DNF in the finale.

LeRoy Beck: Jr., Logano, Biffle, all in easily.  They have the win, and the points to be an all but automatic lock.  There are only two real spots up for grabs: Jeff Gordon and Kurt Busch (10th) and Martin Truex and Ryan Newman (2nd wild card).  Gordon and Busch have the unfortunate role of “who will have bad luck first?”  I think that spot is an absolute coin flip, so I’ll take Busch just because I think it’s a better story.  The 2nd wild card spot is an even tougher call.  Over the course of the season, Truex and Newman have eerily similar numbers.  Truex and MWR tend to run a little better at Richmond, so put him in!

Sep 3, 2013; Kannapolis, NC, USA; NASCAR driver Tony Stewart answers questions from the media while wearing a walking boot during a press conference at Stewart-Haas Racing Headquarters. Stewart fractured his tibia and fibula in sprint car race in Iowa on August 5, 2013. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Gluck-USA TODAY Sports

Tony Stewart spoke publicly for the first time since his accident. Thoughts on what he and SHR had to say?

KC: We went an entire month without the banter and sarcasm that comes with Tony Stewart and boy did I miss it. Besides the large cast and boot on his leg, Stewart was back to his old self at the press conference. Noted for his strong dislike of pressers, Stewart did was Stewart does best and cracked jokes and made snarky comments through the entire thing. There were a lot of questions thrown his way about the happenings at SHR since his accident. He made it clear that bringing Kurt Busch into the organization was solely on Gene Haas and that he didn’t find out about it until the deal was all but finalized. I think Stewart handled the media frenzy like a Champ and it will be interesting to see what he does at the track the rest of the season. With his motorized and sponsored big-wheeled scooter, there is no stopping him now.

WB: It was nice to see Stewart back and in such a calmed and relaxed mood. He was surprisingly philosophical about the whole thing and also had a level of humility that is not common with Stewart when he admitted he probably did too much racing this season. While we wouldn’t have expected anything less it was good to hear him emphasize how much of a team SHR are and how they are all on the same page on wanting Kurt in their line up, albeit not on the same time schedule. I don’t think we are seeing a new media friendlier Smoke, I still wouldn’t want to ask him a question after he’s been taken out in a race, but rather a very relaxed guy with his health and team heading in the right direction.

DH: Stewart is Stewart and the idea that Smoke will slow it down some may make his sponsors a bit happier, but expect him back at Daytona, with the same attitude as before.  I’m also glad to hear he’s like me and gets squeamish at the sight of blood.

L. Beck: Honestly the interview was pure Stewart.  Straightforward, honest, direct, humorous, exactly what I would expect.  It reminds me of the interview that he had after the wild flip in the Sprint Car a few weeks before the injury.  “Hey, it happens.”  Very Stewart, and very accurate.

Aug 24, 2013; Bristol, TN, USA; Crew members of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Brad Keselowski (not pictured) work on the car after crashing during the Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

The reigning Sprint Cup Series Champion is still winless this season and could easily miss the Chase. What do you think factored in to his mediocre season (comparing it to 2012?)

KC: I think there are a lot of factors that go into Keselowski not making the Chase this season. Penske Racing switched to Ford, Keselowski now has a new teammate in Logano, and the No.2 team faced multiple penalties this season and lost Crew Chief Paul Wolfe for multiple races. Each of those events, plus a new car, has led to the reigning Champ missing out on the Chase. His season this year has been anything but glorious and I am sure this team just wants to get through this season with a decent points finish and move on to 2014.

WB: I am partly at a loss as to what has happened with the No.2 team, sure they have gone from Dodge to Ford but Logano seems to have coped with this change and arguable Keselowski is a better driver so one would have expected him to master the new car quickly. The only thing I can put my finger on is the penalties the team have had. It was clear to see that the team struggled when crew chief Paul Wolfe was suspended and as a result left valuable points on the track. But what has hurt him most of all is the points penalties. The No.2 team has lost 35 points due to various car setup violations and if he got those points back would currently be in 9th. But going back further the loss of points put the pressure on the team early on and meant that they had to play catch-up which put even more pressure on the team to perform and I think ultimately affected his performances.

DH: I can’t believe Brad Keselowski won’t make the Chase, but that is what is going to happen.  Luck had a part in him and his team not making it but in the end, the penalties (loss of points and crew chief Paul Wolfe) earlier in the year were catastrophic and the reason the Blue Deuce won’t be defending the title.

L. Bailey: I think you can sum up Brad Keselowski’s season with one word…Ford… I wrote in blogs early on, that migration to a different manufacturer would cause problems for the Champ. Ford isn’t the strongest chase machine in NASCAR, and for the Miller Lite team…it’s new.

L. Beck: Hey!!  I think I wrote a piece about this two weeks ago!  Check it out Oh Brad Where Art Thou?

Aug 3, 2013; Long Pond, PA, USA; NASCAR Camping World Truck Series driver Ryan Blaney (29) celebrates after winning the Pocono Mountains 125 at Pocono Raceway. Mandatory Credit: Matthew O

The Trucks Series has had two big races this season with Eldora and their first road course race in 13 years. The road course race this weekend was by far the most exciting of the three NASCAR races. Should NASCAR keep these two races in the series? Are there any other races you would like to see brought into the Trucks Series?

KC: If you didn’t get a chance to watch the Trucks race in Canada then you need to head on over to YouTube and watch it. Those drivers put on one heck of a show and battled hard from start to finish. With the two big races that the Truck Series ran this season, it’s easy to see that the  excitement is not with the Sprint Cup Series, but with the young guns and veteran drivers in the Trucks. Both races need to stay on the schedule and I wouldn’t be against seeing them head to tracks such as Nashville, Memphis and even Darlington.

WB: Without a doubt NASCAR need to keep these two races. Truck series is all about developing drivers but it can also be seen as a way to develop fans and these ‘new’ tracks with the publicity they bring and the excitement they generate is a great way to do it. It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of road courses so would love to see the trucks at somewhere like Sonoma but also would like to see a race at Darlington and see the young guns try and tame the Lady in Black.

DH: As I’ve mentioned in prior stories, the race at Eldora should tell the folks at NASCAR where and how they can rebuild a dwindling base.  The race at Mosport was great if you like destruction derby – but yes, I’d like to see the Truck series keep this track on the calendar and maybe add another road course or two.  Other than adding more dirt tracks, I’d like to see the Trucks go back to Memphis.  And what about Irwindale?

L. Beck: Should Eldora stay?  Absolutely!  I think the Truck series is the most unique of the Top 3 series, and racing at Eldora is the perfect way to showcase its uniqueness while also highlighting NASCAR’s history (which is why they should also be racing at Rockingham).  The road course races do nothing for me on a regular basis.  I truly believe this particular race was an anomaly, and we cannot expect that type of excitement each time.  Not to mention the Max Papis slap received more press than the race itself.

Sep 6, 2013; Richmond, VA, USA; NASCAR Sprint Cup driver Regan Smith (48) during practice for the Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway. Smith is driving the 48 car during practice and qualifying for Sprint Cup Series driver Jimmie Johnson (not pictured) because of the birth of Johnson child. Mandatory Credit: Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

Jimmie Johnson has led the point’s standings for a majority of the season but once the Chase starts, he sits behind Matt Kenseth and has Kyle Busch directly on his heels. His last 4 races haven’t been the best and the No.48 team has seemed to run into some bad luck. Is he still the favorite to win the Championship?

KC: Two words: Five Championships. I think every team in the garage knows that they can never count out Jimmie Johnson the No.48 team. Johnson has basically been locked in to the Chase since his win at Indy and since then, the team has been slumping and saving. Nothing really matters until Chicagoland. That is where the Chase starts and where Johnson and the team will be back on their A-game. The team has had a run of bad luck these last few weekends but there is no reason to count him out of the Championship. Knaus and the team know when they need to turn it on and with a new baby at home for Johnson, winning a sixth Championship will just be icing on the cake.

WB: You can never write Jimmie Johnson off at every track he can look like he could take the win. While there’s no doubt the No.48 team have hit a run of bad luck I am sure they would much rather have it now than in the Chase. It comes to something when they guy has been in first virtually all season but after a few bad races doubts in people start creeping in. Last year he was down in 4th at this point in the season and took it down to the wire. In 2010 he was in 7th at this point in the season and went on to win the Championship. Johnson is still the favorite in my eyes and it is his championship to loose.

DH: Every race, every season and for the distant future Jimmie Johnson with Chad Knaus calling the shots on the No.48 will always be the favorite.  Yes, they’ve shown some weaknesses of late but in the end, it doesn’t matter until the Chase starts.  Actually, I think the Toyotas of Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch have shown too many inconsistencies to win the championship.  I believe the Cup title is up for grabs with somebody getting hot at the right time and we might not see it coming – i.e. Tony Stewart in 2011.

L.Bailey: We all know how tough the No.48 team gets during the chase, and don’t expect any slack from the Lowes Chevrolet in 2013. The only thing that can keep Jimmie Johnson off the podium at Homestead is bad luck. If he has bad luck, it’s going to be a free-for-all. I might even go out on a limb here and take Kyle Busch for champ if the No.48 bad lucks out. I don’t think Harvick can win a championship at RCR, Clint Bowyer came close last year, and can be a factor down the stretch.

L. Beck: Until history shows otherwise, Jimmie Johnson will always be a favorite once the chase starts.  They have realistically been locked in since about the Brickyard, so these races have been of no real consequence.  I expect the No.48 machine to come out guns blazing at Richmond and be a force to remind everyone of how strong they have been this year.  All championships paths still run through the Lowes Team.

Tags: Brad Keselowsi Chad Knaus Championship Dale Earnhardt Jr Gene Haas Greg Biffle Hendrick Motorsports Jeff Gordon Jimmie Johsnon Joey Logano Kasey Kahne Kurt Busch Kyle Busch Martin Truex Jr Matt Kenseth Paul Wolfe Penske Racing Ryan Newman Stewart-Haas Racing Toy Stewart

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