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Track Talk: Bank of America 500 at Charlotte

Each weekend, our panel on The Podium Finish provide their thoughts on the latest stories in the world of NASCAR as well as discussing their race pick to win the upcoming Sprint Cup race of the weekend.  In this edition of Track Talk, we preview the Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway!

This weekend, our panel consisting of Ashley Hobbs, Ashley Hull, Kathleen CassidyKatie Copple, Sean Fesko, and Stephen Conley analyze the short term prospects of Ganassi’s Cup teams, those who surprised us or need to do some homework in the Round of 12, rain, and diversity efforts!

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Question 1
Not even a Credit One card could help Ganassi stave off elimination.

Not even a Credit One card could help Ganassi stave off elimination.

Ganassi Racing’s promising Chase efforts were thwarted by mechanical woes for Jamie McMurray and a plethora of issues for Kyle Larson at Dover.  Does this two car effort have a lot to build on for 2017 or was this as good as it gets for this group?

Hobbs :  A lot to build on?  No.  Some things to work on?  Yes.

Without the woes for Larson, he would have advanced in The Chase.  For Jamie McMurray, I think they needed to find a bit more speed if they want to advance next year.  I think they are good enough in the regular season to make it in (on points), but they need more than just that once The Chase begins.  I think they have a lot of solid information to build on, and having Larson in as well adds to the equation.  I think this organization will come back stronger next year.

Fesko :  They have plenty to build on.  Getting one car in the Chase has always been a struggle for CGR, but having two was great.  They’ll have the experience now to repeat the task.  Remember, too, that they’re in the first year of a partnership with Rob Kauffman that will see them only get more financial support.  This team is going places.

Cassidy :  I think that this season has shown many improvements for Ganassi Racing. Over the years, this organization has shown major improvements.  Whether it’s stronger drivers, more competitive equipment, or better team cohesion, Ganassi is slowing becoming a competitive team.

Shoppe :  The Ganassi team has a lot to be proud of from their efforts this season.  They finally broke their winless streak with Kyle Larson’s big win at Michigan, they got both cars in The Chase for the first time, and they have run much better as a whole then years prior.  The unfortunate luck both cars suffered in Dover might have ended their Chase runs, but both cars still have considerable speed and can still contend for wins this year.

Copple :  Chip Ganassi Racing has impressed me this season, more so than they have the last few years.  If you think back a couple seasons to when Larson was a rookie, he was expected to win his first year.  While that didn’t happen, he has consistently improved and finally got that trip to Victory Lane.  CGR still has a long way to go before they are running competitive cars every single weekend but they are on the right path.  I expect great things from them in 2017.

Hull :  First of all, despite these two not making the second round, they both had a terrific season.  Kyle Larson had a solid performance, and scored his first career Cup Series win.  Jamie McMurray also had a solid season as well. They have a lot to work on for next season, but they have a good foundation too.  If they can work out their mechanical issues, they could have another solid performance next year.  Also, this season isn’t over yet, and Kyle Larson was great in practice on Thursday, so another win could be imminent for him.  They just need to keep building onto their performance!

Conley :  CGR needs some changes at the top if they want to make the next step.  This season was just average at best.  I don’t even think it was as good as they can be, but it’s about all we’ve seen out of them since McMurray went on his stretch of wins if the big races in 2010.  Something has to change if they want to get past the first round and contend.

Question 2
Undercut but not cut from The Chase.

Undercut but not cut from The Chase.

After the Round of 16, which drivers and teams had surprising performances and results and which ones do you think have some homework heading into the Round of 12?

Hobbs :  I was surprised at how much Joey Logano was not in the picture.  Granted he finished second at Chicagoland, but he only led one lap, and he did have a solid average finish of sixth.  This is a different story compared to last year where he was making all sorts of noise.  However, if he can repeat what he did a year ago and put a whooping on the field and win all three races again, I will eat these words.

I was also surprised at the lack of performance from Kevin Harvick.  If he had not won in Loudon, I am not sure he would have made it into the next round; if he did, he barely would have.  He had the third worst average finish of the group with an average of 19th, above only Jamie McMurray and Chris Buescher.  Harvick’s team was one of the best in the regular reason and they seemed to be off in the first round of The Chase.  I expect better things from this group in the next round.

Fesko :  Larson’s performances were surprising but on the wrong end of the spectrum.  The greatest beneficiary of Larson’s poor showing was Austin Dillon.  I didn’t have him getting past the first round, and here he is in the biggest wild card round of them all with Talladega.  Could he surprise again?

Cassidy :  Another shocker was obviously Kyle Larson.  The young talent looked like he had himself into the next round of the change until an unexpected car issue.  Sadly, we saw the 42 team’s hopes of winning the Sprint Cup championship come to an end at Dover because of this.   

Shoppe :  I was surprised to see Chase Elliott make such a comeback after his down on himself attitude he had a month or two ago.  Those slight mistakes earlier in the year were really getting to him and I didn’t expect a rookie (even though we are talking about an outstanding rookie) would be able to shake it off so fast and run up front for wins in The Chase.

A couple of disappointments so far in The Chase in my eyes are Kurt Busch and Carl Edwards.  Here are two drivers who had shown outstanding consistency in the regular season.  Both have run subpar so far in The Chase.  Maybe they have been just conservative enough to play it safe early on in the playoffs to survive and advance?  Or maybe there is some cause for concern for these veterans.

Copple :  I’m surprised to see Austin Dillon made it into the Round of 12.  Besides the No. 3, the rest seemed to perform to expectations.  Martin Truex Jr does not count in this, as he is in a league of his own!

There are a few drivers who need to step up if they expect to make it to the next round, like Carl Edwards and Danny Hamlin to name two.  Both are talented drivers but neither have been performing as well as I, and many race fans, believe they should.

Hull :  The major one that surprised me was Austin Dillon.  As you all may have noticed, I didn’t even see him making the next round.  But he somehow pulled it off and he is now in the Round of 12.  Also, Chase Elliott has continued to be consistent as he made the Round of 12.  The ones I expected more of is Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson.  Both Edwards and Johnson need to pick it up if they want to make the next round and compete for the championship.  But I am sure that they are both motivated to do it!

Conley :  I have to say I was a little shocked by Chase Elliott giving a solid and his consistent first round to move on. He can be his own worst enemy and I thought that might jump up and get him.

As for homework, yes Logano swept this round a tear ago, but I think Penske is searching and they may need to call in the bloodhounds to assist in finding that little missing element.

Question 3
If the rain comes they run and hide their heads.

If the rain comes, they run and hide their heads.

Mother Nature has proven to be a hindrance with The Chase each weekend, cancelling qualifying at Chicagoland and Dover while causing a bit of a hiccup for the Loudon race weekend on Friday.  Is this a case where NASCAR needs to reevaluate the schedule some to maximize on venues where the weather is to their advantage at a certain point of the year versus another?

Hobbs :  The thing is, Mother Nature is not predictable.  We know this time of the year is hurricane season so anything along the East Coast is game for some rain and wind.  Everywhere else, it is still playing chicken with Mother Nature.  Sometimes, things cannot be controlled, but I think for The Chase, some rules should be put so the top in points are not just given the best pit selections; those selections should be earned from sort of on track activity.

But on a different note of Mother Nature, I am all for changing the tracks in The Chase!  It is time new blood came into the mix!

Fesko :  I’d like to agree, but I think that NASCAR and Mother Nature just don’t like each other. Remember last fall when dry, hot Phoenix was rained on…a lot.  Not even the greatest meteorologist could predict how to make the schedule work, so there’s no point in shaking things up for that reason.

Cassidy :  I feel like the last few years have been all about the rain.  There is something about NASCAR weekend that mother nature has jinx the location teams are headed it.  Thankfully, not as many races has been moved to Monday this year.  Normally, we have been able to get some or all of the race in on their schedule dates.  Moving forward, I am not sure if there is anything NASCAR could do, as we just gotta roll with the dice we are given.

Shoppe :  There is not much you can really do about weather.  It’s gonna rain when it’s gonna rain.  As much as those of us in racing hate it, rain is a force we can’t really prevent.  Ever since Phoenix last year in The Chase, I have thought there should be a change for Chase races as far as rain rules go.

I feel like Chase races should have some kind of extra effort put in to finishing the advertised distance. Easier said then done, but looking back at the outcome of the Phoenix race last November left a bad taste in people’s mouths.

Copple :  You can’t predict Mother Nature, especially when our sport depends solely on weather conditions.  This isn’t something NASCAR can control or really predict ahead of time.  Changing the schedule and the order the races are run wouldn’t change anything and would make race fans very unhappy.

Rain is something we are going to have to deal with as fans, participants and attendees at the track.  NASCAR has a good plan in place for things like rain delays.  They try and get the race in the day it’s supposed to run and only push it to the next day if absolutely necessary.  This is one place where I think NASCAR has it right.

Hull :  I have been saying all along that NASCAR needs to have more races in places that are drought-stricken, so that they can get some rain, because it always seems to rain a NASCAR race here lately.  My husband and I were talking the other day, and we both think that they should do Saturday races (even though it may interfere with College Football) so that they can have Sunday to run races if needed.  But other than that, there isn’t much more they can do.  Mother Nature is very unpredictable, and you can’t really control her.

Conley :  No, you set up shop and let it go.  It’s an outdoor sporting event and weather will always be an issue.  The moment you change it up and head to say Las Vegas, a rare pop up thunderstorm hits.

You’re under fire for making the change.  Plus there are only so many venues that give us decent weather and you can’t just stuff them all at once.  

Question 4
Diversifying diversity.

Diversifying diversity.

When we asked Kyle Larson about what NASCAR could do to help out with their diversity efforts, he responded, “It’s tough for those kids to go run for the diversity program and make it past the K&N Series. It’s great that they get the opportunity to run that but there’s really nowhere for them to go afterwards.” What are some solutions for NASCAR for the short and long haul?

Hobbs :  For starts, stop letting the Cup guys dominate the lower series.  Those series, such as the Camping World Truck Series and XFINITY Series, are where the new comers need to race and get them the exposure they need and deserve.

The NASCAR Diversity Program is a great program but it seems they do nothing more for these drivers once they are in the program.  If they want to get them exposure, NASCAR needs to help them with that and help open rides for them from the Cup drivers.  Do not get me wrong here; I am a Kyle Busch fan and love to see him win, but when he dominates the Camping World Truck Series and XFINITY Series, it takes the spotlight off the driers in that series.  If Cup drivers were not allowed in lower series, or limited, it would greatly free up stellar rides for these young kids to step into and show what they are really made of.  How are we ever going to know what they can do if they are never truly given a shot?

Fesko :  The biggest issue is funding.  Those drivers are given an opportunity in the K&N Series, but without being able to find funding, it’s hard to move up.  You can’t fault them, though: even Dale Earnhardt Jr. had some races open this season if I recall correctly.  The only way to fix this is to cut costs.  NASCAR is looking at that with the potential elimination of a pit crew member.  That money could then perhaps be used to help offset other costs.

Cassidy :  I find it upsetting that that was the answer from Larson and the reality of our sport.  If someone is talented enough to drive in the big leagues they should be given that chance.  Sadly, NASCAR has become more about the money then the sport itself to some degree.  If individuals do not have the money to support themselves through a racing career, they will never get one.  Is this right though?  Are we shutting out good talent because they do not come from money?

Shoppe :  The K&N program that Larson is referring to is Rev Racing, a diversity race team led by former DEI member Max Siegal.  The first crop of drivers to make it though a combine style process to earn seats at this team include the likes of Darrell Wallace Jr.

Back then, the process of these young minorities competing in challenges for for Rev Racing’s K&N seats was televised in a reality show form on the BET Network.  I feel like if they brought back that TV series to a minority viewing audience, I would really help grow the sport. That season when I watched that program, I really go to know who Darrell Wallace Jr,  Makenna Bell, and other really were as they competed in an American Idol style show.  If not this, something has to be done to give minorities a better shot in NASCAR.

Copple :  One thing that NASCAR is lacking is diversity in the upper tiers of the sport.  They have a great diversity program getting drivers into the lower tiers but when it comes to teams picking them up later in their career, it just doesn’t happen.

Look at Johanna Long. She was racing in the (then) Nationwide Series and doing a fantastic job with subpar equipment.  Her team disbanded and she was forced to go back to local racing and essentially give up her dreams of running in the Cup Series, all because she couldn’t land a ride with a top team.  She had the talent, the on-track presence, the capabilities of talking to media, the entire package, but no team would take her on.

There are many drivers that go through this and it’s a shame.  It’s more on the teams than NASCAR in my opinion. But NASCAR needs to help them along.

Hull :  So this is a tough question to answer.  It is really disappointing to see this happening.  I think that having a wide range of diverse drivers will make the sport grow more, and will appeal to the younger crowd.  This could also give a lot of hope to youngsters hoping to have a racing career.  We are seeing strides in diversity, but more can be done.  I think that it begins with the teams taking a chance on these diverse drivers.  I think that they need to continue giving these youngsters a chance to grow within the sport.  Other than that, I am not sure what they can do.

Conley :  You don’t force it.  This sport will eat you up and spit you out quicker than a rogue blender.  It’s no longer built on talent alone.  Someone had to fund that, and until NASCAR floats the bill, you can only let the cycle play out. The strongest and “wealthiest” will survive.

Four laps in with the Bank of America 500 and the pack is in it to win it!  As usual, let’s take a moment to reflect on the happenings of the previous race weekend with our race and points report from Dover!
Ashley Hull scores another amazing victory...

Ashley Hull scores another amazing victory…

Points be a shufflin!`

Points be a shufflin!

Bonus points were considered from our Dover edition of Track Talk when we made our race picks and predictions for those who would be eliminated following the Round of 16!  With that in mind, let’s take a look at who we predict will be our bottom four drivers following the Round of 12!
Don't be down, Kurt. Anything's possible!

Don’t be down, Kurt. Anything’s possible!

Hobbs :  Based on performance to date, regular season and Chase (with slightly more on how Round 1 of the Chase went), Austin Dillon, Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin, and Carl Edwards might fall short of advancing.

TPF Stats :  Purely based off numbers, these 4 drivers will not be moving on post-Talladega: Austin Dillon, Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin, and Carl Edwards.

Copple :  Austin Dillon, Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin, and Carl Edwards.

Tiongson :  Austin Dillon, Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin, and Matt Kenseth.

Fesko :  Austin Dillon, Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin, and Kyle Busch.

Cassidy :  Austin Dillon, Chase Elliott, Matt Kenseth, and Carl Edwards.

Shoppe :  Austin Dillon, Kurt Busch, Chase Elliott, and Denny Hamlin.

Hull :  Austin Dillon, Kurt Busch, Chase Elliott, and Denny Hamlin.

Conley :  Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, and Joey Logano.

We’ll keep tally of how we all fare with our elimination picks!  Now it’s about that time…let’s cash in with our race picks for today’s Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway!
Notice a pattern?

Notice a pattern?

Hobbs :  TPF Stats and I are both going with Joey Logano.

Hull :  My pick for Charlotte is Joey Logano.

Tiongson :  If it’s Charlotte Motor Speedway, it’s all about Martin Truex Jr all day, every day!

Fesko :  It’s Martin Truex Jr’s day to win!

Cassidy :  Martin Truex Jr gets the win today!

Shoppe :  My race pick today is Martin Truex Jr.

Copple :  Going with Kyle Busch!

Conley :  Winning at home and moving on will be Kevin Harvick.

That wraps it up, race fans! Thanks for joining us for another edition of Track Talk!   We’re about ready for some racing.  How about you? What do you think are the biggest storylines heading into today’s race and who is your favorite to win?  Tweet us now @ThePodiumFinish and tell us now!

Thanks as always to the TPF team. The opinions and thoughts expressed in Track Talk are solely of the authors and do not reflect on any organizations that we are affiliated with outside of TPF. This weekly feature is strictly for entertainment purposes and are not indicative of TPF, the organization, and its staff.

Rob Tiongson is a sports writer and editor originally from the Boston area and resides in the Austin, Texas, area. Tiongson has covered motorsports series like NASCAR and INDYCAR since 2008 and NHRA since 2013. Most recently, Tiongson is covering professional basketball, mainly the WNBA, and women's college basketball. While writing and editing for The Podium Finish, Tiongson currently seeks for a long-term sportswriting and sports content creating career. Tiongson enjoys editing and writing articles and features, as well as photography. Moreover, he enjoys time with his family and friends, traveling, cooking, working out and being a fun uncle or "funcle" to his nephew, niece and cat. Tiongson is an alum of Southern New Hampshire University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication and St. Bonaventure University's renowned Jandoli School of Communication with a Master of Arts in Digital Journalism.

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