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NASCAR Cup Series

Track Talk: Combat Wounded Coalition 400

No matter the race name, NASCAR Sprint Cup racing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a modern tradition that marries the greatest speedway in all of racing with the most premier level of stock car racing.  Whether it’s the Brickyard 400 or the Combat Wounded Coalition 400, it’s still a tough 160 laps or 400 miles around this rectangular shaped 2.5-mile speedway.

The history surrounding this track can be described as truly awesome as open wheel legends like AJ Foyt, Mario Andretti, Jim Clark, Troy Rutman, Bobby Unser, and Bobby Rahal (to name a few) experienced one of their racing opus magnum in their hey days.  Just imagine that in NASCAR’s version of their race at IMS that one of those legends elected to return to the car, albeit in an emergency fill in situation, and it happens to be with a team that could very well wind up in the hallowed grounds of Victory Lane when all is said and done.

Last weekend, it was announced that Jeff Gordon would drive the No. 88 Chevrolet if Dale Earnhardt Jr was not ready or cleared medically to race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway due to concussion-like symptoms.  While Earnhardt tweeted good news about his progress, the news of Gordon’s return was made official on Wednesday, July 20.

A driver competing in a fill-in situation is nothing new in motorsports but the magnitude of the drivers involved, given the venue and team as well, has to make this one of the top stories of the race weekend.  Let’s not forget that it’s likely the last 400 at IMS for Indiana’s Tony Stewart, a racer who we featured earlier in the month.  While he’s definitely going to be focused in his No. 14 ride, he’s going to have to put aside any emotions he feels with family and friends watching him in what could be his final Indianapolis Motor Speedway race, at least in a stock car.

Think we’ve covered all of the stories?  Think again, race fans!  That’s why we’re going to get to them right now starting with Trending Topics and it’s all possible with our TPF team of  Ashley Hobbs, Ashley HullCody ShoppeKathleen CassidyKatie CoppleSean Fesko, and Stephen Conley!  Let’s get on the track right now to cross the line of bricks while we all wish for Dale Earnhardt Jr’s recovery to be a quick, full one!

Trending Topics

Question 1
Get well, Dale!

Get well, Dale!

Dale Earnhardt Jr made a truly big decision by electing to not race last weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway due to concussion-like symptoms.  How big of an impact was this not only on the 88 team but with the sport itself?

Hobbs :  Head injuries should not be taken lightly. The NFL and soccer have put in some major rules to ensure players take the proper care when it they get a head injury and I think it shows strength for Dale Earnhardt Jr. to step aside and get looked at. Concussion symptoms may not always show up right away so when he realized something seemed off, he did the right thing. All drivers get looked at after a wreck and clearly they follow up with doctors afterwards which is a great thing to do. This does not hurt the sport in any way but should make other sports perk up, who do not have good protocols for these situations, and do something.

As for the driver himself, this clearly hurts his Chase chances as he was right on the edge as it was with points and missing a race puts him more at risk to make it on points. If he misses Indy, winning will become even more important than before.

Hull :  I think that this was one of the most, if not the most significant news of the year. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is the biggest name in this sport. For him to be suffering with this makes a huge impact on the sport for a number of reasons. For one thing, it may make the viewership and attendance lower because Junior makes up most of NASCAR’s fanbase.

Another reason that this has a huge impact is that unless Jeff Gordon comes through at the Brickyard 400 and gives him a win, it could possibly mean that if he does return, he will probably be missing the Chase. It hasn’t been the best season for the 88 team. With that said, Alex Bowman is a talented driver and could possibly win for him, but at this point, they will have to win to make the Chase.

Finally, this has a huge impact because this may encourage other drivers to monitor themselves more and ensure that they don’t have concussion-like symptoms. This may pave the way for all of the drivers to be checked out on a yearly basis. For people to say that this isn’t a sport, it is truly a dangerous one. Sadly, because of all of these health issues, I don’t see Dale Jr driving in NASCAR for much longer than another two years. I wish him the best and hope he recovers soon.

Fesko :  This is a huge thing for the sport. While it isn’t ideal at all that Earnhardt has to sit out, it shows that he’s taking his health seriously and that could ripple down the ranks of racing. If the most-visible driver in the sport is speaking out about concussions, it could create an important dialogue not only for how to reduce the probability that injuries like these happen, but for young drivers to know that it’s okay to take care of themselves.

Copple :  This discussion isn’t something new for Dale Earnhardt Jr. or the No.88 team or NASCAR. This isn’t even the first time he has had to miss races because of a concussion. This is something that desperately needs to be addressed in the series, among drivers, teams, and organizations. This is a real threat to our drivers and a health concern that shouldn’t be taken lightly. I hope Junior has a quick recovery and takes the necessary precautions to keep another concussion from happening again.

Shoppe :  This decision has a big impact on sports as a whole. When a big widely known star like Dale Earnhardt Jr stand up and admits he’s not feeling 100% and needs to step out of the seat, it makes a big statement. This is no longer an era where athletes should recklessly and foolishly force themselves to push through an injury to compete. Regardless if it’s to not appear “weak” in someone’s eyes or just simply to not lose ground in the Chase standings, there is no excuse to force yourself to get behind the wheel of a race car if you aren’t up to it. This smart and commendable decision to recuperate will hopefully be looked at by many in all forms of sports and could lead to more athletes make smart choices about when to sit out and remember that your health is the most important thing.

Cassidy :  Sadly, I feel like people are more concerned with who is driving the 88 car rather than the brave choice Dale made to step aside for a few weeks to be healthy. I believe Bowman did a great job last week until his incident but overall, the 88 team transitioned and performed well.

Conley :  Concussions are such a big story in the stick and ball sports and this brings NASCAR into a national story line. It was once considered taboo to mention concussions or head problems. Drivers would race until their car was taken from them. This move by Dale is big, not only for the sport of NASCAR, but sports in general. It shows that people can see the bigger picture, recognize problems and it may have just saved his career and his life.

Question 2
Kevin Harvick was hardly like his pit board sign following Loudon.

Kevin Harvick was hardly like his pit board sign following Loudon.

Kevin Harvick was clearly not pleased with his No. 4 pit crew following Sunday’s race at Loudon feeling they held him back from getting the win.  Considering that the No. 4 team had pit crew issues before in 2014 and this situation has occurred with a mostly different unit as of press time, is this a case where Harvick was speaking truth or perhaps could’ve gone about this situation differently?

Hobbs :  I don’t know if they held him back for a win per say because he did not lead any laps or seemed to be a huge threat, but I see where the frustration can arise. If this has been an issue this year and is still an issue now, clearly, some changes need to happen either on the pit crew or the coaching side of things; 2014 was a long time ago and I think how they perform now is more relevant. If the issue was something that could not have been prevented, such a mechanical issue or broken part, that is something that can only be fixed by replacing the item. However, if there is a constant pit crew member who is causing issues, that is something that needs to be taken care of immediately and fixed before the Chase.

Hull :  As much as it makes me cringe to see him berate his pit crew; with what I have witnessed these last two races, he may be speaking the truth. Harvick has had great cars, but his pit crew has screwed him out of a winning finish. They either need to replace his crew, or train them better. Because I think that they are keeping him from having the year he should be having. This proves that even though you have a fast car, it comes down to pit strategy and pit times too. So hopefully, Harvick and Co. can sort this out come Chase time.

Fesko :  Harvick is a fiery guy and he demands the best. That isn’t a bad thing at all. The fact is he’s losing spots on pit road. If he were failing to gain but otherwise having solid stops, then sure, he might need to chill out. But a slow pit crew is a serious crutch in this sport, so perhaps it’s time to figure out how to improve the stops.

Copple :  Can I answer “both” to this question? Was he speaking in the heat of the moment? Yes. Was he speaking the truth? Possibly. A pit crew has to work like a well-oiled machine. They have to work and move as one to accomplish a common goal; the quickest pit stop possible. If this is something that continues to be an issue, then the No. 4 team needs to take a look at themselves and make adjustments accordingly especially come Chase time.

Shoppe :  It’s obviously a frustrating situation when you work as hard as you can all race long to gain track position on the track only to lose those hard earned spots due to pit stop issues. I can understand Kevin Harvick’s frustration but this is a team sport. You win and lose as a team. I just wonder how much the pit crew members bad mouth the driver when he makes a mistake.

Cassidy :  100%, Harvick could have approached the situation differently.  That being said, I believe the No. 4 pit crew needs to be looked at again this year. It is clear some crew members are not performing as good as they need too. This could be an easy fix as making some switches at SHR or replacing some members of the team.

Conley :  There really isn’t a different way of handling that in the race car. One of the stops was due to a mechanical error and the other was because of the tire that got stuck in the wheel well. This wasn’t a situation of the crew being “off” as noted by the final stop where they busted off one of their best of the day. The team fires up the driver, the driver fires up the team. A pit crew coach told me once, “If we don’t hear from the driver, good or bad, we don’t really know how we are doing.”  Harvick was upset at a track where it was hard to pass as well he should be.

Question 3
A wise decision to not hoist that huge lobster.

A wise decision to not hoist that huge lobster.

The incredible dominance of Joe Gibbs Racing continued with Matt Kenseth taking his second win of 2016.  It seems that Kenseth hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down in the latter portion of his brilliant Cup career.  Is he a sleeper in terms of favorites to contend for the title come Chase time?

Hobbs :  Kenseth is always a player in the Chase, but as we know, what you do now (before the Chase) can go away in a heartbeat with a single bad race. As long as the team stays in top shape and hits no bumps leading up to the Chase, I see Kenseth as a true contender and not a sleeper; heck, I see him that way already!

Hull :  Well the fact that he had been caught with an infraction doesn’t bode well with his team. So far, he hasn’t really had what we could say as an “outstanding” season. But that doesn’t mean that he will do bad come Chase time necessarily. He could very well be a sleeper for the Chase, and he could do well since most of the tracks on the schedule are ones that he is great at. So we will see what happens, per usual.

Fesko :  Matt Kenseth is absolutely a contender. He has the maturity, the fire, the talent, and the team to do great things. Look for a few more wins this summer, and like last year, go into the Chase as a favorite to hoist the big trophy when the season ends.

Copple :  Is anyone talking about Kenseth and his team failing post-race inspection? He has a strong car and a strong team and that’s not even a question. He is definitely championship quality and can easily be in the top-four come Homestead-Miami.

Shoppe :  Provided their No. 20 Toyota’s entry pass inspection each week, yes, I do see them being a strong contender for the title. I feel like the combination of the dominance of Joe Gibbs Racing and the experience that Matt Kenseth and Jason Ratcliff have fighting for a title in 2013, they will be poised for a championship run this year.

Cassidy :  I feel like Matt will be there in the Chase – however, he will not be a huge contender.  The No. 20 team may have some wins under their belt but they are not consistent enough. Unless Kenseth wins in each round, I do not see him being a major Chase contender.

Conley :  Sleeper, no. One of the favorites…without question. He’s got arguably the best team in the sport behind him and the veteran’s experience to get the job done. Kenseth could easily have five wins on the season if not for a little “luck” swaying in others’ favors.

Question 4
E-Sad had to be a bit sad about the news with his longtime sponsor.

E-Sad had to be a bit sad about the news with his longtime sponsor.

Elliott Sadler’s longtime sponsor OneFinancial will leave the sport at year’s end, another longtime company in NASCAR departing a large organization and prominent racer.  Would this be a situation where today’s economy just makes nearly full season sponsorship packages more difficult to establish or more of companies re-evaluating their marketing strategies?

Hobbs :  I do not think the economy is an issue any more for NASCAR; maybe five years ago, but not today. Some companies may just not see the benefit of the marketing in NASCAR any more and see a negative return on their investment. In order to be beneficial to the company, they want to see some sort of revenue increase associated with shoveling out hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars. Elliott Sadler is a marketable man and driver and I am sure he will have no problem filling the void that OneFinancial leaves.  

Hull :  Sadly, NASCAR is becoming a sport that has been increasingly more dependent on money and sponsorship. Sadly, this is a big reason that a lot of fans haven’t been able to attend that many races this year. Things are getting more expensive, and it has really put the fans in a tough spot. It seems like it is having the same effects on the teams as well. For example, Matt Kenseth’s sponsor Dollar General has also left the sport. It could very well be the economy that is effecting this. Even though the unemployment rate has been the lowest it has been in 10 years, it is still hard for people out there. I am sad to see how much it is effecting this awesome sport too. I am hoping things get better soon.

Fesko :  Companies always have to evaluate where they are spending their dollars. In Sadler’s case, it didn’t make sense to sponsor the car anymore. While the Virginian does have a win this season, he’s largely underperformed during his XFINITY tenure while racing in the best cars the series has to offer. You can’t solely put the blame on Sadler though. If the economy wasn’t playing a part in this decision, OneMain would have found another driver to sponsor. The fact that they left entirely says that with what money they do have to play with, NASCAR is too expensive.

Copple :  NASCAR is expensive. It’s expensive to sponsor a car. It’s expensive to attend a race. It’s even expensive to get anything to eat or drink at a race. I think we are to the point where we will see big and long-time sponsors pulling out of the series when their contracts come to an end.

Shoppe :  It’s always a sad thing to see a sponsor leave the sport especially one that has been a part of NASCAR for so long dating back to when it was Citifinancial on the Robert Yates Racing No. 90 Ford in what was then the old Busch Series. It is becoming less and less likely to see a sponsor come on board with a team for the whole season nowadays. A team is lucky to get a deal put together for a double digit about of races.

Cassidy :  Sadly, from a marketing standpoint, I believe the companies need a bigger incentive to be a full-time sponsor.  Even someone like Miller Lite, who gets many product endorsements and appearances made by Brad, are not full-time sponsors. I feel like there is a reason for this which NASCAR has not looked into.

Conley :  That’s been the case for at least five years. It’s too expensive to have one company sponsor the car like it was in days gone by. Plus breaking sponsorship up with multiple companies enables the longevity of a sponsor. This is a company that has put its time and money in and in recent years has not gotten the results to back further investment. It’s not about the economy but rather, it’s about time and performance in this situation.

Question 5
I'm back!

I’m back!

It was announced last weekend that if Dale Earnhardt Jr is unable to race at Indianapolis, recently retired Jeff Gordon would return to Sprint Cup action to drive the No. 88 Chevy.  Firstly, can Gordon contend for the win at Indy given the time away from the Cup car and what are some things that he can bring to the table to help his Hendrick comrades?

Hobbs :  Gordon is a champion, a legend, a pioneer, etc. of NASCAR. He has only been out of the car for 19 races, which may seem like a lot, but for Gordon, I do not think that will be a problem. Gordon would be in equipment he knows, loves, and trusts and with a team that is consistent. Gordon is a five-time winner at the Brickyard, so why would he not be able to content? I do not know if there is anything Gordon can bring to the table that he has done already done in the past, but I think having him on track right next to Chase Elliott will be something amazing. Yes, they have raced a few times in the past, but this time would be different as Gordon is behind the 88 and Chase in the 24.

Hull :  It has been announced that he will indeed come out of retirement and race at Indy this weekend. This has a lot of people excited, including our editors. I think that he does have a shot at winning this weekend, because Indy is HIS track. And, I just have a vague feeling that he can get it done. And since he is one of the best drivers that has graced this sport, he can give a lot of input for this team. It would strengthen the morale for sure since Hendrick has been struggling more than usual this year. We shall see on Sunday how this goes! I can see him doing it though! It will be interesting for sure!

Fesko :  Gordon can contend for the win. He’s always been fast the Brickyard and he’s only been out of the car for half a season. While I don’t see him actually kissing the bricks, he’ll lead some laps and give ticket sales and television numbers a solid boost as it will be a solid top-10 finish for the legend.

Copple :  I’m saying it now – Jeff Gordon is my race pick for this weekend at Indianapolis! He hasn’t been in the car yet this season but he hasn’t lost his mojo behind the wheel. Indianapolis and the Brickyard 400 is one of his best races. Add in that he will be running with Hendrick Motorsports and he can easily be a contender for the race win.     

Shoppe :  What Jeff Gordon brings to the table this weekend at Indy is a huge story line. It will draw a huge amount of interest and hopefully viewers to the race on Sunday to see one of the sport’s most recognized names come out of retirement to drive for the sport’s most popular driver! I expect Jeff Gordon to run solidly in the top-10, top-15 much like Alex Bowman did at New Hampshire. The Sprint Cup racing scene changes and evolves week to week in from what those in the garage say, so I’d expect Jeff to have to re-acclimate himself to the car and the changes made since he last was behind the wheel.

Cassidy :  First, I know many are happy with Gordon’s return. I believe Indy has treated him very well over the years and I see this weekend to be no different. This weekend will be remarkable for many fans.

However, I believe that Hendrick or more so Chevy needs to work on a driver program. There are many young guys that should be given some opportunities just like Bowman was given last week. Many are now talking about where Hendrick will be in a few years and are nervous. People saying Bowman or Allgaier aren’t good enough. How do you know if they aren’t placed in the right equipment? Touchy subject I know.

Conley :  I’m not sure there is anything more he can bring to the team. He’s always been an integral part of Hendrick Motorsports as a stake holder in the company and as a mentor to Chase Elliott. What he brings is that ability to win and that ability to jump in the car and give good feedback. Greg Ives knows Jeff as a part of Hendrick and having worked closely with him through his time at HMS. Can he win this weekend at Indy? It’s only been 19 races and it’s not like he’s been living on a beach sucking down margaritas and getting fat. He’s been at the race track. Jeff Gordon could easily win both races he is entered in.

Solid laps right there as we sort of did an Indianapolis 500 qualifying attempt with a warm up lap and four rounds around this historic track!  Now that we’re solidly in the field, let’s review how we all fared at New Hampshire Motor Speedway with our race and points reports!
Matt Kenseth proved victorious once again at Loudon, making Kathleen happy here...

Matt Kenseth proved victorious once again at Loudon, making Kathleen happy here…

...and somewhat happy here despite Kenseth's 15 point penalty.

…and somewhat happy here despite Kenseth’s 15 point penalty.

After a weekend in which one of our panelists got to see their driver hoist a huge lobster, which one of us will see their picks kiss the yard of bricks?  Let’s find out with our race picks for today’s Combat Wounded Coalition 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway!
It's a Chevrolet quartet with a racer returning from retirement!

It’s a Chevrolet quartet with a racer returning from retirement!

Tiongson :  I never thought we’d get to pick him again after last season’s finale at Homestead-Miami.  While this driver will need a bit of time to readjust to his surroundings, look for Driver 24….I mean, Driver 88 aka Jeff Gordon to make it happen at Indy!

Hobbs :  TPF Stats trends in a direction where if his pit crew does not let him down and his fast car can get back to victory lane, it’ll be Kevin Harvick who’ll be primed for his second Brickyard 400 victory!  However, with Gordon back, I’m going with The Racer Formerly Known As Driver 24.

Hull :  My pick is Dale Jr, er, well Jeff Gordon. I don’t know how y’all will do this, but I can see him winning this weekend!

Fesko :  Jeff Gordon, duh!

Copple :  Jeff Gordon!

Shoppe :  I’m going with Kurt Busch.

Cassidy :  Chase Elliott for the win.

Conley :  This week’s pick won’t be nearly as scattered but I’m going off the reserve.  We get a first-time winner at Indy as Kyle Larson breaks through and spoils the champ’s return.

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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