As the NASCAR Cup Series circuit hits Loudon, ESM’s Eastern Speed Board talks Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson, and more.
Turn 1: How important was it that NASCAR was the first major sports league to return and how do you think they handled/are handling racing in these trying times?
Geoff Magliocchetti: It was tremendously important for NASCAR to be the first North American sports league to make its return. What was truly brilliant was the fact that they never truly stopped, remaining in the public consciousness through the iRacing Pro Invitational Series. When it was finally safe to trade-in pixels for asphalt, NASCAR succeeded even further.
The circuit was able to provide hope, giving a struggling public welcome normalcy every weekend, if only for a few hours at a time. Impossible to contain in a bubble setting, NASCAR has succeeded while traveling to its usual locales, with minimal reported positive tests of COVID-19 as they’re able to keep their seasons running. The fact they were able to hold an All-Star Race (albeit with a shift from Charlotte to Bristol) with a select number of fans should go a long way in showing just how well NASCAR was able to navigate a difficult situation. If only MLB had taken notes…
Additionally, NASCAR managed to go beyond the vicinities of the racetrack in addressing the current event on a national scale. The series and its drivers could’ve taken the easy way and out and sweep involvement in the national conversation under the rug and stick to racing. Instead, they embraced making a message by dealing with it at a point when everyone would be watching (prior to the start of the Atlanta race). When a mere thought of a threat of racist violence emerged against Bubba Wallace during the Talladega race weekend, NASCAR stood behind him and made it clear they would have his back. Wallace himself became a prominent voice in the ongoing conversation about race in America.
One could argue that perhaps not everything was handled perfectly in this process (i.e. labeling the Wallace incident at Talladega a hate crime before the FBI investigation was completed). But thanks to strong leadership and decent handling of the process, NASCAR is in a better place than it was at the start of the season.
Dylan Price: It was vital for NASCAR to be one of the first major sports to return in terms of making up for lost revenue and ratings, despite that I had no expectation they would be one of the best to do it. NASCAR has had hiccups like a positive test for one of its biggest stars in Jimmie Johnson, but even he was back racing in a week’s time.
NASCAR has navigated the pandemic impressively and set a good precedent for other sports to follow. NASCAR also ended up timing their return fairly close to the social uproar that we experienced in June. This allowed NASCAR to truly prove how far they’ve come in terms of diversity and inclusion, and thus reinvigorate their reputation in the public eye.
Nathan Solomon: I think that it was huge that NASCAR was the first major sports league to return. Ratings are up and new people are discovering the sport and realizing that it’s so much better than their reputation shows. I think they are handling racing well for the most part, but you can tell that fewer people are complying with the coronavirus rules. It’s hard to not get excited and celebrate when you win or have a good pitstop, but people need to be following mask rules to potentially slow the spread of the virus in the NASCAR community and not look bad on TV.
Turn 2: Thoughts on Jimmie Johnson’s IndyCar experiment? Can he make an impact in a new endeavor?
Geoff Magliocchetti: It’s great that Johnson finally got his long-sought opportunity to pilot an IndyCar in this topsy-turvy season. While there’s nothing wrong with going the broadcasting route in post-retirement endeavors (as his contemporaries Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon have), opting for a new form of racing in an interesting, new thought. Perhaps we could once again see the rise of racing 1,110 miles on Memorial Day if Johnson’s willing to make a Charlotte cameo after his full-time NASCAR retirement. Auto racing of all forms enjoyed a nice little kickstart in the wake of resuming in the midst of the pandemic. If Johnson’s endeavors in IndyCar can help IRL keep some of that momentum, everyone wins.
Dylan Price: I think Johnson is at a point in his career similar to where Tony Stewart was when he left NASCAR. He’s crossing off bucket list racing endeavors and that begins with Indy Car. It’ll be very intriguing, even for the casual race fan to see how Johnson fares in an Indy Car if he were to truly go down that route, even for a race or two. With that said, I don’t see Johnson having a huge amount of success in an Indy Car if that’s the route he wants to take, simply because it would take a pretty decent amount of time for him to really break in and he’s at the end of his racing prime.
Nathan Solomon: It’s really cool that Jimmie Johnson finally tested an IndyCar. 2020 is his last season as a full-time NASCAR driver, so maybe he’ll try out some different series at different tracks that NASCAR goes to. My prediction is that within the next few years once coronavirus has come and gone, he will try to run the Indy 500/Coca-Cola 600 Memorial weekend doubleheader.
Turn 3: Kyle Larson has expressed interest in returning to NASCAR. When do you think he’ll get that 2nd chance?
Geoff Magliocchetti: Let’s be clear: Kyle Larson was wrong. His far too casual use of a racial slur was troubling. It felt like he was always going to get another opportunity, anyone who felt he shouldn’t have faced any punishment was completely misguided. Losing an elite ride at Chip Ganassi was the right move.
As a white male who has never, and likely never will, face racial violence, it’s not up to me to forgive Larson. But, if social media is to be believed, Larson appears to be working to right his wrongs, working with organizations like The Sanneh Foundation (a Twin Cities-based group that “serves the holistic youth development needs of the increasingly diverse…metro area) and also attended the funeral of George Floyd.
Larson is probably going to back sooner or later, perhaps as soon as next year. At no point should anyone say he “went through” anything (i.e. Riley Cooper), but he’s apparently doing what he can rectify an ugly situation of his own doing. Perhaps the biggest question will be whether Larson truly wants to recommit to a full NASCAR slate. He’s had big success on the dirt track circuit and, while he’s expressed interest in returning, who knows if he’ll want to leave the home he’s made in the dirt.
Dylan Price: The question to me isn’t about whether or not a team will give Larson the opportunity because some lower teams and even some teams like Stewart Haas are already rumored to be eying him. The situation really dissolves down to two key factors. The first and most important being sponsorship.
Kyle Larson is still a name that will attract sponsorship because of his talent and reputation. Still, what he said was something that sponsors could deem unforgivable or at the very least could be something that needs more time to be forgotten.
The second factor is that Larson is happy racing on dirt tracks right now. He hasn’t finished worse than sixth and he’s reiterated consistently how much fun he’s having doing it. I think Larson will be back within the next year, but it will likely be a controversial return.
Nathan Solomon: I bet that Kyle Larson gets a second chance this winter. He clearly made a huge mistake and deserved punishment, but people deserve second chances at things in life. He may have to start with a low budget team and work his way up to build trust, gain sponsors, and attract a manufacturer.
Turn 4: We’re 19 races into the season and Kyle Busch STILL hasn’t won a Cup Series race. When is that win coming…if at all?
Geoff Magliocchetti: You have to think to that Busch’s long-awaited victory is coming sooner rather than later. Every race he runs is like a New England Patriots game in the new century: no matter how badly the odds are stacked against them, whether it’s a 28-3 lead or being two laps down at the midway mark, they almost always seem to figure it out. New Hampshire could be the place to do it, as he’s finished no worse than 12th over the last four races. With time dwindling toward the postseason, it would be wise of Busch to get a win before he goes to defend his championship. Expect a win at some this August.
Dylan Price: I really can’t see Kyle Busch not winning a race in this season. As much as I’d love to see him stay out of victory lane, it’s hard to count him out. He’s one of the most talented racers in this generation, yet he’s struggled to adapt to the changing circumstances surrounding the sport as they navigate the pandemic. I believe he’ll figure it out, but time is dwindling for him to stake his claim as a contender before the playoffs.
Nathan Solomon: It’s definitely alarming that Kyle Busch hasn’t been able to win a race this year. Unlike Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick, having do practice is not helping him at all. When NASCAR has their upcoming doubleheaders at Michigan or Dover, look for him to get a win in the second race of each weekend.
New Hampshire Predictions
Geoff Magliocchett: Aric Almirola
Dylan Price: Denny Hamlin
Nathan Solomon: Joey Logano
|1. Nathan Solomon||168||1|
|2. Geoff Magliocchetti||-14||1|
|3. Dylan Price||-14||0|
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags