ESM’s NASCAR experts commemorate the second half of the season, starting on Thursday at Kansas, by kicking off a new debate series.
As the NASCAR circuit carries on, ESM presents a new debate series, one where our resident NASCAR experts (Geoff Magliocchetti, Dylan Price, and Nathan Solomon) tackle four burning questions concerning the racing world. They’ll also give their predictions for the upcoming races at each of NASCAR’s three national levels.
Their first edition starts below…
Turn 1: Halfway through the season, who’s your ONE man to beat?
Geoff Magliocchetti: The no-practice era has been one of solidifying legacies and the tossing of hats into the championship ring. Kevin Harvick has made a first-ballot Hall of Fame case. Chase Elliott has cooled off after a hot start, but he has shown he’s not going anywhere in this process. Aric Almirola has spent the whole summer in the top ten or better. But right now, the man to beat is Ryan Blaney. Few would quarrel that Blaney has earned his elite No. 12 Team Penske Ford ride. It’s almost obscene that Blaney (leader of 497 laps this year, third-best in the Cup Series) only has six wins to his Cup Series name and has only earned one of Penske’s five wins this season. But the racing gods of luck have been particularly cruel to Blaney, and this has shown he’s finally ready to fully fight back. I chose Elliott at the start of the year, but it’s going to be really hard to ignore Blaney moving forward.
Dylan Price: This is a pretty tough question. I’d say the obvious answers have to be between Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin. Ryan Blaney has also run particularly well in recent weeks. With that said, Harvick is “the closer” and he’s proven to be lethal towards the end of the season. He also has more Top 5s and Top 10s then Hamlin right now, so I’ll go with him.
Nathan Solomon: Right now, the man to beat right now is Denny Hamlin. He has four wins already and would have had five if it wasn’t for a late blown tire in Indianapolis. It seems that Hamlin is up front competing for a win every week, along with Kevin Harvick. But, Hamlin has had more near wins than Harvick, in my opinion, and won the Daytona 500 all the way back in February.
Turn 2: We’ve got 10 drivers locked into the Cup Series playoffs and several more on the bubble. Which driver outside of the current 16 seeds makes it and who does he replace?
Geoff Magliocchetti: We’ve already seen one rookie visit victory lane (Cole Custer in the Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway) but there’s no denying that Reddick has been the most consistent rookie out there, leading a talented class of yellow-stripers in top tens, laps led, and stage wins. Many see him as being the spark that brings Richard Childress Racing back into racing’s mainstream, though helped his teammate Austin Dillon do just that at Texas last weekend. Reddick has nonetheless maintained enough consistency to find himself only 14 points out of the current playoff picture at this current time, but don’t expect him to rely solely on points to make his postseason mark. As for who he replaces, it might start to get late early for Clint Bowyer. The veteran driver of the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Ford is 36 points up on the cutoff but has struggled since a runner-up posting at Bristol. Combine that with the looming threat of an expiring contract and the rise of Chase Briscoe in the Xfinity Series, Bowyer has a lot on his plate for the rest of the season.
Dylan Price: Tyler Reddick is my guy for this one. Despite how impressive Cole Custer’s win was, Reddick has flashed a lot more consistency. With a pair of top-fives (including a runner up finish this past weekend) and six top-tens, he’s been near the front in quite a few races. I truly believe he has a bright future. In an “out with the old, in with the new” sense, I think Reddick takes Jimmie Johnson’s spot and maybe even his ride next season.
Nathan Solomon: I’ll go with Erik Jones on this one. Despite just six top-tens, he’s seemingly running better every week and has had a little bad luck in his way as well. With the equipment he has, I bet you will see more top tens in the near future and more stage points. He’s also a dark-horse guy at almost any track. The guy most likely for him to bump out would be William Byron, who’s gone five races without a top 10 and has seemed to have trouble keeping his car in one piece lately.
Turn 3: Let’s talk surprises…most pleasant and most disappointing?
Geoff Magliocchetti: NASCAR could well be in the midst of its most intriguing Rookie of the Year since the Jimmie Johnson-Ryan Newman clash in 2002. Custer and Reddick are leading the way, while Christopher Bell and John Hunter Nemechek are posting respectable results in subpar equipment. But perhaps most impressive has been the rise of Almirola. Freed from the racing purgatory of Richard Petty Motorsports, Almirola rewarded Stewart-Haas’ faith in him with a win and a fifth-place finish in the final 2017 standings, but, for the most part, has simply been a playoff also-ran during his in their No. 10. Partially aided by some good luck in the qualifying draws, Almirola been able to capitalize and climb up the standings. He’s currently the top-ranked winless driver and is one of only six drivers with double-figure top-ten finishes. Expect Almirola to be a popular pick on playoff brackets when we get to the fall. As for most disappointing, my pick goes to Chris Buescher. The 2015 Xfinity Series champion flashed major potential in lesser equipment, but has struggled to maintain consistency in a better ride with Roush Fenway Racing.
Dylan Price: Matt DiBenedetto immediately strikes me as the most pleasant surprise. He has consistently been competitive, which is something new for him. With a better car at Wood Brothers Racing, he’s had much better success, and quietly is sitting 12th in the points. Look for him to snatch a win or two in the latter half of the season. As for disappointments, you could immediately pinpoint Kyle Busch. With that said, I think at some point he’ll get it together, so I’ll go with William Byron since he has such high-level machinery and remains on the outside looking in of the points battle.
Nathan Solomon: The most impressive driver this season has been Tyler Reddick. He’s running 17th in points and has three straight top-tens with chances to win at Texas and Homestead. All of that, and he’s only a rookie. One of the biggest disappointments this year has been Kyle Busch. Although well in the playoff picture, he’s winless and has struggled most races. The no practice concept has really hurt him.
Turn 4: NASCAR has shut down qualifying/practice for the rest of the season. Thoughts on the change?
Geoff Magliocchetti: Let ’em run…fresh! The switch to no practice has been perfect for NASCAR parity. Counting the winners prior to the coronavirus-induced pause, the Cup Series has seen 10 different winners at the midway mark. Last season as a whole, 13 different drivers won races. The facts that the concept is keeping drivers, crews, teams safe and that a majority of lap-runners have come to appreciate the change only help the idea’s case and perhaps strengthen the idea that it should be maintained when things return to “normal”. This system’s lone flaw will be the lack of preparation for the Daytona road course race on August 16. Will the drivers be ready, or will lap one look like the third act of The Blues Brothers?
Dylan Price: I think it’s a very good maneuver to minimize the risk of COVID-19 spreading. However, in reference to my last answer, a guy like Kyle Busch has really struggled without practice and qualifying. For some lower-level drivers, they’ve had success with that way of racing as they are on a more equal playing field. I do think that as the season wears on and drivers return to tracks they’ve got more experience on then some drivers like Kyle Busch will be more prepared for success.
|Race||Cup||Xfinity||Trucks 1||Trucks 2|
|Geoff Magliocchetti||Aric Almirola||Brandon Jones||Zane Smith||Sheldon Creed|
|Dylan Price||Kevin Harvick||Noah Gragson||Brett Moffitt||Christian Eckes|
|Nathan Solomon||Brad Keselowski||Chase Briscoe||Sheldon Creed||Matt Crafton|