Roundtable: Early season reflections during NASCAR's first off-weekend

Reviewing the race at Texas Motor Speedway and topics prior heading into the first off weekend of the season for the NASCAR series.

Last year, it appeared Joe Gibbs Racing had a hand up over the competition, but now it appears they can’t score the wins they were accustomed to in 2016. What do you think are the issues keeping them from Victory Lane?

Jim: The Gibbs situation is odd in that on paper, it would seem they have the ingredients to be successful, but they have yet to earn a win. Kyle Busch, for instance, has led the second-most laps so far this season (413) – so JGR obviously has speed – yet he has just three top-10s in the season’s first seven races. On the other hand, Denny Hamlin has led just 28 laps and neither Matt Kenseth nor rookie Daniel Suarez has led a single lap. Kenseth and Hamlin in particular seemed to struggle at Texas, which is not a good sign as intermediate tracks make up the bulk of the series schedule. The across-the-board consistency that has been a hallmark of JGR in recent seasons seems to be missing.

Lee: JGR experienced three changes over last year: The loss of Carl Edwards, the introduction of a new car and the loss of Dave Rogers. Edwards’ feedback is being replaced by rookie Daniel Suarez. While there was excitement over the new Camry in the off-season, the average finish of Gibbs’ drivers this season is 18.9. Kyle Busch, who leads the camp with an average finish of 14.9, is seventh in the standings. Suarez and Denny Hamlin haven’t scored a top-five finishes in the first seven races. As for Rogers, I have never been a fan of putting a rookie Cup crew chief with a rookie driver even when it’s someone with Scott Graves’ resume.

Nick: I think this issue is one JGR has to sort out, not Toyota. Martin Truex Jr. has already won a race and has been in contention for others. But I think there’s something missing in Gibbs program right now. Maybe their struggling with the new car. Maybe their were thrown off their game by the sudden loss of both Carl Edwards and Dave Rogers. No matter what the answer is, it’s strange to see Gibbs off their game.

Tim: This to me has been the biggest surprise of the season. The cars at Joe Gibbs Racing have been fast for years. Kyle Busch has been fast and led a lot of laps and been in contention for a win or two, but the performances by Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth have really been off by their standards. I expected rookie Daniel Suarez to take some time to adjust to the Cup cars, but for Hamlin and Kenseth to be off as much as they appeared to be at Texas was something I didn’t expect.

NASCAR seems to still be struggling with attendance and television ratings. What do you think seems to be the problem early in 2017?

Jim: Obviously there have been a lot of changes to the sport recently, some of which I think will take time for fans to get accustomed to. In my opinion, the on-track product has been pretty good for the most part and I think the stages have introduced a lot of different strategies into races. Race start times also changed a lot this season – with many races starting later than last season. While TV had reasons for making the change, I’m not so sure the fan base has found the change beneficial.

Lee: While Jeff Gordon has elevated the quality of FOX Sports’ broadcasts on Sunday, I’m not convinced that the product is being delivered in the best light. For those of us at the track every weekend, the action has been solid. Certainly, the stages have added a whole new element to the complexion of racing — and all for the good. NASCAR needs to find ways to promote the product and encourage new audiences. The best way to change the latter is to take racing to new markets. It’s the fastest way to grow the sport. The same old schedule isn’t going to get it.

Nick: The racing has been solid, but as you said, the ratings don’t reflect that. NASCAR needs to change things up and no, I don’t mean with more rule changes and aero packages. That won’t get the casual fans excited. What NASCAR needs is a more diverse schedule. Less tracks with double dates, more road courses, more short tracks. As Lee said, keeping the schedule the same for several years does nothing to help the sport.

Tim: I think the racing has been fair to decent at some tracks and quite good at others. I think the sport is still struggling with the loss of the long-time southern fan that I feel the sport left behind in the early 2000’s. You add that aspect to the loss of Dale Sr. (I know it’s been over 16 years ago) and I think the sport is still dealing with the loss of a generation of fans that we’re developed because dads and granddads didn’t share their passion of the sport with their kids, etc. I know that’s not everything as NASCAR – and other sports – are still grappling with how to attract millennials in larger numbers.

Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney all sit in the top six in points with Logano being the oldest at 26 years of age. Of these four drivers, who do you think will have the most success this season?

Jim: It’s hard to say this early in the season, but I would go with Kyle Larson. He has consistently run up front and put himself in position to win more than any other driver so far this season. However, I would not count out Logano. Even with all of the issues his team has battled through this season, he has still managed four top-five and six top-10 finishes. I think once his team is able to close the deal on a victory, others won’t be far behind this season.

Lee: Larson shows no signs of slowing down. But I don’t see Logano going away any time soon. The No. 22 Team Penske crew would have made it to all four Playoff championship rounds had Matt Kenseth not dumped Logano at Martinsville in 2015. My money is on youth and experience.

Nick: It’s fascinating to me to see this sudden rise of the young guns, taking the limelight on a weekly basis. Of those names listed, I wouldn’t be surprised if one of them ended up being crowned champion at season’s end. As for who will perform the best in 2017, I’m leaning towards Kyle Larson. He has been quick literally everywhere and has a spectacular average finish of 5.4, courtesy of a win and four second-place results. I also believe all four of these drivers will have wins before the year is done.

Tim: While Larson is red hot right now over the first six or seven races of the season and I think he’ll be a contender all year, I still think Ryan Blaney will flex his muscles before the end of the season. I think Blaney will win this season and stay in the race, but my money is on the veteran of the group, Joey Logano. His team has playoff experience and that could be the difference in the fall. I also think Chase Elliott will stay in the top-10 as well and also get a win, but I just think the Fords have found something this season that will help Logano and Blaney in the long run.

JR Motorsports holds the top two spots in the Xfinity Seriesstandings heading into the break (Elliott Sadler and William Byron) and a third (Justin Allgaier) fifth. What has been their secret to success early in the going?

Jim: Experience and speed have put JR Motorsports once again in position to contend for an Xfinity Series championship. While he hasn’t led many laps yet, Byron has been remarkably consistent for a rookie and I expect he and teammate, Sadler, will join Allgaier soon with a visit to Victory Lane. Sadler and Allgaier are two very talented veterans who know how to take advantage of opportunities on the track when they have the speed and circumstances present themselves. JRM may not be on the same level as Joe Gibbs Racing with its Xfinity programs yet, but it is definitely headed in that direction.

Lee: Although JRM has expanded to four full-time teams in 2017, the club shows no signs of slowing down. With two veteran Xfinity drivers leading the charge — in Sadler and an Allgaier — it sets a solid example for the organization. Allgaier, along with Roush Fenway Racing driver Ryan Reed, is the only full-time NXS driver to win this season. That being said, six races into the 2016 NXS season only Cup drivers had won. Considering Sadler and Allgaier were final four contenders in 2016, I’d say they’re picking up where the left off.

Nick: JR Motorsports just appears to be getting stronger every season and with every passing year, they gain more knowledge and experience. Just as GMS Racing as risen to go toe-to-toe with the top teams of the Truck Series, JR Motorsports has in the Xfinity Series. They also have a great combination of rookie talent and veteran talent in their roster. In fact, I think they are the strongest team in the NXS right now. 

Tim: I can remember when JR Motorsports was in its infancy and struggling just to make races with young drivers. This is nice to see as I know Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his sister and family have put a lot of time and hard work into making this team successful. Having a veteran driver like Elliott  Sadler doesn’t hurt things either, as he can provide leadership and experience to the other drivers.