Who will be victorious this weekend in Texas? What’s the key behind Ford’s early season success? These questions and more will be answered in this week’s edition of the NASCAR Roundtable.
1. Brad Keselowski became the first repeat winner of the season with his victory at Martinsville. Who do you think will be the next repeat winner?
Jim Utter: Right now, I think it’s even money the next repeat winner could be either Kyle Larson or Martin Truex Jr. So far this season, both drivers – along with Keselowski – appear to be the most consistent at running up front and leading laps. Granted, it’s very early, but teams that find themselves in contention for wins on a regular basis early in the season don’t tend to disappear from the picture as the season goes on. If I had to pick one, I’d go with Larson. He has Kevin Harvick-like speed right now.
Lee Spencer: Of the drivers that have already won this year, my money is on Martin Truex Jr., perhaps as early as this weekend. Truex’s average finish at Texas Motor Speedway in 2016 was 4.5. He led 141 of 334 laps in this race last year and 66 circuits in the fall. Truex has been the dominant Toyota this season and produced the only win for the manufacturer with his victory at Las Vegas. Truex, who is third in the standings, is the only driver with four stage wins this season. His nine playoff points are second only to Keselowski’s 10.
Nick DeGroot: Although I feel like Keselowski may get a third before anyone gets a second, I’d put my money on Kyle Larson. He and his teammate Jamie McMurray have been strong from the get-go and Larson has already had multiple opportunities to win this season.
Tim Southers: I think it will be Martin Truex Jr. I could see his next win coming this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway very easily. That team has crossed over into what I call ‘the weekly contender’ status and that confidence should help Truex visit Victory Lane again soon.
2. After winning eight races during the 2016 seasons, Ford already has three wins in 2017. What has made the biggest difference this year?
Jim: Ford Racing has obviously made a financial commitment to better itself, in large part with the addition of the Stewart-Haas Racing organization and its four Cup teams. While that alone is a significant addition, improvement has been evident throughout all Ford teams, even Roush Fenway Racing, which has struggled greatly in recent seasons. One thing adding top-quality teams does for a manufacturer, is put internal pressure on the manufacturer’s other organizations to raise their game. I think that’s been evident across Ford Racing.
Lee: On Sunday, winning team owner Roger Penske told motorsport.com that Ford’s success starts at the top.
“Well, I think the commitment that Ford Performance has made is a byproduct of Edsel’s (the great-grandson of Henry Ford) commitment to the program,” Penske said. “Bringing on Stewart‑Haas and the partnership that we have with the 21 (Wood Brothers), which is obviously supported with Ford, I think that it was terrific. For me, delivering for Ford was special, and to see the cars and how competitive we’ve been here since the beginning of the season makes us feel good about the next several weeks.”
Penske’s justified confidence should worry the competition.
Nick: It all comes down to Stewart-Haas Racing. With the addition of SHR, they entered 2017 with a larger roster, more teamwork, and a stronger commitment from Ford themselves. They brought SHR into the fold to make the entire blue oval fleet stronger and so far, it’s working quite well.
Tim: I think a rededication to NASCAR and the addition of Stewart-Haas Racing are the biggest reasons for Ford’s on-track improvement so far this season. Even Roush Fenway Racing has shown improved results on the track and I think that’s credit to Ford for getting more involved than in previous years. I think this could be the year they reclaim the manufacturer’s title for the first time since 2002.
3. Roush Fenway Racing continues to show improvement this season. How close to you feel Ricky Stenhouse Jr. or Trevor Bayne are to scoring a win?
Jim: While it’s clear there has been improvement at Roush Fenway Racing, I still don’t see either Stenhouse or Bayne making a trip to Victory Lane anytime soon. They are definitely running better, but they both need to run in the top-five on a consistent basis before they become viable contenders for victories. Given that, they are certainly much closer to that goal then they were a year ago.
Lee: Not close at all. Bayne has shown marked improvement this season since Roush Fenway Racing pared down to two teams. He’s shaved five positions off of last year’s average finish of 19.9 and finished on the lead lap in every race. However, Bayne has yet to lead a lap in 2017. His only top-10 finish to date has been at Daytona, where Bayne would be expected to run well considering he won the 2011 Daytona 500. Certainly, Bayne could win at Daytona or Talladega but it’s unlikely he could contend at a non-restrictor plate track.
Stenhouse still can’t find comfort with his race cars coming off of the truck at the track. He’s wrecked several primary cars this season in practice putting the No. 17 team behind before the race even begins. Stenhouse’s greatest asset might be his crew chief Brian Pattie, who isn’t afraid to think outside the box. Pattie’s decision not to pit in the closing laps at Phoenix, led Stenhouse to his first top-five finish of the year. But this team will need to step it up to rise about 20th in the standings.
Nick: They’ve improved, but they are nowhere near where they need to be. If they were to win, I could only see it coming with a wild strategy call, a plate track or potentially Bristol with how well Stenhouse has performed there in the past. With that being said, I don’t expect it to happen this year.
Tim: While I think the team has improved greatly since last season, but other than a restrictor plate win at Talladega and Daytona, I don’t just don’t see it this season. I hope I’m wrong as it would be tough to see someone like Jack Roush near the end of his NASCAR career still in a slump after all he’s done for the sport.
4. There have been five different winners in as many NASCAR Xfinity races this season. Do you think that trend will continue this weekend?
Jim: The streak will continue and I believe rookie William Byron will win his first Xfinity Series race at Texas. Byron excelled on the intermediate tracks in Trucks and he’s getting more and more comfortable in his JR Motorsports ride as each week of the season goes by.
Lee: Yes. My money is on Erik Jones this weekend. He won from the pole in his first Xfinity start at Texas Motor Speedway in 2015. In his following three starts, Jones never finished worse than fourth. His average qualifying position in second and he’s completed every lap raced.
Nick: Yes, I think it will. I believe TMS is a place rookie William Byron will really shine. He won there last year in the Truck Series and is heading there with back-to-back top five finishes right now.
Tim: I’m going to say the streak continues and I’m going out on a limb and saying that Daniel Hemric will surprise everyone and get his first NASCAR Xfinity Series win. With the new layout and configuration of the track, everyone will be equal on setup and I think it would be a great story for this young driver to snag the win.