The NASCAR season is now four weeks old, and we are starting to see some patterns develop, both on the track and in the booth. After three straight surprise Cup Series winners, many thought Kyle Larson would be the one to end that streak, and he did just that.
AJ Allmendinger showed us once again that he is not just a road course ringer, as he notched up another win for Kaulig Racing, this time on an oval, and over in the Camping World Truck Series, John Hunter Nemechek beat his boss, Kyle Busch.
So here's a look at the weekend in the world's gambling capital, Las Vegas.
Does 23XI Racing have a problem they cannot fix this year?
Bubba Wallace and his new team, 23XI Racing, are not off to the kind of start in the 2021 NASCAR season. Through four races, his best finish was P17, and that was after a crash in the Daytona 500.
It would have been a stretch to think he should have won a race by now, considering he has more resources now than what he had in the three years with Richard Petty Racing. Michael Jordan’s deep pockets and a boatload of top-flight sponsors have given Wallace the best of everything, and yet, the results have been dismal.
Some might suggest he should get a pass because, after all, it is a new team. That’s fair, but if things don’t pick up, the questions will start whether Wallace was the right choice for a startup. Jordan and Denny Hamlin handpicked the Alabama native despite his rather unimpressive record in the NASCAR Cup Series.
In Sunday’s Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, it was a mechanical issue (power steering) that put him behind the 8-ball. At that point, his crew chief Mike Wheeler said the plan for the rest of the day was just to make laps.
There was a new look to Bubba’s car, courtesy of Columbia Sportswear, but that was the only highlight of his weekend. So, what happens next?
Generally speaking, single-car teams, no matter how well-financed, have trouble keeping up with the big teams. An alliance with one of them could help, but you have to go back to Barney Visser and Front Row Motorsports to find a successful one. In five seasons with Martin Truex Jr. behind the wheel, starting in 2014, FRM found the winner’s circle 17 times. Those are numbers that even some multi-car teams would love to have.
Bubba Wallace has a multi-year deal with 23XI Racing, so there will not be any change on that front. That means, if things don’t change, and soon, could Jordan and Hamlin make Mike Wheeler a scapegoat? The early results could be chalked up to bad luck, but a consistently poor showing could result in changes.
So the question remains, is it too early to panic, or does the tinkering begin?
Michael Waltrip taking a back seat to the Clint Bowyer and Jeff Gordon comedy team
When Clint Bowyer announced his retirement from NASCAR, everyone knew what his next job would be. Fox Sports had long coveted the Emporia, Kansas native because of his knowledge of the sport and his quick wit. The outlet had an idea of what they were getting, but it has so far gone to become television gold.
For years, Michael Waltrip and his comedic quips were a staple for pre-race coverage, but you get Bowyer and Gordon before, during, and after races. And the winners are? The viewers.
Jeff Gordon made a seamless transition from driver to analyst. Working alongside the loquacious Darrell Waltrip, he quickly learned that you can have fun while still describing the action on the track. But once Waltrip called it a career, Fox realized that it was easier to go with a two-man booth rather than having someone try to replace a legend. So it was play-by-play extraordinaire Mike Joy and Gordon.
Gordon did his best to hold down the fort until reinforcements arrived. Would he and Joy do a second race season alone? There was former two-time Daytona 500-winning crew chief Larry McReynolds who has forgotten more about NASCAR than many people know. But Fox chose to keep him as Mr. Encyclopedia in the studio or as an ‘unofficial’ third man. Then a funny thing happened last October. Fox suddenly had their Darrell Waltrip.
Bowyer announced he was finished as a driver and joined Jimmie Johnson in moving on to a second career. While old 'Seven-time’ was getting streets, tunnels, and possibly a star in some far-off galaxy, Bowyer started shopping for suits and ties.
From the day Fox Sports made it official that Bowyer would become an analyst, the network has used him and Gordon in some funny and unique promotional spots, including how competitive they still are, like racing to an elevator. But it doesn’t stop there. The duo have made Mike Joy the straight man, and it is a treat.
Michael Waltrip is no longer the funny man on the NASCAR on Fox broadcasts. As Bowyer and Gordon get more and more airtime, Waltrip’s seems to be shrinking. His ‘virtual gridwalk’ before the Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas was cut short to go to a commercial. It happened when he was trying to get some laughs at the expense of Denny Hamlin's pajamas.’ Even before the pandemic, his gridwalk schtick had grown stale.
Someone at Fox Sports must really like Michael Waltrip. He is a solid analyst on NASCAR Camping World Truck Series broadcasts, but maybe it's time for the network to move on from him doing Cup pre-race shows.
Toyota dominates early NASCAR Camping World Truck Series schedule
After just three weeks of racing in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, Toyota is making a statement when it comes to top 5 finishes. The Tundra didn’t get off to a quick start on the Daytona International Speedway oval, with Ben Rhodes taking the season opener. On the Daytona Road Course, the brand had two in the top 5, with Ben Rhodes going back-to-back at the World Center of Racing, and John Hunter Nemechek coming in third.
Las Vegas Motor Speedway was up next, and it was a clean sweep of the first five spots, with race winner Nemechek leading the way. He was followed by teammate and owner Kyle Busch, Austin Hill, Stewart Friesen, and Matt Crafton. If that wasn’t enough, Christian Eckes and Ben Rhodes finished ninth and tenth, respectively, giving Toyota seven of the top ten spots.
With fifteen possible top 5 openings, Toyota scored eight. Chevy’s Silverados had four while the Ford F-150 claimed the other three spots. Toyota has opened up a 19-point advantage over runner-up Chevrolet, having won all three races so far. Also, Tundras are leading in owner points. The No. 4 of Kyle Busch Motorsports is on top, while ThorSport Racing’s No. 99 is second. ThorSport also has the number four and five spots with the No. 88 and No. 99, respectively. Only the No. 2 Silverado from GMS Racing ranks in the top five.
Despite Chevrolet winning the manufacturer’s title last year, Toyota has won it six of the previous eight years, and since 2006, it has 11 championships, including two streaks of five straight. During that span, Chevy has four, and Ford failed to win any. The last time the Blue Oval scored a manufacturer’s championship was in 2000 when series champion Greg Biffle brought one home, driving for Jack Roush.
If early results are any indication, Toyota is positioning itself for its 12th title in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series' 27th year. That would give the company two more than Chevy, with ten. Dodge follows with three, and Ford is last with two.