What we're thankful for, NASCAR edition
The weather is getting colder, the leaves are changing colors, the days are getting shorter ... and there's no on-track NASCAR action for a while. All of the above means one thing: It's Thanksgiving. Given that this is a time to pause and reflect on the many things for which we are thankful, here are some of the many NASCAR-related things the editorial staff of NASCAR.com are thankful for: We are thankful for ... • Jimmie Johnson . NASCAR is fortunate that one of its greatest drivers is also one of its greatest men. -- Brad Norman • Martin Truex Jr .'s mean air guitar on the NASCAR on NBC intro song of "Bringing Back the Sunshine." Truex showed off his rock star-like ability on the track this season in one of the feel-good stories of 2016. Seeing Truex and girlfriend Sherry Pollex tackle her fight with cancer head-on has been especially impactful for me on a personal level as my mother was recently diagnosed with cancer. -- RJ Kraft • Kyle Larson 's penchant for riding the high line ever-so-close to the wall. It adds an element of edge-of-your-seat excitement to any race where he's running in the front because you never know what's going to happen next. -- George Winkler • Seeing the Tide car ride again at Darlington. -- Kathy Sheldon • Dale Earnhardt Jr .'s positivity and transparency. Not many athletes would let fans and media into a very personal concussion recovery process, but Junior has been as honest and upbeat as ever throughout his healing. His continued presence at the track and positive voice in the sport has been a blessing to us all. – Jessica Ruffin • Jimmie Johnson . Being able to work for NASCAR and have a front row seat to history being made with his seventh Sprint Cup Series championship is something I’ll never forget. I'm in awe of his talent. This must be what it was like working for the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s. -- Pat DeCola • SAFER barrier and safety personnel. We haven't stopped writing about injuries, but the instances are much less frequent today. -- Kenny Bruce • Martin Truex Jr ., Sherry Pollex and Barney Visser, who had the courage to do something different and run a race team from Denver. All the time and effort the Furniture Row Racing team puts in is clearly paying off, and I look forward to watching them grow to two teams next season with Erik Jones . -- George Winkler • Night races in the summer heat. -- Kathy Sheldon • Short-track racing. The action at Bristol and Martinsville is typically among the most entertaining of the season. Richmond produced a bump-and-run between teammates in the spring, and Iowa also is a great track. Tempers tend to flare at the smaller venues, and the racing is among the tightest you'll see all season. -- RJ Kraft • Local short tracks. Dirt? Asphalt? Quarter-mile? Three-eighths? Yes. -- Brad Norman • Daytona in February and Homestead in November. There aren't two better places, or tracks, to begin and end a season. All the ones in between? Yeah, they're pretty nice, too. -- Kenny Bruce
Staff picks for Talladega Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup race
RELATED: See all the cars lined up for Sunday's race Denny Hamlin : The Daytona 500 winner has experience in getting to Victory Lane at restrictor-plate tracks. If his tendency for sour luck in the Chase -- see last year's odd roof flap issue in this race -- doesn't bite him, Hamlin has a strong shot at advancing with a Talladega win. -- Zack Albert Brad Keselowski : He was backed against a wall in 2014 and came through with a dramatic win to advance in the Chase, and he'll do it again on the heels of winning at Talladega this spring. -- George Winkler Brad Keselowski : Seems like an obvious pick because of Keselowski's two restrictor-plate wins this season coming into Talladega. But the former Cup champ is so good at this form of racing, particularly at Talladega where he got his first career Cup win and three more including this spring. And most importantly ... he needs a good showing to advance in the Chase. This is his race. -- Holly Cain Jimmie Johnson : The man who doesn't need the win -- thanks to his Charlotte victory -- gets the W to lock some strong competition out of the Round of 8. -- RJ Kraft Joey Logano : The talented Team Penske driver hasn't had exceptional results this season, but he's been lurking. We saw what he can do in this round last year, and I think he turns it on when it counts and takes Talladega for the second year in a row. -- Pat DeCola Matt Kenseth : One year after a Round of 12 he'd rather forget, the Joe Gibbs Racing veteran leaves no doubt and secures his second career win at Talladega. -- Brad Norman Make your picks in Streak to the Finish !
NASCAR.com staff predicts 2016 Sprint Cup champion
RELATED: Stats breakdown reveals championship favorite Carl Edwards : Went with the No. 19 as a championship pick on my pre-Chase grid, thinking the postseason schedule lined up favorably. The Championship 4 -- especially this season -- is a toss-up, but Edwards' history at Homestead (two wins, two poles) may tip the scales. -- Zack Albert Joey Logano : The Team Penske driver has been loose and fast throughout the Chase and comes into this weekend's race with much-needed final-round experience. Crew chief Todd Gordon is one of the best. -- Kenny Bruce Jimmie Johnson : Jimmie was my preseason pick to win his seventh championship, and I feel even better about the selection now. No one in his era is better at winning titles and he has shown the ability to do whatever is necessary at Homestead to secure the prized hardware. -- Holly Cain Jimmie Johnson : Now that Johnson has figured out how to outlast his competition in the new Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup format, don't expect him to let a historic seventh championship slip from his grip. -- Pat DeCola Kyle Busch : The Joe Gibbs Racing driver enters with the least amount of pressure as the defending champion, and that should lead to a relaxing and celebration-filled weekend in Miami. -- RJ Kraft Joey Logano : Over the last four races he's won twice, led for 302 laps and has finished no worse than ninth. To say he's on fire is an understatement. -- Maggie MacKenzie Kyle Busch : Let's not overthink this. The defending champion is back in the title race, as the best driver on the best team in NASCAR. He also has been the best driver in the Chase, with six top-five finishes through nine races. Busch repeats. -- Brad Norman Jimmie Johnson : Johnson & Co. showed speed in practice and fought through a tough qualifying session, proving they have the calm resilience -- and long-run speed -- needed to win the coveted title No. 7. -- Jessica Ruffin Carl Edwards : All the reminders of that tiebreaker loss in 2011 have stoked the fire of title desire. Edwards' No. 19 has the speed, and we know JGR equipment is stout. A will and a way combine for a championship. -- Kathy Sheldon Carl Edwards : Sentimentally, I'd like to see him get redemption for 2011 and for Concrete Carl to cement a Hall of Fame-worthy career, but he's also a good pick from a stats perspective. He has the best average finish at Homestead among the Championship 4 drivers and the most career wins there (two). -- George Winkler
What it's like to eat a 'pork chop sandwich' at Eldora Speedway
ROSSBURG, Ohio -- A couple of factoids you may or may not know -- Tony Stewart owns a race track (Eldora Speedway) and he also owns a pet pig (which he's nicknamed 'Porkchop'). Porkchop and I are wore out after watching the truck race #Porkchop pic.twitter.com/VyrMHubRsF — Tony Stewart (@TonyStewart) May 17, 2014 Another little tidbit -- on site at Eldora, where the Camping World Truck Series will be putting on arguably the most anticipated show of the season in Wednesday night's Aspen Dental Dirt Derby (9 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), there is a vendor selling pork chop sandwiches . Dark? Yes. In poor taste? Not at all. Quite delicious, actually. I hear the guy who owns Eldora has a pet pig named "Porkchop." Dark? Yes. Poor taste? Nope. Delicious. #NASCAR pic.twitter.com/Ooneuy1S9j — Pat DeCola (@Pat_DeCola) July 20, 2016 You can judge a sandwich (or most foods, honestly) by the "Seventh-bite factor," which is a term that I literally just made up as I started writing this sentence. But hear me out. It's easy enough for a food to catch you off-guard -- good or bad -- on the first bite. When you find yourself saying "Oh my gosh, this sandwich," seven bites in, you know you've got yourself a sandwich among sandwiches. Boylan's Original Pork Chop Sandwich is that kind of sandwich. I mean, just look at it. Boylan's Original Pork Chop Sandwich (est. 1967) @EldoraSpeedway . #NASCAR #AspenDerby pic.twitter.com/ox1gadBU3P — Pat DeCola (@Pat_DeCola) July 20, 2016 It looks so simple -- the thing is enclosed in literally just a run-of-the-mill, store-bought plain hamburger bun -- but you can tell just from the picture that it's tasty AF. The secret is the marinade, which, just guessing, is a secret in itself. But whatever marination process that led to this perfectly seasoned pork tenderloin resulted in a delectably tangy-yet-sweet creation that had me actually considering getting another despite a serious lack of room in my stomach. Oh, and about that pet pig? Sorry, Porkchop. I recommend this sandwich. #NASCAR #AspenDerby pic.twitter.com/eVEPMkszZJ — Pat DeCola (@Pat_DeCola) July 20, 2016
H2H: Which team faces the biggest transition in '16?
January’s big claim to fame is change. Whether it’s a lifestyle switch-up, getting to the gym more, or, in NASCAR terms, a new crew chief or driver or manufacturer, the overall theme is variation from the norm, permanent or otherwise. With it usually comes hope, optimism and excitement -- a few words we'll be hearing plenty next week during Charlotte Media Tour. But it has us asking the question: Which team faces the biggest transition in 2016? NASCAR.com's Pat DeCola and RJ Kraft debate the topic and offer their choices for the upcoming Sprint Cup Series season. DeCola : Hey, RJ, this is a pretty interesting topic, and hopefully these teams embrace their changes a little better than I have, considering I’m currently on pace to exercise just once in 2016 ... but I digress. To me, this is an easy one. Changes across the sport will be dynamic and plentiful this season, but no team faces a bigger transition than Hendrick Motorsports . The man that has all but defined NASCAR over the past two decades-plus will now watch races from the broadcast booth, as Jeff Gordon steps out from behind the wheel of the No. 24 Chevrolet and hands the reins over to young Chase Elliott . The four-time premier series champion was such an embedded presence at Hendrick that his absence will be felt in several ways, regardless of how strong Elliott is in his first year of full-time Cup competition. Based on the height difference, Elliott’s feet may be larger than Gordon’s, but that’s a heck of a big set of shoes for the 20-year-old to fill, and it will likely define much of Hendrick's upcoming season. Kraft: Put the pedal to the metal on those personal goals, Pat . Anyways, I think the biggest transition will be with a team that is changing manufacturers for the first time. Furniture Row Racing , the single-car team based out of Colorado, is moving from Chevrolet to Toyota and will have a technical alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing . The move gives Toyota another entry among its Sprint Cup entries (replacing the departing Michael Waltrip Racing) and also should help Furniture Row get to its eventual goal of being a multi-car organization. Yet, with that move, comes a raised set of expectations not to mention the pressure that comes from following up a breakout 2015 season. The team is looking to build off a dream season that saw Martin Truex Jr . score a win at Pocono (the organization's first since 2011), post 14 top 10s in his first 15 races and reach the Championship 4 in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup . The Cinderella-esque run to Homestead and Truex's bounce-back season was the feel-good story of the 2015 campaign and it will be interesting to see what both he, crew chief Cole Pearn and the team as a whole can do for an encore. Interestingly enough, JGR didn't find its footing until the summer and the reduced-downforce package was a mixed bag for Truex at Kentucky and Darlington, so there could be some short-term pain before the long-term gain for the No. 78 team in the new alignment. DeCola : Great point about Furniture Row. Its 2015 breakout was great to see and the transition to Toyota should pay dividends. Speaking of Toyota and JGR, it brings up another facet about Hendrick's changes -- the addition of Darian Grubb. After notching nine wins as the crew chief for Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards over at JGR the past four seasons, Grubb parted ways with the organization that currently holds the Sprint Cup Series title and wound up back at Hendrick (where he previously served on the No. 48 team) as vehicle production director. As you may have noticed, JGR's four cars spent most of the 2015 season dominating the field, with Kyle Busch eventually being crowned champion. With Grubb's technical knowledge (along with any trade secrets he may have picked up at JGR the past few years) and Kenny Francis' vehicle technical direction, there's a better-than-not chance that Hendrick's cars regain the speed they've shown over the past decade, in which it won six titles. Kraft: I'm glad you brought up the JGR changes, Pat . Last year, JGR made crew chief changes to three of its four teams and it took some time and the return of Busch from injury before things seemed to click into gear. The past few years there has seemingly been a new pairing that hits the ground running in the top series ( Matt Kenseth -Jason Ratcliff in 2013 at JGR, Kevin Harvick -Rodney Childers in 2014 at SHR Busch-Adam Stevens at JGR and Truex-Pearn at Furniture Row in 2015) but those feel more like exceptions rather than the norm. With the Carl Edwards -Dave Rogers pairing, both driver and crew chief are going on their third different pairing in three years so there is going to be an adjustment period and a transition phase if you will. Of all the crew chief changes that have taken place thus far, the Denny Hamlin -Mike Wheeler pairing is the one that I believe to be the most likely to fly to amazing heights from the start of the season. Wheeler was with Hamlin as the race engineer on the No. 11 up until last season when he became an NASCAR XFINITY Series crew chief for the No. 20 team. The duo won three of their six XFINITY Series races together in 2015. How do these changes affect Furniture Row, you ask? Through their technical alliance in which the teams will share data much like Furniture Row did in its technical alliance setup with Richard Childress Racing under the Chevrolet umbrella. The better the results, the better the data to analyze, the better you can make the cars. Enough with all this talk of transition though, let's get some of these cars on track and let the results speak for themselves.
H2H: Which team is primed for a 2016 championship?
It's hard to believe, but Kyle Busch was crowned 2015 Sprint Cup Series champion at Homestead-Miami Speedway nearly a month and a half ago. Now that we're smack dab in the middle of NASCAR's offseason and the season-opening Daytona 500 is on the horizon, it's time to look forward to the 2016 season. So let's get to it -- NASCAR.com's Pat DeCola and RJ Kraft make their cases for which Cup teams are in the best position to produce the 2016 champ and which is primed to make a comeback. DeCola : First off -- Happy New Year, everybody. Hope you're starting to look forward to the upcoming season; I know I am. You know who else must be? Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano , because Team Penske will produce the 2016 champion. After a successful, yet tumultuous 2015 season that saw a couple of their rivals finish first ( Kyle Busch ) and second ( Kevin Harvick ) overall, the Penske duo is primed to ride a wave of motivation into '16 that should carry deep into the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup . It's conceivable the pair will both be racing for a title in Miami this November. It's likely one of them walks away a champion. Kraft: The Penske duo is strong but I don't see the title leaving where it currently resides at Joe Gibbs Racing . The four-car organization produced the most wins of any team last year (14) and has four title contenders taking the track every week. JGR hit big on the reduced downforce package in 2015 (with Kyle Busch winning at Kentucky and Carl Edwards winning at Darlington), and that will be the base package in 2016. It's hard to see the Sprint Cup championship changing shop addresses after the upcoming season. DeCola : Needless to say, I'm sure there will be surprises (like Kyle Busch winning the title after breaking his leg and foot to start the season) along the way that could change everything. Speaking of surprising comebacks, who do you have pegged as a team bound to make one in 2016? We saw plenty of organizations fail to meet expectations in '15, so "bounce-back candidates" is a heavy category. I'm thinking Kyle Larson puts it all together in his third season to put his sophomore slump behind him and earn his first career Chase berth. Could certainly see him -- and Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Jamie McMurray -- picking up a win or two, as well, something the organization has lacked since 2013. Kraft: I'm going a little more off the grid with my choice, Richard Petty Motorsports . Aric Almirola was a surprise Chase participant in 2014 and despite missing the Chase in 2015, Almirola was more consistent with his career-best average finish of 17.9. Add in two top-12 showings on the reduced-downforce package as well as five top 10s in his final 11 races and the 31-year-old looks poised to make a move up the standings. Adding Brian Scott as a teammate should help as well. The longtime XFINITY Series driver has only had a handful of Cup starts, but his three top 15s in 10 starts in 2015 were one less than former RPM driver Sam Hornish Jr . had over a full season in 2015. This debate has established one thing for certain: The 2016 season can't get here fast enough.
Jeff Gordon's retirement gifts: Where are they now?
RELATED: List of Gordon's gifts " @nascarcasm: Jeff's crappiest gifts LONG POND, Pa. -- As his full-time Sprint Cup Series career wound down last season, Jeff Gordon received some sort of "gift" -- sometimes tangible, often times not -- from race tracks upon his final stop at each venue. Gordon, filling in for No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Pocono Raceway this weekend, gave us a little insight into just exactly what he's been doing with all of his new possessions. "Well, I'm kind of a hoarder when it comes to things like that, anyway. When somebody gives me things, I'm maybe too superstitious to give anything away or do anything with it," said Gordon, who finished 13th in fill-in duty last weekend at Indianapolis. "So, we have a warehouse in North Carolina that all those things are stored in. One day, I'll look forward to revisiting those moments and those things and enjoying them." Wait, so they're just sitting in a warehouse in North Carolina somewhere? That's no fun. EXCLUSIVE: I've obtained footage of @JeffGordonWeb in his N.C. warehouse full of retirement gifts. #NASCAR #PA400 pic.twitter.com/KqdFkvxh7N — Pat DeCola (@Pat_DeCola) July 29, 2016 What about the cool Bandolero that Atlanta Motor Speedway gifted to his kids? What about the Shetland ponies that Texas Motor Speedway … also gifted to his kids? "Nobody is ready for a Bandolero in my family, so that hasn't happened," Gordon said. "We've enjoyed the ponies. They surprisingly went over well in the family." Phew. As for the more "adult"-aged gifts … "We haven't done any Blackjack (Las Vegas Motor Speedway) and haven't drank any whiskey (Kentucky Speedway) or wine (Sonoma Raceway) or any of those things. Well, I mean I have (laughter); I drank plenty but it's just not from the collection I was given as a gift." Y ou thinking what I'm thinking? Off-season party at Jeff's mysterious, hidden warehouse? YUP.
NHMS provides Chase stress relief to drivers -- with punching bag
Punching bag appears in motorhome lot ahead of second Chase race LOUDON, N.H. -- A punching bag has appeared in the motorcoach lot on Friday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway -- something reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Kevin Harvick could've used less than a week ago. Well done, @nhms . Well done. #NASCAR c.c. @KevinHarvick pic.twitter.com/a86BPSvLa2 — Pat DeCola (@Pat_DeCola) September 25, 2015 Following a wreck sparked by fellow Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup competitor Jimmie Johnson that relegated him to a 42nd-place finish in the playoff opener, Harvick got physical and jabbed Johnson in the chest in the motorcoach lot at Chicagoland Speedway when the six-time champion approached him to talk it over. Harvick then had to be restrained after the shove, while Johnson calmly walked away from the altercation. RELATED: Harvick confronts, shoves Johnson after race The punching bag, which appears to be provided from the track itself, could potentially head off any more physical altercations after the conclusion of Sunday's Sylvania 300 (2 p.m. ET, NBCSN/Live Extra). But then again, it's the Chase -- anything could happen.
Q&A: After the Lap host Courtney Hansen
RELATED: After the Lap Sweepstakes One of the year's hottest events, NASCAR After The Lap Sponsored by Ford and Sprint (streaming on NASCAR.com Dec. 3), will be hosted by motorsports TV personalities Courtney Hansen and Rutledge Wood. Hansen recently chatted with NASCAR.com's Pat DeCola to talk about the event, Jeff Gordon and her impressive car collection. Pat DeCola : So, you've got After the Lap coming up. It's always a good time -- you excited? Courtney Hansen: I've done some work with NASCAR and NASCAR.com in the past and of course I'm a huge fan and they know that and I'm good friends with Rutledge Wood. I think NASCAR felt it would be a great fit and I'm thrilled to be taking part in After the Lap -- the most unpredictable time of the year in motorsports. PD: Definitely. It wasn't that long ago that we saw Jeff Gordon break dance, so drivers really tend to be a little relaxed. CH: I love it, I love it. Apparently there's a little bit of alcohol involved so you never know what's going to happen. I think it's really fun for the drivers let loose in that way and get personal in a way that fans never get to see. PD: Exactly; for 36 races a year, things are so tense. Especially when you get to the Chase when things really tighten up. The past few weeks have been especially crazy. CH: They're so wound up and focused all year, they finally get a chance to let loose in Vegas and have fun with their fans. I think it's awesome. PD: You come from a pretty deep racing background. I hear your family even used to own a race track. CH: Yes, we used to own Brainerd International Raceway in Minnesota so I grew up there a pit kid and my father (Jerry Hansen; three career Sprint Cup Series starts) raced Sports Car Club of America and won 27 national SCCA championships so my whole life was just going from one track from the next and spending a whole lot of time at BIR. I've been an enthusiast since I was born and (motorsports) is definitely in my blood. Because of hosting all these automotive shows and working with NASCAR and doing auto show appearances all over the country, I've had the chance to learn so much about cars and see the coolest cars on the planet and get to know a lot of the amazing people in the automotive world. The love just grows stronger and the passion runs deeper every day. It's an addiction for me. PD: Have you done any racing yourself? CH: You know, my parents forbid it. They're both very supportive people and they gave us a lot of love and support over the years but they just steered us away from motorsports. They would let us do anything besides race. Because that was always deterred, I never went that route but my brother did a little bit of racing and my sister was always wanting to race NASCAR. I'm a good driver, though. Whenever somebody sees me drive they say, "Oh, you're actually a woman who can drive and I'm like -- hey now!" But I've test driven cars. I test drove Lamborghinis at Homestead with magazine editors and other things like that. You know, I've driven cars around race tracks, but I've never done professional racing. PD: So you've probably got a killer daily driver then. CH: I've got a couple. I'm all about the American classics. Those are my favorite in the mix. I have a '57 (Ford) Thunderbird with numbers matching the original. I have a '70 (Chevrolet Camaro) Z-28 that is also numbers matching original. I have a '70 (Ford Mustang) Mach 1 that I got from DJ Funk Master Flex. I have yet to pick it up; I'm picking it up in New York on Thanksgiving weekend. I have an Aston Martin DB9 that's like my reliable daily driver when I want to get quickly around Los Angeles. And then I have a baby-friendly SUV ... Range Rover Sport that's super-charged. And then (automotive designer) Chip Foose tricked out a 2004 Thunderbird for me. Now I'm looking for a MOPAR; a MOPAR will round out the equation. PD: Those all sound really cool. I drive a Honda Accord. Did you have a favorite driver growing up? CH: My dad! No, I mean, of course I was young, but I loved Richard Petty. I've always loved Mario Andretti, who's a dear family friend. Dale Earnhardt Jr . ... I totally support him and would love to see him win a championship. My dad was always number one, though. I also loved Paul Newman, the actor. He's a very close family friend and my dad taught him how to race. He actually stayed at our cabin in Minnesota for like 20 years and raced Trans-Am Series with my dad ... I loved watching Paul Newman race and he was a very good racer. PD: Jeff Gordon has a final shot at a fifth championship this Sunday at Homestead. As a long time fan of the sport, what does Gordon mean to you? CH: Absolutely (I'm a fan). Jeff Gordon is a legend in the sport and he has such a huge fan base. It would be amazing to see him go out with a bang and win the championship. I don't think anybody would be disappointed by that. I think it'd be phenomenal to see him win one last championship and go out with a bang. I wish Dale was still in the Chase, of course. He was so close. It was disappointing. I think he's got a championship in his future and he's going to have a killer next season. I like all the drivers so it's hard for me to say I'd like to see one win over the other, but I definitely think the fans would love it and I would love to see Jeff clinch another title before he retires. I interviewed him years ago at Martinsville when I was doing some hosting with NASCAR and he said a quote -- and maybe it's been said before by various people -- but I just loved the way that Jeff said it. I said, "What does it feel like to go 200 mph?" and he said, "The rush isn't about the speed. The rush is when you're faster than everybody else." I loved that he said that. I loved that quote. PD: When you're on the stage hosting After the Lap, that's probably going to be one of the first times where Joey Logano and Matt Kenseth have been forced to interact since their run-in -- do you plan on playing into that at all? CH: I think if the drivers are cool with it -- I imagine they'll both have their opinions and their stance on the topic -- and the fans are definitely going to want to dive into that one ... I'll roll with it. I'll keep it light and fun. I think the job of Rutledge and I is to manage the crowd and interact with the drivers and facilitate the questions in a way that keeps everything lighthearted and fun. Ultimately, that's what it's about. If it starts to get negative or contentious or if there's an energy that's not welcomed in that arena, we'll steer it in a positive direction, but I think it'll definitely be brought up. It's one of the hottest topics of the season.
H2H: Tackling three key questions on 2016 winners, Chase implications
MORE: 'Smoke' gets hot in the summer once again With the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series having an off week, it's time to answer some hard-hitting questions, such as: Is Tony Stewart a legitimate title contender? Which winless driver this season is most likely to get one next? And can Chris Buescher crack the top 30 in the points standings? If so, whom might he boot out of Chase contention? There are just four races left until the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup field is set, so NASCAR.com editors Pat DeCola and Taylor Nunnally tackle these questions in a quick roundtable. 1. Is Tony Stewart a legitimate title contender? TN: I'd like to start off by saying that I think it's awesome to see a driver find such great success in their final full-time season. Tony Stewart 's win at Sonoma and his performance since has been better than his last two seasons combined, and the No. 14 driver currently sits 26th in the Sprint Cup Series standings. If the Chase field were set today, he'd be in it. Come playoff time I wouldn't be surprised if we saw "Smoke" slip back into the shadows of elimination. Yes, he's a champion driver with wins at all but two tracks on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule (Darlington and Kentucky), but if we're looking at recent performances at the Chase-designated circuits that lie ahead, he's only got one win (at Dover in 2013) and three top-five finishes in the last three years. I'd be as pumped as anyone if Stewart made it to the Championship 4 this year, but stats don't lie, Pat . PD: Stats don't lie, but they don't always tell the whole story. I've come to learn that a determined Tony Stewart behind the wheel is not something to doubt. Based on the turmoil of his past few seasons, it'd be easy to just ride it out, collect his checks (signed by him, as the team owner and all) and focus on Porkchop's agility training. But this show pig ain't done yet. Stewart isn't that far removed from his miraculous 2011 Chase run, when he deemed his team unfit to win a Sprint Cup Series title ... then went out and won half the playoff races to secure his third title. He told NASCAR.com's Jonathan Merryman after his Sonoma win that he's "going to stick with my approach from 2011. I said we couldn't win it then and we ended up winning it. I feel like we're just starting to get going." Based on his recent spate of consistently strong runs, I don't see why he isn't in the title conversation -- especially given how far we saw an under-performing Jeff Gordon make it in 2015. 2. Which winless driver this is season is most likely to end up in Victory Lane? TN: I love a race that brings a season's first-time winner. In 22 Sprint Cup Series-scored races this year there have been 12 different winners, and I'd say it's time for a new face in that mix. Who, you ask? I've got my eyes on Sunoco Rookie of the Year candidate Chase Elliott . The No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports driver has already put up impressive numbers in his rookie season, with six top-five and 11 top-10 finishes, Elliott knows how to run with the big dogs. His best finish of this year came at Michigan where he was runner-up to 2015 Daytona 500 winner Joey Logano , so I'm banking that on the return to the Irish Hills in a couple weeks, the 20-year-old will turn that second-place finish into a first-time trip to Victory Lane. PD: You know, at first I actually had Elliott targeted at Michigan, as well, for that reason. But who was third in that race? My real pick: Kyle Larson . Elliott has been more consistent on the whole this season -- as evidenced by his 12th place to Larson's 15th in the standings -- but just based on the "feel test," it seems like Larson has been thisclose to a win a handful of times this season. In contrast, there aren't any races that jump out as real missed opportunities for a win for Elliott, despite his high finishes. At some point, it feels like Larson is just going to break through, whereas it wouldn't surprise me if we don't see Chase win until next year. 3. Can Chris Buescher crack the top 30? TN: I'm probably not alone in saying that I'm surprised Chris Buescher was the first rookie to score a Sprint Cup Series win this season. Yes, he's the 2015 XFINITY Series champion, but the Sprint Cup Series is another animal and his performance behind the wheel of the No. 34 this year has been less-than exhilarating. Buescher is currently sitting 31st in the point standings and needs to be in 30th place come Richmond (Sept. 10) to be Chase-eligible. Given his track record (literally), Buescher's best performance at the last four circuits before the Chase field is set doesn't seem too promising, with his best finish of 20th coming at Michigan earlier this year; he's yet to try the "Lady in Black" that is Darlington. Long story short, although he seems close right now, I don't see Buescher cracking the top 30 and knocking another Chase contender out. PD: Sure, it's a bit of a longshot, but it seems more likely that he makes the leap from 31st to at least 30th (only three points at this ... point) than his win was, so it certainly isn't out of the equation. Looking at the drivers directly ahead of him in the standings -- David Ragan , Landon Cassill , Casey Mears , Aric Almirola -- they have zero top-10s combined. I expect the Chase-determined No. 34 team to be grinding for every point, and don't expect the respective performance of each of those other teams to suddenly improve. Plus, neither Cassill nor Ragan has a DNF this season, so if either winds up with one it opens the door a little more for Buescher.
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