Daniel Suarez’s Future

The name Daniel Alejandro Suarez Garza is not one you’d associate with NASCAR. The 24-year old racer hails from Mexico and has been quickly moving up through NASCAR’s ranks. Suarez had a bit of a slow start to his career-he didn’t start racing until he was 10. After tearing it up in the NASCAR Mexico series, Suarez moved over to the American K&N Pro East Series, NASCAR’s entry level short track series. When Suarez continued his success there, he was named to the Drive for Diversity Program and got a ride driving for Joe Gibbs Racing in the XFINITY series.

Suarez’s first year in the XFINITY series was promising, if slightly underwhelming. He placed 5th overall in the standings, but showed a lot of potential in the 2nd half of the season. His second year so far has been fantastic. He’s posted 1 win, 6 top 5’s, and 12 top 10’s en route to his 1st place spot in the standings. Suarez has been tearing it up on track, earning respect from competitors such as Kyle Busch because of his methodical and efficient driving style.

But when will Suarez have his chance at the Sprint Cup Series? Joe Gibbs Racing currently has a full stable of drivers. However, Gibbs driver Matt Kenseth, at 44 years old, is the 3rd oldest driver in the series and is only signed through 2017. We could see Suarez spend one or two more years in the XFINITY series until Kenseth retires, opening up a quality Sprint Cup Series ride for the young driver.

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The Future of Chase Elliott

After Dale Earnhardt Jr, no Sprint Cup driver has a better pedigree than Chase Elliott. He’s the son of Bill Elliott, a former champion, NASCAR’s most popular driver, and the first racer to ever win the Winston Million. In his brief career so far, Chase has shown he has the potential to equal or one day even surpass his old man’s accomplishments.

Chase Elliott made a name for himself in short track racing, rising through the ranks while still in high school. He ran part-time in the truck series in 2013, winning his first race at just 17 years old. When he moved up to the XFINITY series, Chase dominated–he won the championship his rookie year and and placed 2nd in 2015.

Elliott’s potential stems not just from his accomplishments, but from his driving style. He’s a hard charging driver; he pushes his car to the absolute limit and always searches for new grooves on track sometimes hurting his car in the process. In that way, Elliott races like a young Jeff Gordon–he runs hard and sometimes reckless, but shows a lot of potential.

Perhaps its fitting that as Elliott moved up to the Cup Series in 2016, he took over Jeff Gordon’s old ride. So far in the season, Elliott has posted 11 top 10’s, 5 top 5’s and a pair of poles. He sits 6th in the points standings and appears to be knocking on the door of his first Cup win. While it’s impossible to know for sure if he will continue his success, the future does look bright for Chase Elliott.

Chris Buescher’s Mistake

It’s difficult to predict which NASCAR prospects will bust and which ones will have long and successful careers. Even when everything goes right for a driver, sometimes they just can’t make it work at the highest level. When a driver makes a mistake, by joining the wrong team or moving up too early, the path to success becomes even harder.

After winning the 2015 XFINITY Series championship with Roush, Chris Buescher decided against staying in the second-tier series. He instead moved up to the Sprint Cup Series for 2016. However, he did not step into a Roush ride. Buescher instead signed with Front Row Motorsports, a perennial backmarker with just one win to its name. Front Row Motorsports formed a technical alliance with Roush Fenway this year, but given Roush’s recent struggles, the partnership hasn’t helped much. Buescher is currently languishing in 32nd in the Sprint Cup standings. He’s posted just two top 20 finishes on the year and sits 55 points behind 27th place teammate Landon Cassill.

Almost overnight, Buescher went from an XFINITY series star to just another Sprint Cup backmarker. Buescher has undeniable talent, but he’s still raw. He needed more time and experience in NASCAR’s lower series before moving up to the Sprint Cup. The lone bright spot in his future is that a seat at Roush may be opening up soon. Greg Biffle is NASCAR’s oldest regular driver, and is also Roush’s worst performing racer this year. If Biffle retires soon, Buescher may get a shot to prove himself in competitive equipment. However, the ride he’s in right now isn’t helping his chances.

 

The Rise of Ryan Blaney

Dave Blaney was always a NASCAR fan favorite. Though winless in his 473 race career, the dirt track star gained respect from fans and his fellow competitors by charging hard and making the most out of second-rate equipment. His son Ryan, however, appears poised to reach far greater heights than his father ever did. After placing 6th and 2nd respectively, in two full-time seasons in the Camping World Truck Series, Ryan Blaney made the jump to the Sprint Cup Series for the 2016 season, piloting the #21 car for the Wood Brothers as they attempt their first full-time schedule in many years.

The Wood Brothers, although very capable, are not anywhere near the caliber of teams such as Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, or Team Penske. Even with the Wood Brothers’ new technical alliance with Penske, the car is still underfunded and understaffed. Despite this, Ryan Blaney has shone in the season’s first 15 races. He’s posted 6 top 10 finishes and currently sits 16th in the points standings. If the Chase for the Sprint Cup started now, Blaney and the Wood Brothers would qualify for the first time ever.

The Wood Brothers have run a part time schedule since the days of David Pearson. Now, with NASCAR’s new charter system, they’ll have to run full-time to receive a charter and a locked-in spot for the races. As the Wood Brothers move into the new NASCAR, Ryan Blaney appears to be the perfect driver to take them there.

 

Racing in the Rain

It’s a time honored tradition. Nascar fans and drivers converge on the track for the weekend and eagerly wait for the race on Sunday.  That is, until Mother Nature intervenes, washing out the race and postponing it until Monday. This scenario plays out 3-4 times a year without fail; and each time, race fans inevitably ask why the drivers simply can’t run in the rain.

The answer depends on the tires on the car. Nascar tires are not normal tires. They have no grooves or tread, enabling them to get the most grip possible on dry pavement. These tires, called slicks, would not be able to hug the ground under rainy conditions. A film of water would form between the tire and the road, causing the driver to hydroplane, lose contact with the ground, and spin.

However, times are changing. Nascar introduced rain tires in the Xfinity Series, using them on 3 separate occasions at road courses. Drivers are able to race with grooved tires on these courses–the lower speeds create far less wear on the treads. On high-speed tri-ovals, however, rain tires would be worn out and ground down within a few laps. Nascar has rain tires on standby for Sprint Cup road course races, although they’ve never been used. Look for them the next time it gets damp at Watkins Glen, Sonoma, or even a short track like Martinsville.  

Learning From Nascar’s All-Star Race

Nascar’s All-Star Race had all the right ingredients to be a fantastic event. The racing was fantastic, the new aero package worked well, and Nascar’s young guns were at the forefront of the racing. Rookies Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney battled hard in the Sprint Showdown, third-year driver Kyle Larson barely lost the main event to Joey Logano, and sophomore Trevor Bayne made a daring last-lap pass to advance to the main race.

However, as Nascar does year after year, it tinkered with the format of the all-star race, and it ended up hurting the sport. The last 13 lap segment was supposed to feature the first 11 cars pitting and dropping to the back of the pack, forcing them to fight their way through traffic to the front of the field. However, after Matt Kenseth failed to make a mandatory pit stop, half the field was trapped a lap down with no way to get back on the lead lap, creating a disjointed, confusing finish.

Although the racing was exciting, the confusing format was difficult for fans, drivers, and even the announcers to follow. Forcing part of the field to pit is an interesting idea, but for the future Nascar must clearly define and standardize its rules to ensure everyone is on the same page. Nascar keeps getting its decisions 90% right–it will need to clear that last 10% to truly reestablish its standing among fans.

The Last Frontier: Getting Women in Nascar

The UConn women just capped off a historically dominating dynasty with their fourth straight national title. The WNBA’s ratings grow year after year. US Women’s Soccer has reached greater heights than the men’s team. For years, women’s sports have been relegated to an afterthought, marginalized by large segments of society. Now, however, as they continue a slow and steady march into prominence, the sports where women lack representation face greater scrutiny. Nowhere have women been less able to break down the gender barrier than in motorsports. A look at NASCAR, America’s most popular form of auto racing, can help us learn why.

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NASCAR has exactly one prominent female driver, Danica Patrick, and the amount of criticism she has faced has been disproportionate to her driving ability. A look at the comments on any Facebook post about her makes that evident–there’s a consistent chorus of complaints that Danica is unqualified, that she’s only in her car because she’s a woman. However, when you look at her racing stats, she’s been driving fine.

Her racing pedigree is solid–she’s raced go-karts since she was 10 and placed top 10 overall in the IndyCar Series 6 times. Danica hasn’t exactly lit the world on fire since she switched to NASCAR, but in 2015 she finished ahead of 2-time Nationwide Series champ Ricky Stenhouse, former Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne, and her boss, 3-time champion Tony Stewart. None of these other drivers have faced the same level of criticism Danica has–Bayne and Stenhouse have been similarly underwhelming, but no one says they have their rides “only because they’re men.” Danica Patrick faces an excessive amount of criticism from the fans, but the problem doesn’t lie just with them–it’s part of NASCAR’s overall culture.

RIDGEWAY, VA - APRIL 07: Danica Patrick, driver of the #10 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet, leads a group of cars out of turn four during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series STP Gas Booster 500 on April 7, 2013 at Martinsville Speedway in Ridgeway, Virginia. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images)

(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images)

NASCAR has a demographic problem which has been long overlooked by the sport’s leaders. Most NASCAR viewers tend to be older, white men–while most sports make their bread and butter from attracting 18-45 year olds, NASCAR’s viewers are dominated by 46-65 year olds. An influx of younger, more diverse followers will make the fanbase more accepting of women and minority drivers in NASCAR. While older fans who grew up watching the sport in the 1980’s and 1990’s are accustomed to the all white and male racers, younger fans would respond to a more diverse group with more enthusiasm.

However, for there to be female drivers at NASCAR’s highest levels, there have to be girls racing at its lowest. Most NASCAR drivers get their start racing go-karts or sprint cars around dirt tracks–many begin when they’re just 6,7, or 8 years old. However, if you attend these races today, the vast majority of the kids racing are boys. It’s tough for girls to break into a sport dominated by boys.

This is where NASCAR, which has often been criticized for being behind the times, has made significant progress. NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program has begun to develop a crop of very capable women and minority drivers. It trains and publicizes female racers across the nation. It’s gotten women’s organizations and minority community leaders involved in the sport. Most importantly, it’s begun to change the culture of the sport, opening it up to new participants and fans. NASCAR has a very long way to go to get women in the sport, but when it does, it will be better for it.

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