Weaver: Early Roster Shake-Up Will Affect Race to the Chase
Just one race into the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season and it appears as if the Chase for the Championship may look drastically different than what anyone could have expected just a few weeks ago.
Kurt Busch has been indefinitely suspended by NASCAR — the latest result of an ongoing investigation into allegations of domestic abuse against his ex-girlfriend, Patricia Driscoll. His younger brother, Kyle Busch, will also miss a significant amount of time following a horrific crash on Saturday in the NASCAR XFINITY Series race at Daytona International Speedway.
The younger Busch suffered a compound break of his right leg and a fracture of his left foot. A timeline for his return has not been established following his initial surgery.
David Ragan has been announced as the full-time driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota for at least the next few months while Regan Smith will drive the No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet through at least the weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Both Busch brothers made the playoffs last year and were expected to have better seasons in 2015. Given the circumstances surrounding their absence, it’s a safe bet that neither driver will make the Field of 16 come September once the Chase begins at Chicagoland Speedway. While unfortunate for both organizations as a whole, this also presents a rare opportunity for a fringe contender to enter the mix and garner attention for themselves in a sport currently dominated by Hendrick Motorsports and Team Penske.
Ragan, himself, entered the season with ambitions of scoring a restrictor plate victory in order to make the Chase but has the opportunity of a lifetime to potentially accomplish the feat with JGR and Toyota. The rumored plan is for Ragan to run the next nine events with JGR before handing the ride to top prospect Erik Jones in May at Kansas.
Perhaps a hot start with the No. 18 could potentially force Gibbs into staying with the hot hand and ride out the regular season with Ragan — especially with the lengthy recovery period ahead for Kyle Busch. Even if Ragan has to return home to Front Row Motorsports come summer, the 29-year-old has the best equipment of his career and thus the best chance to win a race or score enough points to battle for a playoff spot down the stretch.
In the words of Lloyd Christmas from Dumb & Dumber — “so you’re telling me there’s a chance.”
Smith is not playoff eligible since he has elected to chase a championship in the XFINITY Series with JR Motorsports but for a driver with hearty ambitions to return full-time to the Cup Series, this weekend looks to be an audition for additional races with SHR and is perhaps the catalyst to earn the former Southern 500 winner a full-time spot on the 2016 grid and beyond.
Without both Busch brothers in the field, borderline playoff contenders like Sam Hornish, Aric Almirola, Danica Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse all have increased chances and that’s only going to make the racing throughout the field even more competitive.
Injury and controversy of this magnitude is never a positive for NASCAR but it has made the Race to the Chase a wide-open affair.
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