Through the Field: Nothing To Be Done
Sometimes, all you can do in life is just to sit back and refer to a prominent line in Samuel Beckett’s wildly absurd “tragicomedy” of a play, “Waiting for Godot,” in which the main characters Vladimir and Estragon state four simple words:
“Nothing to be done.”
There are situations you can’t control, where it just doesn’t matter how hard you worked or what advantages you may have, how unfair things may be or any number of other things to show why the situation should be the way you want it to be.
Sometimes, there is just nothing to be done. It is what it is.
The current schedule of qualifying for races in the 2021 NASCAR season has set up that exact scenario for some of the sport’s hard-working team owners and drivers.
Normally, a certain number of cars are locked into a race based on their position in the points standings, or in the Cup Series, whether or not the team owns a charter for that particular car. The rest must qualify into the race on a one-or two-lap qualifying speed in which the cars make laps as fast as they can, and the fastest cars make it into the race.
With COVID-19, that day of qualifying is eliminated for almost every single race, save for a select few. As a result, each spot is set on points standings. This was mostly fair in 2020 when multiple races in each series were still set by normal qualifying procedures which gave the best cars the chance to earn enough points to be given a spot in each race.
It was an issue only when drivers not running the full season would attempt to enter with teams that had not normally run; for example, when current or former Cup drivers such as David Gilliland, Erik Jones and David Ragan were excluded from Truck Series races because the teams did not have enough points.
NASCAR has even given leeway to the two lower series, Xfinity and Trucks, by expanding their fields to 40 cars per race, like the Cup Series, to get as many cars into races as possible without necessarily having the fastest or best 40 cars racing.
This has become somewhat of a problem for 2021, however, notably in the Xfinity Series. Each series was scheduled to have a normal qualifying session for the season-opening Daytona weekend. Cup and Trucks did; Xfinity did not as it was rained out. For most of the teams, no problem. But for a trio of new teams that were slated to run the full season in Xfinity, this left them with nowhere to turn.
Jordan Anderson, Ronnie Bassett’s No. 77 and the No. 3 of Our Motorsports (which would have been driven by two-time series champion Tyler Reddick at Daytona) would have likely been fast enough to qualify for that Daytona race but were not in the show after the cancellation of qualifying.
The Daytona lineup was set by 2020 owner points, which they didn’t have by not running a race last year. Each following lineup until the next qualifying session at the Austin, Texas, Circuit of the Americas in May is set by 2021 owner points, which they don’t have by not being able to qualify for a race before then.
Those three are in racing purgatory as the rules currently stand. There is nothing to be done. If NASCAR was going to change the rules, they would have almost certainly done so before the second race of the season at the Daytona road course.
Yet, all three missed the race again.
Nothing to be done but sit and wait.
Yet, they still press on. They won’t give up, and you bet they’ll be certain their cars will make the next race. Fortunately, you don’t have to wait long for the best advice you’ll get on whom to pick for the next two races at Homestead-Miami Speedway and Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
This is when the real meat of the season truly begins – gone are the season-opening duo of wild card races at the superspeedway and road course of Daytona. These are the types of tracks we’ll run most often on the schedule and will show the cream rising to the top.
Kevin Harvick & Denny Hamlin: These two absolutely dominated the “intermediate” section of the schedule last season, Kevin Harvick won six races at similar tracks in 2020 while Denny Hamlin won a trio of them.
Both have started 2021 with top-six finishes in each race. The momentum is still there for these two veterans, and they can easily win another handful of these types of races again this year.
Brad Keselowski: I gave Brad Keselowski a rallying cry of sorts in my first column of the season, saying that 2021 could be a make-or-break year for the veteran around the midpoint or second half of his career. After the first two races, the No. 2 team should be nothing but motivated.
Coming so close and yet so far to finally winning the Daytona 500 and battling back from multiple issues and incidents to finish fifth at the road course has given the team some of the moxie it needs to get a win sooner rather than later.
Alex Bowman: With almost nothing but praise for Alex Bowman coming during the 2020 playoffs, he put together the momentum and good runs to finish sixth in the final standings. But the start of 2021 has me worried for how the next few weeks will go, especially with how closely I’ve watched Bowman and the then-No. 88, now-No. 48 team.
The pole-winning car had potential engine trouble in the “duel” qualifying race and was junked 14 laps into the Daytona 500. Then at the road course, Bowman ran around 15th-25th most of the day, although he ended up with a 10th-place finish.
It’s not that I’ve lost my faith in Bowman or that the team won’t succeed this season. But slumps have happened in big ways during each of Bowman’s seasons with Hendrick Motorsports.
Normally after a hot start, the team slows down. This season, I envision a slow start dragging on longer than you may think before breaking out of its shell.
Chase Briscoe: Granted, Chase Briscoe’s rookie season has started with a pair of difficult wild-card tracks. But there have been multiple times where I look at his No. 14 car on the track, and it just feels out of place.
Without much practice or qualifying in the current coronavirus era of NASCAR, it’s not easy for the rookies and inexperienced drivers. There are a lot of differences between the Xfinity cars Briscoe dominated in last season and the Cup Series cars he’s in now.
I don’t think it’ll be a bad rookie season for him, and I think the year of experience plus the 2022 next-gen car’s similarities to the current Xfinity car will make him a sleeper pick for a deep playoff run. But that is then, and this is now, and Briscoe could be in for a few more weeks of struggle.