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NASCAR Cup Series

4 Past NASCAR Champions in Danger of Elimination at Kansas

It’s a virtual certainty that Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway will eliminate at least one, likely more than one past Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion.

Sunday’s race is the third and final event in Round 2 of the Cup playoffs. In Round 1, 2004 Cup champion Kurt Busch of Stewart-Haas Racing was eliminated when the field of championship hopefuls was cut from 16 drivers to 12.

At Kansas, the field will be further trimmed down to just eight drivers left to contest the 2017 Cup title. And there are some big names in harm’s way.

Already, Martin Truex Jr. and 2012 Cup champ Brad Keselowski have locked themselves into Round 3 by winning the first two races of Round 2.

But four past championships are at risk of elimination this weekend:

Kevin Harvick, 3089 points

Harvick, the 2014 champion, comes into Kansas fourth in points, with a 22-point margin over ninth place. Assuming Harvick has an uneventful day in Kansas in his Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, he should be OK to advance. But with 60 points up for grabs in the race, a mistake could knock him out.

At Kansas, Harvick has two victories, and an excellent average finish of 10.043.

Jimmie Johnson, 3074 points

The seven-time champion right now is just 7 points to the good and is in eighth place, the final transfer spot to Round 3. It would take little, if anything, for Johnson to get knocked out on Sunday and see his hopes for a seventh championship dashed. His Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets have not looked impressive at all in the playoffs.

Johnson has three victories at Kansas, and an average finish of 9.591, best of any driver in the field who has more than one Kansas start. 

Kyle Busch, 3067 points

That the 2015 Cup champion could be facing elimination is mind-boggling, given that he has 41 playoff points, second only to points leader Martin Truex Jr. But consecutive bad finishes at Charlotte and Talladega have Busch on the wrong side of the points.

Busch has one victory at Kansas, and has finished in the top five in five consecutive races at the 1.5-mile track. Plus, you know his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota will be fast.

Matt Kenseth, 3066 points

Still looking for his first victory of this season, his final with Joe Gibbs Racing, Kenseth has been OK in the playoffs, but not great, with finishes of 11th and 14th in the two races this round. Plus, he doesn’t have a lot of playoff points, one reason he’s 10th in points right now.

The 2003 champion has three poles and two victories at Kansas, where he has led 774 laps, tops among active drivers.

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NASCAR Cup Series

Stolen Glory: Ill-timed Caution Flag Costs Truex Richmond Victory

It’s hard to imagine a more awkward finish to a NASCAR race than what happened Saturday night at Richmond Raceway.

Martin Truex Jr. was cruising to an easy victory in the Federated Auto Parts 400, a victory that would have given him even more momentum than he already had as the Monster Energy  NASCAR Cup Series regular-season champion.

Then, with three laps to go, the unthinkable happened.

Derrike Cope, who was logging laps at the back of the field, lightly brushed  — lightly — the Turn 4 wall to bring out a caution on Lap 398 of the scheduled 400-lap race.

Let the record state a couple of facts:

When the yellow came out, Truex had a lead of about 4 seconds over the field.

Cope kept going after the contact with the wall, with only the slightest damage on his car. He went on to finish 36th, 16 laps down. For the year, Cope’s average finish is 34.9.

Once the yellow was out, the field all pitted for fresh tires, Kyle Larson won the race off pit road first and then the race itself, while shortly after the restart, Truex got wrecked by his quasi-teammate Denny Hamlin. Instead of winning his fifth race of the year, Truex finished 20th. He led 198 of 404 laps and walked away with nothing to show for it except a single point for winning Stage 2 of the race.

Afterwards, many people felt the caution should not have been thrown at all because Cope kept going and it didn’t appear that his car shed any shrapnel on the track.

And yet the caution for Cope altered the outcome of the race.

How absurd was that?

It would be like the New England Patriots beating the Dallas Cowboys by three touchdowns in the final minute, only to lose the game in the last seconds because of something stupid the Cleveland Browns did.

To add insult to injury, Truex, crew chief Cole Pearn and team owner Barney Visser had to appear in the post-race celebration to accept the trophy for winning the championship. Furious and uncomfortable, Truex looked like a man who just found out his ex-wife was sleeping with her Pilates instructor. Pearn, meanwhile, simply appeared stunned.

Understandable reactions, both. As were Truex’s post-race comments.

Tonight sucks, plain and simple, just the way it ended up,” said Truex. “You’re out there dominating like this, you know your car is not very good on restarts for a couple laps.  Caution for a guy that shouldn’t even be out there is kind of ridiculous.  I don’t know.  I don’t really know what to say about all that. It’s unfortunate the way the race ended. … I just think that’s ridiculous that a guy could cause a caution with one lap to go as bad as he’s running and just riding around there basically just making laps.  Yeah, it’s pretty dumb.”

The worst part of it?

The caution for Cope, as bad as it was, wasn’t the worst call of the night.

Or even the second worst call of the night.

The second worst came on Lap 88, when NASCAR threw a caution because Matt Kenseth locked up his brakes and gave off tire smoke. Didn’t hit anyone or anything, and didn’t spin. Officially on the race rundown, the cause of that yellow was listed as “smoke.”

But the worst gaffe came on Lap 258, after a caution for Danica Patrick’s spin.

As the lead-lap cars headed toward pit road, an ambulance stopped at the commitment line near the pit-road entrance, causing several cars to have an accordion-like collision trying to avoid hitting it. Matt Kenseth got the worst of it, his Toyota too damaged to be repaired under the 5-minute crash clock.

Luckily for Kenseth, there was no first-time winner of 2017 at Richmond, so he didn’t get knocked out of the playoffs.

“Not really sure why pit road was open with an ambulance parked there, but everybody stopped and I didn’t see it in time and ran into the car in front of me,” said Kenseth.

The biggest issue isn’t what happened in Richmond, though.

The biggest issue is what could happen in the playoffs.

Fans want to see races won and drivers advance through the playoffs because of fast cars, good driving and skillful pit work, not because the guy in 36th-place screws up with three laps to go.

Imagine if what happened at Richmond happens again at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 19, when the championship is decided.

One can only hope the final laps at Homestead come down to the best of the best racing their guts out for a title, instead of a backmarker doing something to alter the course of the championship and therefore of NASCAR history.

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Commentary

Kyle Larson Scores Shocking Victory at Richmond

Saturday night’s Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond Raceway wrapped up the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season in dramatic fashion, with a late-race caution allowing Kyle Larson to take the lead on pit road, thanks to a great stop by his Chip Ganassi Racing crew.

Martin Truex Jr., dominated the race, leading 199 of 404 laps, but he crashed in overtime. Larson, meanwhile, made a great final restart to win his fourth race of the season ahead of Joey Logano, Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch.

It was a crazy finish, as victory seemed certain for Truex until the hapless Derrike Cope banged the wall with four laps to go to set up the final caution. 

Here are five things we learned under the lights at the Virginia short track:

Toyotathon

As has been the case in recent weeks, the Toyotas of Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing dominated the action in taking the victory. Matt Kenseth started from the pole, Kyle Busch won Stage 1, and Truex won Stage 2, all in their Toyotas.

But the caution gave Chevrolet its 10th win of the season to eight each for Toyota and Ford.

Playoff points

Truex, Kyle Busch and Larson will be way ahead on points when the NASCAR playoffs start next Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway. At that race, the 16 playoff drivers will each start with 2,000 points plus the playoff points they earned during the regular season.

That means Truex will open the playoffs with 2,053 points, Larson will have 2,033 and Larson 2,029. Seven of the 16 playoff drivers will start with 2,005 points or fewer. That will be a huge edge for Truex and the two Kyles. Little wonder why those three are among the championship favorites.

No Cinderellas

As expected, no driver who was outside of the playoffs coming into Richmond raced his way in during the final race of the regular season. That’s no surprise; the only driver to win his first race of a season in this event during the playoff era of NASCAR was Jeremy Mayfield in 2004, the first year of the playoffs. Still, Erik Jones, Joey Logano, Clint Bowyer and Dale Earnhardt Jr. all ran well at points in the race but will miss the playoffs.

Earnhardt will miss playoffs

Earnhardt’s Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet looked better than it has in weeks, but it wasn’t enough to earn the 14-time NASCAR Most Popular Driver a playoff berth in his final season. That’s a bummer for him and for his millions of Junior Nation fans, but at least he ran up front and led laps at Richmond.

Ambulance

Inexplicably, on Lap 258 after a Danica Patrick spin, an ambulance came on track and stopped at the entrance to pit road just as the full field of cars was getting ready to pit. There was a pileup, with Kenseth striking the back of Clint Bowyer’s car as they both tried to avoid the ambulance. Unbelievable and a terrible break for Kenseth and Bowyer both.  The contact knocked Kenseth out of the race, though he and his two fellow winless drivers, Chase Elliott and Jamie McMurray all advanced to the playoffs.

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NASCAR Cup Series

Kenseth Claims Pole in Hotly Contested Richmond Showdown

Lame-duck Joe Gibbs Racing driver Matt Kenseth will start from the pole in Saturday night’s Federated Auto Parts 400 at the D-shaped, 0.75-mile Richmond Raceway.

Kenseth busted off a lap of 122.421 miles per hour to claim the No. 1 starting spot ahead of JGR teammate Denny Hamlin, who ran 122.277 mph.

Saturday night’s battle will be the 26th and final race of the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series regular season

And it’s the last chance for any driver who is winless in 2017 to score a victory and qualify for NASCAR’s 10-race, season-ending playoffs, which start next week at Chicagoland Speedway.

Thirteen of the 16 playoff drivers are locked in already by virtue of winning earlier this season and three more will sew up spots on Saturday night. Here’s where all 39 drivers will start the Federated Auto Parts 400.

  1. Matt Kenseth

Still without announced plans of 2017, Kenseth is one of three playoff bubble drivers in the field but he’s safely in unless there’s a first-time 2017 winner, then it could come down to points.

  1. Denny Hamlin

The good news for Hamlin was he swept both races at Darlington last weekend. The bad news is both his cars flunked tech.

  1. Kurt Busch

The 2017 Daytona 500 winner won the first NASCAR playoffs way back in 2004 and on Saturday, he’ll start from the inside of Row 2.

  1. Kyle Larson

One of the favorites to make it to the championship race at Homestead, Larson has had a breakout season with Chip Ganassi Racing.

  1. Martin Truex Jr.

The star of the season so far, Truex is guaranteed to enter the playoffs with a minimum of 52 playoff points.

  1. Kevin Harvick

The 2014 Cup champion is a threat to win pretty much any and every weekend. He ought to be tough again this time, too.

  1.  Kyle Busch

The 2015 Cup champion is in great position to make a serious run at a second title.

  1. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Stenhouse has 10 playoff points, which is good, but little momentum, which isn’t too good.

  1. Chase Elliott

Despite being winless in his career so far, Elliott is in good shape to make the playoffs for the second consecutive season.

  1. Erik Jones

Riding a streak of three consecutive top-five finishes, Jones could very well break through and win on Saturday night, which would be huge.

  1. Jamie McMurray

Although he’s currently playoff eligible, McMurray is the only one of the top 16 drivers with no playoff points so far.

  1. Joey Logano

In the first race at Richmond this year, Logano won the race but flunked tech inspection afterwards, so his victory doesn’t count towards the playoffs. Saturday night he needs to win again and this time clear tech.

  1. Clint Bowyer

For Bowyer at Richmond, there is no try. Do or not — win or miss the playoffs in his first year with Stewart-Haas Racing. He was the first driver to miss the final qualifying round.

  1. Ryan Blaney

He’s in the playoffs alright, but Blaney and the Wood Brothers need to run error-free races if they want to advance.

  1. Brad Keselowski

Two early season victories and four stage wins have given Keselowski 14 playoff points, a respectable total.

  1. Daniel Suarez

The last-minute substitute for Carl Edwards at the start of the season, Suarez has had a good rookie season.

  1. Kasey Kahne

A surprising Brickyard 400 victory means Kahne is in the playoffs in his last year at Hendrick Motorsports.

  1. Trevor Bayne

Bayne is one of 14 drivers who is in the top 30 in points, but winless so far this year. His only playoff shot is a victory.

  1. Danica Patrick

Will 2017 be Patrick’s last year at Stewart-Haas Racing? Could be, as neither she nor the team has shown signs of staying together.

  1. Jimmie Johnson

Yes, the seven-time champion has three race victories this season, but his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet has lacked speed of late.

  1. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

After practice, Earnhardt said he has about a sixth- to 12th-place car. He needs to win to make the playoffs. Qualifying back here won’t help.

  1. AJ Allmendinger

Historically, Richmond hasn’t been of the ‘Dinger’s best tracks, but he’ll press on.

  1. Aric Almirola

Rumors persist that Richard Petty Motorsports might be switching to Chevrolets in 2018 and maybe even to Dodge in 2019.

  1. Chris Buescher

Last year, Buescher made the playoffs as rookie; this year, he probably won’t.

  1. Matt DiBenedetto

DiBurrito, as he’s known to call himself, has had some decent runs this season.

  1. Paul Menard

With a move to the Wood Brothers set for next year, Menard will be glad to put this season in the rear-view mirror.

  1. Ryan Newman

The Indiana native is locked into the playoffs but at the moment doesn’t look like a serious championship contender.

  1. Michael McDowell

It’s been a good season so far for the Arizona racer, but this is one of his worst tracks.

  1. David Ragan

Three times, Ragan has finished fourth or better at Richmond in his career. He probably won’t add to that this weekend.

  1. Landon Cassill

So far this year, Cassill has finished very well, but he takes good care of his equipment.

  1. Austin Dillon

The elder Dillon is coming off a top-five finish at Darlington last week, his first since winning the Coca-Cola 600 in May.

  1. Ty Dillon

The younger Dillon tied his career best with a 13th-place finish last weekend at Darlington.

  1. Corey LaJoie

Looks like LaJoie will start deep in the field, which is normal this year.

  1. Gray Gaulding

The young racer is gathering valuable experience this season.

  1. Cole Whitt

A dubious honor for Whitt: He’s 33rd in the Cup points standings, which is the worst of any driver who’s made every race this season.

  1. Reed Sorenson

This is will be Sorenson’s 20th start in the first 26 races of the season.

  1. Jeffrey Earnhardt

Another dubious honor: Earnhardt leads the series with 11 DNFs.

  1. Derrike Cope

The veteran soliders on for another weekend.

  1. B.J. McLeod

As expected, McLeod will start deep in the field and probably will end up there, too.

All article photos courtesy of Nigel Kinrade Photography © 2017 

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Who Still Has a Legit Shot at Crashing NASCAR’s Playoffs?

We’re down to crunch time in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series regular season. Already, 13 drivers are locked into the 10-race, season-ending Cup playoffs by virtue of race wins so far this season.

Three other drivers are winless, but have the most points among those who haven’t won this year. So if there are no new winners in the final two races of the Cup regular season, Chase Elliott (711 points), Matt Kenseth (703) and Jamie McMurray (700) would likely qualify for the playoffs even though they haven’t won a race in 2017. 

Clint Bowyer (642) is the first driver on the outside looking in, although it’s improbable he’ll make up enough points in two races to get into the playoffs.

So which drivers are winless in 2017, but could still win one of the last two regular-season races at Darlington Raceway or Richmond International Raceway? Here are eight possibilities:

Trevor Bayne

Although he’s just 19th in points, Bayne finished fifth at Michigan and seventh at Bristol last weekend. That’s the good news. The bad news is his average finish at Darlington is 37.50 (!) and it’s 18.2 at Richmond.

Clint Bowyer

Richmond is Bowyer’s second-best track, statistically speaking, with an average finish there of 12.87. Darlington, on the other hand, is Bowyer’s second-worst track, at a 20.000 average finish. In the last six races of this season, Bowyer has finished seventh or better three times.

Jamie McMurray

In the last nine races, McMurray hasn’t managed to finish in the top five. He has three top fives and an average finish of 15.88 at Darlington, better than his 19.17 average finish at Richmond.

Joey Logano

In the last four races, Logano’s best result was 13th at Bristol. Logano has two Richmond Cup victories and an excellent average finish there on 12.47. At Darlington, however, Logano’s average finish is 18.38, which ranks as his third worst among the 23 tracks where Cup teams race. Although Logano is in a bit of a funk right now, he could be someone to watch, especially at Richmond.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

For the millions of Junior Nation fans, Richmond is a place to look forward to. Earnhardt has three race wins there, tying him with Phoenix for the most race wins at non-restrictor-plate tracks. Earnhardt’s average finish at Richmond is 13.71, with Darlington close by at 14.00. But Earnhardt’s last top-10 finish was at Sonoma, and his Hendrick Chevrolets have not had much speed lately.

Daniel Suarez

Like Erik Jones, Suarez is a Cup rookie in one of the affiliated Toyota teams. And like Jones, Suarez has never raced at Darlington. In his only Cup race at Richmond, Suarez finished a decent 12th. Suarez has four finishes of seventh or better in the last six races.

Erik Jones

With finishes of third at Michigan and second at Bristol, Jones heads into the final two races of the Cup regular season on a hot streak. But he’s never raced a Cup car at Darlington and was 38th at Richmond in his only Cup start there.

Matt Kenseth

If any driver is going to score his first win of 2017 in the next two races, the odds strongly suggest it will be one of the Toyota pilots.  Kenseth has four top fives in the last six races, and he’s won once at Darlington (15.83 average finish) and twice at Richmond (16.14).

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Commentary

Experience Looks to Again Prevail at Bristol

Bristol Motor Speedway has proven to be one of the most exciting and challenging tracks on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series circuit each year.

The focus of competitors is not only tested by the fast-paced action but the unique atmosphere that surrounds every race.

Experience matters when it comes to balancing these elements in pursuit of victory, and it has shown in the winner column in recent seasons.

Drivers with five or more full-time campaigns in the NASCAR Cup Series have found the most success since 2013.

Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards, and Joey Logano have combined to win six of the last eight Bristol races. Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson prevailed in the other two events, showcasing how important fine-tuning a driver’s craft is when competing at Bristol.

Many veterans hope to replicate this success in Saturday’s Bass Pro Shops / NRA Night Race as they find themselves on the bubble as the Playoffs quickly approach.

The rise of young talent this season has impacted the Playoff field. With names like Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Austin Dillon, and Ryan Blaney securing victories to lock-in spots, it’s put names like Kenseth, Logano, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in jeopardy of not competing for the title.

All three have won the Bristol night race previously but earning the trophy now would mean more than ever before.

While Kenseth could still make the post-season based on points, a victory would place him safely in championship contention.

Logano is in a more desperate situation, sitting 98 points below the cutoff line and needing a win to compete for a return to the Championship 4.

Earnhardt Jr. is a similar position with a trip to Victory Lane being his only path to the Playoffs in his farewell season.

If the trend of recent races at “Thunder Valley” continues, a veteran will prevail. While it may not be one of the competitors needing a win, they should be among the favorites as a victory would change the outlook of their seasons.

The focus for much of 2017 has been on the young talent in the sport. However, Bristol is still proving to reward the drivers who have the most experience, enhancing the old-school feel for a classic race.

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The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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NASCAR Cup Series

Your Ultimate Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Silly Season Guide

After a couple of relatively quiet years, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series is about to go through a wholesale shuffle of drivers and teams.

Known as “Silly Season,” this is the time of the year when changes are announced or sometimes just rumored for the upcoming season. With lots of upheaval ahead, the 2018 Cup season will have a very different look.

With that in mind, here is your ultimate Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Silly Season guide, a detailed list of who’s going where next season.

We’ll start with the drivers.

Aric Almirola

The Richard Petty Motorsports driver’s contract is reportedly up at the end of this season. No official word yet if he’ll be back with the team next year.

Ryan Blaney

After two successful seasons with the Wood Brothers, Blaney will move to the new Team Penske No. 12 Ford next year.

Alex Bowman

An impressive stint for an injured Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2016 was enough to earn Bowman the ride in the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet next year.

Kurt Busch

Officially the elder Busch is a free agent, as Stewart-Haas Racing declined to pick up his contract option for 2018. But the team has said it expects him back next year. We’ll see.

William Byron

After dazzling performances in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series last year and the NASCAR XFINITY Series this year, Byron will move to the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet next season, replacing Kasey Kahne.  Axalta and Liberty University will sponsor him.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

This is Earnhardt’s last season as a driver; next year, he’ll be in the NBC television booth, where he will add a lot to the broadcast. And, of course, he and sister Kelley Earnhardt Miller will continue to run their successful JR Motorsports XFINITY team.

Erik Jones

It’s one-and-done for impressive rookie Jones at Furniture Row Racing. Next year, he will take over the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota from Matt Kenseth.

Kasey Kahne

Officially a free agent, Kahne is looking for work for next season.

Matt Kenseth

Another top free agent, Kenseth does not yet have a confirmed ride for 2018.

Paul Menard

Following seven years with Richard Childress Racing, Menard will move to Wood Brothers Racing next season.

Danica Patrick

If Stewart-Haas Racing can’t find a sponsor for Patrick next season, she will be released from the final year of her contract, Patrick told USA Today last weekend.

Bubba Wallace

Wallace is one of several good drivers looking for work. He was impressive filling in for the injured Aric Almirola this summer.

 

And now, the teams.

Furniture Row Racing

With Erik Jones moving to Joe Gibbs Racing, team owner Barney Visser has said he’ll only run two cars next season if he can find enough sponsorship.

Hendrick Motorsports

Alex Bowman will succeed Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the No. 88, and William Byron will replace Kasey Kahne in the No. 5. Axalta and Liberty University will sponsor Byron.

Joe Gibbs Racing

Matt Kenseth is out at the No. 20 an Erik Jones is in.

Richard Childress Racing

With Paul Menard moving to the Wood Brothers next season, there’s an open seat at RCR, assuming they don’t decide to scale back to two cars.

Richard Petty Motorsports

There have been rumblings that RPM will try to find enough sponsorship to bring back the No. 44 with Bubba Wallace, but so far nothing definite.

Stewart-Haas Racing

As always, it seems, the situation at SHR is interesting. The team declined to pick up Kurt Busch’s option for 2018, but says it expects him back, while Danica Patrick said she doesn’t yet have a sponsor for next year and could be released if they don’t find one.

Team Penske

Earlier this season, Team Penske re-signed drivers Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano and their respective crew chiefs to long-term deals. Next year, they’ll add a third full-time car for the first time since 2010, with Ryan Blaney driving the No. 12 Ford.

Wood Brothers Racing

Ryan Blaney will be out and Paul Menard will be in the cockpit of the iconic No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford.

All article photos courtesy of Nigel Kinrade Photography © 2017 

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The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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Commentary

This Silly Season All About Dollars, Not Sense

There’s a simple rule in politics and business that applies to NASCAR racing, too: Follow the money.

And if you look at the moves so far in this Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season, they seem to have a common theme:

  • Matt Kenseth will be out at Joe Gibbs Racing next year, to be replaced by Erik Jones.
  • Dale Earnhardt Jr. retiring after this season, with Alex Bowman taking over for him at the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.
  • Stewart-Haas Racing declined to pick up Kurt Busch’s option.
  • Danica Patrick told USA Today that she might be released from the final year of her contract because the team doesn’t have a sponsor for next season.
  • Several midsized teams have not announced driver plans for next year, but could make major changes.

The theme?

Follow the money

In the cases of Kenseth and Earnhardt, both will be replaced by drivers who presumably will make a lot less than they do.

In a moment of rare economic candor, Earnhardt perfectly explained the situation during his media availability at Watkins Glen International on Saturday. The CliffsNotes version is simple: Sponsorship dollars have shrunk, so what teams are willing or even able to spend on drivers has shrunk, too.

This is how Earnhardt explained it: “These sponsors aren’t giving teams the money that they used to,” he said. “So, the owners and everybody’s got to take a little cut. Everybody’s got to dial it back. Everybody’s got to realize that they have to accept some of that fallback and difference. And that’s the same with the drivers’ contracts. A lot of these veteran drivers are getting paid multi-million dollars; and a lot of these guys coming in are getting a fraction of that.”

And there’s a reason for it.

“You’ve got a guy that you think has got a lot of talent, very young, a lot of potential,” Earnhardt said. “And then you’ve got a veteran who is established. But he wants three, four, five, or six times the amount of money. You’re going to go with the younger guy because it’s a better deal financially.”

It’s not only a better deal, financially. It might be the only deal that keeps the race team afloat.

“You can’t pay a driver five to eight million dollars a year if you ain’t got but $10 million worth of sponsorship,” said Earnhardt. “That ain’t going to work. Guys aren’t getting $20, $30, $40 million a year on sponsorship. Owners aren’t getting that anymore.”

Follow the money.

“Drivers are having to sort of understand that change is coming down the pike,” Earnhardt said. “If it hasn’t happened to them yet, it’s going to happen to them. And the young guys, they don’t know any better. They want to race and they’re taking whatever they can get. That’s a good change for the owners.”

Of course, the one thing that makes this work for owners is the abundance of young talent coming up through the ranks.

Then again, that’s the very same thing that makes it not work for older, experienced and highly paid drivers.

 Follow the money.

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The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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Commentary

Stage Racing Enhancing Road Course Strategy

When the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series competes at Sonoma Raceway and Watkins Glen International, strategy becomes a more integral part of the race compared to oval events.

Unlike most venues, drivers can pit under green flag conditions without losing a lap, and the timing of these stops becomes critical to determining which cars ultimately battle for the trophy.

The addition of stage racing in 2017 further emphasizes the importance of strategy. Much like at Sonoma in June, teams will enter Sunday’s I LOVE NEW YORK 355 at the Glen prepared with game plans crafted towards either succeeding in the first two stages or overall event.

Sonoma featured a distinct divide between those who performed and finished well in each stage compared to how the end of the race unfolded.

Kevin Harvick took the victory but didn’t place inside the top-10 in the first two stages. Despite this, he led the second-most laps and pulled away to his first win of the season.

Clint Bowyer only completed Stage 1 in the top-10 but triumphed at the end to earn his second runner-up of 2017.

Brad Keselowski finished third after pitting late in Stage 1, staying out for Stage 2, and gaining crucial track position that put him up front for the rest of the event.

Similar storylines will likely emerge out of Watkins Glen.

With five races until the Playoffs begin, drivers on the bubble without a win will need every point to assure their opportunity to compete for the championship.

They will have to balance chasing victory while not giving up many stage points as they develop a strategy for Sunday. Seeing how much Chase Elliott, Jamie McMurray, and Matt Kenseth gain will help further piece together the post-season picture.

However, those three competitors will need to keep an eye on drivers who are in a must-win situation to climb into the top-16.

Road courses often even the playing field and typically don’t favor the best-performing cars of the season, opening the door for drivers on the outside of the title picture, including previous Watkins Glen winners Joey Logano and A.J. Allmendinger.

Seeing whether those who have to win to secure a Playoff spot or a past winner this season prevails adds another compelling storyline to an already highly anticipated event.

Watkins Glen has produced many memorable moments in recent years including epic last lap battles that pitted experienced road racers Marcos Ambrose and Allmendinger against the best of the sport with Kyle Busch, Keselowski, and Denny Hamlin, delivering thrilling finishes.

Producing more dramatic moments is a major goal of stage racing. By introducing this style of competition to the always exciting road course, it can only enhance one of the wildest events of the season.

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Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Pocono Race Advance

One of the most under-reported stories of the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season is the remarkable level of parity in the competition so far this season.

The last nine Cup races dating back to the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte on Memorial Day weekend have produced nine different winners among eight different teams, with Hendrick Motorsports the only squad to win twice during that period — Jimmie Johnson took the checkered flag at Dover in early June and Kasey Kahne won last weekend’s Brickyard 400.

During those last nine races, Toyota has won twice, Ford three times and Chevrolet four times. That’s about as even as you’re going to find.

All told, 13 different drivers have won in the first 20 races of the season, including Joey Logano’s encumbered win at Richmond, which doesn’t count towards playoff eligibility.

Do not be surprised if today’s Overton’s 400 at Pocono Raceway produces a 14th different winner of this crazy season.

In Saturday’s first practice at the 2.5-mile oval, five of the six fastest drivers clocking in were guys who haven’t won this year — Matt Kenseth (1st), Erik Jones (3rd), Kyle Busch (4th), Chris Buescher (5th) and Daniel Suarez (6th).

The second and final practice saw Busch time in at No. 1, with fellow non-winners Jamie McMurray (3rd), Chase Elliott (5th) and Clint Bowyer (8th) also in the top eight.

Any one of these non-winners could punch his ticket to NASCAR’s playoffs with a win this afternoon at the tricky triangle.

There’s also a new wrinkle to consider: For the first time in recent memory, qualifying is scheduled for race day, with time trials set for 11:30 a.m. this morning and the race slated for 3 p.m. How that affects the outcome remains to be seen, but it could factor in.

The weather today in Pocono is chamber-of-commerce perfect: Sunshine, blue skies, a zero percent chance of rain and highs in the mid-70s. You couldn’t ask for a better day.

Late this afternoon, we’ll find out whether there’s a 10th-consecutive different winner and a 14th different winner of 2017.

Don’t bet against it.