6 Drivers Who Need to Win the Brickyard 400

As the hot summer grinds on, the pressure to make the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs ratchets up with each passing week.

Eleven different drivers already have punched their playoff tickets by winning a race and passing post-race inspection. A 12th winner, Joey Logano, doesn’t get to count his victory because his Team Penske Ford flunked tech after winning at Richmond in April.

With that in mind, here are six drivers who are in serious need of a race victory and how their prospects look for this Sunday’s Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Chase Elliott

There’s no question that Elliott is really, really good. He made the playoffs as a rookie last year and he’s on track to make them again. That said, Elliott is still looking for his first career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victory after 60 starts. Elliott’s father, Bill, won here in 2002 in one of Ray Evernham’s Dodges. A Chase Elliott victory would be a great story, but in two starts here he’s not finished better than 15th.

Joey Logano

Faced with a 52-point deficit to the last playoff spot, Logano’s back is against the wall. The good news for him is he’s been in that position before and won. Last year, Logano won playoff elimination races at Talladega and Phoenix to advance to the next round both times. Still, neither of the Penske Fords has the speed they had early in the season. Logano has finished no worse than eighth in the last four Brickyard 400s.

Matt Kenseth

Right now, Kenseth is on the playoff bubble, although he does have a seemingly comfortable 52-point lead over Joey Logano. Kenseth was in contention to win last week at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, and the entire Joe Gibbs Racing outfit has picked up speed lately. Kenseth has twice finished second in the Brickyard 400, including last year. He has a 4.50 average finish here in the last four races. 

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

In his final season as a full-time Cup driver, Earnhardt will need to win one of the next seven races to make the playoffs. Lately, the entire Hendrick Motorsports squad has been missing a little speed — they’ve been OK, but not great — and Indy has been one of Earnhardt’s toughest tracks. In 16 starts here, he has only one top-five finish, a fourth-place run in 2012.

Clint Bowyer

Although Bowyer has had a solid and steady first year with Stewart-Haas Racing, he’s riding a 168-race winless streak dating back to the fall Charlotte race in 2012. The good news for Bowyer is that he’s 10th in points and inside the playoff window right now, but he desperately wants a victory.

Kyle Busch

Now we come to the most intriguing choice. Busch is the two-time defending Brickyard 400 winner, a driver who’s dominated this track lately. But he hasn’t won a single Cup race since winning here in 2016 and has had a tremendously frustrating season this year. Busch has led 953 laps in 2017, second only to the 1,252 led by Martin Truex Jr. Busch has to win sooner or later, right? If Busch is to make a serious run at a second championship, this would be a good place for him to start.

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Amy Earnhardt Says No to 2018 Clash for Dale Jr.

Tuesday at the NASCAR Hall of Fame, where he unveiled his throwback paint scheme for the Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, Dale Earnhardt Jr. talked about his 2018 plans.

Earnhardt, who is in his final season as a full-time driver, is contracted to drive two NASCAR XFINITY Series races next year with the JR Motorsports team he co-owns with sister Kelley Earnhardt Miller.

Along with those two races,  Earnhardt allowed that he’d like to run as many as five or six XFINITY races if sponsors would come on board to make it possible.

During the unveiling at the NASCAR Hall of Fame, Earnhardt was asked about running in next year’s Advance Auto Parts Clash, the first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race during Daytona Speedweeks.

Earnhardt responded that he was talking with his wife, Amy, about the possibility.

Well, Tuesday night, Amy Earnhardt weighed in on Twitter and the answer was pretty clear-cut. Sorry, JR Nation.

NASCAR Cup Series

How Dale Earnhardt Jr. Got His First Big Break

In this year’s Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet will be clad in blue, similar to the old ACDelco paint scheme he used when he won the NASCAR XFINITY Series championships in 1998 and ’99.

The 1998 season was Earnhardt’s first full-time XFINITY campaign — back then it was known as the NASCAR Busch Series — and he was shocked to get the ride in the No. 3 Dale Earnhardt Inc. Chevrolet Monte Carlo.

Prior to ’98, Earnhardt had posted just one top-10 finish in nine XFINITY starts and had only average results racing late models. Nothing at the end of 1997 seemed to point towards a full-time ride in ’98.

Tuesday at the NASCAR Hall of Fame, Earnhardt talked about how he found out he’d gotten the ride, and it was a pretty funny story.

“I had no idea what to do,” Earnhardt said. “And I walked into the (DEI) shop. It was after New Year’s (January 1998) and the car was sitting there with my name on the roof. And Tony (Eury) Sr. and them were standing there and laughing and grinning.”

That meant Earnhardt thought his dad was pranking him.

“I was like, ‘Man, this is a joke. It’s bull—t.’ That’s not even funny, man,” said Earnhardt. “I thought it was a real joke. There was no way in hell that I thought I had an idea that I would get the opportunity to drive that car.”

Eury Sr. convinced Junior’s father to put him in the seat.

“I told him if he was going to spend his own money, he ought to spend it on his son,” Earnhardt recalled Eury telling him. “Why not? Give him a shot.”

And it worked. In 1998 and ’99 Earnhardt was paired with Eury as his crew chief.  In 63 races, Earnhardt won 13 times, with 34 top fives, 44 top 10s and a pair of series championships in his father’s car.

“Basically, Tony Sr. went to bat for me and told Dad, ‘We’ll take Junior and me and Tony Jr. will make a driver out of him, and that’s what happened.”

NASCAR Cup Series

GALLERY: Earnhardt Jr.’s Top Paint Schemes Through the Years

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was at the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Tuesday to unveil his paint scheme for the 2017 Bojangles’ Southern 500 throwback weekend at Darlington Raceway. Following are 12 favorite Earnhardt paint schemes through the years since his rookie season of 2000. 

We ask you to weigh in on social media, where does this year’s Darlington scheme stack up for in your favorite paint scheme?

Daytona XFINITY – 2010

With his father’s success in the No. 3, fans hoped to see Earnhardt Jr behind the wheel of the famed number. The July event at Daytona proved perfect opportunity, as he drove a Richard Childress Racing prepared Chevrolet to victory lane.

Michigan – 2012

Going along with the “Dark Knight Rises/Batman” scheme, Earnhardt Jr. broke through to break a winless drought that lasted 143 races, dating back to 2008.

First Cup Win  – April 2000 at Texas Motor Speedway

In his ninth career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series start, Earnhardt led 106 laps en route to scoring his first career victory. For fans, the win is memorable following the bear hug in victory lane from his father.

Daytona – 2008 

The camo design from the 2008 fourth of July tribute also stood out amongst fans, despite the simplicity. Notably, the camo wasn’t done as a wrap, but rather painted by hand, layer by layer.

Axalta Scheme – 2017 

Axalta went with a much different look for the 2017 season, switching to the Sam Bass designed red and yellow Chevrolet SS.

Daytona – 2004

Budweiser came out with a promotion titled “born on date,” which would have the date the bottles were packaged featured. The scheme came at the perfect time, as Earnhardt passed Tony Stewart with 20 laps to go to win his first of two Daytona 500s.

Bristol – 2011

As Bristol Motor Speedway celebrated their 50 golden years of racing in 2011, Dale Earnhardt Jr planned a shining tribute to the historic track. 

Daytona – 2007 

With Daytona ran on fourth of July weekend, Earnhardt has always featured patriotic paint schemes through the years. This edition was memorable with how the stars shined on the dark blue, despite the race not going as planned with Earnhardt caught up in one of the wrecks.

Richmond – 2007 

On September 8, 2007, Dale Earnhardt Jr drove a new Car of Tomorrow special paint scheme for sponsor Budweiser. This Chevy Impala featured an Elvis Presley-inspired look for the Chevy Rock & Roll 400.


Charlotte – 2008


Switching from the familiar AMP scheme, fans raved about the orange scheme.


New Hampshire – 2013 

2013 saw many great paint schemes for Earnhardt Jr. but this is the scheme that fans resonated with.


All article photos courtesy of Nigel Kinrade Photography © 2017

NASCAR Cup Series

JENSEN: Now That I’m Back…

After three weeks on the sidelines, I’m very happy to be back writing about NASCAR for Mike Calinoff and I are longtime friends and I’m thrilled to contribute to this growing website and work with the quality team Mike has assembled. We’re going to have fun and build something cool in the process.

With that in mind, let’s get caught up on some news that took place during my absence:

Matt Kenseth

It was disappointing that Joe Gibbs Racing decided to let the 2003 champion go in favor of Erik Jones, who will take over the No. 20 Toyota next year. Jones is one of many rising young talents in the sport and he’ll do a good job for his team and his sponsors. But Kenseth can still win races and, wherever he goes, he’ll make his new team better. You can count on that.

Bubba Wallace

In four starts subbing for the injured Aric Almirola, Wallace did better each week than he did in the race before. He opened a lot of eyes and performed impressively. Plus, he and close friend Ryan Blaney delivered the best visual of the summer, with Wallace and the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford dueling with Blaney and the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford in the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway. For old-school fans, seeing those two iconic cars fighting for the lead at Daytona was sublime, almost like a snapshot come to life.

Silly Season

This is going to be the wildest NASCAR Silly Season in a long, long time. The big announcement everyone’s waiting on is who will replace Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Hendrick Motorsports next year. Certainly, Alex Bowman deserves consideration and there likely will be some good veteran talent available, too.

But William Byron might be the right choice. In his last five XFINITY Series races, Byron has two victories, four top-five finishes and an average finish of 2.8. Yes, he will tear up some equipment as a rookie — all first-year drivers do — but he’ll learn more in his rookie Cup season than he will in a second season in XFINITY.


Much was made of the fact that Joe Gibbs Racing was winless in the first half of the season, a streak Denny Hamlin broke at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Sunday. And while that streak was rightly the subject of much speculation, there’s another one that’s interesting: The last time a Hendrick Motorsports driver not named Jimmie Johnson won a Cup race was at Phoenix in November 2015, a full one-and-a-half seasons ago, when Dale Earnhardt Jr. won a rain-delayed race that ran deep into the night. Johnson’s brilliance obscures the fact that as a team, Hendrick has work to do.


So far, 12 different drivers have won Cup races, although Joey Logano’s win at Richmond Raceway carries an asterisk because his Team Penske Ford flunked post-race inspection. Led by Joe Gibbs Racing’s Kyle Busch, there are at least half a dozen drivers with good chances of winning one of the final seven races of the Cup regular season. I doubt we’ll end the regular season with 16 different winners, but it’s certainly possible. Busch, Clint Bowyer, Chase Elliott, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Toyota rookies Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez are among those to keep an eye on.


3 Reasons Why Dale Earnhardt Jr. Will Make the NASCAR Hall of Fame

Dale Earnhardt Jr. will be at the NASCAR Hall of Fame this afternoon to unveil the throwback paint scheme he will race on the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet in the Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on Labor Day weekend.

This year, of course, is Earnhardt’s final full-time season as a driver in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, but you can bet his influence will be felt long after he steps out of the cockpit. You can also bet that he will be voted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame during his first year of eligibility.

Here are three reasons why:

The Numbers

Earnhardt has 26 Cup race victories, including a pair of Daytona 500 wins and a victory in the NASCAR All-Star Race. There is no driver who has won more races than Earnhardt and is eligible for the Hall who isn’t already in.

Earnhardt has the same number of victories as NASCAR Hall of Fame member Fred Lorenzen, and more than current Hall members Benny Parsons, Joey Weatherly, Terry Labonte and Curtis Turner. As a member of the Hall Voting Panel, I would have no hesitation whatsoever about voting Earnhardt in just for what he’s done on the track.

Off the Track

Earnhardt has been NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver for the last 14 consecutive seasons. His fan base is by far the biggest in NASCAR and the most passionate, too. Earnhardt has used his popularity to engage those diehard fans through the savvy use of social media. From his weekly Dale Jr. Download podcast to his more than 2 million Twitter followers and his weekly Periscope race reviews, Earnhardt has been the gold standard of NASCAR social media.

If, as expected, Earnhardt winds up going into broadcasting after hanging up his driving gloves, he will follow in the footsteps of several NASCAR Hall of Fame members who have done likewise, including Ned and Dale Jarrett, Darrell Waltrip and Rusty Wallace.

Team Owner

Earnhardt and sister Kelley Earnhardt Miller have built a championship-caliber NASCAR XFINITY Series team that continues to win races and run competitively. Since JR Motorsports was founded in 2004, the team has won 34 XFINITY races. Heading into this weekend, JR Motorsports drivers Elliott Sadler, William Byron and Justin Allgaier hold down the top three spots in the points. You can’t do better than that.

NASCAR Cup Series

GALLERY: Playoff Picture After New Hampshire

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoff picture took an interesting turn with Denny Hamlin’s victory in Sunday’s Overton’s 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Hamlin, driver of the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11 Toyota, became the 12th different winner so far this season, although Joey Logano’s victory at Richmond Raceway doesn’t count in the playoff standings because of post-race inspection issues.

Following Sunday’s race, there are now just seven races left in the Cup regular season.  Once the regular season concludes, the 16-driver field will be set for NASCAR’s playoffs. Here are the 16 drivers who are currently playoff eligible.

Martin Truex Jr., 3 wins, 29 playoff points

Truex will have a huge advantage when the playoffs start because of the points he’s already amassed. And in the next seven races, the Furniture Row Racing driver could add a whole lot more.

Jimmie Johnson, 3 wins, 16 playoff points

The seven-time champion has had an up-and-down season, but we all know how good he is when the playoffs roll around. He is also one of just two drivers with three victories already in 2017.

Kyle Larson, 2 wins, 13 playoff points

In addition to his victories at Auto Club Speedway and Michigan International Speedway, Larson has an amazing seven runner-up finishes in just 19 races this season.

Brad Keselowski, 2 wins, 13 playoff points

Early in the season,  Keselowski and Team Penske were especially strong. In the last eight races, though, Keselowski has finished 31st or worse four times.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr., 2 wins, 10 playoff points

Is there a bigger surprise this year than Stenhouse earning his first two career Cup victories, both coming at restrictor-plate tracks? Stenhouse has helped make Roush Fenway Racing relevant again.

Kevin Harvick, 1 win, 8 playoff points

The 2014 series champion has had consistent speed virtually since the time he joined Stewart-Haas Racing, and the team seems to have done a good job adapting to the change to Fords.

Denny Hamlin, 1 win, 7 playoff points

Even without the New Hampshire win, Hamlin likely would have made the playoffs on points anyway. But his big victory on Sunday eliminates all doubt that he’ll race for a title.

Ryan Blaney, 1 win, 8 playoff points

A victory last month at Pocono means Blaney will make the playoffs in just his second full season and Wood Brothers Racing will be in for the first time ever.

Kurt Busch, 1 win, 5 playoff points

It’s been an odd year for Busch, who won his first Daytona 500 by leading only the final lap, but hasn’t earned any other playoff points since then.

Ryan Newman, 1 win, 5 playoff points

A savvy gamble on pit strategy at Phoenix Raceway broke a 127-race winless streak for Newman and a 112-race winless streak for Richard Childress Racing.

Austin Dillon,  1 win, 5 playoff points

Last year, Martin Truex Jr. won the Coca-Cola 600 by leading 392 of 400 laps. This year, Dillon won the Coca-Cola 600 by leading only the final 2 laps.

Kyle Busch, 0 wins, 5 playoff points

As well as he’s run at times this season, it’s hard to believe Busch hasn’t won a race yet.

Chase Elliott, 0 wins, 2 playoff points

In his second year, Elliott has consistently finished well, but his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets seem to lack a little in speed.

Jamie McMurray, 0 wins, o playoff points

While McMurray has run well this season, his Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Kyle Larson has put up bigger numbers.

Clint Bowyer, 0 wins, o playoff points

One of three Stewart-Haas Racing drivers currently playoff eligible, Bowyer is looking for his first race win since Charlotte in the fall of 2012.

Matt Kenseth, o wins, 2 playoff points

The bad news for Kenseth is he’s the driver on the playoff bubble right now. The good news is he’s 52 points ahead of Joey Logano, who is the first driver outside looking in.

All photos courtesy of Nigel Kinrade Photography © 2017

NASCAR Cup Series

SOCIALIZING: Tweets from New Hampshire

Denny Hamlin is headed to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs following his late-race charge to victory in Sunday’s Overton’s 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

It was Hamlin’s 30th career Cup victory and the first of the season for both the driver and the Joe Gibbs Racing team. Here’s what the racers were saying on social media following the race.


NASCAR Cup Series

GALLERY: Full Finishing Order for Overton’s 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway

This first race of the second half of the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season is in the books, with Denny Hamlin scoring a huge victory in the Overton’s 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

1. Denny Hamlin

It’s hard to believe that coming into New Hampshire, none of the four Joe Gibbs Racing drivers had won this year. Hamlin took care of that in a big way, winning his first race of the year and the 30thof his career.

2. Kyle Larson

After winning the pole on Friday, Larson’s time was disallowed when his car flunked post-qualifying inspection. Still, he earned his seventh runner-up finish of the year and his second in a row.

3. Martin Truex

All season long, Truex and his Furniture Row Racing Toyota team have been among the best in the field. He leads the series in playoff points with 29.

4. Matt Kenseth 

The 2003 champion won’t return to Joe Gibbs Racing next season, despite posting good numbers with the team. A two-tire gamble on the final pit stop didn’t work for him.

5. Kevin Harvick

The 2014 Cup champion once again had a strong Stewart-Haas Racing Ford.

6. Daniel Suarez

The rookie driver from Mexico continues to impress, as he had another excellent finish.

7. Clint Bowyer

One of a handful of winless drivers in contention for a playoff spot, Bowyer would like a win to solidify his hopes. But a bad late-race pit stop cost him a couple of positions.

8. Kurt Busch

Since winning the season-opening Daytona 500, Busch has just one top-five finish, although this was a decent outcome.

9. Brad Keselowski

The Penske Fords don’t quite seem to have the speed they did early in the season, when Keselowski won twice.

10. Jimmie Johnson

You can never count out the eight-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion, but he had nothing on the race-winning Toyotas.

11. Chase Elliott 

Still looking for his first career Cup victory, Elliott should make it into the playoffs on points again this year.

12. Kyle Busch

It’s almost impossible to believe, but Busch has now gone an entire year without winning a Cup race. And he had two pit-road speed penalties that cost him dearly.

13. Danica Patrick

It’s been a disappointing season so far for Patrick, who continues to trail her Stewart-Haas Racing teammates. But she had a good run here.

14. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

At restrictor-plate tracks, Stenhouse has been gold, but Roush Fenway Racing has not done as well elsewhere.

15. Austin Dillon

Prior to the race, none of the Richard Childress Racing Chevrolets showed a lot of speed, so 15th wasn’t that bad, all things considered.

16. Ty Dillon

Just like other drivers with ties to Richard Childress Racing, Dillon struggled to get any speed out of his Germain Racing Chevrolet.

17. Jamie McMurray

Like his Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Kyle Larson McMurray has shown speed throughout the season.

18. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

In his final season, Earnhardt will have to win one of the next seven races if he hopes to run for a championship. A late-race decision not to pit for tires cost Earnhardt a good finish.

19. Ryan Blaney

This year, Blaney will be in NASCAR’s playoffs for the first time, where he’ll pilot the No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford.

20. Trevor Bayne

Roush Fenway Racing has run much better as a unit this year, but at New Hampshire the team lacked speed.

21. AJ Allmendinger

Both JTG Daugherty Racing Chevrolets lacked speed throughout the weekend.

22. Paul Menard

It wasn’t a great weekend for any of the Richard Childress Racing drivers.

23. Landon Cassill 

In 19 races this season, Cassill has just one DNF.  Cassill had a good finish this time.

24. Aric Almirola

This was Almirola’s first race in the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford since breaking his back in a crash at Kansas in May.

25. Chris Buescher 

Like teammate AJ Allmendinger, Buescher had a somewhat disappointing weekend.

26. Michael McDowell 

One of the pleasant surprises of this season has been the performance of McDowell and his Leavine Family Racing Chevrolet.

27. Ryan Newman

That victory Newman got early in the season at Phoenix is looking bigger and bigger these days, as he got spun out here.

28. Kasey Kahne

One of the big names in the Silly Season rumor mill, Kahne hasn’t won a race since Atlanta in 2014 and after being fast early, he had a poor result here.

29. David Ragan

For the New Hampshire race, Ragan carried sponsorship from Overton’s, who was also the title sponsor of the race.

30. Matt DiBenedetto

At the Daytona 500, DiBenedetto finished in the top 10. He hasn’t finished there again since.

31. Corey LaJoie

This was just the second career Cup start at New Hampshire for the rookie driver.

32. Ryan Sieg

In just his fifth career Cup start, Sieg had a challenging afternoon at New Hampshire.

33. Jeffrey Earnhardt 

It’s been a season of struggle for the grandson of the late Dale Earnhardt.

34. Reed Sorenson

After qualifying 35th on Friday, Sorenson’s Chevrolet didn’t have the speed of the front-runners.

35. Gray Gaulding 

After missing three of the last four Cup races, Gaulding has moved to the No. 55 Toyota.

36. Josh Bilicki

In just his second career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series start, Bilicki struggled again.

37. Joey Logano 

Logano is one of the drivers on the NASCAR playoff bubble, as his lone victory this season was encumbered. A tire rub sent him to the garage and put him in a deep points hole.

38. Cole Whitt

Whitt has now suffered engine failures in five of the last eight races. That’s not good.

39 Erik Jones

The Furniture Row Racing rookie made it just 42 laps before a tire failure put him in the wall and out of the race. A huge points blow.

All photos courtesy of Nigel Kinrade Photography © 2017


6 takeaways from the Overton’s 301 at New Hampshire

NASCAR’s first of two trips to New Hampshire Motor Speedway this year is now history, following Denny Hamlin’s triumph over Kyle Larson and Martin Truex Jr. in the Overton’s 301 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race.

And as they like to say in New England, it was a wicked piss-ah of a race. It was a huge victory for Hamlin, his first of the year and the first for Joe Gibbs Racing. Now, Hamlin is assured of making it to NASCAR’s playoffs.

Here are six takeaways from the first race of the second half of the Cup season.

It was a Toyotathon

From the drop of the green flag, the Toyota contingent crushed the field. In Stage 1, Martin Truex Jr. led every lap in his Furniture Row Racing Toyota. In Stage 2, Kyle Busch led every green-flag lap in his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.

In Stage 3, Hamlin started out with the lead in his JGR  Toyota after Busch had a poor pit stop. Soon, it was Truex back out front again, at least until around Lap 220, when a flat right-front tire forced him to pit and hand the lead back to Busch.

Busch’s golden opportunity to win slipped through his fingers on Lap 239, when he was caught speeding on pit road. After pit stops cycled through, Truex was back out front, until Lap 261, when Matt Kenseth passed him.

Finally, after another caution, Matt Kenseth took two tires and got passed by teammate Denny Hamlin for the win with 34 laps to go.  All told, Toyotas led 290 of 301 laps.

Setting the stage

Truex has just crushed this stage racing, winning Stage 1 at New Hampshire. Truex and the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing have been tremendous all year long, and with all the playoff points Truex has now — after New Hampshire, the number is  29 — is going to make him awfully hard to beat come playoff time.

Easier to lose than to win

Kyle Busch’s winless streak is now officially one year long. Busch won the second stage and had a car fast enough to win. Busch’s chances at victory went out the window when he got caught being too fast on pit road twice in a row late in the race.

By the same token, on the last caution Dale Earnhardt Jr. gambled and stayed out, eschewing fresh rubber, while every other lead-lap car pitted. Junior briefly led but dropped like a stone through the field. Nice try, but it didn’t work.

Penske’s problems

Team Penske won three of the first nine races of the season, but since then the team has fallen back in the pack. Brad Keselowski was never a factor at New Hampshire all weekend, while rear suspension issues sent Joey Logano to the garage and another hugely disappointing finish. Now, Logano is facing the very real possibility of missing the playoffs altogether, which would have been unthinkable even a few weeks ago. The fact that Hamlin was a first-time winner this season hurts Logano’s chances all that much more.

Grand Larson-y

Kyle Larson had to start at the back of the grid after his Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet flunked post-qualifying inspection on Friday. He went from 39th to 15th in the first 16 laps, which is nothing short of remarkable. By Lap 24, he was all the way up to 11th, advancing to fifth in the first 50 laps. That said, Larson was not available to steal the race from the  dominant Toyotas and had to settle for second place, his seventh of the season. Still, this driver, this car, this team, have it going on.

Seven-time just so-so

Jimmie Johnson, the seven-time Cup champion inexplicably jumped the start, but by the end of Stage 1, he was back up to the top five, although he had nothing for the race-dominating Toyotas and wound up barely cracking the top 10. No matter how I look at the upcoming championship battle, it keeps coming up the same way — Johnson, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Larson are in one class, and everyone else is playing catch-up.