Did You Notice? … Three of the top 5 drivers in laps led this season are from Hendrick Motorsports? So far this season, as NASCAR evaluates its new rules package, it’s been a case of “status quo” near the top of the leaderboard. A quick look at the top 5 in laps led…
Kevin Harvick – 258
Jimmie Johnson – 176
Joey Logano – 162
Jeff Gordon – 87
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – 37
Logano, from Team Penske, is the only driver up there who doesn’t use a Hendrick chassis and engine. In fact, when you take him out of the equation, the rest of the field has combined to lead 75 laps. No one from Joe Gibbs Racing has led more than 18 (Denny Hamlin) while the Gibbs group has combined for just three top-5 finishes to date. Matt Kenseth has still not won a points-paying race in the Cup Series since 2013, while the new team of Carl Edwards has yet to record a top-10 finish.
You’d expect the growing pains at Joe Gibbs Racing as it expanded from three to four cars, switched crew chiefs like a merry-go-round in the offseason and lost one of its key drivers, Kyle Busch in a Daytona wreck. But I don’t think anyone thought the gap between JGR and the Hendrick juggernaut would be this vast, this early on in the season. It’s clear there’s some catching up needed.
Harvick, basically a “lone wolf” for Stewart-Haas Racing at this point, joins Logano and Brad Keselowski as the main threats to Hendrick dominance. Keselowski, though, has been a bit off, with an engine failure at Daytona, a tire penalty at Las Vegas and an average start of only 20.7. That leaves the other two, one a defending champ and the other a Final Four competitor last year, whose title hopes were destroyed by a bad Homestead pit stop.
What does that all add up to? Two words: status quo. While Martin Truex, Jr. and AJ Allmendinger have been pleasant surprises, in particular Truex, they’re both still a step or two away from Victory Lane. With a combined five laps led, the teams are showing the consistency preached within the Richard Childress Racing alliance – making the most out of their speed, a philosophy that got Ryan Newman into the Final Four last year.
Will surprises pop up? Sure, but so far it’s not looking likely. Harvick has dominated Phoenix in recent years, expects to do so again on Sunday and then Fontana has typically tilted in a Hendrick direction. Then comes Martinsville, a track where Johnson, Jeff Gordon, and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. have been in control. You get the picture…
Did You Notice? … We still have no concrete answers on when either of the Busch brothers are going to return? Kyle Busch switched out his casts for boots Tuesday, a clear sign his legs are continuing to improve. However, it’s going to be weeks before simple tasks like walking, let alone driving a race car will be back on the agenda. David Ragan has run a pedestrian 18th and 22nd in Busch’s absence. NASCAR has also not indicated whether Busch will be Chase eligible once he returns, a very unlikely scenario considering the number of races he’ll miss.
Ditto for Kurt Busch, whose reinstatement remains in question after a Delaware district attorney cleared him of criminal charges. There’s a growing movement to get Busch reinstated but NASCAR remains mum on A) the terms of his reinstatement and B) whether the timeline has shifted based on the latest developments. It also appears unlikely Kurt would be considered playoff eligible, again considering the number of races missed. Could you imagine if people started getting cleared for the Chase based on 13 starts? What’s the limit? Subjectivity on this matter in terms of a “waiver” takes NASCAR a step back from what has been a big step forward in clarifying rules, both on the track and on pit road.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before we take off…
- So far, every race this season has seen an increase in Nielsen Ratings. That’s a positive sign for the sport, but keep in mind last year’s Daytona 500 had the smallest television audience since the cameras flipped on full-time in 1979. In some ways, the sport had nowhere to go but up, so that trend should have been expected. The key number for me is comparing these ratings to 2013, where the Daytona 500 had a much stronger audience. Compared to ’13, NASCAR is 0-for-3 on ratings increases (Atlanta however had saw an increase in viewership over 2013) so let’s not brand the “NASCAR is back!” logo just yet.
- An interesting theory was bantered around about Tony Stewart on SIRIUS XM Radio this morning. A caller, who is a psychologist by trade, openly wondered whether there’s a mental block for the three-time champ he has yet to get over since the Kevin Ward, Jr. tragedy. Nobody knows what’s going on inside Stewart’s head except for the man himself; that said, his teammate across the way is winning races and championships with the same Stewart-Haas Racing equipment. Whether it’s the crew chief, the new rules or Stewart still struggling with the idea of racing competitively… something is off. I can’t believe, at age 44, he’s lost a step when Jeff Gordon is the same age, driving similar equipment and winning poles and races.
- The Motorsports Group and Ron Hornaday, Jr. have decided to skip the West Coast swing to save some cash. The underfunded program, in its first year of running Sprint Cup, will return at the end of the month at Martinsville. So far, they’re 1-for-2 in Cup attempts with Hornaday making the race at Atlanta and running 42nd.
- Kyle Larson and Jamie McMurray have combined for just one top-10 finish so far. Both have been snakebit by bad luck; that said, let’s not forget these were two of the hottest teams on the Sprint Cup circuit at the end of 2014.
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