Did You Notice? Past performance is not always a guarantee of future success? I took the results of each remaining Chaser from earlier in the year, then added up the points from their performances at Charlotte, Kansas, and Talladega to simulate the next round of the postseason. Here’s how it all shakes out…
- Dale Earnhardt Jr. 3,130 WIN
- Martin Truex Jr. 3,117
- Kevin Harvick 3,116
- Ryan Newman 3,109
- Kurt Busch 3,105
- Matt Kenseth 3,099
- Brad Keselowski 3,098
- Carl Edwards 3,085 WIN
MISSING NEXT ROUND
Joey Logano 3,083
Jeff Gordon 3,083
Kyle Busch 3,079*
Denny Hamlin 3,076
* – For Kyle Busch, I used two results from races last fall (second at Kansas and crashed out at Talladega) since he was hurt for the first 11 races of 2015.
If anything, these points tell us how much has changed in the last few months on the Sprint Cup landscape. It lists Earnhardt as the hottest driver on the circuit; since then, Hendrick Motorsports has struggled and fallen behind Joe Gibbs Racing in terms of overall speed. Earnhardt needed every ounce of driving skill just to sneak inside the top five and make the Chase at Dover. While Talladega offers him a great chance to win – the No. 88 team is arguably the best at restrictor-plate tracks right now, conjuring up images of Dale Jr.’s dad – it’s unlikely he’ll do as well at Charlotte and Kansas.
On the flip side, Hamlin and Kyle Busch are much more likely to ride the coattails of JGR’s recent success. Hamlin, who crashed out at Kansas has already won in the Chase and has been strong at plate tracks as of late (winning at Talladega last season). Busch, whose lone 2015 result we can apply is an 11th-place run at Charlotte accomplished that in his first full race back from injury. It’s far more likely he’ll run better there the second time around, paired with a top-five finish once again from Kansas. Sub Erik Jones had a possible winning car there before crashing down the stretch in his full-race Sprint Cup debut.
The one point I do take away from these early results is Team Penske is going to have its work cut out for them. Keselowski got slammed with that restart penalty at Loudon, debatable in its own right, but that’s the only track the No. 2 car showed winning speed. They appear a step behind at intermediates, and the next three races favor underdogs like Newman, who have strong results in the recent past at Kansas, Charlotte, and Talladega.
Logano, while having a much better season (he’d be neck-and-neck in the points with Harvick without the Chase) also appears vulnerable. He qualified on the front row at Kansas and Charlotte earlier this season only to drop a combined 16 spots in those races. Talladega left him a crash victim, but even with a top-20 finish there wouldn’t have changed things under this simulation. The last trio of races wound up being Harvick’s challenge, and you wonder if his main rival is about to undergo the same scenario.
Did You Notice? Kyle Larson has eight top-15 finishes in the last 10 races? That’s compared to eight top 15s in the first 19 events, a sophomore slump that ultimately kept him far away from making this year’s Chase. The results are important for two reasons. One: crew chief Chris Heroy appeared to have his job on the line after a spring and early summer of subpar performances. The pressure seems to have abated there with Larson starting to show the strength he once possessed midway through last season.
The second point, though is Larson’s star power, however strong it can grow is becoming increasingly important to the future of NASCAR. It’s no secret how far TV ratings have fallen; no need to beat home that point a 55th time. But with Gordon’s pending retirement and Tony Stewart on the way out, Larson was supposed to join Logano in leading the next generation of stars into the hearts of racing fans across the country. For whatever reason, Logano has failed to catch on nationwide and hasn’t appeared to have the type of mass appeal that will rise him to the level of Gordon and Stewart in popularity. Larson, meanwhile has the type of aggressive driving style that could catch on; he’s also the biggest name from NASCAR’s Drive For Diversity program as they look to reach out and grab a new cultural mix of fans across America.
Keep in mind how explosive the third seasons have been for drivers like Gordon (won a title), Kenseth (five victories) and Keselowski (multiple wins, Chase contender). Observers in Larson’s camp are hoping for a similar explosion and setting him up for one now will be crucial in this age of parity among the top teams. Now, with Jamie McMurray eliminated from the Chase, expect Chip Ganassi to switch the focus on Larson and getting the No. 42 car into Victory Lane before the season is out. There’s a reason Stewart wanted to poach this kid….
Did You Notice? Quick hits before taking off…
- The No. 9 Ford remains the lone quality ride still open in the midst of Silly Season 2015. With Sam Hornish Jr. all but guaranteed not to return, David Ragan is listed as the prime candidate. But the more time passes, don’t be surprised if Richard Petty Motorsports thinks outside the box; they’ve always looked to make a big splash. Darrell Wallace Jr., for all his struggles in the Xfinity Series this season could even be a long-shot candidate, but runs into the same problem Hornish has with this team: sponsorship. So much money has been spent on this team this year from the investors themselves and Andy Murstein could be the next guy on the way out (a la Rob Kauffman) if he doesn’t secure the type of drivers who bring money to the table. The Richard Petty brand name, sacred as it is to generations of NASCAR fans decreases in value with each passing year… Father Time has a way of making that happen.
- What was so intriguing about Landon Cassill’s DNF at Dover? It was the first one for mechanical failure we’ve seen on the circuit since Bristol back in August. One of the issues facing NASCAR these days has been a race that’s far too predictable. It’s why Jimmie Johnson’s $5 part failure was important in the grand scheme of things; fans need to know that parts can still break, engine failures can still happen otherwise why keep tuning in to races that will occasionally break out into single-file parades? The current rules curb back aggression in these areas, keeping mechanical failures to a minimum which is a trend the sport may want to look at moving forward.