Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? … NASCAR At The Season’s Halfway Point

Did You Notice? … Halfway through this Sprint Cup season there’s at least a few new drivers in position to spice up the Chase. Here’s the 16-driver postseason grid after Richmond last September compared to how things stand through 13 races…

2015 Chasers 2016 Chase As Of Now
Clint Bowyer Ryan Blaney
Kurt Busch Kurt Busch
Kyle Busch Kyle Busch
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Austin Dillon
Carl Edwards Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
Jeff Gordon Carl Edwards
Denny Hamlin Chase Elliott
Kevin Harvick Denny Hamlin
Jimmie Johnson Kevin Harvick
Matt Kenseth Jimmie Johnson
Brad Keselowski Matt Kenseth
Joey Logano Brad Keselowski
Jamie McMurray Joey Logano
Paul Menard Jamie McMurray
Ryan Newman Ryan Newman
Martin Truex, Jr. Martin Truex, Jr.

The number of differences between Chasers isn’t that extreme. The retired Jeff Gordon would obviously not be on this year’s list while

(Photo: Mike Neff)
Clint Bowyer is one of a few drivers who were in last year’s Chase but are not expected to make it in this year based on their performance thus far. (Photo: Mike Neff)

Clint Bowyer is working with a small, underfunded effort in HScott Motorsports before moving over to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2017. It was unlikely, considering those limited resources for him to challenge for a Chase appearance this year. Paul Menard, meanwhile, has been a solid top-15 to top-20 driver throughout most of his Cup career but was looked at as a mere Chase “throw-in” during the 2015 edition and never made a major impact.

It’s the three drivers that slip in their place, though, who offer us the most potential to shake things up. Rookies Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott have been overachieving, clicking off top-10 and even top-5 finishes. Austin Dillon, driving the iconic No. 3, is enjoying a career year in his third season and is positioning that historic car number to vault into championship contention for the first time since the year 2000. While the link to the old Dale Earnhardt era is weaker than you might think — we’re talking over 15 years now since that tragic day in Daytona back in February 2001 — seeing the No. 3 car advance has to be a positive for NASCAR.

So there’s three young, aggressive faces with nothing to lose that are positioned for their first playoff appearance. Their entry also shines the light on drivers they’ve bypassed, mid-level names who would be missing the Chase in back-to-back years (or more). Kasey Kahne has had perhaps the most disappointing season of anyone, driving the No. 5 car for Hendrick Motorsports and would miss his second straight Chase. Kyle Larson, in his third season on tour, is threatening to go 0-for-3 on the postseason despite knocking on the door of Victory Lane in recent weeks. Tony Stewart, in the midst of his final season in NASCAR as a driver, missed eight races due to injury and hasn’t been anywhere close enough to the front to win a race. Stewart, who most recently won the title in 2011, hasn’t even made a Chase since 2012.

There’s also the matter of Roush Fenway Racing, a team many view to be on the upswing in 2016 but still at this juncture would wind up missing the Chase with their trio of drivers in back-to-back years. Danica Patrick would continue a run of postseason futility that extends back to her rookie season of 2013. AJ Allmendinger, the victor at Watkins Glen two years ago, remains on the outside looking in with the single-car No. 47 team. Finally, you’ve got Richard Petty Motorsports, once the Chase Cinderella in 2014, that doesn’t have either of its two teams inside the top 25 of Cup Series points after Charlotte.

FESKO: RPM Shuts Down XFINITY Series Team

With this group of drivers you have a pattern emerging, some entrenched battle lines as to who’s in and who’s out of the postseason. The question is whether they’ll be able to break the fault lines in the season’s second half, a guy like Larson, Kahne or Allmendinger winning and knocking out some of the guys on the Chase “bubble” looking to make it in on points. Even then, it doesn’t look like a major name is all that vulnerable. Newman and McMurray, two drivers near the cut line, have been winless since 2013, have led a combined total of two laps all season, and have had their 2017 contract status come up in conversation. They’re far more likely to slip down a peg than, say, a winless Dale Earnhardt, Jr. considering all the “A” level resources available at Hendrick Motorsports.

So what we see in summary, then, halfway through this regular season, is a balance of power that’s shifted to young drivers … but on the same teams. Here’s a look at how the Chase breaks down by car owner, that very same 2015-2016 comparison we noted above:

2015 Chasers 2016 Chase As Of Now
Joe Gibbs Racing (4) Joe Gibbs Racing (4)
Hendrick Motorsports (3) Hendrick Motorsports (3)
Richard Childress Racing (2) Richard Childress Racing (2)
Stewart-Haas Racing (2) Stewart-Haas Racing (2)
Team Penske (2) Team Penske (2)
Chip Ganassi Racing (1) Chip Ganassi Racing (1)
Furniture Row Racing (1) Furniture Row Racing (1)
Michael Waltrip Racing (1) Wood Brothers (1)

As you can see, the only difference is MWR no longer in the Chase (they’re now defunct) and replaced by a Wood Brothers Racing program that is very closely aligned with Team Penske. That’s it. The balance of power, heading into the postseason at least, remains the same with no new organizations piercing that postseason wall … at least, not yet.

Did You Notice? … Some of the other year-to-year comparisons from 2015?

Winners Through 13 Races

2015 – Nine

2016 – Eight

Change: -11.1%

Lead Changes Through 13 Races

2015 – 273

2016 – 249

(Photo: NASCAR via Getty Images)
There has been a decline in lead changes this season, particularly in the night races. (Photo: NASCAR via Getty Images)

Change: –8.7%

Now, I know what you’re thinking. “How is lead changes a fair comparison? What about the races at Daytona and Talladega?” Well, this year’s edition of those races brought about more lead changes than the year before. You take that out of the equation and the year-to-year decline is even steeper.

Certainly, these comparisons don’t take anything away from NASCAR’s new rules package. No one will disagree it’s done a great job to increase side-by-side competition throughout the field, create more opportunities for passing and put excitement back on the track. But despite that upward mobility, based on the “eye test” alone there’s a reason why NASCAR, the Race Team Alliance and the Driver’s Council are all still looking for ways to make the package better. Night races continue to be a problem. That’s where you have the big reduction in lead changes. Texas, Kansas and Charlotte totaled 67 lead changes during the 2015 season. This year? They produced only 42.

“Obviously, we’ve got some things to look at,” said NASCAR VP Steve O’Donnell on SIRIUS XM Radio’s The Morning Drive. “We’ll look at some of the future night races and see what we can do with Goodyear, that tire combination and the rules package.”

The new “skew” rules, which stay ahead of the curve for teams beginning to conquer this new package, will premiere at a points-paying race at Michigan in two weeks. The question is whether NASCAR, if they see better racing, will be willing to take those midseason changes and implement them inside a postseason designed for an earlier package.

Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off….

  • The respect for Martin Truex, Jr. was evident during the postrace celebration in Charlotte Sunday night. Who would have ever thought, two years ago, this guy with the same team (the No. 78) where he led just one lap throughout the entire 2014 season would now pace the circuit with 809 laps led? It really is an incredible story.
  • Some other quick nuggets on the 2016 season to date…

Best Team: Joe Gibbs Racing, hands down. With all four cars already in the Chase, plus their “B” team right along with them (Truex), they remain heavy favorites. Toyota, the best manufacturer this season, has collected eight victories in 13 races through the JGR alliance.

Worst Team: HScott Motorsports. Yes, Kahne has no excuse but you expected this organization to be a little better with Bowyer making a one-year stopover. Kahne with Team Red Bull won one race during his time there before moving to HMS and it doesn’t look like the No. 15 team will get even close. And Michael Annett? 99% of race fans respond with a look and go, “Michael who?

Best Race: Dover. How could you not be on your feet for that finish between a hungry Kenseth, youngster Larson and rookie Elliott? It’s easily the best show the Monster Mile has put on in years, and could help revive sagging interest at the track.

Worst Race: Phoenix. Harvick’s dominance aside, perhaps no other ISC track needs a reboot more than this 1-mile oval still struggling to find its identity. Is it a short track? Is it an intermediate? Can anyone ever pass here with regularity after the repave?

Best Move: Carl Edwards over Kyle Busch at Richmond. It helped remind everyone in this era of mega-teams that when the white flag flies, drivers are still allowed to race for themselves.

About the author

The author of Bowles-Eye View (Mondays) and Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 30 staff members as its majority owner. Based in Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild.

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Shane

Do you really think Phoenix was a worse race than the Coke 600? It was the worst race since the plate race a New Hampshire!
And HScott Motorsports can’t take all the blame for Bowyer, he is the one that has to drive the car. He is average at best!

Broken Arrow

Worst race of the year: Coke 600 at Charlotte. Could be used as an ad for ZQuill.

Worst excuse for a journalist in any year: Tom Bowles who has learned nothing from being fired by SI and still openly cheers for his favorites and against those he hates.

Broken Arrow

BTW, Tom, if the roles had been reversed and Kyle Busch had moved Carl Edwards out of the way at Richmond, would you still call it the Best Move of the season? Don’t bother to respond. We all know the answer. Of course, if Kyle had done that to Carl, Edwards would probably have smacked the wall and made it look like a dirty move. The only reason it was a good move at all was that Kyle had the car control to keep going.

Broken Arrow

They tuned it to see how the 78 team would screw itself out of another win. Like waiting for the train wreck that didn’t actually happen – this time.

rg72

How is 13 out of 36 the halfway point?

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