ONE: Four To Go
We have just four races to go before the start of the 2016 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. We begin at Bristol Motor Speedway (more on this below) before the second trip of the season to Michigan International Speedway. Then it’s Darlington Raceway for a second successive throwback weekend before we finish up the regular season at Richmond International Raceway and the final race before the serious business begins. To date, eleven drivers have sealed their place in the playoffs with a win while Chris Buescher needs to make up just three points to make it into the top-30 and to make himself eligible. Put another way, then, there’s still plenty of opportunity for those on the outside looking in to make it to the playoffs particularly drivers like Kyle Larson (still chasing that elusive win), Trevor Bayne and the underachieving Kasey Kahne. For those already locked in, these next four races are a chance to refine, test and tweak ahead of the all-important ten races to decide the champion.
TWO: Lap Leaders
Through 22 races this season, only one driver has broken the 1,000 laps led mark. That would be Martin Truex, Jr., pacing the field with 1,006 circuits split across 13 races; Truex’s strong performance up front is one of many reasons he’ll be with Furniture Row Racing over the long-term. Kyle Busch just behind him in second place, piling up 987 laps led. Kevin Harvick, who led the most laps in 2015 (2,249 laps) by quite some margin is third with 836 laps led while the Joe Gibbs Racing pair of Carl Edwards (710) and Matt Kenseth (469) round out the top five. In total, and just for the record, 35 drivers have led at least one lap in the 2016 season. Now as the old racing adage goes, leading the last lap is what matters but it is interesting to see who’s been pacing the field throughout the majority of the regular season and it shows who has that all important quality of speed. The driver leading the most laps doesn’t always win the championship but we’ve seen it happen two of the last three years with Harvick (2014) and Jimmie Johnson (2013).
Assuming form continues as it has these past 22 races, I’d expect Martin Truex or Kyle Busch to end up atop the laps led column come the end of the season. The only question is will it be enough for a maiden title for Truex or a back-to-back championship for Busch.
THREE: 600 in the books for the Robot
The race at Watkins Glen was something of a milestone for the 19-year veteran 2003 Cup champion Matt “The Robot” Kenseth: his 600th race at the highest echelon. All told, Kenseth has wheeled his car to Victory Lane on 38 separate occasions and has notched 167 top-5’s and in true, consistent Kenseth-ian style, exactly half his races have ended up in top-10 finishes. Kenseth also has 17 poles (not really his forte) and has led a whopping 10,851 of the 171,064 Cup laps he’s run. When the time comes, in the not too distant future, for the 44-year-old to hang up his driving gloves, he’ll almost certainly be a first ballot Hall of Famer – a testament to both his success and longevity but also his consistency. After a tire test at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, earlier this season, Kenseth was asked about the role Tony Stewart had played in NASCAR and the conversation soon turned to a possible path to retirement. “At this point, I probably think about my failures way more than successes,” noted Kenseth. “I will say that as you get older, you appreciate and enjoy race wins and successes probably more than you did when you were younger because you realize that they’re not forever and you realize how hard it really is to be able to win at this level.” Something tells me that there are a few more wins in his future before it’s all said and done for Kenseth and who knows, perhaps that elusive second championship.
FOUR: Next Up — Thunder Valley
Bristol it is then, and our second visit this season to this iconic NASCAR venue. This will be Cup race number 112 at the Coliseum, a streak that runs all the way back to July of 1961 – a race won by Jack Smith. The Spring race was won by Carl Edwards in dominant fashion with the JGR racer leading 276 laps on route to victory including the final 104 circuits. The crowd, however, at a track that sold out 55 consecutive races, was paltry at best. Hopefully there will be a few more bums in seats this Saturday night (which to be fair is traditionally the case nowadays). Only five current drivers have led over a thousand laps at Bristol Motor Speedway and perhaps unsurprisingly two are brothers: Older sibling Kurt has led 1,062 circuits while younger brother Kyle has paced the field for 1,703 laps. Both have five wins, as does Jeff Gordon, but all are a long way short of Darrell Waltrip who won an incredible 12 of his 84 career victories at Bristol. One final quick point to note on Bristol. In the spring race, underdog Matt DiBenedetto ended up sixth and the best of his fledgling career. It was BK Racing’s highest finish in five years and 394 races of trying. Another top-10 would do very nicely indeed.
FIVE: Throwback Scheming
And finally this week, a quick word on the upcoming second (presumably now annual) throwback weekend at Darlington Raceway. The first time round, last year, participants honored the 1970-1974 period. This time around we’re moving forward a little in years. “The track will be celebrating the 1975-84 time period of the sport during our throwback weekend in 2016,” said former Darlington Raceway President Chip Wile. “We had tremendous response from the industry last season, which included the race teams, NASCAR, NBC, Goodyear and the NASCAR Hall of Fame, to name a few. This is a fun and unique way to honor the history and heritage of NASCAR racing at one of the sport’s most iconic tracks on Labor Day weekend.” Wile definitely has that right – it truly is a fun and unique way to reprise the rich and illustrious history of the sport. I’m looking forward to this one already.