Did you notice? … Dale Earnhardt Jr. is still within the top 25 in points even though he has only run 18 of 24 races? He currently sits 22nd in the standings, ahead of 11 drivers who have made every race this season. Peers he’s currently beating? Paul Menard, Aric Almirola and Clint Bowyer, all of whom have qualified for the Chase since 2014.
This is little solace to Earnhardt’s fans, however – what they want is a healthy driver and a chance at some wins and a title when he returns. And while Earnhardt’s only chance to qualify for the Chase will be at Richmond – and that’s assuming he’s cleared in time and wins the race – his points position shows just how big of a difference there is between the haves and have-nots in the Cup garage.
Perhaps the best example of this lack of equity comes from a driver like Earnhardt’s Loudon and Michigan sub Alex Bowman. Bowman’s best non-plate finish during a two-year stint in Cup for BK Racing and Tommy Baldwin Racing was a 20th-place run at Bristol in 2015, yet in his two races driving for Hendrick Motorsports this season he ran in the top 10 before an accident at Loudon and engine issues at Michigan dropped him down the order.
But it’s not only Earnhardt and Bowman who have shown just how much good equipment can make up for in terms of missed starts. Tony Stewart, driving in two fewer races than Earnhardt this season, has the same amount of top fives as Earnhardt and currently sits just 41 markers behind the No. 88. And last season, Kurt and Kyle Busch missed three and 11 races, respectively, during the regular season and yet sat ninth and 27th going into the regular season finale at Richmond.
Did you notice? … Jimmie Johnson is starting to heat up again as the Chase approaches? It seems like we hear the same song every season: Johnson wins early and spends the remainder of the regular season experimenting for the Chase. But while Johnson won twice during NASCAR’s early West Coast Swing, it seemed as though this year’s slump might be different. Johnson’s summer stretch from Pocono through Watkins Glen only saw him finish in the top 10 once while racking up four crashes. Combine those “meh” results with HMS’ general lack of speed and it seemed as though Johnson might not even be a threat for the title once the points reset in two weeks.
But the last two races have been good for the No. 48 team, with two solid top 10s giving the team some much-needed momentum
heading into the postseason. Johnson and company will need all the momentum they can swing as the new elimination-style playoffs have been nothing but trouble for the driver who once made the Chase his personal playground.
Will he be able to put together another solid 10-race stretch or will there be another early exit before Homestead approaches?
Did you notice? … Quick hits before we take off…
- Thirty-six Sprint Cup teams entered in this weekend’s Bojangles’ Southern 500 will be running throwback paint schemes. Last season’s celebration of NASCAR’s past was a bigger hit than even the most bullish NASCAR fan could imagine, and the event is looking even better this year. Every major team with the exception of Brian Scott’s No. 44 has released images of a throwback scheme, including last year’s Southern 500 winner Carl Edwards — whose win came while driving a car that wasn’t decked out in a throwback scheme. This year, however, he’ll be paying tribute to Stewart’s iconic orange and white No. 20 that he drove from 1999 to 2008. Can he repeat as winner?
- Kevin Harvick leads the series in second-place finishes since 2014. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver has been on a tear since moving over from Richard Childress Racing, winning 10 races plus the 2014 Cup title while driving for SHR. But the results could have been even better – the No. 4 car finished second 22 times over the past 96 races. Add in all the races that Harvick has had mechanical or fuel issues and it makes sense why the driver nicknamed Happy has acted otherwise so many times during the same stretch.
- Filming has begun on another NASCAR-themed movie? Logan Lucky, directed by the Ocean’s trilogy’s Steven Soderbergh, will be set against the backdrop of Charlotte Motor Speedway and will tell the story of a heist taking place during a NASCAR race. While the plot of the movie isn’t driven by auto racing, the film will give moviegoers a look at the sport, hopefully matching the intensity of racing with the adrenaline of the heist. Adam Driver, Daniel Craig and Channing Tatum are among stars cast for the movie. With Talladega Nights a decade removed from the box office, it’ll be nice to see another movie shining the spotlight on NASCAR.