The 2017 season is at the quarter mark after nine races, and some trends are taking shape. Wood Brothers Racing has established itself at the top of the class, which was to be expected after the team increased its alliance with Team Penske this year. Even within the group, the haves and have nots are establishing themselves.
There have been several changes in the NASCAR hierarchy in recent years. If you divide the field into three categories of elite, mid-tier, and small teams, it’s easy to see how much shifting as occurred. Not terribly long ago, the elite teams by most standards included Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Team Penske, Stewart-Haas Racing, Roush Fenway Racing and Richard Childress Racing. Chip Ganassi Racing was a strong mid-level team along with Michael Waltrip Racing, and Richard Petty Motorsports fit into that category as well, with the rest of the field falling into the smaller team group.
Fast Forward to 2017 and Hendrick, Gibbs, SHR and Penske still rule the roost and Ganassi and Furniture Row Racing have proven themselves in the same category as well. Roush Fenway and Richard Childress Racing have slipped in recent years to more mid-tier status, while the Petty organization has dropped a notch into the small team pool and MWR ceased to exist altogether.
Within the small team ranks, things change as well. Several teams have come and gone altogether in the last few years. Furniture Row Racing rocketed all the way to the top of the game, and other teams have ebbed and flowed. Wood Brothers, Leavine Family Racing and Germain Racing were all either part-time or start-and-park teams a few years ago, and all three have established themselves as tops among their immediate peers, along with Richard Petty Motorsports, for whom concentrating on just the No. 43 this year seems to have turned things around. The No. 21 looks like they could go the way of the No. 78 and spring to the top in the next couple of years.
While something don’t change in NASCAR, there’s a shakeup going on in the ranks, and it’s part of what makes the sport march on.
Top of the Class: Richmond I
When the track puts the race in the hands of the driver and team instead of the equipment, it’s not uncommon for a smaller team to crack the upper ranks in the finishing order, and this week, Aric Almirola scored his second top ten of the season, finishing a strong ninth. And the good news for Almirola is that the Cup Series heads to Talladega this weekend, and he’s a strong plate racer—his only Cup win to date came at Daytona, and he won the summer XFINITY Series race there last year as well. His team has really turned things around so far in 2017.
Chris Buescher scored his best finish in three starts at RIR, finishing a solid 17th. JTG Daugherty Racing has begun to pick up the pace after a slow start to the year…there have been plenty of hiccups, but if they can find some consistency, look for more strong finishes like this one from Buescher.
Rounding out the trio of underdogs in the top 20 this week is David Ragan. Front Row Motorsports as a whole had a great weekend, with Ragan finishing 19th and Landon Cassill 21st. Like Almirola, both FRM drivers have to be excited to continue the momentum this weekend at Talladega, where Ragan has a win for FRM and Cassill has had some excellent runs.
Ty Dillon just might want to forget the entire weekend at Richmond. On Saturday, he jumped a late restart by a couple of feet, costing himself a chance at the XFINITY Series win. On Sunday, a late pit road tangle with Clint Bowyer took Dillon out of contention for a top-20 run. Dillon makes his first Cup start at Talladega this week, but he has a top ten in four XFINITY Series starts and the No. 13 has been strong there in the past.
Cole Whitt continues to impress, scoring better finishes than his equipment should allow. He finished 26th Sunday, which is several sports better than might have been expected from tiny Tri-Star Motorsports.
The list of drivers showing improvement over last season also includes Matt DiBenedetto, who was running in the low 20s late before slipping to 28th in the closing laps, another solid effort from a team that barely kept its head above water a year ago.
Michael McDowell squeezed into the top 30 with his 29th-place run Sunday, but it’s hard to say the No. 95 team isn’t capable of more. McDowell finished 12th in this race a year ago, and he’s been stronger all around this year than he was on Sunday.
The BK Racing duo of Gray Gaulding and Corey Lajoie finished 31st and 32nd, an indicator that their cars are on the same page, which is a small step in the right direction. With even the top 30 being ultra-competitive this year, finishes like this are a realistic expectation for now. A few spots better is icing. The same can be said—at least for now—of the teams of Reed Sorenson (33rd), Timmy Hill (34th) and Jeffrey Earnhardt (36th). They’re getting what they can out of their equipment and sometimes a little more than that. For every step one of these underfunded teams makes forward, the bigger teams can make five.
This week, two of the top teams in this group finished on the bottom. Ryan Blaney lost a tire with just a handful of laps left and was relegated to 36th spot. After a second straight finish in the 30’s, Blaney is probably ready to leave the short tracks behind. Or maybe not, considering the nature of Talladega.
AJ Allmendinger finished 39th and running, but after smelling smoke in the car and a subsequent gear change, finishing the race is a small silver lining. Allmendinger isn’t a big fan of restrictor-plate racing, but he’ll be looking to shed some bad luck at Talladega next week nonetheless.
The NASCAR community is still reeling this week from the news that John Andretti, who drove for Petty Enterprises (which later became Richard Petty Motorsports), is battling Stage 4 colon cancer, which has also spread to his liver. Andretti has two wins in 393 Cup Series starts, with his most recent victory driving for Petty at Martinsville in 1999. He also has 12 Indianapolis 500 starts and was the first driver to run in the Indy 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 on the same day.
The going is about to get tough for some of the open teams on the list as there are 42 entries for 40 spots at Talladega. Tommy Baldwin Racing joins the fray with Elliott Sadler in the No. 7 Chevrolet. Brendan Gaughan attempts the race in the No. 75 for Beard Motorsports, and DJ Kennington will drive the No. 96 Gaunt Brothers Racing machine in hopes of making the race. The other drivers competing for starting spots are Derrike Cope, Timmy Hill and Corey Lajoie.
— Richard Petty Motorsports (@RPMotorsports) April 29, 2017
Gotta give it to you @KevinHarvick I went to Jimmy Johns today and had my sub before I got my change. Freaky fast is a true statement. 👏🏻
— Ryan Blaney (@Blaney) April 26, 2017
— Front Row Motorsports (@Team_FRM) May 1, 2017
— LeavineFamilyRacing (@LFR95) May 1, 2017