Did You Notice? … The past few days marked the last off weekend of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season? Starting Sunday at Darlington, we’ve got 12 races in a row which culminates with the crowning of the champion at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November.
In a season filled with mixed reviews, there’s still plenty of storylines yet to play out. Here’s a dozen topics you’ll see in the news between now and the time this year’s trophy gets raised….
1) 2018 Team Sponsorship: Where, What, Who and How Much
Going back 20 years in this sport, the mantra was “show me the money,” among a rapidly growing group of NASCAR owners. Now, the cold reality is “where is that money going?”
This 2017 Silly Season has weathered a long list of departures on the sponsorship front. Great Clips, Farmers Insurance and Target are just three of the major companies exiting stage right. Others like Monster Energy, the presenting sponsor of the series, are sitting on the fence or thinking of reducing their investment.
Entire teams like the Furniture Row No. 77 Toyota, a potential playoff operation, have their survival hanging in the balance. Others, like one of the Stewart-Haas Racing Fords could find the entire bill being footed by their car owner next season.
Supposedly, it’s not all doom and gloom. Axalta expanded its Cup Series program for next year with Hendrick Motorsports while Liberty University will move up. Chip Ganassi Racing, losing Target as a backer for Kyle Larson claims a “company new to the sport” will be announced in the next couple of weeks.
Let’s hope that announcement comes with fireworks, an extra zero on the end and a branding campaign that overwhelms social media. On the business end of sports, perception can be everything, and NASCAR is fighting the idea its teams are fighting an uphill battle. No wonder why Richard Petty Motorsports owner Andrew Murstein floated the idea of a salary cap, difficult to implement but a story worth watching if sponsorship continues to crumble.
In the end, it’s the owners who will spearhead any changes in NASCAR’s financial climate. Can they come together and find a way? We might see a bigger push if Monster chooses not to pick up the option on either Kurt Busch for 2018 or its role as title sponsor for the following year.
2) Can Dale Earnhardt Jr. Win?
Forget about Earnhardt making the playoffs at this point. He’s never won the Southern 500, Darlington’s crown jewel and hasn’t even led a lap at Richmond since 2014.
Sadly, the fans of NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver will have to root for a Cinderella trip to Victory Lane over the final 10 races, not a championship. The best hope is obviously Talladega but I see a few other chances. Earnhardt earned a fifth at Texas this spring, his best run of the season and his No. 88 car nearly won Phoenix last November with Alex Bowman. I’d put hopes at only about 15-20 percent considering his confidence right now but hey, stranger things have happened.
3) Will Danica Patrick Join Dale In Retirement?
Quietly this summer, Patrick’s salvaged a sorry season that started with her No. 10 Ford getting sued by sponsor Nature’s Bakery. From Kentucky to Pocono, she rode a streak of four straight top-15 finishes for the first time in a five-year career. Her average finish this season is 23.4 but during the second half it’s a more forgivable 18.0. By comparison, Ryan Blaney, one of this year’s up-and-comers has posted an average finish of 18.3 during all of 2017.
But what did we say earlier about perception? The perception is Patrick is 35 years old, had an extended chance to prove herself and no longer commands star power. If she exits SHR, who will take her? Richard Childress Racing? Furniture Row doesn’t seem to be the place for a reclamation project and I don’t see her racing for 30th with an underdog car.
Patrick may not want to hang it up. It’s whether circumstances and money leave her no choice.
4) Who, if anyone will take a chance on sponsorless Kasey Kahne and Matt Kenseth?
The situation of Kenseth and Kahne, two drivers with more successful resumes, remains just as murky. Kenseth, at age 45 would be the oldest full-time driver left running in the series next season. That’s not lost on ownership whose focus this Silly Season has been on packaged sponsorship and youth.
For a former champion to be shut out of rides with gas left in the tank (he’s eighth in points) would be unthinkable, a red flag on the current state of NASCAR financial affairs. The hope is Furniture Row somehow scrapes the funding together to give him a one-year home but the longer this story goes, the more skeptical I become.
If Kenseth can’t get traction then all would seem hopeless for Kahne, lifeless the past few seasons aside from this summer’s Brickyard 400 upset. His best chance appears to be if GMS Racing is willing to make the step to the Cup Series with Hendrick backing.
5) Did the Toyotas peak too soon… or was this summer just the tip of the iceberg?
Remember how awful Toyotas ran this spring? They won just one of the first 10 races while Team Penske and Ford snagged three. All the talk was about how Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski were full steam ahead toward a title with a little side of Kyle Larson.
But, like we’ve seen so many times, crowning a champion in April is premature. Logano will likely not make the playoffs while Martin Truex Jr. helped lead a Toyota turnaround. Camrys have now won five of the last seven races overall, crashed themselves out of a sixth at Indianapolis and could be seven-for-seven without Larson’s Michigan restart.
Suddenly, Joe Gibbs Racing looks every bit of a Final Four contender once again although with three cars, not four (the No. 19 driven by rookie Daniel Suarez should miss the playoffs.) What the manufacturer lacks in depth they make up for in raw talent at the top.
A Final Four of Truex, Kyle Busch (two wins the last four races), Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth still seems more far-fetched than 2016. But it’s hard to see Busch and Truex getting knocked out, at the very least. Even if they stumble this fall, playoff points give them a nice little cushion to ride their way to Homestead.
6) How much will playoff points really matter?
See above. Truex might start the postseason with a minimum of 50 playoff points. That’ll put him 40 in front of most of the other 15 title contenders. Remember, these transfer through every round; Truex could hold the same advantage over several rivals in the round of eight.
How much is 40 points? A driver could finish second at Martinsville, let’s say while Truex finishes dead last and he could still stay in front. It means the No. 78 would have to stub their toe twice, perhaps three times in the first round in order to get knocked out. Wins will still be a factor; remember, you could have three of the four spots at Homestead filled by victories at Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix regardless of points. But if Truex isn’t among that trio he could earn the fourth slot by default.
7) Who will win Rookie of the Year?
This great battle has been lost amidst the playoff hoopla. Erik Jones, coming off a career-best runner-up finish at Bristol has all the momentum. But Daniel Suarez, who spent the first two months simply coming up to speed in a No. 19 Toyota has come into his own. Despite losing a crew chief and inheriting this ride mere weeks before the start of 2017 he’s learned to be consistent. Only Michael McDowell, AJ Allmendinger and Clint Bowyer have completed more laps all season.
Suarez sits four points behind Jones, a gap which could be erased in the matter of a single weekend. Expect this battle to go down to Homestead with a tip of the cap to Ty Dillon, whose solid third-place effort and near-upset win at Dover might have been good enough in another season. Any or all of this trio could win multiple races a year in 2018 and I wouldn’t be surprised.
8) When and how will NASCAR announce its 2018 rule changes?
Remember May, when the sport randomly added a fourth stage for the Coca-Cola 600? That didn’t go over very well and the bad press wasn’t lost on Daytona Beach. I’d expect 2018 tweaks to leak far earlier than mere weeks before the season this time.
But what will NASCAR do? The stage format has proven popular but what and how will they tweak the “majors?” Will the dreaded aero push finally be addressed, using the introduction of a new car (Chevy Camaro) to rewrite chassis requirements? And will there be further adjustments to a penalty system that has, at times, come under criticism for too much regulation? (Think those crew chief suspensions for wheels coming off as an example.)
The sport, as always, is caught in the middle. Do too little and you’ll find little passing on intermediates next year beyond double-file restarts. Do too much? Then fans yell about inconsistency and having to adjust to changes every six to 12 months. NASCAR has yet to find that Goldilocks-style “just right” middle ground.
9) Which Hendrick Motorsports will we see in the playoffs?
What a bizarre year for the sport’s New York Yankees. Jimmie Johnson is a title contender, earning three victories; only Truex has won more on the Cup circuit. But those wins are his only top-five finishes all season long.
Sure, this current playoff format supports a win-or-bust strategy that Johnson and mastermind crew chief Chad Knaus appear to be following, but this is a guy who hasn’t earned less than 11 top-five finishes since his rookie season of 2002. Clearly, the No. 48 team has struggled for speed at times and none of those wins have come since.
After Johnson, there’s a huge drop as winless Chase Elliott has to be considered a disappointment. He’s technically on the playoff bubble while teammate Kahne should be a first round playoff TKO. Add in Earnhardt’s awful year and this season is more reminiscent of 1980s, pre-superpower HMS that couldn’t find the consistency to contend.
Of course, history tells us we’ve been here before. Should Johnson win Dover, Charlotte and Texas, he’s sitting at Homestead and on the verge of title number eight. The No. 48 team has won at two of those three places this year and led 35 laps, respectively, at the other. You just can’t ever count HMS completely out….
10) Can Martin Truex Jr. keep up his torrid pace?
In a 2003, pre-playoff version of this sport Truex would be winning the title going away. The No. 78 Toyota team has played the part of a team that builds toward a championship. With 1,372 laps led and four victories already, Truex has dominated most of 2017 while completing the transformation from “occasional” to “weekly” favorite. Three of those four wins have come at intermediates, the bread and butter of NASCAR’s playoffs which make him even more formidable.
How can you beat this year’s Superman? The formula is difficult. But Truex has a weakness on plate tracks (he’s crashed twice) and sits without a top-five finish at a short track this year. That could lead to mulligans getting used up at Talladega and Martinsville BUT those playoff points mean that won’t be enough to knock him out. You’re going to have to hit him twice in one round to keep this team out of Homestead.
11) Who earns the final playoff spots?
Kenseth could easily win Darlington, Richmond, or both. The No. 20 Toyota has been ready to revisit Victory Lane awhile now. Either way, he’s definitely in; the Camrys have been far too strong.
I don’t think Clint Bowyer catches Jamie McMurray or Chase Elliott on points for those final two spots. But don’t sleep on him winning Richmond, the perfect closure on Spingate four years earlier that threatened to derail his career. He’s a far better bet to do so than an ailing Logano or a complete surprise, like Jones.
Who gets knocked out if Bowyer wins? I go with Elliott. It would be a huge disappointment for the sport, banking on his future popularity but he hasn’t progressed to the level Jeff Gordon did in year two.
12) Who makes the Homestead Final Four?
Truex. Kyle Busch. Johnson somehow gets it together. And I’ll round it out with Kevin Harvick, a forgotten man this season who’s put together seven straight top-20 finishes. Don’t hate on a guy who can reach the round of eight through consistency and then win Phoenix with ease.