ONE: Sluggish Start to NASCAR’s 10-Race Playoff
It’s fair to say for NASCAR that it hasn’t been the compelling start to the 2017 playoffs the powers that be at Daytona Beach, Fla., would have wanted. We’ve had two poor races with limited-to-no excitement. There hasn’t been a great deal of passing, not really any it seems at times, as both events featured 18 lead changes combined.
There’s been two extremely predictable winners, both in the Toyota livery and incendiary social media missives on the same topic. Meanwhile, controversy has dogged the sport over penalties and procedures, culminating in Joey Logano having to sit in his car like a naughty school boy during practice. That’s just a part of it, and I didn’t even mention errant tape on the back of Chase Elliott’s ride.
In short, it’s not been great – quite the opposite, in fact. So as we head deeper into the playoffs, we really need a solid race to get this party properly started.
Will Dover International Speedway be the venue? Possibly. But recent evidence brings us a set of mixed reviews. We might get a classic, we might get a snoozer. The concrete surface and tire combination leaves it a 50/50 proposition.
Of course, as the playoffs continue, the tracks improve, and so does the level of competition. Once we get to the final race at Homestead-Miami Raceway, it’s likely that the action will heat up. But as of now, there’s a lot of bluster and not much else. The sport needs a pick-me-up, starting with 400 miles on Dover’s high banks Sunday.
TWO: A Changing of the Guard
Last week’s news of Kasey Kahne taking over from Michael McDowell in the No. 95 for Leavine Family Racing clears up one more piece of Silly Season business. But with just eight races remaining in 2017, there are a number of big names still without firm plans for next year.
2003 champion Matt Kenseth is one, Danica Patrick another. Both are high-profile names missing high-profile opportunities to still compete. Meanwhile, Kurt Busch may still end up back at Stewart-Haas Racing, but he’s still looking at being out of a ride as things stand.
Add in Tony Stewart, Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards, who retired last year, plus a certain Dale Earnhardt Jr., and you’re looking at a genuine changing of the guard in this sport. New, younger and fresher faces like Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott, William Byron and Erik Jones are rising to the forefront.
Now, this evolution isn’t something new in NASCAR; far from it. As veterans retire, their places are taken by the next wave of talent. But assuming none of the three above (Kenseth, Busch and Patrick) end up with a Cup ride, you’re looking at eight drivers with relatively large fan bases exiting the top level of the sport in a very short period of time.
Some might look at this sudden shift as a bad thing. But the fact is there’s a window of opportunity for the younger drivers to cement their place in the sport. As we look as ever to the future, there’s an opportunity waiting to be taken for all of them.
THREE: Next Up, Dover
Next up, it’s the second trip of the season to Dover International Speedway and the final race of the three in the first playoff segment (quite the mouthful, isn’t it?). Sunday will mark the 96th Cup Series visit the 1-mile, high-banked concrete track known colloquially as the Monster Mile.
NASCAR’s visits to Dover are an annual streak that run all the way back to July 1969 and a race won by none other than the King himself, Richard Petty. When we last visited, you’ll not be surprised to learn it was a home track win for Martin Truex Jr., who led 187 laps on the day. Truex picked up what was his second win of his, to date, dominant season.
But of course, when we visit Dover there is one undisputed kin, and that wheelman is seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson. In 31 visits to the 1-mile oval, Johnson has a remarkable 11 wins, 16 top fives, 22 top 10s and a staggering 3,100 laps led. To put those numbers into context, the next closest drivers in terms of wins are Kenseth and Ryan Newman (three apiece).
As always, then, heading into Dover, Johnson is the man to watch.
FOUR: Jimmie Johnson, a 2016 Retrospective
And while I’m on the topic of old Seven-Time, in the first two weeks of the 2017 playoffs Johnson has finished eighth (Chicagoland Speedway) and 14th this past weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. By his own very high standards, it’s nothing to write home about.
This time last year, by comparison, Johnson finished 12th at Chicagoland and eighth at Loudon. Then, he won the first race of stage two at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the first race of stage three, and of course the win at Homestead to take home the crown.
Heading into the 2016 playoffs, no one was talking about Johnson, and it’s much the same this time around. In pre-race coverage last Sunday on NBC Sports Network, a pit reporter commented that Johnson, when asked how this season compares to last, said it feels exactly the same: slow in the summer and turning it on in the playoffs.
For the rest of the field, that’s a hugely worrying statement. This driver is one who knows exactly what he needs to do when the pressure’s on. More often than not, he executes even when you’re least expecting it.
Does that mean Johnson is a lock for an eighth championship? No, not at all. But write him off at your own peril. We’ve all made that mistake before.
FIVE: Congrats, Tyler Reddick!
Finally this week, a quick shout out to Tyler Reddick, who won the standalone XFINITY Series race at Kentucky Speedway, his first win at the sport’s second-tier level. Running part-time in 2017 for Chip Ganassi Racing, the Corning, Calif., native took the lead on lap 74 and ended up winning by a whopping 14.54 seconds.
Put another way, it’s like your typical Martin Truex Jr. Cup Series win (or so it seems).
Reddick trounced the field as a lame duck; he’ll be leaving CGR in 2018 in favor of a full-time ride with JR Motorsports.
“To be here today is surreal. We had such a really fast car the last time we were here, to be able to bring it to Victory Lane, I knew the car was capable,” said Reddick, running in just his 15th XFINITY Series race. “We had a really fast car last weekend, our mile-and-a-half program has been unreal. [Crew chief] Mike Shiplett brought me from ground zero all the way to here. All the guys at Ganassi have gone above and beyond in helping me become a better driver.”
Reddick, a former driver for Brad Keselowski in the Camping World Truck Series, is developing into one of the sport’s top prospects. So here’s to this being the first of many, Mr. Reddick.