Sometimes circumstances happen that are completely out of your control that prevents you from doing something you enjoy. That’s the case with the late version of this week’s column and that was the case with a few drivers during Sunday’s race at Hampshire, who would’ve much rather finished up front rather than in the back. But that’s how it goes sometimes, and you just have to regroup and get ready for the next day… or race.
Kyle Busch doesn’t need to regroup after his win at New Hampshire. He joins Martin Truex Jr. as one of the two favorites to be in the championship four at Homestead at the end of the season. Busch pretty much had his way on the day, leading 187 of the 300 laps. And when you figure in that Truex led 112 of the other 113 circuits, that statement Brad Keselowski made a couple of weeks ago about the Toyotas having an advantage doesn’t seem too far off. Because you see, while Busch and Truex are excellent drivers, there are number of other drivers who are likely equally as talented. So yes, give Toyota a bit of credit for figuring this out, but you have to wonder if there’s a little more to this than good engineering and good crew chiefing.
It was last week when we learned that Leavine Family Racing was going to replace Michael McDowell with Kasey Kahne. OK, can Kahne bring some much needed funding to the team in terms of sponsorship? Maybe. But does he bring an obviously more talented driver to the team? It’s really difficult to say that. With the exception of a fortunate pit stop and then yellow at Indianapolis where Kahne got his only win this season, there was very little difference in the performance of McDowell and Kahne. Plus, when you factor in that Kahne was driving for one of the best teams in the business with all the funding it needed, and still not being competitive on a regular basis, you have to wonder if this is really as step forward for LFR. Maybe the question that needs to be asked is if this is a step backwards for the team?
Yes, it’s true that Erik Jones drives a Toyota, too, but he seems to be getting this Cup Series thing figured out here. He’s been 10th or better in seven of the last eight races. He’s still missing that elusive first win, so he didn’t make the playoffs, but this might be the last year in quite some time we don’t see him contending for a title. And since he’s moving over to officially be part of Joe Gibbs Racing next year, it’s difficult to see him getting anything but better. Once Jones and his team figure out how to win, whether that’s in these last eight races of 2017, or sometime early in 2018, it wouldn’t surprise me if the victories came in bunches for the 21-year-old.
Kurt Busch seemed to be finding his groove a little better toward the end of the season, but after he found his teammate’s door in an accident on Sunday, he’s looking at an almost must-win situation to make the next round of the playoffs. He goes into Dover this weekend 17 points behind 12th-place Ricky Stenhouse Jr. for the final spot to advance to the next round of the playoffs. It’s not an impossible number to deal with, but Busch needs to have a top-five kind of car this weekend to have a realistic chance at making it. On the other side, if Stenhouse can squeeze through this round, the newest restrictor plate ace has Talladega in the next round, where a win would put him in the final eight. But first things first and as you know Busch will do all he can get make the round of 12.
One of the nice things about the XFINITY Series playoffs beginning is that we don’t have Cup drivers jumping down to win these races. So it was nice to see Tyler Reddick pick up the victory in the first playoff race last week. But it was even nicer to see names like Brennan Poole, Justin Allgaier, Ryan Preece and Cole Custer in the top five too. Sure, there are things the young drivers can learn by following the Cup regulars when they race in the XFINITY Series. But one thing they haven’t been able to learn with any regularity is how to win. That only comes from getting a win on occasion, and that’s an important feeling to learn to experience as well.
The racing at New Hampshire might not have been great in recent years, but the fact that it is being dropped from the schedule for a cookie-cutter 1.5 mile track is very disappointing. If you wanted to add another road course into the schedule (let’s say Mid-Ohio for example), no one’s arguing with that these days. Or, if there was a short track you wanted to add into the playoffs (long live Rockingham!) with a little schedule rearranging, which has happened already anyway, then that’s OK too. Or if you want to take a second trip to Darlington in less than a month, who would say no to that? But another 1.5-miler on the schedule. That’s something that just wasn’t needed and not only doesn’t add excitement to the sport, but maybe even lessens it a bit.
With the Cup Series in Dover this week, the first thought is to go with the No. 48 here. And you couldn’t blame someone for picking Jimmie Johnson here at all. But with the Toyota’s dominating so much, the pick has got to be either Kyle Busch or Truex. So since Dover of the closest track to Truex’s New Jersey home, let’s go with the No. 78 this week. The who you might not think about underdog sleeper pick of the week is Ryan Newman. He has had success at the Monster Mile in his younger days, and with a playoff spot on the line, he may well figure out how to get a good finish Sunday.