(Photo: John K. Harrelson/NKP)

Who’s Hot & Who’s Not In NASCAR: Elimination and Advancement Edition

Maybe Sunday’s race at Kansas is an example of why NASCAR shifted its schedule to make this an elimination race. The normally snoozish 1.5-miler at least had the added drama of seeing drivers eliminated, or advancing, into the final eight of the playoff rounds. Unfortunately, NASCAR can’t do this at all of its 1.5-milers, but at least its one less cookie-cutter track race where they don’t have worry about creating more interest.

HOT
Martin Truex, Jr. has seven wins now after taking over in the final stage at Kansas and pulling away from the field. Some fans on social media are claiming the No. 78 team must be cheating in some manner to get this big of advantage over the field. That’s a convenient excuse if you are tired of seeing Truex win, and sometimes in dominating fashion, so often. But every now and then there is a year or a time when a team gets it figured out. In 2011, when Tony Stewart won five of the last 10 races to take the title, you didn’t hear whispers of the No. 14 team doing something illegal did you? I would suppose it would be possible for the Furniture Row team to make some questionable adjustments somewhere on or in the car. But until they’re caught, all you can is admire what the team has done this year.

NOT
The No. 42 team of Kyle Larson has been knocking on the door of being one of the elite in NASCAR. And just when the Chip Ganassi Racing Team seemed to get its foot in that door, it was slammed in their face on Sunday. What seemed to be very realistic chances of Larson advancing into the final eight ended with a sudden burst of smoke and blown engine early on at Kansas. That left him in 39th place and hoping for something similar to happen to one of his competitors. While playoff driver Matt Kenseth was caught in a rare Kansas “big one” to find himself knocked out of the playoff picture, the same fate did not come to other playoff bubble contenders like Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch or Ryan Blaney. As Larson stated on his twitter account, there will be other days for him when it comes to going after titles. But if the No. 42 team and Ganassi Racing wants to be a championship team, blown engines in such crucial races just can’t happen.

HOT
While Truex winning cemented his spot as the favorite heading into these final four races, what Ryan Blaney did on Sunday was nothing short of remarkable. Blaney started the day in 40th, or the shotgun position as Ken Squire might say, and drove the No. 21 Wood Brothers Food so fast that it looked like it shot out of shotgun. He worked his way up to fourth by the end of the first stage and ended finishing third. Blaney has certainly shown he is one of the top young talents in NASCAR and if there are any doubters left, what he did Sunday should silence them. The team knew it had a fast car, and if the inspection issue that got them sent to the back was minor, they knew they would be fast in the race. Give Blaney credit, too, for being fast, but also not impatient on his march through the field. And whether you are a Blaney fan or not, if you have any appreciation of history for the sport, you can’t help but feel a little good when the No. 21 has such a successful run.

NOT
It seemed Matt Kenseth was fighting an uphill battle all season. And even though he had made it into the second round of the playoffs, the fact it has been known for quite sometime he would not return to the Job Gibbs Racing No. 20 next year seemed to make his journey all the more difficult. You can rest assured that the Gibbs team did all it could to make Kenseth competitive in these playoff races, but the added pressure for the driver and the team are factors here, too, which may have contributed to the too many crew members over the wall penalty that ended his day. Kenseth, who is 45, has represented himself well on the downside of his career. But he, and his crew, know that this was probably his last legitimate chance to win a a second title. Not to feel too sorry for Kenseth, as he has earned plenty of money during his career, but it’s just a reminder that like in any other sport, the spoils usually go to the young and NASCAR is no different.

HOT
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. may or may not get a win in his final season, but he has been seventh in three of the past four past races. It’s not an on-fire type of streak, but it’s his best such streak of the season. He does have a good history at Martinsville, which is this week’s track. So, while it would be hard to predict a win for him at the paper clip short track, stranger things have happened.

Predictions
With the short-track of Martinsville next on the schedule, there can certainly be a bit of unpredictability there. Brad Keselowski won the spring race, but I’m saying Kyle Busch takes the suspense out of whether he makes the next round or not by getting the win Sunday. The driver you might not think about underdog sleeper pick of the week is AJ Allmendinger. He finished sixth in the spring race at Martinsville and seems to have a knack for these short tracks. Maybe because the shifting frequency is similar to that of a road course.

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Jeff is in his fifth year with Frontstretch and in his third year of writing the Hot and Not column after having been the fantasy writer in his first two seasons. After spending all of his post-collegiate career in sports and news at newspapers, he changed professions three years ago, but remains a faithful fan of NASCAR and other forms of racing allowing him to give us his unique take on NASCAR each week.

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6 comments

  1. Avatar

    My former prediction for the final four still stands: JJ wins Martinsville (After last weekend it appears the golden horseshoe is still in place) Keselowski wins Texas (because it is a must win) Harvick wins Phoenix ( he remembers the magic formula from his years of dominance there) Truex points in (he has plenty in the bank)
    Larson wins Homestead ( a bit too late)
    Keselowski wins championship for spite ( because nobody will pick him)

    • Avatar

      Larson won’t win at Homestead. He’s not one of THE FOUR. One of the four will win because Brian will see to it. My money is still on Johnson because Brian wants Number 8 For 48.

      • Avatar

        No doubt the commemorative items with that slogan are already being cranked out.

        • Avatar

          The trophy has been on Brian’s desk since last November with Johnson’s name on it as the 8-time champion, all under Brian’s watch (imagine that).

  2. Avatar

    Brad has been my pick too. Winning at dega was huge for that team, almost putting him easily into homestead. They will bring a very fast car, count on it.
    I also think Brian wants Jimmie in that final four for the storyline it will generate.
    Truex hasn’t been a winner his whole career and we are supposed to believe that all of a sudden he learned to win eveyweek. It’s the car folks, has to be. It’s tricked out somehow, that’s why he years it up in burnouts, Jr is right.

    • Avatar

      Can’t help but disagree with that. Truex won 2 championships in the Busch series. He came up to Cup when DEI was falling apart and had merged with Ganassi (a team which rarely won). Then he went to Waltrip’s team which sucked with a capital “S”. Then to the ever improving Furniture Row team where he won a race and contended a few times. Then Furniture Row switched to Gibbs/Toyotas and he started winning regularly. If you want to blame the sudden improvement on anything it would be FR aligning with Gibbs in my opinion. Maybe all the Gibbs Toyotas are tricked out, I’d believe that but I don’t think it’s fair to say he was incapable of winning otherwise. Up until FR aligned with Gibbs he wasn’t really on a team capable of winning regularly. And just for the record, while I like Truex well enough, I wouldn’t call myself a fan.