Home / 5 Points To Ponder / 5 Points To Ponder: Fords In Focus, Danica Who?, And Kevin Harvick, Then And Now
(Photo: Zach Catanzareti)

5 Points To Ponder: Fords In Focus, Danica Who?, And Kevin Harvick, Then And Now

ONE: Fords To The Front, Take Two

Camaro who? Camry what? Ford may have the oldest car in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series but they’re certainly learning new tricks to beat their manufacturer competition straight into submission.

Kevin Harvick’s dominating Atlanta performance came with fellow Ford driver Brad Keselowski in tow. Combined, the duo led 219 of 325 laps as part of a 1-2-3 Ford finish with Clint Bowyer. Their Camaro rivals looked more like clunkers by comparison; Chevy’s new 2018 model could do no better than ninth with Kyle Larson.

What’s making the Ford teams click? Early on, it looks like teamwork. The drafting freight trains we saw at Daytona continued this week in the form of comparable setups.

Just look at how each of the multi-car giants fared. Team Penske? Three cars inside the top 12. Joey Logano’s leading the points, Ryan Blaney led the most laps at Daytona and Keselowski was runner-up on Sunday. Stewart-Haas Racing? They had four cars inside the top 13, combining with Penske to put all seven of their drivers on the lead lap.

Even some of the smaller Ford teams are making an impact. Paul Menard showed he wasn’t a one-week wonder; the intermediate-track specialist ran a solid 17th with the Wood Brothers. Front Row Motorsports put both their underdog cars inside the top 25; Michael McDowell sits in a playoff spot two weeks in.

It’s clear the Fusions have a good working relationship with each other and some solid engineering behind them. Two weeks does not a season make, of course; they won the first two races of 2017 before fading into the background. But, so far, they’re off to a flying start.

“It’s a moving target, right?  You’re going to — we’re going to go to Vegas with some momentum and some decent racetracks for us coming up, but everybody else around us is working just as hard,” said Stewart-Haas vice president of competition Greg Zipadelli. “They’re not sitting home and just taking time off from work.  That’s what makes this sport so interesting. I think it gives us a little confidence working together and what we brought here.  But by no means is that a victory for the year.”

TWO: Aric Making Danica Look Silly? And Other SHR News

Speaking of SHR, Sunday showed their growth as a four-car team. Now in their second year with Ford, all cars showed speed with Harvick dominant, Clint Bowyer a surprising third and Kurt Busch a promising eighth. For Bowyer, it’s his first top five at a 1.5-mile track since Homestead in November 2013 while Busch has already led more laps (68) than he did all of last season (16).

But it’s Aric Almirola’s start that has SHR grinning from ear-to-ear. First, he comes a half-lap from Daytona 500 victory before Austin Dillon bumps him into the wall. (Keep in mind that was accomplished with a backup car after Almirola crashed in his Duel qualifying race).

Then, the No. 10 car excelled at Atlanta. Almirola started 11th, stayed within the top 15 virtually all day long and wound up the last lead-lap car in 13th. Already, he has the same number of top-15 runs (two) through two races than Danica Patrick had for the entire first half of last season.

It all makes me wonder what Patrick must be thinking. Perhaps she doesn’t care, on to her many other pursuits (wine, working out, Aaron Rodgers). But as a newly-retired driver, forced out of her No. 10 ride due to lack of sponsorship Almirola’s early success doesn’t make her look very good.

I understand teams change, new drivers mean fresh chemistry and sometimes, it’s just the wrong fit (see: Joey Logano, Gibbs). But Almirola has come into a No. 10 car that never worked right for Danica and, almost immediately, it’s a weekly contender. The rest of SHR has also seen their performance lift up in the first two races A.D. (after Danica).

It’s certainly not all Danica’s fault; it never was. But Almirola is making it look like the driver was a part of the problem here.

THREE: The Hendrick Horror Show

What in the world is going on with Hendrick Motorsports? If the playoffs started today, do you know not one of their four drivers would make the field? (Gasp).

Chase Elliott, Georgia’s hometown boy fought inside the top 10 Sunday but it felt like far too much work. His frustration was magnified by Alex Bowman (20th) who looked nothing like his pole-winning self from a week ago. Jimmie Johnson (27th) was the only driver to spin out during the race, looking like a shell of his former self. The 42-year-old has now gone eight straight races without a top-10 finish; that’s the longest drought of his Cup Series career.

But the guy I’m watching (and worrying) about thus far is much-heralded rookie William Byron.  He was an invisible 18th at Atlanta one week after wrecking multiple times in the Daytona 500. Keep in mind Byron is driving the remnants of a No. 5, formerly Kasey Kahne team that spent years as the Hendrick caboose. Technology these days means a great driver can only do so much to make up the gap. Is the teenager due for a letdown, the first of his NASCAR career? And what happens the first time he hits a wall? (Figuratively, not literally, guys).

FOUR: Atlanta’s Awkward Imbalance

It was one of the more bizarre races, really we’ve seen the past few years. Harvick laid waste to the field at Atlanta; if not for a late caution, Keselowski would have been the only driver to finish within 15 seconds of the No. 4. We’d have likely seen just six cars finish on the lead lap… maybe less.

And yet the different lines and aging pavement at this 1.5-mile track kept it interesting. There was passing everywhere, even if FOX stayed stubborn and followed Harvick around far too much. Pit strategies from Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano kept fans guessing on the winner; Harvick’s push through the field after a poor pit stop was fun to watch.

It feels like Atlanta is a Cup track that still has character. But that’s not enough to get fans to come. Reports on the ground had campers at an all-time low surrounding the speedway. Camera shots showed the crowd was, eh, only about average at best. That’s not good for a one-race track badly in need of (expensive) repaving and its owners looking to maximize profit margin.

Sure, the weather may have had something to do with it. But it’s also why Atlanta once saw its late winter date moved in the first place. Is a schedule switch coming once again? It may be a last-ditch effort to keep this underrated track from becoming the next North Wilkesboro/Rockingham casualty.

FIVE: Has It Really Been 16 Years?

Finally this week, Harvick’s trip to Atlanta Victory Lane was an emotional one. It’s been 16 years since his first Cup win there, a side-by-side duel with Jeff Gordon to the checkered less than a month after the sport lost Dale Earnhardt Sr.

“It means a lot to me,” he said Sunday. “It’s funny and ironic how all these things line up, and it’s kind of ironic how we wound up in Victory Lane that day, and Dale’s teams won the first two races and we were able to win the next race in 2001.  You see that No. 3 back in Victory Lane and us back in Victory Lane tonight, it’s just almost — it’s just how it’s meant to be. 

“I think for me, to be able to kind of do that celebration again, very similar to what we did in 2001, I’ve been waiting a long time, because 2001 was very confusing.  It was my first win and don’t feel like I remember really anything about it because it was just such a really confusing time in my life, and just on the racetrack and with Dale gone and getting in his car… so it felt good to pay tribute to that and park it in Victory Lane with a smile on my face and watch everybody smile with me.”

It’s a long way from the brash 25-year-old rookie, thrust into the spotlight into the 41-year-old veteran we see today. Rare is the athlete that can compete straight from one generation to the next and Harvick clearly appreciates the opportunity to look back – while still on top of his game.

“I said and did a lot of dumb things,” he said of 2001. “I guess you could call them building blocks and now we can laugh about them, but it was entertaining at the time.  Got me a couple of vacations.  Richard chewed me out a lot.”

“But for me right now the sport is what enthuses me and kind of is very intriguing to me because there’s a lot of things that need some help and guidance with so many of the young guys coming up through the ranks, and there’s so much to learn.  But we have to teach them about it.  Jimmie Johnson and myself have talked about it.  Somebody has to explain to them how things work and show them the ropes.  And that to me is fun.

“For me, I’ve just got a much better appreciation of how cool it is to sit in that race car and really enjoy the things that I do.”

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About Tom Bowles

Tom Bowles
The author of Bowles-Eye View (Mondays) and Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 30 staff members as its majority owner. Based in Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild.

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26 comments

  1. Avatar

    I think that Danica got out because of all the hard crashes she took. Probably some concussion issues there. Some things she has said and done were off the wall so to speak.

    • Avatar

      Yeah right.
      She got out because she had no choice, because she had abysmal stats, because in 5 years she showed absolutely no improvement and, most importantly, BECAUSE NO SPONSOR WAS WILLING TO FOOT THE BILL ANY LONGER.

  2. Avatar

    It’s certainly not all Danica’s fault; it never was. But Almirola is making it look like the driver was a part of the problem here.

    It really was Danica’s fault. Her lack of communications with her crew chiefs and her lack of commitment to her craft. She was only a driver, not a racer and that was never more evident than when you look at her record. She was a cash cow for many including herself and she did that task well. Racing, not so much.

  3. Avatar

    The race was largely boring in true 1.5 mile oval tradition. Relatively few passes with the leaderboard being more or less the same during the entire race. Maybe SHR has the best rear suspension trick this year. Four hours of nap time and fifteen minutes of action. Without NASCAR helping to spice up the show or its storyline (young guns this year) such as at Daytona via rumored allocation of those ‘special’ restrictor plates, this season will be a long one.

  4. Avatar

    DW is a good one to be talking about a driver being too okd or past his prime. He hung around and embarrassed his legacy as a top driver. It was almost painful to watch him in his final years although i never liked him as a driver and even less as an announcer. Cant believe fox has not retired him from the booth .

  5. Avatar

    Harvick quote “ there are so many things that need some help and guidance with so many of the young guys coming up through the ranks and there’s so much to learn. But we have to teach them about it” I wonder if Harvick is going to tell the youngsters about all the the boneheaded things he’s done over the years. Parking in other’s pit stalls, parking a burning car in a crowded area and walking away, the restart fiasco at Talledega, etc,etc,etc. Don’t know if he would be a very good mentor. Oh that’s right, DW says Harvick has matured. We will see.

  6. Avatar

    I think its still too early to make judgment calls on the Camaro or the Fords. Atlanta with that worn out pavement is unlike any other 1.5 mile track. Vegas will be a real good benchmark, less abrasive surface, tire test earlier in the year. We also have to remember, outside of Truex, the Toyotas struggled early with their new bodies. It wasn’t until the summer, they really turned it on. I don’t believe a JGR car won a race until Hamlin at NH in July.

  7. Avatar

    I thought it was great that Kevin commemorated his first Cup win with his salute to the #3 and Dale. It shows the confidence he now has in himself, and that he can now appreciate how much that win meant for his career and for fans. Classy.

  8. Avatar

    I miss Danica already. I just loved watching this arrogant and entitled “star” fail each and every week. She never disappointed me. I expect to eventually see competitive women racing in Cup but hopefully they won’t be there only because of wealthy sugar daddies like Letterman and the Go Daddy founder.

  9. Avatar

    “It’s certainly not all Danica’s fault; it never was. But Almirola is making it look like the driver was a part of the problem here.”

    Uh, Almirola is PROVING that the driver WAS the problem.

  10. Avatar

    Tv ratings were 3.1 DOWN from 3.6 last year. The downward trend will continue as sponsors will continue being hard to find. If you watched the Busch race Saturday then you got to see every car and driver being spotlighted numerous times and watched good racing throughout the whole field instead of just up front. Aric will get a win in that 10 car and make the playoffs. Everyone knows the lack of success in that car the last 5 years was because of a less than mediocre driver but most of the media wouldn’t print that. Danica’s vineyard in Napa consists of 24 acres, with grapes only on 10 acres. Lots of homeowners in Napa county have that much surrounding their homes. Did anyone catch ol blabbermouth DW saying Jimmie Johnson was too old and probably over the hill. He said it twice before Jeff changed the subject. DR & Mikey have replaced Danica with bubba. Count how many times they mention his name next week. This is the guy who had ZERO wins in the xfinity series in eighty some tries.

  11. Avatar

    Wow! Someone in the media posting something less than complimentary about Danica? Better late than never, I guess.

  12. Avatar

    “It all makes me wonder what Patrick must be thinking.”

    Patrick is probably thinking what she always thinks: It can’t possibly be her obvious lack of skill in NASCAR. Clearly, in her mind, Almirola is getting better cars, better teammates, more support, better everything because IT IS NOT her fault. Never has been, never will be.

    It seems strange watching the #10 run up front. We haven’t seen that since the turn of the century with first Ricky Rudd and then Johnny Benson.

    Note: The #10 has scored 218 top tens in Cup. Patrick has just 7.

  13. Avatar

    Yes, isn’t the 10 car interesting. For five years they tried changing every member of the team multiple times except for the driver. Now they change the driver and all of the sudden things start to look up. Hmmm. I wonder what one can conclude from that?

  14. Avatar

    One thing no one has mentioned in anything I have read is the crowd Sunday. I thought it was pretty decent considering the weather forecast. We know Atlanta is not known for sell outs. What I think is important is that it doen’t Appear that the loss of the so called popular drivers has had a negative effect on the sport. The tv ratings didn’t decrease either. Of course it is to early in the season to really predict how the season will play out but early indications are the downward trend may have hopefully stabilized.

    Thanks for pointing out the performance of the 10 Car. It’s about time someone got away from being PC.

    • Avatar

      Guess if you had tickets and were in the area you may as well go to the race, not like they were going to give you your money back.
      As far as getting away from PC, I think it is more in evidence this year than ever. Nobody is talking about the 800 lb. gorilla in the fan base. And probably never will.

    • Avatar

      Al, the sport is in the toilet, Attendance sucks, revenues are a disaster and ratings are lower than they were 20 years ago. Sponsors are leaving in droves, and Nascar can only round up 36 cars, the fewest in decades. Nascar itself is for sale. Danica Patrick moved the dial and brought new people to the sport. So she sucked, who cares? it is entertainment. What has Bryan France done.????? Now we can all get to hear about the partial black dude, the partial asian and the partial hispanic. Wonder why no one cares anymore?

      • Avatar

        Wow, I bet putting Kim Kardashian in a car would really move the dial.
        Funny how other, serious sports only allow those with enough talent to participate.

        • Avatar

          And part of the popularity of other sports is that all a poor kid needs is a open piece of ground and a ball.
          in motorsport, even at the lowest level somebody has to have some money. Without it talent doesn’t matter. The hypocrisy was to act as if Danica was unique. The only thing unique was her gender.
          There’s a reason that Nascar is making certain that Bubba has a ride, even putting there own money up to sponsor him at Atlanta.

          • Avatar

            Yeah, well we like to pretend that talent matters more than money but you’re right. The only problem is when the media casts a spotlight on one of those that lack the talent and is only there as a result of having money. Combine that with the need to be PC and the reluctance of most media outlets refusing to acknowledge that fact and no wonder there was a lot of negativity. If driver X is only there as a result of money, runs at the back of the pack and they aren’t shoved down your throat every day then they are ignored by fans. That wasn’t the case with the princess.

        • Avatar

          If you think Nascar is a “serious” sport, then I don’t know what to tell you. It is entertainment, always has been.

          • Avatar

            No but I strive for it to be one, and as long as you see unqualified people behind the wheel it never will be.

          • Avatar

            Also, if that is the case then maybe it’s time for NASCAR to stop presenting/marketing itself as a sport.

          • Avatar

            Also funny that your initial reply started with….

            “Al, the sport is in the toilet” I guess we can quibble over the word “serious” but IMO if you are marketing yourself as a sport then you better be serious about it.