Race Weekend Central

5 Points To Ponder: The Next NASCAR Most Popular Driver?

ONE: Blaney’s win will come

For the third time this season, Ryan Blaney led a ton of laps in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series but ultimately did not get the result he would have wanted. While lapping traffic from the race lead at Bristol Motor Speedway, Blaney was caught up in a wreck absolutely not of his own making. It’s one that totaled his car and ended his day significantly prematurely (before the weather rolled in… the first day).

“I didn’t see much to be honest with you, “said Blaney of the wreck. “By the time I could see anything, they were already turned right and there was nowhere to go.”

All told Blaney, in his third full season of Cup racing, has three top fives, five top 10s, one pole position, 364 laps led (he had 301 in total last year) and an average finish of 11.4. That’s good enough  for sixth in the MENCS standings.

“Our car was pretty good,” he said in the Bristol aftermath. “The positives you look at is that we had a good car and that’s something to hold your head high about.”

So yes, Blaney doesn’t have the win he so desperately craves but his form is good enough to suggest that win is just a matter of time. Now I’m sure Chase Elliott wins the Most Popular Driver award this year, following in his father’s footsteps, but from what I’ve seen if there is another driver who could rival him, Blaney might just be that wheelman. A second-generation driver like Chase, Blaney’s easy charm and social media savvy has endeared him to a whole new set of fans – many of whom are looking for a new driver following a slew of retirements from well established drivers like Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Carl Edwards. So if you’re looking for a new favorite, Blaney might be a great driver to consider.

TWO: Roger Penske (2,501 and counting)

It was a historic weekend for Team Penske and the captain himself, Roger Penske, as the organization he built celebrated the 2,500th race entered across multiple racing series. It’s a streak that runs all the way back to 1966 – some 52 years and counting.

The milestone event was the NASCAR XFINITY Series race and appropriately enough it was the entry of Austin Cindric, son of Team Penske President Tim Cindric, that ensured Penske hit the 2,500-race mark.

For the record, in those 2,500 races, Penske has snagged 480 race wins – a 19% clip – and 547 poles across 49 different drivers and 18 different manufacturers. All told, Penske has won 32 major championships and an incredible 16 Indy 500 victories. The irrepressible Rusty Wallace made 497 of those starts while Brad Keselowski accounts for 444 (and counting). On the open-wheel side, Helio Castroneves has made 312 (to date) starts.

“Roger Penske is the standard-bearer for IndyCar racing,” said Mark Miles, president and chief executive of the IndyCar Series. “His contributions to the sport over the years have been incredible. He demands perfection. That approach to racing really lifts the bar. It’s a joy to see he’s not lifting off the throttle.” Long may that continue.

THREE: Next Up, Richmond Night Race

With the race at Bristol now complete, our next race is this Saturday night (Apr. 21) under the lights at a classic NASCAR venue: Richmond Raceway. This will be Cup race number 124, a streak that runs all the way back to April of 1953 and a race won by Hall of Famer Lee Petty.

Among active drivers, Kyle Busch leads the way with four wins while Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin all have three apiece. Hamlin has led most laps (1,653) by a good distance from Kyle Busch (1,061) and Harvick (1,059).

This season, Richmond’s importance as a track has increased with the three-quarter mile circuit now a playoff venue. It’s the second race of the first three-race segment following Las Vegas Motor Speedway and preceding the inaugural running of the Roval at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Expect more aggression and perhaps more side-by-side racing at a track that’s struggled at times in recent years.

Should be fun to watch.

FOUR: Weather Woes

With the honorable exception of the Daytona 500, every single race weekend (seven in total) have been affected by weather in some way – either the Friday, Saturday, Sunday or some combination thereof.

But such is the way of life with Mother Nature. The simple fact is there’s nothing at all we can do about it except, of course, building covered tracks or using wet weather tire. Neither of those ideas are going to happen.

So far this season, we’ve had rain at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and even a snow out at Martinsville Speedway. And with the postponement this past weekend, we’ve had two of the best short track races of the year run on Monday, right slap bang in the middle of the workday. It’s not ideal, that’s for sure. Like I said, though despite the frustration there’s little that can be done. Here’s hoping for clearer skies in the upcoming weeks and months.

FIVE: And Finally….

This column has always celebrated good results for the underdogs so to finish this week a quick shout out to David Ragan who finished a season’s best 12th.

Thus far in 2018, Ragan has finishes of 22nd, 23rd (bizarrely on three occasions), 25th (twice) and 30th. That makes a 12th-place run a ten-position improvement in what’s otherwise been a mediocre year.

In his 13-year, 406-race career, Ragan has won twice, earning 15 top fives and 39 top 10s along the way. So for a small team, these sorts of results are invaluable. And keep in mind Talladega Superspeedway, Ragan’s best track statistically speaking, is just around the corner.

Another positive result may well be in his near-term future.

About the author

Danny starts his 12th year with Frontstretch in 2018, writing the Tuesday signature column 5 Points To Ponder. An English transplant living in San Francisco, by way of New York City, he’s had an award-winning marketing career with some of the biggest companies sponsoring sports. Working with racers all over the country, his freelance writing has even reached outside the world of racing to include movie screenplays.

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janice

not sure there will be one driver who has the strangle hold on most popular driver. there’s a bunch of kids out there now that have fans excited.

Russ

While I agree that nobody has a stranglehold on most popular driver, I question whether these “kids” have that many fans excited. I think that may be a way down the road. Of course I may just be too cynical.

SmarterThanYo

Bill Elliott didn’t have easy charm and there was no social media in the 80’s, but the fans loved his shy boyish aw-shucks attitude. That’s what Chase brings to the table. He will never be a self-promoter like Dale Jr. or Ryan Blaney, but that may just be the edge he needs to be a perennial MPD winner, plus the dynamics of getting out the grassroots vote, which is key to any election, whether it be for President of the U.S., local councilman, or Most Popular Driver. The only thing he lacks is the wins, and those may not come until he leaves the black hole of HMS. In fact, that would be a GREAT NAME for a podcast: The Black Hole of Futility (HMS-style).

Dewayne

He won at Pococo last year didn’t he?

salb

I think one thing the ‘kids’ bring these days is a sense of fun. they haven’t been around long enough to get cynical and burned out, and find all the attention fun. That’s a word that hasn’t been associated with Nascar much these days. As savvy as they are about the media, they still seem to able to be themselves. That’s a very appealing combination.

Echo

I think Ryan Blaney wins it easily this year. Every week he’s gaining fans by his performance on the track and his laid back attitude.

Tom B

I see your point about Blaney, but Kyle Larson has a lot going for him for this high school award. Let the ballot box stuffing begin!

Ricky

Ryan Blaney has the right stuff to lure the modern younger fans to vote for him as the Most Popular Driver He has a quirky personality and is a savvy social media presence. Unfortunately for Chase Elliot he is currently hampered by an organization that is not showing a lot of promise to become more competitive . There seems to be less enthusiasm starting at the top of HMS. Also his crew chief is making too many unforced mistakes and is showing signs of burnout. Perhaps the glory days are over for this organization which has a performance record that has no equal. Timing is everything and Blaney is in the right place at the right time to have an outstanding season

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