Did You Notice? … The dreaded sophomore slump has reared its ugly head again? The top three rookies from the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series last season are all underperforming nine races into 2018.
Erik Jones is the best of the bunch, sitting 12th in points. But as the driver he replaced, Matt Kenseth, returns to the sport Jones finds himself trailing the veteran’s stats in the No. 20 Toyota. He’s earned just one top-five finish (a fourth in Texas) and was a miserable 17th-26th-13th through NASCAR’s short track swing. That’s not exactly what you expected from a guy who finished runner-up to Kyle Busch in last August’s Bristol night race.
YEAR-TO-YEAR COMPARISON (9 RACES)
Matt Kenseth (2017): 0 wins, 2 top fives, 4 top 10s, 164 laps led, 17th in points (3 DNFs)
Erik Jones (2018): 0 wins, 1 top five, 4 top 10s, 75 laps led, 12th in points (1 DNF)
Add in the dominance of teammate Busch and it’s clear Jones still has work to do. But at least it’s a better resume than Daniel Suarez running the No. 19 JGR Toyota. Suarez has just two top-10 finishes this season and sits 21st in the standings. He’s led only once, at Bristol, stumbling almost as badly as his first year replacing Carl Edwards.
Ty Dillon may be in the worst shape of all. He’s got just one top-15 finish in the first nine races, slumping down to 29th in points. Just one top-20 qualifying effort has him fighting from behind every week; his average finish of 25.4 is nearly five positions lower than 2017.
Certainly, NASCAR’s youth have struggled to perform across the board. But Jones, at the very least was expected to win this season as part of his development. How soon will these guys adjust? Jones is with a new team, Dillon has a new crew chief (Matt Borland) and Suarez was promoted earlier than expected. At least each one is in a secure, long-term situation so they don’t have to worry about impatience.
Did You Notice? … How much Roush Fenway Racing declined after Kenseth left? One simple comparison shows you how fast it went downhill once the 2003 Cup champ jumped toward greener pastures at Joe Gibbs Racing.
Kenseth (2012): Three wins, 13 top fives, 19 top 10s, one pole, seventh in points
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (2013-18): Two wins, 12 top fives, 27 top 10s, two poles, no better than 13th in points
In Stenhouse, you have RFR’s future and a driver still looked at as a rising star in the sport. After Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s retirement some might consider him the best restrictor plate racer. But despite a big step forward last season his stats still lag behind Kenseth’s final year despite four more years in the car.
As I discussed on Tuesday, Kenseth’s hire will be a great learning experience for Bayne. But I wonder if it’s also a key addition for Stenhouse, too. What better person to work with over the long term than the man who made the No. 17 famous at RFR?
Of course, Kenseth is not a miracle worker. It’s going to take time for this team and organization to catch up to Ford powerhouses Stewart-Haas Racing and Team Penske. But I expect his mere presence to have an impact on everyone’s mental confidence.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off….
- Note to NASCAR after their paltry 1.7 Nielsen rating at Richmond: adjust that 6:30 p.m. Saturday start. Attendance was up at the track, the racing was great but it’s a weird time to start an event. Part of me thinks a Sunday race is better, especially in the spring when temperatures are typically colder in mid-April.
- My worry for Jamie McMurray‘s long-term racing future increased after that Richmond on-track confrontation with Kyle Larson. 24th in points with one top-five finish, it’s already been a rocky start for the 41-year-old. But then, to clash with the Chip Ganassi Racing superstar, whatever the reason? It doesn’t matter if McMurray is right. It’s a one-on-one battle he’s simply not going to win.
- Nine races in, Joey Logano has completed all but one lap this season. It’s an impressive run of consistency for a team that was out to lunch just six months ago. Talladega may be the quirky race he needs to get over the hump and into Victory Lane.
- Looking for a top-10 surprise at ‘Dega? Brendan Gaughan is back. He’s got top-20 finishes in three of his last five plate races run and Beard Motorsports has nothing to lose.
- Sunday marks a Talladega race with no Earnhardt in the starting lineup. Let that sink in for a minute….
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