Did You Notice? … Sometimes, NASCAR Silly Season moves turn into mistakes? 10 races in, let’s take a look at some of the biggest driver decisions entering 2018 and see how they’re turning out. For now, we’ll give Darrell Wallace Jr. and William Byron a break; rookies typically need a little more seat time before they reach their full potential.
No. 10: Aric Almirola IN, Danica Patrick OUT
Patrick (10 races into 2017): 0 wins, 0 top fives, 0 top 10s, 0 top 15s
Average finish: 27.3
Almirola (10 races into 2018): 0 wins, 0 top fives, 4 top 10s, 8 top 15s
Average finish: 12.9
From Almirola’s first race in the car, coming within a half-lap of winning the Daytona 500, he’s created a whole new competitive spirit at Stewart-Haas Racing’s No. 10. Almirola has eight top-15 finishes thus far, leaving him 11th in points and in the thick of playoff contention. Sure, he’s led just one lap (Daytona International Speedway), but that’s still one more than his replacement led at this stage.
A new crew chief (John Klausmeier) has clearly formed chemistry Patrick never had with her head wrenches. Patrick has stated her frustration once Tony Gibson was reassigned to Kurt Busch late in her rookie season; she never really showed consistent improvement after his departure.
You can also credit Ford’s strong start, seen across the board at SHR, for lifting Almirola up the charts. But it’s hard to look at the numbers and say anything other than Patrick simply wasn’t as good. Blame the car, blame the driver, blame the team, whatever you want, but 10 races in, her record is tarnished a bit.
Early Grade: A+
No. 88: Alex Bowman IN, Dale Earnhardt Jr. OUT
Earnhardt (10 races into 2017): 0 wins, 1 top five, 1 top 10, 0 poles
Average finish: 24.2
Bowman (10 races into 2018): 0 wins, 1 top fives, 3 top 10s, 1 pole
Average finish: 14.5
Of course, Hendrick Motorsports had no choice but to replace NASCAR’s most popular driver after announcing 2017 would be his final season. But Earnhardt had also been struggling to stay competitive despite a quality crew chief (Greg Ives) running the No. 88 Chevrolet.
Earnhardt had just one top-five run early in 2017 (fifth at Texas Motor Speedway) and led a grand total of eight laps, all during the Daytona 500. A wreck in that race seemed to erase some momentum from his post-concussion comeback, and it took months for the team to turn the corner.
Bowman, by comparison, has also led all 39 of his laps this season at plate tracks. But his Daytona 500 experience came with a pole and a respectable 17th-place finish. His style isn’t spectacular, but it’s steady, an even-keeled performer HMS needs during their rebuilding phase.
Bowman has finished all 10 races (compared to Earnhardt’s three DNFs at this point) and seems to improve every time out. A strong short track swing of two top 10s at Bristol and Martinsville helped boost the driver onto the right side of the NASCAR playoff bubble. To stay there, he’s going to need more speed; the No. 88 isn’t a winning car yet. But the dirty little secret is it hasn’t been a team with the speed to win in pretty much a year and a half.
The last time they were in contention for victory? It was Bowman, at Phoenix back in fall 2016. Clearly, Earnhardt’s retirement year left the team a step behind but they’re doing a yeoman’s job in catching up.
Early Grade: B
No. 20: Erik Jones IN, Matt Kenseth OUT
Kenseth (10 races into 2017): 0 wins, 2 top fives, 4 top 10s, 168 laps led, 18th in points
Average finish: 20.1
Jones (10 races into 2018): 0 wins, 1 top five, 4 top 10s, 75 laps led, 13th in points
Average finish: 17.0
Joe Gibbs Racing had no choice but to put the younger Jones (under contract, better sponsorship prospects) in its No. 20 Toyota for 2018. That left Kenseth the odd man out, although all’s well that ends well now that he’s back racing the No. 6 Ford part-time. Sponsorship from Wyndham Rewards shows the 46-year-old still can win in the boardroom and on the racetrack.
Jones, though was supposed to not skip a beat driving the No. 20. And as we discussed a bit last week, he’s mired in a sophomore slump. An ugly wreck at Talladega was his second DNF; Jones hasn’t shown much improvement in the car other than leading 64 laps at Texas. That’s his only top-five finish (fourth) with a car that had momentum (four top 10s, Phoenix win) during the end of its tenure with Kenseth. Jones, by comparison, well… he’s just kinda there. You don’t hear much from him during the race and he’s failed to catch on with the fan base like some of his other fellow young guns.
This start wouldn’t look so bad if teammate Kyle Busch wasn’t lighting the series on fire. Instead, three straight wins by the 2015 Cup champ show that speed with both Toyota and JGR isn’t a problem. So why is the same driver/crew chief combo that overachieved at Furniture Row Racing stumbling here?
Early Grade: B-
No. 95: Kasey Kahne IN, Michael McDowell OUT
McDowell (10 races into 2017):0 wins, 0 top fives, 0 top 10s, 2 top 20s, 32nd in points
Average finish: 25.7
Kahne (10 races into 2018): 0 wins, 0 top fives, 0 top 10s, 3 top 20s, 29th in points
Average finish: 24.3
Leavine Family Racing felt they needed to put Kahne in their car for 2018 in order to attract more sponsorship. That left McDowell the odd man out, headed to Front Row Motorsports and driving the No. 34 Ford.
So far, the sponsorship part of the deal has paid off. LFR has support from ProCore, backing Kahne in four of his first 10 starts. McDowell simply had K-LOVE Radio for Daytona and Winn-Dixie for Talladega last season; WRL General Contractors backed his other eight events.
But Kahne, coming from a powerhouse in Hendrick Motorsports isn’t used to running second-rate equipment. He’s also failed to make it better, posting no run better than 17th. McDowell has also had a difficult time of it; he’s 31st in the points this season, only ahead of Gray Gaulding and BK Racing among full-time Cup drivers.
Early Grade: D
Did You Notice? … One of the problems we saw Sunday at Talladega was as simple as stage length? 55 laps for each of the first two stages meant a pit stop as early as 15 laps in. Once certain teams decided to short-pit, going fuel only on a track where tire wear was nonexistent the pack found itself spread out for good.
I think Goodyear can certainly do better long-term in bringing a tire that experiences more wear. But why not shorten the first two stages for this NASCAR playoff race in the fall? Two stages of 40 laps apiece increase the pressure early on and they also remove pit stops from a pack racing equation. If the goal is to keep everyone glued together, heightening the drama, why introduce a loophole to spread them apart?
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before we take off…
- If you haven’t seen the video NASCAR stars made about Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s new baby, you need to see it. (Congrats to Dale and wife Amy for their newest addition, Isla Rose)
Thanks everyone who was part of this. This made our hearts completely full. https://t.co/ut4LVWTZGf
— Dale Earnhardt Jr. (@DaleJr) May 1, 2018
Not only is this video hilarious, it reminds you just how popular Earnhardt was with its competitors. It may be five months since he last strapped inside the car but no one can move the needle, bring the sport together (or reinforce NASCAR’s family sport mantra) quite like this guy. He’s missed so much as an at-track weekly presence inside this sport (and continues to be a reason, in my opinion, the ratings are so far off this year).
- You’ve got to feel for Trevor Bayne. He loses his ride part-time to Kenseth last week and then becomes the innocent victim of a Talladega wreck. There’s about two tracks on the circuit I think Bayne can win at after this announcement and now one of those opportunities is gone. Now 27, Bayne has been around for the better part of eight seasons in the Cup Series. Car owners know what they have. He may need to win in order to get a second chance as the number of moves/retirements the last few seasons will leave a limited number of 2019 opportunities available.
- Can you believe Jimmie Johnson hasn’t led a lap yet this season? Heck, only three times during this seven-time champion’s career has he gone the first ten races without winning (2003, 2012, 2014). The No. 48 team has shown some signs of life these past few weeks but Dover will be a huge test. If they can’t lead laps there, a place where Johnson has led over 3,000 career laps, HMS will find itself with work to do.