Who… gets my shoutout of the race?
Not every driver can take on the road courses and come out with strong finishes. The tracks require a distinct skill set and, depending on the path they take, road course experience may be the resume builder drivers lack most coming into NASCAR’s top series.
For Erik Jones, his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series road racing career got off to a slow start with a 25th-place finish last year at Sonoma. But from there, he’s only gotten better, finishing 10th at Watkins Glen last summer and racing to seventh this weekend. Jones, 22, also has one previous road course win in the Camping World Truck Series, earning the trophy at Bowmanville in 2015. That’s not bad for a driver who didn’t come up through a road racing background.
Moving forward, the sophomore driver is shaping into a real threat when right turns are involved. Could his breakout win come at Watkins Glen later this summer?
What… is the takeaway from this race?
If there’s a takeaway from the road courses, it’s that there is very little to take away from the road courses. Why? They’re all different. Teams won’t learn much from this weekend that carries over to Watkins Glen or Charlotte, except, perhaps, some pit strategy. That unpredictability is one reason why this type of racing is so different from oval tracks.
In some ways, that’s good if it means fresh faces nearly every time out. Look at AJ Allmendinger, who has a top-10 average finish, including a win, at Watkins Glen. However, he posts a much more frustrating 22nd-place average at Sonoma.
While not as drastic a difference, Jimmie Johnson is the opposite. He’s a winner in Sonoma, a consistent top-10 finisher but never in the hunt at Watkins Glen. Add in Charlotte’s infield road course, where nobody knows who’ll emerge as a contender, and you’ve got three races where the race is far from a foregone conclusion.
Where… did Martin Truex Jr. come from?
Sonoma has been feast or famine for Truex throughout his Cup career. He’s got two wins and four top 10s in 13 starts but also a 19.5 average finish and six results of 22nd or worse. That includes three times he’s failed to finish altogether, including a disappointing 37th last year with an engine failure.
But this year, Truex was on it from the start, qualifying second and leading 62 of 110 laps. There were times when Kevin Harvick looked like he had the car to beat, but the No. 78 team made sure it had the better strategy. It counted on the green-flag run for the final laps, faking out Harvick’s team on the final pit sequence and buying time by luring Harvick’s team into the pits early while he stayed on track with a monster lead.
While the race wasn’t the barnburner some recent ones at Sonoma have been, it was a hard-earned victory for Truex and his team.
When… was the last time so few drivers won races?
It’s been a while. As in, most of this year’s field hadn’t been born. You have to go all the way back to 1978 to see such a small group of drivers with wins this deep into the season. Through 16 races, the only winners were Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison, Benny Parsons, David Pearson and Darrell Waltrip (Hall of Famers all, an impressive group). It wasn’t until the 19th race that someone crashed their party, as Lennie Pond broke through at Talladega in August. Pond and Donnie Allison were the only other drivers to win in that entire 30-race season.
While this year’s group of six likely aren’t all headed for the Hall of Fame (Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch are locks and Truex a possibility; so far, Joey Logano isn’t winning at a Hall of Fame clip and Clint Bowyer and Austin Dillon aren’t that elite caliber) they’ve certainly got the rest of the field frustrated.
Why… aren’t there more road courses on the schedule?
That’s a good question because road courses supply some great finishes, different winners and strategy plays. The addition of the infield road course at Charlotte brings the total to three, but really, one more (Road America?) would be a great move for NASCAR. A fourth would put the road courses on par with the superspeedways in terms of weight for the season, lending a bit more importance to a specific skill set among drivers and teams. Road course cars aren’t the specialty items they once were, so the cost once associated with building a separate (though small) fleet is smaller than it once would have been.
With four road courses, the track breakdown would then be four road races, four plate races, six at tracks under one mile, six at the one-mile ovals, two on the unique Pocono layout and one at the 2.5-mile oval at Indianapolis, leaving 13 dates at the intermediate ovals. That’s arguably still too many races focused on a specific type of car, team and driver (read: the most expensive tracks to contend at and the ones where the fewest teams can compete for wins). But for now, there isn’t really anyplace else to go.
NASCAR can’t make any changes until the current track contracts are up, but another road course should be on the radar for when that time comes.
How… important are points right now?
To be fair, points are always important. The addition of NASCAR playoff points means performance over the entire season is more crucial than it has been in years. But this year, with 10 races until the playoffs begin, points are looking like they’ll be more important than ever.
While it’s possible we’ll see a run of 10 winners, it’s not very likely. Realistically, there are a handful of drivers without wins who look like they could score one right now (Kyle Larson, Brad Keselowski, Kurt Busch). Daytona and Watkins Glen could produce wild card surprises. But the rest of the field doesn’t really look capable right now.
So, if we see five more winners, that would leave five playoff spots up for grabs via points. Austin Dillon is currently outside the top 16, so that would boot Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who’s 16th, at the moment. If the winner at Daytona or the Glen (or both) comes from 17th or below, that’s another points spot replaced by someone on the outside.
While the small winners’ list does provide more playoff spots to be had, the competition for those spots isn’t any less than it has been in recent years. As the playoffs get closer, look for drivers not locked in to ramp up their game and if they can’t win, at least take home maximum points.