Did You Notice? … The fab foursome of Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Clint Bowyer were at it again? Sonoma saw them 1-2-3-4 for most of the race; they would have finished that way if not for late-race pit stops designed to try and win.
In the end, they’ve won 14 of 16 events, limiting us to six winners through this point in the season. That means Joey Logano and Austin Dillon, the two outliers who have reached Victory Lane on plate tracks, have also clinched playoff spots. The most we can have is 16 winners through 26 regular season races, meaning we won’t go over (knocking a winner out) for a fourth straight year. It also means Dillon effectively clinched his spot six-plus months early with his win in the Daytona 500.
But the postseason format, discussed a few weeks ago, is not the topic today. While I’m not optimistic the fab foursome will be shut out through September, they won’t pull a sweep. At some point, we’ll see Chevrolet break though, ending its four-month Victory Lane drought, and some of the sport’s biggest names have still not won.
Here’s the best option at each track to break the Truex-Harvick-KyBu-Bowyer stranglehold on the sport.
Chicagoland: No track on the schedule is harder to find an option. Truex has won this event the past two seasons; he, Harvick and Busch combined to lead 221 of 267 laps last fall.
The best bet may be to go with Michigan pole-sitter Kurt Busch. Stewart-Haas Racing has come together like no other time in its history and Busch was part of its first 1-2-3 finish earlier this month. With six top-10 finishes the last seven races, it feels like it’s an automatic he’ll hit Victory Lane once before the year is out. (Especially if it ends up being his last year at SHR).
Daytona: The sport’s most unpredictable plate race could give us an opportunity for a breakthrough. But I feel like Ryan Blaney (who is on the bubble otherwise; see below) might be owed one by the plate racing Gods. Leading 118 laps in the Daytona 500, he had the field dead to rights before predictable chaos broke loose down the stretch. In a rough-luck season (444 laps led, no wins) it feels right for him to get one in the racing equivalent of Russian Roulette.
Kentucky: This track is typically Kyle Busch’s to lose. But Brad Keselowski, a quiet fourth in points this season, has three career wins here. Ford’s dominance, combined with his tendency to win in even-numbered years (2012, 2014, 2016), makes him feel like the safest choice of anyone on this list.
Loudon: Is Denny Hamlin still a part of Joe Gibbs Racing? Hamlin has been largely overshadowed by Kyle Busch this season but has been a top-five player in many of the races the fab foursome above has run away from the field. He’s the defending winner at Loudon and stands to win at least one race before the year is out; he’s never gone winless since becoming a full-time Cup driver in 2006.
Pocono: He didn’t lead a lap in June but Kyle Larson wound up second in this race. At some point, Chevrolet needs to break its drought and this track lends itself to wacky, weird endings. A strategy play by Larson could allow him to leapfrog over the fab foursome quartet that (surprise, surprise) took control of this race in June.
Watkins Glen: It was a bitter disappointment for AJ Allmendinger at Sonoma, a track where he’s now run 35th or worse in four out of the last five years. But his No. 47 JTG Daugherty Chevrolet showed top-five speed, won a stage and may still be in solid shape for the Glen. It’s a race he’s won recently (2014) and has six top-10 finishes in his last seven starts.
Michigan: What better track for Chase Elliott to get his first win, right? Chevrolet got their butts handed to them in June and should be roaring back with a vengeance for manufacturer bragging rights. In theory, isn’t August about the time new models start to hit their stride? (See: Camry, Toyota) Elliott has knocked on the door for far too long to go winless and a victory here could jumpstart the No. 9 team for the playoffs. Keep in mind he’s still got four top-five finishes in a down year.
Bristol: At Richmond, Aric Almirola had the fastest car on long runs but misadjusted as the night went on. A few more months of experience is plenty to prep the No. 10 team for its first MENCS win together in what’s been an amazing comeback year. Sixth at this track in the spring, the short track setup should hold firm and give him a chance to surprise.
Darlington: Toyota has captured the Lady in Black in four out of the last five seasons. Matt Kenseth started that run driving the No. 20 car in 2013 and newcomer Erik Jones is in place to continue it. Jones was fifth last season, thrives at this type of track where driver skill comes to the forefront and has shown flashes of brilliance at intermediates. It’s the perfect way to seal a postseason bid after likely spending much of summer on the bubble.
Indianapolis: Do you really think Jimmie Johnson is going to go through the regular season winless? It’s never happened in the seven-time champ’s 16-year Cup Series career. Indy has been one of his most successful tracks and an unpredictable race (in a new spot on the calendar) is the type of scenario where Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus used to shine. Keep in mind Johnson has four wins here and was in position to win the race last year.
So, there you have it. Chances are we’ll see four other names dotting the list instead, but it’s sure nice to dream, isn’t it? Expect at least a few of these to come through and sprinkle a little more parity into the playing field before the cream rises back to the top come September.
Did You Notice? … FOX, whose Sonoma coverage suffered a 16 percent decline in its NASCAR finale for 2018, isn’t blaming the on-air team. Adam Stern is reporting the three-man booth of Mike Joy, Darrell Waltrip and Jeff Gordon are almost certain to return next season.
⚡@FoxSports' three-man @NASCARonFox booth — play-by-play announcer @MikeJoy500 and analysts @AllWaltrip and @JeffGordonWeb — are all expected to return for the 2019 season, a source close to Fox tells @SBJSBD.
— Gordon's deal was expiring after '18 but is now close to renewal. pic.twitter.com/YuXiGqg0LD
— Adam Stern (@A_S12) June 25, 2018
Limited, if any, changes are expected for 2019 as the FOX NASCAR broadcasts chug along despite substantial declines in recent years. That means more Michael Waltrip grid walk, more broadcasts with announcers not at the racetrack (see: Iowa) and little change in overall philosophy.
To be clear, if NASCAR puts a good product on the track, the ratings don’t go down. It’s as simple as that. The marginalization of the regular season (especially with 2014 changes to the playoff format) also hurt FOX’s bottom line. Why worry about your favorite driver when he won Daytona and already clinched a spot in September’s 10-race postseason, the races that really matter?
But Waltrip, Joy and McReynolds (now in a supporting role) have been together for 17 years. That’s longer than even the gold standard Bob Jenkins-Benny Parsons-Ned Jarrett trio for ESPN (1989-2000). At some point, FOX will need to look at adjustments considering only Gordon is within striking distance of the 18-34 subset this sport covets.
Look, I like DW. I don’t hide that; my racing career developed in part due to what he did for the sport when I was a kid. Mike Joy, meanwhile will go down as one of the best racing play-by-play announcers of all time. I still think they have value; no one should diminish the good they brought at NASCAR’s peak. But the booth this year sounded… tired. I don’t know if it was the quality of competition, getting hamstrung by production or the chemistry was simply off. But it shouldn’t feel that way in this, year three of the Gordon era. It’s like a blood transfusion that just didn’t take.
Darrell Waltrip’s “Boogity, boogity, boogity” has also become directly connected to his age. It once was a symbol of how this broadcast was different; now, it just seems old. I’ll say it before and I’ll say it again; what 21-year-old is getting amped up off that?
It’ll be interesting to see NBC’s approach and its push to put Dale Earnhardt Jr. front and center as a reporter in hopes his fan base will tag along with it. Sadly, McReynolds last crew chiefed in 2000, the same year Waltrip retired from the Cup Series. They’re not bringing in new fans.
If Earnhardt proves wildly successful, will FOX change its tune and make some adjustments? I’m not optimistic. But the network should consider it.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off….
- Very quietly, Blaney has had three runs outside the top 30 in the last five races. Sonoma was a low point; he lost power steering, dropping through the field as FOX misreported he had arm cramps. The 34th-place finish, six laps off the pace, leaves Blaney just vulnerable enough down the stretch. He’s still winless, sits 120 points ahead of Ricky Stenhouse Jr. for the final spot and has bullets like Daytona and Watkins Glen still to dodge. How many times have we seen a big name fail to close the deal on wins early in the season, then tumble and miss the postseason altogether? Keep an eye on it.
- Chevrolet won eight of the first 11 races held at Chicagoland. But lately? It’s been shut out of Victory Lane since 2011. Don’t expect the Bowtie Brigade to break its slump this weekend.