A couple weeks ago one blustery and cool evening, I went to put some laundry into the back of my Jeep. A gust of wind slammed shut the Cherokee’s door, trapping my right thumb and index finger between the door frame and the whole rest of the truck. To make things that much more special, those rear doors lock themselves and the keys were in the console. After some contortionist-style moves, I managed to get the front door open and hit the power unlock button.
Yeah, I probably sounded like Kyle Busch over the radio a couple minutes there. As a result, I have some vivid purple and green bruising at the base of that thumbnail. Past experience has taught me over the next couple months, that bruising will gradually move from the base of the thumbnail to the tip of it. Then, I’ll be able to trim it out.
I present this cliffhanger of a story as yet another example of my mindless stupidity as I get old (er) not to elicit sympathy. It’s rather to say I spent much of Sunday afternoon (Oct. 21) during the race staring at that thumbnail watching it begin its imperceptible growth to the top. Watching the thumbnail grow was far more exciting than much of the race.
When NASCAR, struggling mightily at the moment to remain relevant, offers up a Christmas gift to its remaining fans I’d suggest a shorter schedule of shorter races on shorter tracks… and the complete and total elimination of the “within arm’s reach rule” for tires being changed on pit road. Kurt Busch and Almirola, for starters, would be pretty happy about that. When pit penalties are the only memorable moment I’d consider going back to the drawing board.
With that in mind, as NASCAR’s season heads down the homestretch, I’ll offer a few thoughts on the Cup Series to date.
Is it perhaps ironic that after Sunday’s event at one of the newest tracks on the Cup schedule, Kansas (joined in 2001) the circuit heads to its oldest remaining track, Martinsville? (The first Martinsville race was run in 1949, NASCAR’s inaugural season.) No, I doubt it. NASCAR only does irony well when it’s completely unintended. In fact, the sport deals with irony the way Brian France deals with sobriety.
I will note that next week’s Martinsville event is the one race of the final four I look forward to with great anticipation. There’s been some memorable finishes as of late at the storied old track. Few of you will have forgotten Matt Kenseth’s little brouhaha with Joey Logano in 2015.
While it wasn’t quite the same level of aggression in last fall’s Martinsville race, Denny Hamlin fired the shot heard around the world. He cheap-shotted Chase Elliott, who had led 123 laps in that event, late in the race only to lose the win anyway.
Hamlin, who has been doing this awhile, said he was quite surprised by the blowback after that incident involving the heir apparent to NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver award. Young Master Elliott, meanwhile emerged from his car a changed driver if not a new person altogether. He said he was done getting pushed around. No more Mr. Nice Guy.
As you reap, so shall you sow. Just under a year later, Elliott has accumulated his third Cup victory and remains a championship contender. Somewhat surprisingly, Hamlin finished seventh that day and hasn’t won a Cup race since. Hamlin now has just four more races to try to score a win; he’s earned one every season since going full-time in Cup way back in 2006. Kyle Busch went on to win that autumn Martinsville race and coincidentally finished runner up to Elliott Sunday.
Clint Bowyer’s popular win at the track this spring snapped a winless streak that went back to 2012. It also served notice that Kevin Harvick wasn’t the only SHR driver ready to run with the big dogs this season.
But longer term fans may recall a memorable finish at Martinsville Bowyer was snout deep in: spring 2012. Hendrick Motorsports drivers Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon had combined to lead 440 laps that day and were running 1-2 on a late restart. Bowyer bulldozed the HMS duo, handing the lead and the win to a thoroughly surprised Ryan Newman. That afternoon, Newman never led a lap until that final caution flag for the incident that caused the race to go 15 laps past its scheduled distance. He’s only won two Cup races since.
Who’s Still Winless? And A Look At The Manufacturer’s Race
With just four races left to run in 2018, at least three drivers who won a points-paying Cup race last year won’t do so this year. The group includes Kyle Larson, Newman, Kasey Kahne, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Hamlin and Matt Kenseth. Perhaps Kenseth can be given a “bye” because he’s only run in 12 of this season’s 32 races. Larson, who won four times last year and has finished second six times this year, is a major surprise (if not a shock) to be listed here.
The other stunning name left off the winner’s list to date is seven-time Cup champion Johnson. The driver of the No. 48 car has won at least two (2011) and as many as 10 races (2007) since 2002. With 83 wins spread over 18 seasons, Johnson had been averaging almost five wins a year prior to this one. Even forgetting that winless statistic, it’s been a bad year for him. He’s managed just two top-five results down from a career high of 20 such finishes in 2007.
But a quick glance at his stats reveals more troubling numbers. Johnson had just four top-five results last year. To date this year, he’s averaging a 17th place finish, the lowest of his career though down only .3 from last year’s number. While he has four more races to add to the total, currently Johnson has just 11 top-10 results this year, the same number he managed in 2017. Also to date, Johnson has led just 27 laps this year. He’s never not posted a “laps led” number with less than three digits and led 2,238 laps in 2009. Oh, and let’s not forget while an announcement is said to be imminent, for the first time in his career Johnson doesn’t know who will sponsor the No. 48 car next year.
Larson and Johnson have one thing in common even if they are on opposite ends of their careers. Both drive Chevrolets and this hasn’t been a very good year for the Camaros. While Austin Dillon kicked off the season, winning the Daytona 500 in a Chevy, the Bowtie Brigade has won just four races this year. It’s a once unthinkable level of mediocrity for the winningest brand in NASCAR history.
But Elliott has those three wins at the wheel of a Camaro and finds himself solidly fourth in the standings. He’s the only Chevy driver to make it into the Round of 8. Toyota still has Busch and Truex in the championship hunt but the rest of the final eight drive five Fords. Four of them are out of the SHR stables, the first time in history the whole team’s gotten this far.
But back to the Chevys and Johnson. My guess is when he looks at Elliott’s success as of late, Johnson is getting an idea of how former teammate Jeff Gordon felt when Johnson exploded on the scene and started winning races and championships. Like that old Eagles song goes, “There’s a new kid in town, everybody loves him. don’t they? And you’re still around.”
Toyota has had a somewhat better season with 12 wins. Kyle Busch has seven of them and Truex four more. But the only other race winner at the wheel of a Toyota was a surprising Erik Jones in the Firecracker 400.
But NASCAR racing tends to return to stasis cyclically. Next year, the Ford teams will switch from the Fusion (a car Ford Motor Company is dropping altogether) to the more sporting-oriented Mustangs. Ordinarily, the introduction of a new model race car is reason for great optimism. For gearheads like me, the return of the Mustang can only be seen as a positive. But of course, I don’t race one for a living. With those tried and true Fusions being retired for a new model car it seems the only way Ford can head is down.