Is Hendrick Motorsports on the verge of losing their title as NASCAR's best team?
It was only a matter of minutes at Martinsville Speedway. But as the laps clicked down, Chase Elliott’s career timeline hit a roller-coaster ride from dream to disaster. For a split second, he was Chase-ing his first Cup Series win, a Championship 4 appearance and a surge in national attention and popularity.
That’s when Denny Hamlin chased him a little too hard into Turn 3, Chase-ing those dreams into “wait until next year” territory. NASCAR, during a rough year for ratings took a hit, considering their 21-year-old has been one of the top 5 Most Popular Drivers on Twitter this year despite a winless season.
A consolation prize was the backstretch bumping and post-race confrontation with Hamlin seen around the country. Elliott, for the first time in his maturation stood his ground and let it be known he won’t be used as a bumper car going forward. A new rivalry was born, one that had people talking around the water coolers this week.
Over the long term, that’s great for the sport. But in the short term? The championship road ahead for Elliott appears to sit somewhere between difficult and impossible. He’ll start 34th Sunday, adding insult to injury by failing pre-qualifying inspection at Texas Motor Speedway. While the No. 24 car had a similar situation back in the spring, surging from 34th to ninth at the finish that won’t be good enough.
“If you get your car driving good, you can pass,” Elliott told ESPN’s Bob Pockrass. “It’s doable. We’ll see.”
Teammate Jimmie Johnson, who went from last to first here in the spring, has a bit better outlook, qualifying inside the top 10. But the No. 48 team of Hendrick Motorsports is also coming off a disappointing weekend, getting lapped at one point on a Martinsville track where he’s made mincemeat out of opponents for decades.
That leaves NASCAR’s best team over the 21st Century with their backs against the wall – again – in this current playoff format. Over the past three years, the four-car operation has only filled two of 12 spots in the Championship 4 and won the title with Johnson last year more out of survival than success. Johnson and Elliott would both be on the outside looking in if Homestead-Miami slots were awarded right now.
The problems, of course, run deeper than those two at HMS. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has had a miserable final season and only lately has returned to a shell of the driver he once was. Kasey Kahne was released effective the end of this season and been invisible outside of his Brickyard 400 upset. Fresh blood is coming, youngsters Alex Bowman and William Byron filling those slots, but they remain somewhat unproven on this level.
So the end of this year, with Toyota still surging serves as a referendum of sorts on HMS. Can the best program for Chevrolet, especially with Chip Ganassi Racing out of the picture, turn it around before it’s too late? And if they don’t, are they really be considered the best team in this sport anymore? Martin Truex Jr. and the four-car team of Joe Gibbs Racing, a program that could easily win a second title in three years would beg to differ.
AAA Texas 500
Time: Sunday, Nov. 5 at 2 p.m. ET
Track: Texas Motor Speedway (Fort Worth)
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Kyle Busch
Busch proved the beneficiary from the Chase Elliott-Denny Hamlin and Elliott-Brad Keselowski contact down the stretch. Muscling past Hamlin on the final restart, the No. 18 Toyota became an unlikely winner after Sunday’s Martinsville mayhem.
But was it really all that farfetched? Busch led 184 laps on the day and overall has led 662 laps during this version of the NASCAR Playoffs. In fact, only once since Richmond in April (July’s Daytona plate race) has Busch failed to lead at least one lap in a Cup Series event. During that 25-race stretch, he’s won five times while giving Truex a run for his money atop the standings. Busch will be hard to beat at Homestead-Miami no matter how well the No. 78 and Truex run the next two weeks.
Who’s at the Back: Kyle Larson
A wreck at Martinsville by Larson gave him back-to-back DNFs for the first time since running for Chip Ganassi Racing in the Cup Series. That’s a span that dates back to February 2014. It looks like Playoff elimination has taken a bite out of a No. 42 team that entered the postseason a dark horse to take the title from Truex and Busch.
Pre-qualifying inspection woes continue to haunt NASCAR teams. A total of seven cars failed to pass Friday, leaving everyone from Round of 8 driver Chase Elliott to BK Racing cars run by rookies Corey Lajoie and Gray Gaulding without an attempt. Having 17.5 percent of the NASCAR Cup Series field on the sidelines while setting the grid is not exactly ideal for this sport.
Click ‘n Close became the first of what will likely be several primary sponsor deals surrounding the No. 43 and Darrell Wallace Jr. next year. Reports also surfaced this week that Smithfield will stay with the Richard Petty Motorsports team in some capacity despite moving on to Stewart-Haas Racing with driver Aric Almirola next season. The Smithfield-Almirola deal should be announced in a press conference Wednesday at SHR.
Darian Grubb has been announced as the crew chief for William Byron next year at HMS. Byron, finishing up his rookie season in the XFINITY Series, will slide into the car vacated by Kasey Kahne for 2018. Grubb has won 23 races as a head wrench with multiple programs and captured the 2011 championship with Tony Stewart. Grubb, of course, was best known as the guy who hung tough despite being fired by Stewart before the playoffs that year effective the end of the season. The duo still stuck by each other and defeated Carl Edwards in one of the series’ closest title races since the turn of the century.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Victories for the Hendrick Motorsports engine department following Johnny Sauter’s Friday night victory in the Truck Series race at Texas Motor Speedway. HMS has been providing motors within the top levels of NASCAR since 1984.
Top-10 finishes for Martin Truex Jr. over 33 Cup races this season, leading the series. No one else has more than 20.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
It’s hard to bet against Jimmie Johnson heading to TMS. He’s won four of the last six races here, including that last-to-first outing in the spring and enters the weekend with his back against the wall. Can the No. 48 team rise to the occasion? Even if they fall short of Victory Lane, you’ve got to think a top-10 finish is virtually a guarantee.
Brad Keselowski has gone under the radar for many fantasy teams this week. The Team Penske driver himself claimed his No. 2 Ford didn’t have the speed at intermediate ovals to reach Victory Lane. But after a slew of sponsorship renewals this week (Discount Tire, Miller Lite) I expect this team to come out swinging. Kes has never won at TMS but does have four top-10 finishes in his last six starts at the track.
How about Roush Fenway Racing? Teammates Trevor Bayne and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. ran 13th and 14th, respectively, at Texas this spring. Both men have combined for five top-20 finishes in their last six TMS starts. And the pressure of the NASCAR Playoffs is off for Stenhouse, driving for a No. 17 team that’s overachieved this season. I think these Fords are in building mode for 2018 and Sunday gives them a chance to strut their stuff.
Danica, Danica, Danica. I really feel like Patrick has the motivation to end the season strong and was running well in the second half until a few wrecks put a damper on her performances in recent weeks. She’s qualified 14th for this race, the second-best effort of her career at Texas Motor Speedway, and has the benefit of learning from teammate Kurt Busch and his pole-winning setup. Yes, Patrick has never run better than 16th here, but I expect a career-high performance come Sunday.
What Vegas Thinks
Not surprisingly, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch lead the betting lines. Truex was 5/2 and Busch 9/2 to win at Texas at last check.
What I Think
How many years have we bet against Jimmie Johnson only for the No. 48 team to come through? I’m not doing that this weekend. Expect the seven-time champ to reassert himself and punch his Homestead ticket in a bid for a record setting eighth Cup title.
(Top photo courtesy of NASCAR.com)