Can NASCAR's own version of "Final Four" rise to the top this weekend?
The focus in the sporting world is on college basketball, with the men’s NCAA Tournament determining its Final Four this weekend.
But NASCAR, a month into their season also is squarely focused on the number four.
The sport can boast four different winners in four races; such parity hopes to eclipse a poor aerodynamics package that has led to further TV ratings declines. The diversity within that group speaks to what will be a competitive playoff this fall. You’ve got a driver from each manufacturer (Ford, Toyota, Chevrolet) and from teams that have combined to win a total of nine Cup championships.
There’s Kurt Busch, starting the year with a surprise Daytona 500 victory that proved the perfect way to debut Stewart-Haas Racing with Ford. Two years after being suspended from this race due to domestic violence allegations, Busch found himself on top of the point standings and establishing himself as an early title contender.
Next was Brad Keselowski, now over four years removed from his only Cup title, who has been a factor in all four races thus far. His Atlanta victory flipped the script at a track where he was best known for landing upside down, courtesy Carl Edwards back in 2010. Now? At 32, Keselowski is in the prime of his career and positioned for a run at the top with Ford’s flagship program.
Then came Martin Truex Jr., shaking off the burdens of expansion with his Furniture Row Racing outfit by speeding to victory in Las Vegas. It was his first win following a career-best four last year (there’s that number again) while putting to rest whispers that Toyota is a step behind this season, at least for now. (Four-car Joe Gibbs Racing would beg to differ; they’ve yet to produce a winner this season after dominating the NASCAR circuit for much of 2016).
Last but not least we have Ryan Newman, who ended a four-year winless streak in the fourth race of 2017 with strategy that snookered the favorites on a green-white-checkered finish. Choosing to stay out on old tires, he stayed ahead of points leader Kyle Larson and other challengers unable to close the gap on fresh rubber. Of course, Larson might have prevailed had fourth-place finisher Ricky Stenhouse Jr. not made contact with him on turn 1 of the green-white-checkered. When will the prospect of finishing second frustrate Larson enough to make a more aggressive maneuver to grab a win?
Those four drivers can breathe a sigh of relief, knowing almost certainly their efforts have them locked into NASCAR’s playoff that guarantees a slot to up to 16 drivers that win a race during the regular season. (We haven’t gotten close to that number since the new format came into play in 2014). Not included in that group? The driver of the No. 4, Kevin Harvick, despite leading the most laps on the season and winning three of the first six stages under this format. The Closer has not been able to finish the deal and looked uncharacteristically behind at even his best track, Phoenix, where he couldn’t lead a lap last weekend en route to a sixth-place finish (which, for him might as well have been 35th).
So who says NASCAR can’t have its own fun with the number four? Heading into Fontana, though there’s one number they need to avoid. Poor ratings at one of the sport’s most competitive tracks would lead to a fourth week of declines following momentum from the season-opening Daytona 500.
That’s a scary downhill slide new title sponsor Monster Energy, along with a number of wary Fortune 500 companies, wants to avoid.
Auto Club 400
Time: 3:30 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Auto Club Speedway (Fontana, Calif.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Kyle Larson
Second place is the first loser, they say? Not in NASCAR’s new format. Larson became the first driver in the sport’s modern era to score more points than the winner with his runner-up finish Sunday at Phoenix. Three straight second places have him on top of the points standings, the latest in a season his Chip Ganassi team has led since Sterling Marlin way back in 2002. Could this year be the one this young talent turns potential into reality?
Who’s at the Back: Corey Lajoie
Sure, Lajoie drives for small-time BK Racing, a group that struggles to simply have enough funding to compete. The expectations should be minimal for a rookie with limited experience in NASCAR’s top three levels of competition. But for Lajoie, it’s hard to imagine starting off 2017 any worse. In four races, he’s had four wrecks, the last one courtesy Reed Sorenson at Phoenix that appeared to be payback for an incident that knocked Sorenson out of qualifying for the Daytona 500. BK doesn’t have enough cars in their inventory, let alone money to sustain that type of torn-up sheet metal.
Another week, another list of encumbered finishes. Brad Keselowski was the hardest hit, losing 35 driver and owner points after his car failed Phoenix post-race inspection. Crew chief Paul Wolfe also has been suspended for the next three Cup Series events. Kevin Harvick, meanwhile is appealing his penalty for a faulty track bar that cost him 10 driver and owner points. Crew chief Rodney Childers, if the penalty stands, would be suspended from one Cup Series event.
Restrictor plates at Indianapolis? Looks like it’ll be a reality this summer for the sport’s XFINITY Series as NASCAR tinkers with a long-term solution to make the 2.5-mile oval more competitive for stock cars. If all goes well, expect officials to bring plates to the Cup event in 2018... and they won’t stop there. Other intermediate tracks may get the plates as the sport studies how to create more passing at the front of the field.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Top-10 finishes for Dale Earnhardt Jr. through the first four Cup Series events. It’s the first time he’s gone 0-for-4 to start the season with Hendrick Motorsports.
Out of the last four races at Fontana that went through a lead change on the final lap. The other one? Jimmie Johnson earned the win through a green-white-checkered finish. The conclusion here is simple; if Fontana can’t produce a great race these days, then NASCAR’s really got a problem.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
There’s no better place for Jimmie Johnson to get back on track for your team than back in his home state. Johnson, Fontana’s defending champion, has six wins here and has run outside the top 12 just once since 2005. That’s a record of consistency which should leave you breathing easy for a solid finish on Sunday.
Don’t want to use Jimmie? Then how about Kyle Busch? His 25th-place finish last year ended a streak of four straight top-3 results at Fontana, including a surprise 2013 win when Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano crashed on the final lap. The sole word of warning for Busch is how badly Joe Gibbs Racing appears to be off to start 2017.
Once upon a time, Clint Bowyer used to excel at Auto Club Speedway. He was ninth, eighth, second and seventh at one point in a four-race stretch driving for former boss Richard Childress and Chevrolet. Will the switch to another top-tier team, Stewart-Haas Racing, produce those results once more? Tony Stewart won twice in the last six years driving the No. 14 and replacement driver Brian Vickers was 13th in the ride at Fontana in 2016.
Don’t look now, but Daniel Suarez might have woken up. A top-10 finish at Phoenix with the No. 19 Toyota was a huge step in a rookie season that started off sour. He doesn’t have much Fontana experience, but he won the pole and ran fourth in the 2016 XFINITY race. Add in a seventh by Carl Edwards in the No. 19 last season and he’s a good dark horse pick for your team.
What Vegas Thinks
Jimmie Johnson has the edge this weekend, according to covers.com with 6-1 odds. Everyone else is 8-1 or worse.
What I Think
Johnson, after a slow start this season gets things back on track with back-to-back wins at Fontana. He becomes the fifth winner in as many races as NASCAR enjoys some of the best parity it’s had to start a season in years.
(Photo by ASP Inc.)