Ever have a friend who has a case of bad timing? They pull the punchline two minutes too late, show up just as the movie sells out and find their perfect match only to find out, well, they’re married. You know that guy?
Plenty of race fans do. In their world, he’s called NASCAR.
A sport which has had a history of poor-luck moves in recent years has stepped up to a whole new level in 2018. Last month, arguably the best race of the year at Watkins Glen, accentuated by a Chase Elliott victory was overshadowed in just 24 hours. Instead, the big story became how NASCAR CEO Brian France was pulled over in the Hamptons for a DUI and drug possession. He’s taken a leave of absence and hasn’t been seen at the racetrack since.
The sport tried to brush that aside with a 1-2 punch to end the regular season this year. Moving one of their crown jewel events, Indianapolis, to early September set up a Darlington-Indy finale at two of the most legendary tracks in America.
Brad Keselowski stole the show at the first stop, literally snatching the Southern 500 right out underneath Kyle Larson’s nose. For a split second, a trio of drivers who have dominated the season (Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick) fell off the front page of the NASCAR news cycle. There was hope perhaps another driver or team would step up to challenge them (injecting some unpredictability) come playoff time.
All seemed OK in NASCAR Nation. Except, just two days later, Martin Truex Jr.’s championship team announced it would shut down effective the end of the season. That’s right; imagine the Philadelphia Eagles last Thursday coming out on the field and going “we’re folding right after this next Super Bowl in January.” It’s an announcement that rocked NASCAR nation, spilling its ugly financial problems into public view.
Now, we’re heading to a race rescheduled to boost fan interest after Indy has struggled under the heat of the summer and a series of boring races. Except... Mother Nature doesn’t really care. Saturday’s on-track activity was rained out, setting the field through owner points and it’s probable the Brickyard 400 won’t run until at least Monday.
Not that Sunday was the best idea to begin with. The Brickyard was put up against the NFL’s first week of the regular season and an Indianapolis Colts game right down the street. Ticket sales were already struggling and a Monday postponement would make them downright abysmal. NASCAR would get buried even further under the headlines of the sport they once appeared poised to challenge long-term.
There have been plenty of other small examples of bad timing this year: rain wiping out the spring race at Martinsville until Monday (ruining another marquee event). Kasey Kahne missing this weekend with health-related issues (dehydration at Darlington) despite being the race’s defending champion. But in the end, all these events big or small add up to one difficult reality: it’s been tough to talk about the racing. Every time there’s an opportunity, another Bad News Bears story comes along to drown out what could be a good long-term storyline.
NASCAR desperately needs to get a few breaks to come its way. There is, after all, a 37 percent chance it won’t rain on Sunday according to the National Weather Service. Maybe this weekend will be the one where racing becomes the central focus once again.
I just wouldn’t bet on it.
Time: 1 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Indianapolis Motor Speedway (Indianapolis)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Kyle Larson
Brad Keselowski won the battle at Darlington but Larson was the star, leading 284 laps before losing the lead late on pit road. It was easily the best performance of a winless season; Larson now has two consecutive top-three results heading to a track at Indy where he’s highly motivated.
Could the No. 42 team still make some noise in the playoffs? Larson has three top-five starting spots in the last four races and has the long-run speed the Chevrolet Camaro has been quietly building this summer.
Who’s at the Back: Jimmie Johnson
Johnson missing the playoffs feels like such a longshot scenario. But the fact we’re actually talking about that heading into the regular season finale shows how bad 2018 has gone for the seven-time series champion. Oil pump problems at Darlington leave him just 19 points ahead of Alex Bowman; if Bowman passes him and a winless driver below him in the standings pulls an upset, Johnson would miss the first postseason of his career.
Johnson’s winless drought has reached a career-high 48 races. And when will a new primary sponsor for 2019 be announced for the No. 48? It’s a slump the likes of which we’ve never seen for the Johnson/Chad Knaus driver/crew chief duo.
Furniture Row Racing will cease to exist after the 2018 season.The surprise announcement was made this week as team owner Barney Visser claimed he would need to borrow money in 2019 in order to remain a competitive operation. The No. 78 team, still fresh off their 2017 title with Truex, was caught off guard this summer when primary sponsor 5-hour ENERGY chose not to extend their contract. No replacement was found and now, Truex appears headed to Joe Gibbs Racing along with crew chief Cole Pearn. FRR, which first competed at the Cup level in 2005, is the sport’s only successful Cup team based outside of Charlotte (Denver, Colo.)
Kasey Kahne has stepped out of the No. 95 car at Leavine Family Racing this weekend.Kahne admitted in a conference call with reporters he became dangerously dehydrated at Darlington. Doctors are baffled over why Kahne, one of the most physically fit drivers in NASCAR, reaches a limit to how much water he can drink during a race. The results could be catastrophic; at Darlington, over the final 100 laps he struggled to keep his eyes open while competing. A postrace trip to the infield care center after vomiting led to visits with other doctors this week and he’s now out of the No. 95 indefinitely. Regan Smith will sub at Indianapolis.
Matt DiBenedetto announced this weekend he won’t return to the No. 32 of Go FAS Racing in 2019.DiBenedetto, one of the sport’s more marketable young drivers has struggled with this underdog team the past two seasons. He’s got just one top-10 finish this season, a seventh at Daytona in July and sits a lowly 30th in the season standings.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Laps led by Kyle Larson this season, fourth most in the Cup Series. Despite that, Larson remains winless on the year.
Average finish for Matt Kenseth since replacing Trevor Bayne part-time in the No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford. Bayne’s average finish, by comparison, is 24.4.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
The Big Threemay have taken a week out of the spotlight but at Indy, they’ll be starting up front and should be tops on your list. Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch were poised to fight for the win amongst themselves last season before the duo wrecked each other. Kevin Harvick has a career average finish of 9.7 at Indianapolis and has finished no worse than eighth driving the No. 4 car.
Looking for an alternative? Team Penskeis poised to take risks at a track they’ve never won at in NASCAR despite owner Roger Penske’s success in the Indy 500. Brad Keselowski is coming off his Darlington win and was runner-up in this race last year; teammate Joey Logano was runner-up in 2015.
Ryan Newman won at Indy five years ago and has five top-11 finishes in his last six races at the track. The No. 31 Chevy team will also get aggressive this weekend as they need a win to sneak their way inside NASCAR’s postseason. Third last year here, Newman is a great dark-horse selection.
Teammate Austin Dillon has fared well at Indy in even-numbered years, posting a top-10 result in 2014 and '16. Will 2018 continue the pattern? The No. 3 team is locked into the playoffs and has nothing to lose as they seek a second victory this season in a marquee event.
Regan Smith, subbing for Kahne was 26th his last time out at Indy. But he has a third in the past driving for Furniture Row Racing and has a car capable of a top-20 result. Can the team conjure a little magic without their main driver behind the wheel?
What Vegas Thinks
Not surprisingly, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. top the odds list yet again. They have 5/2 to 7/2 odds, respectively in Vegas while Kyle Larson slots in fourth.
What I Think
After an emotional week, Martin Truex Jr. comes through and scores his first career win at Indianapolis. The Big Three finish 1-2-3 in their final tune-up before the NASCAR playoffs.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Top photo courtesy of @NASCAR)