By most accounts, one of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series’ marquee events is scheduled to go off this weekend. But as the sport descends on Indianapolis, site of the 24th annual Brickyard 400, the sport can’t stop talking about one of its marquee rides.
Hendrick Motorsports caused a stir this week by announcing Alex Bowman as the 2018 replacement for Dale Earnhardt Jr. The 24-year-old Bowman, with a push from Earnhardt, got the nod despite running just a single race this season in NASCAR’s top three series – a sixth-place finish at the Atlanta Truck Series race in March.
But Bowman, of course, had already proved himself subbing for Earnhardt in 10 of the final 18 races of 2016. The race that put him in position for the No. 88 ride was Phoenix last November, where he led 194 laps from the pole and might have won had a series of late cautions not jumbled up the field. Bowman wound up sixth, his best Cup finish in 81 career starts, which have been run with mostly underfunded teams before Hendrick.
Now, arguably the most successful team in NASCAR history rolls its dice on the future with a relative unknown. Earnhardt, the sport’s Most Popular Driver, has 2.2 million Twitter followers; Bowman had just 44,000 at the time of his signing. While a nice guy off of the track and personable with the press, Bowman doesn’t have the same charisma of the man he’s replacing.
But Hendrick convinced sponsors Nationwide and Axalta this youngster was worth a shot for one year. HMS hopes he settles in, young Chase Elliott absorbs Earnhardt’s popularity while Jimmie Johnson keeps chugging toward an eighth championship. The team’s average driver age was 40 during the 2015 season; it will start 2018 with an average of 31.2 (assuming Kasey Kahne doesn’t get released). That push to get younger is likely the other reason Bowman won out over a one-year stopgap of Matt Kenseth.
But long term, questions remain. The four-car team gets younger but, say, if Kahne gets replaced by William Byron they may start 2018 with only one Cup Series winner (Johnson) on their four-man roster. Will Earnhardt’s departure be a mere blip on the radar for a rebuilding HMS, or will it be the start of a step down?
Only time will tell. For now, with those 2018 questions settled, HMS can focus on pushing Earnhardt into the playoffs with a surprise win in the final seven regular season races. Indy, where his father won in 1995, would be a great place to start.
Time: 3 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Toyota
Camrys were cruising at the front of the field last Sunday at New Hampshire. Denny Hamlin took home the victory, the first for four-car Joe Gibbs Racing this season while Toyotas led 290 of 301 laps. Kyle Busch probably would have won if not for pit road speeding penalties late in the game that killed his chances. But there’s hope ahead for JGR’s top driver; he’s going for a third straight win at Indianapolis this weekend. Add in the performances of points leader Martin Truex Jr. and this manufacturer may be ready to peak at the right time.
Who’s at the Back: Joey Logano
Team Penske is tumbling, both Logano and Brad Keselowski enduring their share of struggles in recent weeks. The difference is Kes is locked into the playoffs; Logano will be lucky to get there. A suspension problem sent him behind the wall at New Hampshire, his second finish of 35th or worse in the last three races. To add insult to injury, NASCAR confiscated a truck arm for further inspection just months after an encumbered victory at Richmond stripped a playoff spot and set them back. (There was ultimately no penalty given by series officials).
But perhaps the April setback was punishment enough. The team now sits 52 points behind Kenseth for the final playoff spot and will likely need to win one of the final seven races to sneak into the field. It would be a devastating blow for a man who’s been a title favorite each of the previous three years he’s been aligned with Penske.
See above for Earnhardt/Bowman. There’s no word from HMS as to whether Bowman will get some on-track time later in the year to prepare for his 2018 ride.
Other Silly Season news centers on rumors, not facts. Paul Menard continues to be evasive when asked if he’ll leave Richard Childress Racing following the season with his family sponsorship. Matt Kenseth has made it clear he has no idea of where he’ll land in 2018. Brad Keselowski still hasn’t announced an extension with Team Penske on a contract that expires following the season. And Darrell Wallace Jr. still searches for a spot next week, let alone next year after Aric Almirola returned to his full-time role running the No. 43 Ford.
On the manufacturer front, an article posted on The Drive this week insinuated Dodge’s reported interest in NASCAR has waned. The manufacturer has reportedly found a return prohibitively expensive and prefers to spend its money building up its base in NHRA drag racing and other series. Despite NASCAR’s insistence it’s talking to “several” manufacturers these days about potentially entering the sport the article insinuated until costs come down they’ll need to make do with Ford, Chevrolet and Toyota.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Straight NASCAR Cup wins at Indianapolis by Chevrolet until Kyle Busch broke the streak for Toyota the past two years. The 2003-14 streak is a series record at the 2.5-mile track.
Best finish for Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Indianapolis during his Cup career. It’s his only top-5 result in 16 career starts.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Kyle, Kyle, Kyle. Not only is he the two-time defending winner of Indianapolis, Kyle Busch flat out dominated the 2016 edition of the Brickyard. Leading 149 of 170 laps, no one was close to the speed of the No. 18 Toyota. Busch has been stubbing his toe too often this season, simple mistakes costing the team multiple victories. But he enters this weekend, on the heels of showing superior speed for much of the past month an overwhelming favorite to make it three in a row.
Stuck with too many races for Busch? How about Kyle Larson? Second in points, Larson’s No. 42 team has been near the top at Indy ever since the days Juan Pablo Montoya drove for them. Larson has never finished lower than ninth here and picked up his 1,000th runner-up finish of the season last weekend in New Hampshire. (Seriously, at one point Larson has to start closing the deal more.)
Clint Bowyer has been on this list a lot lately. But at Indy, it’s hard to leave him off. Bowyer was 21st last year with an underfunded team and that was his worst career finish at Indianapolis since he first started going there. An average finish of 13.5 has him a dark horse for a roster that should benefit from a consistent, near-the-front run no matter what.
Richard Childress Racing as a whole has a solid track record at Indianapolis, a track where they’ve been victorious with Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Kevin Harvick, among others. Ryan Newman had a streak of eight straight top-20 finishes end here last year; he’s also won in the past with Stewart-Haas Racing. Austin Dillon was ninth last year and is a sucker (in a good way) for these types of tracks. And Paul Menard (typically in the lower tier) earned his lone Cup Series victory here back in 2011 with RCR.
We haven’t mentioned her hardly all year. But look at Danica Patrick, posting back-to-back top-15 finishes for the first time this season. The track record at Indy in a Cup car is far from stellar; she has yet to run inside the top 20. That makes her a cheap pick in money leagues and I think IndyCar experience is finally going to push her over the top at this track at some point.
What Vegas Thinks
Saturday’s check saw Kyle Busch earn 15/4 odds to win the race. But Martin Truex Jr. was close behind at 4/1.
What I Think
I’m going Kyle Busch, cashing in and earning three straight at Indy. But watch Kyle Larson. Having a breakout season, these are the type of races superstars win.
— 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.
(Photo by ASP Inc.)