We’re halfway through the 36-race Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season. As we head to New Hampshire this weekend, just eight events remain before the 10-race playoff that will decide who is the 2017 series champion.
Who’s on the outside looking in at the playoffs? Just those names alone set some of the year’s major storylines in motion. Dale Earnhardt Jr., the sport’s Most Popular Driver who’s retiring at the end of the season is so far behind he must win to make the 16-driver field. Earnhardt has fewer top 5s (one) at this point than former on-the-hot-seat driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has wins (two).
Earnhardt’s teammate, Kasey Kahne, also sits outside playoff contention in a down year for Hendrick Motorsports. Jimmie Johnson leads the series with three wins but doesn’t have a single top-5 finish beyond that. Sophomore Chase Elliott remains without a victory, coming frustratingly close while watching rival Ryan Blaney beat him to the punch.
Joe Gibbs Racing, a four-car team without a win through 18 races, has rookie Daniel Suarez on the outside looking in. Matt Kenseth is hanging by the skin of his teeth, holding the final playoff spot. It’s a year so rough for the 45-year-old he’s already been replaced at the No. 20 Toyota by Erik Jones beginning with the 2018 season.
Joey Logano sits outside the playoffs, the victim of an encumbered victory at Richmond in a year where the NASCAR penalty report is a must read every Wednesday. Team Penske took the series by storm early on but has struggled under the weight of crew chief suspensions and post-race inspection violations.
Some down years for some of these top drivers have left the championship chase wide open. Martin Truex Jr. leads the points, Kyle Larson sits second, and rising stars like Stenhouse and Blaney have already clinched playoff spots. Will they be the ones to beat come Homestead in November? Or will veterans like Johnson, Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick of Stewart-Haas Racing find a way to still push this youth movement aside?
That’s what we focus on as the sport begins a second half they hope changes the narrative that’s haunted them off track: declining TV ratings, attendance, and earnings from speedway arm International Speedway Corporation.
2017 Overton’s 301
Time: 3 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: New Hampshire Motor Speedway (Loudon, N.H.)
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Martin Truex Jr.
After two straight DNFs, Furniture Row Racing’s top team got it together in a dominant Kentucky performance. Truex led 152 laps and has now led a series-high 1,115 on the year. With a penalty assessed to Kyle Larson this week, he moved into the Cup Series point lead and remains the sport’s consistent driver this season across all tracks.
Who’s at the Back: Kasey Kahne
As Silly Season talk around Kahne has heated up, the performance of the No. 5 car has cooled down considerably. Kahne has wrecked out of five of the past seven races, dropping a whopping 149 points out of the final playoff spot. Clearly, he’ll have to win to make the field but considering he’s led just 19 laps over two years in top-tier equipment that appears to be a tall order.
Kyle Larson’s penalty shook the NASCAR world this week when his No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet was docked for an illegal rear brake cooling assembly. The consequences included a loss of 35 driver and owner points, a three-race suspension for crew chief Chad Johnston, and a $75,000 fine.
NASCAR has itself a new president. Brent Dewar, the sport’s Chief Operating Officer, ascended to the position this week. Dewar becomes just the fourth president in the sport’s nearly 70-year history and only the second without the last name of France. Dewar’s promotion fills the role vacated by Mike Helton when he was named Vice Chairman of the company.
Silly Season rumors and announcements continue to rock the sport’s top series. This week, it was officially announced that Erik Jones will take over the No. 20 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing beginning in the 2018 season. That will create an opening at Furniture Row, where Jones was driving the No. 77 Toyota on a one-year deal. Meanwhile, Chris Buescher announced he would likely stay on loan to JTG-Daugherty Racing, Richard Childress Racing laid off up to a dozen employees in a move that could foreshadow potential downsizing in 2018, and Richard Petty Motorsports made it clear they’d like to have substitute driver Darrell Wallace Jr. back in a full-time role next year if they can find a place for him.
The man Wallace was subbing for, Aric Almirola, made his return to the sport this weekend after being out for two months with a fractured vertebrae. Almirola suffered the injury at Kansas in a three-car incident involving Danica Patrick and Joey Logano. Just eight points outside the top 30, Almirola could still be playoff eligible in theory if he closes that gap and wins a race between now and Richmond in September.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Gap between Martin Truex Jr. and third place Kyle Busch in the Cup Series standings. That’s a large number just 18 races into the regular season; only Kyle Larson remains within striking distance.
Driver who has run all 18 races this season and still not led at least one lap at the Cup level: Matt DiBenedetto.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Joe Gibbs Racing. We’ve been waiting for them to get their act together and New Hampshire may finally be the place they cash in. Denny Hamlin has two career wins here and four straight top-15 finishes. Kyle Busch has won here as recently as 2015. But the guy to keep an eye on (top or middle tier depending on your game) is Matt Kenseth. The No. 20 Toyota has been first, first and second in the last three New Hampshire races. It’s as sure a bet as you can get he’ll be a contender again despite a season of struggles.
Austin Dillon has ever so quietly built himself a solid track record at New Hampshire. Dillon has five top-16 finishes in six New Hampshire starts and an average result of 14.0 overall. If consistency and low risk is what you’re looking for out of this tier, he’s your guy.
Teammate Ryan Newman at RCR also is a sneaky dark horse pick. He’s got seven straight top-20 finishes at New Hampshire and drives for a team that knows the strategy game. Why is that so important? Races at this one-mile oval often come down to fuel mileage and track position after your final pit stop. That type of event is what gave Newman the win at Phoenix earlier this spring.
How about those rookies? Still available in most formats on the lowest tier both Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez have been running well as of late. Jones has back-to-back top-10 finishes to go along with a top-5 run here in the XFINITY Series. As for Suarez? He was fourth in the XFINITY race at NHMS last July while driving for a team (JGR) that’s a favorite above in the top tier.
What Vegas Thinks
Kyle Busch has the edge on breaking his winless streak this week, holding 6/1 odds as the pre-race favorite. Martin Truex Jr. sits right behind him at 13/2.
What I Think
Kenseth, Kenseth, Kenseth. He needs a win badly while auditioning for 2018 and his recent track history at New Hampshire is just too good.
— 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.)