Who’s in the headline – Many drivers have garnered front page news since the green flag dropped on Daytona in February. Among those, three stand out above the rest in 2015. Kevin Harvick has been the class of the field in almost every race this season. He finished inside the top two in the first five races of the year, leading over 1,200 laps to date. That is the first time since Jeff Gordon in 2001 someone has led that much, that often; Gordon wound up with his fourth and final championship that year.
Martin Truex Jr. has been a top-10 machine through the first 15 races. He has run top 10 in every race but Bristol and went to Victory Lane in Pocono. Meanwhile, Jimmie Johnson continues to do what Jimmie Johnson does. The six-time champion has races where he dominates, like Texas and other races where he runs like complete crap (Charlotte). In the end, he and Chad Knaus have spats like an old married couple on the radio but they keep on winning. Barring a major shift in momentum between now and Homestead, all three of these drivers should be running for the title at the season finale.
What happened – Harvick has led every race this season except the Daytona 500. He has led more than 25 laps in every race but three. Dating back to last year, he is finishing inside the top two over 40% of the time since climbing into the No. 4 seat at Stewart-Haas Racing. Truex, for his part tied Richard Petty for the all-time record of top-10 finishes to start a season after scoring his 14th in 15 races at Michigan. Petty accomplished the feat in 1969, before NASCAR’s “modern era” of a cut-down race schedule.
Only three drivers have won more than once in 2015 and Johnson has won four times. Eighth on the all-time wins list, Johnson is just two shy of tying Dale Earnhardt for seventh. Johnson has won four or more races every year since 2011, the only full-time season he’s run that he didn’t win at least three events.
Why you should care – Chevrolet has seven of the top-10 points positions and 10 of the 15 wins this season. Hendrick Motorsports has all four of their teams inside the top 10 in points; they also have Harvick with Kurt Busch sitting in 11th. Obviously, it is early yet in the process, but what happens if all four drivers earning a shot in Homestead are Hendrick affiliates? With Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix leading up to Homestead, the possibility is very real that a HMS driver or affiliate could win all three of those events – a potential PR nightmare for the sport.
What your friends are talking about – NASCAR is talking about track specific aero packages to try and make the racing better. Apparently, the sanctioning body has learned nothing from the abomination that is track specific race tires that the sport currently has to deal with. The constant talk about trying to save money for race teams is apparently just a lot of bunk if they truly think this idea works. Making small teams hang track unique bodies will tax their already limited staff. Forget about the fact that most teams do not have the engineering resources, never running the necessary simulations to be remotely competitive coming off of the truck compared to Hendrick, Penske and Gibbs. It has been said in the column before and will continue to be said until someone can prove us wrong: cut the crap below the front bumper off of these cars and you eliminate 90% of your aerodynamic issues. The remaining 10% is acceptable because the leader should have some advantage.
In the same vein as the aforementioned aero packages, NASCAR announced changes for the upcoming Kentucky race. The spoiler on the rear of the car will be three and a half inches tall versus the current six inches. The radiator pan will be 25 inches rather than the current 38. Finally, the splitter will have one and three quarter inches less overhang than in the current rules package. It is great that NASCAR is trying to reduce the downforce exerted on the cars in order to make them tougher to drive into the corners, ultimately forcing the drivers to lift more. Problem is, they still have the car sealed off to the ground and that eliminates nearly all the air getting to the car behind. If the nose of the car is off the ground, there is air flowing under the car which can get to the nose of the car behind and the aero push problem is significantly reduced. Eliminate that issue and you can have slingshot passes again which is what so many people want to see.
Not sure of the exact timing of the announcements but very shortly after NASCAR revealed its Kentucky changes, Goodyear pointed out they did not have a track specific tire designed for this situation. It is a very common theme that we’ve beaten to death in this column but Goodyear needs to get rid of track specific tire compounds. Come up with three sets of compounds to be run at the four different types of racetracks that the series visits and let the teams decide which compounds to run at different times of races. A soft, medium and hard compound for short tracks, intermediates, superspeedways and road courses would see Goodyear have to make a grand total of 12 different compounds. With the current methodology, they have different right and left side tires at many of the tracks and few tires that cross over from one track to another. The end result is they are making somewhere around 40 to 50 unique compounds for the schedule. Those compounds are seldom useful at multiple tracks, so the tires are discarded after each race and teams are out the money for nothing. Common compounds, by comparison would let teams use the same tires at multiple tracks and allow them to save an extensive amount of cash. It would also give some level of strategy back to the teams, allowing them to make different compound calls based on their situation at any time during a race.
Silly Season is about to ramp up. The midway point of the year is when driver movement for the upcoming season usually begins to pick up speed. This year, there are several who are looking to secure rides for the next few years before the end of the season. They include Alex Bowman, Danica Patrick, Casey Mears, David Ragan, David Gilliland, Landon Cassill, Justin Allgaier and Truex while Jamie McMurray could also be in play. The biggest names on that list are obviously Truex and Patrick. Truex is in serious contention for a championship with a single-car team while Patrick is a sponsor magnet who, despite losing GoDaddy on her car, still can pull in the necessary dollars to have a logo on her hood for every race weekend. McMurray is another driver who has been a great pitch man for his sponsors and has generally had little difficulty landing logos on his hood. The remainder of the drivers will be hoping to stick with their current organization or find somewhere else that will keep them at the pinnacle of the sport.
That curious sound you heard Wednesday was the combination of breaking hearts and sighs of despair from many of the female members of Junior Nation. Their favorite driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced his engagement to longtime girlfriend Amy Reimann on Twitter. While almost none of them had any chance of going on a date with their driver, let alone landing him as a spouse, they had to admit their odds just dropped precipitously. In all seriousness, congratulations to NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver. We wish him all the best as he moves closer to tying the knot.
Who is mad – Tony Stewart‘s been in this section more than anyone else this season, and rightfully so. Stewart has been a champion in everything he’s driven for a full season and he’s done it three times in the Cup series. But this reduced horsepower package has given Stewart fits to a point he finds himself 26th in points, earning just one top-10 finish and three DNFs. No one knows how to fix his issues or they would already be cured. His lack of seat time in sprint cars can’t be helping the situation but one thing is for sure: Stewart has as much drive and determination as anyone who has ever climbed behind the wheel of a race car. He’ll get this slump figured out; it’s just whether it’ll be in time to make the Chase.
Kyle Busch suffered a horrible accident at Daytona in the NXS event that sidelined him for the first 11 races this season. When he came back to competition, NASCAR stated he was still eligible for the Chase provided he could qualify. The winning a race part would not seem like that tall of an order for a man who is 24th on the all-time list, earning 29 career victories. The greater challenge was averaging a 17th-place finish to get inside the top 30 in points. A last-place finish at Michigan, paired with a 36th at Dover has Busch in dire straits in his effort to make the top 30. With the current pace that Allgaier is running 30th in points, Busch will need to average a 13th-place finish over the next 11 races to catch him. The mountain Busch has to overcome is looking steeper each and every week….
Paul Menard, Ryan Newman and Austin Dillon all have to be mad about the success Truex is realizing in his Furniture Row Racing Chevrolet. FRR is competing for wins and second in points utilizing the same equipment as the trio from Richard Childress Racing. The three drivers competing out of Welcome, N.C. have scored six top fives and 13 top 10s by comparison, nearly identical results as Truex has put up all by himself. RCR is utilizing some new engineering that might push them back to the top of the series but, for now, it is the pencil pushers in Colorado who are fielding the best of the RCR equipment.
Who is happy – Joey Logano won the Daytona 500, starting off his season happiest of all. While that is his only win of the season, he is tied for third in top fives (eight) and alone in third in top 10s (11). His No. 22 team has struggled with making the right adjustments during races, taking them out of contention for wins but they are certainly fast every weekend. If they can figure out how to stick with the front few cars, week-in and week-out, they’re going to be a threat in this thing yet.
We mentioned that Earnhardt Jr. is now engaged. That ought to make him happy in and of itself, but he’s also running fourth in points with a win in the bank already. Meshing more with new crew chief Greg Ives, he hasn’t finished outside the top 15 since Bristol and is coming off a runner-up run at Michigan. Earnhardt won the last restrictor-plate race and was third at Daytona to start the season. He has to feel pretty good about going back to the World Center of Speed for the Fourth of July weekend, a Chase bid already all but secure.
Kurt Busch started the year in the mad category for sure. His domestic violence case with former girlfriend Patricia Driscoll forced him out of his racecar before he was allowed to compete in the Daytona 500. He missed three races before climbing back in when charges were not brought in the case. Since that point in time, he’s been one of the five best cars in the series. He’s won twice, scored three poles, finished in the top five five times and in the top 10 seven times. He has not had a DNF which has moved him to 11th in the points. Busch is the most recent winner in the series and his two wins assures he’ll be in the Chase. The season is far from over, and fortunes can change dramatically for sure but right now, Busch is looking like a “feel good” story that could have a very happy ending at Homestead.
When the checkered flag flew
As mentioned above, Johnson leads the series with four victories. He is the only Hendrick driver locked into the Chase at this point, although Earnhardt Jr. would have to stumble mightily to fall out assuming there were more than 16 winners before the beginning of the “playoffs.” Harvick and Kurt Busch are the other two drivers who have scored multiple wins and assured themselves of racing in the Chase.
Ten drivers have wound up in Victory Lane in 2015. 21 different drivers have finished in the top five of at least one race with Harvick doing it 10 times, the most of any driver. 33 competitors have finished in the top 10 of at least one race. Truex is tops in that category with 14 such runs this season.
Seven drivers have won pole positions this year with Logano doing it four times to lead the series.
Landon Cassill leads the series with four DNFs this year. Earnhardt Jr. is the highest in points with a DNF on their record in fourth position. Among drivers who have contested all 15 races in 2015, Greg Biffle is the lowest in points without a DNF, sitting 20th.
Kurt Busch is highest in the point standings among drivers who have not run all 15 races, currently in the 11th position. Cassill is not running for points so he technically is lowest among drivers that have run all 15 events. Of the drivers declared for points in the Cup series, Michael Annett is the lowest full-timer in the standings (34th).
Chevrolet is still king of the Cup series with 748 victories in the history of the sport. Ford sits in second with 634. Dodge is a distant third with 217 triumphs. Plymouth is fourth on the list with 190 wins and Pontiac rounds out the top five at 155 total victories. The second half of the top 10 is made up of Oldsmobile (115), Mercury (96), Hudson (79), Toyota (68) and Buick (65). Chrysler has 59 wins as a manufacturer as the only other name plate with more than five wins. The rest of the list is AMC with five, Lincoln at four, Studebaker notched three, and Nash and Jaguar one triumph each.
Harvick, Logano, Brad Keselowski, Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Kenseth, Kurt Busch, Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards and Truex all have wins in 2015. Harvick, Johnson and Kurt Busch are locked into the Chase assuming they attempt the rest of the races or receive an exemption should they miss any events thanks to multiple wins.
The drivers who are currently eligible for the Chase after 15 races without wins and their standing in points:
7) Jamie McMurray
9) Kasey Kahne
10) Jeff Gordon
12) Paul Menard
15) Aric Almirola
16) Ryan Newman
Takin’ it to the Bank
Not surprisingly, Harvick has the most prize money collected in 2015 with $4,840,151.
38 drivers have scored more than $1 million in prize money through the first 15 races on the schedule. Rookie DiBenedetto is the last member of the millionaires club so far in 2015 with $1,065,736.
With 15 races in the books, Cup winners this year have pocketed $5,701,444, while the last-place finisher has taken home $1,295,337.
In the Xfinity Series it has been $1,098,711 for the winners and $207,938 for last place after 14 races.
After nine Truck races, the winner has $495,832 and the last loser has banked $92,195.
What is in the cooler – The season has been running since the middle of February. Races have taken place on every type of track except for a road course. The new rules package has resulted in slightly reduced straightaway speeds and increased corner speeds. Passing once the field settles out after a restart is about as common as a Yangtze Finless Dolphin. There have been some exciting moments but there have also been more races we’d just as soon forget. The season receives a rating of three cold Schlitz; clearly, we’re hoping for more from the rest of the season.
Where do you point your DVR for next week – After a week of activity away from the racetrack the series heads west to Sonoma for the first of two 2015 road-course races. The final broadcast of the Cup Series for Fox this season starts at 3:00 p.m. ET on Fox Sports 1. Action can also be heard on your local PRN affiliate or SiriusXM NASCAR Channel 90.
About the author
What is it that Mike Neff doesn’t do? The writer, radio contributor and racetrack announcer coordinates the site’s local short track coverage, hitting up Saturday Night Specials across the country while tracking the sport’s future racing stars. The writer for our signature Cup post-race column, Thinkin’ Out Loud (Mondays) also sits down with Cup crew chiefs to talk shop every Friday with Tech Talk. Mike announces several shows each year for the Good Guys Rod and Custom Association. He also pops up everywhere from PRN Pit Reporters and the Press Box with Alan Smothers to SIRIUS XM Radio. He has announced at tracks all over the Southeast, starting at Millbridge Speedway. He's also announced at East Lincoln Speedway, Concord Speedway, Tri-County Speedway, Caraway Speedway, and Charlotte Motor Speedway.