Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud – Last Off Week of the Season Preparing for the 14-Race Run to the Championship

Who’s in the headline – While there are multiple drivers who have run well this season, the brightest spotlight of the year has been on one organization. At this point in the season, Joe Gibbs Racing has been the class of the field for a majority of the races. Between its four teams, it has 10 wins.

Add in the victory by Martin Truex, Jr. at Charlotte and JGR has won half of the races this season. The team is not leading the points. Instead, that honor goes to Brad Keselowski. JGR actually is not in the top 3 in points thanks to Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch. However, they have shown consistent speed every week and have been a threat to win nearly every race that has been contested.

What happened – The JGR dominance was exerted early when the Daytona 500 came down to a battle between Denny Hamlin and Truex after Matt Kenseth was moved up the track in turn four coming to checkered. Jimmie Johnson then won two of the next four races and looked to be headed to another great year before things headed south. Keselowski put his name in the win column early and has recently started to challenge the JGR dominance thanks to back-to-back wins at Daytona and Kentucky.

Tony Stewart surprised everyone with a win at Sonoma and has quietly been amassing strong finishes in preparation for a final run at a title. Chris Buescher completed a Hail Mary win at Pocono to get his hat very close to the ring for the Chase. Conspicuous in their continued absence from Victory Lane are Roush Fenway Racing and Richard Childress Racing. They aren’t the only teams without wins, but they are the more prominent.

Why you should care – While racing is very cyclical and the winds of fortune can change at any moment, the landscape right now looks like the JGR teams are aligning to own the final four at Homestead. The schedule might come into play and provide other teams with a chance to break up the JGR party, see Harvick at Phoenix, but that is more likely the exception for the end of the season. Anything can happen, and another organization can find the secret to speed, but for now it is a JGR world and the rest of the teams are just squirrels trying to find a nut.

What your friends are talking about – The biggest story of the year, simply because it includes the most popular driver in the sport, is the concussion that has sidelined Dale Earnhardt, Jr. for four races. At this point there is no return on the horizon for Earnhardt which most likely is going to cause him to miss the Chase again this season. Earnhardt has been very transparent about his situation and it is hopefully going to lay the groundwork for the future of the sport. Concussions have been around forever, but they have become a far greater issue with the attention from the NFL. Drivers getting out of the seat when suffering from a concussion is safer for them and their competitors. Earnhardt has taken a lead in this scenario whether he wanted to or not.

(Photo: Nigel Kinrade / NKP)
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has missed a significant portion of the season due to injury. (Photo: Nigel Kinrade / NKP)

Bryan Clauson, one of the best drivers in the history of USAC, succumbed to injuries suffered in a crash at the Belleville High Banks in Belleville, Kansas last weekend. The outpouring of support from the racing community has been overwhelming. JJ Yeley helped organize an auction in Knoxville, Iowa to help raise money for the family. At the auction Tony Stewart purchased one of Clauson’s favorite helmets for $32,000. He then gave the helmet to Clauson’s fiance Lauren. Clauson used to drive for Stewart’s dirt team and won many races for him. Stewart has long been known for his philanthropy and this is yet another example.

Erik Jones will be driving for Furniture Row Racing in 2017, but that appears to be the only season he’ll spend behind the wheel for the team. Team owner Barney Visser told SiriusXM NASCAR radio that he is fairly certain Jones will leave the team after next season. That doesn’t mean Visser is doing a one off season with a second team. He’s confident that the team will run well, just as their flagship team has this season, and attract another top tier driver to fill the seat when Jones leaves.

As the series heads to Bristol for the night race they’ll encounter a slightly different racing surface. The track “polished” the bottom groove to attempt to entice some drivers to the bottom. It also added a substance to the track to encourage it to take rubber and then ran a tire machine like Kentucky Speedway utilized after their repave to season the surface. The Truck race will be the first opportunity to see if the efforts were a success.

Who is mad – Rick Hendrick cannot be pleased with the performance of his organization at this point in the season. Johnson is the only driver with a win for the company this season. They’ve had one top 10 in the last six races with Johnson at Indianapolis. Their satellite organization, Stewart Haas Racing, has shown more speed but they have already announced they are leaving for Ford at the end of the year. The most dominant team in the last decade has a lot of work to do before Chicago shows up on the schedule.

AJ Allmendinger started the season with some strong runs on ovals. When he got to his bread and butter road courses he was unable to capitalize on his abilities. Pit road miscues sunk his chances to make it to the Chase with a win. At this point, with four races to go, the deck is stacked against him running for the title. 19th in points and 64 behind 14th place Jamie McMurray, it is most certainly going to take a win for him to make the playoffs. In his first year with a rookie crew chief there have been growing pains, but they are running stronger than he has in the past. Lightning may strike in the No. 47 camp but the challenge is formidable.

Clint Bowyer has been this year’s fixture in the Who’s Mad section. In his layover season at HScott Motorsports the success has been all but non-existent. Bowyer has three top 10s this season, two of which came on restrictor plate tracks. His average finish is 23rd and his average start is 30.6. Many drivers near the back half of the field start mailing it in as the races wind down but it has felt like Bowyer is already in that mode with 14 races left on the schedule. The resurgence of Stewart this season has to have him optimistic about next season but 2016 has been arduous to say the least.

Who is happy – Buescher won the XFINITY title in 2015 after taking the ARCA championship in 2012. He finished better than 20th twice in 26 races before the second Pocono race this season. A crap shoot roll of the dice put Buescher in Victory Lane and on the verge of making the Chase. Buescher is one of the bright spots on the horizon for Ford, but the company needs to get their ducks in a row outside of Team Penske if he is going to make any impact on the sport.

Kyle Busch is the defending series champion and is looking poised for another serious run at the top in 2016. He is tied for the most wins in the series, has the most top 5s and is third in top 10s. He’s coming off of back-to-back wins at Indianapolis and is part of the best team in the sport. His approach to life and the sport changed after his injury last season and he’s showing again this year that he’s got what it takes to be a title contender.

A 32nd-place finish at Watkins Glen might not seem like the backdrop for a happy driver, but Harvick continues to run up front this season and has been near the top of the points for most of the year. His biggest issue again this season is not sealing the deal. While he has a win, Harvick has three second place finishes through 22 races this year. His consistent performance has him poised for another run at the title and his newly inked contract has him focused solely on racing.

When the checkered flag flew:

Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch lead the series in wins with four each.

Busch is tops among top 5s with 11.

Kevin Harvick is the best at top 10s with 17 out of 22 races.

Matt DiBenedetto is the “leader” in the series when it comes to not finishing races with eight DNFs.

Thanks to his substitution role for Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon is still the active leader in wins with 93. Of the drivers who have run the whole season it is Jimmie Johnson with 77, which is seventh on the all-time list.

Martin Truex Jr. scored the most dominating win of the season leading 392 of 400 laps at Charlotte Motor Speedway during the Coca-Cola 600. It is the most miles led in a Cup series race in the history of the sport.

Toyota leads the manufacturer battle for wins with 11 out of 22 races. Ford has scored six victories while Chevrolet has triumphed five times.

Carl Edwards has the most poles for the year with four.

Chase Elliott leads the Rookie of the Year standings over Ryan Blaney, although the ultimate award is based on a panel vote during Homestead Championship Weekend.

After 22 races Keselowski, Busch, Edwards, Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin, Harvick, Kurt Busch, Joey Logano, Truex Jr., and Tony Stewart are all locked into the Chase assuming they attempt the remaining races thanks to wins and the fact that there cannot be more than 16 unique winners by the end of the race in Richmond. Chris Buescher, thanks to his win at Pocono, is poised to make the Chase but has to work his way into the top 30 in points to make that happen.

The remaining Chase drivers at this point and their point position:

  1. Ryan Newman
  2. Chase Elliott
  3. Austin Dillon
  4. Jamie McMurray
  5. Kyle Larson

What is in the cooler – The season is not quite 2/3 old and the new aero package has been more success than failure. While there are certainly more steps to be made toward getting the cars back in the drivers’ hands, NASCAR has made a large step in the right direction. The slipping and sliding of lower downforce has afforded drivers the opportunity to pass for the lead when they have a superior car. That did not happen a year ago. The dominance of JGR takes away from the ranking slightly because it would obviously be better for the fans if more teams were consistently up front. We’ll give the season so far four cold Budweiser’s.

Where do you point your DVR for next week – The Olympics wrap up next weekend, but a Saturday night race puts NASCAR back on NBCSN. The Bristol night race will be on the station at 8:00 PM Saturday, August 20th. It can also be seen online on NBCSports LiveExtra. To hear the race tune to 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.

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capt spaulding

you can feel the racing excitement building for Bristol, just by all the comments to the in depth articles this week.

Tim S,

I noticed too, Cap. Even the trolls and generally nasty people aren’t interested in disagreeing just to disagree.

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