Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch Look Best but Don’t Discount Jimmie Johnson

Who’s in the headlineMartin Truex Jr. has been the class of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series in 2017. He has won four races, which is the most of any driver. Truex also has dominated the new playoff point system with 35 points scored. He is also the king of stage racing with 15 wins, five more than any other driver. Kyle Busch is the only other driver with double digit stage wins. These two Toyota drivers are the only competitors with more than four stage victories.

What happenedKurt Busch won the Daytona 500 to kick off the season. Brad Keselowski scored the win at Atlanta Motor Speedway and was the first driver to two victories. Ryan Newman used a strategy call to take the lead late at Phoenix and held on for the win. Joey Logano was the first driver to win a race, fail post-race tech and ultimately have his win declared encumbered, which prevents it from making him eligible for the playoffs with that particular triumph.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. scored his first career victory at Talladega, only to go on and win the July Daytona race. Austin Dillon stretched his fuel to get the famed No. 3 car back in Victory Lane in the Cup Series for the first time since 2000. Jimmie Johnson, the king of Dover, grabbed his third win of the season to be the first driver to three for the season. Ryan Blaney became the third first-time winner of the season with a triumph at Pocono. Kasey Kahne survived the chaos that was the Brickyard 400 to score the biggest win of his career, days before he was informed he would not be back in his ride for 2018. Kyle Larson, Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin also parked it in Victory Lane during the first 24 races.

Why you should care – The playoffs for NASCAR are going to play out differently this season than they ever have since the Chase began in 2004. The advent of stage racing and playoff points will result in the regular season champion being rewarded for that effort unlike they ever have been before.

The Toyotas of Truex and Kyle Busch appear to be the dominant cars of the season and will be early favorites for the title once the playoffs start. Larson was the point leader early in the season and is third in points at this time. Another driver to never count out is Johnson. While he’s been off the last three months, since his win at Dover, you never count out the seven-time champion because we have all seen this progression of events before.

What your friends are talking about – Richard Petty Motorsports has not renewed their lease for their current race shops and appears to be looking to downsize for 2018. Rumors are rampant that Aric Almirola is out and Darrell Wallace Jr. will be in the No. 43 next season. They are also swirling that RPM is possibly going to merge with another organization, reportedly Richard Childress Racing. As part of the RCR rumor, it is being suggested that the combined organization would switch to Dodge. Dodge has denied that they are coming back to NASCAR and the idea of RCR leaving Chevrolet seems quite far fetched.

After 10 years of stumping in this column and others, NASCAR is finally considering utilizing a choose cone before restarts in national series races. The cone is a staple in local short track racing where one line is preferred over another. After the shenanigans at Bristol Motor Speedway that resulted in some cars being damaged as they jockeyed for position the need for the cone is obvious. For years the teams in the Cup series have maintained they are not smart enough to handle the cone which is idiotic considering racers at local tracks have done it successfully for years. Let’s hope they eat their fish, fruits and vegetables so they get smarter.

The advent of stages and playoff points has changed the landscape of the sport. Drivers are racing harder during events rather than stroking until the final 100 miles. The changes are also setting up the regular season winner, most likely Truex, to have an easy path to the finals in Homestead. Fans asked for the changes, NASCAR implemented them, and they seem to be having a positive impact on the sport.

Monster Energy is set to make their decision by December on whether they will pick up the final two year option on their title sponsorship or end the relationship after 2018. The decision will also be made soon on involvement by the company with Stewart Haas Racing. The SHR decision will impact the future of Kurt Busch with SHR. The entitlement decision will set the direction for the sport for the short term and also set the standard for activation for the energy drink company. They are said to be reevaluating their at-track activation and considering scaling it back. After the years of Winston and Sprint/Nextel inundating the races with marketing, the sparse effort by Monster already seems minimal. It is hard to imagine they can do much less.

The debate and discussion continued this week after Kyle Busch pulled off the national series sweep of all three races at Bristol last weekend. The feat has been accomplished, in the same weekend, twice, both of which were by Busch at Bristol. In typical fashion the pro-Busch camp and the con-Busch camp see the accomplishment very differently. One thing to keep your eyes open for is Busch in a Modified at Bristol next season to silence the critics who dispute the claim of a sweep since the Mods race at Bristol but he didn’t race one.

In a truly sad piece of news, Adam Wright, from JR Motorsports, was killed in an automobile accident. In a heartbreaking twist to the story, his pet dog Lizzy refused to leave his side at the accident scene and actually attempted to prevent first respondents from touching his body.

It was also reported this week that Shane Sieg has also passed away. Sieg was a competitor in a myriad of NASCAR regional series along with seven years in the Camping World Truck series. He is the brother of XFINITY driver Ryan Sieg. A cause of death was not reported.

The thoughts and prayers of the entire Frontstretch family are extended to the residents of Texas who are being impacted by the unprecedented weather event that was Hurricane Harvey.

Who is mad – Logano was looking like he was headed for another strong season in the No. 22 car when he strolled to his victory at Richmond. Since the failure of the post-race inspection, the Penske team simply hasn’t been able to put it together for a whole race again. With two races left before the playoffs, and a point total that has him outside of the top 16 playoff teams by 117 points, the pressure is on. You have to wonder what the season would look like had the car passed inspection in Richmond.

Who is happy – It is obvious, but Truex has to be the happiest guy in the sport. He has long been successful during races but not sealed the deal. The new point system is rewarding success during races so that has Truex poised for a deep run in the playoffs. Add in the ability this year to close races, see the four victories to date, and the driver is looking the best of all contenders in the Cup series right now.

When the checkered flag flew:

Daniel Suarez has won the Rookie of the Race 11 times this season to lead the category. Erik Jones has claimed the honor 10 times, while Ty Dillon has been bestowed the award three times.

Twenty-four races into the season there have been 14 different winners this year. With two races left before the playoff cutoff the possibility of a driver with an unencumbered win not making the playoffs as been eliminated. You have Martin Truex Jr. who has the most wins of the year with four. Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Larson with three wins, Brad Keselowski, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., and Kyle Busch have two wins, Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch, Austin Dillon, Ryan Blaney, Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, and Kasey Kahne each have one. In the fourteen winners Joey Logano is not eligible for the playoffs by virtue of his triumph being considered encumbered at Richmond. Logano will have to win again to make the playoffs based on a victory.

The remaining three drivers in points and their position:

  1. Chase Elliott
  2. Matt Kenseth
  3. Jamie McMurray

The drivers who have scored playoff points so far this season and their total:

Martin Truex Jr – 35

Kyle Busch – 20

Kyle Larson – 18

Jimmie Johnson – 16

Brad Keselowski -14

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – 10

Kevin Harvick – 8

Ryan Blaney – 8

Denny Hamlin – 7

Ryan Newman – 5

Kurt Busch – 5

Austin Dillon – 5

Kasey Kahne – 5

Matt Kenseth – 3

Chase Elliott – 2

Joey Logano – 1

Clint Bowyer – 1

Daniel Suarez – 1

What is in the cooler (one to six beers where one is a stinker and six is an instant classic)

The season is 24 races old. The new aero package has made the racing in the pack as good as it has ever been, but the leaders are still getting the aero advantage. The Toyotas of Martin Truex Jr and Kyle Busch have been the dominant cars of the year, but Busch has been snake bitten by bad luck and some strategy fails. Truex has been the king of stage racing and playoff points. It will be interesting to see how these points ultimately impact the championship. In the end the race season has been underwhelming but still compelling. At this point it will get three cold Budweisers.

Where do you point your DVR for next week – Throwback weekend is upon us. Look for great paint schemes from the early 80s, fans and media embracing the concept and great racing on the oldest superspeedway in the sport. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on Sunday, September 3, only on NBCSN. The race can be seen on the NBC Sports app as well. The race can be heard on your local MRN affiliate, www.motorracingnetwork.com and 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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The 22 PENSKE season was NOT GREAT BEFORE RICHMOND, even if that little infraction was overlooked and they got to retain the win for the stupid playoffs or whatever they are called today. They would not be doing any better. They suck, and have not found the way to dig themselves of the hole. Compare his stats the years prior to the point up to Richmond, he sucked the whole year thus far. Easy to look it up. His laps lead, pole’s, top 5, top 10..etc are the worst of his Penske career! Something is rotten in Denmark, oh well……they better figure it out.


Correct me if I’m wrong but the 22 is not locked into the playoffs. That win at Richmond was encumbered.


I have given up trying to figure out what points apply to what and where. Since the whole mess is basically a crapshoot anyway, I don’t think it matters much in the long run. Keep it obscure enough and no one will care anymore.

Carl D.

I never was any good at calculus. I just let Nascar do the math and post the totals. I watch the races. You start trying to figure out the points and pretty soon you’re brain hurts. Besides, you don’t have to be a mathematician to know who’s hot and who’s not.


“Fans asked for the changes, NASCAR implemented them, and they seem to be having a positive impact on the sport.”
Fans may have asked for changes but probably not these changes and it’s debatable whether it’s been positive. The ratings and attendance aren’t any better and next year we could very have the same title sponsor black cloud hanging over the sport as we had in 2016.

Carl D.

No, fans did not ask for stage racing, but we did ask for something to keep the drivers from phoning it in for the first 80% of the race and then actually racing for only the last 20%. In that respect the stage racing has been somewhat successful. The fact that it hasn’t as made a difference in the TV ratings and race attendance (at least not yet) doesn’t mean that it hasn’t improved the on-track product to some degree. Just how much, though, is debatable.


I’m with you to a point although I would be more on board if there wasn’t the TV-driven race stoppage (caution) tied to the stage break. Having the caution and then ensuing restart is just a little too artificial for me.

Carl D.

I would never count Jimmie Johnson out. Those who did last year regretted it.

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