Posted: 12:41 pm Monday, June 5th, 2017
By Doug "Fireball" Turnbull
Just. Like. That. February has become June and the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series is over a third of the way done. The summer stretch is underway, so the sample size of racing is big enough to show trends. Which drivers and teams are really that good and which are in real trouble? Laser-focusing on each race can distract one from these trends, so we are taking a look.
Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Larson are in a class of their own – Truex Jr. and Larson should each have more wins, but their teams are for real this year. Truex Jr. leads the MENCS in laps led (871) and Larson is second (607). They are the only two drivers with average finishes in the single digits and Truex Jr. has won eight stages. Larson has surprisingly won only two. Truex Jr. took the points lead from Larson after the Coca-Cola 600, since Larson crashed out. But here is maybe the most telling stat: Truex Jr. leads Larson by nine points, but Larson leads third-place Kevin Harvick by an astounding 107. If the playoffs started now, Truex Jr. would get his 18 playoff bonus points for race and stage wins plus 15 points for leading the standings. That would give the No. 78 team a 33-point pad through the entire playoffs…essentially a one-race mulligan. By the way, 2nd in points gets 10 extra, so Larson would not be poor off in the playoffs either.
Joe Gibbs Racing is not struggling as much as you think – No, JGR is not putting anywhere near the numbers they did in 2016. The powerhouse organization has not won yet, but three of the four teams are inside the playoff bracket, missing only 19th-in-points rookie Daniel Suarez, who is 49 points outside of the playoff. Coincidentally, teammate 12th place-Matt Kenseth is who occupies the final playoff position on points. Kyle Busch is 4th in the points and has led the third-most laps in the MENCS, just four less than Larson. JGR’s performance is a tick off, but really the team’s luck is more the cause. Busch has lost several races, due to ill-timed cautions or cut tires. He won the pole for Sunday’s Dover race and tire or wheel issues took him from contention twice. That stable of Toyotas was very sporty all race long, though only two finished in the top 10.
Ryan Blaney’s season is ridiculous – Talk about a guy who should have won. Blaney is constantly running inside the top 5 and has won three stages this year. He had three-straight finishes outside the top 30 at Bristol, Richmond, and Talladega. He’s had tire issues at Atlanta, Phoenix, and Martinsville. Then at both Charlotte and Dover the last two weeks, he broke an axle! He has an average finish of 20th, but has run so well in the first two stages in most races, that he is still 13th in points, just seven behind Kenseth for the final playoff spot. Blaney is 13th in points…with the 23rd-worst average finish.
Who realistically can “point” into the playoffs? – Kasey Kahne is 20th in the standings, in the throws of his fourth-straight disappointing season at Hendrick Motorsports. He is 57 points behind Kenseth for the playoffs cutoff and would have to pass four drivers (the others in between and including Kenseth that have not won) to make it. Behind Kahne, Dale Earnhardt Jr, and rookie Ty Dillon sit tied for 22nd in the points, 99 points behind Kenseth. Paul Menard, Chris Buescher, A.J. Allmendinger, the injured, sidelined Aric Almirola, and Danica Patrick (31st) all sit behind Earnhardt Jr. and Dillon. They will have to win to get in.
Ahead of Kahne sit rookies Daniel Suarez and Erik Jones sit five points apart, with each about a race’s worth of points behind Kenseth. Trevor Bayne (-40) and Blaney also sit outside the playoffs. For one of these longshots to make the playoffs on points, they need some serious bad luck from Kenseth, Clint Bowyer (+22 ahead of the cutoff), Denny Hamlin (+34), and Chase Elliott (+71).
The stage 1 and stage 2 points change the game on making up points. Jones, for example, could catch fire and place high in some stages and at the race’s finish, while Bowyer could hit some terrible misfortune. Jones could theoretically make up dozens of points in just a few races. But the bad thing about being in the hole at this point in the season is not just the points to gain, but the drivers to pass. And with surprising wins from Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Austin Dillon, there are some stout teams on the outside, looking in.