Phew. The last few weeks sure have been fun, haven’t they?
Ever since the conclusion of the West Coast Swing – another solid stretch of the schedule – NASCAR has gone on a tour of many tracks that fans and media alike seem to clamor for, often putting on thrilling races in the processes.
The past five races have seen all three of the schedule’s short tracks, a superspeedway race and just a single 1.5-miler, which was itself interesting due to the wild-card nature of the newly-repaved and restructured Texas Motor Speedway.
Attendance varied – wonderful at Talladega Superspeedway, woeful at Richmond International Raceway – and the stretch was rendered bittersweet to some by the announcement of Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s impending retirement, but the on-track product was some of the best racing seen in recent years. In fact, all four races on non-intermediate tracks from the stint sit atop JeffGluck.com’s unofficial “Was It a Good Race?” poll, with the previous three events earning the praise of Motorsport’s Jim Utter.
If you didn't like the racing the last three weeks in #NASCAR, I got nothing for you.
— Jim Utter (@jim_utter) May 7, 2017
Still, there are a few who can’t wait to return to the comfort of a standard 1.5-mile oval after suffering a month or more of turmoil.
Good news, Toto. We’re going back to Kansas.
Some have been unable to keep out of the wall. Others have simply struggled to find speed. One polarizing figure just wants to get back to a “real” racetrack.
Regardless of their issue, each of these drivers will be overjoyed to start fresh on a comparatively normal stretch of the schedule.
Or is it?
Kyle Busch has been at his quote worthy best this spring, living up to his “Rowdy” moniker with quotes like the one above, “Balls and Strikes” and his urge to get back to a “real” racetrack after his third-place run at Talladega, a remark the track tossed subtle shade to in the form of a post-race tweet.
Everything's great at Talladega!
— TalladegaSuperspdwy (@TalladegaSuperS) May 8, 2017
However, while he’s been able to stay in the news for his quotes, the younger Busch brother has yet to make his way to victory lane.
Sunday’s drive came close to glory, with Busch falling just shy of a victory in third after losing the lead to Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. in NASCAR Overtime. Busch has been close in other runs, too, tallying finishes of third and second at Phoenix Raceway and Martinsville, respectfully.
Still, despite his narrow misses the Las Vegas, Nevada native has yet to take the checkered flag in first, a fault that matters as much as ever with the playoff points associated with victories.
While I wouldn’t have said this before recent years, Kansas Speedway could be the location where that changes.
Previously a track that had proven as fickle as any on the schedule for him, Busch finally seems to have figured the Midwestern facility out in recent years.
Since earning his first top five at Kansas with a third-place run in the spring 2015 race, Busch has scored finishes of fifth, first and fifth again. That makes his average result at the track over the past two seasons a scorching 3.5.
The past five races haven’t been kind to Blaney or Wood Brothers Racing.
Texas provided one of the team’s best performances in decades, with Blaney winning the first two stages before a few late miscues relegated him to a 12th-place finish,
The other four races, on the other hand, have been disastrous.
Blaney failed to tally a single lead-lap finish between the short tracks and Talladega. Instead, the High Point, North Carolina native suffered two DNFs and finished no better than 25th.
The result? What once looked like a season full of promise has devolved into a fight to stay on the playoff bubble. Blaney has dropped from sixth to 13th in the series standings, and has just a 26-point cushion on 17th-place Kasey Kahne.
Blaney’s intermediate runs haven’t all gone to plan this season, but his team has shown the greatest potential to date in one of them, and hasn’t finished worse than 18th – a far cry better than they’ve ran of late.
The Trio of Rookie Stars
Take a guess at how many top 10s NASCAR’s latest crop of rookies have snagged over the past five events. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
One? Nope. Still lower.
That’s right – the rookie class, highlighted by former XFINITY Series standouts Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez and Ty Dillon, haven’t managed a single top 10 since returning from the West Coast Swing.
Remember how strong the rookies looked heading into Martinsville Speedway at the beginning of April? Jones was in the playoff grid. Suarez was close, coming off of back-to-back top 10s. Dillon had seen his share of struggles, but was holding his own given his equipment.
Now take a look, particularly at Toyota. Jones has dropped from inside of the playoff grid to a full three positions and 23 points out. Suarez managed just one top 15 in the midst of a continual search for speed at the winless Joe Gibbs Racing. Dillon has yet to show marked improvement, with a handful of stage points serving as his greatest achievement to date.
That’s not to say everything’s been bad. Dillon’s proven surprisingly consistent despite the change in schedule, with an average finish of 18.6, slightly better than the 20.0 he averaged in the opening five races.
Jones and Suarez have still shown heaps of potential, too. The rookies just need something to get themselves back on track. Perhaps a trip back to an intermediate track will serve the purpose for them.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
Well, that was disappointing.
It’s been a rough year for Earnhardt. What’s turned out to be his final Cup series season has started as poorly as any of his 18 years of full-time competition at NASCAR’s top level.
Daytona? Crash. Bristol? Another crash. Martinsville? Two crashes.
THere’ve been a few highlights along the way – hello, top five in Texas – but NASCAR’s most popular driver has otherwise seen his final season of full-time competition devolve into a gauntlet of survival, with a victory likely if he hopes to hop into any serious playoff conversation before late summer.
Things have looked bleak. But surely that would all change on Sunday, right?
Talladega’s Earnhardt country, a place the junior Earnhardt trailed only the senior at in wins. So assuredly that would be the location where the Hendrick Motorsports driver turned it all around.
Late tires woes and the inability to pass back in the pack left Earnhardt to finish in 22nd at Talladega, behind such drivers as Cole Whitt, Gray Gaulding and Joey Gase, whom respectfully run for organizations with significantly smaller budgets.
Another week. Another disappointment.
Perhaps Kansas, a track Earnhardt’s tallied three top fives and nine top 10s at in 20 starts – will finally yield the positive moment necessary to spur the 42-year-old on to success.