Quality over quantity: Small teams enjoy a big year in NASCAR

  • Ryan Blaney celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Pocono 400 auto race, Sunday, June 11, 2017, in Long Pond, Pa. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum) Matt Slocum

Monitor staff
Saturday, July 01, 2017

Kurt Busch enjoyed the biggest win of his career at the Daytona 500 in February. Four months later, his victory is one of just two for Stewart-Haas Racing this season. Kevin Harvick turned in the other last weekend at Sonoma.

Jimmie Johnson, the crown jewel of Hendrick Motorsports, is responsible for all three wins that Rick Hendrick’s team has this year.

Joe Gibbs hasn’t been to victory lane since Carl Edwards won at Texas back in November, but he had a great season in 2016 with 12 wins between his four drivers.

One third of full-time Cup series drivers run for either Gibbs, Hendrick or Stewart-Haas, but these heavyweights of racing haven’t had the on-track success they hoped for this season. Johnson will compete for what would be his eighth championship this fall. That should keep Hendrick happy. As for Kasey Kahne, Chase Elliott and Dale Earnhardt Jr., they’re still searching for a win this year to get into the playoffs.

Meanwhile, the two-driver teams under Chip Ganassi, Furniture Row and Roger Penske have all won at least two races. Penske has three, although Joey Logano’s win at Richmond in April doesn’t count for points due to an issue discovered with his car’s rear suspension following the race.

Ryan Blaney, 23, delivered the Wood brothers their first win since 2011 when he reached Victory Lane at Pocono last month.

The small teams – relative to NASCAR – are building faster cars while many of the names we typically associate with winning races are struggling, such as Earnhardt and Kyle Busch.

Kyle Busch has been the biggest surprise of the winless JGR crew that also includes Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth and rookie Daniel Suarez. Kyle won the all-star race at Charlotte, but it doesn’t count for points. He won a pair of poles back-to-back at Dover and Pocono and has six top-five finishes, including two as the runner-up. The 2015 Cup series champion is second to Martin Truex Jr. in laps led.

If he keeps running like this, Kyle could back into the playoffs without a win but he would have to rely on the performance of other drivers to determine that. I don’t think it will come to that. Kyle has come so close to winning a points race too many times this season to not have his luck turn eventually.

The same can be said for Elliott, 21, who is still chasing his first career Cup win. Elliott has finished in the top five five times this season and has started three races from the front row. Don’t be surprised if he wins a race before Junior this year.

Logano will win another race sometime this summer to gain a legitimate spot in the playoffs. It could come July 16 in Loudon where has won twice before in the Cup series.

Larson is a lock for the playoffs with his two wins. His No. 42 Chip Ganassi Chevrolet has been the fastest car in Cup racing this year with five poles, two wins and five runner-up finishes. Larson is battling Truex for dominance atop the Cup standings, separated by fewer than 50 points. Truex has proven to be the king of stage racing as he led the series with 11 stage wins before Saturday night’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona.

I’m wary of predictions because they’re hardly ever right – and betting on Johnson is too easy – but here’s a few I’ll throw out there. Come November, when NASCAR enters the final three races of the playoffs, there will be a real possibility of a Cup championship for Toyota drivers Truex and Kyle Busch. Larson will be there, too, representing the “Young Guns” of racing, along with Elliott, who will get that first win when NASCAR returns to Michigan in August.

Tough crowd

A retrospective post by former USA Today NASCAR scribe Jeff Gluck, now writing for his own Patreon-funded site, caught my eye last week. In the post, Gluck, a veteran auto racing reporter, recounts the response of drivers following the publication of a piece he wrote last summer on the slide of race attendance and television ratings.

Gluck writes that “a high-ranking NASCAR executive held up a copy of the newspaper with my story and told all the drivers in attendance that this was the type of coverage that was killing the sport.” This was during NASCAR’s midseason update meeting held each year at Daytona’s summer race.

From there, Gluck tells us that several drivers were unhappy with the story while others didn’t seem bothered. When he asked whether the story had actually upset drivers, one unidentified driver said, “Oh, I don’t know. That’s just what they told us in the meeting. I didn’t read it.”

I don’t how many drivers read the writers that cover their sport. Some may be very in tune with how the press portrays this league while others could care less. Gluck has been around the sport for more than 10 years reporting for a national audience. He’s one of a handful of reporters embedded with NASCAR for most of the season. The drivers know him. NASCAR knows him.

NASCAR is faced with an attention problem. It’s not getting the eyeballs at the track or on the television screen that it once had. Those are facts, and they have been discussed in this space several times because it is a critical storyline in NASCAR, like it or not.

But sputtering attendance isn’t the only storyline this season. Young drivers have become first-time winners while Dale Earnhardt Jr. – though struggling – moves through his swan song season. Stage racing has proven to be a success. NASCAR purists may disagree, but laps 40 and 80 have never been this exciting.

There have been plenty of positive stories in racing. There also happens to at least one big problem. Ignoring it would be irresponsible not only for reporters but for the auto racing body of NASCAR itself.

Rather than cry foul at a newspaper that published a thorough report, set it aside and focus instead on how to move forward and gain traction in the whirlwind of modern sports entertainment.

No league has found the perfect answer in this age, not even the mighty NFL. There is still hope for NASCAR.

NASCAR officials are reasonably frustrated, but Gluck’s story of having the blame pinned on coverage is surprising.

If anyone is trying to kill NASCAR, I doubt it’s the folks who make a living reporting on it.

(Nick Stoico can be reached at 369-3339, nstoico@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @NickStoico.)