The Top Five: Breaking down the Phoenix race

Each week, I’ll give some race analysis through a post called the Top Five — notable storylines from the just-completed event. This week: Phoenix Raceway.

Newman!

Well, how about THAT? Luke Lambert’s strategy call — which seemed like a total Hail Mary to most of us — actually worked, and Ryan Newman ended up with his first victory since Indianapolis in 2013. That’s 127 races ago! Heck, Richard Childress Racing hadn’t won a race since Kevin Harvick left the team for Stewart-Haas Racing.

Did anyone see this coming? Certainly not me.

So was Lambert making an educated guess or just taking a total gamble? Well, Lambert had looked at the data — and Newman was the best car on long runs throughout the race. That gave him faith the tires would hold up enough to give Newman a shot.

“I figured our best opportunity to win the race was to put the car out front and see if Ryan could make it wide enough,” Lambert said. “I can’t say I felt confident we would win the race, but I felt confident we’d at least have a shot. And I felt we wouldn’t be able to do anything else to give ourselves that opportunity.”

Inside the car, Newman recalled the sketchy restart last fall here — and realized there was a chance he could get taken out if he wasn’t careful. So his first priority was to just get a good enough start to have some clearance going into Turn 1 — and deal with whoever was behind him after that.

But with Kyle Larson in his mirror on fresh tires, Newman thought he might be toast. The No. 31 car, though, was stronger than expected (after all, it had been running top 10 prior to the strategy call).

“We had a good car, and it was the first time all day we put some clean air on it,” Newman said. “It was just a matter of putting those things together and showing y’all what we had.”

Larson the amazing

Kyle Larson is the latest example of the 2.5-year rule for new Cup drivers. Basically, young drivers either figure out how to find speed within the first 2.5 years of their career — or perhaps never get any better.

Everything seemed to click for Larson midway through last year, and he’s been a much more reliable contender ever since. These days, he’s one of the best drivers in the series — and the points leader!

Larson has now finished second in four straight non-plate races. That’s Homestead, Atlanta, Las Vegas and Phoenix.

And despite getting close to wins, Larson said the runner-up results aren’t getting tiresome — yet.

“I’m sure if I ran second for the next eight weeks, yeah, it’s probably going to grow old,” Larson said. “But it’s so cool to be one of the fastest cars every week. … I just hope we can continue to work hard, be consistent, be mistake‑free on pit road and on the racetrack. If we can just keep doing that, the wins are going to come.”

Everything isn’t great

When Kyle Busch’s team informed him Joey Logano’s tire had blown with five laps to go, Busch said, “Trust me — I know.”

Afterward, Busch was asked by KickinTheTires.net why he said that.

“I knew there was a going to be a tire blown because we haven’t made it past 44 laps in any run today without one being blown, right?” Busch said, practically biting his lip to stop himself from saying more.

It had to be a bitter pill for Busch to swallow — his recent nemeses Joey Logano and Goodyear essentially combined to cost him a race (although it wasn’t either of their faults directly; Logano melted a bead with excessive brake heat).

But just when it looked like Busch would go from puncher to victor in a week, it was he who ended up getting socked in the gut once again.

That’s the brakes for Logano, Dale Jr.

Two of the recent Phoenix race winners — Logano and Dale Earnhardt Jr. — were expected to be contenders on Sunday. But that never materialized.

Logano couldn’t recover from a speeding penalty after he developed brake problems, eventually blowing a tire that caused the final caution. And Earnhardt had similar issues with his brakes, meaning he had to tiptoe around the track.

“The car just got to where I couldn’t get into the corner the way I needed it to,” Earnhardt said. “The last half of the race, the brake pedal was just almost to the floor. A couple of times it was on the floor going into the corner — pretty scary.

“The whole last 50 to 60 laps, I was pumping the brakes on all the straightaways to keep the pedal up so I would have some brakes for the corner and lifting really early. We just couldn’t run it hard enough to get up there and do anything with it.”

Toyota young guns shine

Despite seeing Busch’s win chances vanish, it wasn’t all bad for Toyota. The manufacturer’s two rookies — Daniel Suarez and Erik Jones — both got their first career top-10 finishes after different strategy calls on the last pit stop.

Suarez finished seventh after taking two tires and Jones finished eighth after taking four. Regardless of how they got there,  the results were much-needed confidence for Suarez and validation for Jones’ consistently speed to start the year.

“We didn’t have the speed, and the communication wasn’t great,” Suarez said of the first couple weeks. “We’ve been working hard trying to build chemistry, communication, and we have for sure been getting better.”

That communication was key to improving the car while also gaining track position on Sunday.

And Jones had to power through feeling sick, as he received two bags of IV fluids Saturday night after the Xfinity race.

“We’re going to have ups and downs, good weeks and bad weeks from here on out, but this is definitely a good week and one we can soak up for a minute,” he said.

 

12 Questions with Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Each week, I’ll ask the same 12 questions to a different NASCAR driver. Up next: Dale Earnhardt Jr. of Hendrick Motorsports. (Note: This interview was conducted at Atlanta, so the reference to punching a driver had nothing to do with the Las Vegas fight.)

1. How much of your success is based on natural ability and how much has come from working at it?

For a long time, it was all ability, low effort. Now I think it’s 50-50.

2. Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards have all retired in the last couple years. What’s your pitch for fans of theirs to become fans of yours?

You know, I’ll be honest with you — I’d probably steer them toward the new guys. I’m on the backside of my deal, so for the health of the sport, I think it’d be awesome if they grabbed onto (Ryan) Blaney or Chase (Elliott) or somebody like that. They’re going to be successful and are going to be around a long time. That would probably be better for everybody.

3. What is the hardest part of your job away from the racetrack?

The hardest part of my job away from the racetrack is probably appearances that are out of market, which means anything Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. Like (before Atlanta), we flew to Florida on Wednesday and then we did an appearance in Texas on Thursday and then we came (to Atlanta). It just eats up an entire day.

The appearances themselves are fun. Just the travel — we had a 100-knot wind going out to Texas. It took us three hours to get there, do the appearance and then come home and it’s 5:30, you know? You leave at 9 in the morning. So the travel, I guess. You kind of would like to be home during the week, but you’ve got to be doing these appearances.

4. A fan spots you eating dinner in a nice restaurant. Should they come over for an autograph or no?

After I’m done eating. Once they see me put my utensils down, I’m fair game.

So if you have a bite of food in your mouth, maybe hold off?

Yeah, it’s probably going to piss off whoever I’m having dinner with more than me. I don’t like people talking over my food. Like if you’ve got a plate of food in front of you and somebody comes over and talks over your shoulder? I don’t like my dog even being near me when I’m eating, breathing all over my plate. It’s just gross.

They’re raining spittle down on your food.

There is the possibility! In all likelihood, they are.

5. What’s a story in NASCAR that doesn’t get enough coverage?

Well, I think there needs to be more effort to market Chase, Blaney, Bubba Wallace. They’re doing a great job with Suarez, but they need to really get these guys in front of not only the NASCAR fans, but more mainstream media (like) Rolling Stone.

Blaney did Watch What Happens Live (the Andy Cohen show on Bravo) before I did, which is certainly outside the NASCAR world. Those are great things for those guys, because they’re carrying the torch, man.

And they have the personalities. They’re so funny, you know? And they’re good guys. They’re not brats. They all have great personalities, and if NASCAR is going to return to its peak, that’s where it’s going to come from. Those guys, they’re going to be the ones driving when that happens. (The NASCAR marketers) need to start putting the funding and the marketing behind those guys and get people to know them.

6. Who is the last driver you texted?

Let me see. (Pulls out phone.) Jimmie (Johnson), Kasey (Kahne) and Chase. We’re on a GroupMe (chat on a texting app). We were talking about running a four-mile run tonight.

And you’re thinking of doing that?

Yeah, I ran three at home yesterday. So it shouldn’t be too hard. I don’t run the pace they run though. Jimmie and Chase are in the 8-minute mark but I’m not even close.

So you can do a 5K now?

Yeah. Sure! I could. Yeah, that’d be great. I should try one.

Anyway, that’s the last group. I guess that’s too obvious.

7. Do you consider race car drivers to be entertainers?

Yes! Yeah, I think certain guys — Spencer Gallagher… OK, you laugh. I think he’s certainly entertaining when he’s doing his interviews. He’s got a great outlook and approach to racing and is very cavalier about it, but at the same time, he’s competitive.

I talked about Blaney and Chase. Those guys are hopefully going to utilize their personalities to market themselves. There is a point when you’re an entertainer, you know? You get up and do those Q&As, and you’ve got to be funny and witty and interact with the audience. When you’re in the car, I don’t think you’re much of an entertainer. But outside of the car, you are an entertainer many times during the week.

8. What is your middle finger policy on the racetrack?

Well, that’s a good one. If they’re much, much younger than you, you can totally flip them off. If they’re the same age as you or have ran more than four or five seasons, you cannot flip them off.

I flipped off Shawna Robinson once in practice, and she wrecked me in the race. She never said she meant it on purpose, but she was very upset with me in practice.

You hear about Rusty Wallace and all those other guys — you get flipped off, especially by someone younger than you? You just go on attack mode. You lose your mind. So it’s a very seldom-used expression on the track and there’s some etiquette there on when to use it and when not to use it.

9. Some drivers keep a payback list in their minds. Do you also have a list for drivers who have done you a favor on the track?

You certainly do remember the guys that tend to race you not as hard. I think you race people how they race you. Other than that, you don’t really keep a mental note of it. There’s guys that are really, really hard to pass — (Ryan) Newman’s probably at the top of that list; if you asked everybody who is hardest to pass, they’re going to say Newman. But he’s a great guy. We’re pretty decent friends, to be honest with you.

But then there’s guys like Mark Martin that never raced anybody hard — at least in the first half of the race. A lot of give and take there. And when he’d come up on you, you’d kind of return the favor.

10. Who is the most famous person you’ve had dinner with?

Jay-Z and Beyonce. When he invited us to Monaco to be in their video with Danica way back, about freakin’ 10 years ago, we had dinner with them. Lot of fun. Had some beers and goofed up and joked around quite a bit. They’re very down to earth.

Did they seem like normal people?

They were incredibly normal. Beyonce said I reminded her of her uncle with my honesty. I guess I’m super honest. Amazing compliment.

11. What’s something about yourself you’d like to improve?

My disposition. Be a happier person more consistently. Not get bummed out or frustrated or aggravated so easily.

I don’t know. You say that, but lately…

I’m hanging onto it. Yeah. See, I got this being out of the car. I sort of worked on myself a little bit, so I’m trying to hang onto it. But this racing can piss you off, so I don’t know how long it’s going to last.

12. The last interview was with Garrett Smithley. He wanted to know what advice you’d give to yourself as a rookie driver that you would do differently now.

There’s a lot of things I didn’t know or didn’t do well. I would have spent more time in the hauler working on the car with Tony (Eury) Sr. and Tony (Eury) Jr. They weren’t the chattiest guys, but I certainly would have been much, much more involved in what went on between practice and qualifying, and what went on between qualifying and Saturday practice and all that.

I would walk up to the car just as they were firing the motors. Nowadays, I feel bad if I’m not here 30 minutes early, talking to Greg (Ives) and seeing what the plan is. And then when we get done running, I hang around until Greg seems to be bored with me.

When I was racing as a rookie, I’d get out of the car, say five words to Tony Jr. and run into the bus and play video games the rest of the day until it was time to go get in the car for qualifying (with) like 10 cars to go. I didn’t have my head on straight. Everything had been handed to me in a sense to where I didn’t appreciate how much I needed to be working for this — and how much that would have made a difference. I didn’t think it would or even know it would. I certainly have learned a lot.

Do you have a question for the next driver?

If you could punch any driver in the face, who would it be? Has anyone ever asked that question?

No, but I kind of want to use it on the 12 Questions permanently next year.

(Laughs) Well, if it gets a really good answer, maybe you move it. Kind of like the specials at dinner, if it’s really good, they put it on the menu.

Yeah. The middle finger question came from Landon Cassill.

There you go!

And (the face punch) doesn’t have to be because they made you mad on the track. Just maybe you don’t like ‘em.

They could just have a punchable face.

A punchable face, yeah. Who’s got a punchable face? There you go. Ask it that way. And you might actually get an honest answer. Who has the most punchable face? (Laughs)

The Top Five: Breaking down the Atlanta race

Each week, I’ll provide some quick analysis through a post called the Top Five — five notable storylines from the just-completed race. Today: Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Unhappy Harvick

Kevin Harvick absolutely destroyed the field in a performance reminiscent of the ass-kicking Martin Truex Jr. laid on everyone in last year’s Coca-Cola 600.

But there was a big difference. Truex finished off his win, where Harvick blew it with a speeding penalty Sunday on the final pit stop.

At least Harvick owned up to the error after ripping his pit crew multiple times last season when they cost him races. This time, the pit crew was outstanding all day long — and Harvick was the one who failed to close.

“I just made a mistake that I preach all the time that you don’t need to make and beat yourself, and then you go out and make it yourself instead of following all the things you preach,” he said. “That part is hard for me to swallow.”

The talk coming out of Atlanta will focus on his mistake, but in reality, there’s a huge moral victory to be had. The fact Harvick could come out in the first intermediate track race of the season after switching to Ford and be that good is a really positive sign for the rest of the season.

Personally, I thought Stewart-Haas would struggle after leaving Chevrolet and the Hendrick Motorsports alliance. As it turns out, Harvick is as good as ever.

The mistakes? It’s a long season, and they can always be cleaned up.

Don’t give Keselowski a chance

I don’t have the stats to back this up, but it seems like whenever Brad Keselowski gets an shot at a victory — after fighting his way through a comeback — he often capitalizes on it.

Keselowski thrives on adversity and loves when people count him out. It brings out the blue-collar fighter in him, and you can’t let him sniff the lead in that situation or he’ll snatch it away and end up with the trophy.

That’s what he did at Atlanta. His team had a major screw-up after Keselowski had taken the lead on a late pit stop, and Keselowski had to return to the pits to add some lug nuts. He came out 13th, and his chances looked to be over.

Did he have a meltdown or flip out on his team? No. He went back to work, rallied back and was able to pull off one of those signature scrappy wins.

“Everybody stayed focused and nobody had to say anything,” he said. “We know the deal. We know this isn’t going to be easy. You have to keep your head down and keep fighting at all times and that’s what we did.”

Keselowski is easy to overlook. He can come off as a bit of a dork, and other drivers dismiss him at times when he spouts off. But that’s almost always a mistake with Keselowski; he might not look like he could beat you in a fight, but it’s best not to give him a chance.

Hey Dale, so about that new aero package…

What the heck? For all the talk and hype about the new even-lower downforce package, combined with an old track surface that eats tires, the expectations were pretty high for a thrilling race.

As it turned out, there wasn’t much in the way of action until the end. I asked Dale Earnhardt Jr. about why the race seemed, um…

“Uneventful?” he said.

Exactly. No wrecks? No spins?

“We’re all pretty good, I guess,” he said with a smile.

Look, it’s obviously way too early to judge the new aero package. But it was kind of weird that last year’s Atlanta race seemed racier than this year’s. And Earnhardt knew what I was getting at.

He suggested (perhaps half-jokingly) NASCAR should “take more downforce off til we start wreckin’ more.”

“These cars, they did take a lot of spoiler off,” he said. “But we all still have a lot of side force. You can’t even read the damn sponsors on some of the Toyotas, they’ve got such big quarterpanels.”

Side force keeps drivers from spinning out, Earnhardt said. And all the cars –not just the Toyotas — have a lot of it.

“You know how they talk about the Trucks, when they get sideways and they kind of straighten themselves out because they’ve got that big flat side?” he said. “We’ve all kind of got that same thing going on here. The spoiler makes it harder to drive, but still, when we get (out of shape), we get a little side force kicked in and it helps you save it.”

The problem, Earnhardt said, is even if NASCAR cut the side skirts or something along those lines, the teams would likely figure out how to get the cars back to where they were before.

“Look at a picture of Carl Edwards when he won here, passing Jimmie (Johnson in 2005),” Earnhardt said. “Look at where the splitter on those cars is when they cross the finish line. They’re like six inches in the air.

“That’s what we really need to be doing, but you can’t unlearn the engineering we’ve done in these cars. So we’re all going to find a way to keep them sealed up.”

Kahneiacs Rejoice!

Kasey Kahne has missed the Chase for two straight years. Last year, he didn’t lead a lap.

But Kahne’s fans? Man, they are so impressively loyal.

I asked one Kahne fan in Daytona: “If he doesn’t start doing better, how long will you stick it out?”

“Until he retires,” she said. “He’s my driver.”

So those dedicated Kahne fans deserve something to cheer about. And they might get it this season.

Kahne was all smiles when he emerged from his car after a fourth-place finish on Sunday — and not because the car was that good all day. Actually, Kahne and the No. 5 team struggled with many of the same things they had in the last couple seasons. They weren’t very good for much of the race.

But this time, unlike in the past, the team made the right changes, got the car better and got themselves out of a hole. I asked Kahne how significant that was.

“That’s actually really hard to do,” Kahne said. “It’s hard to do when you’re one of the best teams and drivers and running up front all the time. So for us, the last year or two, it’s been really hard — and today we did it.

“That was really nice to see and be part of. We’ll just keep building from there. But yeah, it feels really good to dig out of where we started.”

Another week like this, and Kahne fans might really have reason to start feeling optimistic again. Combined with a top-10 finish in the Daytona 500, Kahne’s Atlanta finish has him eighth in the point standings.

Kahne isn’t starting the season with a deficit this year. That’s a good sign for a driver who needs a rebound.

Get that outta here

At the end of Stage 1 and Stage 2 — during the race — small trophies were awarded to the No. 4 team. Stewart-Haas Racing tweeted pictures with crew chief Rodney Childers holding the trophy.

Now, I like the stages and all — they provide a good break for mostly uneventful races like Atlanta — but come on, people!

A trophy for winning a stage?? The stages are cute little excuses for cautions and there are definitely some benefits (I’m a fan!), but let’s not overdo it by giving away trophies. Isn’t a playoff point enough for a stage win?

Fortunately, I’ve been told this is not a NASCAR thing but a track thing. I hope other tracks don’t follow suit. No offense to Atlanta, but one trophy is enough for the race.

NASCAR fans don’t seem like the kind of people who like participation trophies, so let’s just forget this little incident ever happened and bury the stage trophies idea along with the Sprint narwhals.

The Top Five: Breakdown of the Daytona 500

Each week, I’ll provide some quick analysis through a post called the Top Five — five notable storylines from the just-completed race. Next up: the Daytona 500.

Stars align for Kurt Busch, Monster and Stewart-Haas

Kurt Busch’s Daytona 500 victory was one of those things that just sort of makes sense in a head-shaking way.

Busch had never even won a restrictor-plate race and was 0-for-63 at Daytona and Talladega entering Sunday. Yet in Monster Energy’s first race as Cup Series sponsor, the car carrying the Monster logo ended up in victory lane.

Perfect!

It was also the first race without Tony Stewart as a full-time driver — and he went to the winner’s circle as a car owner after never winning the 500 himself.

Naturally!

Plus, the win came during a turbulent time for Stewart-Haas Racing — a move to Ford this season with uncertain results ahead, trouble finding sponsorship for two drivers and a lawsuit against a now-former sponsor.

Great timing!

It was only two years ago that Busch was suspended for an alleged domestic violence incident, forcing him to miss the 500. Since then, the woman who accused him was indicted for stealing from the charity she ran and Busch got married in the offseason to his new wife, Ashley Van Metre.

There always seems to be an answer for Busch, a comeback around the corner, a second chance, another shot.

Just look no further than this Speedweeks. It began with headlines about Busch getting sued by his former agent and ended with Busch earning NASCAR’s greatest prize.

Of course!

Drivers ‘scared’ to make move at the end

After a wild race that eliminated more than half the field, it seemed like the remaining drivers were hesitant to make a move and form two lines in the final laps.

Joey Logano kept trying, ducking down over and over to see if he could get anyone to go with him. It didn’t work, and the result ultimately allowed the leaders to stay in line and determine the win themselves.

What gives? I asked Logano why no one went with him. He opened his mouth but no words came out, and he just shrugged.

“Scared, I guess,” he finally said. “I don’t know. I don’t have any answer.”

Logano said he was shocked everyone decided to play it so conservatively.

Here’s a guess: Some of the drivers in the top 10 — like AJ Allmendinger, Aric Almirola, Paul Menard — obviously wanted to win, and would have made a move if it presented itself. But instead of forcing something, it was better to stay put for a sure-thing finish rather take a risk for the win and potentially drop back to 11th.

Each of them ended up with a top five to start the season, so you can’t fault them; but you can also understand Logano’s frustration.

Another upset for underdog Matt DiBenedetto

For the second straight year, Matt DiBenedetto scored an impressive finish in a car that had no business being that good in a Cup race.

DiBenedetto finished ninth in the Daytona 500, climbing out of his car to the cheers of his family and new GoFas Racing team on pit road (they literally clapped and yelled as he got out).

I asked him whether this finish was better than his sixth-place result at Bristol for BK Racing last spring.

“This one was a little more survival, that one was a little more racing,” he said with a smile. “I’d say they were different feelings. But the Daytona 500, just being in it in the first place is unbelievable. This one feels really good, because it’s been my dream since I was 5 to even be in it. So to get a top-10 in it, man, I’m just checking off all these dreams come true.”

Honestly, there were several great stories in the top 10. Look at Michael Waltrip! (You probably didn’t have a choice on the post-race show, but still…) The guy finished eighth in the Daytona 500 at age 53 and ended his career with a top-10. Not bad.

Also, Brendan Gaughan finished 11th — his best finish in a Cup race since Homestead…in 2004!

Kyle Busch throws down with Goodyear

No matter how much Kyle Busch changes over the years, one thing is consistent: If his equipment lets him down at an unacceptable level in his eyes, Busch is going to sound off about it.

He’s ripped Toyota engines, for example, as well as Goodyear several times. And on Sunday, it was the latter who drew his ire again after he spun and started a crash that took out several cars, including Dale Earnhardt Jr., Erik Jones and Matt Kenseth.

“Goodyear tires just suck,” he told reporters in his garage, according to Yahoo.

He also told FOX that Goodyear’s tires “aren’t very good at holding air.”

Yeesh. That’s probably not going to go over very well, but I also doubt Busch regrets his comments.

I asked Goodyear director of race tire sales Greg Tucker for his company’s side of things. He said Goodyear found evidence of a rub or a cut on Busch’s left rear tire, but the No. 18 team felt it was the right rear that went down. Stucker said there was a break on the right rear, but was inconclusive as to whether it was there beforehand or was caused when Busch spun and crashed.

Stucker acknowledged it was “tough for anybody” to hear criticism like Busch’s but said the top priority was to “get the facts and get it back to the team.”

So will Goodyear speak with Busch? Stucker said Goodyear has a regular call with the whole JGR team.

“It’ll come up there and get discussed at that point,” he said.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. escapes wreck with no injury

Earnhardt hit Kyle Busch’s car hard during Stage 2, which ended his Daytona Day. But it was a very respectable return — he was at the front when the incident happened — and he also showed the ability to take a decent hit without sustaining a concussion.

That sounds like a low bar for safety, but it has to be somewhat of a relief.

Afterward, the driver credited work on the headrests for keeping him safe.

“We changed some things in the interior that I feel will help me going forward,” he said. “I just appreciate all the effort NASCAR has put in to safety. I know we say that a lot, but if they hadn’t put the money into the studies that they did, I probably would have gotten hurt again right there.”

What exactly were the headrest changes? Earnhardt said the team “closed it up to where we really have no gap on each side.”

Basically, a driver’s head usually leans one way before hitting the wall and then slams over to the headrest on the other side (“It’s like hitting a baseball bat when you get there,” Earnhardt said), even if it’s only a couple inches of a gap.

But by making the headrests so close together they basically cradled his helmet, Earnhardt was able to absorb less of a jarring impact.

“The car itself sees a whole lot less (G forces) than the body does, and if you close (the headrests) up, you can minimize the Gs and get closer to what the car is seeing in those impacts,” he said.

It wasn’t too long ago, Earnhardt said, that drivers didn’t even want left-side head rests. They wanted room to be able to move around; now, that’s been proven to be more dangerous.

“That was really, really smart for us to go and have those meetings with NASCAR and say, ‘Hey, what can we do better?’ and talk about it,” he said. “That’s something I’m happy I did.”

2017 NASCAR Playoff Picks

Here are my picks for the 2017 NASCAR Cup playoffs (alphabetical order):

  • Clint Bowyer
  • Kurt Busch
  • Kyle Busch
  • Austin Dillon
  • Dale Earnhardt Jr.
  • Chase Elliott
  • Denny Hamlin
  • Kevin Harvick
  • Jimmie Johnson
  • Kasey Kahne
  • Matt Kenseth
  • Brad Keselowski
  • Kyle Larson
  • Joey Logano
  • Jamie McMurray
  • Martin Truex Jr.

A few expanded predictions:

— Clint Bowyer will get back to his old competitive self after joining Stewart-Haas Racing. By September, any hiccups SHR has in the transition to Ford will be forgotten.

— Four Toyotas will make it, but rookies Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez will barely miss out because of a few late-race mistakes.

— All four Hendrick drivers will be in the playoff, including Kasey Kahne after his best season in several years. Dale Earnhardt Jr. will finish the regular season within the top 10 in points.

— Both Chip Ganassi Racing drivers will be in and Kyle Larson will win two times in the regular season.

— Austin Dillon will win his first Cup race by late August.

— Overall, Hendrick Motorsports will be the best team in the regular season (with Jimmie Johnson having the most wins), followed by Team Penske. Joe Gibbs Racing will experience a slight drop-off after two great years, just part of the usual cycle in racing.

— I hate leaving Ryan Blaney out, but I’m not a Blaney detractor. I picked him to make it last year, and it’s certainly possible he could have a great year.

Joey Logano will win his first championship in 2017.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. will wait to sign contract extension

Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s contract expires after this season, but he’s not in a hurry to sign an extension.

Earnhardt said the delay is not a sign he is ready to quit driving; rather, he just wants a couple months to figure out whether his health will allow him to continue racing beyond this season.

“When I got hurt last year and what I saw it put the company through….I don’t want to do that again,” he told a group of reporters Saturday. “So I want to get some races under my belt and get confidence in my health before I can commit to him. I don’t want to make any promises I can’t deliver on.”

Earnhardt said he thinks he can race for “a couple” more years, but — despite asking himself the question — hasn’t been able to put a date on exactly when he might stop (should his health allow him to keep going).

But one thing is for sure, he said: He’s racing because he wants to be at the track and has a passion to keep competing.

“It’s not going to be a lot of fun to retire,” he said. “You’ve seen a lot of people, athletes retire. It seems a very difficult press conference to have. When I’m ready to do that, I’ll be making that decision knowing it’s the right thing to do. When I’m ready to do it, it’s going to have to be done.”

 

Column: Thankfully, Dale Earnhardt Jr. isn’t Ricky Bobby

Remember the scene from Talladega Nights when Ricky Bobby returns to testing after a long layoff and is far slower than expected?

While that was exaggerated for a movie, there were legitimate questions about whether Dale Earnhardt Jr. could jump back into a car and be fast right away again after missing half of last season with a concussion.

Even Earnhardt had been anxious to find out.

“I’m just a little nervous about if there will be any kind of learning curve,” he said. “Sometimes you see guys, no matter the type of the sport, who are away for awhile and have to adjust since they’ve taken time off. And other guys come back like they haven’t missed a day. I hope there’s no rust to shake off.”

But after the Phoenix Raceway test this week, we now know there’s no rust.

Of the thousands of laps run by 16 drivers at the test, Earnhardt had the three fastest laps of the two-day event. And the drivers testing included eight-time Phoenix winner Kevin Harvick was there, as was November winner Joey Logano and the emerging Kyle Larson, who finished third in that most recent race.

Earnhardt is a driver fueled by confidence or hampered by a lack of it. That’s how he’s always been, and it’s not going to change now at age 42. So the fact he could come to Phoenix and show his speed is just fine? Well, you’d have to think that’s a big deal for him.

Now, that doesn’t mean he’s going to win the championship this season. You can’t look at test results — with no tech inspection and teams on different agendas — and project success.

But at least we know Earnhardt hasn’t lost anything. Had he gone out and posted uncomfortably slow lap times or been toward the bottom of the speed charts, that could have caused him to question himself. And it would have been awkward to watch.

Instead, the opposite happened. His No. 88 car still had speed — remember, it almost won the November race after Alex Bowman led 194 laps — and Earnhardt was fast right along with it.

Everyone in NASCAR should be able to breathe a sigh of relief about that, because the last thing anyone wanted was for Earnhardt to come back and pull a Ricky Bobby — especially the running around in the underwear part.