The Top Five: Breaking down the Pocono race

Five thoughts after Sunday’s race at Pocono Raceway…

1. Blaney breaks through

When young Cup drivers face numerous challenges in a single race, they often fail to win. That’s because a lack of experience or poise typically trips them up at some point; even if they overcome one problem, the next does them in.

But at Pocono, Ryan Blaney had to survive three tough moments to score his first career Cup victory.

First of all, Blaney couldn’t talk to his team on the radio all day because his helmet microphone wasn’t working. The team worked out a series of hand signals as a substitute, and it made communication about changes to the car very difficult.

Jon Wood, through the Wood Brothers Racing Twitter account, tweeted late in the race: “If you could listen in for just like 20 seconds, you’d agree it’s just flat-out amazing that we are even on the lead lap at this point.”

After enduring that stress, Blaney found himself starting fourth on the final restart — and the first driver on four new tires. But although he was faster at that point, Blaney had to deal with extremely aggressive blocking from Kyle Busch, which could have easily ended in a wreck for one or both of the drivers. Blaney stayed patient, raced Busch cleanly and made the pass.

After that, he had Kevin Harvick approaching quickly. Harvick stayed on his back bumper in the final laps, waiting to pounce if Blaney made the slightest mistake.

“The way I passed people all day was waiting for him to slip up off the bottom, and he never slipped off the bottom,” Harvick said. “Ryan did a good job of not slipping a wheel with the amount of laps that he had left.”

Blaney drove flawlessly at the end — and throughout the race. He truly earned the win.

2. Silver lining for Dale Jr.?

Pocono was the low point of the season so far for Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his fans. Earnhardt missed a pair of shifts this weekend that resulted in blown engines — and offered no excuses for the mistakes.

Though fans were eager for a reason to blame crew chief Greg Ives or the team (surely the shifter must be set up differently!), Earnhardt acknowledged nothing in the car has changed.

This was simply driver error.

“I wish I could blame it on something else, because this feels awful,” he told FOX Sports 1. “It’s just my fault. … I wish I could say the shifter is different.”

There isn’t much good to say about the day — or the season so far. Earnhardt clearly isn’t confident in his cars right now and isn’t having the fun he had been the past few years.

But there might be one positive. As noted by Justin Bukoski, an Earnhardt fan from Portland, Hendrick Motorsports drivers Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne appeared to have brake failures (as did Jamie McMurray). And Earnhardt had earlier been complaining of brake problems.

So if Earnhardt had not blown an engine, was it only a matter of time before his brakes led to a Johnson-like hit into the wall? If so, that might have been the end of Earnhardt’s career — or worse — given his concussion history.

3. Another scary moment

Maybe it’s just a heightened sense of awareness since the Aric Almirola crash, but it feels like there have been a lot of hard hits lately, doesn’t it? And there were two more on Sunday.

With four laps left in Stage 2, Johnson and McMurray suffered simultaneous brake failures going into Turn 1 — and both crashed hard.

They were each frightening in their own right. Johnson’s hit was violent — and he initially seemed headed straight for the wall, nose-first — while McMurray’s was fiery.

Johnson seemed shaken and said, “We got away with one there.” He knew it could have been a lot worse.

The burning car was the most worrisome part about McMurray’s wreck. Though it was nice to see the automatic extinguisher put out the fire in the front of the car, the back end was still in flames for quite awhile.

It appeared there were approximately 20 seconds between the time McMurray’s car stopped and when the safety crew put the first bit of extinguisher on the flames. Could the response time have been faster? Before you answer, consider what would have happened if McMurray had not been able to get out of the car (what if he had an Almirola-like injury?). That would have been ugly.

Either way, it’s just another reminder of how dangerous this sport is. And I think we’re all good on reminders for awhile.

4. New blood on TV

I was moving cross-country this weekend and missed the drivers-only Xfinity Series broadcast. That really bummed me out, because I wanted to know how it went.

Fortunately, many Twitter followers were able to fill me in. I received 115 replies to a tweet asking whether people enjoyed it or not.

The consensus: An overwhelmingly positive response to the broadcast, with many comments urging FOX Sports to try it again sometime. I’d say 95 percent of the responses were raving about it; people really seemed to enjoy seeing different faces on the broadcast.

Hopefully, that emotion from the fans was noticed by FOX executives. There appear to be many capable drivers who could fill on-air roles at the moment, some who will be retiring within the next few years. A career full of TV interviews and commercials and appearances has helped drivers become very polished on camera.

If that’s the case, why not stock the on-air booths with the most relevant analysts possible? FOX should do everything it can to keep its talent fresh.

5. Another race, another new winner

That’s now 10 different winners in the first 14 races — which is quite impressive considering drivers like Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch have yet to go to victory lane.

But it’s also a whopping eight different teams that have won races, thanks to new faces like Wood Brothers Racing (first win since 2011), Richard Childress Racing (first win since 2013) and Roush Fenway Racing (first win since 2014).

Joe Gibbs Racing has not won yet and certainly will before the regular season ends, so that will be nine.

How does that compare to last year? Well, only seven different teams won a race in all of 2016.

Though it’s still tough to say whether this is a sign of real parity or just unique circumstances producing different winners, it’s always good when no single entity — driver or team — is dominating the season.

12 Questions with Jamie McMurray

The 12 Questions series of interviews continues this week with Jamie McMurray of Chip Ganassi Racing, who is currently fifth in the NASCAR Cup Series standings. I spoke with McMurray at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

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

I think everyone is a little bit different. I think I work at it more than most. … That microphone is really close, Jeff.

I don’t have very good mic technique. Do the other interviewers, like the professional ones, hold it farther from your mouth usually?

(Laughs) I think the angle is off, Jeff. The angle’s a big deal.

So I need to hold it more straight up and down. I was holding it horizontally, and you’re saying that I need to hold it vertically. OK, that makes sense.

Yeah, I think I like this angle better. I don’t feel like you’re feeding it to me at this point.

Seriously though, I feel like through my whole career that I’ve worked a little bit harder than most. That’s not to take anything away from some people, but we know there’s some drivers who we say are just very naturally talented, and if they cared more, what could they do? I don’t feel like I’m that guy. I feel like I’ve worked really hard to get to where I am and I still feel like I study harder and work harder than most.

2. Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and now Dale Earnhardt Jr. have all either retired in the last couple years or will retire soon. What’s your pitch for fans of theirs to become fans of yours?

I don’t have a pitch. I don’t feel like you should try to sell somebody on becoming your fan. I think when you watch races on TV or you see interviews, if you like those people, if you like the way they race or if you like the way they live their life or if you just…you know, we all are turned on by different things. And I’m not a salesman.

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

I think the hardest part in general is always trying to be turned on. The reality is that we’re all probably not in as good of a mood as we show we are. My wife (Christy) tells me a lot of times, “It’s crazy how you kind of turn that on when you’re supposed to.” I don’t do it on purpose. I don’t consciously think, “Oh, Jeff Gluck’s going to interview me, I need to be this way.”

But we do, because the truth is, there’s some days where you’re not in a good mood, and what you really want to say, you can’t. So to me, that’s the hardest part —  just trying to always be turned on and say the right thing.

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

Everybody is different about this. I am completely different when I’m with my family than when I’m alone. If it’s a team dinner or if I’m with a couple of guys, that’s totally different. I would say no all the time because you’re eating, but it’s totally different.

When I’m with my family, I get really defensive of people that come up, and I’m not as friendly or as outgoing. I chose to race cars and to be on TV, and I know what comes with it. My 4-year-old and 6-year-old did not (choose that), and they don’t really have a choice when they’re with me. So it’s completely different when I’m with my family.

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

Well, I’m into fitness right now, so I think the story that should be out there, especially with what Matt (Kenseth) and Jimmie (Johnson) and I did, and a lot of the crew guys in the garage did last week (the Assault on Mt. Mitchell, a 102.7-mile bike ride with a climb of more than 10,000 feet). I think that covering the fitness level of a lot of people in the garage would be interesting.

There’s this huge debate of whether people are race car drivers or athletes or if they’re not, and I think people would be shocked by what some people are capable of doing outside of a car.

Do you think that since you’ve gotten more in shape, you can notice a difference in the car?

There’s maybe a small amount in the car. Honestly, what I have noticed, the biggest change is the attitude of everyone on my team. I think when those guys see you putting in the effort and the work — we have a super fitness-oriented team anyway. There’s a lot of guys who do marathons and a lot of training, so I have noticed the attitude of them.

This is the deal: If you’ve never driven a car and you work on a team and things don’t go well at the end of the race, in my mind I know that maybe the handling of the car went away. But I think there’s always a little skepticism in people, like, “Well, did they get tired?” You maybe hear the little rumblings, and I think the attitude on our team has been awesome with all that’s been going on this year.

6. Who is the last driver you texted?

I’m gonna look at my phone because I don’t know. (Pulls out phone) Greg Biffle. I texted him 32 minutes ago. Before that it’s gonna be Jimmie or Matt because we did that race on Monday, so probably Jimmie and Matt.

Are you a frequent texter?

No. My wife is the person who you can text and she will read your text then respond whenever she feels that she should respond. If I read, I do respond immediately because I know that people know that I have read that, or at least I feel like they know because they see (text) bubbles, right? But I’m not as into my phone as a lot of people are.

Does your wife put the read receipts on so you know what time she read it?

My wife doesn’t really care about her phone. If my wife lost her phone today, it would not matter. She would be like, “Oh well, it’s not that big of a deal.” So I don’t even know if her read receipts are on because she doesn’t know either.

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

I think some are more entertainers than others. Clint (Bowyer) would come to the top of my list as someone who’s an entertainer. He can turn it on, right? Although I will tell you that I have been around Clint a lot, and I don’t know if he turns it on. He’s basically that goofy the whole time. He’s always in a pretty good mood.

But yeah, I think that some people are certainly more entertainers than others. I don’t feel like I am that guy.

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

I haven’t done that in a long time. That used to be fairly common. That was once a weekend it happened. I don’t even see that anymore. I don’t know when the last time was when I got a middle finger.

I get a kick out of — I think they call it “Radioactive” (on FS1’s Race Hub) — I don’t know what that show is and I’ve only heard it a couple of times, but I love how mad people get. I have listened to like two of those, and they’ve been like after I’ve been at the airport, and the guy that MF’s me on the radio is like my buddy an hour later, so then you hear that and you realize that he was mad at what happened. So I love that they play that because that’s real.

Do you give anybody crap afterward? Like, “Hey, I heard what you said. That didn’t come up on our plane ride home or anything.”

No, because I know that’s the way you feel right then, and I don’t care. They feel how they feel.

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?

Yes. Look, we all race each other the way we are raced, and for the most part, you build relationships throughout the year or throughout your career with people who race you very well. What comes and goes, it goes both ways. So absolutely.

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

I don’t even know of anyone famous that I’ve had dinner with. Let me think. 

I’m gonna say Matt Kenseth.

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

I want to improve a lot of things about myself. But I think being kind to others. I feel like I try really hard at that, but I don’t go a good enough job, and I try really hard when I see someone to kind of know that they’re having a struggle and I feel like all of us should do a better job of being kind to others.

12. The last interview I did was with William Byron. He wanted to know: “What other sports do you watch outside of racing, and what things does NASCAR need to take and apply from other sports?”

That is a really deep question from Mr. Byron at (19) years old. I do watch some other sports, but mostly it’s racing: F1 or drag racing or IndyCars or sports cars or motorcycles.

My answer to that is what we’ve kind of done that this year with Monster being a part of it. When you watch Supercross or you go to a Supercross event, they do a really good job with the laser light show and those guys come out and ride wheelies and they do a little more interaction. I feel like we’ve had a little more of that this year, not because Monster is here, but because all the sports are trying to gear towards a younger audience and that’s kind of the way to get there.

I don’t know who the next interview is going to be with, but I’m trying for an IndyCar driver because I’m going to the Indy 500. So do you have a question to throw out there?

Are you excited that Fernando (Alonso) came to run the Indy 500 and got a crazy amount of attention, and at the same time how did you think that he did?

I just wanted to say thanks again, because I feel like you’ve changed my life now with holding this microphone. I feel like I’m doing it the right way now. So thank you for that help. It’s like having something in my teeth the whole year and nobody’s told me I had something in my teeth until you said I was holding the microphone wrong.

That’s funny, because I knew that was going to happen because we’ve been talking about it behind your back the whole time. They’re like, “Wait until Jeff Gluck interviews you, because the way he holds his microphone is really weird.”

I don’t believe that, but thanks for joining us.

This 12 Questions interview is sponsored by Dover International Speedway. If you’re planning to attend the Dover race next week, please consider using my ticket link. Thanks!

12 Questions with Clint Bowyer

The 12 Questions interview series continues this week with Clint Bowyer of Stewart-Haas Racing. The interview was conducted Sunday morning prior to the Martinsville race. Here is the archive of other 12 Questions from this season.

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

I would say with me, I don’t know why, but natural ability seems to be the case. This has always come relatively easy for me. The hardest part of our game anymore isn’t the fact you can drive better than the next guy; everybody at this sport, at this level, can drive and is capable of winning these races. It’s how well you work with your team, how well you communicate to your guys to get the most out of your race car.

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? (Note: I know the following answer makes no sense, but it’s Bowyer, so I think he just got distracted.)

Man, it’s just trying to instill that same attitude, the same thoughts and culture. The fit factor has always been really good for everybody. I just like it. I like my teammates, I like the crew chiefs, I love the owners. The sponsors, the partners they have. There’s no weak link anywhere you look in Stewart-Haas. The manufacturer in Ford, Doug Yates, the Roush Yates horsepower. Every aspect of the program is spot on and exactly the way you would want it.

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

Right now when my wife (Lorra) goes to Charleston and left me with that two-and-a-half year old (son Cash). I couldn’t handle the two-month old (daughter Presley). Grandma — my mom — had to bail me out on Presley. (Lorra, sitting nearby with the kids, reminds everyone Presley is actually four months old, not two). Cash and I held the fort down and had a good time.

He’s still living and doesn’t look like he has any broken bones or anything.

No, believe it or not, he’s still breathing. No broken bones. We did pretty good on the potty training. Not bad at all. I was pretty impressed. (Pauses) Not with him — with me.

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

Of course, fans should always approach people. But the restaurant is a little different. Everybody is wired different. I don’t care. I don’t mind it. It is kind of awkward.

Just not the bathroom. God almighty. We went to Outback, took the family to Outback. We all go in there. Cash has to go to the bathroom, which, with a two-year-old, it’s a little bit of a deal. It was after (nephew) Lincoln’s baseball game. Lincoln had to go to the bathroom (too), so my brother Casey had him. I had Cash. (A random) dude finally gets done at the urinal, turns around and wants to shake your hand — and realized (the awkwardness)! He was like, “Eh, uh — can I shake your hand?” (Laughs) I’m like, “Well, damn. I guess.” So just not the bathroom. It’s the only place — just don’t go there.

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

(Spotter Brett Griffin, also hanging out in the motorhome, says, “Spotters.”)

My spotter, Brett, just said “spotters.” Can’t live without ‘em; can’t live with ‘em.

Man, I think the media, I think TV, everybody does a great job covering this sport. I mean, honestly. There are so many meetings, so much thought that goes into every aspect of covering this sport. I think they do a good job. I don’t know that you could fix anything or look at one thing and say, “Wish they would show that.” ‘Cause they do.

6. Who is the last driver you texted?

(Kasey) Kahne, actually. Kahne has been posting pictures of him working out on social media and I’m like, “Unless you’re a girl, don’t do that.”

Shirtless, even.

Good God! It’s so embarrassing.

And then my go-to, fun text of the week is always (Jamie) McMurray. He’s so much fun to pick on, because he cares so much about what his appearance looks like and what people think of him that I love to pick on McMurray. And his new videos on social media are ridiculous.

I’ve seen those.

He looked half-dead after California, too. He was sitting in the plane doing his little debrief video. I’m like, “My man looks so out of it and so worn out.” I’m like, “Go take a nap and let (McMurray’s son) Carter take over.” Because my man Carter is hilarious and I think he would probably do a better job than his dad anyway.

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

Yes. I think this is the entertainment business. If you’re on television, you’re in the entertainment business — whether you want to or not or whether you think you are or not.

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

Well, when you look over and you’ve got an in-car camera, you can’t do many of those. Going back to your question of what could be covered more in NASCAR, unfortunately you can’t even flip a guy off anymore without it being caught on camera or on TV.

Sometimes, I’ll flip a guy off — like a McMurray — we would just flip each other off just because it was him. Not that I was mad or anything else, just because I wanted to flip him off. It made me feel better.

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?

Yeah, I think that goes hand-in-hand. You don’t want to call it friendship, because you’re not friends on that racetrack. If it’s for a win, I’ll take advantage of anybody on that racetrack and I’ll be the first person Monday morning to say, “Hey man, I ain’t gonna apologize because I know that ain’t worth anything, but I hope you understand.” And I hope they do understand. If it’s for a win, I’m hungry.

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

(Looks to Lorra for help. She mentions Steven Tyler, John Fogerty, Blake Shelton. Brother Casey mentions Mike Helton.)

Yeah, I’ve been fortunate to have dinner with a lot of famous people. The people I love — truly, honestly, my brother just said Mike Helton. I don’t think there’s anybody that I respect more in my life than Mike. The reason is, I think he’s the go-to guy for our sport. He’s the spokesperson of our sport. He’s the face of our sport. And he doesn’t take that for granted and always has time for whatever aspect of the sport that needs attention. Whether it’s the drivers or whatever else, he’s always there to listen. The thing about Mike is he’s a good dude, a good person to go to dinner with. He’s a lot of fun to cut up and be normal as well.

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

Damn. Winning, right now. Gotta win, you know? This is a performance-driven sport and you’ve got to go out there and have the performance on the racetrack.

But those stars are lining up. I’m starting to have fun again and starting to get that confidence back, and that’s not only with myself but my race team as well. Buga (Mike Bugarewicz) is a young crew chief and he’s hungry and you’ve got to have that confidence instilled in you week-in and week-out. I see that in him right alongside of me.

12. Last week’s interview was with AJ Allmendinger and he wanted to know: If you could be any animal, what kind of animal would you be and why?

How in the hell does that — that’s what came to his mind?

Man, I don’t know. I would think a lion would be pretty badass. That’s pretty top of the food chain. The badassery in the lion is pretty spot-on. I dig a lion.

Do you have a question for the next interview?

The question to ask the next driver is why do you or don’t you post workout videos on social media?

What if the next interview is with Kahne?

Exactly. I want to know why.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Martinsville race

Each week, I’ll provide some quick postrace analysis with five thoughts from the race. This week: Martinsville Speedway.

Brad isn’t so bad

Martinsville is one of the tracks where Brad Keselowski gets booed the most in pre-race introductions. The reasons why people don’t like Keselowski — he’s brash and runs his mouth at times, races some popular drivers too hard and is unapologetic and unflinching when it comes to on-track incidents — all come to the forefront here.

So it was interesting after the race when Keselowski decided to dash into the stands to greet a group of fans — some his, but not all — who had stuck around to watch victory lane on the frontstretch.

Why?

“This might not be the track where I get the loudest cheers,” he said with a laugh. “But that’s OK — that’s part of what makes this sport go around.

“I just felt really good about it and saw a couple people I knew up in the grandstands. … I just thought it was worth saying hey.”

You may not want to hear this, but that’s more of who the real Keselowski is than what you see on the racetrack.

Keselowski is the type of guy who uses reporters’ first names in news conferences when answering questions. Not because he’s trying to kiss media butts, but because he’s respectful and personable.

He is fan-friendly (did you see his Facebook Live videos in the first couple weeks of this season, when he surprised people in the campgrounds?), intelligent and a good ambassador for NASCAR, his sponsor and his team.

And yet, so many fans hate his guts! It’s honestly a shame for NASCAR as a whole, because Keselowski has the type of personality that could make him a really popular driver. The problem for fans is since he’s opinionated and never backs down from a fight, they’ve already determined he’s a villain.

There’s probably nothing that can be done to reverse that for now — maybe people will come around later in his career — but fans who don’t think there are interesting drivers with personality in the series are overlooking Keselowski.

Stages Right

Stage racing continues to produce unexpected results. For example: Who would have imagined it would prompt a lapped car to bump the race leader out of the way?

That’s exactly what Ricky Stenhouse Jr. did at the end of Stage 2, sending Kyle Busch up the track and costing Busch a potentially valuable bonus point for the playoffs this fall.

Stenhouse said he wouldn’t normally make such a move because “You respect the leader.” But knowing a caution was about to come, he said, made him go for it.

“It’s as hard as I could drive,” Stenhouse said. “I’ve got sponsors, fans and a team to take care of. I had to stay on the lead lap. That was a turning point in the race. If (Busch) laps (Austin Dillon, who was the next car in line) and we’re stuck a lap down, it could ruin our race. So I drove as hard as I could, and it paid off for us.”

Stenhouse ended up with a 10th-place finish — his second top-10 in three weeks. He said he planned to nudge Busch just enough to get the lap back, but “didn’t mean to give up the win for him in that stage.”

Busch wasn’t impressed by the move. He said Stenhouse should expect payback, particularly since — in his mind — the bump wasn’t necessary. The defending race winner explained he intended to give Stenhouse a lane and allow the driver to get his lap back at the line; instead, Stenhouse “just drove through me,” Busch said.

“I was trying to be a nice guy,” Busch said. “But nice guys don’t finish first.”

Crew chiefs getting tire-d

Why in the world did Jamie McMurray stay out when it seemed obvious his severe tire rub was going to result in a flat — one that ended up wrecking his car?

Well, because the team — like many others that have gotten burned in similar ways before — thought the tire rub might go away.

Another part of the reason not to pit, McMurray said, was “If we pit and we lose three laps, you are never going to make those up here.”

The problem is, that’s not really true. Drivers have come back from incidents that put them multiple laps down at Martinsville, because there are so many cautions that wavearounds and even free passes are likely here.

This honestly isn’t to pick on crew chief Matt McCall or McMurray’s team, because this seems to happen every few weeks: A driver gets damage from another car or from brushing the wall, resulting in a tire rub; then, either because the team thinks it will go away or because it’s praying for a longshot caution, the driver stays out and ends up wrecked when the tire blows.

But these teams are really out-thinking themselves if that’s the case. Points for finishing 25th and laps down are still way better than last-place points after a wreck.

If it’s a minor tire rub like Kyle Busch had? Yes, that can go away. But when there’s THAT much smoke? I’m not an expert, but PIT, damn it! The tire isn’t going to heal itself.

Cash me ousside

Holy crap, did you see that outside lane working at Martinsville? They’ve been racing here for 70 YEARS, and the outside lane has never been a viable option (as far as I know) until Sunday. The new tire Goodyear brought laid rubber in the top lane, and Busch seemed to pioneer a new strategy of making the outside work.

Team radios were abuzz with spotters and crew chiefs telling their drivers about Busch’s line, and others seemed to try the same thing with some degree of success. Keselowski even made the outside lane work on a late restart.

Of course, it’s not like drivers have never made passes on the outside (Tony Stewart passed Jimmie Johnson that way for a win in 2011) — but it’s just never been the preferred way around.

And it wasn’t necessarily better than the bottom on Sunday, but at least it became an option. There was only one time all day where I noticed a driver hit the brakes to try and get the low line on a restart after pit stops, so that was an improvement.

It’s worth wondering whether setups can be geared to run that way in the fall, when the playoff race will have much more importance.

JTG FTW

Hey, how about JTG-Daugherty Racing?

Sixth-place AJ Allmendinger had his best finish on a non-plate oval track since, well, this race last year (he finished second that day).

And second-year driver Chris Buescher, in his first season at JTG, finished 11th — his best result since a fifth-place run last fall at Bristol.

“We needed a good run,” Allmendinger said. “I actually felt like a race car driver today. That was a lot of fun.”

Maybe all is not lost for Allmendinger, who had a miserable start to the season after a 35-point penalty and three-race suspension for crew chief Randall Burnett, who returned Sunday. He moved up four spots to 26th in points (Buescher is 27th) and there are still two road courses ahead for Allmendinger.

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.