The Top Five: Breaking down the Richmond race

Five thoughts after Saturday night’s regular season finale at Richmond Raceway…

1. Why Larson’s win was important

Before his win Saturday night at Richmond, Kyle Larson had won four races in his career — three this season — but each victory had been on a 2-mile track (either Fontana or Michigan).

Larson certainly doesn’t lack for confidence, but this will help heading into a playoff that will require excellence on several different types of tracks. Now Larson has proof he can win on different kinds of tracks at the Cup level (not that it was really that much of a question, but it can’t hurt) — and now that includes short tracks,.

“Everybody says I grew up short-track racing, but this is way different than sprint car racing on a short track,” he said. “This is really, really slow, heavy braking, off the throttle a lot, taking care of your tires — where in a sprint car on a quarter mile, you’re still wide open a lot of times depending on how the track is.

“This is different, and I’ve had to learn a lot. I feel like I’ve definitely gotten better at it.”

Next on Larson’s to-do list: Win on a 1.5-mile track. He actually has the third-best average on 1.5-mile tracks this season — the tracks that make up half the playoff races — but Martin Truex Jr. is far ahead of him.

That will likely have to change if Larson wants to snatch the title away from Truex like he took the win at Richmond.

2. Regular season champ

NASCAR did not celebrate Truex’s regular season championship (which comes with a trophy and 15 playoff points) last week at Darlington after he clinched because they wanted to save it for Richmond. According to the post-race plan, Truex was even set to have his own burnout celebration in Turn 1 while the winner (if it was a different driver) celebrated in Turn 4.

But the only thing Truex did in Turn 1 was crash into the wall on the last lap — thanks to Toyota teammate Denny Hamlin — which was most unfortunate. It’s no wonder he was cranky afterward about how everything played out and wasn’t exactly in a mood to celebrate.

Here’s a sampling of Truex quotes after the race:

— “I wish we could have got the trophy last weekend. I mean, tonight sucks, plain and simple.”

— “It’s ridiculous there’s a guy out there that shouldn’t even be out there, 20-some laps down, riding around. As slow as he is, he can’t even hold his damn line. It’s ridiculous. He scrapes the wall, they throw a caution with one to go. That’s not what racing should be.”

— “Somebody obviously wasn’t paying attention (to the ambulance) or wasn’t doing their job properly, and in my opinion at this level, it’s inexcusable.”

So Truex was salty, but obviously he had every right to be that way. As Larson said, Truex “should have probably have like 10 or 12 wins if things would go his way more often.”

Truex will go into the playoffs with 53 playoff points, which is pretty decent, but it’s only a 20-point lead over Larson. It would have been 30 had he won at Richmond.

So it’s no wonder Truex couldn’t bring himself to smile while accepting the regular season championship trophy. That late caution was a 10-point swing, and it will be worth remembering later in the fall.

3. No fairy tale ending

I guess we all saw this coming, but it’s still a shame that Dale Earnhardt Jr. won’t be competing in the playoffs during his final season. After Jeff Gordon made it to Homestead in 2015 and Tony Stewart had a road course win fall into his lap to make the playoffs last year, it just seemed destined that Earnhardt would win at some point in the first 26 races. Sadly, that wasn’t the case despite a good run on Saturday night.

What didn’t we see coming? Joey Logano missing out on the 16-driver field. Logano was my preseason championship pick, and his team’s downfall is the most surprising flop I can remember in the Chase/Playoff Era. He opened the season with eight finishes of sixth or better in the first nine races — including five straight top-fives — and then completely fell off the map after the encumbered Richmond win.

Ultimately, Logano finished second on Saturday night. But that was just his third top-five since the last Richmond race. He missed the playoffs by 100 points.

And how about Clint Bowyer? Honestly, it was a pretty solid regular season; his average finish of 14.8 is his best since 2013. I mean, the guy finished 11th in points and missed the playoffs! That just speaks to how unusual this season has been with five winners below him in the standings.

By the way, it was fun to see Erik Jones make a run at what would have been an incredible victory at Richmond. He didn’t make the cut (despite being 13th in points during his rookie season), but don’t worry — he will be part of the field for years to come after this.

4. Someone call 911

Let’s hope NASCAR got its one crappy officiating night out of the way before the playoffs, because that was — as our president would say — “not good.”

First, there was the caution toward the end of Stage 1 which was officially thrown for “Smoke.” Not Tony Stewart, but smoke from Matt Kenseth’s tires when he was trying to avoid hitting Danica Patrick. That was an awfully quick trigger for a group of officials who previously insisted it takes time to call a caution (like at Daytona and Indianapolis as cars were crashing).

Second, the ambulance on pit road. Yikes. Martin Truex Jr. said the safety vehicles were running alongside the cars down the backstretch, so NASCAR had plenty of time to figure out what was going on. NASCAR said it told the ambulance to stop, and the directive was not obeyed. But typically, race director David Hoots runs a much tighter ship than that. It was not only a safety hazard, but Matt Kenseth ultimately could have missed the playoffs because of it. Thankfully, that situation didn’t play out — but again, “not good.”

Third, it might have been worth holding off calling the race-altering caution for Derrike Cope. That was a judgment call and likely a caution in many circumstances, because he did brush the wall. But this was the final laps of the regular season when NASCAR has put such an emphasis on playoff points this year — and it changed the winner.

NASCAR warned drivers to “let it play out naturally on the racetrack” in the pre-race drivers meeting, so it doesn’t feel right that three questionable calls occurred in the hours afterward. Let’s hope that was the last officiating controversy of the season.

5. Championship predictions

So here we go. It’s time to make some picks.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ryan Newman, Austin Dillon and Chase Elliott will be eliminated in the first round, with Kasey Kahne, Ryan Blaney, Kurt Busch and Jamie McMurray advancing to Round 2 but falling out after that.

Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski will come up short of making it to Homestead, which will leave Truex, Larson, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin as the final four.

In the end, despite the presence of Homestead ace Larson in the championship race, Kyle Busch will use a late restart to win his second career title as Truex once again suffers bad luck after a dominating race.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Bristol Night Race

Five thoughts after Saturday night’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway…

1. Kyle Busch drinks his haters’ tears

At a Toyota appearance on Saturday morning, a fan in attendance stood there and gave Kyle Busch one long, continuous middle finger.

“I know I’m number one,” Busch told the fan. “I’ve been number one the past two nights.”

So then the fan gave him a double bird.

“All you’re doing is solidifying what I already know,” Busch said.

Like the greatest of wrestling heels, Busch has gone full villain this season as he’s come to terms with the fact he’s never going to be the most popular driver. It doesn’t seem to bother him anymore — and yes, it definitely did at one time — so he’s soaking up the hate instead.

As Busch was showered with boos from the 100,000-plus fans at Bristol after completing the three-race weekend sweep, Busch cupped his ears for more. Then, as the volume increased, he flashed three fingers — not Three for Dale, but three for the sweep.

To add insult to their injured feelings, Busch then climbed on top of his car, parked right on the frontstretch, and swept the roof with a broom.

“I’m sure they’re still booing and whining and crying all the way home tonight. They’re driving home mad,” he said later, then smirked. “So people, be careful.”

For Kyle Busch Haters, a group of people that probably rivals the size of Junior Nation, this weekend was absolutely disgusting. He dominated two lower-series races with glee (“In your face!” he yelled on the radio after winning Trucks) and then whooped everyone in the Cup race.

But I’ve got to confess something: The more Busch irritates people, the more hilarious I think it is. Seriously, Busch haters get SO twisted up when he wins and their livid reactions are so disproportionate to the outrage over everything in the real world that it’s just flat-out funny to me.

The hate is so commonplace now, it doesn’t affect him. He’s used to it, and he might even thrive off it.

Personally, I think he’s the most interesting character in NASCAR these days. And even though he can be a pain in the ass at times, I sure am glad he’s around to give me something to write about and talk about.

2. Yes, he’s that damn good

To those who truly despise Busch — even you have to admit we’re watching one of the great talents of all time, right?

I mean, check out this tweet from Kyle Larson from Saturday night:

Could Kyle Busch actually be the GOAT, as Larson’s tweet suggested? I can only speak in NASCAR terms on this, so you can debate sprint car drivers and other racers Larson may be including in the conversation. But in NASCAR, Jimmie Johnson has won six more championships, Jeff Gordon won a lot more races and Tony Stewart was more versatile as far as winning in different types of cars.

And yet, when it comes to sitting in the stands and watching which driver wheels the car the best, I think Larson may be right: Busch may be the best pure talent of his generation.

Yes, of course he’s driving the best cars in the lower series and makes it seem easy when he has a speeding penalty and gets back to the front in 50 laps (probably because it is easy for him).

But when he does it in the Cup Series, against the best drivers and teams, and makes it look like he’s back in an Xfinity race? Well, that’s damn impressive. It just is.

Busch now has 40 Cup wins, which tied Mark Martin on the all-time list. And he’s only 32! He probably has 10 more years in his prime to rack up more victories.

I’m not advocating for people to start liking Busch, because his attitude and demeanor and lack of grace are massive turnoffs to many fans in a sport where drivers are often judged on personality as much as results. And I’m also not suggesting people start enjoying what they’re seeing, because people need someone to root against.

But as a longtime Denver Broncos fan, I compare it to Tom Brady. I can’t STAND Brady, but I still recognize he’s probably the best quarterback ever (which is painful to admit).

So you truly have to respect Busch as one of the best and appreciate what we’re seeing. And if you can’t, your bitterness is getting in the way.

3. Erik Jones making big gains

Remember earlier in the season when the No. 77 car looked fast every week but always had something bad happen? Those days seem gone now.

Erik Jones has six DNFs due to crashes this season — many of which were not his fault but some which happened after he put himself in bad positions. But Jones really seems to be finishing races lately.

He’s reeled off four straight top-10 finishes, including a third at Michigan and now a career-best second at Bristol. And he led a race-high 260 laps during nine different times in the race, which is pretty impressive.

It’s a shame he’s likely going to miss the playoffs, because he’s coming on really strong at the right time. But I have a feeling he’ll be a playoff fixture in the future, though.

4. More frustration for Dale Jr.

At the tweetup on Saturday, a few of us started daydreaming about what it would be like if Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the Bristol race.

Can you imagine? It would be even better than the 2001 Pepsi 400! The whole stadium would go freaking nuts!

Goosebumps.

But that was just a fantasy, because Earnhardt never had a chance after being way off in practice and qualifying 31st.

“I couldn’t find any speed out there,” he said afterward. “Whatever we got wrong came from the shop. You’re not going to fix it on that racetrack from pit road. We just missed the setup, big time.”

The struggles Earnhardt experienced all weekend at Bristol reminded me of the Lance McGrew Era. Personally, I thought it was the most frustrated I’d heard Earnhardt on the radio this season, but he disagreed.

“It’s frustrating every week, you know?” he said. “I don’t know how to quantify frustration. I don’t know how to measure it. None of it is good. We want to compete and run well this last season. I don’t want to be out there just packing it in. It’s a lot of work to run 23rd, I’ll say that.”

Earnhardt deserves a better ending than this season is shaping up to be, similar to what Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart got.

Unfortunately, it’s looking more and more like that might not happen — and that sucks for everyone.

5. Two to go!

It’s almost playoff time, and the picture is getting a bit clearer now that there are two races left where upset winners are a rarity.

Actually, I’m having a hard time seeing how the 16 drivers currently in the field change after Darlington and Richmond (you can see the standings below).

There are only three spots left, and it’s not close on points at all. Clint Bowyer is 58 points out — nearly an entire race — and he’s the only driver within 100 points (Joey Logano is 117 points out).

So that means someone like Logano would have to win Darlington or Richmond to get in. And really, is Logano even running well enough to do that right now? It doesn’t seem like it, even though he’s great at Richmond and had the encumbered win there in the spring.

There are no more upset winner type tracks, which lessens the chances Jones or Daniel Suarez could pick up their first career victories in the next two weeks.

Anyway, I think you’re already looking at this year’s playoff field, which is below.

——-

PLAYOFF PICTURE

By patron request, I’m going to start including the playoff picture at the bottom of the Top Five each week. Here’s how it looks now:

IN (13): Truex, Larson, Harvick, Ky. Busch, Keselowski, Hamlin, Johnson, Blaney, Ku. Busch, Newman, Stenhouse, Kahne, A. Dillon.

Points Bubble with two races to go:

14. Chase Elliott +69

15. Matt Kenseth +61

16. Jamie McMurray +58

—-

17. Clint Bowyer -58

(Everyone else more than 100 points or one win behind)

The Top Five: Breaking down the Michigan race

Five thoughts following Sunday’s race at Michigan International Speedway…

1. Oh, that restart

Kyle Larson’s brilliance behind the wheel of a race car — it doesn’t matter what kind — is the sort of raw ability that every race fan can appreciate. And that was on display for all to see on Sunday.

Larson’s fourth-to-first move on the overtime restart — first slicing his way up the middle, then getting right to the bottom before anyone had time to really counter — was perhaps the best moment of his NASCAR career so far.

Today’s NASCAR is so much about the car and less about the driver, but Larson has shown several times how much the driver still matters. He is willing to try things others do not or cannot, and it provides for quite a show whether the attempt succeeds or fails.

This time, it worked — and Larson completed a week where he forced those who scoffed at his “last true racer” comment several months ago to wonder if maybe he was right.

2. Truex vs. Kyle

In the majority of races this season, the fastest cars have been either Truex or Kyle.

It’s just that the “Kyle” role has switched between Larson and Busch.

Larson was leading the points until he dropped off a cliff recently and tumbled to third with five finishes outside the top 20 in a seven-race stretch. It looked like he lost all his momentum as the Toyotas took over, but questions remained whether that was a product of losing his crew chief to a suspension.

That meant Michigan was going to be a huge test: Would Larson run well on a 2-mile track (a layout which has now generated all four of his career victories)? If not, that would seem to confirm his summer slump.

Apparently, things are just fine. Even though Larson didn’t have a dominant day, he was there at the end and figured out a way to win.

We’re back on the bandwagon now. Pencil him back in for the Final Four at Homestead, along with Truex, Busch and Jimmie Johnson.

3. Kenseth’s nightmare scenario

Matt Kenseth was in a lose-lose situation on the final restart that ended up with the lesser of two evils.

Going into overtime, Kenseth lined up third — on the inside of the second row — behind Erik Jones. His best shot would have been to push Jones on the restart and hope he could make it three-wide, but that could have resulted in a Jones victory.

And that was not going to be good for Kenseth. A new winner from below Kenseth’s spot in the points could have knocked him out of the playoffs (he’s currently holding on to the last spot). Plus, it would have meant helping Jones, the driver who is replacing Kenseth, get his first career win. That probably wouldn’t feel great.

I am not sure what happened and didn’t see any quotes from Kenseth after the race. But on the restart, Kenseth appeared to lay back and try to get a push from Chase Elliott (either that, or he spun his tires).

Ultimately, Kenseth ended up with a flat tire in the ensuing mess and finished 24th. He’s now 31 points ahead of Clint Bowyer for the final spot (see standings below) with three races to go.

The overtime finish cost Kenseth roughly 20 points, which is pretty painful in the battle for a playoff spot. But actually, that wasn’t the worst-case scenario. Because if Jones had won, Kenseth might not have had any points race to worry about at all.

4. Did you notice?

Chris Buescher is having a much better season this year than 2016, when he made the playoffs thanks to his rain-shortened Pocono win.

Buescher finished sixth at Michigan — his best finish of the year — and was right in the mix for a top five on the overtime restart. That was really impressive for a car that doesn’t typically contend there.

Overall, Buescher has improved his average finish from 26.1 to 20.7, already has as many lead-lap finishes as all of last year (11) and picked up his third top-10 of the season.

He’s not going to make the playoffs this season, but he’s trending in the right direction regardless.

5.  Uncertain futures

Bubba Wallace’s victory in the Truck Series race on Saturday was both a feel-good story and a frustrating reminder of the state of NASCAR.

Wallace has been sitting at home for a month, got into a truck for a one-off deal — and won. That’s great on the surface, because everyone watching probably went, “Yes! This will help his chances of getting a ride — and he deserves it.”

But will he get one? Despite being both talented and marketable, there’s no good news yet.

It’s the all-too-familiar problem of today’s NASCAR: Unless a driver personally has money — whether through family or a loyal sponsor — he can only hope the exact right opportunity at the exact right time magically comes his way.

I got another reminder of this on Sunday while watching the race with Gracin Raz (we recorded the post-race podcast, which you can find here). Raz finished fourth in K&N West Series points as an 18-year-old and then was fifth last year. Now 20, Raz has been forced to cut to a part-time schedule running a Late Model he and his dad work on in their garage.

We were chatting during the race and I was asking what the next steps are. The answers aren’t clear, but the solution is: Money. There’s not really much — if anything — Raz can do to jump in a car and prove himself, because that’s not what matters. It’s what money he can bring somewhere to get an opportunity.

Here’s a talented young driver who was just starting his career (and won a K&N West race in 2015), but there’s no pathway forward. The ladder to the top has broken rungs. The same can be said for Wallace, who waits in the same situation — just at a higher level.

It’s a sobering reminder: How many young drivers are there out there, scattered across the country, who could excel if they got the right opportunity?

Sadly, only a lucky few will ever find out — and that’s not healthy for a sport that should be built on the best talents.

———–

PLAYOFF PICTURE

By patron request, I’m going to start including the playoff picture at the bottom of the Top Five each week. Here’s how it looks now:

IN (13): Truex, Larson, Harvick, Ky. Busch, Keselowski, Hamlin, Johnson, Blaney, Ku. Busch, Newman, Stenhouse, Kahne, A. Dillon.

Points Bubble with four races to go:

14. Chase Elliott +62

15. Jamie McMurray +52

16. Matt Kenseth +31

—-

17. Clint Bowyer -31

18. Joey Logano -98

(Everyone else more than 100 points or one win behind)

Kyle Larson’s team keeps running afoul of NASCAR rules

Oh boy. Here we go again with Kyle Larson’s No. 42 team.

Two days after NASCAR slammed the 42 with a major penalty — a three-race crew chief suspension, $75,000 fine and 35-point deduction — Larson won the pole at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

At least for about 45 minutes. After Larson’s car went through post-qualifying inspection, NASCAR discovered the car’s rear decklid fin was unapproved. NASCAR indicated the fin was designed to move when it wasn’t supposed to be — and that’s a no-no, obviously.

That caused Larson’s pole-winning time to be disallowed, meaning he’ll start last for the second straight week. It’s starting to become a pattern.

At Kentucky, Larson couldn’t get through pre-qualifying inspection (for the third time this season) and never made it onto the track. Then his car had to make multiple attempts to get through pre-race inspection at Kentucky — something that resulted in a 30-minute penalty for Saturday’s final Cup Series practice at New Hampshire.

So yeah, it’s been a bit of a rough stretch for Larson’s team when it comes to dealing with NASCAR. Considering he said Friday he knows nothing about the race cars (he just drives), Larson must be wondering what’s going on.

As are we.

Has the team been doing things outside the rules all season and it’s just now catching up to them? Perhaps NASCAR is taking a closer look at a team whose performance has been the class of the field at times?

Larson was all smiles about his car on Friday after appearing to win his fourth pole position of the season.  His car was handling well and had excellent speed, and he was optimistic for a good race after leading practice and every round of qualifying.

But now his weekend just got a lot more difficult, and he’s going to have to pass a lot of cars to see the front on Sunday. Again.

News Analysis: Kyle Larson penalty costs him points lead

What happened: Kyle Larson’s team was hit with a significant penalty on Wednesday after NASCAR discovered an infraction during its post-race teardown following the Kentucky Speedway race. Larson crew chief Chad Johnston was suspended for three races and fined $75,000 while the team lost 35 points — this after NASCAR found the No. 42 team violated a rule that says: “Openings in the rear brake cooling hoses and/or tubes to exhaust air between the inlet and exhaust mounting points will not be permitted.”

What it means: Larson, who was up by one point over Martin Truex Jr. in the standings, is now 34 points out of the lead. That’s a big blow, because the regular season champion gets an additional 15 playoff points while second place gets 10. The difference between the two is the equivalent of a race win.

News value (scale of 1-10): Four. It’s noteworthy in that the penalty affects the regular season points battle, but there’s still enough time (eight races) for Larson to recover — especially with stage points in the mix. It would be a bigger deal if this occurred in the playoffs or if Larson had won the Kentucky race and the encumbered finish meant something.

Three questions: How much did this have to do with Larson’s impressive speed at Kentucky? If this was a performance advantage, will Larson now be slower in upcoming races? Will the points penalty itself turn out to play a role in the playoffs should Larson miss out on those five extra playoff points?

This image from the NASCAR rulebook depicts a proper rear brake cooling assembly. The infraction in question took place in the hoses shown in the upper right (I-2). (Screenshot from NASCAR rulebook)

The Top Five: Breaking down the Michigan race

Five thoughts on Sunday’s race at Michigan International Speedway…

1. Lesson learned

Remember two weeks ago at Dover, when FOX foreshadowed Kyle Larson screwing up his chance to win on a late-race restart before losing to Jimmie Johnson? Larson’s lack of closing ability was starting to dog him to the point where his failures were becoming predictable late in the race. And that’s the sort of thing that really messes with some drivers.

“You always kind of have in the back of your mind all the races you lost on restarts,” Larson said Sunday.

Fortunately for Larson, he was able to close out a race when he needed to — and that shouldn’t be underestimated in terms of his confidence. If Larson has learned from those situations and has now adapted to the point where the can convert those opportunities to wins, then the rest of the field should be pretty nervous.

Larson is a title contender, no doubt. However, there remains plenty of room for him to improve before the fall. He’s won three races in a row on the 2-mile ovals — August Michigan 2016, Fontana 2017 and Sunday at Michigan again — but those are his only three career wins.

Given his talent level, Larson can and should expect more. The next item on the agenda is to win on a smaller oval to start building momentum for the playoffs.

2. Fountain of Youth

NASCAR now has had young drivers win three of the last four races, with Austin Dillon and Ryan Blaney winning for the first time and Larson winning for the third. In addition, Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s first win was only five weeks ago.

It’s been an exciting time for NASCAR to have such a surge of energy and enthusiasm from its victory lane winners, and now the sport just needs these fresh faces to keep winning. Victories by Chase Elliott, Erik Jones and perhaps Daniel Suarez all seem possible in the next couple months.

And that’s the best thing NASCAR can hope for right now. No matter who the driver is, the same face in victory lane always seems to get old quickly. It’s the whole sense of, “Ugh, that guy again.”

It’s not that fans don’t like greatness, but any form of racing is the most fun when you have no idea who is going to win. That’s been the case lately, and it’s helped build a relatively positive vibe as the midseason lull in the schedule approaches.

3. Delete debris

Debris cautions remain one of NASCAR’s great frustrations for both fans and drivers. Officials would do themselves a favor by really making this a priority before the playoffs begin in a few months.

Late-race cautions of any kind can dramatically alter the race, as was the case at Michigan when a caution came out with 20 laps to go. The official reason was “Debris Frontstretch,” although it was never shown to viewers (at least that I saw).

After the debris caution, there were two more cautions for crashes involving a total of six cars — three of them under the Stewart-Haas Racing banner. So it’s no wonder team owner Tony Stewart was frustrated by the initial caution.

“It’s a shame that so many drivers and teams day (sic) was ruined by the results of another ‘debris’ caution towards the end of the race today,” he tweeted.


“Debris” was in quotes, which isn’t much of a hidden message. But is he wrong? If NASCAR isn’t more transparent about why it calls debris cautions, these questions will persist.

Officials have said in the past they can’t always show the debris because sometimes a driver has either hit it or it moved after it was initially spotted. With all the technology available today, though, you’d think it would be in NASCAR’s best interest to make sure it works with FOX or NBC to show what its officials are apparently seeing — or at least tell the viewers what the debris was. And if the TV cameras are unable to find it, was the debris really worth a caution?

That leads to another point: NASCAR continues to need to get more consistent on why it calls for these yellows. There was a debris caution for a plastic bag on the track on lap 7 — but not one for a cowboy hat on the track later in the race. And was the final debris caution worth it? We don’t know.

Until this is resolved, fans and drivers will continue to take a cynical view of how NASCAR calls a race — which is most likely a disservice to the officials who really are trying to be fair.

4. Joe Gibbs Racing is going to be OK

Through 15 races, the dominant team of the last two seasons has yet to reach victory lane. That seemed crazy after five races, let alone 10 and now 15. Heck, there are only 11 races left until the playoffs start.

But the Joe Gibbs Racing cars are clearly improved from their early-season struggles, so we shouldn’t wait until one wins to declare the team is “back.”

Just look at Kyle Busch. The increasingly frustrated driver has led at least 19 laps in each of the last six races (and 40 or more in five of those), where he only reached double digits in laps led during three of the first nine events.

Similarly, Denny Hamlin has finished 12th or better in seven of the last eight races — but did that in only two of the first seven events.

So the JGR cars are qualifying better, running closer to the front and generally showing up with better performances. Yeah, the team might still have some gains to make, but let’s not pretend it’s as far off as it was a few months ago.

5. Apps are amazing

I watched the Michigan race with a group of NASCAR fans in the Portland area, and three people were using NASCAR RaceView on their phones to follow the race. Two were listening to Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s audio and watching his progress and another was doing the same for Kasey Kahne.

Each of them knew when a caution was out before it aired on TV and they were generally more informed about the progress of the race than anyone else — even those of us scrolling through Twitter.

Forgive my ignorance, but these apps must have apparently come a long way in the last couple years. I used to occasionally use Sprint Cup Mobile when I wasn’t at the track, but the radio chatter was so far behind the actual race that I gave up after while. Apparently I need to try again because these days, the apps seem to have made enough progress to really be relied upon as a second screen.

Of course, this gives people another reason to not watch the actual race on TV — they can go anywhere and use these apps if needed, just like Twitter — but as long as they’re still engaged in the sport, perhaps that’s what matters to NASCAR.

Post-Michigan Podcast with Portland-area NASCAR fans

For this week’s post-race podcast, I was joined by several of the race fans who watched the Michigan race with me at a local sports bar near my new home in Oregon. The fans gave their impressions of the Michigan race and also gave their picks for the championship favorite at this point of the season.