The Top Five: Breaking down the Fontana 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: Fontana.

Larson no loser

Holy crap, how impressive is Kyle Larson lately?

Sunday really felt like the first of many wins for Larson this season. He’s already the breakout driver of 2017, with finishes of second, second, second and first in the four non-plate races.

You can credit faster cars at Chip Ganassi Racing — and of course, that’s a major part of it — but Larson also isn’t making the type of mistakes that took him out of races earlier in his career. Remember when it seemed like he’d hit the wall at some point every time he had a good car?

Not anymore.

He also seems more willing to try different lines instead of being so committed to the running the wall. Larson made some awesome moves by hooking the bottom of the track during Sunday’s race, and that paid off in a big way at times.

So, about that new package…

I’m officially concerned about the effectiveness of the low-low downforce package.

NASCAR got lucky with late drama at Atlanta, Las Vegas and Phoenix that covered up ho-hum races. But Fontana — which got a 90% approval rating in the “Was it a good race?” Twitter poll last year — had expectations to break that trend and provide a great show from start to finish.

Unfortunately, much of the race was rather tame again until Gray Gaulding crashed with 20 laps to go. Then, much like the other non-plate races, a chaotic finish erased all thoughts of the earlier lack of action.

But that trend can’t continue all season. NASCAR wants the action to be compelling throughout the day, lest races turn into the NBA cliche, where only the last five minutes matters.

The new aero package test isn’t passing the eye test as far as compelling races. Why? I don’t know the answer, but I’d like to hear some theories.

Clint Bowyer’s extra effort

In a Saturday roundtable interview with reporters, Bowyer said he had a long phone call with crew chief Mike Bugarewicz on Friday night — something he didn’t typically do in the past.

Then, after finishing third on Sunday, Bowyer revealed he drove to Bugarewicz’s hotel room on Saturday night to pore over data and try to find ideas to fix the car, which didn’t look great in practice.

“I’ve never went to a crew chief’s hotel room,” Bowyer said. “Never done that before.”

It’s clear this opportunity really matters to Bowyer — as it should. At 37, this might be his last, best chance to resurrect his career and get back to the championship-contending driver he’s capable of being.

He’s on the right path. Sunday was his best finish at an intermediate track since July 2013 in Kentucky.  Bowyer now can head to Martinsville — one of his favorite venues — with confidence and momentum.

Weird stats after five races

Two Chevrolet drivers have won races this season — and neither are from Hendrick Motorsports.

The one Toyota winner so far isn’t from Joe Gibbs Racing. And the winner from Stewart-Haas Racing isn’t Kevin Harvick.

So yeah, if you thought Richard Childress Racing would have more wins than Hendrick and Gibbs combined after five races? Well, you’re just lying.

It’s been an odd start to the year. There have been five different winners, but six of the eight active multi-race winners from last season have yet to reach victory lane. That’s a big zero for Jimmie Johnson, Harvick, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth.

Yes, it’s still early, but the regular season is also roughly one-fifth complete. So how much longer is this going to last?

Painful commercials

I was proud of myself for not getting too aggravated with the commercials during Sunday’s race — the first I’d watched from home this season.

They didn’t seem to be as bad as usual. But naturally, I couldn’t make it the whole time without getting irritated.

It remains absolutely maddening to see tweets about a great battle for the lead while we at home are staring at a commercial listing the side effects for a drug named Symbicort.

By the way, some of those side effects include headaches, changes in your voice, mood changes and shaking — which coincidentally also describe the effects on me when there are too many commercials during green-flag racing.

Honestly, NOTHING about the current state of NASCAR makes me angrier or more frustrated than the commercials. It’s no wonder TV ratings are in the toilet.

No other major sport disrespects its fans like this. Even soccer figures out a way to show games — including World Cup games! — without commercial interruption (except for halftime). Most sports fans wouldn’t tolerate a broadcaster cutting away from live game action, but for some reason, NASCAR fans are just expected to shut up and deal with it.

If the TV networks need money that badly, give us a pay-per-view option with an ad-free broadcast. Would you pay $10 for a race with no ads? Personally, I would.

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.

 

The Top Five: Breaking down the Las Vegas race

Each week, I’ll give some race analysis through a post called the Top Five — notable storylines from the just-completed event. Typically, this will be posted as soon as possible after the race — but my site has been crashing for the past couple days, so I was unable to post anything new! My apologies for the delay.

Get ready for the mixed messages

It will be fascinating to see how NASCAR reacts to the Kyle Busch/Joey Logano incident.

In one respect, NASCAR probably has to give Busch a slap on the wrist (probation or small fine) to say, “Hey dude, you can’t go up to someone and just punch them.”

But on the other hand, this is exactly what NASCAR wants! You know NASCAR is going to use it in all sorts of promotional aspects heading into Phoenix and beyond, so it’s hypocritical to penalize Busch while also profiting from it.

That’s been how NASCAR has operated for years, of course, dating back to the 1979 Daytona 500 (the drivers were fined for that famous fight, even though it put NASCAR on the map).

With the addition of Monster Energy, though — which has openly advocated for drivers to mix it up — can NASCAR really fine Busch with a straight face?

If so, he shouldn’t pay it.

Finish saves a ho-hum race

The sun was pouring into the press box during the first stage, and — combined with a food coma from lunch and the expiration of my morning coffee buzz — I almost started to nod off.

You can yell at FOX all you want (There’s great racing through the field, they’re just not showing it!), but the truth is the entire field was running single file for a long stretch in both of the early stages.

At one point, a reporter (who shall remain nameless) shouted, “Whoa!” We scanned the track for trouble, didn’t see anything, then turned to the reporter with puzzled expressions.

What happened?

“A pass in the top 12!” he said.

Though the crazy finish with Brad Keselowski’s problems and the post-race fight salvaged the day, there are now legitimate concerns about the racing following the first two 1.5-mile tracks of the season. Both Atlanta and Vegas weren’t as exciting as their 2016 editions — especially Atlanta — and it makes you wonder what’s up with the much-anticipated lower downforce package.

Phoenix probably isn’t going to be an amazing race — it’s just not the most action-packed track after restarts — but Fontana should be, since it’s become one of the best circuits. If not, there will be much head-scratching going on within the industry.

Martin Truex Jr. closes it out

Every time I thought about the new points system heading into the season, I thought of Martin Truex Jr. He was so dominant at times last year, and then he got into the Chase and — well, you know what happened. But if he had the playoff points under the current system, he might have made it to Homestead.

So with that in mind, it was interesting to see Truex get the maximum seven playoff points (which, remember, are bonus points that carry over all the way through Phoenix). Prior to this system, a win was only worth three bonus points — and those could only be used in the first round.

“That really would have helped us last year,” Truex said. “We ran so good and led so many races, and always didn’t get the finish we probably deserved or thought we should have gotten, and so it’s cool to get rewarded for running good and pushing hard and being up at the front of the pack more consistently than other guys.”

With one great race, Truex now has more bonus/playoff points than he’d have for two wins last year. That’s really going to add up for some of the top drivers, and it’s going to make the chances of some fluke elimination in the early rounds much less likely.

Kyle Larson is having a fantastic start

Don’t sleep on Larson this year — and I’m not just talking wins, but the championship.

Dating back to the Phoenix race last fall, Larson has finished third, second at Homestead, 12th at Daytona, second at Atlanta and now second at Las Vegas.

“Super happy with how our season has gotten started,” he said. “Way better than where I’ve ever started a season.”

It seems like things are really clicking for Larson, who isn’t taking himself out of races with some of the mistakes he made in the first couple seasons.

When you combine Larson’s results with consecutive top-10s for Jamie McMurray, there’s a lot to like about Chip Ganassi Racing right now. Both cars appear to have the speed to be contenders in many weeks this season.

Keselowski the early title favorite

I just said not to sleep on Larson (see above) for the championship, but the favorite at the moment has to be Keselowski.

He won Atlanta despite having to make an untimely pit stop with a loose wheel, then won the pole for Las Vegas and was certainly either the best car (he was about to win, after all) or the second-best all day.

Keselowski said he didn’t know what happened to his car in the last couple laps, when he suddenly lost power (and if he did know, he was keeping it close to the vest). But either way, the overall speed is there and Team Penske seems to be extremely strong (Keselowski’s teammate Logano is the only driver with top-10 finishes in all three races).

It’s still very early, of course, and many things can and will change in the coming weeks. But if you’re looking for the NASCAR equivalent of a 25-day weather forecast, it’s looking bright for Keselowski.

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.

A NASCAR social media experiment with Instagram


Social media often asks people to CLICK HERE! or VOTE! or REPLY! It’s a call to action, whether asking a question (“What do you think about this?”) or just showing off good seats at a concert (“Check out my picture!”).

People retweet and favorite and like and share — but they’re often prompted to do so.

So what happens when content is presented without any call to action? I tried a small social media experiment last week on my Instagram account just for fun (certainly not scientific in any way).

During the NASCAR Sprint Media Tour, I took virtually the same pictures over and over again — a different driver each time, but in the same location — and posted them with a generic caption. In order to avoid a fan base trying to influence the results, I didn’t mention I planned to track the amount of “likes” for each Instagram photo.

The photos were spread out over several days, so I let them sit on the account for a week before writing down the final totals. Here they are:

  1. Kasey Kahne — 173 likes
  2. Dale Earnhardt Jr. — 168
  3. Kyle Larson — 136
  4. Clint Bowyer — 135
  5. Tony Stewart — 132
  6. Denny Hamlin — 127
  7. Brian Vickers — 125
  8. Jeff Gordon — 114
  9. Jamie McMurray — 111
  10. Brad Keselowski — 110
  11. Carl Edwards — 107
  12. Jimmie Johnson — 106
  13. Kevin Harvick — 98
  14. Ryan Newman — 94
  15. Kurt Busch — 93
  16. Joey Logano — 92
  17. Austin Dillon — 89
  18. Danica Patrick — 88
  19. Matt Kenseth — 81
  20. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — 79
  21. Kyle Busch — 78
  22. Greg Biffle — 69
  23. Paul Menard — 64
  24. Michael Waltrip — 63

I’m certainly not suggesting this list reflects the current popularity of Sprint Cup Series drivers, but I was surprised to see some drivers so high on the list (check out Kyle Larson in third!) and others lower than expected (Matt Kenseth 19th?).

Any theories as to why the list shook out this way?