The Top Five: Breaking down the Chicago and Sonoma races

Five thoughts after NASCAR’s playoff opener at Chicago and the IndyCar season finale at Sonoma…

1. U-S-A, U-S-A!

In 2012, when Ryan Hunter-Reay became the first American to win an IndyCar title in six years, there was hope his victory would help lead to a revitalization of open-wheel racing in the United States.

That didn’t happen. Perhaps that was in part because IndyCar doesn’t make enough ripples in the national sports scene to have an impact, but it also may have been because Hunter-Reay wasn’t able to finish in the top five in points since.

So it’s with a note of caution here when we say Josef Newgarden really could be the next great hope for helping to rejuvenate American open-wheel racing — but only if everything falls into place over the next several years.

Even before he signed with Team Penske this season, Newgarden was a tremendously marketable young driver. He’s a 26-year-old from suburban Nashville with tons of charisma, talent and the face of a movie star. Now he’s a champion — thanks to a near-flawless weekend at Sonoma — with plenty of years ahead of him.

It might be a fallacy that a big-time American star would really boost IndyCar to the next level, but that’s often been a debate that doesn’t get a chance to get settled because there hasn’t really been one. This generation of IndyCar has been dominated by South Americans and Europeans, and the top American open-wheel talents have largely ended up getting funneled into the NASCAR pipeline (Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne, Kyle Larson, etc.).

Look, Newgarden is going to have to win a lot. He’s going to have to win more titles and an Indy 500 or two. But should Newgarden continue to shine, there’s a chance his visibility could rise on a national scale at the same time IndyCar does. And as the series champion, he’ll have more of a platform now to make an impact with sports fans.

“We don’t want a championship filled with just American drivers, but it’s important to have the best of America in it,” said Newgarden, who celebrated with an American flag draped around his shoulders. “We have to have the best from Europe and from anywhere overseas, because if it’s just Americans running, it wouldn’t mean anything. But certainly, having successful Americans is a big deal, too.”

2. Missed opportunity

This might anger all my new friends in IndyCar (seriously, everyone is so nice here!), but the Sonoma race didn’t do the series any favors in terms of winning over some NASCAR fans.

With the Chicagoland race serving as a lead-in on NBCSN, IndyCar had a golden opportunity to show stock car fans how compelling its brand of racing can be. Instead, Sonoma was a caution-free race with little drama — at least not the kind NASCAR fans are used to.

IndyCar fans probably love that, because they are fiercely proud of their purer brand of racing — no stages, no playoffs, no questionable cautions (even though they do have double points races and push to pass).

But here’s the thing: IndyCar needs to dip into the pool of NASCAR fans — present and former — to provide its best opportunity for growth. A mainstream sports fan is going to be harder for open-wheel racing to hook than a fan who is already predisposed to liking race cars.

I hope IndyCar continues to take steps toward being more and more relevant again in the sports world — and at the same time is able to coexist with NASCAR to have two very healthy forms of motorsport. Though their fans may argue (RIP my mentions this weekend), everyone still shares the common bond of being a race fan — which is becoming a rare breed these days.

3. Truex, again

Even when Martin Truex Jr. and his team screw up, like they did on Sunday, he still finds a way to win by more than seven seconds in a playoff race.

That’s a sobering fact for the competition, which looked like it might have a chance to beat Truex after he sped on pit road and later had to make an extra pit stop for missing lug nuts, which left him in 17th place.

The No. 78 car is so fast that it can overcome seemingly anything, though — at least if it happens early enough in the race — and Truex was back to the lead in plenty of time.

Truex now has 58 playoff points for Rounds 2 and 3, and the only realistic chance of beating him will come when the four contenders battle straight-up for the championship at Homestead.

In the meantime, expect a lot more races like Chicagoland in the coming weeks.

“We really don’t have any tracks I feel like we’re not good at,” Truex said. “It’s just being confident each and every week no matter where we’re going is the difference. We don’t have any big question marks on the schedule anymore.”

4. Keselowski’s great tweet

Brad Keselowski pissed off the Toyota NASCAR contingent this weekend with his tweet, but personally, I loved it.

People have been complaining lately that too many NASCAR storylines revolve around off-track issues. Well, guess what? This drama was about on-track stuff. It was about performance and rules and had everything to do with the playoffs.

That’s great! I mean, it resulted in Kyle Busch tweeting “STFU” with a crying emoji to another driver. Wild! NASCAR needs rivalries like this to add spice to the races.

Honestly, it’s great to see Busch and Keselowski not even pretending to be civil. All the drivers these days seem like they are way too tight, with the group text and drivers council and bike rides and wives/kids hanging out. It’s nice for them to get along, but it’s refreshing for everyone else when there’s some real sourness between two of the top competitors. It makes it more fun to watch.

And by the way, there was nothing wrong with what Keselowski tweeted. Politicking for manufacturer advantages has been a part of NASCAR for a long time, and that’s what he was obviously doing.

5. Burnout talk

OK, let’s have a chat about burnouts for a second. It seems like NASCAR race winners routinely destroy their cars on purpose these days — and not just in the name of celebration.

Today’s burnouts are intentionally designed to cause tire blowouts, which mess up the back of the car and make it harder for NASCAR to run the cars through post-race tech inspection.

A decade ago, drivers did kickass, smoky burnouts without blowing off the rear quarterpanels. But that’s not the case now. It seems like every winner does it, and some drivers (coughDennyHamlincough) have even tapped the wall in the process.

We know this makes a difference because cars can be illegal if they’re off a thousandth of an inch, and destroying part of the car removes that area from scrutiny. Fair or not, the appearance is not good.

NASCAR has indicated it does not want to step in and outlaw burnouts or institute a rule that limits them. After all, fans might complain that NASCAR officials are the fun police and they’re taking yet another enjoyable part away from the sport.

But drivers are smart enough to know how to do a burnout without shredding their tires. So perhaps in the interest of maintaining a level playing field for the playoffs, NASCAR should decide burnouts themselves are OK — but tire blowouts are not.

A NASCAR fan guide to the IndyCar championship race

Guess what race is on Sunday right after the Chicagoland race on the same channel (NBCSN)?

Yep, it’s the Verizon IndyCar Series season finale — a race which will decide the championship from among six eligible drivers.

I’m here at Sonoma and am going to be blowing your timelines up about the race, so you might as well watch with me. If you haven’t followed IndyCar much this year or are just a casual fan, here’s a quick guide to the race to get you caught up:

What’s at stake?

Sonoma Raceway is the 17th and final race of the IndyCar season, and six drivers can still win the title. They are the four Team Penske drivers — rising star Josef Newgarden, defending series champ Simon Pagenaud and veterans Will Power and Helio Castroneves — plus four-time series champion Scott Dixon and 2016 Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi.

Who has the advantage?

Before answering that, let’s take a look at the current driver point standings.

  1. Josef Newgarden  –Leader–
  2. Scott Dixon -4
  3. Helio Castroneves -23
  4. Simon Pagenaud -35
  5. Will Power -69
  6. Alexander Rossi -85

Those have been updated after Saturday’s qualifying session, because IndyCar awards one bonus point to the pole winner — and Newgarden put down a monster, track-record lap to start from P1.

Still, it’s tough to say who has the edge right now. In Friday’s two practice sessions, Newgarden had the quickest overall time. But in Saturday’s practice, Pagenaud, Dixon and Power all went even faster.

Plus, top five drivers in the point standings were also the top five drivers in final practice (just in a different order). Since they were only separated by 0.44 second, it really could be anyone’s race among the contenders.

So how does the championship race work?

Sonoma is a double points event — one of only two on the schedule, along with the Indy 500. That twist could play a massive role in the outcome of the championship, because the points are soooo close.

At a typical IndyCar race, first place is worth 50 points and second place gets 40. But at Sonoma, it’s 100 for first place and only 80 for second — a 20-point gap between first and second!

That means Newgarden, Dixon and likely Castroneves (depending on bonus points) are all in situations where a Sonoma victory will mean the championship (which has happened the last two years).

And really, Pagenaud isn’t in a bad spot, either (though he could use some help from his competition finishing off the podium). Power and Rossi are much bigger longshots at this point, even if they win.

How did they get to this point?

Newgarden has a series-leading four wins and eight podium finishes this season, but his lead is only four points thanks to a gaffe in the most recent race at Watkins Glen.

After entering the Glen with a 31-point lead over Dixon — thanks to winning three of four races — Newgarden locked up his tires in the pits while avoiding teammate Will Power and slid into the guardrail. That cost him 28 points of his lead, which was whittled to just four.

Dixon has just one win but has made finished on the podium seven times — second in the series. And he’s going up against the entire Penske team, which has been the most consistent this season.

What are they saying?

— Newgarden, who was totally fired up after his track-record lap to get the pole — his first since 2015 — is going into the race with a nothing-to-lose attitude.

“If I drop the ball and totally ball it up this weekend, I’m still going to be pretty happy with this year,” the 26-year-old American said. “That’s not to say I’m going to settle for that or that I’m looking to settle for something like that.

“But the only way I think you can approach this and get the most out of it and try and treat it like any other weekend. The moment you think, ‘Hey, this is championship week — you mess it up, you’re not the champion,’ then I think that can put you in a wrong place mentally.”

— Power, who qualified second, has a fast car but needs some help to pull off his second championship.

“It’s absolutely possible,” he said. “I mean, if Scott and Josef have a bad day, I can be right there. Yeah, see how it all plays out.”

— Pagenaud, who won this race en route to the championship last season, is feeling confident after qualifying third.

“Quite satisfied,” he said after his lap. “Overall it’s awesome for Team Penske, 1-2-3-4 once again here. A testament to the team doing such a good job. Nothing’s lost. Tomorrow is a long race. Lots of tire wear. I’m hoping for a really strong showing.”

— Speculation about Castrovenes’ future has been swirling lately, but it would certainly be nice for him to pull off an improbable title at age 42. He’s in a virtual win-and-clinch situation since there it’s a double points race.

“We wanted this championship as bad as anybody,” he said after qualifying fourth. “We do have a chance. We’re going to obviously try to execute. That’s our goal.”

— Dixon, the best driver of his generation, knows he has his work cut out for him. But it’s not like anyone can dismiss his chances.

“Sixth position, you can definitely make lots happen from there,” he said. “I think in ’15 we started ninth when we won that race. Definitely you’d want to be a little further up. But that’s the way it goes.”

Roger Penske on whether NASCAR team is behind the Toyotas

If you somehow missed it, Team Penske driver Brad Keselowski sounded the alarm bells Friday about what he perceives to be Toyota’s massive advantage in the Cup Series right now. His tweet was met with a hostile response from the Toyota camp.

So how does Roger Penske feel about Keselowski’s tweet and his team going up against Toyota? Fortunately, he was at Sonoma on Saturday to answer that question.

“Look, I’m not on Twitter,” he told a couple reporters when asked about the situation. “I don’t regard that the way I run my business, and Brad has his own thoughts that are probably not the feeling of the team at this point.

“Toyota has done a great job in preparation for the last part of the series. I think we had good cars early on. I think we’re a little bit behind right now. But it doesn’t mean we’re giving up, for sure.”

Penske cited Joey Logano’s seventh-place qualifying effort on Friday and Ryan Blaney’s playoff potential as evidence the team is making gains. But he stopped himself after starting to go down that road.

“I’m not one that decides to talk about my pluses and minuses in the media, to be honest with you,” he said.

OK, but what about politicking to NASCAR for help when one manufacturer starts to get ahead, as was commonplace in the old days? Does he see a purpose in that?

“NASCAR has the responsibility to have a level playing field, and if they determine that it isn’t, they can look at engines, they can look at aero and those things, and I’m sure they’re doing that right now,” he said. “But at this point, we all started with the same set of rules. Toyota has gotten hot here at the end and we’ve got to acknowledge that professionally.

“On the other hand, we’re not going to give up.”

Social Spotlight with Scott McLaughlin

Each week, I ask a member of the racing community to shed some light on their social media usage. This week: Australian Supercars driver Scott McLaughlin, who has been dominating that series this season by leading in points, wins and poles for DJR Team Penske. I spoke with McLaughlin at Watkins Glen, where he was on hand to watch his Penske teammates in the NASCAR race.

I’m curious to see how social media use in Supercars compares to the NASCAR world because in NASCAR, it seems like almost all the drivers are on Twitter and they’re very engaged with each other and with the fans. How is the Twitter community for Supercars?

I’d have to say that the Twitter community is actually not as big in Australia as it is in America. For instance, I feel like it’s very popular in NASCAR, but for us in Supercars, Instagram and Facebook are far bigger, and not so much Twitter.

Is that because you guys have a little bit of a younger audience, as far as you know, than maybe NASCAR does?

I think so. It’s just Twitter isn’t a popular social media tool in Australia. It’s used by a lot of people, but for following, I feel like a lot of people love seeing the photos. They can do that on Twitter, too, but on Instagram…I don’t know, it’s weird. Australians are weird. Let’s say that. (Laughs)

What is your favorite form of social media to use?

I like Instagram. It’s quick, easy, picture, bang on there and it’s a cool little thing. Facebook is good because I like commenting back — it’s quite easier to do that. And Twitter, I like it for the news. I watch it all and follow the NASCAR teams and stuff, so when I wake up in Australia, I can see what’s going on. It’s sort of my news source.

Do you ever go back and forth with other drivers on there? Is there a dialogue at all?

Yeah, I do. I speak to most of my teammates from America on there, DM on Twitter mostly. That’s sort of my text tool in some ways. Instagram probably not so much, but Twitter is probably the main point I use for interacting with my teammates over here.

I noticed a post you just had recently where you took your mom and dad for a spin in your car. So you posted that on Instagram, and it also gets posted on Facebook and Twitter. Do you have somebody that helps you take those posts and put them in different places, or do you have to manually go yourself and put it on all the platforms?

I do it all myself on my Twitter. It’s something I enjoy. When I was growing up, my hero was Greg Murphy, a famous race car driver in Australia, and all I wanted to know was what he was doing. I’ve sort of taken that on board and gone well with it — that’s what I do on my social media, tell people what I’m doing. It’s a cool thing to bring the fans closer to you and it’s something that I enjoy. It’s not a burden to me at all.

What’s the fan interaction like? You said you go back and forth with people on Facebook, you comment back to them. Do you see what people comment on Twitter and Instagram as well?

Yeah, absolutely. You have your good and bad ones, sometimes you have some rude ones, but you shouldn’t be on social media if you can’t (deal with) the hate. I have a lot of fun with it sometimes. I’ve seen Brad (Keselowski) on there a couple times — he is so funny with some of the dudes on Twitter. But it’s all part of the gig. I enjoy the interaction, like I said.

If you get a negative one, do you block them, do you just ignore them? How do you handle it?

It all depends on what they say. If they say something really bad that I don’t want on my social media, things I don’t find appropriate, then I will block them because you don’t need that stuff, but it’s more for my own fans to see that. I have a lot of young people that follow me as well, and it’s just a bit of respect. Like I said, if you can’t (deal with) the hate then you shouldn’t be on it. I’m pretty sure I’m not too bad at it.

Do you have any accounts that you just use for your personal use? Because obviously you have a lot of public stuff, but you might want to have stuff just for your friends and family. Anything like that?

I have Snapchat, and that’s the only thing I’ve got that’s private. I have a private Facebook page too, but people still seem to find you on there anyway. But my Snapchat is something that’s quick, it’s easy and communicates with a lot of people over in America as well.

So any thoughts on making your Snapchat public, or do you just want to keep that as your own space?

I think that’s the only thing I’m gonna keep private. I feel like I do enough that people can see a lot of my life, and then I’ve got Snapchat there just for a little bit of fun.

Over here, I feel like a lot of young people are like, “Ah Facebook, that’s what our parents use,” and you’re starting to get a lot of the Millennials away from it and they don’t really use Twitter either. Do young people in Australia still use Facebook a lot?

Oh yeah. But I am noticing that a lot of the older generation is using Facebook. Even my Nana is on Facebook, and that’s pretty scary. It’s one of those things that’s quite diverse these days, but definitely the older generation is using that sort of stuff a lot.

How much time do you have to put into it? Do you get the pictures from people and have to say, “Here, can you give me a picture from last weekend?” and you go and try to find the right one for Instagram? How does that process work?

That’s what I do. I actually enjoy going through all the photos. I’m on a Dropbox file with my team so I get all the photos from the sessions across the weekend and I just pick out whatever I like and use it. I’m busier during the weekend with all the social media, but then when I’m away like this, I’m here with Penske and Jeremy Troiano, who’s the PR guy for them, and he takes photos for me or whatever, and I take photos myself. But I think if there’s a good photo of me and Brad or of me and Joey, it’s quite cool to get that from him, and then I’ll post it on socials.

So for NASCAR fans who don’t have a good concept, how big of a sport is racing in Australia?

It’s massive. It’s third…one and two is AFL and cricket and then it’s motor racing. Because we race so much and it’s on throughout the whole year, we do get popular at different times of the year, especially around the Bathurst race and stuff like that. But it’s very popular in Australia, and that goes to show how professional teams need to be.

I heard someone say you actually grew up watching all forms of racing including NASCAR. What did you gain from watching NASCAR when you were a kid?

I just gained a lot of respect on how they raced: The boys have at it thing, I loved that. They get a lot more things than we do, but it’s definitely a really cool thing in regards to how hard they race: Loose is fast, stuff on ovals, how they run the high line, the low line, the middle lane, whatever. I really take an interest in how they strategize throughout the races. It’s really cool.

Did you ever have a favorite NASCAR driver to watch when you were growing up?

When (Marcos) Ambrose came over here, I was a big fan of him. But I’ve always been a Jeff Gordon fan for a long time. Dale Earnhardt. Obviously, they’re the most popular guys, but I’ve always had a massive crush on Jeff Gordon’s car, his DuPont car. I’ve always liked that. The (paint) scheme was pretty cool, but I better say I’ve supported Penske all the way too, though. (Laughs)

Where do you think social media is going next? You obviously are on all these platforms, fans can easily see you and follow you. What is the future like, do you think?

I think it’s pretty good. I don’t know where they’re gonna evolve it from now because it’s very close now. I think live video is still where it’s at. It depends on the commercial side, but the live TV and stuff — now obviously I know that’s a very touchy subject with some of the broadcasters, but I think if you can bring a little more of the live stuff, you can join them in the race car live on Facebook or something like that. I reckon that would be sick, that would be something that’s really cool. And then you can get the data, that would be something cool, you know? I think that’s something they should look at, maybe restricting the rules on the commercial side would be good.

This interview was brought to you by Dover International Speedway. The cutoff race for the first playoff round takes place at Dover on Oct. 1. Here’s a link to buy tickets (and make sure to come say hi at the tweetup).

The Top Five: Breaking down the Pocono race

Five thoughts on Sunday’s race at Pocono Raceway…

1. Two-time Cup champion Kyle Busch?

Kyle Busch haters can skip over this part, but the guy is a serious championship contender despite not having won in more than a year until Sunday.

For most of the season, the best car each week has been either Martin Truex Jr. or Kyle Larson. But Busch has been creeping into the picture lately, and he’s been the one to battle Truex the last couple weeks while Larson hasn’t shown as much speed (even before incidents which resulted in finishes of 28th and 33rd).

Busch hadn’t won since the 2016 Brickyard 400 and Joe Gibbs Racing hadn’t won all season until two weeks ago, so everyone has been busy talking more about that than how the 2015 Cup champ might have a pretty good shot to do it again.

Busch has the most poles, second-most laps led and third-most top-five finishes this season. And perhaps most important, he is now tied for the third-most playoff points with Larson and Brad Keselowski.

As JGR continues to gain speed, Busch has been out front the most. He’s led at least 74 laps in four straight races now. That’s a very dangerous car for his rivals to deal with.

“… We’ve had speed, we’ve been right there, we’ve been able to do what we should be doing: That’s running up front,” Busch said. “It’s just been a bit frustrating on the finishing side.”

It’s scary, because with all the near-misses until Sunday, you get the feeling the No. 18 team hasn’t even performed to its potential yet. If Busch and his team start converting all the close calls into wins? Watch out.

2. What’s the point?

Speaking of championship contenders, I was puzzled by the No. 78 team’s decision to pit late in Stage 2 and give up what seemed like a sure playoff point — which would have made 30 on the season.

I get that Truex and Cole Pearn were going for the win, which meant sacrificing a stage win. Had it worked, they would have made a trade for four additional points than a stage victory brings.

But that’s only if it works. It didn’t. So instead of one playoff point, the team left with zero.

“That was the gamble,” Truex said. “That was our mindset before the race. We figured if we felt like we were good enough to possibly win the race, we’d have to pit before the end of that second stage. Just stuck to our plan.

“It didn’t work out, so obviously now I wish we would have stayed out and won that stage. That’s part of it.”

I can’t recall every situation that led to 14 stage wins for Truex this season, but it seems like the team had been going all-out for playoff points every week until Pocono. And as has been discussed frequently, those points are going to be a massive factor this fall in deciding who makes it to Homestead. So why not take as many as possible when the opportunity presents itself?

Truex and Pearn had an easy one point, gambled for four more and ended up with none. That’s what a team in a trailing position should do, not the leader.

This was like a basketball player passing on a wide-open layup with a 20-point lead; there’s no need to take a contested three in that situation.

3. A different level of speed

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was pumped after finishing 12th, pleased he and the No. 88 team “finally put one together” and had a “complete race” despite an early speeding penalty. Earnhardt ran in the top 10 for much of the second half of the day — something he didn’t anticipate after fighting a loose condition on corner entry all weekend.

But even on a good day, he wasn’t really close to running with the top cars.

“Man, I don’t know where the speed is that the front three or four have,” he said on pit road after the race. “They’ve got it every week. We don’t have that, and we’re not going to find in that garage on Friday or Saturday. If we don’t show up with it, we’re not going to find it. That’s somewhere in the shop.”

Earnhardt said it was probably only a matter of time before Busch started matching Truex’s speed, given the information-sharing arrangement between alliance partners JGR and Furniture Row Racing.

But he’s not sure where the speed is coming from, and that’s concerning.

“It’s nothing you can visually see,” he said .”We’re all in the garage together. We can see under their cars, see the springs they’re running, stuff like that. But it’s not in anything like that.

“They’ve got a lot of speed somehow. They’ve got a lot more speed than everybody else. Gotta give ’em credit.”

4. Season slipping away for Logano

Joey Logano’s season of misery just keeps snowballing as the playoffs approach all too quickly for his team’s liking.

Sunday was another race where everything seemed to go wrong.

Not only did the team lack the speed it needed to be competitive, but both Logano and crew chief Todd Gordon made mistakes on pit road.

Logano was caught speeding with 36 laps to go and had to serve a pass-through penalty under green, but then locked up his tires coming to pit road. When Logano told the team he hurt his tires enough to possibly incur a flat, Gordon quickly made the call to pit for four tires.

But that was a no-no, because pitting while serving a penalty requires another pass-through down pit road. By the time it was all over, Logano finished 27th and one lap down.

The result was Logano’s eighth finish outside the top 20 in the 12 races since he won at Richmond but had the win ruled to be encumbered. He’s now 69 points behind the cutoff with just five races until the playoffs begin.

I caught up with Logano as he was walking glumly away from his car on pit road and asked whether he’s ever faced such a stretch of adversity in his career.

“I don’t think so,” he said.

But Logano said his team “still knows how to do it” and added “we’ve just got to built some momentum back up.”

The thing is, momentum might not be necessary. It just takes one great race (or one good race where everything falls into place) to make the playoffs, and Logano is certainly capable of doing that.

There’s not much time left, though.

5. Sunday doubleheader (kind of)

Qualifying on the same day as the race was kind of weird, even though there were a lot of positives on paper.

The flow of race day seemed all messed up, and the laid-back atmosphere that qualifying brings took away from the typical Sunday morning vibe — where the anticipation builds in the hours before the event.

Maybe I’ll get used to it (a similar schedule will be tried again next week), and I hope that’s the case — because there definitely some good sides of it. Fans get added value with on-track activity before the race itself (some of whom never get to see a Friday session at the track because they don’t come for the whole weekend) and drivers/teams get an extra day at home (after all, the Cup Series really doesn’t need to be at some of these tracks for three days).

 

I just wish the schedule could be tightened up a bit. After qualifying, there was roughly a 45-minute gap until the drivers meeting, then a 90-minute gap until the green flag.

Lunchtime quietly rolled by without much fanfare, and the sun started to shift in the sky before the race finally went green at 3:21 p.m. ET.  People were just milling around waiting for it to start.

But come on — this is NASCAR! Big-time auto racing, right? It shouldn’t feel like waiting for the leaders to tee off at a golf tournament.

 


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:

14. Chase Elliott +39

15. Jamie McMurray +38

16. Matt Kenseth +17

—-

17. Clint Bowyer -17

18. Joey Logano -69

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

News Analysis: Ryan Blaney to Penske, Paul Menard to Wood Brothers

What happened: Team Penske will bring back its third Cup Series team — the No. 12 car — in a move to get driver Ryan Blaney under the same roof as Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano. Meanwhile, Paul Menard — who currently drives for Richard Childress Racing — will bring his Menards sponsorship to Wood Brothers Racing’s No. 21 car, where he will replace Blaney. Childress said it will announce its driver lineup for 2018 at a future date.

What it means: Although Blaney drove for the Wood Brothers, he was basically a Team Penske development driver — similar to the Erik Jones situation with Furniture Row Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing. So although Blaney was a potential Silly Season target, Penske wasn’t about to let him get away — thus the creation of a third team. Menard is a downgrade for the No. 21 car, but he brings 22 races worth of Menards sponsorship, which is something the Wood Brothers team can’t exactly pass up. Although the move may seem odd on the surface, Menards is sponsoring Simon Pagenaud’s IndyCar entry for 10 races this season and already has a relationship with Penske. Given the Wood Brothers are a Penske affiliate, this only strengthens that bond and is a healthy move for both parties. And obviously, Menard will have a consistently faster car in the No. 21 than he currently has in the No. 27.

News value (scale of 1-10): Six. Several elements make this situation notable — a new Cup car, an up-and-coming driver and a veteran switching teams. But since this move was anticipated for awhile, the lack of surprise takes a few points off the news value.

Three questions: Will RCR now contract to two cars or will it be able to find sponsorship to keep a third team? Where will Team Penske get its charter for the No. 12 car? Is there any way the typically great-looking No. 21 car will not be painful on the eyes with bright Menards sponsorship on it?

 

News Analysis: Brad Keselowski signs extension with Team Penske

What happened: Brad Keselowski removed himself from the potential free agent market by signing a long-term contract extension with Team Penske, the team announced Tuesday morning. The length of the deal was not released, but the team’s statement said Keselowski would remain driver of the No. 2 car for “well into the future.” In addition, crew chief Paul Wolfe also signed a contract extension.

What it means: Keselowski played coy about his future prospects when asked in April, saying he was happy at Penske but had learned to never say no to the possibility of other opportunities. But as Silly Season developed further, it became clear Keselowski was working on staying at his current home and would not be jumping back to Hendrick Motorsports, which was where he made some early Cup starts. Staying put makes sense, because Keselowski has deep ties to the status quo — not just through his time there building a team with Wolfe, but with Penske’s Michigan connection and Ford’s support for the Brad Keselowski Racing team in the Truck Series.

News value (scale of 1-10): Three. This wasn’t a surprise and had become a long-anticipated announcement. Although it’s a big-name driver, it involves staying with the same team — so it’s along the same lines as the Denny Hamlin contract extension news in February.

Questions: After locking up both Keselowski and Joey Logano to long-term deals, is Penske’s next target creating a third team to bring Ryan Blaney back in house? Will Keselowski avoid the post-extension slump being endured by Logano? Does this mean Keselowski, 33, will ultimately finish his career at Penske?