Aaron Bearden of Motorsports Beat (and The Morning Warmup newsletter!) joins me to help make sense of Sunday’s race at Talladega Superspeedway.
Motorsports journalist Aaron Bearden joins me to help break down everything that happened Saturday night at Bristol, including thoughts on the playoff picture and fan access to drivers.
By Aaron Bearden
For a short time on Saturday night, it appeared Jason Anderson had finally opened the door for a true championship fight.
As it turns out, he was just making things interesting.
Anderson continued his consistent march toward his first Monster Energy AMA Supercross title in Indianapolis, clawing his way back to a fourth-place finish despite rolling out of the race’s first turn in 21st after an early crash.
As a result, he retained his heavy championship advantage, leaving the Hoosier State a full 35 points clear of race winner Marvin Musquin with only five races remaining in the season.
In many ways, Saturday’s snow-filled afternoon in Indiana served as a microcosm of the entire 2018 Supercross season.
A few of Anderson’s closest competitors excelled to make minor gains on his lead, while at least one rider threw away his title dreams with a big accident.
Through it all, Anderson soldiered on in his usual position — quiet, focused and consistent. In other words, he did what was required of him in this season’s unusual championship race.
In a year marred by attrition, consistency has been as more important to sustained success than race wins.
Eli Tomac continued to prove that point in the 450SX main event, suffering another big blow — both physically and in the standings.
The veteran Tomac started the event with a surge to second, and then proceeded to stalk Musquin through the opening laps. But the Coloradan’s race quickly went awry in spectacular fashion mid-race when he missed a quad jump, landing hard and falling off of his bike.
For a moment Tomac sat on the track, stunned and showing signs of pain. He continued on after assistance from the track safety team, but limped home a subpar 15th.
Issues like Saturday’s crash have been the plight of Tomac’s title chase this season. The 25-year-old’s five wins lead the tour, but it’s been an uneven campaign — to say the least. He crashed while leading by three seconds in the season opener at Anaheim, missed the second race of the year at Houston with the resulting injury and in Indy he tallied his fourth finish of 13th or worse.
Those results have marred what once appeared to be a promising title campaign, leaving Tomac fighting off disappointment as he chases race victories.
“Last year was our breakout year,” Tomac told JeffGluck.com prior to Saturday’s race. “We really started clicking off race wins and barely missed the championship by a handful of points. This year’s goal was to get those race wins again and be in the title hunt.
“We’re a ways out of it, so it’s a bummer that way. Now we’re just racing every weekend looking for a win.”
Musquin finds himself in a similar position.
The 2018 season has been arguably Musquin’s finest run, with two wins and a recent stretch of nine consecutive top-five finishes that have elevated the Frenchman to second in the standings.
He’s been the strongest rider in the field for the better part of two months, running within sight of the leaders every week as the season slowly winds down. But unfortunately for Musquin, the push appears to be all for naught.
Musquin started the season off with a victory in Anaheim, but a crash in his heat race kept him out of the main event in Houston before returning the following week with a quiet 13th-place showing in the second Anaheim date.
In the weeks since then, Musquin has had the best average finish in the field. But thanks to a 10-race winless stretch and Anderson’s impressive year, it hasn’t mattered.
The 28-year-old Musquin is still happy with his results, and at 35 points out his title chase is far from over. But his early issues have left this season with lingering thoughts of what could have been — a storyline reminiscent of his quest for an outdoor title last year.
“If you look at last year outdoors, it was the same,” Musquin said. “I was winning a lot at the end, but it was too late and I came up short on the championship.
“This season has been crazy. A lot of guys have gotten injured. I got injured in the second round and was far back in the championship, and I came back when the other guys got hurt. I know it can be easy to say that the other guys got injured, and that’s why I’ve come back in the championship to second place. But it happened to me at the beginning also.”
Sitting between Musquin and Tomac in the standings is a rider in the opposite situation — Justin Brayton.
The 2018 season has been the best of the 34-year-old Brayton’s life, yielding his first 450SX victory at Daytona International Speedway earlier this month.
It’s also been his most consistent year to date. Brayton has finished no worse than 10th over the entire 12-race stretch thus far, elevating himself into the championship discussion by avoiding the issues that have plagued his fellow competitors.
“The season has been really good, even from the beginning,” Brayton told JeffGluck.com. “We’ve been top 10 every race, top five quite a bit. Won several heat races. Practice times have been in the top five pretty much all year.”
Brayton’s been the most consistent rider in the paddock, but he hasn’t managed to rattle off race wins or podiums at the same clip as the riders around him.
The veteran has just three podiums compared to the seven and eight the other riders in the top four have mustered, and after Musquin’s Indy triumph he’s the only rider in the group without multiple victories.
So despite the career season, Brayton he knows he could do better.
“I’m really happy with everything right now, from my riding to the team, everyone involved,” he said. “It’s been a really fun year, and I’ve enjoyed it. But I also want to continue to have the success and try to win another race.”
Other riders put in strong efforts early in the year — Justin Barcia, Ken Roczen and Cole Seely among them. But they’ve all been lost to injuries in the midst of a chaotic Supercross season.
The only one who’s been able to pair success with consistency throughout the entire 12-race stint thus far has been Anderson.
The 24-year-old Anderson hasn’t been flawless, but he’s managed to avoid any significant setbacks to build a near-insurmountable advantage in the standings. His 2.75 average finish this season is easily the best in the field, and his four wins are topped only by Tomac’s five.
Anderson’s run has been impressive, elevating the New Mexico native to the top of his sport and forcing his competitors to acknowledge his improvement.
“He’s improved his consistency,” Tomac said of Anderson. “He hasn’t had that bad finish yet.
“That’s what’s winning our series right now, is guys that are consistent. Last year’s series winner won two races, maybe three. That’s just the way it’s been.”
That consistency was on full display in Indianapolis, despite the best efforts of the field.
As long as Anderson can keep it going for five more weeks, it appears nothing will stop him from marching on to his first Supercross 450SX title.
By Aaron Bearden
If there was ever a doubt about which manufacturer is the favorite to claim the NASCAR Cup Series championship, that was settled on Sunday at Kansas Speedway.
It’s Toyota, and by a noticeable margin.
Toyota lost one of its contenders in Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 when Matt Kenseth was eliminated after a late crash and a damaged vehicle policy violation. However, what the team lost with Kenseth was easily made up for with the unexpected elimination of Kyle Larson and the advancement of 2015 Cup Series champion Kyle Busch.
Larson, 25, had previously been Toyota’s biggest threat. The fourth-year Chip Ganassi Racing driver tallied four victories during the regular season.
It was also common knowledge Larson is among the best drivers in the Cup Series at Homestead-Miami Speedway — the site of the season finale. After two subpar runs in 2013 and ’14, Larson rode the high line to a top-five at Homestead in 2015 and dominated in 2016 before losing the race on the final restart to Jimmie Johnson.
With his Homestead prowess and strong regular season, Larson entered this year’s playoffs among the championship favorites for Homestead. All he had to do was get there.
That all went up in smoke on Lap 73 at Kansas, when Larson’s No. 42 Chevrolet blew its motor.
The result was similar to Martin Truex Jr.’s 2016 playoff run, when a dominant first round gave way to an early elimination after Furniture Row Racing encountered bad luck in the second round.
“Things happen,” Larson said. “You look at the past playoffs and the 78 had an engine issue last year and he was the best car all year. And then us, this year. So it’s disappointing.”
While Larson watched hopelessly from afar, Busch used strong runs in the day’s opening two stages to tally 16 critical stage points.
Those stage points ended up being enough for Busch to overcome Larson for the final playoff spot, even after being forced to take the wavearound after being trapped on pit road by a caution during a green-flag pit stop.
In fact, Busch also beat Jimmie Johnson — who struggled home in 11th after two crashes.
“Fortunately, our situation today was that we had to race guys that ended up crashing out,” Busch said. “Hate it for them. I would have liked to race it heads up and that might have been a different situation, but all in all we’ll take what was given to us today and we’ll live to see another day and fight again next week going to Martinsville.”
Then there’s Truex.
Sunday threw the kitchen sink at Truex and the No. 78 team. After starting on the pole, Truex was issued an early pass-through penalty for driving below the white apron line as the leader on a Lap 36 restart.
Truex fought back from that, only to be brought back to pit road on Lap 91 and trapped a lap down.
For most teams in the field, two consecutive setbacks would be a dealbreaker. But Truex bounced back with ease and won the race, completing the first-ever season sweep at Kansas Speedway. He also tallied his fourth straight win on a 1.5-mile oval in the same race that saw him lead his 2000th lap of the season.
Their Kansas trips complete, Truex and Busch head into the third round seeded first and second in the standings with 69 and 42 playoff points, respectively. Truex holds a 52-point edge — nearly a full race — on fifth-place Johnson, and Busch also maintains a hefty 25-point advantage.
Denny Hamlin also advanced to the third round, though he’s currently three points outside of the playoff bubble in sixth.
All told, Toyota holds three of the eight remaining postseason spots, tying them with Ford and giving them one more contender than Chevrolet.
More important, though, Toyota carries the most consistent speed of all three manufacturers.
Of the remaining playoff contenders, Toyota has tallied 13 of the group’s 21 total victories. The Toyota trio also all rest in the top four positions in average finish. Truex leads the field at 10.3, followed by Hamlin (11.4), Kevin Harvick (12.0) and Busch (12.1).
To his credit, Truex remained cautious in assessing his championship odds leaving Kansas.
“There’s no guarantee we’ll even get to Homestead yet,” Truex said. “One race at a time. You look at me like I’m crazy, but Larson was plus-29 today. He was (third) in points. He didn’t make it.
“I’ve been saying it all year. They all say I’m a lock because I’ve got so many playoff points, but I’m telling you, it’s not that simple. We’ve gotta go out there and perform. We can’t have an engine failure. We can’t go out and crash five laps in at Martinsville. We’ve gotta focus on one race at a time, do the best job we can do and try to keep the momentum going.”
No, a title isn’t certain.
But with Larson — the only driver that’s proven capable of contending with Toyota on a consistent basis — out, and two of the manufacturer’s three drivers sitting in the best position of anyone to advance to the title race, it’s hard to pick any manufacturer but Toyota to claim the first championship under the Monster Energy banner.
By Aaron Bearden
The JR Motorsports playoff trio of William Byron, Justin Allgaier and Elliott Sadler didn’t contend for the win at Kansas Speedway.
In fact, they didn’t even lead a lap.
But the group survived to tally top-10s, and based on their position in the standings, that’s all that matters.
“I think for us, survival is key to all of these playoff races,” Allgaier said of JRM. “It doesn’t matter if it’s the first playoff race or the last one.”
Byron, Allgaier and Sadler haven’t been the class of the Xfinity Series this year. That honor goes to the three Cup Series teams — Joe Gibbs Racing, Chip Ganassi Racing and Team Penske — who field teams in the lower series.
JRM’s five combined victories fall short of the 21 wins those other three organizations have combined to capture. However, while JRM hasn’t been the best organization overall this season, they’ve been the best of the tour’s class of series regulars.
Despite the strength of JGR, CGR and Penske, those teams have combined to field just two championship contenders (Brennan Poole and Matt Tifft) this season. Both drivers have enjoyed strong seasons and remain in the playoffs, but neither has managed to match JRM’s top trio.
Allgaier and Byron have combined to take five of the seven victories earned by playoff participants to date. The veteran Sadler has gone winless, but claimed the regular season championship. Michael Annett didn’t have the speed of his teammates, but also crept into the postseason on points before an early elimination.
The fruits of JRM’s efforts arrived as soon as the regular season ended and the sport’s newest championship gimmick — playoff points — took effect. And that’s been a different situation than in the Cup Series and Truck Series, where only a few drivers had sizable margin over the rest.
In the Xfinity Series, where Cup drivers and teams typically thrive, the overall lack of playoff points for the field meant JRM entered with a substantial organizational advantage.
Between wins and regular season bonus points, JRM came into the postseason with 72 of the 114 total playoff points. Byron, Allgaier and Sadler each arrived in the first round with 11 or more points on fourth-place Daniel Hemric. And because playoff points carry through each round, the trio held the same advantage going into Saturday’s Round 3 opener at Kansas Speedway.
Secure with their advantage, JRM simply survived in Kansas. JGR’s Erik Jones and Christopher Bell dominated the race up front, and Penske’s Ryan Blaney followed in third.
Behind them? Byron and Allgaier in fourth and fifth. Sadler followed in seventh, meaning JRM had the top three playoff drivers.
A perfect weekend it was not. But it was exactly what JRM needs to place all three of their remaining playoff contenders in the final four at Homestead.
Allgaier, Byron and Sadler hold point advantages of 33, 31, and 22, respectively, over fifth-place Tifft with two races remaining until Homestead. If they can match the Kansas performance two more times, the organization should head into the season finale with 75 percent of the remaining playoff field.
“Today we did our job,” Allgaier said. “We’ve gotta do that for two more races, and we’ll hopefully put ourselves in a great position to go to Homestead.”
By Aaron Bearden
With the busiest daily schedule of any driver in NASCAR, Dale Earnhardt Jr. already had a difficult time juggling his responsibilities before this year.
It’s no surprise, then, that finding the time to enjoy his retirement tour has proven difficult.
“You don’t balance it very well,” Earnhardt said during a media availability Friday at Kentucky Speedway. “You know, I just spent three hours practicing today, never once thought about my retirement or this being my last year. I was thinking about how in the hell to get that car to go a little faster. Nothing’s came easy today.
“On days like today, you could tell me I have five more years of this and I wouldn’t know any better. It feels just like any other race, any other practice, because you just get in there and you get competitive.”
The only reprieve for Earnhardt come as he’s away from the track, when time slows down.
“I think that during the week things aren’t quite as tense or there is a little more ease of mind knowing there is a definite end point,” Earnhardt said. “So during the week I think I’m a little more relaxed and able to not stay so wound up like I used to be. Man, you get to the race track and you can’t help it.”
Earnhardt came into this season hopeful he could find a new level of calm at the racetrack, but the pressure of a difficult season to date has proven too great to overcome.
Things appeared poised to start off well for the Kannapolis, N.C. native. Fresh off of a marriage to longtime girlfriend Amy Earnhardt, the 42-year-old rolled off the truck fast at Daytona International Speedway, earning a front-row starting position and leading laps during the Daytona 500. But a mid-race spin from Kyle Busch brought his Daytona dreams to an early end.
In many ways, the storylines from that race have continued throughout the season for Earnhardt. He has shown bursts of speed, even contending throughout the day at Texas Motor Speedway before settling for a fifth-place result.
However, most glimpses of hope have been snuffed out by mid-race disappointment.
There’ve been crashes – four of which have led to DNFs thus far. Earnhardt has had pit road penalties, restart difficulties and even a rare engine failure at Pocono Raceway. In other races, he and crew chief Greg Ives have simply struggled to find the correct balance.
In what may be his final trip to Daytona, Earnhardt surged to the pole and overcame an early crash only to be taken out by a similar accident as the laps wound down.
The result of Earnhardt’s unexpected struggles is a mountain to the playoffs that may prove too steep to climb. He currently sits 22nd in the series standings, with no obvious chances at a victory between this weekend’s race at Kentucky Speedway and the beginning of the playoffs at Chicagoland Speedway.
As the poor results stack up, Earnhardt admitted he’s slumped back into old form.
“I told myself when I had that little time out of the car that I was going to come back, and I was just going to enjoy it,” Earnhardt said. “I was going to be this great guy, so much fun to be around, and not so hard on everybody.
“But you can’t help it. It’s midseason, and I’m back to midseason form with my attitude. You can’t help it when you want to do well, and I want to do as well this weekend as I did at this track six years ago. It’s no more, no less. If you’re going to come here and do the work, put all that effort in there, you might as well try your best.”
Given his position and the standings and eagerness to please his fans, Earnhardt is likely to maintain his current stress until the end of the season, or at least until he manages a trip to victory lane. He already admits to feeling extra pressure in his final Daytona start.
“I think at Daytona there was an urgency, you know, because I think it’s an easier race to win for me than it is here,” Earnhardt said. “Or I think that I go in there knowing what I need to do to win. I felt like I was very aggressive in the race and having a lot of fun and my car was amazing and all I needed to do was to be right there at the end and we didn’t get to do that.
“Do I think that we don’t have any more chances? I think we can show up somewhere and get the job done. But it’s just not going to come as easy as it might have come at Daytona. And it’s going to be some work.”