Jimmie Johnson who?
Remember the good old days when the Chase was stacked with mile-and-a-half tracks that seemed to suit Jimmie Jonson? He rode that Chase format and those tracks to seven Cup titles.
We may have had a preview of the 2017 playoffs formerly called the Chase at Chicago where Martin Truex, Jr spanked the field for his first playoff win. Truex and Kyle Busch started on the front row and Busch held the lead for most of the first stage, which he won.
But then things took a different twist.
In Stage 2, won by Chase Elliott, the 18-team had a loose lug nut, forcing Busch to pit during which he was caught speeding. That created a pass through penalty putting the 18 two laps down. Busch went from being a race favorite to trying to stay relevant in the playoffs. Of special note, the 18 had swapped pit crews with the 19 prior to the race. They may want to rethink that.
But no fear, Martin Truex, Jr also had a loose lug nut but was able to stay on the lead lap. While Kevin Harvick and Chase Elliott battled for the lead, Truex fought his way back to third. That was to prove fortuitous as he then went on to retake the lead and win going away.
It was a good start of the playoffs for Elliott leading 42 laps and looking strong in spite of the Toyota power around him. And as much as Brad Keselowski gripes about Toyota, the Top 10 was pretty evenly split with 3 Toyota and Ford teams and 4 Chevy teams.
Last week I predicted the four teams that would not transfer as Austin Dillon, Kasey Kahne, Ryan Blaney and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. Right now the bubble teams are Kurt Busch, Stenhouse, Kahne and Ryan Newman. I was surprised at how poorly Newman fared since he has proven capable of pointing his way into the next round and his speed had improved as of late. Blaney’s performance had slipped a bit and I thought perhaps the playoff pressure might get to them, but the team responded well.
Kurt Busch had to deal with a vibration and a pit road penalty car late in the race and Newman had contact with McMurray but he got the worse end of the deal. And you can chalk that up to the RCR cars all failing to meet muster at Chicagoland. Paul Menard was the top finisher with a somewhat respectable 14th place finish, Austin Dillon was 16th and Newman was 23rd, 7 laps down. Newman could rebound at New Hampshire if his fellow bubble drivers suffer.
Truex’s win capped a wild week in NASCAR with the announcement of Danica not returning to Stewart-Hass Racing, Smithfield leaving Petty to join SHR amid plenty of controversy, and the announcement that Aric Almirola won’t return to Petty with his sponsor leaving. Rumor has it that he will head to SHR, but it isn’t certain if he will have Smithfield as his sponsor. Smithfield has invested heavily with Almirola but he has just returned to driving after his injury and there may be contractual issues with Petty. This will all work out soon enough, but it also wouldn’t surprise me to see someone other than Almirola moving to SHR. What is surprising is that Kenseth and Kahne still have no idea what their plans are for 2018. With the 77-team charter being sold, there is one less seat open unless that ride opens up with someone else. And that team would need a sponsor, which are in short supply right now.
With a main sponsor needing to pony up $15 million or more, you can see why sponsorship is cobbled together with different partners throughout the season these days. Seeing a single sponsor for an entire season is a rarity these days.
Next up is New Hampshire, which does not bold well for the teams at the bottom of the playoffs. Kurt Busch COULD climb out of the cellar but he will need help from the 3 and the 1 teams. If Newman, Kahne and Stenhouse don’t improve their New Hampshire luck, finishing 27th, 28th and 14th respectively earlier this year, their only shot at redemption will be a win in the remaining race. And none of them has proved quite capable of that lately.
Lastly, a shout out to the modified world, which lost one of its stars, Ted Christopher, in a plane crash. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family.