With two races until the 2017 postseason starts, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series takes this week off. It’s a good time to examine what has happened so far this season and to look ahead at what’s left.
The verdict on segment racing is …: Thumbs up. The new format has created more moments in the middle of races that matter (and if you think that’s not a worthy goal, your verdict will be different.) There are more occasions for strategic decisions and/or pit stops to bear fruit (either fresh or rotten). One useful tweak: Make the pause in action shorter.
Biggest on-track surprise, positive: If Martin Truex Jr. wins the title in his 12th season he will be the most experienced first-time champion since NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett in 1999, who won his first and only title in his 12th year. The greatest compliment Truex’s competitors have paid him is copying him. While most other teams did not change their strategies to pick up stage wins, Truex focused on them. Now he appears to have enough points already to coast to the season finale in Miami, and everybody else is now trying to do what he has done all year. Only problem: Their cars are not as fast as his.
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Biggest on-track surprise, negative: Dale Earnhardt Jr. not only hasn’t qualified for the postseason, but he hasn’t come close to doing so. He has only one top-five finish and four top 10s. Even if he ekes out a win in the next two races – highly unlikely – he will have no chance to contend for the championship.
Fearless predictions. As far as points go, the top 16 who will make the playoffs is all but set. Winless Jamie McMurray, Chase Elliott and Matt Kenseth all could be bumped out if someone outside the top 16 wins. With two races left, will there be a new winner? At Darlington, keep an eye on Elliott; a win would salvage an otherwise mediocre season for the second-year driver many in the sport see as a future superstar. At Richmond, Joey Logano will be a favorite. He won there in the spring, but a rules violation cost him the playoff guarantee that usually accompanies wins.
Three-way race: The regular season suggests the playoffs will be a three-way battle between Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson and Truex. Larson will be at a disadvantage because his Chevys are a tick off relative to the Toyotas of Busch and Truex. Plus, he has never faced pressure like this before. Busch, the 2015 champion, and Truex have. Give the edge to Truex, as he has had the best cars all year.
This has gone beyond Silly. The void created by the departures of Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards was big. Now it’s going to be huge. The coming retirement of Earnhardt points to the sport’s need for new superstars. There has been a lot of talk about who will step in to fill that void but not a lot of action, at least not yet. If the recipe for a superstar is big wins on the track and big personality off of it, so far, nobody new has checked off both of those requirements.
Johnsonville 180, Xfinity Series, Road America, 3 p.m., Sunday, NBC.
Who’s Hot/Who’s Not
Erik Jones: He has four straight top 10s and two straight top fives, including a career-best second last week at Bristol. His speed there suggests he’ll be stout at Darlington next week and Richmond the week after that. He has to win to make the playoffs.
Joey Logano: The most baffling story of the season got even worse in the last four weeks, as the one-time (alleged) title contender finished 27th, 24th, 28th and 13th.