Five questions heading into Cup playoffs

2 Comments

Can anyone catch the Toyotas?

That’s the challenge facing the field heading into Sunday’s playoff opener at Chicagoland Speedway (3 p.m. EST, NBCSN). Toyota drivers have won six of the last nine races and their speed has competitors worried.

After Richmond, Kevin Harvick said: “I think the Toyotas have run better than the rest of the field. In order to be where we need to be, we have to get the most out of our car and we haven’t done that the last couple of weeks. We’ve struggled in the race the last two weeks and got to get it figured out quick or we’ll be looking for something to do the last 10 weeks besides race for a championship.’’

While Martin Truex Jr. was in position to win the last two races — he was leading with five laps or less left and didn’t win at Darlington and Richmond — don’t overlook Kyle Busch.

When he won the title in 2015, he wasn’t the favorite. It was Harvick that year, but Busch scored enough points to advance through the first two rounds. He advanced to Miami after top-five finishes in each of the three third-round races.

“It’s really similar,’’ Busch said of how he feels he’s entering this year compared to that 2015 title season. “(Truex) is the car to beat week in and week out. (Kyle Larson) and myself are tossing it up for who is second best. Hopefully, we can do our job and execute and everybody does the right things and gets ourselves to Homestead to have a shot for the championship.’’

Is Hendrick Motorsports sandbagging?

We’ll find out. Since Kasey Kahne’s win at Indianapolis in July, Hendrick’s three playoff drivers — Jimmie Johnson, Chase Elliott and Kahne — have not finished better than eighth in a race.

Last year, questions were raised about Hendrick after some struggles entering the playoffs. Then Johnson led 118 laps before finishing 12th in the opener at Chicago, and Elliott led 75 laps before finishing third. Both advanced to the second round. Johnson moved to the third round after his Charlotte victory and advanced to Miami after his Martinsville win.

Then Johnson won in Miami for his record-tying seventh series championship.

The point is, it’s difficult to count out at least Johnson, if not the organization.

“My 10 best tracks are coming up,’’ Johnson said after Richmond. “So, I’m excited about that. I’m excited about Fall being right here right around the corner. We will just go racing. You never know. This format really keeps things up in the air. 

Is this Martin Truex Jr.’s title to lose?

He’s got a big advantage with 53 playoff points — 20 more than the next driver. That should get him through the second round and likely the third round.

Odds are he makes it to Miami, but the twist is that some might not view him the favorite in the season finale even for how dominant he has been this year. The reason would be if Kyle Larson, who was eliminated in the first round last year, makes it to Miami. Larson is exceptional at Homestead-Miami Speedway — provided he can avoid hitting the wall while running the high line — and would provide a worthy challenger for Truex in the title race.

“Cars have been just lightning fast and team’s been doing a great job,’’ Truex said after Richmond. “We’ve got a few little things we’ve got to work on, but all in all, I feel like we’re definitely one of the strongest teams. Hopefully, we can just continue to perform at the level we’re capable of, and hopefully we don’t need those bonus points, but it’s going to be nice to have them, that’s for sure.’’

Will youth be served?

Five of the 16 drivers entering the playoffs are 29 and under.

They are Chase Elliott (21 years old), Ryan Blaney (23), Kyle Larson (25), Austin Dillon (27), and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (turns 30 on Oct. 2).

The last driver under age 30 to win the title was Brad Keselowski in 2012. He was 28 years old. Kyle Busch turned 30 during his championship season in 2015.

Larson is the favorite of this group to win the championship and would be the youngest champ since 1995 when a 24-year-old Jeff Gordon won the first of his four series championships.

The average age of the last 10 champions when they won the championship is 34.9.

What’s the biggest storyline?

Admittedly there are so many from Jimmie Johnson going after a record-breaking eight series title to Martin Truex Jr. seeking his first crown after dominating so much of the season.

While Chip Ganassi Racing and Furniture Row Racing go for their first Cup title and Richard Childress Racing looks for its first Cup crown since 1994, it’s hard to top what the Wood Brothers seek.

The family team first competed in NASCAR in 1953 but has only won an owner’s title. That came in 1963, less than three weeks before President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The Wood Brothers often ran only partial schedules so the team never had the chance to win many championships. This is the team’s first time in the playoffs (the Woods never competed in the Chase).

While the victory lane celebration at Daytona after Trevor Bayne won the 2011 Daytona 500 remains memorable for the Wood Brothers, it would not compare to what the celebration would be like if Blaney drove the No. 21 to the series crown.

 and on Facebook

NASCAR America: Erik Jones on why he doesn’t make friends with his competitors

Leave a comment

Back in April Erik Jones told reporters at Daytona International Speedway that when it comes to friends, he brings his to the track. He doesn’t get too close to his fellow drivers in the garage.

On NASCAR America, Jones talked with Steve Letarte and Dale Jarrett about the origins of that mindset.

“My dad was always big on it, because at first when I started out my racing career in go karts I just wasn’t that aggressive,” Jones said. “He was like, ‘we bring our friends to the race track. You need to go out there and get aggressive. If you’ve to move someone out-of-the-way, do it.'”

Since then, Jones said his philosophy “never changed.”

“We show up, it’s a late-model team, it’s me a three guys so it’s like, ‘I’ve got all my buddies I need right here,'” Jones said.

Watch the above video for more.

NASCAR America: Erik Jones’ racing roots in Byron, Michigan

Leave a comment

After a feature looking at his upbringing in Byron, Michigan, Furniture Row Racing driver Erik Jones spoke with NASCAR America’s Steve Letarte, Dale Jarrett and Marty Snider about the early years of his racing career.

The journey to his NASCAR career began with a yard cart that his late father, Dave Jones, brought home one day when he was 3.

“I rode that all day long around the yard,” Jones said. “Winter time would and we had like a gravel circle driveway in front of our house. When it would snow over I would get the kart out and ride it around in the snow because I could slide and I thought that was pretty cool. I would get it stuck about every five minutes out in the snow.”

Jones would then get out of the kart and find his dad in their barn to come out get him out.

Now 21, Jones also discussed how much his dad was involved in his career until his death in June 2016 after a battle with cancer.

He also explains how he’s never stayed in any series for more than one year in his career.

Watch the video above for the full discussion.

NASCAR America: Scan All from Cup playoff opener at Chicagoland

Leave a comment

“I sure as (expletive) hope that’s all out of our system.”

That’s what Kyle Busch had to say over his radio after he finished 15th, a lap down in the Cup playoff opener at Chicagoland Speedway.

Busch’s day went south after the first stage thanks to two pit miscues the sent him two laps down.

Meanwhile, Martin Truex Jr. dominate the field to win his fifth race of the year and advance to the second round of the playoffs.

In the latest “Scan All,” True and crew chief Cole Pearn recap their day, which saw them bounce back from their own pit road mistakes.

Here are other highlights from this week’s “Scan All.”

  • “Can’t drive in a straight line. Something’s not right with the front end.” – Ricky Stenhouse Jr. just before he made contact with the outside wall. A commitment line violation resulted in Stenhouse finish multiple laps off the lead.
  • “Tell the 1 (Jamie McMurray) I don’t know what happened there but we both got the short end of the stick.” – Ryan Newman after contact between him and McMurray sent McMurray spinning on a restart.
  • (Expletive), that 24 (Chase Elliott) can be so much (expletive) faster than us.” – Kasey Kahne after being told he was two laps down.

Watch the above video for more.

NASCAR America: Erik Jones recounts rookie Cup season, being taught by Kyle Busch

Leave a comment

Erik Jones, the rookie driver for Furniture Row Racing in the No. 77 Toyota, joined NASCAR America Wednesday for a special show from the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

The 21-year-old driver won the 2015 Camping World Truck Series title and is teammates with Martin Truex Jr.

With Marty Snider, Dale Jarrett and Steve Letarte, Jones discussed the challenges and lessons he’s faced in his first full-time season in the Cup Series.

“The biggest (milestones) for me were trying to win a race and making the playoffs,” Jones said. “Obviously, making the playoffs didn’t happen. … I look back at the last few seasons and rookies that have been in the sport and it’s so hard to win races now. You just don’t see rookies do it a lot.”

Jones also discussed finishing second to Kyle Busch in the Bristol night race and his relationship with the driver who brought him into NASCAR beginning with the Truck Series.

“A lot of times when I was racing in Trucks and Xfinity and Kyle would come to race I’d always run second to him,” Jones said. “I’m like, ‘you know what the problem is? This is the guy who taught me how to race these cars. So I’m good at all the same tracks he’s good at. Except he’s been doing about 10 more years than I have.”

Watch the video for more.