Upon Further Review: Michigan

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Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s slide in the points could be worrisome to his fans, but how concerned should they really be?

Maybe not as much as they are.

Since placing second at Bristol in mid-April, Earnhardt has had one top 10 and three finishes of 30th or worse. He enters this off weekend 12th in the standings, 30 points ahead of Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kasey Kahne, the first driver outside a Chase spot.

With 10 different winners in the first 15 races, the question is how many more will there be before the playoffs being in September. That’s pivotal if Earnhardt doesn’t win a race. More winners means fewer spots to make the Chase via points.

Last year, five winless drivers made the Chase. In 2014, it was three.

Take a look at what this eight-race slide has done to Earnhardt’s position in the standings. Since Bristol, Earnhardt has scored 133 points (Brad Keselowski has scored a series-high 256 points during that time).

The four drivers behind Earnhardt in the standings who also are in a Chase spot all have closed on him. Austin Dillon has gained 35 points on Earnhardt in those eight races. Jamie McMurray has gained 42 points, Ryan Newman has gained 54 points, and Ryan Blaney has gained 57 points. On average they’re making up between four to seven points per race on Earnhardt. With 11 races left until the Chase field is set, they’d pass him at this rate.

Of course, one would question if Earnhardt’s struggles will continue and allow those drivers to catch him at that rate.

Among drivers outside a Chase spot at this time, Kahne has gained 35 points on Earnhardt in the last eight races, Trevor Bayne has gained 40 points, and Kyle Larson has gained 50 points. Again, can they continue to catch Earnhardt at the same rate if they don’t win a race?

Now, look at what has taken place on the track. Three times in the last eight races, Earnhardt has been eliminated by a crash (Talladega, Dover and Michigan). Dillon, McMurray, Newman and Blaney — all behind Earnhardt in a Chase spot — have been eliminated by an accident a combined three times in that stretch.

Do you think Earnhardt’s misfortune will continue? Better yet, do you think those four drivers will avoid being collected in accidents in the coming weeks?

Also, the six times in the last eight races that Earnhardt made it to the halfway mark, he’s gained a total of 40 spots from the start. In five of those races he’s been running between seventh and 11th at the halfway point.

That’s well enough to make the Chase if he can finish there.

Something else to consider is that with Sonoma next it would be easy for Earnhardt fans to fret because of how he used to run there, but he’s placed seventh and third in his last two races there. Not a guarantee he’ll do that again, but he’s been much better there than he was.

Now, all this isn’t to say there’s work to do. There is. Qualifying, as crew chief Greg Ives noted in a tweet after Sunday’s race at Michigan, must get better. Running between seventh and 11th won’t be good enough to win a championship. That’s the goal.

Earnhardt knows it and has said so in recent weeks.

Still, there’s time for this team to improve and be a title contender instead of an underdog.

YOUTH MOVEMENT

While much was made of young drivers Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson finishing second and third in Sunday’s Sprint Cup race at Michigan, the entire weekend showcased NASCAR’s youth movement.

Last Friday’s Camping World Truck Series race at Texas Motor Speedway was won by 18-year-old William Byron. Saturday’s Xfinity race was won by 24-year-old Daniel Suarez, and Sunday’s Sprint Cup race was won by 26-year-old Joey Logano.

Combined, the average age of those winners is 22.7 years — the youngest average age for winners in the same weekend in NASCAR’s top three series since last year’s season-opening races at Daytona.

The 2015 season started with Tyler Reddick, then 19 years old, winning the Truck race at Daytona. Ryan Reed, then 21, won the Xfinity race, and Logano, then 24, won the Daytona 500. Their combined average age was 21.3 years old.

“The future of NASCAR is present, and it’s going to be big,’’ Logano said after his win Sunday at Michigan in reference to being followed across the finish line by Elliott and Larson. “It’s amazing you see some of those guys that are coming in how good they are, and particularly with Chase today and Larson, as well, here recently how fast he’s been.’’

Sunday’s Cup race marked the ninth time in the last 11 points events that a driver seeking his first series win finished in the top five with Elliott and Larson doing so. It also marked the third time in the last six points races that two drivers seeking their first series win each finished in the top five in a  Cup race.

A GOOD SIGN FOR Tony Stewart

There’s still work to do, but Tony Stewart finally had a good weekend — weekend being the key point — since coming back after missing the first eight races of the season with a back injury.

Stewart was solid throughout the weekend. He was 20th in the opening practice, qualified third, ran 16th in the first practice Saturday, 19th in the final practice and finished seventh in Sunday’s race.

Not spectacular numbers some could argue, but Sunday marked only his seventh race with new crew chief Mike Bugarewicz. Compare it to what he did at Charlotte two weeks ago. Stewart was 28th, 15th and 26th in the three practice sessions, qualified 21st and finished 24th.

“That is the kind of weekend I’ve been looking for all year out of this group,’’ Stewart said after the Michigan race. “Today is proof that we can do it. I would rather have this than win a race and run 15th to 20th the next week. From start to finish all weekend, it’s been solid, and that is what we are looking for right now. I’m tickled to death.”

Stewart’s result moved him to within 45 points of 30th in the season standings. He needs to be in the top 30 in points to be eligible for a Chase spot should he win one of the remaining 11 races before the playoffs begin.

OH WOE IS JOE (GIBBS RACING)

For the first time since last May and June, Joe Gibbs Racing failed to score a top five in back-to-back races.

The team’s top finisher Sunday at Michigan was Carl Edwards, who was sixth. He was the team’s only driver in the top 10.

Reigning champion Kyle Busch scored his fourth consecutive finish of 30th or worse after an engine issue. Denny Hamlin placed 33rd after an incident. Matt Kenseth finished a quiet 14th. No Gibbs cars led a lap.

Of course, many teams would like to have the problem of being noted for not scoring back-to-back top-five finishes.

PIT STOPS

— The last seven Cup points races each have had a different winner: Carl Edwards (Richmond), Brad Keselowski (Talladega), Kyle Busch (Kansas), Matt Kenseth (Dover), Martin Truex Jr. (Charlotte), Kurt Busch (Pocono) and Joey Logano (Michigan). It’s the longest streak of different winners since there were eight from the 2013 season finale to the first seven races of the 2014 season.

— Kurt Busch remains the only driver to have completed all 4,664 laps this season. The last time a driver had completed every lap this late in the season was 2012 with Dale Earnhardt Jr. He ran every lap through the first 20 races that season.

— Hendrick Motorsports has gone 10 races since its last victory (Jimmie Johnson at Auto Club Speedway). The team went 15 races between wins last year. In the last 36 races (equivalent to one season), Hendrick cars have won six races. Joe Gibbs Racing leads the way with 18 victories during that stretch. Team Penske has won eight races in the time, followed by Stewart-Haas Racing (three wins) and Furniture Row Racing (one). No other team won during that stretch.