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.

NASCAR Power Rankings: Kevin Harvick back at No. 1

NASCAR Power Rankings
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Stop us if you’ve heard this before: Kevin Harvick is the No. 1 driver in this week’s NASCAR rankings.

Martin Truex Jr. held the top spot for just a week before Harvick reclaimed the crown with his series-leading ninth Cup win of the year Saturday at Bristol Motor Speedway.

This week’s rankings includes three ties as 12 drivers received votes.

More: Playoff standings after Round of 16

Harvick takes his power rankings lead to Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the start of the Round of 12.

Here is this week’s NASCAR Power Rankings:

1. Kevin Harvick (Last week No. 1): The Stewart-Haas Racing driver has three wins in the last five races: Dover, the Southern 500 and Bristol night race.

2. Chase Elliott (Last week No. 7): Finished seventh at Bristol for his third top 10 in five races. His 11 top fives so far matches his total from each of the last two seasons. He scored a career-high 12 top fives in 2017.

3. (tie) Kyle Busch (Last week No.  9): Finished second in Bristol after he started from the rear due to inspection failures. Has three consecutive top 10s for the first time this season.

3. (tie) Joey Logano (Last week No. 3): Followed consecutive third-place finishes with an 11th at Bristol.

5. (tie) Martin Truex Jr. (Last week No. 1): Finished 24th in Bristol following contact with Denny Hamlin after an unscheduled pit stop.

5. (tie) Brad Keselowski (Last week No. 5): After winning at Richmond, Keselowski had a rough night in Bristol. He finished 34th due to power steering problems.

7. (tie) Aric Almirola (Last week unranked): Finished fifth in Bristol for his third consecutive top 10 and his fourth in five races.

7. (tie) Clint Bowyer (Last week unranked): Placed sixth in Bristol for his third consecutive top-10 finish and to keep his playoff chances alive.

9. Austin Dillon (Last week No. 3): Placed a respectable 12th to finish the first round after consecutive top fives.

10. Erik Jones (Last week unranked): Placed third in Bristol for his seventh top-five finish of the season and his second in the last three races.

Also receiving votes: Alex Bowman and Denny Hamlin

NASCAR Silly season features Bubba Wallace, Michael Jordan

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NASCAR Silly Season took a twist Monday. A day that started with the announcement that Ross Chastain would drive for Chip Ganassi Racing next year ended with the news that Denny Hamlin would co-own a team with Michael Jordan and have Bubba Wallace as the driver in 2021.

As JTG Daugherty Racing co-owner Brad Daugherty said: “I think it’s a pretty dynamic trio with Michael, Denny and Bubba. They’re going to be like rock stars.”

The 26-year-old Wallace is in his third full Cup season. All 105 of his starts in NASCAR’s premier series have been with Richard Petty Motorsports.

“Bubba has shown tremendous improvement since joining the Cup Series and we believe he’s ready to take his career to a higher level,” Hamlin said in a statement. “He deserves the opportunity to compete for race wins and our team will make sure he has the resources to do just that. Off the track, Bubba has been a loud voice for change in our sport and our country. MJ and I support him fully in those efforts and stand beside him.”

A team name, car number, manufacturer and sponsors will be announced at a later time.

ANNOUNCED CUP RIDES FOR 2021

No. 00: Quin Houff enters the second year of his two-year deal with StarCom Racing.

No. 1: Kurt Busch enters the second year of a multi-year contract that Chip Ganassi Racing announced last season.

No. 2: Brad Keselowski and Team Penske announced a contract extension Aug. 3.

No. 4: Kevin Harvick signed a contract extension in February that will keep him at Stewart-Haas Racing through the 2023 season.

No. 8: Tyler Reddick said Aug. 7 that he will be back with Richard Childress Racing next season.

No. 9: Chase Elliott is under contract with Hendrick Motorsports through the 2022 season.

No. 10: Aric Almirola extends deal with Stewart-Haas Racing for 2021 season.

No. 11: Denny Hamlin is signed with Joe Gibbs Racing through at least next year.

No. 12: Ryan Blaney and Team Penske announced a multi-year extension earlier this season.

No. 18: Kyle Busch is signed with Joe Gibbs Racing through at least next year.

No. 19: Martin Truex Jr. is signed with Joe Gibbs Racing through at least next year.

No. 20: Christopher Bell moves from Leavine Family Racing to take over this ride in 2021.

No. 22: Joey Logano is tied to Team Penske “through the 2022 season and beyond.”

No. 24: William Byron is under contact with Hendrick Motorsports through 2022.

No. 42: Ross Chastain takes over Chip Ganassi Racing’s ride for the 2021 season.

No. 47: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. enters the second year of a multi-year deal with JTG Daugherty Racing.

No. 88: Alex Bowman will race for Hendrick Motorsports under a one-year contract extension announced earlier this year.

No. TBA: Bubba Wallace joins the new team co-owned by Denny Hamlin and NBA great Michael Jordan. The team purchased Germain Racing’s charter. Germain Racing will not continue after this season.

 

Available/possibly available rides

No. 14: Clint Bowyer is in a contract year to drive for Stewart-Haas Racing.

No. 21: Matt DiBenedetto said Sept. 17 that Wood Brothers Racing has an option to pick up his contract for next year and the deadline is the end of September.

No. 32: Ride is open with Corey LaJoie announcing he will not return to Go Fas Racing in 2021.

No. 43: Bubba Wallace will not return to Richard Petty Motorsports in 2021, the team confirmed on Sept. 10.

No. 48: With Jimmie Johnson retiring from full-time competition, Hendrick Motorsports has this seat to fill.

No. 95: Spire Motorsports purchased the charter and assets of Leavine Family Racing and will be a two-car operation in 2021.

No. 96: Daniel Suarez and Gaunt Brothers Racing announced Sept. 15 that they would part ways after this season.

 

Brad Daugherty: Michael Jordan to NASCAR is ‘huge moment’

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Brad Daugherty calls Michael Jordan’s ownership of a Cup team a “huge moment for NASCAR.”

Jordan and Denny Hamlin will co-own a Cup team next season. Bubba Wallace will be the driver. Jordan will become the first Black majority car owner of a full-time team since Wendell Scott owned and raced cars in the 1960s and ‘70s.

Daugherty, the only Black owner of a full-time Cup team currently, is excited about Jordan’s entrance into NASCAR.

“It’s a big momentum shift for this sport culturally, period,” said Daugherty, co-owner of JTG Daugherty Racing and an analyst for NBC Sports. “Three years ago, this would have never happened. A year ago, this wouldn’t have happened. It’s the timing. If the timing is right and you have someone like Michael Jordan put his brand and what he’s all about into whatever you are doing, it adds a lot of credibility. I look forward to whatever he can bring to the table to help continue to build NASCAR.”

Daugherty told NBC Sports that Jordan can help the sport reach more people.

“The eyeballs are going to be incredible,” Daugherty said of Jordan’s potential impact. “The opportunity for entrance into the sport will be made more available as far as people being aware of the availability to get involved in NASCAR as a fan or as a business. There’s just so many different areas that will light up just because of who he is and what he represents. His entire legacy creates opportunity for everyone.

“Now, we start talking diversity with what he’s able to do from a corporate standpoint and also just from a legacy standpoint with his brand. It’s going to be exciting. I’m excited because I think more people now, more than ever, will take a look at NASCAR with a keen eye and keen interest and be excited about maybe participating as a fan or as a business partner or as someone wanting to learn how to drive a race car or own a race team. The more notoriety the better.”

NASCAR stated Monday: “Michael is an iconic sports figure and celebrated champion whose fiercely competitive nature has placed him among the greatest athletes of all time. His presence at NASCAR’s top level will further strengthen the competition, excitement and momentum growing around our sport. We wish Michael and his team tremendous success.”

Jordan told The Charlotte Observer on Monday that the deal came together in about 10 days because of the chance to hire Wallace.

“When (Hamlin) told me there was a possibility of getting Bubba Wallace, I’m saying, ‘OK, this is perfect!’” Jordan told The Observer. “If I’m getting involved in NASCAR, then get a Black driver (with) a Black owner.”

For all that Jordan can bring to NASCAR, Daugherty knows that the competition can prove challenging.

“I’m sure he’s committed to next season and we’ll see how that goes and if it goes well, you go beyond that,” Daugherty said. “He had a (Superbike) team for a long time and loved that. He understands it’s a different business model. He’s at the point in his life, he’s like Roger Penske and Rick Hendrick and those guys to where it’s really not a detriment to him financially if he’s not making money. We’ll have to see how much he can stomach because it’s an interesting business model for sure.”

Jordan told The Observer he’s in it to win.

“If I’m investing, if I’m a participant, then I want to win! I don’t want to be out there to be just another car,” Jordan said.

Daugherty looks forward to seeing Jordan, Hamlin and Wallace at the track.

“I think it’s a pretty dynamic trio with Michael, Denny and Bubba,” Daugherty said. “They’re going to be like rock stars.”

Daugherty also looks forward to something else next year.

“Look forward to racing against those guys,” he said, “and trying to kick their butts.”

Germain Racing sells charter, will exit sport at end of season

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Germain Racing car owner Bob Germain announced Monday that he has sold the team’s charter and will end the team after this season.

The charter was purchased by a new team that will have Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan as owners and Bubba Wallace as the driver.

Germain said in a statement that the No. 13 team will continue the rest of the season with Ty Dillon as driver.

“Being an owner in NASCAR for the last 16 years has been a thrilling and rewarding adventure,” Germain said in a statement. “From winning two NASCAR Truck Series championships in 2006 and 2010 to competing at the highest level of motorsports in the Cup Series for the last 12 seasons, I have experienced the highs and lows of our sport. I’m extremely proud of what Germain Racing has accomplished at every level and I will be transitioning out of ownership with many memories and friendships. I appreciate the interest and offers made over the last couple of weeks and I am excited to see how the sport continues to grow in the future.

“Thank you to GEICO for their loyalty to Germain Racing for over a decade. It has been a great source of pride for our team to represent their brand on the track. Doug Barnette with Player Management International has facilitated our GEICO relationship since the beginning and I truly appreciate his efforts. Finally, to my employees: building a team camaraderie and creating a family atmosphere has been a highlight of this journey. I will miss each of you.”

Germain pondered a sale when GEICO decided not to renew its contract after this season with the team.  GEICO is one of NASCAR’s Premier Partners, joining Busch Beer, Coca-Cola and Xfinity.

Dillon spoke in late August about the challenges facing single-car teams in Cup.

“The model is very tough right now for single-car teams,” he said. “I’m hoping that NASCAR is going to change it and help on it. But it needs to change for one-car teams to be more successful that haven’t already been at the top level of the sport or have an incredible amount of money to leapfrog into the top spot. If you don’t have three or four teams to spread the wealth with big name sponsors and a lot of money behind the effort, it’s just not a model that’s going to survive long term.”

Hamlin acknowledged the challenge a one-car team can have.

“I do believe that the (ownership) model will hopefully get better,” Hamlin said before last weekend’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway. “Do I think it’s fixed? No, I think there is still some work to be done to make the model a viable business. You want a business that everyone wants to be a part of, not the ones that are fleeting. Certainly, I think NASCAR is trying it’s best to make the teams a little more healthy. I think that outlook toward the future is what’s interesting to me.”

Germain Racing is the second team to sell its charter since August. Leavine Family Racing announced it had sold its charter on Aug. 4. Spire Motorsports purchased it and will be a two-car team in 2021.