Around the Wheel: Observations leaving Texas Motor Speedway

Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

By Aaron Bearden, Motorsports Editor

It was a wild weekend for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series at Texas Motor Speedway.

The newly-repaved and restructured oval proved challenging. Managing stages proved critical. NASCAR’s young stars provided a serious threat, and one of the sport’s all-time greats rose to the occasion.

There were more storylines on Sunday than any journalist could hope to cover, but this humble writer did the best he could to break down some of the weekend’s top tales.

1) Hendrick’s Back! Right Jimmie?

Sunday was a far cry from Jimmie Johnson’s typical trips to Texas. A spin in qualifying on the repaved and restructured oval and dehydration that led him to the infield care center for fluids after the race made certain of that. But the end result – the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet in victory lane – was something we’ve seen many times before.

Johnson’s victory Sunday was his seventh in Fort Worth, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.

Just three months removed from his record-tying seventh Cup Series championship, Johnson entered 2017 flat. The Californian managed just one top 10 during the opening five races of the season, a mediocre beginning that stood in stark contrast to his two wins and three top fives during the same stint just last season.

As they are wont to do, fans and media began to question Johnson’s No. 48 team as their slow start stretched on.

All dynasties come to an end at some point or another. Was the beginning to 2017 a sign that the time had come for Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and company?

To his credit, Johnson immediately shrugged off the claims when asked about them during a media availability at Auto Club Speedway.

“Sixteen years, 80 wins and seven championships and people want to question us?” Johnson said. “I mean, come on.”

Just two weeks later, Johnson proved those thoughts wrong altogether, driving through the field to clinch a playoff berth and five playoff points with a victory in Sunday’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 500.

Those judging Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 48 team were justified. After all, the 16-year-veteran had led only 28 laps and struggled to find speed in the opening six races of the year while teammate Chase Elliott flourished to contend for the points lead.

But, much like he’s always done before, Johnson quickly dispelled his doubters. Consider the No. 48 team a threat until proven otherwise.

2) Hendrick’s Back! Right Dale?

He didn’t end up in victory lane like his teammate – though he did share in the heat exhaustion misery due to a failure in his air conditioning blower – but in many ways Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s fifth-place run on Sunday was every bit as important as a win.

Never mind that NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver had opened the 2017 season with as many finishes of 30th or worse (three) as he had top 20s. Earnhardt arrived at Texas with a streak of bad results that dated back further – to before his concussion diagnosis in July 2016.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. earned his first top five in 10 months at Texas Motor Speedway (Photo: Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Before Sunday, Earnhardt had only one top 10 in the past 16 races, including a run of 10-straight races without a top-10 result that stretched back to his second-place run at Pocono Raceway.

The two-time Daytona 500 champion downplayed the significance of the run after the race on pit lane, saying, “I figured we would get one sooner or later, but it’s nice.  I know our fans are really pulling for us.  Could have finished a little better, we will take top five.”

However, while he may not have put much focus on the run, the truth is that it may prove critical for the 18-year veteran if he hopes to make the playoffs.

Courtesy of his poor beginning to the season, Earnhardt came to Texas 25th in the series standings, mired deep in the field.

After Sunday’s race, Earnhardt finds himself in 20th, just 18 points off of Denny Hamlin in 15th – the current playoff cutoff position.

The No. 88 team has shown speed multiple times this season, leading the Daytona 500 before falling victim to a crash and running inside of the top 10 before a penalty and crash ruined their day at Martinsville Speedway. If they can continue to show pace and marry it with the ability to finish displayed at Texas, then runs like Sunday’s may become more of a norm than an exception.

3) Hendrick’s Back! Right Kasey?…

…And now to the not-so-good side of Hendrick Motorsports’ return to form.

Kasey Kahne was lauded as one of the year’s early surprises after starting the season with back-to-back top 10s and a 12th-place run at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

In the month since, however, the Enumclaw, Washington native has again begun to struggle.

20th-place runs at both Phoenix Raceway and Fontana dropped the Kahne to 13th in the standings, and though he held pace with a top 15 in Martinsville, Sunday’s nightmarish 38th-place run dropped the Hendrick Motorsports shoe to 17th in the standings, four points off of the current playoff grid.

Despite his stellar start, Kahne now finds himself in a familiar place – just outside of the playoff bubble. His No. 5 team has shown promise, but they need to right the ship quickly lest they continue to free-fall in the standings.

4) The Kids Are Alright

As Ryan Blaney drove off to two stage wins, Kyle Larson tallied his fifth top-two finish and Elliott rallied to his fifth top 10 in seven races, it became clear that the youth movement that’s shown glimpses but fizzled out in recent years may finally be poised to contend on a consistent basis.

Sunday’s race was the latest in a string of great performances for each of the three young stars.

Larson and Elliott continue to lead the way in the standings. Blaney sits just 74 points back in sixth.

Each of the above drivers find themselves one or more race’s worth of points ahead of the playoff cut as the Monster Energy Series completes the first fourth of the regular season, and after Blaney’s stage wins on Sunday, each of the three drivers has at least two playoff points.

Larson and Elliott were likely already set for a playoff push before Sunday given their places in the standings. Now, Blaney too appears to be a fairly safe bet after a career performance that left him praising his No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing team despite a late mistake that saw him finish 12th.

“I think it says a lot about this Motorcraft Quick Lane team about how good a car we had today,” Blaney said. “If you had asked me yesterday I wouldn’t have said we would win two stages and have one of the fastest cars. They made really good changes this morning and that definitely says a lot.”

Could more of the sport’s youth add to the movement? Maybe. Erik Jones sits on the current playoff grid in 14th, and Austin Dillon (21st), Daniel Suarez (23rd) and Ty Dillon (24th) could still contend for a position under the right circumstances.

Regardless, at least three young, marketable stars are well on their way to a potential postseason berth. And more importantly, they actually look like they could be genuine contenders if/when they get there.

5) Stages Continue to Shine

After a quiet debut to the season, NASCAR’s new stage format has begun to shine as its transformative effect on the sport’s race structure becomes apparent.

Sunday’s race was flipped on its head by varying strategy late in the race’s second stage. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Nowhere has the effect of the new stages been more apparent than it was Sunday at Texas, as a late caution in Stage 2 saw two differing strategies develop.

Select drivers, including race leader Blaney, stayed out under the caution to contend for a victory. Others including Joey Logano came to pit road, choosing track position for Stage 3 over the potential for stage points.

The differing strategies culminated in an interesting battle for the victory as Johnson and Larson reeled in Logano in the closing stages to take the top two positions.

Meanwhile Blaney, who had dominated much of the day, was left scrambling after a pit road mistake while running fifth.

Without the promise of a guaranteed caution, the strategy seen Sunday likely wouldn’t have been attempted. And while differing strategies have developed in the past, the addition of stages provides opportunities for teams to switch things up on a more consistent basis.

Snag points now, or take a risk with the potential to earn a race win later?

That is the question every team on the lead lap had to ask themselves at Texas, and it’s likely to be a question seen again many times moving forward.

6) Dale Stirs the Pot

Suffering the effects of a long, hot race, Earnhardt’s interview after his first top 10 of the year was fairly standard.

That is, until he snuck this observation of Team Penske’s Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano into the end of an answer.

“I think the No. 2 car and the No. 22 car have been really the class of the field.  I saw those guys weaving after the race and downshifting hard to reset their housing, so we have to figure out what they are doing and see if we can’t make it better.”

The quote came seemingly out of nowhere, in response to a question Earnhardt was asked about needing speed.

However, the question that spurred the response isn’t of interest. It’s the potential repercussions that could come of it that strike the most interest.

Keselowski and Logano have been among the fastest cars in the Monster Energy Series paddock thus far this season. Both drivers sit comfortably inside of the top five in points leaving Texas, and Keselowski leads the field with two race wins.

If what Earnhardt says is true, Penske’s early success could have much to do with whatever change in their cars is requiring them to swerve after the conclusion of a race.

There’s no proof that Earnhardt’s claims are true, but regardless they could lead Penske to be viewed in a different light moving forward.

Whether good or bad, a comment from NASCAR’s most popular driver puts every eye in the sport on you. Penske can anticipate added attention to their two machines, as well as Blaney’s No. 21 with the Wood Brothers, who share a technical alliance with Penske.

If they’re doing nothing wrong, they need not worry. But if they are? They may wish to use this two-week Easter break to move in a different direction.

One Comment

  1. Sol Shine

    April 11, 2017 at 9:51 am

    People make way too much about what Earnhardt says. The fact that he is popular with (delusional) fans means little, the fact that he is the biggest underachiever out there means a lot. GM teams are masters at crying the blues and pointing the finger at everyone else as a cheater, meanwhile, no one cheats better than Generous Motors, on and off the track.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *