ATW: Food for thought leaving Bristol Motor Speedway

Matthew T. Thacker/NKP

By Aaron Bearden, Motorsports Editor

It took an extra day to make it happen, but the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series finally capped off the spring race weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway (BMS) on Monday afternoon.

The event, originally slated for Sunday, was delayed a day due to a large rainstorm that swept over Tennessee throughout the weekend. But for the fans that were able to hang out for an extra afternoon, the Food City 500 proved worth the wait.

For the second-straight race at Bristol, NASCAR and BMS officials agreed to add the grippy VHT substance to the inside lane of the half-mile oval’s turns. While they may not have achieved their original goal of a bottom-feeding track in doing so – the racing surface wasn’t ‘old Bristol’ by any means, with the outside lane largely favored by race’s end – the added grip did allow both lanes to run competitively, encouraging passing and fostering impressive battles throughout the field.

There were many takeaways from the event, and while some were obvious – Jimmie Johnson’s still great after another win, Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s still in trouble after another crash – a few others might not have been as clear.

Here are a few little nuggets you might have glossed over while speed-watching your DVR’ed recording of the event after work.


Roush Fenway’s not fading away

Roush Fenway Racing’s fighting for TV time this season. (Photo: Nigel Kinrade/NKP)

2017 has been a year defined by resurgences for a handful of teams thus far, and most have been well-documented.

Chip Ganassi Racing has stolen the show in the Cup Series paddock, with Kyle Larson proving a constant threat to win and Jamie McMurray among the field’s most consistent drivers. Richard Childress Racing returned to victory lane for the first time in nearly four years at Phoenix Raceway, and Wood Brothers Racing (with Ryan Blaney) have been a consistent presence inside of the top 10.

These stories have all seen their share of the spotlight. Slightly less covered, however, has been the quiet resurgence of Roush Fenway Racing (RFR).

Teammates Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., and Trevor Bayne survived 500 laps at Bristol to tally finishes of ninth and 11th, respectively, moving both drivers inside of the top 16 in points and continuing a trend of quality runs that dates back to the beginning of the season.

Neither driver has been stellar over the year’s opening months – combined they have just four top 10s in 16 starts – but Bayne and Stenhouse have collectively earned 11 top 15s, with just one DNF (Stenhouse, Daytona) impeding their progress in RFR’s first eight races as a slimmed down two-car operation.

As a result, both drivers find themselves in playoff contention.

Bayne leads the way for RFR, 24 points ahead of the current playoff cutoff in 12th. Stenhouse finds himself on the wrong side of the grid due to Kurt Busch, who sits 18th but has postseason eligibility in the form of a Daytona 500 win, but the former dirt-track ace’s three top 10s and consistent speed indicate that he may be better positioned for long-term success.

It’s still too early to tell if either Bayne or Stenhouse will actually make the playoff field, but both young drivers find themselves in a better position than they’ve ever managed in the past. Given the frequently-dire analysis of RFR over the past few seasons, that’s something for the Ford duo to be proud of.


Aric Almirola’s consistent, but slipping back off the bubble

Aric Almirola’s within reach of his playoff competitors. (Photo: Matthew T. Thacker/NKP)

Aric Almirola and Richard Petty Motorsports (RPM) were one of the earliest surprises this season, staying inside of the top 15 in points through the opening three weeks of the year after slimming down to a one-car operation following Brian Scott’s retirement in 2016.

However, as the weeks go on, the team is slowly sliding down the standings and out of contention.

Points position notwithstanding, RPM and Almirola should be commended for their improvement thus far. A 2014 playoff participant courtesy of a victory at Daytona International Speedway, Almirola earned a reputation as a consistent presence in the playoff bubble with four-straight points finishes inside of the top 20 from 2012-15. So when the Floridian mustered no better than a 26th-place result in 2016, fans and critics alike pondered whether or not RPM was fading into mediocrity.

The organization bounced back in a major way to start the year, surviving an attrition-filled Daytona 500 to score a fourth-place finish, their first top five since 2015.

The runs since that season-opening surge haven’t proven as strong, but RPM has again found the consistency they’ve been known for over the past half-decade. Almirola has finished no worse than 27th in the past seven races, with five top 20s.

That consistency has kept the 33-year-old within sight of the playoff grid, an accomplishment he’s likely glad to accept after 2016’s struggles. However, the team’s inability to rise into the top 10 – their best finish over the seven-race stretch since Daytona was 14th at Las Vegas Motor Speedway – has caused them to slowly slide down the standings as some of the other contenders begin to find their footing.

Almirola overcame some early issues to salvage a 22nd-place run at Bristol on Monday, but the loss in points dropped the Floridian to 19th in points, 23 markers off of the current playoff bubble.

RPM is in good company in the back-half of the top 20. They’re surrounded by Kasey Kahne, Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth and Austin Dillon – all drivers from top-tier, multi-car organizations.

Still, ‘King’ Richard Petty’s team needs to find a way to turn their top 20s into top 15s and top 10s, or their playoff dreams may quickly become as distant as Petty’s seven championships.


Danica keeps dropping, even as her teammates contend

Two months into their first season with Ford, Stewart-Haas Racing’s (SHR) move doesn’t appear to have slowed them down much. Kurt Busch is already virtually guaranteed into the MENCS playoff field with his Daytona 500 victory, and both newcomer Clint Bowyer and 2014 champion Kevin Harvick look well on their way to securing postseason bids even if they go winless through the summer months.

Danica Patrick’s been a step behind her Stewart-Haas Racing teammates thus far. (Photo: Nigel Kinrade/NKP)

For Danica Patrick, however, SHR’s first year with the Blue Ovals has turned sour as quickly as her relationship with former sponsor Nature’s Bakery.

Coming off of arguably her best season to date in 2016 – one that saw her set or tie a career-best performance in laps led (30), average finish (22.0) and points position (24th) – there were hopes that Patrick could blossom into an underdog playoff contender in her first year under the Ford banner.

However, while 2017 has proven successful for Patrick in venues outside of racing, with the launch of a clothing line, as well as the announcement of a forthcoming book, the Roscoe, Illinois native’s on-track results have been underwhelming.

Patrick’s year began in the same manner as many of her competitors – with a crash in the season-opening Daytona 500. The second race of the season at Atlanta Motor Speedway brought hope in the form of a 17th-place result, but engine woes the following week as Las Vegas quickly dropped Patrick down to 30th in the standings.

In the weeks since, Patrick’s position in the standings has largely gone unchanged.

The fifth-year MENCS shoe climbed her way up to 27th with three runs in the mid-20s following Vegas, but rapidly dropped back to 29th with a 24th-place run at Texas. Throw in Monday’s result at Bristol – a crash-shortened finish of 36th – and Patrick finds herself back in the same 30th-place trap she was in a month ago, surrounded by drivers like Cole Whitt, Matt DiBenedetto and Chris Buescher who, while all talented in their own right, drive for much smaller teams with more limited resources.

Patrick has yet to lead a lap or score a top 10. Her average finish to date (27.1) is thus far slated to be the worst in her Cup Series career, and she’s currently on-track to finish just 22.5 races, with only nine lead-lap finishes. Both would be career worsts, by a noticeable margin.

Yes, those estimates may be skewed. Danica’s had the lion’s share of tough luck thus far, with two crashes and a blown motor in eight races. The odds of those percentages continuing on through the entirety of the season are low.

Still, after a 2016 that saw Patrick take minor steps in the right direction, and given the success her teammates are beginning to find, it’s concerning to see NASCAR’s fastest female so low in the standings as the early season transitions to the bulk of the schedule.


What’s up with Joe Gibbs Racing?

Hendrick Motorsports (or at least Jimmie Johns0n) appear to have found their footing after a slow start to the season, but Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) continues to struggle.

After a year that saw them win a garage-best 12 races and have all four of their drivers in championship contention until the final laps of the penultimate race at Phoenix, 2017’s rule changes have seen the formerly dominant organization reduced to little more than a mid-pack playoff bubble filler through eight races.

Highlighted by Kyle Busch’s flat tires – and perhaps covered up by his comments about them – the conclusion of Monday’s Food City 500 saw all four JGR drivers fall outside of the top 10 in points.

Matt Kenseth scored a much-needed top five at Bristol Motor Speedway, but still sits outside of the provisional playoff grid. (Photo: Nigel Kinrade/NKP)

Busch, the best of the bunch thus far, dropped to 11th in the regular season standings after the latest in a string of tire woes. Denny Hamlin sits on the bubble in 15th (+16) after his 10th-place result, while finishes of fourth (Matt Kenseth) and 18th (Daniel Suarez) were only good enough to elevate the other two drivers to 20th and 22nd, respectively.

For Suarez, a rookie who was summoned to the MENCS quicker than expected after Carl Edwards’ sudden retirement over the offseason, the early struggles were anticipated. However, for JGR’s three veterans, all of whom made the Round of 8 last season, the fact that each team continues to struggle has to be concerning.

At this point last season, three of JGR’s drivers had already won at least one race, and the fourth teammate was within a month of his first victory. This year, all four of the team’s stars find themselves winless, in danger of missing the postseason.

It isn’t time to panic just yet. Busch’s early showings and previous track record indicates that he’s good for one or more victories sometime this season, and the odds are strong that both Hamlin and Kenseth may be able to point their way into the playoffs even if they can’t reach victory lane.

Still, when compared to how strong they were just one year ago, JGR’s 2017 has to be enough to at least make the organization nervous, especially as pseudo-teammate Martin Truex, Jr., continues to contend on a weekly basis.

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