ATW: Playoff power, rookie resurgence and comments with context

Nigel Kinrade/NKP

By Aaron Bearden, Motorsports Editor

“There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home.”

So utters Dorthy Gale (portrayed by Judy Garland) in the 1939 classic “The Wizard of Oz”, yearning for a return to her home in Kansas amid a wild adventure.

There might not have been as many waiting desperately to head to Kansas Speedway, but Saturday’s Go Bowling 400 incited a feeling similar to Gale’s return home as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series returned to the brunt of their schedule following a five-race span that included three short track and the restrictor plate Talladega Superspeedway.

What resulted over the course of 400 miles was a strong battle on the 1.5-mile midwest oval, with Martin Truex, Jr. and Ryan Blaney dueling through multiple late restarts before the latter driver was cycled out at the end of the race.

Unfortunately, the biggest takeaway from Kansas will be the injury to series stalwart Aric Almirola following as vicious crash late in the event – and rightfully so. But there were many other things to observe on the beautiful spring night, including the following takeaways.

Martin Truex, Jr. continues to game the new playoff system

The smile of a man in championship contention. (Photo: Russell LaBounty/NKP)

Ask most fans who the top teams through the early part of the season have been, and many will utter the names of Team Penske drivers Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, points leader Kyle Larson or defending champion Jimmie Johnson.

However, while each of those drivers have performed admirably in their own right, it’s Truex that’s positioned to gain the biggest advantage on his competitors under the new playoff system.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone given their incredible 2016 campaign, but Truex and Furniture Row Racing have immediately gone back to contending for wins and top fives on a weekly basis through the first third of the 2017 Cup series season.

Most importantly, they’ve been in contention for the entire race. 

Many drivers have tallied wins and solid finishes at this point, but none have been in the picture throughout an entire event like Truex’s No. 78 Toyota thus far.

Truex’s win on Saturday was his second of 2017, tying him with Keselowski and Johnson for the most victories in the paddock, but the Mayetta, New Jersey native stands alone at the top of the playoff point standings with 15 points courtesy of five stage wins in the young season.

In terms of overall stage points, Larson leads the way with 137 markers, but Truex sits right behind him in second with 131 points. Larson also holds the edge on Truex in the overall standings by 44 markers, but Truex’s eight-point edge on Larson in playoff points as they run means that the 12th-year star would enter the playoffs as the points leader if they began today, even after bonus points for the top 10 in regular season finishers were distributed.

It was fitting that Truex earned the advantage at Kansas, a track that he’s dominated on nearly every lap but the one the pays in recent seasons. If he can continue on at the current pace, the 36-year-old may also be poised to avenge a 2016 that saw an immaculate season cut short of greatness by nagging problems in the playoffs.

Returns to Form

Just five days ago, this humble writer filed a column for Motorsports Tribune detailing a list of drivers that would be happy to return to a 1.5-mile oval in Kansas.

Come the checkered flag, many of those included on the list – Ryan Blaney, Kyle Busch and Daniel Suarez among them – were left celebrating strong runs on the intermediate oval.

The past month had been cruel to Blaney. Save for his breakout, stage-winning performance at Texas Motor Speedway, the Wood Brothers Racing shoe hadn’t managed a single run inside of the top 20, with three finishes outside of the top 30 in a dismal slog that saw the series sophomore drop to within striking distance of those outside of the playoff bubble.

Ryan Blaney’s Kansas success came at a crucial time. (Photo: Nigel Kinrade/NKP)

One race later, and Blaney’s team is again full of momentum after a run that was showed such promise that the team was disappointed with a fourth-place result.

“It kind of stinks,” Blaney said. “I think that it says a lot about this team to go out and lead some laps and go have a shot and win races.”

In the case of Suarez, a leave of short track and restrictor plate racing brought a much-needed reprieve amid an unexpected rookie season. The Monterrey, Mexico native put together a formidable drive to tally his third seventh-place performance of the year, and his first top 10 since the final race of the West Coast Swing at Auto Club Speedway. Pseudo teammate Erik Jones struggled, but fellow rookie Ty Dillon also impressed in a 14th-place run for Germain Racing.

For Busch, Saturday’s performance was actually worse than his drive at Talladega Superspeedway on paper – netting only a fifth-place result. But his No. 18 Toyota was a strong contender throughout the night, one of the first genuine signs of life from a team (Joe Gibbs Racing) that’s looked to be a step behind at times this season.

Plus, there was the whole “real racetrack” comment last week, but never mind that.

Danica Comments Require Context

Danica Patrick’s night as Wonder Woman came to an abrupt end. (Photo: : Nigel Kinrade/NKP)

Danica Patrick’s comments to FOX Sports after her involvement in a heavy crash at Kansas were met with considerable angst from fans after she – at least in the mind of some – appeared to put her own frustrations ahead of concern for injured driver Aric Almirola. However, arguments over whether Patrick’s comments, or the subsequent backlash, were warranted or not serve only to bury the true lede – that NASCAR’s best female driver continues to suffer setbacks amid the worst season of her five-year Cup series career.

Say what you will of Patrick’s comments in relation to the then-unknown condition of Almirola, but observed in the context of her season the frustration is understandable.

It hasn’t been an easy season for Patrick. While longtime boyfriend Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., has finally found the path to success, Patrick continues to come across issue after issue among a highly frustrating debut with Ford.

While her Stewart-Haas Racing teammates have come firing out of the gate, each with top fives and Kurt Busch with a victory in the Daytona 500, Patrick has failed to register so much as a top 10. In a year in which her biggest story has been the unexpected loss of a primary sponsor in Nature’s Bakery, the 35-year-old driver has seen her average finish drop from a career-best 22.0 to her worst mark – a paltry 28.1.

As a result, Patrick finds herself in an unprecedentedly low position in the standings. The Roscoe, Illinois native currently sits 33rd in points, behind such names at Matt DiBenedetto and Cole Whitt, respectable talents who drive in equipment that can best be described as underfunded by comparison.

For a while, it appeared Saturday night would be a different tale.

Running at Kansas, a good track statistically and the site of one of her six-career top 10s, Patrick was poised to contend for a top 15 and perhaps even a top 10 when Joey Logano’s freak issues instigated one of the worst crashes in recent NASCAR memory.

That Patrick was even within range of someone like Logano – one of the sport’s best, currently sitting inside of the top five in the standings even after an L1-level penalty, shows just how strong the Illinois native’s No. 10 Ford was, and just why the latest in a string of brutal accidents for Patrick might have stung a bit worse than the others.

“I am just frustrated for the lack of breaks I get,” Patrick said. “It seems like every time things are going better and something happens I get crashed or am in a crash. Especially a place like this, a brake rotor, when we are using 200-300 pounds of pressure seems odd.”

In fairness, Patrick’s poor performance in the track of late is often what leaves her in prime position to crash in the first place. But given her brutal luck this season – with five DNFs for crashes and a blown motor in 11 races – and the probable shock that comes with a hit as hard as her machine took in Saturday’s crash, the former Verizon IndyCar Series winner’s flustered demeanor and bitter comments upon leaving the infield care center are at least marginally understandable.

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