Roger Diez: NASCAR hits the road for exciting action
The Watkins Glen road course provided the usual exciting racing in both the NASCAR Xfinity series and the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup series last weekend. Kyle Busch won the Xfinity race on Saturday, but a pit miscue and an altercation with Brad Keselowski at the inner loop killed his chances at a sweep. Instead, Martin Truex Jr. stretched his fuel to take the Cup victory on Sunday, just a few car lengths ahead of a charging Matt Kenseth. It was redemption for Truex’s loss at Sonoma, where he had the dominant car but succumbed to engine failure. The Busch/Keselowski incident was another in a long string of altercations between the two drivers, who probably won’t be trading Christmas cards this year.
Truex now has four wins and sits atop the Cup point standings, with by far the most playoff points in his pocket. If Truex doesn’t go on to win his first championship, I’ll be surprised. Busch has passed Kyle Larson for second in the point standings, and with four races left in the regular season, there are 13 drivers who have wins to lock them into the playoffs. It’s still possible we will end up with 17 winners on the season. That would eliminate the lowest point-scoring winner from the playoffs, and Austin Dillon is in that position as of now.
This weekend’s race at Michigan is Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s best chance to score a win and qualify for the playoffs. He has won twice at the two-mile high speed oval. Kenseth, also looking for his first 2017 victory, has three Michigan wins to his credit. In all, 11 currently active Cup drivers have visited the track’s victory circle. Kurt Busch has three wins; two-time winners are Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin, Ryan Newman, and Kyle Larson, who has won the last two Michigan outings; and drivers with a single victory are Kasey Kahne, Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, and Kevin Harvick. Michigan native Brad Keselowski is on the pole, which is good news for him. Five out of the last eight Michigan races have been won from the pole. His Penske Ford teammate Joey Logano will start from the outside of the front row, and he desperately needs a win to make the playoffs. So I’m guessing it’s going to be a battle royal between the teammates.
Silly season continues, and it’s apparent there’s a serious youth movement changing the Cup garage, with drivers in their teens and 20s replacing veterans in their late 30s and early 40s. Erik Jones will replace Kenseth in the No. 20 Toyota, Alex Bowman is taking over Junior’s No. 88 Chevy, and Kasey Kahne’s replacement is the young phenom, William Byron, who scored five wins in the Camping World Truck series in 2016 and has three wins in this season’s Xfinity series. As of this writing, Kurt Busch’s contract at Stewart-Haas hasn’t been renewed, and there are rumors Danica Patrick may be released from her contract a year early due to sponsorship issues. The excitement isn’t over by any means, folks!
Speaking of excitement, Chevrolet rolled out its 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup car last week, and it’s a big surprise! The venerable SS is being replaced with a Camaro ZL1, and the pictures look amazing. Jimmie Johnson was on hand for the unveiling, as were representatives from all the Chevrolet Cup teams. The car will make its debut at Daytona for the 2018 Speedweeks. I’m sure the NASCAR tech people will be spending the time between now and then coming up with templates and programs for the laser inspection station in order to make sure the new cars are legal. When I first got involved in racing, Mark Donohue was driving a Camaro Z28 for Roger Penske in the Trans-Am series, so the car has a nostalgic vibe for me. Not to mention the first new car I ever bought was a 1967 Camaro RS. Every time Hot August Nights rolls around, I wish I still had it.