SCRANTON, Pa. — Column by Race Chaser Online Northeast Correspondent Kyle Magda — Johnathan Ferrey/Getty Images North America photo —
With the Easter holiday fast approaching, NASCAR’s top-three series take their first break of 2016 this weekend.
Five races are in the books for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and NASCAR XFINITY Series after last weekend’s races at the two-mile Auto Club Speedway in southern California, and heading into the break, here’s some reflections on five things I’ve learned so far this year between the top three divisions.
1. Call Him “No Luck” Larson; California Native Still Seeking First Cup Win
Kyle Larson has had to be frustrated over the past four months, dating back to last November’s Sprint Cup finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
He ran down Brad Keselowski in the closing laps of that race, until the caution flew for a piece of sheet metal on the track. Larson had won the XFINITY race the day before, and was trying to break the goose-egg in his win column at NASCAR’s top level. Ultimately, it didn’t pan out — as Kyle Busch drove to win both the race and the championship that night — but since then, the 23-year-old driver can’t catch a break.
He kept pace with Kyle Busch in the NXS race at Atlanta, just to fall a half-second short on the worn-out 1.5-mile track, before the No. 42 team completely missed the setup in the Cup race and finished 26th, three laps down.
Auto Club appeared to be another chance for the third-year Cup driver, having a career-best finish of second there two years ago. Tires came back into equation both days, though, and Larson suffered failures on Saturday and Sunday that both kept the young gun out of victory lane and left him sore on Monday morning — a hard lick on the backstretch sitting him down for a planned sprint car start this week at Placerville Speedway as well.
2. Bowyer, HScott Motorsports Struggling
Clint Bowyer’s 18th-place finish Sunday was his season-best with his HScott Motorsports team, but it’s still hardly what he and the organization are looking for.
The No. 15 car hasn’t gotten off to the best start in 2016 — starting off the year with back-to-back showings outside the top-30 — and it means Bowyer already sits in a deep hole, currently 31st in points and needing to get into the top-30 with a win to have any shot of making this year’s Chase.
I really thought Bowyer could come out of the gate strong with his new team, but that hasn’t necessarily been the case. Two lead-lap finishes in the season’s first-five races have confidence lacking, but Martinsville is up next weekend and could be a turning point for the group, as Bowyer performs better on short tracks.
3. JGR’s XFINITY Series Program Is Back on Top
It seems that an offseason number change back to No. 18 has puts Joe Gibbs Racing back where it belongs in the XFINITY ranks: first.
Busch is back and running 15 events in the machine to give three-time defending Owners champions Team Penske a run for their money this season, and so far, the decision has paid dividends with three wins and four top fives in the first five races of the season.
JGR is the class of the field in the XFINITY Series, and I don’t expect it to stop anytime soon. They’ve swept the top three in qualifying for four straight races, and locked out the finishing podium in two of the last three. While a flat tire narrowly cost Busch the win at Fontana, the series goes to Texas in two weeks for a Friday-night, under-the-lights race which has produced two first-time winners in as many spring races but has also seen the Las Vegas nab victory four times — most recently in 2013.
Daniel Suarez nearly got his first series win at Fontana after passing the defending Cup champ until the No. 19 Interstate Batteries Toyota ran out of gas. Busch kept chugging along while Suarez slipped to fourth in the final rundown. Erik Jones contends each-and-every week for a victory, but bad luck has kept the 19-year-old driver out of victory lane so far in 2016.
Matt Tifft will also drive a JGR car in 2016, running 10 races in the No. 18 Toyota starting with Richmond in April. This young driver needs more good luck to go his way after finishing the 2015 NASCAR season with five top-10 finishes in the Camping World Truck Series for Kyle Busch Motorsports, but look for him to be strong and lean on Busch’s success as he tries to establish his own footing in the series where “Names are Made”.
Make no mistake, there’s only one name you need to know right now in XFINITY competition, and that name is Gibbs.
They’ve come out and said to the field, “Here we are, now catch us if you can,” and for everyone else? That should be very worrisome indeed.
4. Grip Prevails in Fontana; Tire Wear Important All Weekend
Mistakes proved to be costly at Fontana, with tire wear and drivers who had grip towards the end of this past weekend’s races prevailing as the winners.
Kyle Busch ran inside the top-five in both races until two flat-tires, notably while leading Saturday’s TreatMyClot.com 300 when the left-rear tire went down on the No. 18 NOS Toyota Camry on the last lap.
Austin Dillon ultimately got the run to the outside and bypassed Busch to end his three-race winning streak and post his first NASCAR victory of 2016, but something I noticed in the race’s final run were the very slow lap times being run by the entire field. When the final caution flew on lap 101, teams got into their fuel windows and drivers tried to hang on in the final stint and not lose much track time to the leaders — meaning the tires were shot.
The same case happened Sunday, with Busch once again getting a flat tire while running second with two laps to go in the Cup race. A possible sweep was in hand up to the white flag in the XFINITY race and the defending Cup champ took a runner-up finish, but that wasn’t the case Sunday with a 25th-place showing.
5. Don’t Tug on Superman’s Cape; Johnson Becomes First-Cup Multiple Winner in 2016
A new driver out there deserves the name “The Closer,” because Kevin Harvick has lost his grip on the title.
Six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson has gone out and seized the point when it matters most this year, with two late race charges resulting in two victories to kick off 2016. Fittingly, the driver he has had to beat in both those races was Harvick. The No. 48 team hasn’t lost their mojo one bit, even though crew chief Chad Knaus still isn’t all too pleased with the team’s performance.
Harvick was always known for being “The Closer” for coming at the end of races and winning them. Since winning the Cup title in 2014, that hasn’t been the case.
Harvick has 15 runner-up finishes since the championship, including one at last season’s finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway to Kyle Busch. The No. 4 car is the fastest almost each and every week, but the team lacks short run speed towards the end. Restarts appear to be Harvick’s Achilles heel over the past season, and it reminds me of a certain driver who led a handful of laps in the mid-1990s during his championship years and wasn’t particularly good on restarts. Does the name Jeff Gordon ring a bell?
Harvick did win Phoenix last week in one of the closest finishes in series history, but it’s almost a given when NASCAR goes there — he’s been in victory lane a track-best eight times there.
As far as overall, though, his closing ability needs work. Otherwise, he may be relegated to the bridesmaid position again when the real battle rolls around this fall: the battle for another Sprint Cup title.
The opinions expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of Race Chaser Online, Speed77 Radio, the Performance Motorsports Network, their sponsors or other contributors.
About the Writer
Kyle Magda is a Northeast Correspondent for Race Chaser Online and a co-host of both Motorsports Madness and the Stock Car Steel/SRI Motorsports Show, airing at 7 p.m. ET on Monday and Thursday nights, respectively, on the Performance Motorsports Network. Magda broke into racing in mid-2001 as the sport’s tide was beginning to change towards the current modern-era formula, but still has an affinity for the history of NASCAR’s earlier days.
The 22-year-old is a graduate of Penn State University and can be found traveling to numerous tracks across the country, covering everything from NASCAR and the ARCA Racing Series to the UNOH All-Stars Circuit of Champions and the Super Cup Stock Car Series.
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