Hard to believe the 2018 NASCAR Cup Series season has already hit the halfway point, but that’s where we’re at as the tour hits Kentucky Speedway for Saturday night’s Quaker State 400, the 19th of 36 races this year.
Man, time flies, although I wanted it to stand still Saturday night at Daytona, or at least have the Coke Zero Sugar 400 go on all night long. Lots of wrecks and I’m not a big fan of them, but there were two “big ones” that wiped out all the top contenders and both wrecks appeared to be caused by Ricky Stenhouse Jr. who won the July Daytona race last season.
The effect of the wrecks was the lure of possibly seeing a first time Cup winner as the laps wound down. Mixed in among all the names driving small budget teams that were genuine contenders was Martin Truex Jr., who was leading with one lap to go in overtime. But for the second time this season at Daytona the eventual winner would lead only one lap, the last lap. Erik Jones, a Joe Gibbs Racing teammate of Kyle Busch, won his first Cup race and paid out at 30-to-1 odds.
First off, it was so refreshing to see a new face in the winner’s circle. It was also great seeing plate racing with all its randomness and seeing drivers like A.J. Allmendinger and Ty Dillon lead some laps. Jeffrey Earnhardt finished 11th and the South Point’s Brendan Gaughan 12th. I loved it all!
And what ended up being the cherry on top of this amazing NASCAR dessert was Dale Earnhardt Jr. calling the race for NBC. It was like this big gift wrapped present to me with all my wishes coming true as if Santa Claus was listening in July. The only thing I didn’t get was a winning ticket, but I still had a smile on my face. I got a competitive race, a new winner and great coverage on TV capped off by Junior, the rookie broadcaster. He’s entertaining, but also very knowledgeable about his sport.
The TV ratings have gotten a much-needed boost as well after sagging for most of the season. NBC saw gains two weeks ago at Chicagoland over the 2017 numbers and on Saturday night they won the night on television. Junior and his army of fans are watching and it’s registering. Most all we’re being entertained with his charm.
By the way, did anyone see or hear from NASCAR CEO and Chairman Brian France while attendance and TV ratings were sagging? The last time I heard his name was when Wall Street put NASCAR’s name out there for a possible sale. It’s like he’s run away and hid under his pillow until the scary monster goes away, like a big baby. It’s not very good leadership, and I think it starts from the top and filters down. Anyway, things are getting better because of Junior’s fans tuning in more.
This week’s Kentucky race is the seventh of 11 on 1.5-mile tracks and the second in the past three weeks. Kyle Busch’s bumping and banging his way to a Chicagoland win was great TV and it was the most exciting of the previous five races on 1.5s. Kyle has three wins on them and Kevin Harvick has the other three. That’s it, and where the great divide is.
Something else happened at Chicagoland that gives hope someone other than Busch, Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. won’t win this week. I throw Truex in the group because he’s won three races this season and seven of the 11 on 1.5s last season. Harvick’s teammate Aric Almirola was dominating at Chicago leading four times for 70 laps and his other Stewart Haas Racing teammate Clint Bowyer led 21 laps. Kyle Larson finished second and led seven laps. Their other teammate Kurt Busch led 20 laps and Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney led 19. There’s hope. Others are catching up.
Last season at Kentucky, Truex rolled and started a string of winning five of the final six races on 1.5s, culminating with his first Cup Series Championship. Kyle Busch won the inaugural Cup race at Kentucky in 2011 and again in 2015. His then-teammate Matt Kenseth – in the No. 20 Jones now drives – won in 2013. But in between in all the even years, it’s been Brad Keselowski winning there. He’s like the San Francisco Giants of Kentucky Speedway – titles in even years. He won in 2012, 2014 and 2016. His car hasn’t been as strong as then, but he was fourth at Charlotte and second at Atlanta.
I’m going with Keselowski this week in a selection distorted a bit from reality, mixed in with a lot of hope and wishful thinking. But I will be betting him to win anyway.