The 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series has (roughly) reached its halfway point. So, as the Series take the turn for its second trip around to a number of tracks, I figure it’s a good time to take a look back at the season’s first 17 points events and take stock of where we are and how we got there.
The biggest surprise of the year to this point has to be Kyle Larson. The 24-year old, fourth-year driver is your current points leader — who has two wins and went on an insane streak of second-place finishes earlier in the year. Larson’s success has been part of a larger resurgence at Chip Ganassi Racing. Larson’s teammate Jamie McMurray is currently eighth in the points standings despite having no wins.
If you had told me the season would be half over and Joe Gibbs Racing would not have a Cup win, I’d call you crazy. Roush-Fenway has a win, their first since 2014; Richard Childress Racing has two wins, their first since 2014; the Wood Brothers picked up their first win since 2011. In the 16 races, only Martin Truex Jr. has a win for the Toyota camp. Now, will Gibbs go the entire 36 races without a win? Doubtful. But it is shocking that we have reached this point without a win for Gibbs.
All that being said, a Gibbs driver will probably win at Daytona this week.
I’m not surprised that Dale Earnhardt Jr. has decided to call it quits after this year. I am surprised at how poorly he and Kasey Kahne have run this year. Kahne and Earnhardt are 21st and 22nd respectively in the current standings. Not surprisingly, Jimmie Johnson leads the Series with three wins and Chase Elliott is sixth in points. Don’t bet against those two being the only two standing at Hendrick next year.
I don’t think anyone didn’t expect Ford to be better in 2017 with the addition of Stewart-Haas Racing this year. But, I don’t think anyone would have expected to see four of the Ford teams grabbing wins this early in the year. Roush and the Woods have one win. Steward-Haas has two and Penske has three. Clint Bowyer has been close and is 11th in points. Ford hasn’t won a manufacturer’s championship since 2002.
From an overall series perspective, I think it’s safe to say the state of NASCAR is not strong. Last week’s television ratings from Sonoma were the lowest for NASCAR’s premier Series since 1998. While NASCAR and the tracks don’t announce attendance numbers, it doesn’t take a genius to see the stands are nowhere close to full. The changes implemented before the year to the race format have not had the effect NASCAR had hoped. Sure, the stage racing has made some scrambles and interesting strategy calls running up to the stage cautions, the format doesn’t overcome the inherit racing limitations the cars are facing now.
If NASCAR doesn’t face the fact that aero is a bigger problem than ever, the problem isn’t getting any better.
Those problems, of course, are moving down to teams. Sponsorship woes continue to plague teams. Stewart-Haas has unsold races for Bowyer and Danica Patrick. Hendrick had unsold races for Kahne and Earnhardt. There have been more than a handful of races this year with short fields, even with the move to 40 starters from 43 last year. You have seen some of the smaller teams go with a hot-seat driver based on who can bring money. In the Xfinity Series, Roush shuttered Bubba Wallace’s team that was running in the top 10 in the points standings. In the trucks, long-term team Red Horse Racing shut its doors due to sponsorship woes.
I’m not trying to paint 2017 with a big ol’ negative brush. There has been some exciting racing at times. Last week at Sonoma was a perfect example. The problem is, those moments have been too few and far between. I appreciate the dilemma NASCAR faces. The same people complain about the current state of the sport and then turn around and complain about any changes or suggested changes. You can’t have both. If there are things that don’t work, you need change. But then any change isn’t received well.
Here’s hoping for an improved product for the remaining 20 races of 2017 and some renewed interest in the sport.
Andy Cagle writes a wekly NASCAR column. He can be reached at email@example.com.