A funny thing happened over the weekend as I took a rare break from NASCAR for another experience in the NHRA world. It meant paying no mind to what was going on in Dover with the Xfinity Series and Cup Series. With how busy I ended up being in the NHRA pit, I did not pay attention to social media, press conferences, or storylines.
And yet, I didn’t miss a thing. As the dust settled on Dover, it wound up being more of what we’ve seen through the first part of the season. It didn’t take much time for me to catch up on the headlines.
The regular season is starting to fly by now, and the contenders and pretenders are clear.
The resurgence of Hendrick Motorsports continues, and I couldn’t be the only one surprised that the 1-2-3-4 finish was the first in company history. Alex Bowman as the team’s first repeat winner? I didn’t see that coming either. But the No. 48 team is turning the ship around after a rocky start the season where the speed was there, but the execution was not.
All four cars are legitimate contenders, something that hasn’t been the case for Hendrick in a while. And it bears repeating – William Byron and Rudy Fugle deserve more attention and respect than they’ve been getting. Byron now has 11 straight top-10 finishes, and this group believes the sky is the limit.
Sure, Joe Gibbs Racing didn’t have the best of days in Dover, but that’s bound to happen. It’s a long season. Denny Hamlin continues to have a firm grip on the points lead and claim of the regular-season title. He hasn’t won a race, but there is no way he can be locked out all season with how the No. 11 team is running. Gibbs is another one that has four legitimate contenders.
If the Hendrick and Gibbs teams are leading the way, Team Penske isn’t far behind. It’s not that far, either. Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, and Ryan Blaney all have won and are keeping pace with their competitors in the top-10 finishes category. A few more dominating performances could help sway the conversation on just how strong the company is.
As you start to look further down the leaderboard, others are starting to state their case for being in the playoff conversation. There have been 10 different winners in 13 races, and it remains unlikely there will be 16 or more in the regular season. Sorry to burst the bubble, but it’s just not going to happen.
Think about who is left without a win. Chase Elliott, Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin immediately come to mind. Wins from those three would bring it to 13 winners. From there, no one else has proven they are ready to go out and flat-out take a victory.
Granted, anything can happen. There are still some so-called wild card races coming up, and many would point to the road courses as COTA, Sonoma, Road America, Watkins Glen, and Indianapolis all remain. But again, without something wonky happening, who has shown enough to put faith in their ability to beat the top teams?
For argument’s sake, maybe a Richard Childress Racing car. They are just sneaky enough and have done so before in the regular season. Don’t think too hard; just go back to Texas last season with Austin Dillon and Tyler Reddick finishing first and second. Reddick and his team have turned things around quickly to climb into postseason contention, going from 28th in points after Atlanta to 15th entering this weekend’s round at COTA.
Stewart-Haas Racing is working hard, and Harvick’s team shows signs of life, but the other three are struggling. If you’re a Stewart-Haas fan, you might want to look at sending some lucky charms to their Kannapolis, North Carolina shop.
Kurt Busch is one hell of a wheelman but can only do so much. Busch’s Ganassi Chevrolet is just not doing what he needs it to do, and he can’t compete with the likes of Hendrick, Gibbs, and even Harvick. This might be the season where it goes down the wire to see if Busch qualifies for the playoffs, as he’s 18th in the standings here in mid-May.
Who else? No-one setting the world on fire.
After Matt DiBenedetto and Wood Brothers Racing put in such a great effort last year in their first season together, the expectation was to pick up where they left off. It’s been more of a struggle this season, and DiBenedetto has been very hot or cold. Darrell Wallace Jr. and 23XI Racing have shown progress, but admittedly, I expected more from them by this point. Chalk it up to growing pains.
Ryan Newman and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. are also too inconsistent to make the case they are serious contenders. Ross Chastain is there one weekend, and then it’s easy to forget he’s competing the next.
It was great to start the season with such parity, but things are settling down and normalizing now. The top contenders are no surprise; however, it is interesting to see which one will get the upper hand each weekend. That includes amongst teammates.
It was still fun to take a stock car break, and I’m looking forward to the sport doing something new this weekend at COTA. I just expect that in the end, things will continue to look just as they have been.