One-third of the way through the 2017 Monster Energy Cup season and here are my NASCAR observations. The dominance that Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) had last year was purely on the engineering side– with the newly-introduced low-downforce package. Toyota nailed it better than the other manufacturers in 2016, and that’s why JGR was the dominant team, especially early. In the end, Jimmie Johnson won it because he’s the smartest driver, who works best with his crew chief (Chad Knaus, below) and the rest of their team. I expect him to be in it again at Homestead, along with Martin Truex, Jr, Kyle Larson (all above), and a Penske driver.
Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) is a mess, with sponsorship issues and a glaring lack-of-performance from top-paid driver Kurt Busch, who won Daytona this spring but has completely checked-out since. He’s suing his agent over money, which must be creating friction throughout the entire organization, as it paints SHR as a ‘second choice’ for Kurt Busch . Kurt Busch seems to get involved in a lot of lawsuits and conflicts:
In the #14 car, Clint Bowyer has neither sponsorship nor a win, despite consistently having winning speed. He needs to perform or bring in money, or he’ll be out after 2017. Kevin Harvick is their top-performing driver, and the best chance for SHR to reach Homestead.
At least one JGR (Kyle Busch), and both Penske drivers have proven more consistent speed & performance than any SHR driver so far. Winning at Homestead depends very much on changes made during the season. Last year was a textbook example. The smartest crew chiefs and team owners (Penske & Hendrick) make a huge difference for their teams & drivers. Expect that to continue…
Last at SHR is Danica Patrick, who is out there to make money for everyone. Her fans understand this and don’t mind too much, as long as she isn’t being wrecked. Wonder Woman (above) was another iconic sponsor for her, as she continues to lasso in the money. You can’t lie to that.
Even Nature’s Bakery insisted on her for two races, after falsely claiming she was the reason they had failed to pay their bills, as part of their settlement with SHR . Obviously SHR is recouping as much as they can from Nature’s Bakery, without putting the fig-bar company into bankruptcy.
The suit was over $31M owed to SHR, through Nature’s Bakery’s 2-year sponsorship deal with Danica Patrick. NB failed miserably at executing any kind for business plan that would capitalize on having a global icon marketing their brand. People often say that one person isn’t bigger than an institution, but that is incorrect in this media age. Danica is an icon, and Nature’s Bakery are a bunch of yahoo’s from Las Vegas, who had no idea what they were getting into with NASCAR sponsorship.
The fallout is that everyone here has to swallow some bad medicine to make this go away. Two races each for Danica & Clint Bowyer settled this lawsuit & counter-suit. This gets the #14 car (quite possibly) the only sponsorship it will have all season. Danica Patrick is presumably asked to quietly acquiesce to all this “for the good of the team.” That’s what happens when you’re a superstar and everyone knows it, which makes everyone else jealous, so they give you a 25th-place car every week…
That’s the dysfunction that is SHR (2017 above), and I can easily see this team replacing drivers and reducing to 3 cars next season, with Kurt Busch & Clint Bowyer being the most-likely cut candidates. This is a business, and there is too much waste at SHR. It can’t continue for much longer with these meager results.
Miscellaneous ‘Monster Mile’ Notes:
Dale Earnhardt Jr is pretty much cooked as a competitive driver. He’s winless in 2017 and currently 22nd in points. Another speeding penalty on pit road at the end of Dover, cost him a chance at a top-5 finish. He was running in back all day, and got a lucky break late (along with 6-7 other cars including Danica Patrick), when a caution came out as everyone else had already pitted on green. Junior got 4 fresh tires and came out 10th, until he was penalized and had to go to the back of the lead lap (16th). He finished 11th, which gets him no Cup points.
Kyle Busch’s #18 Toyota lost a left rear tire as it exited pit road on the first stop. Busch’s crew chief could face major penalties for the detached wheel, as none of the 5 lug nuts were attached. The rule (written in 2015) states that “loss of wheel(s) due to improper installation will result in a mandatory minimum four-race suspension of the crew chief and the tire changer and tire carrier of the lost wheel(s).”
Then again the #18 team may not be sanctioned at all, as JGR is already lobbying for a free pass . When there are rules, and the puppet-masters adjust them by ‘judgment of intent’ on a case-by-case basis, then you have the anarchy that is NASCAR.
Final Dover update 6-8-17: