NASCAR at the Break
By: Pete Pistone - @PPistone | MRN.com on March 23, 2016 | 9:15 A.M. EST
Five weeks are gone in the 2016 NASCAR season and Pete Pistone looks at 10 takeaways heading into the Easter weekend break. (Photo: Getty Images)
New Rules a Hit
The lower downforce aerodynamic rules package NASCAR introduced this season has been an unquestionable success. Although it’s a small sample size to be sure, the four races after the Daytona 500 that have employed the much anticipated rules package have all delivered exactly what NASCAR was hoping for; compelling races with tire management, tight competition and entertaining racing. So far so good.
Johnson Returns to Form
Only a guy like Jimmie Johnson can have an “off” year like the one he had last season, you know when he made the Chase and won five races. But Johnson is definitely a victim of his success as many viewed his 2015 campaign as a down performance. He’s already made two trips to Victory Lane this year and told the media last week after his Auto Club Speedway win he doesn’t fell his team is still performing at the top of its game. That might be bad news for the rest of the field.
Cream Rises to the Top
Last year Joe Gibbs Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Team Penske and Stewart-Haas Racing combined to win 35 of the 36 Sprint Cup Series races. That quartet is a perfect five for five this year. Rule changes or not, the sport continues to be ruled by the powerhouse organizations in the garage area and there’s no reason to believe they’ll dominate again in 2016.
Furniture Row Transition
The lone team to break through in the win column outside the four powers was Furniture Row Racing, when Martin Truex Jr. took the victory in Pocono. This year FRR is by proxy a member of the big four, thanks to its alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing. But it’s been a bit of a bumpy transition so far for the team with penalties, crew chief Cole Pearn serving a one race suspension and Truex Jr. involved in a tangle with Joey Logano last week in Fontana that may have a carryover effect. Last year’s Cinderella story is having a little difficulty getting this year’s glass slipper to fit so far in 2016.
There are four drivers signed up to run for Sprint Cup Series Rookie of the Year this season but two have by far been the standouts early on. Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney have both turned heads in the first five races while Chris Buescher and Brian Scott adjust to their new surroundings. Elliott in particular has been impressive while running at the front of the field most of the year and knocking down top-10 finishes. Blaney’s run with the storied Wood Brothers Racing organization hasn’t been too far behind and many believe either of the talented freshman drivers might find their way to Victory Lane before the year is over.
Dillon Shines at RCR
Austin Dillon has been the best driver out of the Richard Childress Racing stable this year by a long shot. His teammates Ryan Newman and Paul Menard have gotten out of the gate slowly while Dillon runs near the front of the field every week and has turned in a pair of top-10 finishes. Like Elliott and Blaney, a Dillon trip to Victory Lane for his first career Sprint Cup Series win would not be a surprise.
The news isn’t as promising for another third year Cup driver in Kyle Larson. The Chip Ganassi Racing pilot is mirroring the start to the year he suffered last year and has not lived up to the promise so many had after he won Rookie of the Year honors two seasons ago. Larson was thought to be a driver who would excel with the looser handling cars the lower downforce package has created because of his previous dirt track experience but it has not translated at least for now.
Kasey Kahne had hoped to rebound from a dismal 2015 season but unfortunately has picked up where he left off. There was a top-10 run in Las Vegas but other than that, Kahne and crew chief Keith Rodden continue to search for ways to get the Hendrick Motorsports No. 5 car anywhere close to what the other three drivers in Johnson, Elliott and Dale Earnhardt Jr. have shown.
Small Steps for Roush Fenway
Roush Fenway Racing spent another off-season trying to find an answer for its recent woes. The changes the team made internally appears to have paid some dividends with a little better performance than last year, notably by Ricky Stenhouse Jr. who scored a top-five last week at Auto Club Speedway. But it continues to be a struggle for veteran Greg Biffle and Trevor Bayne.
Cup Drivers Dominate XFINITY Series
The XFINITY Series introduced a Chase championship system this year but so far only Sprint Cup interlopers have won the five races held. Kyle Busch won three straight after Chase Elliott won at Daytona. The streak ended last week in Fontana when Austin Dillon prevailed in a wild finish. It’s been best in class for the series regulars in the early going with Daniel Suarez and Erik Jones of the Joe Gibbs Racing organization doing their best to keep pace with the Cup drivers.