Does both wins overshadow JGR’s deficiencies? Will Penske get back going? Why stage points matter too

The Toyota camp talked a few weeks ago about how they feel like they’ve constantly been playing a high speed game of guessing lately. While they’ve been working hard back at the shop and the drivers doing everything they can possibly do to prepare each week, they just felt like they were constantly playing catch up. They also genuinely felt like they’ve definitely been lacking in the speed department compared to the other two manufacturers since the addition of the new Next Gen race car too.

Combined?

2 wins in nearly a half of a season.

The problem with that is, with a short amount of practice time being allotted each weekend, they’re basically guessing coming to the race track each week. If it doesn’t work what they’ve brought to the race track, well then they’re just off for the race. There’s honestly not enough time between practice and qualifying on most weekend’s to get things done because after quals, the cars are impounded. So what you barely learned in practice can’t be altered for the race.

As a result, they were riding a 12 race winless drought dating back to last season before Denny Hamlin stormed through the field for a win two weeks ago in Richmond. He led 5 laps that day. The final 5.

Kyle Busch won Sunday’s Bristol Dirt race. He led one lap all day. The final one. With 6 combined laps led in between the two drivers in their two victories, does having a win overshadow their lack of pace still or are they getting closer?

They’ve won 2 of the last 3 weeks. Are they back?

Hamlin had pace in Richmond in the end. His two teammates of Christopher Bell and Martin Truex Jr. had the best two cars prior. Hamlin, arguably was 4th out of 4 among the JGR camp that afternoon but his No. 11 Toyota was fast when it needed to be in the end.

For Bristol, Busch was running third in the end. He was nearly 4 second behind the leaders on the final lap but was gifted the win when Tyler Reddick and Chase Briscoe made contact with one another two turns from the finish line.

A win is a win though.

Now, 2 of their 4 drivers at JGR are in the playoffs. If the postseason started today, how would they fare?

While they have work to do, it’s not like any of these races now won’t help for the future in the sense they can be treated as a glorified 3 hour practice session. Even if you’re off, you know what direction not to go in later. That to me is scary for the rest of the field.

Still, we have 8 winners in 9 weeks and a wide open championship to be won. Kyle Larson doesn’t look like Kyle Larson of last year. He sits 9th in points with 2 top fives in his last 3 starts but 5 of his 9 finishes on the year have been 29th or worse too.

BRISTOL, TENNESSEE – APRIL 17: Alex Bowman, driver of the #48 Ally Chevrolet, Joey Logano, driver of the #22 Shell Pennzoil Ford, Chase Elliott, driver of the #9 Kelley Blue Book Chevrolet, and Austin Dillon, driver of the #3 Bass Pro Shops/Tracker Off Road Chevrolet, race during the NASCAR Cup Series Food City Dirt Race at Bristol Motor Speedway on April 17, 2022 in Bristol, Tennessee. (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images)

Chase Elliott won the 2020 title and has 3 straight Championship 4 appearances. He’s leading the points but has 1 top five finish all season. He’s just been solid, but not great. Elliott, has 6 top 10’s in 9 races.

Alex Bowman is 5th in points but only has 2 top fives himself.

William Byron is arguably Hendrick Motorsports’ best driver with two wins and four top five finishes in the last 7 weeks including leading 100 or more laps in 3 of the last 5 races. He’s 4th in points.

Team Penske has 2-3 in points but neither driver has own a race. Ryan Blaney has 4 top five finishes but not are better than fourth place. Joey Logano’s last win was on dirt – a year ago with him scoring just 2 points paying wins in the last 77 races overall. He has 3 top five’s all season. The third driver for the team in Austin Cindric has their long win of the season at Daytona but also has just 1 top 10 the rest of the way too.

That has the championship wide open still and why we can’t discount JGR despite the domination not really happening out of them yet.

Stage points right now are the difference. That’s why Elliott and Blaney are 1-2 in points. Elliott has 83 stage points. Blaney has 81. Byron has 82 and Logano 78. That’s why despite 3 of the 4 of them being winless this season, they’re still 1-2-3-4 in points.

Elliott has no oval wins since 2020. Logano’s last non dirt points paying win came in Oct. 2020.

The thing is, while the door is open, it’s also getting crowed in the doorway into the room too.

Logano does have 2 top 3 finishes in the last 2 weeks and 4 top 10’s in the last 6 overall.

Blaney has 2 straight top five finishes and 4 consecutive top 10’s as well as 5 in the last 6 weeks.

Elliott, has 4 top 10’s in the last 5 weeks.

Byron has 2 top 3’s in the last 3 weeks and 3 in the last 5 weeks overall.

Bowman has 4 top 10’s in the last 5 races.

Larson has 2 top 5’s in the last 3 weeks.

They could be surging.

But, don’t sleep on Kyle Busch either. He has 5 top 10’s in the last 7 weeks. His teammate Christopher Bell is quietly there too with 3 top 7’s in the last 4 weeks. The only reason isn’t not 4 in the last 5 was he was penalized on the final lap in Atlanta despite crossing the finish line 2nd that day.

Ross Chastian has 5 top 5’s in the last 7 races. The RCR duo of Austin Dillon (3 top 10’s last 4) and Tyler Reddick (4 top 7’s in the last 7) are right there too. Combined, they’ve had 3 top 5’s in the last 4 races run with Reddick 5th in COTA, Dillon 3rd in Richmond and Reddick runner-up in Bristol.

The season is starting to separate contenders from pretenders but there’s still a lot of parity among the contenders. 3 of of the 8 winners this season were 1st time winners at that. So, will Talladega this Sunday further shift this further up the column?

60% of the last 10 Cup races at Talladega have seen the victor earning either in their first or second career victories. Its actually happened in at least 1 of their 2 annual races for 5 straight years now.

This weekend, 12 of the expected 40 drivers entered in Sunday’s GEICO 500 are still looking for their first NASCAR Cup Series victory. Those drivers are – Corey LaJoie, Tyler Reddick, Daniel Hemric, Harrison Burton, Todd Gilliland, Ty Dillon, Kaz Grala, Cody Ware, Noah Gragson, Landon Cassill, BJ McLeod and Daniel Suarez.

Cassill is 0-for-329, Dillon is 0-for-175, LaJoie is 0-for-173, Suarez is 0-for-188, McLeod 0-for-92, Reddick 0-for-83, Ware 0-for-64, Hemric is 0-for-41, Burton is 0-for-10, Gilliland is 0-for-9, Grala 0-for-6 and Gragson is 0-for-2.

Then you have guys with long winless droughts too.

Chris Buescher (204 races), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (172 races), Justin Haley (99 races), Erik Jones (92 races), Cole Custer (64 races), Austin Dillon (63 races), Kevin Harvick (52 races), Michael McDowell (44 races), Christopher Bell (43 races), Joey Logano (38 races) and Brad Keselowski (35 races) are riding streaks of a year long.

Keselowski hasn’t won since this race a year ago. Logano hasn’t won since Bristol Dirt last season. McDowell and Bell won the first two races of 2021 at Daytona. The rest haven’t seen victory lane since 2020 or prior.

Which gives? Do you get a first time winner on the season, a first career winner or a usual suspect?

Out of the drivers who’ve won this season (Austin Cindric, Kyle Larson, Alex Bowman, William Byron, Ross Chastain, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Chase Briscoe), only 2 of them have won at Talladega before. Larson has 0 top 5’s in his career there. Busch’s last eight finishes in the Fall Talladega race have been 11th or worse including his last six being 30th, 27th, 26th, 19th, 27th and 27th respectively. He was 32nd and 18th the last two spring races too as well as being 10th or worse in 4 straight spring races.

Something has to give.

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