Jacksonville Sports Day

NASCAR: Kyle Busch Missing Victory Lane

After re-claiming the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series points lead a week ago, Kyle Busch stretched out his advantage considerably at Bristol, Tenn. last week and is now 39 points up on Joey Logano as the series heads to the iconic Darlington (S.C.) Raceway next week for the Bojangles’ Southern 500 on Sept. 1.

Busch’s fourth-place finish at Bristol in the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota was his fifth top-10 in the last six races. But it’s been 11 races since the four-time 2019 winner has celebrated in Victory Lane – the longest span between wins this season. And also, the longest span between victories since a 36-race span in 2016-2017. A span that started after his Indianapolis win in 2016 and ended when he earned his next win 21 races into the 2017 season at the second Pocono, Pa. stop.

Busch began the year with a record-tying 11 consecutive top-10s in the opening 11 races and his 20 top-10s on the season remains best among all his competitors.

Yet the 2015 Cup champion would prefer to fully get back on track with a victory as the series finishes out the regular season with races at Darlington and then Indianapolis Motor Speedway before starting the 10-race Playoff swing on Sept. 15 at Las Vegas.

Busch has one victory – in his third start in 2008 – at the venerable Darlington venue. He’s scored nine top-10s in 14 career starts, including three top-fives. He’s finished 11th or better in the last nine races. He was runner-up to JGR teammate Denny Hamlin in 2017 and in 2013 led a dominating 265 laps only to finish sixth. His 598 laps out front at the notorious track, nicknamed, “Too Tough to Tame” is most among active drivers.

Brad is back to defend

Brad Keselowski started the 2019 season with a steady, if quiet reminder that he is a former Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion and with three wins in the opening 12 races of the year, ready to mount a challenge for his second Cup title.

And while he hasn’t hoisted a trophy since May, he will show up at historical Darlington (S.C.) Raceway next week as the defending winner of the iconic Bojangles’ Southern 500. He’s fresh off top-10 finishes in four of the season’s last five races and led 91 laps en route to a third-place finish at Bristol, Tenn. last Saturday as the series heads into its final off-week of the year.

In all, Keselowski has 13 top-10 and eight top-five finishes and he’s ranked sixth in the points. Only points leader Kyle Busch, 2017 Monster Energy Series champ Martin Truex Jr. and their Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin have more wins (four) than the Team Penske driver Keselowski.

His record at Darlington makes Keselowski an absolute favorite at the track. In addition to his win last year, he started from pole position, finished runner-up and led a race best 196 of the 367 laps in 2015. He finished third in 2011 and has led laps in the last five Darlington races.

Playing with the Playoff bubble

With only two races now left to set the 16-driver Playoff field, the competition has not only been lively but unpredictable among the four drivers vying for the final two Playoff positions.

An eighth-place finish by Daniel Suarez at Bristol, Tenn. last weekend was good enough to move the Stewart-Haas Racing driver into the Playoff Top-16 for the first time in eight races (since Chicagoland Speedway) and jumble the championship outlook for the fourth consecutive week.

Heading into Darlington, veteran Ryan Newman sits 15th in the points standings with a 12-point edge over Suarez in 16th.  Suarez’s SHR teammate Clint Bowyer dropped a position despite a seventh-place showing at Bristol and is now 17th – 14 points back from Newman, but only two points behind Suarez. And seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, who suffered a frustrating 19th-place run at Bristol, is now 26 points behind Suarez for that last Playoff-eligible points position. 

Of the two tracks left to set the Playoff field – Darlington (S.C.) Raceway next week and then the regular season finale at Indianapolis Motor Speedway – Johnson is the only driver among these four with wins at both venues.

Johnson is a three-time Darlington winner – having swept the 2004 season – and scoring his most recent victory in 2012.The driver of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet is a four-time winner at Indianapolis – most in the field and second most-all time next to his former Hendrick Motorsports teammate, five-time winner Jeff Gordon.

Veteran Ryan Newman is the only other driver among these four with a win at either Darlington or Indianapolis. He won at Indianapolis from the pole position in 2013 and the driver of the No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford has top-10 finishes in his last two starts. Historically speaking, Newman counts Darlington as one of his better tracks as well. Although he doesn’t have a win to his credit, he does have 13 top-10 and seven top-five finishes in 20 starts.

Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Suarez and Bowyer will both be looking to turn their fortunes at Darlington. Suarez, the driver of the No. 41 SHR Ford, has finished 38th and 29th in his only two Darlington starts. Bowyer, driver of the No. 14 SHR Ford, has only one top-10 finish in 13 starts at the track. He finished 36th last year after being involved in a crash and was 40th the year before after an early race engine problem. His only top-10 – a ninth-place result – came in his second Darlington start in 2007.

Indianapolis has been better for both Suarez and Bowyer. Suarez has finishes of seventh and 18th in his two starts on the historic 2.5-miler. Bowyer has four top-10s in 13 starts, however three of them are top-five efforts, including a fifth-place finish last year when he led 37 laps.

Hamlin getting into championship form

Denny Hamlin earned his fourth win of the 2019 season at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway Saturday night and while hoisting the race trophy was good for the ego, Hamlin’s current streak of six top-five finishes puts him in good momentum towards hoisting the biggest trophy of all – the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship hardware.

Hamlin answered his high-achieving Joe Gibbs Racing teammates with that season-best fourth victory. He and fellow JGR drivers Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. lead the championship field with four wins each as the regular season concludes with races at Darlington, S.C. next week and Indianapolis the following week.

Arguably, no one is headed into this week’s Cup off-weekend with more championship optimism than Hamlin’s No. 11 Toyota team.

He has a season-best 13 top-five finishes – out of 16 top-10s – through the opening 24 races and his sixth straight top-five at Bristol was good enough to move him up another position – to third place – in the points standings. It’s the highest he’s been ranked since April at Richmond – after the Daytona 500 winner teetered between first and second in the points during the season’s opening nine races.

There’s no reason to believe Hamlin’s current momentum slows or shifts.

He boasts one of the best Darlington records on the grid with victories in 2010 and 2017. He has top-10 finishes in 11 of 13 starts at the track. His average finish is 6.2 and he has never suffered a DNF. In fact, he’s completed every lap run during the races he’s entered (4,782 total).

Three times he’s led at least 100 laps – two of those resulting in wins. In 2007, he led 179 laps and finished runner-up. Last year he won the pole position, led 11 laps and finished 10th.

Joe Gibbs Racing is the cream of the crop

Not only was Denny Hamlin’s win at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway last weekend impactful for him – his fourth victory of the season – but it gave his Joe Gibbs Racing team 12 wins on the year – the most EVER in NASCAR’s Modern Era through the opening 24 races of the season.

Since 1972 (the start of NASCAR’s Modern Era of statistics) only eight organizations have won at least 10 races in the opening 24-race stretch. It’s happened 10 times, however JGR (2019 and 2016) and Hendrick Motorsports (2007 and 1998) are the only teams to have done so multiple times.

JGR’s 12 wins through the opening 24 races – four victories each from Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr tops the list. Hendrick Motorsports combined for 11 wins in the same period in 1998 with Jeff Gordon (10) and Terry Labonte (one) as did Richard Childress Racing (Dale Earnhardt’s 11 wins in 1987) and Petty Enterprises (Richard Petty’s 11 wins in 1975).

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