Each week, Greg Atkins and I examine our hot takes from the previous weekend’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race and any burning topics leading up to the next week’s event. The MENCS series was off last weekend in observance of Easter, so we take a look at some story lines from the first portion of the 2017 season.
Four takeaways from the first seven races of the 2017 season:
Biggest takeaway from the first stretch of the season:
Atkins – As I wrote about a few weeks ago, the young drivers are leading a changing of the guard in our sport. Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott continue to lead the standings and NASCAR as a whole is experiencing a period of regeneration. Young drivers are once again receiving prominent rides and are showing what they can accomplish on a weekly basis.
Painter – Stage racing has been more successful than I had expected at the beginning of the season. When this format was unveiled, I initially thought it was only going to provide two guaranteed cautions during each event. Admittedly, I was wrong as evident with some of the exciting racing that has been produced as a result. We have seen some instances where the racing action has intensified as the stages draw closer. I have come to enjoy the stages and am a fan of providing bonus points for drivers as an incentive of running well in each stage.
Top performing rookie thus far?
Atkins – Probably Erik Jones. Although Suárez has started to deliver better results, Jones has performed better as a whole. To be fair, Jones had more experience in a Cup car than Suárez did before the start of the season. It’ll be interesting to see how the battle for Rookie of the Year unfolds.
Painter – Statistically, Daniel Suárez and Erik Jones have posted identical average finishes of 19.3. While Jones averages a better average starting position, both drivers have had their ups and downs early on in the 2017 season. In my opinion, Suárez has performed exceptionally well given the circumstances of his leap into MENCS racing. It was well-documented that the native of Mexico was thrust into the premier division of NASCAR without advanced notice.
The Easter Holiday marked the first off-weekend for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, which driver and/or team organization looked forward to the break the most?
Atkins – Joe Gibbs Racing and Hendrick Motorsports went winless until Jimmie Johnson won at Texas Motor Speedway earlier this month. I’d venture to say that both of these teams were elated to have an off-week due to the performances of their affiliate teams Furniture Row Racing and Chip Ganassi Racing, respectively. These teams are too powerful and too well run to be held back for long and I anticipate better performances in the near future.
Painter – Joe Gibbs Racing has struggled early on in 2017. In seven races, they have yet to record a victory although Furniture Row Racing driver, Martin Truex, Jr. has been victorious. The dominance that JGR displayed much of last season seems to have leveled out with other top-tier organizations making gains in their on-track programs. I wouldn’t be surprised if they hit their stride as the season wears on, but as of now, any extra time to prepare for future events seems welcomed.
Biggest surprise of the season?
Atkins – I’m going to go with Chip Ganassi Racing as a whole. Very few anticipated a resurgence of this caliber and it appears the financial backing of Rob Kauffman has paid dividends as well. For the first time in 15 years, Chip Ganassi Racing is a championship threat in the NASCAR Cup Series.
Painter – Second-year drivers Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney don’t appear to be experiencing a ‘sophomore slump’ as of yet and both have been equally impressive. It has been widely noted since last season that Elliott is closing in on his first career MENCS victory, but it was Blaney at Texas that seemed poised to claim victory. Blaney continues to make strides of improvement and could find his way into the NASCAR history books, should he continue to run well and have good luck on his side.
Fuel (bold prediction or statement) – Who will be the next first-time winner in MENCS competition?
Atkins – Chase Elliott is simply too good to not win a race soon.
Painter – I am going to go with the obvious choice of Chase Elliott. The young driver has run well in most of the events this year and has found success in the new stage racing format. Elliott looked strong early on at Martinsville but was unable to find his way to the front when it counted.
Photo Credit: Greg Atkins