Wondering what a champion is worth today

There likely wasn’t much time for celebration on Wednesday, NASCAR feeling good after bringing Anheuser-Busch back into the fold as an official partner and the Busch brand as sponsor of the top series’ pole award.

Afternoon news that Lowe’s was leaving seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson at season’s end hit like a ton of bricks.

Since its debut in 2001, no team has been as successful as that of Johnson and the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports outfit. Through it all, the seven titles and the 83 victories, the championship celebrations in New York City and Las Vegas, Lowe’s has been along for the ride.

The departure means the end of Lowe’s in NASCAR, but not the end of Johnson in NASCAR.

To hear Johnson talk, the 42-year-old isn’t ready to step down just yet. A three-year contract extension signed last year will keep him in the fold through 2020.

At the same time that deal was announced, HMS said Lowe’s had signed on through ’18. Now, an 18-year sponsorship run will come to an end.

There was a Lowe’s in the series before Johnson but who remembers when the big box brand was on the cars of Brett Bodine and Mike Skinner?

Lowe’s and Jimmie Johnson and crew Chad Knaus and the No. 48 … few can recall anything different because for that team, there has been nothing different.

Any way you slice it, it’s not good news. A major sponsor, one that has been fully invested in NASCAR for more than two decades, is leaving. Hard to put a positive spin on that.

Maybe that says something about NASCAR or maybe it just says something about the current economic climate for the Fortune 500 company.

It isn’t the first big name to pull out of the sport. Sponsors have come and gone from the very beginning. From small mom and pop operations (and yes, there really was a sponsor called Mom ‘n’ Pops) to billion-dollar corporations. Different names, different reasons, different times.

There are sponsors with similar longevity in the series – Mars Inc. has been around since 1997, Axalta (formerly DuPont) debuted in ’92 and FedEx has been a sponsorship staple since ’05. Such companies once were the norm. No longer, though.

Hendrick officials have the opportunity to shop around one of NASCAR’s greatest drivers and teams of all time. How much does a multi-time champion go for these days?

Johnson is the only active multi-time champ by the way – no other champion competing today has won more than one title.

Another victory and he will be tied with Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip, two NASCAR legends and Hall of Fame members.

Another championship and he stands alone.

It’s an opportunity, but not one the Hendrick organization necessarily desires.

The selling of a champion will provide a good look at the health of the sport. Are there companies willing to provide funding and if so how much?

Is any single organization willing to step up and replace Lowe’s? Or will officials sell inventory (races) to a variety of clients? That’s been the case in recent seasons and for some of the sport’s biggest names.

No matter how it turns out, it will help shape the face of HMS for the next couple of years.

It could help shape the face of NASCAR, too. For much, much longer.

Tuesday musings as the streak continues

NASCAR’s 2018 Monster Energy Cup Series season is four races old and no one except Kevin Harvick has won a race in the series since Feb. 19.

Austin Dillon’s Daytona 500 victory hasn’t faded from memory but three consecutive victories by Harvick have kept the Stewart-Haas Racing driver’s name in the headlines.

Well, that and a bit of an issue in Las Vegas that cost Harvick and his team a few points and a few bucks.

Back-to-back wins in the series aren’t common and to win three in a row is an impressive feat. Harvick will go for a fourth when the series heads to Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., this weekend.

Eleven drivers have won four straight – several of them are in the NASCAR Hall of Fame and a few others will be soon enough.

Bobby Allison once won five in a row, it happened in 1971, and so did Richard Petty. Of course, Petty didn’t stop at five. The “Randleman Rocket” won 10 straight in 1967 and like most things that Petty accomplished during his racing career, that streak remains a series record.

Trot out your usual complaints – the fields were smaller back then, the competition not as fierce – but the fact remains Petty won 10 in a row. Against fields large and small. And during a season that consisted of 49 races.

Buddy Baker ended Petty’s streak that fall with a win at Charlotte. It was Baker’s first victory in the series.

• Putting all four of its cars in the top 10 at Phoenix (ISM Raceway) was a first for SHR. The organization has fielded four full-time teams since 2014. This year’s lineup consists of Harvick, Kurt Busch, Clint Bowyer and Aric Almirola.

It now boasts 42 wins in NASCAR’s top series, putting it between DiGard Racing/Nord Krauskopf and NASCAR Hall of Fame owner Cotton Owens on the overall list. Among active organizations, SHR is presently eighth in victories.

What was previously a winless Haas CNC Racing outfit has certainly come a long way in a relatively short period of time – SHR is celebrating its 10th year this season.

• Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing are surprisingly winless (of course so are a lot of other folks at this point) but the Toyota bunch have been in contention. All four JGR drivers – Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Daniel Suarez and Erik Jones – also finished in the top 10 this past weekend. Martin Truex Jr., the defending series champ, logged a fifth-place result with FRR. If they aren’t standing on the doorstep to victory lane, they’re at least pulling in the driveway.

• Over in the Chevrolet camp, the work around the new Camaro ZL1 continues. In this year’s three non-restricted races, Chevy teams have combined to claim just four out of a possible 30 finishing positions inside the top 10.

• Four-time NASCAR Cup champion Jeff Gordon will be inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America tonight (March 13) in Daytona Beach, Fla. Gordon is third on NASCAR’s all-time win list with 93 victories. He retired from full-time competition after the 2015 season and currently works as an analyst for FOX during its NASCAR broadcasts. Earlier this month, Gordon was announced as one of 20 nominees to be considered for the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s 2019 class.

Blaney, Swindell tout All-Star race

CONCORD, N.C. – Ryan Blaney says he’s never had a close call while giving rides at race tracks and Wednesday was no different although the Team Penske driver did admit he had to “bail” on a lap when his car “got pretty tight” at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

“I got tight in (Turns) 1 and 2,” Blaney said of the afternoon ride-along with country music artist Cole Swindell.

“I got tight, too,” Swindell admitted but he wasn’t talking about the car’s handling as he climbed from the passenger-side window.

Swindell, 34, is a Georgia native with seven No. 1 hits and he’s written a few others for folks such as Luke Bryan.

He’ll be performing a pre-race concert prior to the May 19 Monster Energy NASCAR All-Star Race at CMS. He may or may not add “Hello Walls” to his pre-race set list.

The concert is free with the purchase of any All-Star Race ticket.

As for Wednesday’s track “tour” …

“I was at 90 percent right there,” Blaney said of the run. “You want to give them a good ride, make it real. … I ran the bottom for a couple of laps and then I went to the wall. … The second lap I went pretty hard at the wall and I got pretty tight. I was like ‘bail.’

“You want to show them a good time but at the same time you don’t want to do anything stupid. it was fun.

“I’ve given rides before but no one I knew personally; I think that’s why I pushed it a little bit more when it’s someone I know.”

Swindell said he’s been a fan for several years – he recalled watching Blaney’s father, Dave, compete in NASCAR.

It was the singer/songwriter’s first time in a Cup car, however.

“I thought we were doing four or five (laps) but I felt like we ran 12,” Swindell said. “It just all went by so fast. You see it on TV but you can feel it in the car, those tires gripping. Going into those turns the force just pulling your head down. … It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever gotten to do.

“I’m just glad … I was a little nervous before because I’d never done it but now I’d do it again with Blaney, he’s a good dude.”

Gordon headlines 2019 Hall nominees

Jeff Gordon, Harry Gant, John Holman, Ralph Moody and Kirk Shelmerdine are the five new nominees that round out the list of nominees for the NASCAR Hall of Fame Class of 2019.

The list of 20 – it includes 15 names that were on last year’s ballot – was announced Tuesday on NBCSN’s NASCAR America program.

Gordon and Gant are well-known – Gordon has been retired from driving for only a couple of years and he’s in the booth these days during the FOX portion of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season.

A four-time series champ, Gordon won 93 races – third overall. He’ll be one of the five selected for induction early next year when the voting panel meets in May of this year. I don’t think he will be a unanimous choice however. Not because he isn’t deserving but having been in the room as a voting member from the beginning, I know how the process works.

There has not been a unanimous selection since the process began – Richard Petty was not a unanimous choice, nor were Dale Earnhardt, David Pearson or William H.G. France, the founder of NASCAR.

Gant became known as Mr. September when he won four consecutive premier series races in the fall of 1991. He finished his career with 18 victories in Cup, and from 1981-85 he finished in the top five in points four times. He was fourth in points in ’91-92 as well.

He was of the best Sportsman racers in the Carolinas during his prime and won 21 times in the XFINITY Series.

If you’ve ever heard folks mention Holman-Moody, that’s John Holman and Ralph Moody. The premier Ford factory organization during the late 1950s and ’60s, the team was still winning races in the early ’70s.

They are credited with two championships, both with driver David Pearson (1968-69) and more than 90 wins.

Shelmerdine scored 46 wins as a crew chief, 44 with Earnhardt and two with Ricky Rudd. Four of Earnhardt’s titles with team owner Richard Childress (1986-87 & ’90-91) came with Shelmerdine atop the pit box.

Those five join returning nominees Buddy Baker, Davey Allison, Ray Fox, Red Farmer, Joe Gibbs, Harry Hyde, Alan Kulwicki, Bobby Labonte, Herschel McGriff, Roger Penske, Larry Phillips, Jack Roush, Ricky Rudd, Mike Stefanik and Waddell Wilson.

Returning nominees for the Landmark award are Janet Guthrie, Alvin Hawkins and Ralph Seagraves. Joining that group are Barney Hall and Jim Hunter.

The inductees for the 2019 class will be announced, Wed., May 23.

Las Vegas postscript: No cruise for Harvick

Kevin Harvick and his No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing team can put it on cruise control from here on out and we’re only three races into the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season but that’s not the last we will hear from that particular group.

The advent of playoff points for stage and race wins last year has forced teams to take a harder look at how they approach the remainder of the regular season after a win. There is no cruise, only crews.

It will be business as usual, in all likelihood, for the No. 4 going forward. Crew chief Rodney Childers wouldn’t have it any other way.

The Pennzoil 400 victory at Las Vegas Motor Speedway was nice, but now it’s on to Phoenix and Auto Club and Martinsville and Texas …

Playoff points aren’t the only incentive. Few things help a team continue to improve as much as winning and the momentum from that can’t be underestimated.

You learn a lot from losing, too – mainly that someone else is doing a better job than you. Or outworking you.

For the record, Harvick has now led 66 percent, or a similarly ridiculous number, of the laps run in his two wins at Atlanta and Las Vegas.

He now has 39 career wins, one shy of Mark Martin on the all-time win list. Kyle Busch, with 43 career victories, is next up the ladder.

o I’m not one to put too much into total wins “across all NASCAR national series.” Richard Petty has 200 premier series wins and when someone else reaches that mark …

It’s not that what guys such as Busch (184 total wins) and Harvick (100 wins) have done isn’t impressive. It is. I just don’t put it in the same category as what Petty accomplished in a single series.

o Two things I don’t believe we’ve heard the last of: problems with the NASCAR-issued pit guns and Jimmie Johnson’s struggles.

There were more instances Sunday of teams having problems with the pit guns provided by Paoli. I know the team owners are the ones who pushed for the change as a cost-saving measure but when air guns fail it is not the teams who look bad – or take the heat. It’s NASCAR.

This is one area that needs to be fixed. Not talked about, not investigated. It needs to be fixed.

As for Johnson, when the highlight of your day is finishing 12th, one lap down …

The No. 48 team used to be the one group that could turn things around almost at will. I’m not so sure that’s the case today. They’ll tell you otherwise and maybe they’re right, but …

The benefit of the Playoff format is that a single win by a team cures a regular season’s worth of ills. But as we saw last year, it doesn’t always guarantee success in the chase for the championship.

Questioning the relevancy of Cup qualifying

HAMPTON, Ga. – I put the question out there because a) NASCAR rarely has more than 40 cars attempt to qualify in the Monster Energy Cup Series these days and b) with charters, 36 teams are guaranteed a starting spot in every race even if they don’t make a qualifying attempt.

I asked through social media – is qualifying really necessary today? And if so, why?

Most folks who said yes questioned how NASCAR would determine the starting lineup if there was no qualifying. There are many options – including set the field by blind draw or base it on practice speeds.

If you based it on practice speeds, there’s always the chance a team goes out with something akin to a “qualifying setup” in an attempt to start on the pole. If that’s the case, what’s really been accomplished? I get that.

But if you’re willing to go to all that trouble then I say have at it. Dialing in a race-day setup would seem to be much more important to me.

Others said qualifying is still important because pit stall selection is based on qualifying results and as passing becomes more and more difficult, track position becomes more and more important. We’ve seen the team with the first pit stall manage to stay out front on many occasions by just rolling a few feet ahead of rivals as the field came off pit road.

There is something to be said for that, particularly now with stage wins providing playoff points and the top 10 at the end of each stage earning race points. Those points can be the difference in making the playoffs, or even advancing once the playoffs have begun.

And track position is particularly crucial at short tracks, where a driver can find himself battling just to stay on the lead lap right off the bat if he starts the race in the rear of the field at a Bristol or Martinsville.

Setting the lineup based on practice speeds, however, would accomplish the same thing as qualifying. The very same thing. Fast speeds in practice would result in a higher starting position and a better pit selection.

Eliminating qualifying would mean teams could focus on what’s important, race-day setups. Officials could also shorten the race weekend for Cup teams by scheduling two practices on Saturday, for example, when Sunday races were scheduled.

For the night race at Bristol teams practice and qualify Friday and race on Saturday. That system would work just as well at other venues.

Travel costs would be less. Time and money would no longer be necessary for qualifying packages.

A few stats:

o The average starting position of race winners in 2017 was 7.6;

o Six of 36 races in 2017 were won from the pole;

o 10 races in 2017 were won from a front-row starting spot;

o 19 races in 2017 were won from a top-five starting spot;

o 10 races in 2017 were won from a starting spot outside the top 10.

I’m not saying starting up front and having a good pit stall isn’t important. I’m just wondering if determining the lineup and choosing pits could be done without going to the trouble and expense of qualifying. Is there a better way? A more cost-effective way?

There was a time when qualifying on the pole meant something; it was a big deal for a driver and team to post the fastest lap.

I’m just not so sure that’s the case today.

Busch to pole, inspection issues for Truex

HAMPTON, Ga. – Kyle Busch won the pole here Friday for Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway while defending series champion Martin Truex Jr. and his Furniture Row Racing team failed to make a qualifying attempt.

Busch (Joe Gibbs Racing No. 18 Toyota) captured the pole with a third-round lap of 184.652 mph. His run knocked Ryan Newman (Richard Childress Racing No. 31 Chevrolet) off the top spot.

No pole winner has won a NASCAR premier series race at the 1.54-mile Atlanta track since 2006 (Kasey Kahne).

Truex, who scored eight victories last season on his way to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series title, did not make a qualifying run after his No. 78 Toyota failed on its first three attempts to pass pre-qualifying inspection.

This weekend’s race is the first for teams on an intermediate track with the new optical scanning station, a system of cameras and projectors that record measurements of both the car body and chassis.

“It’s unfortunate that we had a situation where we had multiple failures in what was otherwise a very successful debut of the optical scanning station here for a downforce track,” Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, told FOX television after qualifying had been completed.

“We had rear-wheel alignment problems and we had body scan problems and we just weren’t able to get all of the things legal in those attempts and here we are,” he said of the Truex situation.

Because of the multiple failures, NASCAR ejected Blake Harris, car chief for the No. 78 team.

“We have the option to suspend a crew member,” Miller said. “It doesn’t have to be a car chief; that’s at our discretion. We have tapped the car chief as an important individual so that’s likely what we are going to do but by rule it’s a crew member ejection and 30-minute practice hold.”

Miller indicated that the body scan issues involved the “rear wheel openings” while there was a failure of the rear-toe as well.

In a release from the team, Furniture Row president Joe Garone said that the new inspection process “is just that, new.

“The tolerances are very tight, within thousandths of an inch. It’s difficult to push the limits where you feel you need to and still be within the tolerances of the new system.”

Garone said one thing the team will not do is “leave anything on the table and expect to get poles and wins.

“We will always push for the maximum,” he said.

As a result of the inspection failure, Truex will start 35th on Sunday. Only 36 cars are entered in the series’ second event of the season.

Not just another race name

HAMPTON, Ga. – The first official race day for the folks from Folds of Honor was eye-opening.

The organization’s web site crashed due to the tremendous amount of traffic generated by the affiliation with convenience store group QuikTrip and sponsorship of the NASCAR premier series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

That was in 2015. Thankfully, such technical issues are no longer a problem.

The Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500, now in its fourth season, is scheduled for Sunday, Feb. 25 at AMS.

It is not your typical race sponsorship. It is one of the most impressive sponsorships in NASCAR. And racing. And maybe sports in general. It is much more than just a name on a race weekend.

o o o

“Ten years ago, I ended up on a commercial airline flight with Cpl. Brock Bucklin who was killed in Iraq and his twin brother, Cpl. Brad Bucklin who was bringing him home,” said Maj. Dan Rooney, a fighter pilot and founder of Folds of Honor.

“That night, despite the (pilot’s) request, half the people got off the plane and left. I watched Brock’s four-year-old son watch his father’s American flag-draped coffin as it inched down the ramp.

“God told me I needed to do something.”

What Rooney did was go home and start Folds of Honor, a non-profit organization that provides scholarships to the spouses and children who have had a family member in the military killed or disabled.

The organization began in a room over Rooney’s garage. This year, they will award their 20,000th scholarship.

The growth “has been exponential,” Rooney said. “When we showed up here we were giving $3 million a year in scholarships; last year we gave $16 million. It’s been amazing.”

o o o

Corporate headquarters for Folds of Honor and QuikTrip are both located in Tulsa, Okla. Rooney said he walked into QuikTrip’s offices “and they believed in us early on.

“Their core values align with our core values,” he said, “and those align with the core values of NASCAR and its fan base. Flag-waving, hard-working, beer drinking fans. They get it and appreciate the fact that freedom isn’t free. … That’s what brought QuikTrip and Folds of Honor together and then to bring it full circle, to have a NASCAR race (named after both).”

Folds of Honor is one of QuikTrip’s primary charitable causes. There are 131 QT stores in the Atlanta area so sponsorship of the race at AMS makes sense.

“They wanted an anchor event to reach all these folks,” Rooney said.

o o o

Kobalt Tools, Cracker Barrel, Advocare, NAPA. AMS has had a long list of race sponsors through the years. Ed Clark, the track’s general manager, said talks with QuikTrip came about through a relationship with Atlanta-based Coca-Cola.

And the focus began to turn toward Folds of Honor, he said, early in the conversations.

“Chuck O’Dell, who is vice president of sales at QuikTrip, is on Folds board,” said Clark. “Both being in Tulsa they’ve been a big supporter. As we noodled around how this thing could work, the whole concept kind of came to life of them doing the event and giving a lot of the assets to Folds of Honor.”

Early on, the aim was to raise awareness for Folds of Honor. Today, it’s more about generating funds to fulfill scholarship requests.

“I think it speaks volumes for the quality of company, the approach that QuikTrip takes,” Clark said. “They are first-class in everything they do. For them to take this asset and roll it over to Folds and support them, when they could selfishly just make it all about QuikTrip selling more gas and getting more people in the stores says so much about them.”

o o o

Jacob Bucklin was the four-year-old watching his father’s coffin come off the plane. He was the first Folds of Honor scholarship recipient. He’s 15 and lives outside of Grand Rapids, Mich.

“I started this … trying to help that one little guy and 20,000 scholarships later I think we’re on the right path,” Rooney said. “I know we’re on the right path.

“Little did I know where we were going to go.”

Eury: They’ve got the ability to race like that

Tony Eury Jr. looked at the car. Actually, he looked at what was left of it. He glanced up at the scoring pylon, then looked back at what had been a race car only moments earlier.

“The old points system, that right there just took you out of a championship for the whole year,” Eury said. “Now it doesn’t mean anything to anybody; they’ve got the ability to race like that.”

Wide open. Go for broke. Push and shove and root and gouge and when the dust at settles you’re either in the winner’s circle or hooked to the saddest end of a wrecker.

Stage points and bonus points and playoff-earning wins make the NASCAR world go ’round these days and that’s either good or bad, depending on where you wind up at the end of the day.

Years ago, when championships were determined based solely on points earned throughout the entire season, one bad day could definitely put a dent in a team’s title hopes. It might not ruin the entire year, but it held that potential.

That’s still the case today, in some ways, but regular-season missteps aren’t the title-killers they once seemed to be. They’re potholes. A minor nuisance.

Maybe that’s part of the reason for the multiple multi-car incidents in Sunday’s Daytona 500. The penalty for a mishap was enough of a deterrent at one time. That time has passed.

It’s just as easy to say the incidents were the result of the racing being the Daytona 500 and you don’t get many opportunities to win that race and if it takes getting a little bit more physical, then so be it.

I’ve heard drivers apologize for incidents that occurred during a race from time to time. I’ve yet to hear one apologize for winning a race, however. And I’ve never heard a driver, crew chief or owner apologize for winning the Daytona 500.

Eury has served in a variety of roles during his two-plus decades in NASCAR. From 2006-08, he was crew chief for Dale Earnhardt Jr. as the most popular driver wound down his career at Dale Earnhardt Inc. and made the move to Hendrick Motorsports.

Eury served as Danica Patrick’s crew chief when she began competing in the XFINITY Series and stuck around for a couple of years before she made the move to Cup.

That relationship is what brought them back together this past week at Daytona.

Their race ended much sooner than hoped as Patrick was swept up in the third multicar crash of the day. Officially, her final start resulted in a finish of 35th.

She wasn’t injured. Her car wasn’t as fortunate. It barely resembled the familiar green Chevrolet that had begun the race a couple of hours earlier.

One race remains for one of NASCAR’s most popular personalities – a final trip to Indy in May for the Indianapolis 500.

Eury, meanwhile, says he has no inclination to climb back into the fray.

“I’ve had a couple of people talking to me about ‘Hey can you do a couple more of these?’ he said.

“It’s like I’ve said before, I like the competitiveness of the Cup series, I don’t like the schedule. When you’ve done it for 23 years, you know everybody at every front desk of every hotel. To me, you’re not living life, not being with your family.

Eury said he likes being able to spend time with his father, Tony Eury Sr. – the two operate Fury Race Cars in Mooresville, N.C. The elder Eury won Cup races with Earnhardt the father and Earnhardt the son. A pair of XFINITY Series championships with Junior, too.

“A very important part of me is to be with my dad as much as I can right now,” Eury Jr. said. “That’s probably the biggest reason I’m not doing this (fulltime).

“I spent half my life in this Cup garage … I thought it was time to take a step back and take care of family.”

Dillon wins Daytona; Wallace impressive

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Austin Dillon won the Daytona 500 and that’s an impressive accomplishment but much of the focus after Sunday’s race was on Darrell Wallace and the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports organization.

Wallace finished second in his first start as the full-time driver for RPM. He fought hard to finish second; he crashed on the final lap, in overtime, but still finished second.

His mom didn’t get to see him until Wallace had come in the media center and there the two hugged and cried and then a sister arrived and they hugged and cried and it was a pretty rare and powerful show of emotion.

Wallace is black and that shouldn’t mean anything but in a series that’s had only one black driver win a single race in its’ 70-year history, it means a lot.

RPM has been a shell of what was once Petty Enterprises long ago – 10 championships between father and son Lee and Richard Petty. There have been few wins – recent years have been more about keeping the team afloat than winning races.

An off-season move from Ford to Chevrolet and a new alliance with Richard Childress Racing (home of the previously mentioned Dillon, by the way) was expected to be problematic, slowing any potential progress.

And the Daytona 500, being a restrictor-plate race, doesn’t give a clear indication of how well a team will likely perform in the coming weeks and months.

But RPM’s group performed surprisingly well over the course of this year’s Speedweeks program and it would be wrong to chalk it up to nothing more than good luck.

Of course, time will tell. Still, it was refreshing to see as it all played out in the season-opening race. And of course afterward.

o Let’s don’t cut Dillon and his No. 3 team short. Winning a plate race isn’t as easy as some folks would like you to believe; winning the Daytona 500 takes a monumental effort.

Dillon led only the final lap but that’s the one that pays and how many folks weren’t even around to contend for the win at that point? Too many to count.

o Most impressive was the run of Ryan Blaney, the Team Penske driver who led 118 laps and appeared en route to his second career victory before damage to the front of his car in a late-race incident took him out of contention.

Blaney ended up seventh, but it’s evident he’s become quite competitive at restrictor-plate racing. With teammates Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano also accomplished plate racers, Team Penske could be the biggest threat on the plate tracks this season.