As NASCAR season hits halfway point, here’s what we know

Saturday night’s race at the Kentucky Speedway will mark the halfway point of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season. More important for a lot of drivers, there are only nine regular season races remaining to clinch a spot in the Chase for the Championship.

 

While there are a lot of questions that still need to be answered — will Dale Earnhardt Jr. win a race in his final season; will Joe Gibbs Racing see Victory Lane this year? — some things are clear.

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STAGE RACING IS HERE TO STAY

While some traditionalists don’t like races to be broken into three segments, don’t expect any changes.

Not only do stages create additional strategies, it helps keep one driver from dominating the entire race.

“Definitely here to stay,” NASCAR vice president Steve O’Donnell said recently on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “We’ll sit down with the same group that kind of came up with that concept. We really liked what we’ve seen and the industry does as well, the strategy that is playing out.”

Last Saturday’s race at the Daytona International Speedway was divided into segments of 40, 40 and 80 laps. Several teams in the first segment pitted on Lap 37. When the caution flag waved after 40 laps, those teams stayed out and instantly gained track position when the majority of the field stopped.

The result was 33 lead changes among 13 different drivers. Brad Keselowski led 24 laps early in the race and it was the longest consecutive stretch of the night.

Twenty-four of the changes lasted less than five laps.

JIMMIE JOHNSON WILL CATCH JEFF GORDON

A new contract through the 2020 season and the resources provided by Hendrick Motorsports means Jimmie Johnson will catch his retired teammate in career victories.

Gordon won 93 times before he left the driver’s seat for a job behind the microphone at Fox Sports. Only Richard Petty (200) and David Pearson (105), both hall of famers, have more wins.

Johnson already has three victories this season to push his career total to 83. Johnson needs to average four wins a year — he’s had at least four victories in 12 of his previous 15 fulltime seasons — to catch Gordon.

AERO-PUSH ISN’T GOING AWAY

No matter how many rule changes, it’s impossible to eliminate the phenomenon known as aero-push.

Leading cars have the benefit of clean air on the front and rear bumpers, which creates traction in the corners. Trailing cars are caught in turbulence which reduces downforce, especially on the front tires.

All of that makes it difficult for anyone to catch, much less pass, the leader.

“It’s especially tough from second to first,” Johnson said. “We keep working on rules to make it better, (but) I don’t think we have. It’s hard to get around the brutal truth that the car leading has the best aero and the rest don’t. I don’t think there’s an easy fix.”

For now, NASCAR admits it doesn’t have the answers.

“Aero has been an age-old element of our form of motorsports,” NASCAR president Mike Helton said. “We’ve done different things and will continue to do different things to try to work around it. But aero has elements that work for you — most of them do — and work against you. We’re working with the teams to find out what the next best thing might be.”

YOUNG GUNS ARE THE REAL DEAL

The sport has been fooled before by promising young drivers, but the current group already have proven themselves. And with the recent retirements of Gordon, Tony Stewart and Greg Biffle, along with the upcoming retirement of Dale Earnhardt Jr., it couldn’t come at a better time.

Ryan Blaney, Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Erik Jones and Austin Dillon are big reasons why NASCAR’s future looks bright.

“Although it’s sad that we have all of our veterans and heroes retiring, I think NASCAR’s in a great position with all the young talent that they have in the Cup series currently and in really every feeder series below them,” Larson said.

“That’s pretty cool to be in that category, and hopefully we all have a lot of (Earnhardt) Junior’s fans kind of disperse to cheer for us and don’t just leave the sport totally.”

 

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