NASCAR's Cup Series a three-car race? 2nd half will tell
By DAN GELSTON
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) Erik Jones created so much smoke during his burnout that he had trouble breathing afterward.
His first career Cup victory Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway was a needed breath of fresh air in a sport that has failed to see a supposed bumper crop of young talent emerge as bona fide stars.
The 22-year-old Jones had his motorcoach wrapped in toilet paper as a prank and awoke to a steady string of congratulatory tweets ranging from Kyle Busch to Dale Earnhardt Jr.
The feel-good, first-time win gave the sport a vital bump as it capped the official first half of the season.
The question lingers: Is this a sign that perhaps the so-called "Young Guns" are poised to break through over the final 18 races, or was this just an aberration as Jones became the latest benefactor to survive the wild wrecks that litter Daytona?
When the smoke finally cleared around Jones' No. 20 Toyota, this much was still clear - Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. remained the only three drivers in the rarefied air of legitimate championship contenders.
"How many more wins can they get, playoff points can they get?" asked Earnhardt, now an NBC broadcaster. "Will anybody get in there and join the conversation?"
Led by five wins each from Busch and Harvick, the trio have combined for 13 wins over the first 18 points races.
All three have been the class of the field.
All three are former Cup champions.
Can any driver stop one from The Big 3 to ultimately claim the crown?
Asked if Jones' victory was a momentum-builder for the next generation, third-place finisher AJ Allmendinger cracked, "One of those three are going to win next week, so I don't know."
Jones, who joined Daytona 500 champion Austin Dillon as winners at the track this season who only led the final lap, certain has the talent and team to become a consistent winner. Joe Gibbs Racing thought so highly of his talent that it gave 2004 Cup champ Matt Kenseth the boot to make room for Jones.
"Regardless of who I'm replacing or where I'm driving, you want to win races, and you want to be a winner," Jones said. "You don't want to be riding around."
It only seems like 35 other drivers have been riding around all season trying to play catch-up to Busch, Harvick and Truex. But the first step toward a title is making the playoffs. With eight races left before the field is set, only eight drivers have clinched the automatic playoff spot earned with a win. Clint Bowyer, Joey Logano, Dillon, Brad Keselowski, Kurt Busch, Kyle Larson, Denny Hamlin, Aric Almirola, Ryan Blaney, Jimmie Johnson, Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman held the final eight spots on Sunday - an order sure to become jumbled after next week's race at Kentucky Speedway.
You know, the track where Truex is the defending race winner.
So it goes, 18 up, 18 ahead.
Here's what to watch for in the second half of the NASCAR season:
THE BIG 4?
Should Busch, Harvick and Truex advance to the championship finale at Homestead - and it's certainly no lock all three qualify - who would join them as the fourth driver to race for the title?
Bowyer has two wins and has continued to enjoy a career rebirth at Stewart-Haas Racing. SHR has dominated this season with Harvick, Bowyer and Kurt Busch regular contenders and Almirola, in his first season as Danica Patrick's replacement in the No. 10 Ford, has proved it was the driver and not the car that was the weak link in the top team in NASCAR.
Logano (one win) and Hamlin (winless) have come oh-so-close before to winning the title, and an Elliott championship would link today's fans with the old-school loyalists who loved rooting for his dad, "Awesome" Bill Elliott.
Remember 2007 when Chevrolets won 26 of 36 races?
Yeah, well, neither does Chevy in a short-term memory sport as it's mired in its worst slump since the 1980s.
Chevrolet extended its winless streak to 17 races, its longest since a 31-race drought in 1981-82. Bowman's pole and Dillon's win at the Daytona 500 remain the lone highlight of the season.
The American manufacturer replaced the maligned Chevrolet SS with the Camaro this year and it hasn't mattered. Chevy won 13 consecutive manufacturer championships in the premier Cup Series between 2003 and 2015. But Toyota and Ford have clearly closed the gap.
It has to pain the company to see SHR zip into a new stratosphere after it dumped Chevy for Ford in 2017.
Chevy's woes are intricately connected to the winless season at Hendrick Motorsports. Sure, growing pains were expected as HMS had to replace retired stars Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon, and former Brickyard 400 champ Kasey Kahne over the last four years. But Elliott, Bowman and rookie William Byron are all not only winless this season - they're 0 for their careers.
Not even Johnson, the seven-time NASCAR champion, has steadied the ship. He's stuck in the longest losing streak of his career (39 races) and has just two top-fives this season.
Lowe's, one of the last remaining corporate giants in NASCAR, announced it was cutting ties with Johnson at the end of the season, and that guarantees a new sponsor on the hood of the No. 48 Chevy in 2019.
Johnson needs checkered flags and checks - pretty heady stuff for any driver, no matter the resume.
"That's a story line in itself is how and when they'll return to their past performance and glory," Earnhardt said.
When an ISC executive pinned part of the blame on NASCAR's woes - TV ratings and attendance are still in the tank - on the failure of young talent to become stars, the under-25 crew fired back and said enough was enough with the criticism.
Jones' win was a step in silencing the doubters.
But the point stands- for NASCAR to try and grow its fan base, it's time for Elliott, Blaney, Daniel Suarez and Darrell Wallace Jr. to get it together and make their marks on the track instead of social media.
More AP auto racing: www.racing.ap.org
Updated July 8, 2018