Pondering some trends in Sprint Cup during a break in the action

Posted: July 18, 2014

AS THE Sprint Cup series pauses for its midsummer break, a few thoughts are in order:

* Six drivers have won 14 of the season's first 19 races. I don't know whether this is good for the series or not.

Multiple-race winners proves these drivers and teams have their acts together and will be serious contenders in the Chase. But more winners, such as first-timer Aric Almirola at Daytona this month, are good for the series.

With race wins basically determining the 16-driver field for the Chase, there are 11 winners so far. Non-winners such as Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman and Tony Stewart are likely to win before the Chase begins Sept. 14 at Chicagoland Speedway.

If there aren't 16 different winners, the highest-ranking non-winners in points will fill out the Chase lineup. Right now, they are led by Kenseth (fourth in points, seven top-five finishes), Newman (seventh, two top-fives), Clint Bowyer (10th, two top-fives) and Paul Menard (11th, three top-fives).

* Seventy-two-year-old Morgan Shepherd is on the griddle this week after his loose race car took out Joey Logano during Sunday's Sprint Cup race at New Hampshire. Shepherd is taking hits for racing at the Cup level at his age.

Shepherd's age wasn't the issue, his Chevrolet was too slow, creating a crawling obstacle for faster cars. Shepherd was 14 laps down when the crash with Logano occurred.

Jeff Gordon believes the minimum speeds need to be increased at some tracks.

"I don't think they have any place out there if they're running that slow, whether you're a car that's had damage and you can't maintain the minimum speed, or is the minimum speed the proper speed," Gordon said in a conference call earlier this week. "I think it probably needs to be raised up at certain tracks, where there's not a lot of falloff in the tire, then I think that minimum speed probably needs to be adjusted.

"I don't know if that really contributed towards what happened with Morgan and Joey. The video doesn't show everything. You see Joey go by him. Obviously, Morgan got loose and got into him.

"The tricky thing about minimum speed at a place like New Hampshire is, you've got cars all around the track. You've got a car that maybe can meet minimum speed in clean air, but they're really never in clean air, because they're constantly getting passed or trying to make some room for the lap cars to go by.

"I know that, week in and week out, there are certain cars that you're passing very, very often that you're questioning whether or not they're making minimum speed or if the minimum speed is really at the right pace."

If Shepherd, a four-time Cup race winner, wants to continue racing, he should check out some local tracks. His occasional Cup appearances aren't good for the series or his reputation.

* Brad Keselowski's victory at New Hampshire gives Ford a four-race winning streak for the first time since 2001 when Dale Jarrett won at Darlington, Texas and Martinsville, and Elliott Sadler won at Bristol. Keselowski has prevailed in two of the season's last three races.

The best teams clearly are Hendrick (Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne), and Penske (Keselowski and Joey Logano).

Gordon can sense the rivalry building.

"You've got the Ford vs. Chevy, and then you've got both organizations seem to be on top of their game right now," he said. "I think [Chevrolet-powered] Stewart-Haas, especially with [Kevin] Harvick, they've been really, really strong this year. To me there's that competitive rivalry that we have among all our competitors, and when one rises to the top, then they put a target on their back and you go after it, and you have that sort of rivalry.

"And then there's that personal rivalry where you have run-ins, you have word exchanges and different things that create a little bit more of a rivalry and excitement. There's been a little bit here and there, but I think Brad certainly doesn't mind a little controversy and stirring it up as we've seen social-media wise and just in the media."

Gordon is optimistic about his No. 24 Chevy team performing well in the Chase.

"I think we're in a good position," the four-time Cup champion said. "We recognize that it's all about wins right now, and we need to win some more races to get ourselves seeded even better than what we are when that Chase starts. But regardless, I feel like we have a team that definitely can do very, very well in this new format over the 10 races in the Chase.

* The next Cup race is July 27 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It's been 20 years since Jeff Gordon won the first Brickyard 400. Twenty years! Time flies . . .

This week's Nationwide Series race

EnjoyIllinois300.com

8:30 p.m. Saturday

Chicagoland Speedway, Joliet, Ill.

TV/Radio: ESPN2/WNPV (1440 AM)

Track facts: Kasey Kahne and rookie Kyle Larson are entered in the race. Larson has four top-five Cup finishes this year...Regan Smith holds an eight-point lead over Elliott Sadler in Nationwide points. Rookie Chase Elliott is 13 points behind Smith ... Austin Dillon, another impressive Cup rookie, is returning to Eldora Speedway for Wednesday’s Camping World Truck Series race (9 p.m., Fox Sports 1). Dillon won last year’s race. He’s tied with Larson for 14th in Cup points. His brother Ty and Larson are also scheduled to race at Eldora, the Rossburg, Ohio, track owned by Tony Stewart ... Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s ninth-place finish at New Hampshire Sunday in the Sprint Cup race is his best since a second place at Bristol in the season’s fourth race.

Sprint Cup wins: Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski, 3 each; Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards, 2 each; Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin, Jeff Gordon, Aric Almirola, 1 each.

SPRINT CUP STANDINGS

1. Jeff Gordon 670

2. Dale Earnhardt Jr. 658

3. Brad Keselowski 634

4. Matt Kenseth 621

5. Jimmie Johnson 598

6. Carl Edwards 574

7. Ryan Newman 573

8. Kyle Busch 567

9. Joey Logano 551

10. Clint Bowyer 548

11. Paul Menard 541

12. Denny Hamlin 530

13. Kevin Harvick 528

14. Kyle Larson 524

15. Austin Dillon 524

16. Greg Biffle 519

Up next: Crown Royal presents the John Wayne Walding 400 at the Brickyard, July 27, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, 1 p.m.; TV: ESPN; last year’s winner: Ryan Newman.


Email: fleiscb@phillynews.com

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