Alex Bowman's antics at New Hampshire were some of the headaches hitting the sport as it prepares for Indianapolis
NASCAR now hits what had once been one of its marque dates - I say once because the luster of the Brickyard 400 disappeared well over a decade ago with the overall luster of the sport in decline by that point as well - and that only some 45,000 tickets at New Hampshire were sold was an unusually forceful indication of loss of popularity for one of the sport's better markets, rural New England.
The New Hampshire 301 caught more attention than usual days earlier when Dale Earnhardt Jr. pulled out due to concussion effects, the result of several crashes with the Firecracker 400 the most notable. Alex Bowman filled in both on Saturday and Sunday and his Xfinity series set-to with RCR appeared to carry over into the Sunday race as he looked tentative but nonetheless picked his way into the top ten - an effort that went asunder with Chase Elliott.
The embarrassing part for Chevrolet is its lameduck team, Stewart-Haas Racing, has exploded. Kevin Harvick was 4th at Loudon and sharply critical of his team afterward for "(making) mistake after mistake...." Tony Stewart finished second, continuing a stunning renaissance, and Kurt Busch ran strong but got shunted late and finished 22nd. Even Danica Patrick's finish was surprisingly good after being out to lunch pretty much from Lap One on.
For Chevrolet the success of a lameduck team going to Ford next year makes the faltering of Hendrick and the sleepwalking of RCR all the more painful. RCR's #31 of Ryan Newman, though, has been sneaking up on everyone with three top-tens the last four races
Make no mistake - Toyota is the marque to beat as Kyle Busch and Martin Truex led 258 laps between them and Matt Kenseth basically stole the win after Truex's transmission gagged on him near the end.
Now starting to flex some competitive depth is Ford in recent races. Brad Keselowski's two-race win streak ended badly in 15th while Joey Logano rallied from mid-race struggle to third at Loudon. The Roush renaissance continues as Ricky Stenhouse posted his second top-ten in three races and Greg Biffle grabbed his third in a row. The Richard Petty team has started to make legitimate progress the last three weeks as well; it hasn't produced the finishes indicative of how strong the #43 has been the last three races, which is the galling part. Specific to Loudon was that the car needed ten or more laps to truly get going, with a late shunt from Austin Dillon ruining a top-ten bid.
So entering the Brickyard the first big story will be whether Junior runs - I'm baffled Hendrick Motorsports seems to be holding hope he will, with the signing of Jeff Gordon for a one-race comeback also an eye-opener - that Hendrick signed Gordon from retirement may be suggestive of what they really think of Alex Bowman or another possible young driver.
The next big story will be how well the JGR and Barney Vissar Toyotas do. Truex oddly has just two top-tens since blowing everyone in the weeds at the 600 and despite leading 189 laps the last six races. The JGR cars have been good the last five runnings, but one who's been subpar is Carl Edwards, who won the pole last year but finished only 13th, matching his best finish there the last five years.
The Ford fleet will of course be led by His Captaincy, but Brad Keselowski has never lit anything aflame at the Brickyard, posting three top tens but just one since switching to Ford. Joey Logano looks to be on point for Penske there.
I'm not terribly confident in Chevrolet right now given the mediocrity permeating that brand outside of Stewart-Haas.
So it goes, all the way to Speedway, IN.