Brendan Marks: What should happen next for these three drivers at a crossroads?


By Brendan Marks - The Charlotte Observer



It probably isn’t accurate to keep calling the NASCAR season “young.”

We are, after all, 10 races into a 36-race schedule — it may feel like the Daytona 500 was only yesterday, but in reality, we’ve already run a quarter of this season’s Cup Series races. And while that realization might be met with some sighs from disappointed fans, it also means we can finally start analyzing drivers with a substantial body of work.

For media members such as myself, that’s a boon. Predictions are fun and all, but the reality is they aren’t worth squat once the results start pouring in. And now that they are …

We can derive real value from the finishes that drivers have (or haven’t) accrued. We know basically who is good — Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick, to name two — and who is not. But we also know there’s a large middle tier developing. That group includes drivers with some good finishes but perhaps not the consistency they would hope to see?

So, let’s take a look at three of those drivers: Martin Truex Jr., Erik Jones and Chase Elliott. Each of those three falls into that middle tier (or at least you could argue they do). They aren’t challenging for wins week in and week out, but if they do place in the Top 5 or 10, you’re not surprised.

And why these three drivers? Because each of them is at somewhat of a crossroads in their season. The question is, where do they go next?

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Martin Truex Jr.: The reigning Cup Series champion got off to a solid start in 2018, notching five Top 5s in his first six races (with the Daytona 500 being the lone exception). He also won at Fontana during NASCAR’sWest Coast swing, clinching a playoff berth early in the year. Those all, objectively, are good.

But since then? It’s been a myriad of worst-case scenarios for Truex, who now has finishes of 37, 30, 14 and 26 in his last four races. That’s … bad. No getting around it, either. Those are numbers better-suited for a rookie on a developmental team than an honest-to-goodness championship contender. Which raises the question: Are we going to get good Truex or bad Truex for the rest of 2018?

In all likelihood, it’ll be the former. Truex is too smart, too talented and too competitive to be satisfied with those types of finishes. They’re inexcusable when you string together four or five of them, but to have an off race every couple of weeks is completely understandable. Truex has been more a victim of bad circumstances than a bad driver these past four weeks, and things should turn around for him soon. By season’s end, he’ll still be one of the four to six drivers competing for a championship.

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Erik Jones: This was supposed to be Jones’ breakout season, especially as he took over for the departed-but-now-recently-returned Matt Kenseth at Joe Gibbs Racing. At just 21 years old (and turning 22 at the end of May), Jones was one of the faces at the forefront of NASCAR’s alleged youth movement. Problem is, that movement — at least for the most part — hasn’t happened yet. That isn’t meant to single Jones out, but it does include him.

So far this year (which, by the way, is just Jones’ second as a full-time Cup Series driver), he has some admirable finishes and some not-so-admirable ones. First, the bad. At Daytona and Talladega, the two restrictor-plate tracks, Jones came in 36th and 39th. That’s up there as some of the worst luck at those two tracks. But then there’s also the good — in eight other races, Jones has an average finish of 11.88 with four Top 10’s. That’s pretty good.

Jones is currently 13th in the standings, slated to make the playoffs if the season ended today but also to be eliminated in the first round. Realistically, that’s probably about fair for him at this point in his career. He’s a talented young driver, but he still has room to grow. A playoff berth this year would be a step forward; anything beyond that might be expecting too much, too soon.

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Chase Elliott: Talk about a crossroads — Elliott isn’t just at one this season, but probably for his career, too. We know he’s a good driver. He has the bloodline with his Hall of Fame father, Bill Elliott, but he’s more than just a legacy. He’s earned eight second-place finishes at the Cup level, including one two weeks ago at Richmond, and countless other Top 5s. So why the inclusion here?

Because as of this week, he’s somehow on the outside of the playoff picture looking in. And, the elephant in the room — he still hasn’t won a Cup race yet. At this point, now in his third full-time season, that has to change for him to take the next step.

Elliott’s struggles to begin 2018 weren’t all of his own volition — he got caught in wrecks not of his doing a few times — and now he’s starting to turn the corner. But still 18th in the points standings, he has some catching up to do. Come season’s end, it would be surprising if Elliott missed the playoffs, but it’s still too far out to consider him a true contender like he was last season.

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This week’s NASCAR race

Dover: What you need to know

Race: Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series AAA 400 Drive for Autism.

Distance: 400 laps, or 400 miles.

Where: Dover International Speedway, a 1-mile, concrete oval in Dover, Del.

When: 2 p.m. Sunday.

TV: FS1.

Last year’s winner: Jimmie Johnson.

Also this week: OneMain Financial 200, Xfinity Series, Dover International Speedway, 1:30 p.m., Saturday, FS1.

Worth mentioning: Johnson has won this race (six victories) more often than any other driver in history.

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Who’s Hot/Who’s Not

HOT

Kurt Busch: Usually it’s his brother in this spot, but a second-place finish at Talladega lifted him to fifth on the leaderboard, the highest position of any winless driver.

Chase Elliott: Back-to-back Top 3 finishes are the sort of results young Elliott needs to jump back into the playoff picture.

NOT

Martin Truex Jr.: Four straight finishes outside the Top 10 haven’t killed him in the points standings … yet.

Austin Dillon: Good thing he won that Daytona 500 — otherwise, he only has one other Top 10 finish through 10 races.

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By Brendan Marks

The Charlotte Observer

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