2017-04-19 / Sports

Setting up the summer run

Steve Mickey

The Easter weekend has always been an open date on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series schedule and this season the open date is the last breather that teams will have before the long and unforgiving summer stretch of the schedule. Once the schedule resumes this weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway, it will be 19 consecutive weekends of racing that will include the annual All-Star Race at Charlotte.

Some organizations have set themselves up to have success as the heat of summer begins to build along with the pressure that also builds in the sport. As the schedule draws closer and closer to having the Chase field set, they have gotten off to a great start of the season. That can’t be said for every organization as some are struggling and that includes some of the biggest names in the sport.

Joe Gibbs Racing owned all but the title last year as it dominated for much of the year with its fourcar operation that was joined by Furniture Row Racing’s one team with driver Martin Truex Jr. as the two formed an alliance that made their Toyotas the cars to beat on race day. A lot changed with both teams over the winter and after seven races this season only Truex has made it to victory lane.

Just before the start of the season, JGR was blindsided when Carl Edwards announced he was retiring, leaving the organization no choice but to move Daniel Suarez up from its Xfinity Series team. This was definitely not in Gibbs’s long range plan as it had sent its promising Xfinity driver Eric Jones over the winter to Furniture Row to begin a second Cup team but they still had him under contract with the idea that he would return when one of its four Cup teams had an opening behind the wheel. Making the transition even tougher was that once the season got underway, Dave Rodgers took a leave of absence as Suarez’s crew chief and was replaced by JGR Xfinity crew chief Scott Graves.

Kyle Busch has put together a good start to his year for Gibbs even though he does not have a win to show for it. He is second in laps led to lap leader Kevin Harvick on the season with 413 and is seventh in the point standings. He is the lone bright spot as his teammates Denny Hamlin in 16th, Matt Kenseth in 22nd and Suarez in 23rd are yet to put themselves in a position to win.

Furniture Row has carried the banner for Toyota to begin the season as Truex has already made a trip to victory lane and sits third in the point standings. He has led a total 316 laps this season which is third best and has collected nine playoff points as he leads the series with four stage wins. His teammate Jones is off to a hot start in his rookie campaign as he is 14th in points, which is tops in the 2017 rookie class of drivers.

Like Gibbs, Hendrick Motorsports has not gotten off to the kind of start that it is accustomed to as the four-car operation did not post a win until Jimmie Johnson wheeled his Chevrolet into Texas’s victory lane. Second-year driver Chase Elliott has been the most consistent of the Hendrick drivers as he is in second in points with third-place finishes at Vegas and Martinsville and a fifth at Atlanta. Teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. only has one finish better than 14th and that came at the last race at Texas. Kasey Kahne trails his teammates in 17th and is yet to really be competitive.

Unlike Gibbs and Hendrick, Chip Ganassi Racing has gotten off to the best start of any organization in the sport. Ganassi’s Kyle Larson leads the point standings after posting second-place finishes at Atlanta, Vegas, Phoenix and Texas to go with a win at Auto Club Speedway. His teammate Jamie McMurray has also got off to a good start as he sits eighth in the points. If the Chase started today, Ganassi would be the only owner to have all of his teams in the championship round.

Race Preview

Event: Food City 500

Track: Bristol Motor Speedway (.533-mile oval, 24o-30o of banking in the turns)

Date: April 23, 2 p.m.

TV: FOX

Radio: PRN

Defending Champion: Carl Edwards

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