There’s little doubt that the critical mass of young talent in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series is as potent as it’s been since the turn of the century. Only one problem: the veterans in the series are decidedly reluctant to give up the spotlight.
Three drivers in particular have hogged the trophies and severely limited the winning chances available to the younger competitors. Between them, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. have won 11 of 14 races this season, 19 of 24 events dating back to the start of last year’s playoffs and 24 of 36 races over the past year.
That doesn’t mean, however, that the 20-somethings in the series have despaired of visiting Victory Lane. Far from it, says Joe Gibbs Racing driver and Cup series sophomore Erik Jones.
“I feel like it’ll come in time,” said Jones, whose best result to date was a closely contested second to Busch at Bristol last year. “There’s no reason to stress or worry about it. I just know that we’re doing all we can to put ourselves in that position to do it and hoping that we do the right things to make it happen.
“So do I think all the young guys will start to kind of roll in and start winning some races? It’s definitely possible. We’re all with very good teams. Ryan (Blaney) has been very fast this year, as well as Kyle (Larson) and Chase (Elliott) as well, so I could definitely see us all winning some races here in the coming months before the playoffs or even in the playoffs.
“So it’ll just be interesting to see what happens. There’s a lot of teams that are working on stuff and getting cars better, and it’s going to be interesting to see really who rises to the top here in the next couple months.”
In the first round of Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series qualifying on Friday, Busch got a nasty surprise.
His No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, which had been second on the speed chart in opening Cup practice, was inexplicably slow in the opening round of time trials. Busch was 23rd fastest in the session, barely transferring to the second round.
From that point on, the improvement was dramatic. Busch was second in Round 2 and third in the final round.
“The first round was a bit of a scare,” Busch acknowledged, “But the rest of it was OK. Just didn’t quite get it, but we got everything out of it there the third round. That was all she had, so I wish that we were a little bit faster.
“We’re certainly missing just a little bit. It seems like it’s harder to hit it. Just looking at the 78 (Truex) and the 11 (Denny Hamlin) and the 20 (Jones) and those guys, we’re not all as fast as we would like to be, so we’ve got to keep working on it.”
That attitude extended to Saturday’s rain-abbreviated practice session, in which Busch posted the seventh fastest speed (and second fastest 10-consecutive-lap average behind Kevin Harvick). But the 2015 series champion was looking for more.
“The car will be good in race trim, and if we keep the downforce in it, hopefully that’ll pay off better for us on race day — hopefully hot and sunny,” Busch said after rain ended the session.
Larson struggled with a tight handling condition during Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series qualifying on Friday but appeared to have the issues resolved during Saturday morning’s practice. Larson was second in the session at 200.083 mph, behind only Harvick (200.719 mph). “That last run on tires — I thought we were as good as anybody except the 4 (Harvick),” Larson radioed to crew chief Chad Johnston. Seeking his fourth straight Cup victory at Michigan International Speedway, Larson will have to overcome a 26th-place starting position to get the job done. ...Rain played havoc with Saturday’s track activity at Michigan. Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series practice, scheduled for 9:05 a.m. ET, started late and ended early, though Stewart-Haas Racing driver Aric Almirola managed to squeeze in a session-high 31 laps around the 2-mile track. ... NASCAR Xfinity Series qualifying was rained out — forcing the field to be ordered by the rule book, with Busch on pole on the basis of owner points. Rain likewise wiped out the final Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series practice.
—By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service. Special to Field Level Media.