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Surprises of the 2017 NASCAR season, so far

When the checkered flag waved on the Quaker State 400 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at Kentucky Speedway in Sparta on Saturday night, it also waved on the first half of the 2017 season. Eighteen races down, and 18 more remain until a new champion is crowned. Speaking of the crowning of a champion, eight more races remain in the regular season before the 10-race postseason playoffs get underway.

With the season at its halfway point, I’d like to look at some of the biggest surprises of 2017, so far:

Two of the biggest surprises come from the Joe Gibbs Racing camp. First things first — the departure of Carl Edwards.

One of the biggest surprises of the season came before the season even got underway when Edwards made the shocker announcement that he was stepping away from competition. It’s still kind of unknown whether or not Edwards absence from competition is permanent or temporary, but the longer Edwards contends that he hasn’t even thought of returning, which he still says, his absence looks more and more to be permanent in nature.

Edwards said he was stepping away because he still has his health, he’s satisfied with his racing accomplishments and there are other things he wants to do. While he is missed, good for him.

The other big JGR surprise is a lack of wins; actually, absence of wins would be a more accurate statement. Sure, Edwards is gone, but we’re talking about the home of Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, and Matt Kenseth, here. No slight of rookie Daniel Suarez intended with his omission from the list.

We’re talking about the team that dominated 2016, despite Hendrick Motorsports’ Jimmie Johnson winning the Cup. All four JGR drivers won multiple races last year, and three of those four are still with the team. Busch’s wheel coming off during the race at Dover (Del.) International Speedway awhile back was a metaphor, of sorts, for Joe Gibbs Racing’s 2017 season, so far.

Meanwhile, Martin Truex Jr. is thriving at Furniture Row Racing, a team that has a technical partnership with and receives assistance from Joe Gibbs Racing.

Truex is not only tied with Johnson for most wins, so far, this season with three, he’s also thriving under NASCAR’s new stage format. He won his 12th and 13 race stages out of a possible 36 in Kentucky on Saturday night. With those stage wins and race wins, Truex’s playoff-point tally stands at 28, heads and shoulders ahead of everyone else, including Johnson.

Speaking of dominance, there are actually two drivers dominating the 2017 season, and the other one isn’t Johnson. How about the season Kyle Larson is having? Sure, Larson has two wins, one fewer than Johnson, and there’s a handful of other drivers with two wins, but a case could be made for Larson joining Truex in the domination category.

Prior to penalties that included a 35-point deduction after Kentucky, Larson was the points leader by a single point over Truex.  While his margin over Truex was minuscule, Truex and Larson had cushions of 100+ points over the next driver in line, Busch. Truex still does, well, new second-place driver Larson, aside.

There’s something for Busch to hang his hat on; he’s third in the standings, behind only Truex and Larson, the two drivers running way ahead of everyone else. But I’m sure that doesn’t take all the sting away from that proverbial goose egg in the wins column.

Anyway, back to my point.

Larson’s having such a spectacular season that, even with the significant points loss, he still has about a race’s worth of points cushion between him and the next driver on the list.

And, how about first-time winners?

I hate to say it, but I might have kind of, sort of given up or Ricky Stenhouse Jr. getting a Cup win. Or maybe I just never thought of him when I thought of race-win contenders week-in and week-out. And, in 2017, he’s a two-time winner. Who saw Stenhouse as a restrictor-place master?

Granted, plate races are a different animal than the other 32 points-paying races on the schedule, and they’re viewed as the four races of the season where drivers not usually in contention have chances at victory lane. But Stenhouse has won two of the plate races, so far, this season, one at each track (Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway). When a driver wins two plate races in a row, it’s more than luck and just being in the right place at the right time.

On the subject of first-time winners, we’ve also seen Austin Dillon and Ryan Blaney get to victory lane this year. This is not meant to be a criticism of the aforementioned Stenhouse, but for whatever reason, those winners didn’t surprise me as much as Stenhouse’s two trips to victory lanes. Maybe my opinion of Stenhouse was based on him being with Roush Fenway. I don’t know. Wow, I wouldn’t have thought 10 years ago that I’d consider driving for Roush a liability. Things change, I guess.

Anyway, it’s always nice to see first-time winners, regardless of the shock value, or lack thereof.

There have been other big stories, but they weren’t really shockers. Heck, I wasn’t really surprised by Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s retirement announcement. Sure it was, and still is, a big deal. But a shocker? Not really. And Matt Kenseth out in favor of Erik Jones at JGR? Wasn’t that speculation swirling around before the green flag waved at Daytona in February? I think so.

Follow Auto Racing Daily on Twitter @AutoRacingDaily or like Auto Racing Daily on Facebook (Facebook.com/autorcngdaily). Amanda’s also on Twitter @NASCARexaminer and has a fan/like page on Facebook (Facebook.com/nascarexaminer)

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Posted by on July 13, 2017. Filed under Blog by Amanda Vincent,Featured,NASCAR. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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