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Looking into NASCAR's Crystal Ball

The 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series reaches its traditional midseason point this Saturday night with the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona.

OK, the math doesn’t quite add up, as this is the 17th of 36 events on the schedule. But close enough to take a look at trends unfolding so far this season and what to expect in the homestretch through the end of the regular season – including the Brantley Gilbert Big Machine Brickyard 400 on July 23 at IMS – and the Playoffs.

The Kids Are Alright. 

Yep, that was the title of a great early song by The Who. It’s also a subtitle for the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season since there already are three first-time winners, a blossoming new superstar who earned his first win last year and a few other young drivers on the cusp on their breakthrough initial career wins.

NASCAR has been buffeted by the winds of retirement of some of the greatest drivers of this generation in the last few years. Jeff Gordon retired after the 2015 season even though he filled in for the injured Dale Earnhardt Jr. last year, Tony Stewart hung up his NASCAR helmet after the 2016 season, Carl Edwards shocked the sport with his retirement announcement during the offseason, and Dale Jr. announced earlier this year that this season would be his last.

That immediately raised questions about the next generation of stars, about carrying the torch, about new blood. Insert your favorite cliché here. Those concerns were legitimate. They’re also unfounded after 16 races.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Austin Dillon and Ryan Blaney each earned their first career victories this season to qualify for the Playoffs. Former USAC star Kyle Larson, who grabbed his first win last season, has emerged as a superstar this year with two wins and leads the standings in Chip Ganassi’s Chevrolet.

It also only seems to be a matter of time before Chase Elliott and Erik Jones visit Victory Lane, and Daniel Suarez also could be a contender to break through with his first victory.

The kids are all right, indeed.

Looking for Some Rain. 

No oval racing fan on Earth wants rain, which prevents racing. But a few drivers are mired in surprising victory droughts and could use some metaphorical moisture to end those dry spells.

The top of that list must start with Kyle Busch. He is winless in Cup Series competition since he took the checkered flag last July at the Brickyard. Stop. Read that again: Kyle Busch hasn’t won a Cup race in nearly a year.

Boggles the mind, doesn’t it?

Busch has come close far too many times to count this season. He has six top-five finishes, including finishing second at Martinsville and Charlotte. That consistency has propelled Busch to fourth in the standings, so it’s hard to conceive he’ll miss the Playoffs.

And this drought has to end soon, right? There would be no place better than the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, as Busch has owned the keys to the place the last two years. He swept the Brickyard 400 and Lilly Diabetes 250 NASCAR XFINITY Series races in 2015 and 2016.

Other surprising names in the winless column in 2017 include perennial title contender Denny Hamlin, retiring fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr., 2010 Brickyard 400 winner Jamie McMurray and Clint Bowyer.

Surprise Result at Brickyard? 

The Brantley Gilbert Big Machine Brickyard 400 is one of the toughest tests in NASCAR, as the combination of long straightaways, relatively flat turns and the notoriously temperature-sensitive racetrack surface on the 2.5-mile oval challenge every driver’s skill and every crew chief’s ability to devise balanced setups.

Knowing that, it’s no surprise that numerous NASCAR champions have won at Indy. Champions such as Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt, Bill Elliott, Dale Jarrett, Bobby Labonte, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick each have crossed the Yard of Bricks under the checkered flag as a winner at the Brickyard.

But few IMS and NASCAR fans can forget when Paul Menard shocked the racing world with a flawless drive to a Brickyard victory in 2011, which remains his only career Cup Series win.

While the stats and history indicate one of NASCAR’s supernovas will pull into Victory Lane on Sunday afternoon, July 23 at IMS, it’s not a long shot to think there could be a surprise, dark horse winner like Menard.

The new stage racing system used in NASCAR has created an intriguing mix of strategies for teams. A lesser-known name just might toss the dice in an attempt to win the race or execute a daring fuel strategy perfectly in the last stage to pull off a stunning win.

Hey, don’t forget about a guy named Alexander Rossi doing the same thing in the 2016 Indianapolis 500. It could happen here again in July.

Eleven different drivers have won Cup Series races through the first 16 races of this season. So anything is possible July 23 at IMS.

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Dale Earnhardt Jr.
 
Looking into NASCAR's Crystal Ball
The 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series reaches its traditional midseason point this Saturday night with the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona. OK, the math doesn’t quite add up, as this is the 17th of 36 events on the schedule. But close enough to take a look at trends unfolding so far this season and what to expect in the homestretch through the end of the regular season – including the Brantley Gilbert Big Machine Brickyard 400 on July 23 at IMS – and the Playoffs.
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