By: Michael Finley, Special contributor
Following Kansas, there's three topics worth noting.
With only six more races remaining on the schedule, I figured now would be the time to start doing a weekly commentary on NASCAR on a whole. I'm generally going to focus on three different stories. Two of them will be generally unknown topics that went unnoticed and then one of the larger stories of the week. And that leads to somebody I've written about many times over the years, a Miss Danica Patrick.
Danica's slow, yet noticeable improvement
I've been noticing Danica Patrick a little bit lately. She hasn't been setting the world on fire with her finishes, but she has been having a very good run of races the last couple of months. She has enjoyed six top 20 finishes in the past nine races, one of those being a sixth at Atlanta. That might be her lone top 10 in this stretch, but it should also be noted that her three finishes outside of the top 20 have only been 21st, 25th, and 27th.
This might not sound like much but remember it's Danica we're talking about here, sitting 27th in points in Stewart-Haas equipment, and her team has no excuse for underperforming, unlike say the No. 4 or the No. 41, which are practically new teams, and the No. 14 has had to deal with Stewart recovering from a broken leg and then the Kevin Ward tragedy. It's safe to say she isn't going to be the next Jimmie Johnson any time soon, but I can definitely see her develop into a Paul Menard type driver; a solid racer who should have stayed another year or two in Nationwide to hone their talents farther. They may get a surprise win or two, but they aren't going to light the world on fire. They are also 'in' with a sponsor that will keep them in a solid ride for the rest of their career.
Truex and Furniture Row are finally making headway
Martin Truex Jr. and the 78 team seem to have finally jelled together. They've posted four straight top 15s over the past month, including a seventh and a fourth in the last two races. I'm interested to see how this team will do next season after they've had a year under their belt. Truex is 24th in points, a far cry from where both himself and the team were last season (No. 78 made the Chase and Truex also made it before being taken out in the MWR fiasco). But that was with Kurt Busch in the 78, a much better driver than Truex ... No offense to Truex, but Kurt is a former champion for a reason. ECR engines have also been relatively quiet this season, with only Ryan Newman in the No. 31 still in the Chase and AJ Allmendinger in the No. 47 being the only winner.
Johnson and Earnhardt are on the hot seat
Last weekend, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson blew tires and finished 39th and 40th respectively, hurting their Chase chances severally. It's always really interesting to see Johnson backed into a corner. It's very rare. The only time that comes to mind recently is the 2012 season finale at Homestead. There, Johnson needed to win and hope Brad Keselowski would finish 17th or lower to earn the title. Johnson was well on his way to winning before losing the rear gear of the car, and even if the rear gear hadn't of broken, Brad would of still finished 16th and squeak out of Homestead as the champion.
The good thing for Jimmie is that he only needs to win at Charlotte, where he holds seven victories and just won from the pole there in May, to make it into the final eight of the Chase. For Earnhardt Jr., his best hope of making it into the next round is a win at Talladega. Although Jr. hasn't won there since the Bush Administration, he still has five victories at the 2.66 miler, and never doubt a person named Dale Earnhardt when it comes to plate races in NASCAR.