Hot 20 – As our attention shifts to the Windy City, the winds of change keep on a blowin’

Change can be a good thing. Sometimes it is, but other times it is a simple reminder that we are getting older and, like disco, what was popular yesterday might not be tomorrow.

This week, official confirmation arrived that Danica Patrick was leaving the Stewart-Haas No. 10. Coming in with the 2008 Indy Japan 300 to her credit, her model looks, that firecracker personality, she did have her detractors. Was she good enough, was she strong enough? Still, she had great support from fans and sponsors alike.

Patrick already had set some standards for her gender. She was the first woman to lead the Indianapolis 500 and win an IndyCar race. She was that circuit’s Most Popular Driver for six year’s running. Then she moved over to the stock cars, moving full-time to Cup in 2013 where she immediately won a Daytona 500 pole, led the race, and finished 8th. It was her 11th career Cup start. Sadly, in the 169 races since there have been no more poles and just six more Top Tens. The results and then the sponsorship were no longer there to extend her contract with Stewart-Haas past this season.

I will still wear my No. 88 cap, don my battered No. 8 T-shirt, even though Dale Earnhardt Jr. will not be in contention for a title as he retires after this campaign. Be it this year, or next, someone else will be their Most Popular Diver other than the guy who has claimed the honor since 2003. From the time of his first Top Ten at Richmond 18 years ago, the loss of his father, his wins at Daytona and Talladega since, whether he wanted to be or not, Junior became the face of NASCAR. He was absolute magic through 2004, then gave us a resurgence in 2014 and 2015 when he chalked up his final seven victories. With a career total of 26 and his army of fans, he should eventually find his way to the Hall of Fame.

Unlike Junior, Matt Kenseth won a championship, earned a spot in the Chase, but did not get the choice of whether to stay or not. With William Byron waiting in the wings, that decision was made for him. Kasey Kahne did not win a title, yet he is another man in the Chase with no ride set for 2018. Erik Jones comes into Rick Hendrick’s stable next year to move into the No. 4 as Chase Elliott gets the No. 9 and Kahne’s No. 5 gets moth balled.

Kurt Busch has a title, a place in the Chase, but does he have a ride for next season? At the end of his contract with Stewart-Haas, he is still officially negotiating a new deal. If Monster Energy does not return as his sponsor, my guess is that he won’t return to that car. Having a sponsor trumps talent. Just ask Paul Menard.

Then there is Richard Petty’s iconic No. 43. Smithfield Foods has moved its sponsorship to Stewart-Haas and the odds seem to be in favor of them taking Aric Almirola with them to sit behind the wheel. That leaves Petty Motorsports without a sponsor, a driver, and questions are arising as to whether it might be the end of an era.

Carl Edwards might be back. He might not. Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart closed the book on their careers last year. That is a lot of top tier names gone or in limbo, representing a very sizeable number of fans who tuned in every week to cheer them on.

In the immortal words of disco, their supporters are left pleading “Don’t Leave Me This Way” while NASCAR proclaims “I Will Survive” and the rest of us are left wondering “Where Do We Go From Here.”

The answer to the last is…Chicago.

1. MARTIN TRUEX JR. – 2053 PTS (4 Wins)
Should Cope, Larson, and Hamlin decide you don’t get another win, you don’t.

2. KYLE LARSON – 2033 PTS (4 Wins)
Derrike Cope was a two-time winner in 1990 and helped make Larson a four-time winner this year.

3. KYLE BUSCH – 2029 PTS (2 Wins)
Visited Furniture Row in Denver. No doubt, Kyle is working for the Russians.

4. BRAD KESELOWSKI – 2019 PTS (2 Wins)
XFINITY series is not dead yet, as I hear Brad beat Kyle at Richmond. How bad have you got it?

5. JIMMIE JOHNSON – 2017 PTS (3 Wins)
Time to carry the freight in his bid for number eight.

6. KEVIN HARVICK – 2015 PTS (1 Win)
“Whether it’s Dale Jr., Danica, myself…people come and go.” I am afraid Harvick is right.

7. DENNY HAMLIN – 2013 PTS (2 Wins)
Now, that is how you perform a P.I.T. maneuver.

8. RICKY STENHOUSE JR. – 2010 PTS (2 Wins)
Picked the right time to have a breakout season.

9. RYAN BLANEY – 2008 PTS (1 Win)
Ten more races with the Wood Brothers before moving on over to the Penske people.

Maybe now is the time to consider getting that first career victory.

11. RYAN NEWMAN – 2005 PTS (1 Win)
Not exactly a stellar season but points wise he deserves to be in the running.

12. KURT BUSCH – 2005 PTS (1 Win)
After the Daytona 500 he has been on cruise control, then they told him he could lose his lease.

13. KASEY KAHNE – 2005 PTS (1 Win)
Like Kurt and Matt, it is more than just the Chase…but more like an audition for next season.

14. AUSTIN DILLON – 2005 PTS (1 Win)
His team owner has told him that he was loved and has a job for next year.

Where is an ambulance when you do not need one?

No wins, but he has run a hell of a lot better than his place in these standings would indicate.

Two pit penalties and some repair work in a race he had to win to be in.

18. ERIK JONES – 654 PTS
With six straight Top Tens, Jones has just given us notice for 2018.

19. JOEY LOGANO – 652 PTS (1 Win)
Earned more points than four who made the Chase, but all he got from his win was a trophy.

Behind him, you will find such names as Bayne, Earnhardt, Menard, Allmendinger, and Patrick.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of

Ron Thornton
Ron Thornton
A former radio and television broadcaster, newspaper columnist, Little League baseball coach, Ron Thornton has been following NASCAR on this site since 2004. While his focus may have changed over recent years, he continues to make periodic appearances only when he has something to say. That makes him a rather unique journalist.


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