As Cup Series pauses before summer sprint, here’s what we know – and want to know

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has struggled in his return from a concussion suffered in 2016, but it has to get better, right?
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has struggled in his return from a concussion suffered in 2016, but it has to get better, right? AP

The NASCAR Cup Series takes the week off. Seven races into the season, here are seven storylines that have shaped 2017.

1. He has to cool off, eventually … doesn’t he?

Kyle Larson, 24, of California showed flashes of brilliance during the first three years of his full-time Cup career. This year, he has sustained that excellence, with four second-place finishes and a win to start the season. The two keys to his improvement have been maturity that comes with experience and faster cars from Chip Ganassi Racing. “I think he’s just scratching the surface in terms of what he’s capable of,” Ganassi said after Larson’s win in California.

2. He has to heat up eventually … doesn’t he?

Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s return to the track after sitting out half of the points-paying races last year because of concussion symptoms has been unimpressive. He has just one finish better than 14th – a fifth last weekend at Texas. He crashed at Daytona and Martinsville and finished five laps off the pace at Atlanta. Hendrick Motorsports has been hit-and-miss overall. Jimmie Johnson has the four-car team’s only win, and only Chase Elliott is in the top 10 in points.

3. A familiar name in a familiar car produces unfamiliar results.

Ryan Blaney has led 150 laps in 2017 – more than any Wood Brothers Racing driver has led in a full season since 1983, 10 years before he was born. In 61 career races, he has five top 5 finishes; his father, former NASCAR driver Dave Blaney, had four in 473. Blaney is sixth in points. The last time a Wood Brothers driver finished a season that high was 1994.

Still, as strong as his results have been this year, they could have been better. His average finish is 2.6 spots below his average running spot. He led 148 laps at Texas, but a bad pit stop late relegated him to 12th. At Martinsville, his average running position was 14th but he finished 25th .

“We’re great in the first half of races, we just need to figure out how to finish them off, and that’s the tough part to do,” Blaney told reporters after the race at Texas. “That’s where I think some of these great teams really rise up.”

4. Stage racing shines in the spotlight (mostly).

If the goal of stage racing, adopted at the start of the 2017 season, was to make middle portions of races more exciting, then the new format is a success – but not an unqualified one. Yes, laps 65 to 85 and 150 to 170 (or whatever the case may be) have been more meaningful, and thus more hotly contested, than they ever have been, and that’s a good thing.

And when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. knocked Kyle Busch out of the way to stay on the lead lap at the end of a stage at Martinsville, it was certainly exciting in a way that middle laps of races never have been before.

But it’s hard to say that intentional contact from a non-lead lap car on the leader constitutes good racing.

5. The highlight of the season ...

Had to be crew chief Tony Gibson’s joyful reaction when his driver, Kurt Busch, won the Daytona 500.

6. Quote of the year: “Everything is great.”

Kyle Busch said this over and over when pressed for comment after his altercation with Joey Logano. Busch thought Logano wrecked him at the end of the Las Vegas race, so he stormed from his car and took a swing at him.

The incident was captured on a cell phone video by independent NASCAR journalist Jeff Gluck. He posted it online. Logano swore the punch didn’t land; others thought it did, and the video was analyzed like the Zapruder film.

Busch printed “Everything is great” onto t-shirts, sold more than $30,000 worth and donated the proceeds to charity.

NASCAR has wrestled for years with how to police the sport when it comes to driver behavior. Busch was not penalized or fined for punching (or not punching, as the case may be) Logano.

7. A prediction guaranteed to happen or your money back.

Chase Elliott will win at least two races this season. A second-year driver from Hendrick Motorsports, he has been remarkably consistent in outperforming his more experienced teammates. The worst position he has turned a lap in all season is 33rd, and his average running position is a stellar 5.57. He is second in points behind Larson.