News Analysis: Charlotte Motor Speedway road course will be used for 2018 playoffs

What happened: NBC Sports’ Nate Ryan reported Tuesday the Charlotte Motor Speedway infield road course will likely be used for the 2018 playoffs instead of the 1.5-mile oval.

What it means: Fans will finally get to see the road course race in the playoffs they’ve been asking for, and a third road course will be on the Cup schedule. In addition, this would likely leave New Hampshire Motor Speedway as the top candidate to lose a race in favor of Las Vegas Motor Speedway, which is expected to get a second Cup race next season.

News value (scale of 1-10): Seven, because this news has multiple impacts. It not only adds a road course to the playoffs, but it prevents the number of 1.5-mile tracks in the final 10 races from increasing (it would stay at five).

Questions: Is this really it for New Hampshire’s playoff race, or is there some unexpected wrinkle? How will fans react attendance-wise to the Charlotte road course? And will this give a driver like AJ Allmendinger a chance to make a deep playoff run?

Atlanta Post-Race Podcast

Nate Ryan from NBC Sports co-hosts this week’s post-race podcast from his rental car during the drive home from Atlanta Motor Speedway. Nate, who has a much more interesting and professional podcast than this one — the NASCAR on NBC Podcast (check it out!) — successfully navigated the highways surrounding Atlanta while recording this. And yes, we arrived safely.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Atlanta race

Each week, I’ll provide some quick analysis through a post called the Top Five — five notable storylines from the just-completed race. Today: Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Unhappy Harvick

Kevin Harvick absolutely destroyed the field in a performance reminiscent of the ass-kicking Martin Truex Jr. laid on everyone in last year’s Coca-Cola 600.

But there was a big difference. Truex finished off his win, where Harvick blew it with a speeding penalty Sunday on the final pit stop.

At least Harvick owned up to the error after ripping his pit crew multiple times last season when they cost him races. This time, the pit crew was outstanding all day long — and Harvick was the one who failed to close.

“I just made a mistake that I preach all the time that you don’t need to make and beat yourself, and then you go out and make it yourself instead of following all the things you preach,” he said. “That part is hard for me to swallow.”

The talk coming out of Atlanta will focus on his mistake, but in reality, there’s a huge moral victory to be had. The fact Harvick could come out in the first intermediate track race of the season after switching to Ford and be that good is a really positive sign for the rest of the season.

Personally, I thought Stewart-Haas would struggle after leaving Chevrolet and the Hendrick Motorsports alliance. As it turns out, Harvick is as good as ever.

The mistakes? It’s a long season, and they can always be cleaned up.

Don’t give Keselowski a chance

I don’t have the stats to back this up, but it seems like whenever Brad Keselowski gets an shot at a victory — after fighting his way through a comeback — he often capitalizes on it.

Keselowski thrives on adversity and loves when people count him out. It brings out the blue-collar fighter in him, and you can’t let him sniff the lead in that situation or he’ll snatch it away and end up with the trophy.

That’s what he did at Atlanta. His team had a major screw-up after Keselowski had taken the lead on a late pit stop, and Keselowski had to return to the pits to add some lug nuts. He came out 13th, and his chances looked to be over.

Did he have a meltdown or flip out on his team? No. He went back to work, rallied back and was able to pull off one of those signature scrappy wins.

“Everybody stayed focused and nobody had to say anything,” he said. “We know the deal. We know this isn’t going to be easy. You have to keep your head down and keep fighting at all times and that’s what we did.”

Keselowski is easy to overlook. He can come off as a bit of a dork, and other drivers dismiss him at times when he spouts off. But that’s almost always a mistake with Keselowski; he might not look like he could beat you in a fight, but it’s best not to give him a chance.

Hey Dale, so about that new aero package…

What the heck? For all the talk and hype about the new even-lower downforce package, combined with an old track surface that eats tires, the expectations were pretty high for a thrilling race.

As it turned out, there wasn’t much in the way of action until the end. I asked Dale Earnhardt Jr. about why the race seemed, um…

“Uneventful?” he said.

Exactly. No wrecks? No spins?

“We’re all pretty good, I guess,” he said with a smile.

Look, it’s obviously way too early to judge the new aero package. But it was kind of weird that last year’s Atlanta race seemed racier than this year’s. And Earnhardt knew what I was getting at.

He suggested (perhaps half-jokingly) NASCAR should “take more downforce off til we start wreckin’ more.”

“These cars, they did take a lot of spoiler off,” he said. “But we all still have a lot of side force. You can’t even read the damn sponsors on some of the Toyotas, they’ve got such big quarterpanels.”

Side force keeps drivers from spinning out, Earnhardt said. And all the cars –not just the Toyotas — have a lot of it.

“You know how they talk about the Trucks, when they get sideways and they kind of straighten themselves out because they’ve got that big flat side?” he said. “We’ve all kind of got that same thing going on here. The spoiler makes it harder to drive, but still, when we get (out of shape), we get a little side force kicked in and it helps you save it.”

The problem, Earnhardt said, is even if NASCAR cut the side skirts or something along those lines, the teams would likely figure out how to get the cars back to where they were before.

“Look at a picture of Carl Edwards when he won here, passing Jimmie (Johnson in 2005),” Earnhardt said. “Look at where the splitter on those cars is when they cross the finish line. They’re like six inches in the air.

“That’s what we really need to be doing, but you can’t unlearn the engineering we’ve done in these cars. So we’re all going to find a way to keep them sealed up.”

Kahneiacs Rejoice!

Kasey Kahne has missed the Chase for two straight years. Last year, he didn’t lead a lap.

But Kahne’s fans? Man, they are so impressively loyal.

I asked one Kahne fan in Daytona: “If he doesn’t start doing better, how long will you stick it out?”

“Until he retires,” she said. “He’s my driver.”

So those dedicated Kahne fans deserve something to cheer about. And they might get it this season.

Kahne was all smiles when he emerged from his car after a fourth-place finish on Sunday — and not because the car was that good all day. Actually, Kahne and the No. 5 team struggled with many of the same things they had in the last couple seasons. They weren’t very good for much of the race.

But this time, unlike in the past, the team made the right changes, got the car better and got themselves out of a hole. I asked Kahne how significant that was.

“That’s actually really hard to do,” Kahne said. “It’s hard to do when you’re one of the best teams and drivers and running up front all the time. So for us, the last year or two, it’s been really hard — and today we did it.

“That was really nice to see and be part of. We’ll just keep building from there. But yeah, it feels really good to dig out of where we started.”

Another week like this, and Kahne fans might really have reason to start feeling optimistic again. Combined with a top-10 finish in the Daytona 500, Kahne’s Atlanta finish has him eighth in the point standings.

Kahne isn’t starting the season with a deficit this year. That’s a good sign for a driver who needs a rebound.

Get that outta here

At the end of Stage 1 and Stage 2 — during the race — small trophies were awarded to the No. 4 team. Stewart-Haas Racing tweeted pictures with crew chief Rodney Childers holding the trophy.

Now, I like the stages and all — they provide a good break for mostly uneventful races like Atlanta — but come on, people!

A trophy for winning a stage?? The stages are cute little excuses for cautions and there are definitely some benefits (I’m a fan!), but let’s not overdo it by giving away trophies. Isn’t a playoff point enough for a stage win?

Fortunately, I’ve been told this is not a NASCAR thing but a track thing. I hope other tracks don’t follow suit. No offense to Atlanta, but one trophy is enough for the race.

NASCAR fans don’t seem like the kind of people who like participation trophies, so let’s just forget this little incident ever happened and bury the stage trophies idea along with the Sprint narwhals.

News Analysis: Kyle Busch’s winning Xfinity car fails post-race inspection

What happened: Kyle Busch won Saturday’s Xfinity Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, but NASCAR later announced his No. 18 car failed post-race inspection. It was too low in both the left front and the right front.

What it means: This is the first real test of NASCAR’s new penalty structure. The P1, P2, P3, etc. penalties are gone; now there’s just an L1 and L2. The rulebook says failing the heights after a race qualifies as an L1 penalty. In addition, the rulebook says an L1 penalty in the Xfinity Series counts as an encumbered finish — which means the No. 18 won’t be able to use the win to make the owner’s playoffs. In addition, according to the rulebook, the “minimum” penalty options for an L1 penalty in the Xfinity Series are the loss of 10-40 points, a one-to-three race crew chief suspension and a fine of $10,000-$40,000.

News value (scale of 1-10): Four, but could go up or down next week. It will be interesting to see what NASCAR announces on Tuesday or Wednesday when the penalties are made official.

Questions: Will NASCAR follow the standards laid out in its rulebook? If so, who will crew chief for the No. 18 car next week at Las Vegas? And will Busch go 10-for-10 in Xfinity races this year?

DraftKings picks for Atlanta

I’m playing DraftKings this season and will be posting my picks here each week. Disclosure: If you want to play and sign up using this link, DraftKings will give my website a commission.

Last week’s results: Played the free Daytona entry game and finished around 8,700th out of nearly 80,000. Won $0.

Season results: $0 wagered, $0 won in one contest.

This week’s contest: Playing the $1 entry “Happy Hour” $20,000 payout game.

My picks ($50,000 salary cap):

Jimmie Johnson ($10,600). Yeah, I’m taking the most expensive guy. But he starts 18th, and that’s an attractive possibility for a points from positions gained. Plus he’s won here for two straight years.

— Kyle Larson ($9,100). This is a little bit of a gut pick, so maybe that’s a bad idea (my gut is usually wrong). But Larson is so talented at both driving a loose car and running the high line, and Atlanta offers both. He’s not exactly a steal at $9,100, and there’s not much statistically to back me up here, so…this might not work.

— Austin Dillon ($8,200). I’m riding with the Richard Childress Racing cars and affiliates this weekend. Four RCR-related cars were in the top 12 of the best 10-lap averages from final practice. Ryan Newman almost won the pole and was fastest in 10-lap average, but I’m staying away due to his low ceiling for points. Dillon, though, starts 19th.

Kasey Kahne ($8,000). I picked Kahne because he starts 29th, so he’s the No. 1 option from a top team who starts back in the field. He was only 26th in fastest 10-lap averages from final practice — NOT GOOD — but I still think he could make up some positions.

— Ty Dillon ($6,100). I don’t feel super confident about this one, since a 500-mile race offers a lot of opportunities for young drivers to mess up. But Dillon was 10th-fastest for 10-lap averages in final practice, which was faster than drivers like Kyle Busch and Joey Logano. Plus, he starts 26th.

Michael McDowell ($5,700). McDowell was gaining some decent momentum at the end of last year and getting top-20 finishes — and he’s another RCR-related car. So I’ll take a chance on him after he failed to get through inspection and starts the race 36th. Since he never took a qualifying lap, he starts the race on fresh tires — which could be big at Atlanta.

Note: I’m leaving $2,300 in salary cap on the table here. That definitely seems like a bad idea, but at the same time, I’m trying to think of what will gain the most points through position differential in addition to a respectable finish. We’ll see how it goes.

News Analysis: Las Vegas Motor Speedway in talks for second Cup race

What happened: The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority has scheduled a special session to discuss a $2.5 million sponsorship opportunity that could bring a second NASCAR Cup Series race to Las Vegas Motor Speedway as soon as Fall 2018. In response to the R-J’s report, the track said it would comment further prior to the March 8 meeting, while NASCAR said the schedule has yet to be finalized for 2018.

What it means: This is a credible report, made clearer by the quick non-comments from the track and NASCAR. If this ends up happening, another Speedway Motorsports Inc. track would likely lose a race. All tracks are in the midst of five-year sanction agreements, so SMI would either have to buy another track and move one of its races or transfer one of its existing races (by far the more likely scenario). The current SMI tracks with playoff races are New Hampshire, Charlotte and Texas — and the repave at Texas means it’s an unlikely candidate.

News value (scale of 1-10): Nine. There hasn’t been a venue change in NASCAR since 2011, so this doesn’t happen often. People have been talking about Las Vegas getting a second Cup race for years, but the talk tapered off after Vegas stopped getting the mega crowds it once did. Perhaps this means it could finally happen.

Questions: Which SMI track would lose a race? Is it possible the season would end in Las Vegas, or will the postseason banquet move away? How would Las Vegas attendance be affected by having two dates instead of one?

Atlanta makes Carl Edwards miss racing, but no comeback plans

Carl Edwards was back at a NASCAR track on Friday for the second time this year, on hand at Atlanta Motor Speedway at the request of his successor in the No. 19 car, Daniel Suarez.

Edwards said he watched the first part of the Daytona 500, but skipped the rest once the field started wrecking. He didn’t miss that part of it, he said.

But standing in the infield of an Atlanta track where he won three times, Edwards said, “I miss driving” — at least for a day.

Still, Edwards said he was “going to try really hard to stick to my plan, step away and make sure I get my perspective right.” He said he was “certain” he wouldn’t take any full-time offers at this time and was only in attendance because he was asked.

“I’m really, really grateful to have made the decision I made,” he said. “I’m having a lot of fun. Everybody calls it retirement; I haven’t called it retirement officially.

“I admit I brought my helmet and driver suit today, just in case somebody needed something. But I’m having a lot of fun. I’m just so grateful to Coach (Gibbs) and everybody for letting me make the decision I made. But it is cool coming back here and seeing everybody.”

Edwards also attended the Phoenix test to help Suarez in January and openly addressed rumors about his departure.  He took another shot at them Friday.

“I could have messed with you guys somehow on the rumors and stuff,” he said. “Carlos (Slim) pays me a million dollars a race to come hang out. Penske wants me to spy on the Toyotas.”

He chuckled.

“No, it’s pretty cool just to be here (because) they want me here,” he said.