NASCAR driver popularity in the Dale Jr. Era

Since Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the Most Popular Driver award 15 straight times, there’s no dispute which driver was the most liked by fans in the last decade and a half.

But who were the other popular drivers during that time? Well, we actually know the answer to that question because the National Motorsports Press Association (which administers the award) has released a top 10 of the voting each year since Earnhardt first won it in 2003.

Only seven of the current 10 most popular drivers will return next season — Ryan Blaney, Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne, Kyle Larson and Martin Truex Jr. That’s in alphabetical order, because the NMPA no longer releases the order of the final voting (they used to not only release the order, but also the vote totals).

Who will the other three be? It seems fairly wide open at the moment.

That’s because only two active drivers — Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski — have ever made the top 10 in the past and failed to make it this year.

All other active drivers — including the likes of Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano and Clint Bowyer — have never appeared on the top 10 list.

At the bottom of this post, I’ve compiled a spreadsheet of all the data dating back to 2003. But first, a few observations:

What happened to Harvick? This is the biggest mystery from the voting. Harvick was the third-most popular driver in 2003 and 2004, then dropped to the bottom half of the list over the next decade — but was still in the top 10 for every year from 2003-13. But he has now missed the top 10 in three of the last four years (starting with the year he won the championship, oddly enough). Perhaps it’s because he’s been more affected than anyone with old-school fans abandoning the sport (assuming his fan base early on had a large portion of Dale Sr. fans after he took over that ride in 2001). What are some other theories?

— Truex on the rise. Martin Truex Jr. never made the top 10 in voting until the past two seasons — this despite being a full-time driver since 2006.

— New faces emerge. Ryan Blaney and Kyle Larson both made the top 10 in voting for the first time this season. Chase Elliott has made it in each of his first two years.

— Streak continues. Of the remaining active drivers, who has the longest streak of making the list? It’s a tie between Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne, who have both appeared every year since 2004. But while Johnson has typically been in the bottom half of the voting when the order has been revealed, Kahne is usually toward the top (and got as high as second in 2013).

— That 2014 list! Seven of the 10 drivers from 2014 are no longer in the sport full time. Of course, that’s a bit misleading since Josh Wise made the top 10 that year based on the Reddit push. But the other six drivers (Earnhardt, Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Danica Patrick and Tony Stewart) took up a combined 68 spots in the top 10 over 15 years — and that’s going to be hard to replace.

Here’s the spreadsheet I compiled if you want to look at the raw data. “Yes” signifies they appeared in the top 10 that year; in years when the NMPA released the order, the driver’s position in the top 10 is noted.

The Top Five: Breaking down the NASCAR championship race

Five thoughts after Sunday’s championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway…

1. Truex gets his due

Ladies and gentlemen, Martin Truex Jr. is a NASCAR Cup Series champion.

It’s too bad we can’t send messages from the future back to our past selves, because it would have been almost impossible to believe that a few years ago.

In 2014, Truex wrapped up his first season at Furniture Row Racing with a single lap led. He finished 24th in points. And he had two career wins to his name at the time.

Now he’s the dominant car of the past two seasons, with 12 wins and 4,062 laps led in that span. Plus he’s got a championship to go with it.

I’m as guilty of this as anyone, but due to his career history (two wins in his first nine seasons) it’s been easy to just say, “The cars are just that good” when talking about Truex’s success. Since he didn’t win much until Cole Pearn showed up as crew chief and Furniture Row improved, Truex probably hasn’t gotten enough credit as a driver.

That should change after Sunday night. Kyle Busch was chasing him down — with what appeared to be a better car — and stalking him in case there was even the slightest bobble in the 78 car.

“Then I could try to pounce,” Busch said. “But that never happened.”

Truex drove a flawless 20 laps and showed he’s worthy of being in the conversation about the sport’s best drivers.

Toyotas are elite, but as Brad Keselowski noted: “He’s still beating the other Toyotas, so he deserves credit for that.”

Good point, right? And that’s not lost on Truex.

Yes, he’s basically driving a Joe Gibbs Racing car — just tweaked by Furniture Row. But he’s beating all the JGR drivers with it.

“That’s the coolest part of it, is showing people that you’ve got it, that you can do it,” Truex said. “It’s the best feeling in the world to have the same thing as somebody else and beat ’em with it.”

And Truex was especially pumped about out-driving Busch, who he called “one of the best drivers ever.”

“To beat him,” Truex said, “was awesome.”

2. This Bud’s for Dale

When Dale Earnhardt Jr. told the media about his goals for the weekend — I just want to finish all the laps, he kept saying — it turns out he was only telling part of the story.

There was a reason behind the wish: He wanted to turn his No. 88 car into a mobile Whisky River, right there on pit road.

“That’s why I kept saying, ‘Man, I hope I finish all the laps,'” he said with a grin. “I know it sounds ridiculous, but that’s really why I was saying that. Everyone says, ‘Who are you going to miss the most?’ and it’s my family. (The 88 team) is my family. We are so close.

“I told them, ‘The one thing I want to do is finish the race, and we’re going to drink a beer together.’ That’s the only thing that kept coming to my mind about what I do when I get out of the car: I want to have a beer with my guys. I want to have a moment with them that sort of closes it up for us.”

So there they were, Earnhardt and the members of the 88 team, using the car as a bar and chugging Budweisers in the middle of a mob scene on pit road. If it was possible to have an intimate moment while surrounded by a couple hundred people, they had it.

Earnhardt and the crew posed for selfies, tossed beers at each other until the coolers were empty and raised toast after toast.

Ayyyyyyyyyyyyyy, they yelled in unison, holding their cans to the sky.

“Standing around the car and the heat coming off the car and drinking them cold beers — they were so cold, they had them in those Yeti (coolers), man. Those things are so awesome,” Earnhardt said. “That’s what I wanted. I said, ‘Whatever I do after the race, I don’t care about anything else — I just want to have a beer with my team.'”

It was one of the most unusual postrace scenes in NASCAR history. But it was the first step toward normalcy — something Earnhardt is craving after a weekend he called “weird.”

All the various things swirling around Earnhardt — his retirement from the Cup Series, the upcoming birth of his first child, his best friend winning the championship, his team’s Xfinity Series success, his new job with NBC Sports — it all played into it.

“I’ve got this job next year that I got to get ready for that I have no idea what the hell I’m doing. I know nothing about it. I’m freaking out,” he said. “There’s just so many things happening for me. I mean, what the hell!? It’s ridiculous what’s going on in my life. So I can’t put my emotions about finishing my Cup career in a capsule. I can’t single it out.”

So what’s next? A hangover, Earnhardt predicted. But then he hoped for an uneventful week ahead.

“It’s been an amazing weekend,” he said. “I’m ready to go feel normal, though. I’m ready to go just do nothing for awhile.”

He looked at the group of reporters. His team had left — the celebration was over for now — and Earnhardt lingered on pit road, willing to fill reporters’ notepads with golden quotes like he’d done so often over the years.

“But I’ll miss all y’all,” he said. “And I’ll be back because of that.”

With that, Earnhardt smiled, gave a thumbs up and disappeared into the crowd of waiting fans one more time.

3. Like a punch in the face

The primary reason for Kyle Busch not being able to catch Truex in the final laps, Busch said, was a tough battle with Joey Logano.

Busch had been on his way toward the front and easily passed Kevin Harvick, but then he reached Logano. That pass proved to be a lot tougher.

Logano took the top lane and pinched Busch down; Busch had to back out of it, reset for a couple laps and try again.

“Just wasting too much time with him,” Busch said afterward. “He held me up. He was there blocking every chance he got, so got a real buddy there. But that’s racing. That’s what happens.”

Logano’s move was subtle, and perhaps it was nothing more than racing hard for his own victory — but it does raise questions.

For example: Did Busch’s ongoing rivalry with Logano teammate Brad Keselowski play a part in the hard racing? Or perhaps did lingering ill will between the two — Busch did punch Logano in the face earlier this year, after all — have anything to do with it?

There aren’t any quotes from Logano on the post-race transcripts about that, but I’d love to know whether that played a role.

If so, it’s just another example of the entire season building toward the pinnacle that is Homestead.

4. Keselowski the politician

Leave it to Brad Keselowski to get one more shot in before the offseason begins.

Keselowski stumped hard for NASCAR to help Ford after claiming Toyota got too much help with its new nose this season.

If you missed it, here are his comments:

“When that car (the new Camry) rolled out at Daytona and I think we all got to see it for the first time, I think there were two reactions. One, we couldn’t believe NASCAR approved it, and, two, we were impressed by the design team over there.

“With that said, I don’t think anyone really ever had a shot this year the second that thing got put on the racetrack and approved. It kind of felt a little bit like Formula 1, where you have one car that kind of makes it through the gate heads and tails above everyone, and your hands are tied because you’re not allowed to do anything to the cars in those categories that NASCAR approves to really catch up.”

Keselowski concluded by saying he assumed Chevrolet “would be allowed to design a car the same way Toyota was” in terms of the new Camaro — and Ford doesn’t have any plans for a redesign.

“If that’s the case, we’re gonna take a drubbing next year,” Keselowski said.

Honestly, I don’t have any problem with what Keselowski said. He’s very calculating and certainly knows his words will get picked up and echo around the garage.

He also knows he’s going to get criticized for whining or being a loudmouth, but he’s willing to sacrifice that in order to get his point across.

If it helps, and the talk somehow generates rule changes in Ford’s favor, then it will all be worth it.

5. Thoughts on 2018

There’s going to be plenty of time to reflect on this season and what next year might bring, but here are a few thoughts on what lies ahead.

The biggest storylines heading into Daytona next year will be NASCAR’s new identity — Life After Dale, so to speak. The hype and marketing push for the young drivers will be even bigger than this year, and the pressure will increase on the likes of Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney to produce.

On the track, there will be much talk about whether the new Chevrolet nose with the incoming Camaro can somehow help the manufacturer gain on Toyota. If not — and with only minor changes to the 2018 rules package — there’s no reason to think Truex and the JGR drivers can’t dominate again next season.

Overall, the goal for 2018 should be to determine a floor for NASCAR’s long slide. Attendance and ratings will almost certainly be down every week — a natural side effect of the most popular driver leaving — so that’s just going to be a fact of life. But the sport should look at that and say, “OK, this is the low point; now we rebuild.” Use it as a launching point for a new era and get on track toward strengthening NASCAR’s health for the next generation.

Brad Keselowski vs. Kyle Busch is the juicy subplot to Homestead

The drivers involved in NASCAR’s best rivalry are going to race against each other for the championship on Sunday.

Lucky us.

Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch genuinely do not get along, and there’s nothing phony about it. Busch sincerely dislikes Keselowski and has no plans to ever work on their relationship — this despite Keselowski making a public attempt to extend an olive branch in 2015.

“Sometimes you just don’t like a guy. Fact of the matter,” Busch said Thursday.

When Busch and Keselowski are put in situations where they have to be together — like riding in the back of a pickup truck before the race, for example — there’s rarely any conversation. At Dover in September, Busch was so ready to get out of Keselowski’s company that he undid the lift gate while the truck was coming to a stop and jumped out.

“Talking is a little overrated,” Keselowski joked Thursday. “I grunt — arugh! — like Tim ‘The Tool Man’ Taylor (from Home Improvement).

“Nah, I don’t know. (People) probably get caught up in all these relationship things and forget about the reality of what this stuff is supposed to be all about — and that’s going on the racetrack and racing.”

But bad blood between drivers can matter — as evidenced by the recent Denny Hamlin/Chase Elliott incident at Phoenix — and could actually manifest itself on the track. The rivalry, while not overly heated at the moment, could play an outcome in deciding the championship.

It’s probably annoying to the competitors — particularly Keselowski, since he is the kind of guy who enjoys getting along with people — but the rivalry is a fun championship subplot for everyone else.

For whatever reason, Busch and Keselowski always find themselves together. They are a year apart in age, have children born two days apart from the other, own championship-caliber teams in the Camping World Truck Series and have one Cup title and Xfinity title apiece.

This week, they were together again for a media tour in New York City — along with Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick. Truex joked Busch and Keselowski “were like best pals,” but then added “they acted like normal people, so it was good.”

Said Harvick: “I thought they did fine. We kind of kept them separate in the cars. Martin took one car and I took the other car to keep them apart. So they did all right.”

But what’s the deal? Why has the rivalry continued for so long? It was all the way back in 2010 when Keselowski made his famous “Kyle Busch is an ass!” comment at Bristol.

That’s seven years ago! And it’s still going. Why?

“Both of us are fortunate to have great cars and great teams, and when you run up at the front a lot, things are going to happen when you’re going fast,” Keselowski said. “… When you race at the front and you’re racing for championships, it’s a great position to be in, and it’s just the way it has unfolded.”

In the end, two drivers not liking each other might not matter. Harvick noted Thursday the championship race “is not boxing.” It’s about the teams putting fast cars on the track, not a battle of the minds.

And it might not even last. Just look at Harvick and Busch, who used to hate each other but now get along.

“This week when we were doing the media stuff in New York, we were kind of like high school buddies,” Busch said of Harvick. “We were kind of joking around and making fun of the others.

“So that was kind of weird. Kevin and I, friends? What? I guess we’ve grown to respect one another and what each other has done.”

But does Busch ever see getting to that point with Keselowski?

“Probably not,” Busch said. “He’s just too different.”

The Top Five: Breaking down the Phoenix race

Five thoughts after Sunday’s Round 3 elimination race at Phoenix Raceway…

1. That’s why we follow NASCAR

There are times throughout these long NASCAR seasons where we might question our passion for this crazy sport. There can be infuriating decisions, ho-hum races or feelings of discouragement when politics or economic realities creep into what should be an escape from reality.

But days like Sunday? Those are the races that keep us all coming back.

The final stage at Phoenix had so many emotions and so much drama that it almost didn’t even seem real at times.

You had Chase Elliott tapping Martinsville foe Denny Hamlin and eventually putting him in the wall, which led to a cut tire that ended Hamlin’s championship race hopes (which had seemed near-certain just moments earlier).

Then there was Elliott making a bold move to the front, putting himself in position for what appeared to be both a stirring first career victory and a championship berth.

And then, after all of that, there was Matt Kenseth — in likely the second-to-last race of his career — somehow tracking Elliott down despite not having clean air and making a pass for what was probably his final career win.

At the same time, that sequence of events improbably put Brad Keselowski into the championship race despite not having the kind of weekend that normally would advance a driver out of Round 3.

So no matter which side you were on (Elliott fan? Kenseth fan? Ford fan? Somewere in between?), you likely felt some level of both elation and disappointment as waves of excitement rolled through the final laps.

That’s the kind of emotional payoff that makes spending three hours of your Sunday in front of the TV all worth it.  It’s a wacky sport at times, and there can be intense frustrations that come with it.

But when NASCAR is good, it’s really good.

2. A popular win

Obviously, an Elliott victory would have been absolutely massive for NASCAR. The stands might have about fallen down with cheers had the young driver ended up winning the race and moving to Homestead. The marketing department would have had to work overtime all week to hype up a young star going for his first title in Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s last race.

But to see Kenseth win? For the sold-out Phoenix crowd, that might have been the next best thing out of the available options (Earnhardt wasn’t in contention, though he did finish 10th).

The image of Kenseth standing on top of his car, looking to the heavens and then pumping his fist like he won the championship is an image that will stay with everyone long after Kenseth’s career ends. It’s a great final shot for his Hall of Fame highlight reel someday.

It was also somewhat of a cathartic moment — not just for Kenseth fans, but longtime followers of the sport. Like Kenseth himself, many fans have felt pushed out of NASCAR as the sport completely cycles. There’s a different racing format, a different championship format, different rules and now different drivers.

So the idea of Kenseth not being able to exit with what seemed like a proper sendoff? Well, that just wasn’t very satisfying to longtime fans who have continued to stick around.

At least Earnhardt has had a full year to say goodbye and soak up the appreciation — or #Appreci88ion — from the tracks and his supporters.

Kenseth hasn’t. And though it can be argued he wouldn’t have wanted the fanfare anyway, he deserved some sort of ending that would help cushion the blow.

Sunday was it.

Those new guys who have come along and pushed drivers like Kenseth out of the sport? Well, Kenseth tracked one of them down — despite being more than double his age — and made a winning pass late in a crucial race. Some of the young drivers did end up in victory lane at Phoenix, but it was just to shake Kenseth’s hand.

So let the record show the oldest full-time Cup driver could still get it done as his career came to a close. Beating the next generation in the process had to be a pretty satisfying moment for the old guard.

3. What’s next for NASCAR

There’s been a lot of hand-wringing over what will happen after Earnhardt retires next week. Whose sport will this be?

The focus has been so much on the Young Guns that everyone seems to have overlooked the likely reality: The upcoming years will be dominated by drivers who are already regular winners in the Cup Series.

It’s not Elliott or Blaney or Kyle Larson or Erik Jones who are going to fill the shoes of Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart and Earnhardt in the immediate future; they’re not winning enough races to pull that off yet.

The torch has already been passed, and all you have to do is look to three-quarters of the championship field to see where it went.

Drivers in their 30s are ready to feast. Martin Truex Jr. is 37 and could easily race for five to eight more years. Brad Keselowski (33) and Kyle Busch (32) are in the prime of their careers with perhaps a dozen years left. Denny Hamlin is still only 36.

The younger drivers will get there eventually, and certainly the glimpses of speed this season are promising.

But until they figure out how to beat the older drivers in crunch time situations, they aren’t going to be able to truly take over the sport.

4. Championship preview

If you asked me to name the three grittiest, most cutthroat racers in NASCAR, I’d say Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Keselowski. Three former champions and drivers who can capitalize on any sniff of an opportunity to win.

Well, guess what? They’re racing each other for the title and going up against a driver in Truex who has had the most speed all year long.

This is an incredible championship field, to be honest. I’m really excited and anxious to see what happens and how this plays out.

Obviously, the two Fords are going to be at a speed disadvantage to the Toyotas. It’s been a Toyota season — and particularly a Truex season on the 1.5-mile tracks.

But crazy things happen in these races (remember when the fourth-best car of the title contenders won last year?), so it’s really anybody’s race.

That said, I’m going with Busch. The primary reason is I picked him before the start of the playoffs and it would be dumb to switch picks now, but I also think his combination of speed and otherwordly talent could come in handy on a late-race restart that might decide the title.

Between the championship race itself and the final races for Earnhardt, Kenseth and perhaps Danica Patrick, Homestead is going to be a truly memorable day.

I can’t wait.

5. What about Hendrick?

Before we go, let’s put a cap on Hendrick Motorsports’ season.

First of all, Elliott is going to be just fine.

Don’t worry that he’s not closing out races yet. He will figure it out in time, and then the wins and championships will come.

These playoffs have been an incredible stretch for Elliott, and he established himself as a fan favorite during that time. He’s finished second in almost half of the playoff races, emerged as the Good Guy in the Martinsville situation (even though he moved Keselowski), was labeled the People’s Champ at Texas and got his revenge at Phoenix.

Elliott will be the Most Popular Driver after Earnhardt leaves. And really, he was the best Hendrick car all season.

And that’s why I’m not as sure about Jimmie Johnson.

There’s no question Johnson is still an elite driver. But the 48 team looked off for most of the year — Johnson has the worst average finish of his career — despite winning three times early in the season.

And when you think about it, last year wasn’t very good for the 48 team, either — until he came out of nowhere to win the title, which masked many issues.

Johnson never finished a season with fewer than 20 top-10 finishes until last year, when he had 16. This year? He has 11.

The 48 team is headed the wrong direction.

Meanwhile, Johnson is 42 years old and will be the oldest full-time driver once Kenseth and Earnhardt retire.

So if the 48 is going to get back to its winning ways, how much time does it really have before Johnson, Chad Knaus — or both — move on to the rest of their lives.

In some ways, that sets up 2018 as a defining season for the 48 team’s future.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Texas Motor Speedway playoff race

Five thoughts after Sunday’s playoff race at Texas Motor Speedway…

1. Didn’t see that coming

It’s not like Kevin Harvick was an upset winner at Texas, but his victory Sunday was definitely a surprise.

Did you expect him to win? I didn’t.

First of all, Harvick had never gone to victory lane at Texas. So there’s that.

But who would have legitimately picked Harvick to win at a 1.5-mile track when those races have been completely dominated by Martin Truex Jr. lately? It’s not like Harvick or his Stewart-Haas Racing teammates had a bunch of wins since moving to Ford, either; the only victories for SHR this season had been Harvick’s road course win at Sonoma and Kurt Busch’s restrictor-plate win in the Daytona 500.

So when Harvick tracked down Truex and passed him like it was nothing? Wow! That was both a show of power and an unexpected outcome — although crew chief Rodney Childers noted the team has been bringing more speed over the last month.

“I feel like we should have won more races this year,” Childers said. “It’s disappointing. I don’t like to lose. It’s been a hard year. So to finally get one back into victory lane, to feel like we have something we can race with the last four or five weeks, (that) has been impressive to me.”

Maybe everyone wasn’t paying enough attention as the No. 4 team crept back toward winning again. Guilty as charged here.

But either way, Harvick and Childers have served notice they’re back and are capable of winning another title.

After all, you never want to let the hard-nosed Harvick get a whiff of potential victory if you’re one of his competitors.

2. Truex vulnerable?

Almost immediately after the race, Martin Truex Jr. — unprompted — tried to get in front of the potential storyline that his team had somehow lost momentum by finally failing to win a 1.5-mile track race.

“People are going to say, ‘Well, I think the balance of power (has shifted)’ and ‘Did Harvick steal our confidence by beating us at the end?'” he said. “All that Voodoo stuff I’m sure will be brought up.

“The bottom line is our last run we weren’t as good as we needed to be. We got beat, but we still did what we needed to do. … To think we came up eight laps short…is pretty good.”

It’s true Truex has been dominant on 1.5-milers (he’d won four in a row and six overall this season), but his playoffs have been a bit odd compared to the regular season. Where Truex won 18 stages in 26 regular-season races, he’s won just one stage in the eight playoff races.

That’s a bit misleading considering he has three wins in the playoffs, but it still could be a sign the team isn’t unloading as fast off the truck as it was earlier in the year.

Yes, Truex will still be the favorite going into Homestead no matter what. But Harvick tracking him down and passing him late in a playoff race on a 1.5-miler shows the 78 team is certainly beatable in the right circumstances.

3. Last One In

In theory, there are five drivers fighting for one spot at Phoenix. Personally, I think it’s more like two.

Brad Keselowski currently holds the final playoff spot by 19 points over Denny Hamlin. I think the race will come down to those two.

Sure, Ryan Blaney is within range — he’s only 22 points behind Keselowski. But although the Wood Brothers Racing driver has two top-10s in three Phoenix starts, I don’t see him outrunning the other two drivers by enough points to make it.

Then there’s Jimmie Johnson and Chase Elliott, but it’s hard to imagine either of them winning outright — which will be a must next week.

So the battle is likely between Keselowski and Hamlin. And even though he’s behind, I’ll give the edge to Hamlin.

Here’s why: If you recall, Toyota drivers dominated the two New Hampshire races this summer — those drivers led 589 of 601 laps at NHMS this year — and that track is a 1-mile flat oval that is the most similar to Phoenix.

With stage points playing such a factor in the standings these days, I can envision Hamlin running in the top three and chipping away at Keselowski’s lead before the halfway point — then outrunning him in better equipment at the finish.

Nothing against Keselowski, but it just seems like the better bet is the team that has consistently shown more speed.

4. The Levy Was Dry

Barring a Johnson or Elliott victory at Phoenix, Chevrolet is headed toward being shut out from Homestead for the first time in the existence of the new format.

Chevy had two entries among the final four the first two years of the championship race, then had one entry last year. Toyota has had at least one driver every season — and will now have at least two for the second straight year — and Ford missed 2015 but had one in the other two seasons.

Even though we know Hendrick Motorsports has been down this season, it’s still jarring to think of no Chevrolets running for the title — especially since many people viewed Chip Ganassi Racing’s Kyle Larson as a lock to make it.

A lot of people are banking on the new Camaro changing Chevrolet’s fortunes next year, but I’m not sure it will be that simple.

 

5. Daydreaming

Hey, remember last week at Martinsville when the race was totally awesome and featured thrilling battles for the entire 3.5-hour event?

And remember how energized everyone seemed after so much excitement and drama that showcased the best of what this playoff format has to offer?

And remember how the race was so good that we talked about it for the like whole week?

Yeah.

Me too.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Martinsville race

Five thoughts after Sunday’s insane playoff race at Martinsville Speedway…

1. Fair game?

Denny Hamlin is now Public Enemy No. 1 in NASCAR for the rest of this season after wrecking the popular Chase Elliott out of the lead at Martinsville. The fans booed him vociferously after his image appeared on the screen following the race, then cheered loudly when Elliott’s face popped up instead.

Before we go any further, it’s important to remember these incidents are often viewed through a different lens depending on which drivers are involved. If Kyle Busch got wrecked, for example, many fans wouldn’t feel as angry as they do now.

But the very worthy debate in the aftermath (tune in to Sirius/XM this week if you want your fill!) will be whether what Hamlin did was fair game.

Do you think it was? If so, do you feel the same about what Elliott did to Brad Keselowski just moments earlier?

No? Well, here’s the thing. Both drivers were likely attempting to do the same thing. I say “likely” because Hamlin insisted afterward he was not trying to wreck Elliott — he was trying to move him up the track, just like Elliott did to Keselowski — and I’m leaning toward believing him.

Was Hamlin guilty of poor execution? Indeed. But I’d imagine it’s a very fine line when a driver tries to move someone out of the way and ends up turning them instead.

Here’s the thing, though. Even if Hamlin wasn’t telling the truth (I’m sure he wouldn’t have minded that much if Elliott’s spin resulted in Hamlin winning the race and going to Homestead), isn’t that just part of the playoffs?

After all, this is the situation all drivers find themselves in! This is exactly what NASCAR wanted when it created the elimination playoff format.

Winning is everything! Game 7 moments! No more talk about “good points days.”

So aren’t drivers sort of supposed to do whatever they can to win in that situation?

People will say, “Well it doesn’t take any talent to wreck someone for the win.” Very true! And it’s not classy or sportsmanlike or anything like that.

Buuuuut…if wrecking someone for the win gets you to the championship, isn’t it worth it?

That’s up to each driver’s personal code, but they can probably live with the boos and the bad publicity for awhile if they end up with the trophy in the end. Elliott himself almost wrecked Keselowski in the same way Hamlin got him — and would you have blamed Elliott?

Look, NASCAR has changed. This format rewards dirty racing over clean racing. It just does. So whether or not Hamlin meant to outright wreck Elliott or just move him out of the way, would you honestly do it differently if you had the chance?

2. Busch is Back

Remember when Kyle Busch couldn’t win a race in the playoffs? Those pre-2015 days are a distant memory now, because Busch is back in the championship race and a serious threat to win another title.

When Busch is on the ropes, like he was heading into the elimination race of Round 2, and escapes? That’s incredibly dangerous for the rest of the field. You can’t give Busch a second life like that. Now, just a week later, he’s already capitalized by putting himself into the final four.

That’s really bad news for the rest of the field.

3. Second-guessing, Part I

This is professional sports, so unfortunately that comes with some second-guessing. In this case, it’s worth wondering if Keselowski made the wrong move by picking the outside line on what looked like would be the final restart.

Yes, Keselowski made that move work earlier in the race by beating teammate Joey Logano down the backstretch. But did Keselowski out-think himself in this case?

In a moment with everything on the line at Martinsville, Keselowski opened the door for Elliott to run side by side with him — which turned out to be an invitation for a hungry young driver to knock him up the track. If Keselowski had been on the inside, would that have happened?

4. Second-guessing, Part II

Speaking of Team Penske-related second-guesses, driver/PR guy Ryan Ellis brought up a great point on Twitter: Why in the world didn’t Penske have Joey Logano pit with his severe tire rub?

Think about it: With smoke billowing out of the rear tire after contact from Busch, it was only a matter of the time before the tire blew. Everyone at Martinsville and watching on TV could see that.

But at that moment, Keselowski was leading the race and en route to a victory he had called a must-win after Talladega. So why not have Logano pit and change the tire? It’s not like Logano was racing for anything but a win, the chances of which had severely been diminished.

5. How great is Martinsville?

There’s so much more to talk about after this race, and that’s because of Martinsville. God, I love this place so much.

Seriously, this is the best track in NASCAR. It always comes through with some sort of excitement. And it’s not just about the wrecks; the entire race was very compelling with close-quarters racing and drama.

It’s such a crime NASCAR doesn’t have more short tracks. It hurts to think how much different NASCAR would be today if all the 1.5-mile tracks were short tracks and the intermediate track racing was the style we only saw a few times a year.

Maybe those track owners considering converting their boring 1.5-mile tracks into rovals should find a way to build short tracks in their infields instead.

 

The Top Five: Breaking down the Talladega playoff race

Five thoughts after Sunday’s playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway…

1. Actually, it wasn’t a bad race

Talladega was a restrictor-plate demolition derby unlike anything we’d seen in a long time.

— Only 14 cars were still running at the finish — 14! — and only eight of those were still held together enough to actually race for the win.

— The 11 cautions tied a race record! Yep, none of the 96 other races run at Talladega have ever had more cautions than Sunday.

— Kyle Larson was a lap down — and finished 13th! Trevor Bayne, whose car appears on the crash report twice, finished third!

Given all that, it’s understandable if people look at the results and go, “Ugh, what a joke.” Not to go all #WellActually on you, but it really was a good race up until the point the carnage broke out.

Think about it: The first Big One didn’t take place until there were 17 laps to go. Prior to that, the field was two-, three- and even four-wide in a brilliant display of how good plate racing can be. There were lead changes and strategy and dicey moves, and no one spent time hanging at the back trying to avoid the wreck.

They actually raced.

Only at the end, when it was Go Time, did it really get crazy and kind of ridiculous. But that’s not really a surprise; after all, it’s Talladega.

As long as cars aren’t flipping or flying — which they didn’t on Sunday — the rest of it is just side effect of what was a pretty thrilling show.

2. Master Kes

For a last-lap pass, there didn’t seem to be too much excitement from the crowd at Talladega. The fans seemed deflated after Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished seventh, so even Brad Keselowski’s thrilling move didn’t save the day for them.

But it was fitting that Keselowski won Earnhardt’s final plate race, because it was a symbolic passing of the torch from the best plate racer of this generation to the next.

Keselowski has now won at Talladega five times and six wins overall in restrictor-plate points races. Earnhardt finished his career with six Talladega wins and had 10 plate wins in points races.

Though Talladega unquestionably contains a lot of randomness in surviving long enough to be there at the end, the actual winning moves often require a very specific skill. And Keselowski might be the best at it.

We often see the race leader be able to block a late run. But Ryan Newman couldn’t do it — granted, he had some degree of nose damage — and Keselowski ended up playing the finish perfectly. He deserves a ton of credit for the execution.

“You’d love to be able to pat yourself on the back and say it’s all skill, but there is some luck that’s involved in this,” Keselowski said. “… You know when you come here that probably three out of every four races you’re going to get caught up in a wreck or something like that happens.

“But the races where you have the good fortune, where you don’t get caught up in a wreck or you don’t have something break or any of those things, you have to take those races, run up front and win them. And I think that’s what we’ve been able to do.”

Junior Nation probably doesn’t give a crap about all this, given their disappointment, but it’s important to recognize we’re watching a rare and unique talent when Keselowski has the chance to win at Talladega.

3. Playoff race?

Fans still give Kyle Busch a hard time for saying Talladega and Daytona aren’t “real” racing. But seriously — is it? And does it belong in the playoffs?

Those questions are likely to pop up after a day when only two of the 12 playoff drivers finished on the lead lap.

“I’m sure there are a lot of competitors who say they wish (Talladega wasn’t in the playoffs), because you can’t control your own fate,” Denny Hamlin said after finishing sixth. “In no other sport does your competition make a mistake and it cost you. In our sport, it does.”

Hamlin suggested to NBC Sports last week that Talladega should be the regular season finale instead of a playoff race.

And indeed, that seems like a better solution. It doesn’t feel right in a lot of ways for the outcome of a championship to be impacted by an event with so much randomness. Because, let’s be honest: Kyle Busch was right.

Whether it’s “real racing” or not, though, it definitely won’t be changing anytime soon.

“I don’t know that there’s a desire to have a different product here at this type of racetrack,” said Ryan Newman, who was once one of the most outspoken drivers against plate racing.

4. Dale Jr.’s health

There were tens of thousands of people rooting for Earnhardt to win his final restrictor-plate race, which felt like his last, best shot at a victory before he retires.

Personally, I was just hoping he made it through the race without getting another concussion.

That sounds sort of dark, but it’s the truth. All season, I’ve thought in the back of my head: “I wonder if he can get through the plate races without suffering a huge hit.” And — luckily — he did. He had to make it through three close calls to do it, but he survived.

“This was one that I was worried about in the back of my mind,” Earnhardt said afterward. “I was a little concerned. But you can’t win the race if you race scared, and I’ve raced scared here before, and you don’t do well when that happens. So you have to block it out and just go out there and take the risks and hope that it’s just not your day to get in one of those accidents. And it wasn’t.”

Earnhardt fans didn’t get the win they wanted, but this was also a victory: Their driver competed for the win all day and left with his health intact, meaning he just has to make it five more races.

Wrecks can happen anywhere, but the chances sure are a lot lower at other tracks.

And along those lines, Earnhardt felt that by racing hard, he proved something to the critics who charged he has been too timid at times this season.

“Anyone who questions our desire to be here and compete this year and our desire to run hard and face can look at the risks that we took this afternoon, knowing that any of those crashes would have probably given me a bit of an injury that would have held me out of the rest of the season,” he said.

5. Pointed situation

Kyle Busch might not make it past Round 2 of the playoffs.

That’s crazy, isn’t it? All year long, it’s pretty much been a Martin Truex Jr./Busch/Kyle Larson show. Those three seemed to be the main title contenders going into the playoffs, and the conventional wisdom was Busch was at least a lock for Round 3 thanks to his 41 playoff points.

Welp…

Busch is currently seven points behind Jimmie Johnson for the final playoff spot entering Kansas. And Matt Kenseth is just one point behind him, so it’s not like he can focus just on beating one or two drivers next week.

Yeah, he could go win there — Busch has five straight top-five finishes at Kansas, including a victory last year in the spring. But there’s a very real chance he could fail to make the cut.

On a similar note, Johnson could be out if he doesn’t have a good run — which is also hard to believe.

I doubt many of us would have predicted two of the elite Toyotas or the seven-time champion would be in danger of failing to make it past Round 2, but that’s the case. And it’s going to make Kansas a very interesting cutoff race.