The Top Five: Breaking down the Watkins Glen race

Five thoughts following Sunday’s race at Watkins Glen International…

1. Total Toyotas

Fans can be upset and drivers (coughBradKeselowskicough) can politic all they want, but Toyota is absolutely dominating the series right now.

After a slow start for Joe Gibbs Racing, the four-car team has joined Furniture Row Racing to put six of the fastest cars on the track every week. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s a big track or a road course — Toyotas are likely going to be running up front most of the day.

Just check out Sunday’s finishing order: Toyotas swept the top four spots (for the first time ever) and had all six of its main cars in the top 10. And Toyota drivers also combined to lead 59 of the 90 laps.

As Kyle Larson has faded (he’s now third in the point standings behind Truex and Kyle Busch), it’s increasingly looking like the Toyotas will roll into the playoffs just as strong as they were last year.

Of course, a Chevrolet ended up winning the 2016 title — so that doesn’t mean a Toyota championship is a sure thing.

But it’s certainly looking good at the moment, particularly with Truex holding 34 playoff points (plus staring at another 15 if he hangs on to be the regular season champion).

As a reminder, that means Truex would start each round of the playoffs with at least 49 points — close to a full race — and could still add more points in the regular season and the playoffs races themselves.

So is Truex a lock for Homestead?

“It doesn’t mean that it’s a free pass or we’re just going to skate through,” Truex said. “We’re still going to work hard and try to do the best we can. But I do think that as the playoffs start, the thought process probably shifts more toward, ‘How do we figure out how to run really well at Homestead? Have a shot at winning there?’ Because that’s what it’s going to come down to.”

2. Blink and you’ll miss it

Sunday’s race was the shortest full-distance Cup Series points race in NASCAR’s modern era (1972-present). It was actually three minutes shorter than Saturday’s Xfinity Series race, which is kind of amazing in itself.

The last time a full-distance Cup points race was less than the two-hour-and-seven-minute run-time of Watkins Glen? Hickory in August of 1971, according to NASCAR.

One big reason was there were only three cautions — and NASCAR let the race play out at the finish, with the final 36 laps all under green.

That’s becoming a trend lately, since NASCAR seemingly has stopped calling late debris cautions after an outbreak of criticism following the Michigan race in June.

A recap:

— At Sonoma, the final 55 laps were green.

— Daytona was an overtime finish, but that was set up by an accident.

— Kentucky was an overtime finish, but that was set up by Kurt Busch blowing up after a 100-lap run.

— At New Hampshire, the final 35 laps were green.

— Indianapolis finished in overtime, but that was set up due to multiple wrecks.

— At Pocono, the last 55 laps (all of Stage 3) were green.

I love that. Yeah, it might be more exciting to see a crazy double-file restart in overtime — but if a caution is not warranted, then it’s good to let the race play out. And that’s what NASCAR seems to be doing.

Plus, a long run at the end doesn’t mean it’s a boring race. The finish Sunday was still in doubt and had plenty of excitement right down to the final seconds. So those are all positive things, and I like how NASCAR is officiating these races. I hope this trend continues through the playoffs, when the races mean so much more.

 

3. Brad and Kyle, Part 389

Based on his radio chatter, I thought Busch was going to go punch Keselowski in the face after the race, but that didn’t happen. Instead, Busch shook hands with AJ Allmendinger and laughed about something, then walked briskly toward the garage with reporters trailing behind.

He didn’t say anything notable (“Imagine that,” he said about the contact) — saving his thoughts for a mid-flight Twitter Q&A on the way home — but it was clear he was once again upset with his nemesis.

This is my favorite rivalry in NASCAR. On the surface, the two men have a lot in common: Both Busch and Keselowski are such unapologetically hard racers, both each have one title, both own a Truck Series team and each has a child who was born days apart from the other.

Yet there is ZERO common ground between the two, who have no relationship (despite Keselowski’s attempt at an olive branch through his blog a couple years ago). And they conduct themselves in a much different manner.

I think both are fantastic for the sport and are compelling, interesting people. They add spice to the race weekends on a regular basis. So it doesn’t bother me that they don’t see eye to eye, because that’s entertaining for the rest of us.

Oh, and don’t expect them to ever chat about Sunday’s incident, either.

“I don’t think he is really the listening type, so that is pretty doubtful,” Keselowski said.

4. Points battle blown open

If you haven’t paid attention, the points gap for the final playoff spot (see below) is only getting wider with four races to go.

Joey Logano is now completely out of the picture — he’s 106 points behind Matt Kenseth for the final spot — and in a must-win situation. That’s crazy, by the way.

Meanwhile, Kenseth added to his lead over Clint Bowyer and is now up by 28 points. Bowyer needs either Kenseth, Chase Elliott or Jamie McMurray to have a bad race (or two) while he has really solid results at Michigan, Bristol, Darlington and Richmond.

Of course, this all changes with a new winner. But it’s fairly obvious after Sunday there won’t be 16 different winners, so there should be at least a couple spots available to make the playoffs on points.

5. Must-See TV

NBCSN’s experiment with using a radio-style call for its TV broadcasts this weekend was a smashing success and as well-received on Twitter as any new thing can possibly be these days.

Mike Bagley of the Motor Racing Network fame was phenomenal in his role at the top of the esses, bringing all the excitement and enthusiasm from the radio to a TV screen. But just as impressive was Parker Kligerman, a driver with no formal announcing training, being able to pick up Bagley’s lead and call the action through the inner loop. Jeff Burton also brought a ton of insight in a fast-paced environment.

In addition, Leigh Diffey’s play-by-play announcing from the booth was top-notch. The F1 announcer was filling in for Rick Allen (who was in London for the track and field world championships) and was perfect alongside Steve Letarte, who was typically excellent in breaking down the strategy.

All in all, it made for one of the best NASCAR TV broadcasts in recent memory.

———–

PLAYOFF PICTURE

By patron request, I’m going to start including the playoff picture at the bottom of the Top Five each week. Here’s how it looks now:

IN (13): Truex, Larson, Harvick, Ky. Busch, Keselowski, Hamlin, Johnson, Blaney, Ku. Busch, Newman, Stenhouse, Kahne, A. Dillon.

Points Bubble with four races to go:

14. Chase Elliott +39

15. Jamie McMurray +34

16. Matt Kenseth +28

—-

17. Clint Bowyer -28

(Everyone else more than 100 points or one win behind)

The Top Five: Breaking down the Sonoma race

Five thoughts on Sunday’s race at Sonoma Raceway…

1. Harvick’s legend grows

It’s hard to be known as one of the greats while competing in the Jimmie Johnson Era, because many of the wins and championships end up getting hogged by the No. 48 team.

But let’s not overlook what Kevin Harvick continues to do at age 41.

After winning for the first time this season, the versatile driver now has victories at every Cup track but Pocono, Texas and Kentucky. Sunday was his 36th career win — which is fourth among active drivers — and he has the second-most wins to Johnson this decade.

At the same time, Harvick has switched teams and now manufacturers during his run — which can sometimes make for a setback in performance. In fact, it probably should have cost him much more speed than it did this season — but everyone took it for granted Harvick and Childers would be winners again soon after changing to Ford.

Internally, though, Stewart-Haas had a lot of work to reach victory lane again on a non-plate track.

“I can say this now, but I had mixed emotions about how the year was going to go just because of the fact that we had a lot on our plate to switch over,” Harvick said. “… One day, I think everybody will actually learn all the details of all the things that it took to get to this particular point. But it’s a huge undertaking.”

The cars have been fast again, though, and for the most part Harvick hasn’t missed a beat. That could set the No. 4 up as a title threat again when the fall rolls around.

2. Clean and green

After a controversial debris caution last week at Michigan, the final stage of the Sonoma race was caution-free — this despite several spins and off-course cars.

It seems crazy to think there could be 55 laps without a caution at Sonoma — where drivers are sliding all over the place and running into one another — but that’s exactly what happened.

No one was complaining about the lack of a debris caution, though. Several competitors found it refreshing, including Brad Keselowski — who praised NASCAR’s “restraint” on Twitter with a thumbs up emoji.

“Good for NASCAR, man,” said Dale Earnhardt Jr., who had addressed the topic on his podcast. “I think they heard the voices last week. There were some opportunities for sure for them to throw some yellows without much of a gripe from anyone, and they let it play out. That’s a race in my book.”

Tony Stewart, one of the vocal critics about the caution at Michigan, praised NASCAR for essentially swallowing the whistle.

“It’s so easy for cars to go off track here and it happened all day long,” Stewart said. “A couple cars even spun out and kept going. So there was a lot of opportunity where we could have gotten that debris caution or whatever during the race, but it was nice to see the race actually got to play out.”

Stewart chided the Joe Gibbs Racing cars for trying to get NASCAR to throw a debris caution after pitting, calling it “gamesmanship” on their part.

“They’re smart; they know how to play the game,” Stewart said of JGR calling for the caution. “I’m glad NASCAR didn’t bite on that one today.”

3. Strategy race

One of the great things about Sonoma — and there are many — is even if the race goes green for an entire half of the event, that doesn’t mean it’s boring.

In addition to the curbs and esses and hills and hairpin turn, the strategy makes the race enjoyable. Unpredictable is a positive thing in racing, and Sonoma certainly fits that description. It’s why only one active driver — Kyle Busch — has more than one win here.

The stages only added to the strategy this year. Harvick crew chief Rodney Childers said he agonized over it in the nights leading up to the race.

“It’s been trying to figure out what’s the right thing to do, how many tires do we have laying in the pits, when should we pit, when should we not, do we go after the playoff points in the first stage or do we not or do we pit early,” he said.

That certainly enhances the viewing experience, because it jumbles the field and creates different leaders (there were a race record 10 on Sunday, along with a record 13 lead changs) with all the various strategies.

“I had no earthly idea what was going on,” Jimmie Johnson said. “I passed so many cars. I don’t even know what strategy won. It was very difficult to know what was going on from inside the car. I would assume that caused a lot of great viewing and entertainment that was fun to watch, but I had no clue what was going on out there.”

4. Hang up on the ringers

For all the talk about road ringers, the Cup regulars shined once again. These heavy, bulky stock cars are very difficult to drive and require some level of mastery that someone parachuting into the series can’t match.

Every driver in the top 10 — Harvick, Clint Bowyer, Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Earnhardt, Kurt Busch, Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney and Jamie McMurray — was someone you would expect to see run in that spot on any NASCAR track.

The highest-finishing driver who might be a surprise was Michael McDowell, who finished 14th — but he’s 26th in points and drives these cars every week (and won an Xfinity road race). A driver with a road racing background can definitely shine more than an oval (like AJ Allmendinger) — but not unless they are used to the cars.

The ringer results on Sunday weren’t all that impressive. Road racer Billy Johnson — fresh off Le Mans — finished 22nd in the No. 43 car. Boris Said finished 29th, Alon Day was 32nd, Kevin O’Connell 33rd, Tommy Regan 34th and Josh Bilicki 36th.

Granted, those drivers weren’t in great equipment — but it still shows a racer with Cup experience would be a better bet for road course substitute duty than a driver who hasn’t had much stock car seat time.

5. More bad luck for Kahne

With all the SAFER barriers at tracks these days, it’s a bit of a shock when a car has a hard hit with a concrete wall. But that’s what happened to Kasey Kahne on the last lap of the Sonoma race following contact with Kevin O’Connell — who was two laps down.

I caught up with Kahne after the race when he visited his team — and destroyed car — in the garage. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Denny Hamlin also arrived to check on Kahne and survey the damage.

“No. 15 (O’Connell), we were going down the frontstretch taking the white flag and he turned left and went to my (inside),” Kahne told me. “Then I was going to his right and like right before we got to the corner, he just turned right into me and just shot me into the wall.

“It was weird what he was doing. I hope something broke on his car, but I’m not sure it did.”

Kahne acknowledged he was shaken after the hit but said he started to feel better following the ambulance ride to the track’s medical center.

“My right shoulder and right side took all the impact,” he said. “I feel good now, but I’ll be sore tomorrow. That was a pretty good shot.”

It’s just more misfortune for Kahne, who seems to have something go wrong for him every week. He ended up finishing 24th after the crash, but before that he had fresh tires late in the race and enough speed to pass eventual winner Harvick and unlap himself.

Kahne is 21st in the standings — 122 behind Clint Bowyer, who is the current cutoff on points thanks to the variety of different winners this season.

Kasey Kahne explains his last-lap crash to Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Denny Hamlin after the Sonoma race. (Photo: Jeff Gluck)