Five thoughts after Sunday’s playoff race at Dover International Speedway…
1. Learning from the best
Chase Elliott often beats himself up even after a good day, so coughing up a lead of more than four seconds over the final 60 laps left him understandably devastated.
After pulling onto pit road, Elliott took his helmet off and covered his face with his hands while sitting in his car. Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson quickly arrived in hopes of letting Elliott vent a few curse words without the cameras around, and the two chatted for several long minutes — though the seven-time champ acknowledged there was little he could say in the way of comfort.
Elliott, who now has five career runner-up finishes without a victory, said Busch “did a better job than I did” and cited his “lack of performance” and “failure” in executing.
It might be painful for Elliott fans to hear this, but he’s right: This is big-time auto racing, and Elliott didn’t deliver when it really counted. People can feel bad for him and tell him not to beat himself up so much — and he’s certainly a sympathetic figure after several heartbreaks. But the reality is he got schooled by the best in the game.
Johnson said he told Elliott the Dover race is typically won by sticking to the bottom of the track. That’s the case 95 percent of the time, Johnson said, and “lapped traffic probably played a bigger role in it than anything” for Elliott.
But that wasn’t the whole story. Because as the leader approached, Busch later said, Elliott needed to change his line.
“When you are Chase and you have been leading for that long and you’ve lost that amount of distance to the car behind you, you’ve got to move around,” Busch said in response to a question about what Elliott could have done differently. “You can’t give up four seconds of the lead and not do something else. I feel like that’s kind of where they lost it today.
“I don’t know if he was getting communication from his spotter or his crew chief or somebody just saying ‘Stick to the bottom, stick with what has got you to this point,’ but that was obviously bad advice. He should have moved around and searched for something and tried to pick off cars and traffic as quickly as possible.”
Again, we can all tiptoe around the facts because they’re uncomfortable and people want Elliott (who got some of the loudest cheers in driver introductions) to succeed and be a regular winner on the circuit. And he may very well become that, but races like Sunday will serve as painful lessons on his road to success.
“The best guys at these type of tracks aren’t scared to move around, even if they’re making decent lap time,” Busch crew chief Adam Stevens said. “You’re not going to pass the guy if you’re running in his tire tracks, so you have to be able to move and find something different.”
2. Don’t hate the player, hate the game
Speaking of lapped traffic, no one should be upset at Ryan Newman for holding up Elliott in the final laps. Newman was two points short of advancing to the next round and raced his guts out in an attempt to get in position to make up spots — should something happen in the final laps.
So expecting him to suddenly pay a courtesy to the leader in that situation, especially since Newman always races hard, just isn’t reasonable.
In that regard, Jeff Gordon’s comment to Newman after the race that resulted in a minor incident was unfortunate — but understandable given the emotion of the situation.
Gordon, despite being a FOX Sports broadcaster, is still heavily invested in Hendrick and the No. 24 team. So he apparently couldn’t help himself in the immediate aftermath of Elliott’s loss (Gordon said something sarcastic along the lines of “thanks for the help”).
Naturally, Newman didn’t appreciate the comment.
“You don’t think I was racing for my own position?” Newman said. “Just watch what you say, man.”
Gordon tried to defuse the situation by saying Newman took his words the wrong way.
“You said it as a smartass,” Newman said.
Newman was right to object to the statement, and I’m guessing Gordon felt bad. The two later made up in the garage, according to tweets from writer John Haverlin, so it’s just another moment that can be chalked up to the emotion of an elimination-style playoff.
3. Quick sand
What’s the fastest way to make up ground in a crucial playoff race? Well, one way is to stay out and hope for a fluke caution.
That’s what happened to Ricky Stenhouse Jr. during Stage 1. He was one of five cars that had yet to pit when Jeffrey Earnhardt spun out coming to Dover’s tricky pit road and nailed the sand barrels, causing a red flag.
That trapped all cars a lap down with the exception of those five — and it turned out to be a huge benefit for Stenhouse.
Just like that, Stenhouse went from seven points out of the cutoff line for Round 1 to more than 30 points in the clear. And by being able to having good track position for the rest of the stage, Stenhouse was able to finish fourth and gain seven stage points — something his rivals Austin Dillon and Newman weren’t able to get.
Ultimately, he advanced by less than the amount of those stage points — meaning that was a pivotal playoff moment.
“The feeling is lucky, really,” Stenhouse said.
He’s right, but in a survive-and-advance format, sometimes that can make all the difference.
By the way, Stenhouse’s good fortune could give him an opportunity that goes beyond just making it to Round 2. Talladega is the middle race of this round, and Stenhouse has won the most recent two plate races. What an upset it would be if he could be among the final eight drivers this season.
4. Saying goodbye
None of the four cars eliminated — Newman, Austin Dillon, Kasey Kahne or Kurt Busch — were serious title contenders, so their departure isn’t much of a surprise.
Even though the Richard Childress Racing cars finished ahead of them in the round, Kahne and Busch were probably the two who most people would have had advancing based on the strength of their teams. I actually predicted Kahne would make a mini playoff run after getting a fresh start following his Indy win, but it wasn’t to be.
Busch is probably the most puzzling of all. He started off by winning the Daytona 500 but never was much of a factor after that despite Stewart-Haas Racing having decent speed with Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer.
“Winning the Daytona 500, you always see the jinx that happens afterwards,” he said. “We experienced it. There’s a lot that goes on with it. My car never had the handle in it this year; I was always loose in, tight on exit.
“I don’t know why we had that so bad this year.”
It’s definitely weird and hard to explain, as Busch’s average finish declined from 12.0 last year to 16.2 so far this season.
5. Who’s the favorite?
Three Chevrolets and one Ford were eliminated from playoff contention, leaving each manufacturer with four cars remaining.
There are four Toyotas (Truex, Busch, Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth), four Chevrolets (Kyle Larson, Johnson, Elliott and Jamie McMurray) and four Fords (Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Stenhouse and Ryan Blaney).
Truex remains the favorite, of course, but Busch has now gained 10 playoff points on the No. 78 car in the last two races. He’s now just 18 behind, which could come into play if the teams have to race for the last spot in Round 3.
Honestly, it’s hard to predict and I’m just as unsure about who has the championship edge as I was when the playoffs started three weeks ago.
My pre-playoff picks included Truex, Busch, Larson and Hamlin — with Busch as the champ. So I guess I’ll stick with that for now, although it seems to be constantly changing.
“Week to week, you can probably change your favorite,” Busch said. “Early on the first third of the race, I probably would have said Larson is your new championship favorite. But you’ve got to let these things play out.
“I still think it’s 78, 18, 42 — and there’s different distances between us every week, depending on how we run and what all kind of goes on.”
There’s still so much left to be decided, and now it gets a bit more intense as Round 2 begins.