The Top Five: Breaking down the New Hampshire race

Five thoughts from Sunday’s playoff race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway…

1. The heavyweight contenders

Many of the races this season turned into a battle between Martin Truex Jr. — the dominant car of 2017 — and Kyle Busch, his Toyota teammate who has plenty of speed but perhaps not quite as much as the 78.

That was the case again on Sunday at New Hampshire. Truex and Busch combined to lead all but one lap (!!!) of a 300-lap event (Kyle Larson led the other one during pit stops in the break between Stages 1 and 2).

And although it looked like Truex might end up dominating had he not been caught up in the Lap 150 pileup, Busch happily said his team made gains on its chief rival for the championship.

“Today was a good catch‑up moment for us,” Busch said. “Obviously they’ve been so fast all year long. … But it was going to come down to that again and who was going to be in the lead, who was going to have the opportunity on restarts and whatnot to control the field.”

Many fans insist they are sick of Toyotas, which is bad news for them, because this domination doesn’t seem to be ending anytime soon. The four Toyota drivers in the playoffs are all in the top six in points, and only Kyle Larson has shown he can consistently challenge them.

So Busch vs. Truex is the battle to watch for now, and it’s actually pretty interesting. For example: Busch gained five playoff points on Truex during Sunday’s race, which puts Truex at 59 and Busch at 36.

That’s only a 23-point difference. So if the third round comes around and it has three different winners with one spot available on points to advance to Homestead, that could be determined by a Truex vs. Busch battle. And 23 points between them isn’t even a half-race.

Everyone seems to treat Truex in the finale as a given — and it’s highly likely — but it’s not going to be a cakewalk if he has to deal with Busch in a points race.

2. Finally, some points drama!

It’s been awhile since anyone had to worry about the points picture going into an elimination race — after all, points were not a factor at Richmond this year — which means Dover next week will be a welcome sight.

Austin Dillon and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. are tied for the last spot (the tiebreaker is best finish in the round) after Stenhouse and his team had a gutsy comeback after struggling all day.

Stenhouse, one of many drivers looking completely wiped after an unseasonably hot and humid day, said he “felt like we were in a boxing match with Floyd Mayweather all week.”

“We just couldn’t find speed, couldn’t find the handle on the car,” he said.

But after making up a few spots late in the race — thanks to consecutive cautions that put him back on the lead lap — Stenhouse gained valuable points that could put him in a showdown with Dillon and Ryan Newman (who is one point behind both drivers).

“It makes you feel good,” Stenhouse said. “We needed to make up a little bit and made up a little bit at a track that I didn’t think we were great at all weekend.”

As for Dillon, he was also optimistic about Dover after surviving Sunday with a 19th-place finish.

“Just have a good run like we did last year,” he said. “Go run in the top five and we’ll probably make it.”

Dillon also avoided what could have been a playoff-ending incident for himself when he made contact with Kevin Harvick to trigger a multi-car wreck at lap 150.

“He kept coming left, and I was in the gas,” Dillon told me after the race. “He bobbled and I hit him, and it was over. When he got loose, I connected and it hit him. I barely tapped him. I lifted after, but nothing I can do at that point. Hate it for him and hate it for (Kurt Busch).”

Busch, collected in the wreck when he rammed Harvick, is 15th in points — but too far back (-17) to hope anything but a win will get him in. Same with Kasey Kahne (-21), who said he hadn’t seen the points but wasn’t surprised to hear he was in 16th after a broken track bar.

“It’d be pretty tough” to make it now, Kahne said.

3. Hands off!

Thanks a lot, 24 team.

That’s probably what the rest of the playoff crews were thinking after NASCAR made them stand away from the cars for at least five minutes after the race — a new policy in reaction to Chase Elliott’s crewmen being caught on video removing tape from the spoiler last week.

Inspectors appeared to take a much closer initial look at some of the playoff cars than typically happens immediately after the race. At most races the last couple years — since NASCAR began stopping all cars on pit road instead of having them go back to the garage — crewmen go over the wall and approach the cars as soon as they pull to a stop.

But NASCAR obviously felt that might be an opportunity to mess with something before post-race inspection — the 24 team proved that — so now that won’t be happening for the near future.

If it was annoying for the pit crews, though, it was also irritating for the media. The cars were parked against the pit wall and no one —reporters, crewmen or public relations representatives — could go past the halfway point of pit road. Many drivers simply got out of their cars, saw no one was waiting to talk to them, and walked away.

Hopefully, NASCAR can figure out a solution to wrangle the playoff drivers for at least a moment before they disappear into the crowd. Otherwise, the sport might miss out on some much-needed emotion after one of these upcoming races; if there was a confrontation between drivers on Sunday, we likely would have missed it.

4. Goodbye, Loudon

The final New Hampshire fall race was fairly typical of most other New Hampshire races in memory. And that’s not really a compliment.

This is a great area with wonderful people who are true, passionate race fans, and they have a fantastic track for some cars.

But those cars don’t include the Cup Series, which has long struggled to put on a decent show here.

“It always lends to exciting moments; we had one today,” Kyle Busch said. “Sometimes the racing, though, is a little strung out with this place being so hard to pass.”

Busch called it “frustrating to race here sometimes” and explained in detail why that’s the case, if you want to dive in:

“It’s just not lending itself to being able to be right on top of or right close to the guy in front of you, because you just get so tight when you’re behind that guy. And you build air pressure in the front tires and you slow down and that guy drives away from you, and then you kind of accordion back to the next guy, he’s catching you thinking he’s going to pass you and then he gets tight, and it kind of goes back to the next guy.”

Look, it’s not like the Las Vegas race — New Hampshire’s replacement — is going to be that much more compelling. But it gives NASCAR a chance to open the playoffs in a high-profile market and then keep a short track (Richmond) as the second race, all while keeping an event at Loudon in July. So with apologies to the locals who love this place, that’s not the worst development.

5. Common sense solutions

Let’s talk about the NASCAR dunce cap penalty for a second.

Until the race — and until Richard Petty and Richard Childress got a bunch of national attention for saying they’d fire employees who kneeled for the anthem (just the publicity NASCAR needs!) — the biggest story of the weekend was Joey Logano serving a penalty on pit road for the entire final practice session.

It’s silly that it got so much attention, but it’s what fans were most interested in (I can see the numbers). So the media reported it and Dale Earnhardt Jr. reacted to it and it became a thing.

Yes, other drivers have served longer penalties under this policy (up to 60 minutes, where Logano’s penalty was 50), but those were in practices where they eventually got on the track for some laps.

That’s why Logano’s punishment seemed so wacky: He sat in the car on pit road for the entire practice session and never got on track.

When odd things happen in this sport, it often seems to catch NASCAR by surprise. After all, they are tasked with enforcing the rules and put in a very difficult position by teams trying to push the limit in every little area — and so officials are viewing it as doing their jobs.

So I feel bad for NASCAR in that sense, because what should be justice ends up ricocheting back at them and turns into a pie in the face. But the penalties they come up with could use a little work in the public eye.

If NASCAR wants to have a team miss practice, just make the team park the car in the garage and put a cover on it so crew members can’t work on it. But don’t make the driver sit in there — that comes across like they’re shaming a troublemaking child.

Or maybe NASCAR can increase the punishment by doing things like making a team serve its penalty at the end of Stage 1 — which would impact the race itself.

NASCAR’s heart is in the right place, because it has to keep teams in line. But maybe there’s a better way to do that.

Joey Logano forced to sit in virtual penalty box at New Hampshire

At one point, as Joey Logano served a full-practice penalty in his car on pit road, his pregnant wife Brittany approached the car.

She leaned over the pit wall and put her hand up to the window net, which was within reach. Her husband did the same from inside the car.

“She was laughing (and said it) was like I was in jail, you know?” the driver said afterward. “I said, ‘It’s kind of like that, actually.'”

Logano said he had “time for a lot of thoughts in there” during his 50-minute penalty for failing pre-qualifying inspection four times on Friday — “mainly that it’s a total joke.”

NASCAR requires drivers serve their “practice hold” penalty in the car on pit road, buckled into the car with full safety equipment — and several other drivers had 15- or 30-minute punishments on Saturday.

But a driver had never missed the entirety of final practice before this. It made it look like Logano was serving a time out with a virtual dunce cap on his head as the other cars drove by.

And maybe that’s the point. NASCAR has ratcheted up the penalties as teams continue to mess around in inspection and not present their cars that are within the rules from the start.

But this penalty in particular seemed absurd because it wasn’t just a chunk of practice — it was all of it. So Logano just sat there and never turned a lap.

“I just think it makes the sport look dumb,” Logano said. “It’s kind of a joke. I don’t get it, personally. I think we can accomplish the same thing in a more professional manner.”

Logano said he understood the reason for a penalty, but said there was “no reason to sit out there.”

“Keep us in (the garage) or something,” he said.

He laughed.

“But coming from the guy who just sat in the car for an hour, sweating, it might not be the best thing to say,” he said.

Logano said he wasn’t too uncomfortable in the car — he ran his helmet fan and had several bottles of water — but wished he could have done something more productive with his time.

“I would have signed autographs or something,” he said of the fans milling near pit road. “I had nothing better to do. I was looking to get something out of it.”

But Kurt Culbert, NASCAR managing director of integrated marketing and communications, tweeted the penalty was fitting of the infraction.

 

The Top Five: Breaking down the Richmond race

Five thoughts after Saturday night’s regular season finale at Richmond Raceway…

1. Why Larson’s win was important

Before his win Saturday night at Richmond, Kyle Larson had won four races in his career — three this season — but each victory had been on a 2-mile track (either Fontana or Michigan).

Larson certainly doesn’t lack for confidence, but this will help heading into a playoff that will require excellence on several different types of tracks. Now Larson has proof he can win on different kinds of tracks at the Cup level (not that it was really that much of a question, but it can’t hurt) — and now that includes short tracks,.

“Everybody says I grew up short-track racing, but this is way different than sprint car racing on a short track,” he said. “This is really, really slow, heavy braking, off the throttle a lot, taking care of your tires — where in a sprint car on a quarter mile, you’re still wide open a lot of times depending on how the track is.

“This is different, and I’ve had to learn a lot. I feel like I’ve definitely gotten better at it.”

Next on Larson’s to-do list: Win on a 1.5-mile track. He actually has the third-best average on 1.5-mile tracks this season — the tracks that make up half the playoff races — but Martin Truex Jr. is far ahead of him.

That will likely have to change if Larson wants to snatch the title away from Truex like he took the win at Richmond.

2. Regular season champ

NASCAR did not celebrate Truex’s regular season championship (which comes with a trophy and 15 playoff points) last week at Darlington after he clinched because they wanted to save it for Richmond. According to the post-race plan, Truex was even set to have his own burnout celebration in Turn 1 while the winner (if it was a different driver) celebrated in Turn 4.

But the only thing Truex did in Turn 1 was crash into the wall on the last lap — thanks to Toyota teammate Denny Hamlin — which was most unfortunate. It’s no wonder he was cranky afterward about how everything played out and wasn’t exactly in a mood to celebrate.

Here’s a sampling of Truex quotes after the race:

— “I wish we could have got the trophy last weekend. I mean, tonight sucks, plain and simple.”

— “It’s ridiculous there’s a guy out there that shouldn’t even be out there, 20-some laps down, riding around. As slow as he is, he can’t even hold his damn line. It’s ridiculous. He scrapes the wall, they throw a caution with one to go. That’s not what racing should be.”

— “Somebody obviously wasn’t paying attention (to the ambulance) or wasn’t doing their job properly, and in my opinion at this level, it’s inexcusable.”

So Truex was salty, but obviously he had every right to be that way. As Larson said, Truex “should have probably have like 10 or 12 wins if things would go his way more often.”

Truex will go into the playoffs with 53 playoff points, which is pretty decent, but it’s only a 20-point lead over Larson. It would have been 30 had he won at Richmond.

So it’s no wonder Truex couldn’t bring himself to smile while accepting the regular season championship trophy. That late caution was a 10-point swing, and it will be worth remembering later in the fall.

3. No fairy tale ending

I guess we all saw this coming, but it’s still a shame that Dale Earnhardt Jr. won’t be competing in the playoffs during his final season. After Jeff Gordon made it to Homestead in 2015 and Tony Stewart had a road course win fall into his lap to make the playoffs last year, it just seemed destined that Earnhardt would win at some point in the first 26 races. Sadly, that wasn’t the case despite a good run on Saturday night.

What didn’t we see coming? Joey Logano missing out on the 16-driver field. Logano was my preseason championship pick, and his team’s downfall is the most surprising flop I can remember in the Chase/Playoff Era. He opened the season with eight finishes of sixth or better in the first nine races — including five straight top-fives — and then completely fell off the map after the encumbered Richmond win.

Ultimately, Logano finished second on Saturday night. But that was just his third top-five since the last Richmond race. He missed the playoffs by 100 points.

And how about Clint Bowyer? Honestly, it was a pretty solid regular season; his average finish of 14.8 is his best since 2013. I mean, the guy finished 11th in points and missed the playoffs! That just speaks to how unusual this season has been with five winners below him in the standings.

By the way, it was fun to see Erik Jones make a run at what would have been an incredible victory at Richmond. He didn’t make the cut (despite being 13th in points during his rookie season), but don’t worry — he will be part of the field for years to come after this.

4. Someone call 911

Let’s hope NASCAR got its one crappy officiating night out of the way before the playoffs, because that was — as our president would say — “not good.”

First, there was the caution toward the end of Stage 1 which was officially thrown for “Smoke.” Not Tony Stewart, but smoke from Matt Kenseth’s tires when he was trying to avoid hitting Danica Patrick. That was an awfully quick trigger for a group of officials who previously insisted it takes time to call a caution (like at Daytona and Indianapolis as cars were crashing).

Second, the ambulance on pit road. Yikes. Martin Truex Jr. said the safety vehicles were running alongside the cars down the backstretch, so NASCAR had plenty of time to figure out what was going on. NASCAR said it told the ambulance to stop, and the directive was not obeyed. But typically, race director David Hoots runs a much tighter ship than that. It was not only a safety hazard, but Matt Kenseth ultimately could have missed the playoffs because of it. Thankfully, that situation didn’t play out — but again, “not good.”

Third, it might have been worth holding off calling the race-altering caution for Derrike Cope. That was a judgment call and likely a caution in many circumstances, because he did brush the wall. But this was the final laps of the regular season when NASCAR has put such an emphasis on playoff points this year — and it changed the winner.

NASCAR warned drivers to “let it play out naturally on the racetrack” in the pre-race drivers meeting, so it doesn’t feel right that three questionable calls occurred in the hours afterward. Let’s hope that was the last officiating controversy of the season.

5. Championship predictions

So here we go. It’s time to make some picks.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ryan Newman, Austin Dillon and Chase Elliott will be eliminated in the first round, with Kasey Kahne, Ryan Blaney, Kurt Busch and Jamie McMurray advancing to Round 2 but falling out after that.

Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski will come up short of making it to Homestead, which will leave Truex, Larson, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin as the final four.

In the end, despite the presence of Homestead ace Larson in the championship race, Kyle Busch will use a late restart to win his second career title as Truex once again suffers bad luck after a dominating race.

News Analysis: Denny Hamlin’s Darlington sweep ruled encumbered

What happened: Both of Denny Hamlin’s wins last weekend at Darlington Raceway came while his team was breaking the rules. After further investigation at its R&D Center, NASCAR found Hamlin had two encumbered victories at Darlington — for similar violations in the rear suspension. On the Cup side, Hamlin lost 25 points (meaningless) and the five playoff points he got for the win while crew chief Mike Wheeler received a two-race suspension and a $50,000 fine. To make matters worse, the runner-up driver in the Xfinity race — Joey Logano — also had an encumbered finish.

What it means: NASCAR penalties are not tough enough. Encumbered finishes by race winners are becoming more frequent, which means teams must not fear the consequences like they should. Even though he loses the playoff points, Hamlin gets to keep both of his wins despite his team basically cheating. That looks terrible, but this will never change until NASCAR starts to take the win away — which should have been the policy for a long time now. It’s also ridiculous to think Cup drivers not only made the Xfinity race a bore-fest (until the last lap), but they were whooping the Xfinity regulars by driving cheated-up cars the whole time. What a joke!

News value (scale of 1-10): Six. It should be a lot higher, but this is sadly becoming more commonplace. For example: Hamlin has two Xfinity wins this year and both were encumbered finishes. After you get beyond the headlines, these penalties are relatively hollow.

Three questions: When will NASCAR start taking the win away from illegal cars? When will NASCAR start taking the win away from illegal cars? When will NASCAR start taking the win away from illegal cars?

The Top Five: Breaking down the Bristol Night Race

Five thoughts after Saturday night’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway…

1. Kyle Busch drinks his haters’ tears

At a Toyota appearance on Saturday morning, a fan in attendance stood there and gave Kyle Busch one long, continuous middle finger.

“I know I’m number one,” Busch told the fan. “I’ve been number one the past two nights.”

So then the fan gave him a double bird.

“All you’re doing is solidifying what I already know,” Busch said.

Like the greatest of wrestling heels, Busch has gone full villain this season as he’s come to terms with the fact he’s never going to be the most popular driver. It doesn’t seem to bother him anymore — and yes, it definitely did at one time — so he’s soaking up the hate instead.

As Busch was showered with boos from the 100,000-plus fans at Bristol after completing the three-race weekend sweep, Busch cupped his ears for more. Then, as the volume increased, he flashed three fingers — not Three for Dale, but three for the sweep.

To add insult to their injured feelings, Busch then climbed on top of his car, parked right on the frontstretch, and swept the roof with a broom.

“I’m sure they’re still booing and whining and crying all the way home tonight. They’re driving home mad,” he said later, then smirked. “So people, be careful.”

For Kyle Busch Haters, a group of people that probably rivals the size of Junior Nation, this weekend was absolutely disgusting. He dominated two lower-series races with glee (“In your face!” he yelled on the radio after winning Trucks) and then whooped everyone in the Cup race.

But I’ve got to confess something: The more Busch irritates people, the more hilarious I think it is. Seriously, Busch haters get SO twisted up when he wins and their livid reactions are so disproportionate to the outrage over everything in the real world that it’s just flat-out funny to me.

The hate is so commonplace now, it doesn’t affect him. He’s used to it, and he might even thrive off it.

Personally, I think he’s the most interesting character in NASCAR these days. And even though he can be a pain in the ass at times, I sure am glad he’s around to give me something to write about and talk about.

2. Yes, he’s that damn good

To those who truly despise Busch — even you have to admit we’re watching one of the great talents of all time, right?

I mean, check out this tweet from Kyle Larson from Saturday night:

Could Kyle Busch actually be the GOAT, as Larson’s tweet suggested? I can only speak in NASCAR terms on this, so you can debate sprint car drivers and other racers Larson may be including in the conversation. But in NASCAR, Jimmie Johnson has won six more championships, Jeff Gordon won a lot more races and Tony Stewart was more versatile as far as winning in different types of cars.

And yet, when it comes to sitting in the stands and watching which driver wheels the car the best, I think Larson may be right: Busch may be the best pure talent of his generation.

Yes, of course he’s driving the best cars in the lower series and makes it seem easy when he has a speeding penalty and gets back to the front in 50 laps (probably because it is easy for him).

But when he does it in the Cup Series, against the best drivers and teams, and makes it look like he’s back in an Xfinity race? Well, that’s damn impressive. It just is.

Busch now has 40 Cup wins, which tied Mark Martin on the all-time list. And he’s only 32! He probably has 10 more years in his prime to rack up more victories.

I’m not advocating for people to start liking Busch, because his attitude and demeanor and lack of grace are massive turnoffs to many fans in a sport where drivers are often judged on personality as much as results. And I’m also not suggesting people start enjoying what they’re seeing, because people need someone to root against.

But as a longtime Denver Broncos fan, I compare it to Tom Brady. I can’t STAND Brady, but I still recognize he’s probably the best quarterback ever (which is painful to admit).

So you truly have to respect Busch as one of the best and appreciate what we’re seeing. And if you can’t, your bitterness is getting in the way.

3. Erik Jones making big gains

Remember earlier in the season when the No. 77 car looked fast every week but always had something bad happen? Those days seem gone now.

Erik Jones has six DNFs due to crashes this season — many of which were not his fault but some which happened after he put himself in bad positions. But Jones really seems to be finishing races lately.

He’s reeled off four straight top-10 finishes, including a third at Michigan and now a career-best second at Bristol. And he led a race-high 260 laps during nine different times in the race, which is pretty impressive.

It’s a shame he’s likely going to miss the playoffs, because he’s coming on really strong at the right time. But I have a feeling he’ll be a playoff fixture in the future, though.

4. More frustration for Dale Jr.

At the tweetup on Saturday, a few of us started daydreaming about what it would be like if Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the Bristol race.

Can you imagine? It would be even better than the 2001 Pepsi 400! The whole stadium would go freaking nuts!

Goosebumps.

But that was just a fantasy, because Earnhardt never had a chance after being way off in practice and qualifying 31st.

“I couldn’t find any speed out there,” he said afterward. “Whatever we got wrong came from the shop. You’re not going to fix it on that racetrack from pit road. We just missed the setup, big time.”

The struggles Earnhardt experienced all weekend at Bristol reminded me of the Lance McGrew Era. Personally, I thought it was the most frustrated I’d heard Earnhardt on the radio this season, but he disagreed.

“It’s frustrating every week, you know?” he said. “I don’t know how to quantify frustration. I don’t know how to measure it. None of it is good. We want to compete and run well this last season. I don’t want to be out there just packing it in. It’s a lot of work to run 23rd, I’ll say that.”

Earnhardt deserves a better ending than this season is shaping up to be, similar to what Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart got.

Unfortunately, it’s looking more and more like that might not happen — and that sucks for everyone.

5. Two to go!

It’s almost playoff time, and the picture is getting a bit clearer now that there are two races left where upset winners are a rarity.

Actually, I’m having a hard time seeing how the 16 drivers currently in the field change after Darlington and Richmond (you can see the standings below).

There are only three spots left, and it’s not close on points at all. Clint Bowyer is 58 points out — nearly an entire race — and he’s the only driver within 100 points (Joey Logano is 117 points out).

So that means someone like Logano would have to win Darlington or Richmond to get in. And really, is Logano even running well enough to do that right now? It doesn’t seem like it, even though he’s great at Richmond and had the encumbered win there in the spring.

There are no more upset winner type tracks, which lessens the chances Jones or Daniel Suarez could pick up their first career victories in the next two weeks.

Anyway, I think you’re already looking at this year’s playoff field, which is below.

——-

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 two races to go:

14. Chase Elliott +69

15. Matt Kenseth +61

16. Jamie McMurray +58

—-

17. Clint Bowyer -58

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

The Top Five: Breaking down the Pocono race

Five thoughts on Sunday’s race at Pocono Raceway…

1. Two-time Cup champion Kyle Busch?

Kyle Busch haters can skip over this part, but the guy is a serious championship contender despite not having won in more than a year until Sunday.

For most of the season, the best car each week has been either Martin Truex Jr. or Kyle Larson. But Busch has been creeping into the picture lately, and he’s been the one to battle Truex the last couple weeks while Larson hasn’t shown as much speed (even before incidents which resulted in finishes of 28th and 33rd).

Busch hadn’t won since the 2016 Brickyard 400 and Joe Gibbs Racing hadn’t won all season until two weeks ago, so everyone has been busy talking more about that than how the 2015 Cup champ might have a pretty good shot to do it again.

Busch has the most poles, second-most laps led and third-most top-five finishes this season. And perhaps most important, he is now tied for the third-most playoff points with Larson and Brad Keselowski.

As JGR continues to gain speed, Busch has been out front the most. He’s led at least 74 laps in four straight races now. That’s a very dangerous car for his rivals to deal with.

“… We’ve had speed, we’ve been right there, we’ve been able to do what we should be doing: That’s running up front,” Busch said. “It’s just been a bit frustrating on the finishing side.”

It’s scary, because with all the near-misses until Sunday, you get the feeling the No. 18 team hasn’t even performed to its potential yet. If Busch and his team start converting all the close calls into wins? Watch out.

2. What’s the point?

Speaking of championship contenders, I was puzzled by the No. 78 team’s decision to pit late in Stage 2 and give up what seemed like a sure playoff point — which would have made 30 on the season.

I get that Truex and Cole Pearn were going for the win, which meant sacrificing a stage win. Had it worked, they would have made a trade for four additional points than a stage victory brings.

But that’s only if it works. It didn’t. So instead of one playoff point, the team left with zero.

“That was the gamble,” Truex said. “That was our mindset before the race. We figured if we felt like we were good enough to possibly win the race, we’d have to pit before the end of that second stage. Just stuck to our plan.

“It didn’t work out, so obviously now I wish we would have stayed out and won that stage. That’s part of it.”

I can’t recall every situation that led to 14 stage wins for Truex this season, but it seems like the team had been going all-out for playoff points every week until Pocono. And as has been discussed frequently, those points are going to be a massive factor this fall in deciding who makes it to Homestead. So why not take as many as possible when the opportunity presents itself?

Truex and Pearn had an easy one point, gambled for four more and ended up with none. That’s what a team in a trailing position should do, not the leader.

This was like a basketball player passing on a wide-open layup with a 20-point lead; there’s no need to take a contested three in that situation.

3. A different level of speed

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was pumped after finishing 12th, pleased he and the No. 88 team “finally put one together” and had a “complete race” despite an early speeding penalty. Earnhardt ran in the top 10 for much of the second half of the day — something he didn’t anticipate after fighting a loose condition on corner entry all weekend.

But even on a good day, he wasn’t really close to running with the top cars.

“Man, I don’t know where the speed is that the front three or four have,” he said on pit road after the race. “They’ve got it every week. We don’t have that, and we’re not going to find in that garage on Friday or Saturday. If we don’t show up with it, we’re not going to find it. That’s somewhere in the shop.”

Earnhardt said it was probably only a matter of time before Busch started matching Truex’s speed, given the information-sharing arrangement between alliance partners JGR and Furniture Row Racing.

But he’s not sure where the speed is coming from, and that’s concerning.

“It’s nothing you can visually see,” he said .”We’re all in the garage together. We can see under their cars, see the springs they’re running, stuff like that. But it’s not in anything like that.

“They’ve got a lot of speed somehow. They’ve got a lot more speed than everybody else. Gotta give ’em credit.”

4. Season slipping away for Logano

Joey Logano’s season of misery just keeps snowballing as the playoffs approach all too quickly for his team’s liking.

Sunday was another race where everything seemed to go wrong.

Not only did the team lack the speed it needed to be competitive, but both Logano and crew chief Todd Gordon made mistakes on pit road.

Logano was caught speeding with 36 laps to go and had to serve a pass-through penalty under green, but then locked up his tires coming to pit road. When Logano told the team he hurt his tires enough to possibly incur a flat, Gordon quickly made the call to pit for four tires.

But that was a no-no, because pitting while serving a penalty requires another pass-through down pit road. By the time it was all over, Logano finished 27th and one lap down.

The result was Logano’s eighth finish outside the top 20 in the 12 races since he won at Richmond but had the win ruled to be encumbered. He’s now 69 points behind the cutoff with just five races until the playoffs begin.

I caught up with Logano as he was walking glumly away from his car on pit road and asked whether he’s ever faced such a stretch of adversity in his career.

“I don’t think so,” he said.

But Logano said his team “still knows how to do it” and added “we’ve just got to built some momentum back up.”

The thing is, momentum might not be necessary. It just takes one great race (or one good race where everything falls into place) to make the playoffs, and Logano is certainly capable of doing that.

There’s not much time left, though.

5. Sunday doubleheader (kind of)

Qualifying on the same day as the race was kind of weird, even though there were a lot of positives on paper.

The flow of race day seemed all messed up, and the laid-back atmosphere that qualifying brings took away from the typical Sunday morning vibe — where the anticipation builds in the hours before the event.

Maybe I’ll get used to it (a similar schedule will be tried again next week), and I hope that’s the case — because there definitely some good sides of it. Fans get added value with on-track activity before the race itself (some of whom never get to see a Friday session at the track because they don’t come for the whole weekend) and drivers/teams get an extra day at home (after all, the Cup Series really doesn’t need to be at some of these tracks for three days).

 

I just wish the schedule could be tightened up a bit. After qualifying, there was roughly a 45-minute gap until the drivers meeting, then a 90-minute gap until the green flag.

Lunchtime quietly rolled by without much fanfare, and the sun started to shift in the sky before the race finally went green at 3:21 p.m. ET.  People were just milling around waiting for it to start.

But come on — this is NASCAR! Big-time auto racing, right? It shouldn’t feel like waiting for the leaders to tee off at a golf tournament.

 


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:

14. Chase Elliott +39

15. Jamie McMurray +38

16. Matt Kenseth +17

—-

17. Clint Bowyer -17

18. Joey Logano -69

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

The Top Five: Breaking down the New Hampshire race

Five thoughts after Sunday’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway…

1. Mixed bag for Gibbs

So Joe Gibbs Racing is back in victory lane for the first time since Texas last fall, which was Carl Edwards’ final career win.

While that’s great for Denny Hamlin, you’ll have to forgive teammates Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch if they didn’t leave the track with a smile on their faces.

Busch sped twice on pit road to take him out of contention and now hasn’t won in a year (his last win was Indianapolis, which is next on the schedule). That seems crazy, because Busch is third in the standings and “he’s had a chance to win maybe eight times” (as Gibbs put it); yet he’s winless.

All the Xfinity wins in the world don’t make up for something that you just know has to be eating away at the ultra-competitive Busch.

Then there’s Kenseth. After official word of him getting the boot from JGR was released earlier in the week, his chance to win for the first time in a year went away thanks to bad strategy. Kenseth had passed Martin Truex Jr. with fresher tires, but then only took two tires on the final pit stop — while everyone else behind him took four, costing him the race.

Kenseth said the move had worked in the past, which may have led crew chief Jason Ratcliff down the wrong path.

“I just couldn’t hang on with two tires,” Kenseth said. “Typically here you can get away with that — we won in the spring doing that (last year). Four tires just made big charges today all day long. When we were the only one without lefts, I knew we were probably in big trouble.”

Gibbs made a beeline for Kenseth’s car to pat him on the back after the race, but that probably wasn’t much consolation after what would have been a sweet victory for a 45-year-old free agent.

Alas, it was Hamlin celebrating instead.

2. Joe Low

After the race, I asked Joey Logano if he knew what went wrong. I was referring to the part that broke — the one that took 33 laps to repair in the garage and resulted in a 37th-place finish — but he had to ask for clarification.

“Which part?” he said. “The (being) slow part or the car that broke?”

Yeah, it seems Logano has a lot of problems right now.

With another disappointing result, Logano is 52 points behind Kenseth for the final playoff spot with seven races remaining.

His hopes of contending for a title are not looking so good, which is fairly shocking considering how strong the No. 22 has been in recent years. I doubt many people picked Logano to miss the playoffs, but it’s trending that direction.

“We might have to win now,” he said. “It’s a pretty big hit. We’re in trouble. We’ve got to get going.”

Logano reminded reporters the team has been on the outside before and executed to advance. But that was in the playoffs — and during a time when the team was running much better.

Right now, Logano just isn’t getting very good cars.

“We’ve got to stick together and keep faith in each other — and we’ve got to make our cars faster, because we’re just slow,” he said. “It’s plain and simple and blunt as can be: We’re slow, and we’ve got to get faster.”

To make matters worse, NASCAR confiscated a part from Logano’s car after he went to the garage. A decision will be made on that during further inspection this week, although the team certainly can’t afford any more of a points penalty if it hopes to make the playoffs without a victory.

3. Hail Dale

Dale Earnhardt Jr. stayed out on old tires while the entire field pitted, which put him in the lead on a restart with 35 laps to go.

As you might guess, it didn’t work. He plummeted through the running order and ended up 18th.

But given his points position (21st), Earnhardt and his team had to try something. They have to win, not go for top-10s.

So I asked Earnhardt: Was that strategy call pretty much a Hail Mary?

“It was like a Hail Mary when you’re down 14,” he said with a chuckle.

Earnhardt said he and crew chief Greg Ives were hoping some others would stay out behind them and provide a buffer, but even that probably would have been a longshot call.

If they didn’t try it, though?

“We’d have finished 10th at best,” Earnhardt said. “Tenth to 18th is no big deal. We’ve got to try to win. That wasn’t an opportune risk to take, but we’re going to have to take them every week — no matter how (much of) a longshot it is.”

4. TrackBite leaves a mark

I’ll acknowledge the VHT/PJ1 TrackBite/sticky goo storyline was overhyped this weekend, and that made some fans cranky on Twitter.

Nobody likes hearing about the same thing over and over, after all. Any angle being hammered by the media seems to annoy people, no matter what the topic is.

But the TrackBite really was worthy of discussion, because it changed the race. So even though it wore off after awhile, NASCAR should keep pushing forward with experimenting again at future tracks.

“It hasn’t been one of my favorite racetracks because it is so one lane, but today I thought there was a lot of different lanes you could run, and it was all because of the PJ1 that they put on the track,” Kyle Larson said. “So for sure, I think NASCAR should look at doing it at other racetracks.”

What kind of tracks? While Larson said it should be done at places where slower speeds are run in the corners, Hamlin said he could envision it working on repaved tracks like Kentucky and Texas — provided it’s placed on the high line, not the normal groove.

“NASCAR is easing into it,” Hamlin said. “I think it created a multi-lane racetrack we hadn’t seen here in awhile.”

The bottom line (excuse the pun) is this: Drivers are in favor of the experiment, so expect to see it used again in future races.

5. Meme-able Moment

One thing about racing at New Hampshire is there are rarely any classic races. And I’m thinking Sunday’s probably isn’t going to qualify as a memorable one years from now, either.

But Hamlin’s last two wins have produced a couple moments that will be talked about for awhile.

In 2012, you’ll recall Hamlin made his guarantee before the Chase race — and came through, complete with a Babe Ruth swing during the celebration.

And now: Lobster Phobia.

Who knew Hamlin was so sketched out about lobsters? I guess anyone who has eaten a seafood dinner with him is aware, because he said he can’t sit next to someone who is chowing down on lobster.

But seeing him scamper away from the giant lobster when crew chief Mike Wheeler approached? Pretty funny.

Dan Gelston of the Associated Press asked Hamlin what he would do with the lobster now (since it’s a reward for the winner).

“I’m not going to do anything with it,” he said. “I’ve seen it and touched it for the last time. As far as I’m concerned, they need to put it back in the water and let it live.”

Sometimes when the races aren’t great, at least we have these kind of meme-able moments that make NASCAR fun.