Post-Michigan Podcast with Portland-area NASCAR fans

For this week’s post-race podcast, I was joined by several of the race fans who watched the Michigan race with me at a local sports bar near my new home in Oregon. The fans gave their impressions of the Michigan race and also gave their picks for the championship favorite at this point of the season.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Dover race

Five thoughts following Sunday’s race at Dover International Speedway…

1. Get out of Line

After a disappointing finish to what was otherwise a very entertaining race, the immediate reaction from NASCAR Twitter was, Man, that overtime line rule stinks!

That’s understandable, because fans invested four hours in a race that built anticipation with great racing — only to see a non-finish. Ugh.

It’s easy to follow the “That sucked!” reaction with “NASCAR should change that!” But there are still a few benefits worth considering before throwing the whole thing out.

First, the current overtime rule was designed for superspeedways and still has validity at Talladega and Daytona. By cutting down on overtime attempts, there’s a reduced risk of a car flying into the fence like Austin Dillon or Kyle Larson at Daytona.

Second, it lessens the chances of race manipulation. Remember, this rule was created in the wake of the sketchy Talladega finish in the 2015 Chase.

So with that in mind, NASCAR had to come up with a rule that would address those issues while also applying to every race and all types of tracks (otherwise, people could scream inconsistency!).

But Dover really could have used multiple overtime attempts, so it doesn’t need to be governed by the same rules as plate tracks. Maybe it’s time to separate the two.

NASCAR could bring back the three overtime attempts for non-plate tracks while keeping the overtime line/current format for plate tracks only. After all, it’s a safety thing at plate tracks in a lot of ways and I can’t get on board with ideas like unlimited attempts no matter how much some fans say they want it.

Either way, NASCAR will probably end up changing some element of the overtime rule because fans seem really disgusted about how the end of the Dover race turned out.

2. Monster entertainment

It’s a shame the craptacular finish overshadowed what was otherwise a very fun and entertaining race for the second year in a row at Dover’s spring event.

I watched most of the race from the press box, and I kept getting so caught up in watching the battles that I forgot to tweet updates a few times. The leader never seemed to be able to get very far away, and the passes for the lead seemed to take multiple laps to execute.

There had been talk about adding VHT to Dover’s surface, but it definitely didn’t need it. The race had multiple grooves and drivers were all over the track. There always seemed to be something interesting going on.

I asked Martin Truex Jr. why Dover has put on a good race the last couple years.

“Man, it’s just so hard,” he said. “I think everybody is just so out of control, you run five laps and every one of them is a little different because you’re just out there hanging on. The tires are bouncing and skipping across the track so bad. You can get a little bit of a gap on somebody, and then you get in the corner a foot too deep and you slide sideways and he’s up your butt again and then you’re even looser.

“It’s just really hard to be consistent here and hit your marks. I think that’s why everybody comes and goes. (The cars) are just a handful and you’re sliding around just praying you make it through every single lap — and I guess that makes for exciting racing and guys getting close to each other.”

If that’s the case, this goes along with the theory that the more teams struggle with nailing a setup or finding consistency, the better the racing turns out to be.

3. Playoff Points for Dummies (like me)

Speaking of Truex, he won two more stages on Sunday to bring his season total to eight (most in the series) and has 18 playoff points halfway through the regular season.

For some reason, I didn’t understand how exactly the playoff points worked until talking with a couple people from NASCAR this weekend. So if I didn’t know, maybe you don’t either.

I thought — incorrectly — a driver would start with the playoff points and they were like money. If  the driver didn’t use them in Round 1, they would carry over to Round 2. But that’s not the case at all.

The actual rule is whatever amount of playoff points a driver has, they get that amount at the start of every round whether they needed them in the previous round or not. And they can further add to that total while in the playoffs.

So let’s say Truex doesn’t get another playoff point the whole season (unlikely). He would start Round 1 with 18 points. If he advances to Round 2, he starts with 18 points. Same with Round 3.

That’s a massive advantage and it will really make a major difference in the playoffs, because it creates a mulligan opportunity.

Anyway, hopefully my ignorance will help others out there understand. But I’m sure a lot of you already know that rule and you’re thinking, “Are you kidding me? How many races into the season are we?”

“Are you kidding me?” Truex said when I brought this up. “How many races into the season are we?”

He was well aware of the rule, of course, and that’s one reason why the 78 team has been so aggressive in going after stage wins.

“It is huge, and that’s why we keep trying to pile them up,” he said. “We might be able to get to 30 or so, but that’s still only half a race (with maximum 60 points this year). So they’re going to be important as long as you can be consistent. You’re still not going to be able to afford to have consecutive really bad days.”

In the past, the the typical regular season storyline is “Who will make the playoffs?” This year, that’s joined by the talk of “Who is in good shape with playoff points?”

4. He’s lucky AND good

There’s no doubt Jimmie Johnson got lucky in a couple instances on Sunday. But that doesn’t mean he’s somehow undeserving of getting to victory lane.

Let’s take Example No. 1. Chad Knaus had Johnson stay out while others were on pit road during a cycle of green-flag pit stops, even though the team was already in its fuel window. As it turned out, Regan Smith hit the wall and brought out a caution — which benefited Johnson, who stayed on the lead lap as others had gone a lap down and had to take the wavearound.

I asked Knaus to shed some light on why. Was he hoping to catch a caution, and did he have a hunch? I think yes, but he wouldn’t elaborate.

“Yeah, there is definitely some strategy,” he said with a smile. “For sure.”

Then there was Example No. 2. Johnson was surely going to lose the race to Kyle Larson, but David Ragan hit the wall to bunch the field and set up overtime.

“When I was watching Kyle pull away from me with five to go, I’m going, ‘All right, second is not bad,’” Johnson said. “And then something in my mind said, ‘This thing isn’t over. They’re not over until the checkered falls.’”

Sure enough, Johnson got his chance — but he still had to execute on the restart. Remember, Larson was right there controlling the overtime start with a chance to win. He couldn’t get it done and Johnson did.

As Kasey Kahne noted on Twitter, it wasn’t the oil dry that cost Larson a chance to win — it was Johnson.

Said Larson:  “Jimmie is the best of our time, probably the best of all time. He just has a lot more experience than I do out on the front row late in races and executed a lot better than I did.  I’ve got to get better at that and maybe get some more wins.”

5. Aw, (lug) nuts!

One of NASCAR’s safety rules was tested this weekend, and what officials decide to do about it should set an interesting precedent.

Kyle Busch lost his left rear wheel after a pit stop early in Sunday’s Cup race, much like Chase Briscoe did in the Truck race on Friday. Both incidents were clearly mistakes by pit crews — the jack dropped before the tire changers had secured the lug nuts — and were not intentional moves to make a faster pit stop.

But NASCAR typically does not judge intent — the rule is the rule — and so harsh penalties will likely be handed out on Wednesday. The crew chief, tire changer and tire carrier (of the wheel in question) are all facing four-race suspensions, which is the mandatory minimum as spelled out in the NASCAR rulebook.

So Busch, who hasn’t won this season, is set to lose Adam Stevens as well as two key pit crew members, for a month. All because of a clear mistake on pit road.

That seems awfully severe, and it also puts Busch on the same page as rival Brad Keselowski (who owns Briscoe’s truck).

“At the end of the day, intent matters,” Keselowski said Saturday. “The intent of the rule was to make sure guys don’t put three lug nuts on and have a wheel come off and say, ‘Aw, too bad.’ That isn’t what happened in the scenario we had.

“It was a mistake. … It’s the difference between murder and manslaughter.”

Here’s the thing, though: If NASCAR lets this slide, it’s eventually going to be faced with a less clear decision and have to play judge on whether or not a pit crew intended to send the car out with one lug nut attached (or something along those lines).

Honestly, it’s better just to have rules and enforce them the same way every time — no matter the circumstances that led to the infraction.

The Top Five: Breaking down the NASCAR All-Star Race

Five thoughts on Saturday night’s NASCAR All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway…

1. Sigh

So I’m sitting here in the Charlotte Motor Speedway press box, staring out at the track after a blahtacular All-Star Race and, well, it’s sort of deflating.

Whatever NASCAR and the track come up with for this race, it just doesn’t seem to work. That’s because it’s always the same winner: Clean Air.

So after another All-Star event that failed to deliver on the hype, it’s surely back to the drawing board — again.

It’s probably a tribute to the NASCAR and Charlotte marketing machine that we buy into the possibility of a good All-Star Race every year, only to be reminded that’s not the case. There’s only so much that can be done on a 1.5-mile track like this one.

“We all run the same speed,” Jimmie Johnson said. “The rule book is so thick, and the cars are so equal, we run the same speed. You can’t pass running the same speed. It’s just the bottom line.”

That’s why the emphasis for the All-Star Race each year is to force some sort of passing in the final stage, typically by some strategy play or gimmick. And that’s fine, because it’s an exhibition race that exists solely for entertainment.

But when the entertainment doesn’t materialize? It seems to generate more outrage than your average NASCAR-related controversy.

Ultimately, the 2017 All-Star Race was familiar in a bad way: A clean-air affair that literally required a spreadsheet to keep track of who was doing well, combined with no real action (the only cautions were for the stage breaks).

Bummer.

2. Tire storyline goes flat

As it turned out, everyone was wayyyy too optimistic about the option tire’s impact on this race. But it doesn’t mean the idea wouldn’t work for future events.

Let’s start with Saturday night, though. Remember when the big tire twist was first announced? The original theory was lots of teams would take the option tire for the final round.

It’s going to be crazy! How will the strategy play out? You have to watch!

Except a funny thing happened (well, actually not funny at all): Not a single team chose to use the option tires in the final round.

The problem was the tire was a little faster, but not fast enough to make up the track position a team would lose by taking them in the final round. And it didn’t fall off as much as anticipated, so it worked better on the 20-lap runs earlier in the race.

So the tires weren’t able to deliver on their promise in the All-Star Race.

“We could probably go a little bit softer, utilize a little bit more grip in order to be faster, have more (speed) split between the two tires,” Kyle Busch said. “The tires equalized more than maybe some would have hoped for. But it was just a guess. They didn’t necessarily pull a tire test here. I thought they did a good job testing.”

But that doesn’t mean the option tire was a bad experiment for races when it really counts. It’s a strategy wrinkle that could add something to Cup races in the future. And it wouldn’t feel overly gimmicky, either.

“I think the garage area … has a favorable opinion of how this went tonight,” Johnson said. “Personally I don’t have a problem with trying it. … It’s better than having a button that gives you more horsepower. I think it’s a good way, a competitive way to create different-paced cars in the field.”

3. If Kyles ruled the world

Kyle Busch is one of the all-time great talents. He didn’t need an All-Star win to prove that — though it’s certainly nice for his resume — nor did he need to beat Jimmie Johnson in a head-to-head showdown.

He’s only going to accomplish more and more before he’s all done, probably racing until son Brexton is in a car (Kyle is only 32; Brexton is 2). So as your favorite drivers continue to retire, it’s not a guarantee the young guns will take over — because veterans like Busch might just continue to dominate.

However, there’s certainly hope for the young guns — and that’s really led by Kyle Larson. The dude continues to be a one-man show, and his attitude is just so different than anyone I’ve covered.

Take this quote about clean air, for example: “I enjoy it. It adds an element. It’s something you have to work through and become the better driver, find clean air, do a good job with it.”

What?! All we’ve heard for years are driver quotes like, “Well, he got out in clean air and there was nothing I could do.” There’s a lot of complaining about aero.

Larson doesn’t seem to complain, though. He tries to use it as a challenge. That seems refreshing (although he might eventually get frustrated like the rest of them, because the whole dirty air phenomenon really sucks).

4. Open and shut

The battle between Chase Elliott, Daniel Suarez — and eventually Erik Jones — during Stage 3 of the Open wasn’t just the best moment of the night. It might have been the best racing moment of the season so far.

Elliott was doing everything he could to get around Suarez, and they put on quite a show for a lap before Jones caught both of them and tried Pass in the Grass II. Unfortunately, Pass in the Grass I was aided by the cars not being sealed to the ground with splitters in the front, and it can’t be replicated today. So instead, Jones dug his splitter into the grass and destroyed his car, bringing out a caution with three laps to go.

You may recall last year’s Open was also quite dramatic, when Elliott and Larson banged doors en route to the finish line and both sustained damage.

The takeaway? Well, the Open is a kick-ass race, for one thing. It’s so fun and refreshing to see drivers other than the usual suspects going hard and fighting for a win at the front of the field. I love that race, and it’s one of my favorites each year just because of different faces getting the spotlight.

But it’s also another reason why heats and last-chance races would be very entertaining on a weekly basis during the NASCAR Cup Series schedule. Remember, a “Norm Benning Moment” can be almost as good as a “Game 7 Moment.”

5. Come early, folks!

The pre-race experience might be on the way back after taking a big hit over the last couple years.

NASCAR fans used to have the souvenir haulers, the huge Sprint Experience and the SPEED Stage to occupy themselves before the race.

But by the end of last year, the stupid Fanatics tent had replaced the haulers, the Sprint Experience was phased out and TV stage was apparently a victim of FOX cuts.

There seems to be some movement in the right direction now though.

This weekend marked the return of the souvenir haulers, which drew a nice crowd (from what I could see during a short walk-through Saturday afternoon). Then there were Bellator MMA fights at the Monster Energy display, where people sat on the hillside as sort of an amphitheater and watched dudes beat the crap out of each other on a hot day.

Even a form of the old SPEED stage has returned, but not for TV purposes. They’re calling it the “Trackside Live” stage — with the old familiar TV show name — but it’s primarily for fans at the track. Speedway Motorsports Inc. realized people missed that element, so SMI recreated the stage for fan entertainment purposes. It’s a good move, because now there’s an additional place for driver appearances or concerts or things like that. Hopefully, the International Speedway Corp. tracks will hop on board with the stage as well.

The bottom line is NASCAR fans expect more than just a race when it comes to attending in person. They want to make a day out of it and have things to do for hours before the green flag. So all these things were positives in that regard.

Richmond News Roundup: Day 1

Here’s a quick roundup of what drivers were talking about Friday at Richmond International Raceway:

Dale Earnhardt Jr. gave a couple more hints about what he might want to do in the future (coughTVcough).

“Obviously I enjoyed my fun in the booth (as a guest analyst),” he said. “If that’s an opportunity for me, I’m certainly going to have those conversations to find out.”

He added: “One of the people that I really respected a lot was Benny Parsons (who was also a well-known TV analyst in addition to his driving career). I thought that he left as important of a mark outside the car as he did inside the car. Whatever mark I can leave, I would love to be able to be as big an asset to the sport as I can be beyond driving.”

— The speculation about a possible Carl Edwards return still won’t go away, so I asked his former Denny Hamlin — who is very good at predictions — to estimate the odds of a Carl comeback.

“I would just be guessing, but I would say 50 percent,” Hamlin said. “Carl is a competitor. At his age (37), I’d find it hard to believe that he would just step away and not do it ever again. I think him leaving the window open in his press conference to say he’s not retiring, he’s just stepping away, I think it depends.”

Hamlin then cracked a smile.

“Has anyone found out whether he’s having a good time right now or not?” he said. “I think that would tell the story about whether he’s interested in coming back or not. From what I hear from all the retired drivers, it’s awesome for like a few months — then you kind of get bored a little bit.”

Kyle Larson and Brad Keselowski both were noncommittal when answering questions about the status of their contracts and whether they would be interested in replacing Earnhardt in the No. 88 car.

Larson, who is believed to have a contract with Chip Ganassi Racing beyond this year, would not say there was zero possibility of him leaving the team when asked.

“Oh, I’d have to talk to Chip before I came out in public about anything that serious,” he said. “So I won’t talk about anything like that because I don’t even know if I’m allowed to or not. I know Jamie (McMurray) is very secret about all his stuff. But I don’t know.”

Keselowski, speaking to a small group of reporters later in the day, wouldn’t say whether he is working on a contract extension with Team Penske (“There’s some stuff going on, but I’m not (able) to mention it in detail”).

And of any interest of returning to Hendrick Motorsports, where he began his Cup career on a partial schedule, to drive the 88?

“Do I have to have a yes or a no?” he said with a laugh. “It’s a Hendrick car, which by nature means it’s going to be one of the best cars available for a long period of time. But I would also say the car I’m in is one of the best available, and the team I’m with, I have a lot of equity in. So I’m pretty darn happy where I’m at. But I’ve learned in this world to never say no (definitively).”

Matt Kenseth won the pole for Richmond, followed by Ryan Blaney, Martin Truex Jr., Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Joey Logano.

It’s Kenseth’s first No. 1 starting spot since Kansas last fall and his seventh consecutive season with at least one pole — this after failing to get a pole in eight of his first 11 seasons.

Austin Dillon crew chief Slugger Labbe was kept back in North Carolina by Richard Childress Racing after the team failed the laser inspection station five times at Bristol last week. Operations director Sammy Johns is crew-chiefing for Dillon this weekend instead.

Dillon lost his pit selection for this week and had to start in the back as part of the inspection penalty.

There were also a host of teams that lost practice time due to Texas and Bristol infractions, including a 30-minute penalty for both Kenseth and Logano for swerving after the race.

12 Questions with Kyle Larson

The 12 Questions series of interviews continues this week with Kyle Larson of Chip Ganassi Racing. I spoke to Larson at Bristol Motor Speedway. This interview is available as a podcast and is also transcribed below.

1. How much of your success is based on natural ability and how much has come from working at it?

I would say up until I got to NASCAR, it was probably all natural and I didn’t have to work at anything. But once you get here, it’s really tough and everybody else is working hard, so you have to at least do what they’re doing to try and become better. A lot of that is studying. I still don’t really work out, but I try to do that a little bit. So it’s become more of having to work for it when you get to this level, but still natural ability takes over everything else.

2. Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards have all retired in the last couple years. What’s your pitch for fans of theirs to become fans of yours?

I’m very similar to — I guess all of them kind of have an open-wheel background, so I got that going for me. I’m kind of a throwback racer where I’ll race anything as long as I’m allowed to, and I would love to race every day of the week if I could. So I would say I’m one of the only real racers left out here. So that can be my pitch, that I’m the last true racer.

3. What is the hardest part of your job away from the racetrack?

It’s probably that our season is so long and our weeks are so short. There’s so much stuff that you want to get done during the week and it’s hard to accomplish all that. There’s lots of times where I see what my friends are doing, and I’d love to be doing what they’re doing, but our weekends are kind of our weekdays and our weekdays are weekends, where it’s opposite of everybody else in the world. I would say that part of it is probably the toughest part.

4. A fan spots you eating dinner in a nice restaurant. Should they come over for an autograph or no?

Yeah, as long as our main dish isn’t on the table, I think you can definitely come over. I’m not like a germaphobe or anything, either, so I’m not afraid to shake hands as long as they’re a decent-looking human being. But yeah, as long as our main dish isn’t on the table, feel free to come over.

So as long as the guy doesn’t have flies circling around him or something like that, it’s OK?

Yeah. If it’s not 105 degrees outside, as long as you’re not sweaty and greasy, you can come over and I’ll shake your hand.

5. What’s a story in NASCAR that doesn’t get enough coverage?

I think you guys all cover the sport very well — good and bad. There’s some stuff that probably shouldn’t be covered that gets covered. But I wish I would see more good stuff about sprint car racing rather than all the negative stuff (about deaths and injuries) because that’s some of the purest form of racing. All the media kind of covers is the negative, so I wish that we would get more of the exciting part of it and how it develops great race car drivers rather than the tragedies.

The mainstream media doesn’t cover it every week; they see the danger, they see the accidents and then that gets written up.

Yeah, it’s easier to get people to read your posts when you have a title that is touching a negative topic rather than, “Oh, there was an awesome race in Illinois this weekend.” It’s easier to get someone to click on your link when it’s got some negative in it, so I wish there was more positive stuff about the sprint cars.

6. Who is the last driver you texted?

Probably (Ricky) Stenhouse or Denny (Hamlin). I think we’re actually in a group text about golf, so probably those two.

How’s your golf game?

My golf game is really bad. Those two are really good. Denny shot a 74 (on Thursday), so two over par, and Ricky was five over par, so they’re good. I wish I could be 10 strokes better than I am, but I shot 101.

7. Do you consider race car drivers to be entertainers?

I guess we are in a way, but I don’t think of myself as an entertainer. I think there are some other drivers that do think of themselves as entertainers. (Grins)

But for me, racing is just my love and my hobby more than anything. I know it’s my job, but I just do it to have fun. But at the same time, I guess we are entertainers where we’re in front of big audiences live at the track and on TV as well. So yeah, I guess we’re entertainers, but I don’t try to entertain outside the car.

8. What is your middle finger policy on the racetrack?

I don’t feel like I normally give the middle finger to a lot of people, but if you’re like four seconds off the pace and you’re multiple laps down and you hold me up, you’re probably gonna get the middle finger. Thankfully there’s no good drivers that ever really get the finger, so I would say that’s my middle finger policy. Just don’t hold me up.

So it’s reserved for the scrubs, basically.

Yeah, I guess you could say that.

9. Some drivers keep a payback list in their minds. Do you also have a list for drivers who have done you a favor on the track?

You keep a payback list for sure, but you also have a list of guys that you probably don’t race as hard. I think of Matt Kenseth: He’s somebody who’s a veteran and understands give-and-take, and I’ve learned a lot from him of when’s the right time to be aggressive and when not to be.

So you’ve got guys like him where if they’re faster, you just let them go and then they repay the favor later in the race. But when it gets down to the end of it, you can race really hard. I would say most of us young guys are probably not the best at the whole give-and-take thing, but we can learn a lot off of those guys.

10. Who is the most famous person you’ve had dinner with?

Probably Danica. You know, (Larson and girlfriend Katelyn Sweet) are great friends with Ricky and Danica, so we go out to dinner with them all the time. We probably eat dinner at their motorhome more than anything because she’s a great cook. But it doesn’t matter where we’re at — we could be at the middle of nowhere and somebody recognizes her.

It’s funny too, because they’ll see her and not have a clue who Ricky and I are, so it’s pretty funny. So yeah, I would say she’s probably the most famous person I’ve had dinner with. I know she likes being noticed out in public, too, so it probably makes her feel good that she’s the famous person with us.

Does she ever get free desserts or anything from the waiters?

Yeah, there’s a lot of times when we’ll go to a restaurant and they’ll bring out free appetizers that aren’t even on the menu that the chef wants to cook up for her. So yeah, it has its perks to be friends with Danica for sure.

11. What’s something about yourself you’d like to improve?

Probably staying motivated to do the not-fun stuff of our sport. I guess going back to the work part of it, being motivated for that stuff. You know, I guess when you grow up racing, the racing thing is all you do and it’s natural ability — you don’t have to work at it too hard. But like I said, when you get here, it’s a lot more work and staying motivated to put the effort into being a little bit better is important, and there’s a lot time times I slack off on that. So I would say probably staying motivated to do the business/work part of it.

12. The last interview was with Daniel Suarez, and he wanted to know: If a competitive young driver came to you and asked for advice, how much would you tell him? Would you tell him 100% of what you know, or would you tell him like 90%? How much would you offer?

I always try to be extremely honest whenever anybody asks me anything. And honestly, there’s not a whole lot of people that go around asking for advice. I guess it would be the young guys. At Homestead last year, I felt like half the Truck Series was calling me, trying to get around Homestead because I go really good there.

I remember last Atlanta, I was extremely fast in practice before qualifying because I was running a different line in (Turns) 1 and 2, and Kyle Busch was asking me how hard I would run up there and why I would split the seams and stuff like that. I gave him an honest answer, and he got the pole and I qualified bad.

But yeah, I’m always extremely honest. I think coming from a dirt background, it’s easier for us to be honest — where people who grew up in pavement racing, it seems like pavement racers are more secretive than dirt racers.

The next interview is with Elliott Sadler. Do you have a question I can ask him?

He’s been around, he’s seen it all in every series. I feel like the average age has gone down a lot lately in every series. So how has he seen the style of racing change with the average age going down?

This 12 Questions interview is sponsored by Dover International Speedway. If you’re planning to attend the Dover race in June, please consider using my ticket link. Thanks!

The Top Five: Breaking down the Bristol race

Five thoughts from Monday’s rescheduled race at Bristol Motor Speedway:

1. What a race!

Bristol was one of those races that was so enjoyable to watch, I was disappointed when it ended.

That’s it? Only 500 laps? How about 600?

Seriously though, I could have watched that racing all day. It was just SO much fun to see the drivers going all out, with close-quarters racing and two equal grooves (yes, even though the bottom wasn’t the dominant lane).

I found myself smiling through many of the battles for position (which seemed constant) — and even while watching the leaders navigate lapped traffic.

It didn’t matter there was no late caution or restart to spice things up (the last 32 laps were green), nor did it matter there was a typical winner (Jimmie Johnson, again?). Bristol was just highly entertaining all day long, with the VHT-aided bottom groove just good enough to even things up with the top lane. As it turned out, that made for perfect racing conditions.

“Honestly, I don’t think it gets much better than that,” Kyle Larson said.

The sticky VHT slowly wearing off through the course of the race made it so that the track was constantly changing, and Bristol and NASCAR deserve a lot of credit for making it work.

Jimmie Johnson explained it this way: When there’s anything that’s consistent in NASCAR, the garage will figure it out. Everyone is too smart. But when the surface underwent a constant evolution like it did on Monday, Johnson said no one could exactly nail the setup.

“The track intentionally tried to create the need to be on the bottom,” Johnson said. “… This race, without a doubt, would have been single-file around the top without the VHT on the bottom,” Johnson said.

There was only one bad thing about the race: It was held Monday, when many fans were at work or school and couldn’t watch. Thanks a lot, Mother Nature.

How unfortunate that so many people missed one of the best races in recent years.

2. Larson Legend

I made a beeline for Larson’s car after the race, because watching him was half the fun of Monday’s race. He got out of his car and we made eye contact, and he looked sort of puzzled because I was grinning.

It took a second for me to remember he finished sixth on a day where he could have won, and probably wasn’t thrilled about the result. But I don’t really care where he finishes; I just know he put on quite a show — and usually does.

This seems so premature to say about a driver with two career wins, but Larson is really going to be an all-timer in this sport. I don’t know if his dry wit will ever translate into superstardom outside NASCAR (he might be too reserved to be the Jeff Gordon type who can guest-host a morning talk show), but he’ll be a legend within it by the time he’s done.

Larson’s driving style makes races more interesting to watch, and that’s not something you can say about many drivers. No matter what his career stats say by the time he’s done, he’ll be remembered as one of the greats of this generation.

3. Ol’ Jimmie does it again

Seven-Time, already the best driver in NASCAR history, just keeps adding to his career tally.

He now has 82 wins, which is one short of Cale Yarborough and two shy of Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison. It seems very possible that by the end of the season, the only drivers ahead of him on the all-time list will be Richard Petty, David Pearson and Jeff Gordon — and he may be alone in championships by the end of November.

It will be extra special for Johnson to tie Yarborough whenever he does, because Yarborough was the only NASCAR driver he knew while growing up. Johnson recalled walking into a Hardee’s as a kid and thinking he was in Yarborough’s race shop.

However, I fully recognize it’s not so great for everyone else living in the Jimmie Era — not just fans of other drivers, but the other drivers themselves.

“The damn 48,” Clint Bowyer said. “You know what I mean? Hasn’t he had enough?”

He certainly has, but that doesn’t mean he’s about to stop winning.

4. Dale Earnhardt Jr. in trouble

If the playoffs started today, Earnhardt would miss the cut by 50 points. It’s not even close right now, and Earnhardt — with the exception of his top-five at Texas — just isn’t running that well.

That’s not news to him or his fans, of course. But if this keeps up, he’s going to be in the type of territory where he needs to win — and that changes how a team goes about a race, particularly with strategy.

It’s been a fairly miserable start for Earnhardt, who is 24th in the standings — behind rookies Daniel Suarez and Ty Dillon. He’s five spots behind Aric Almirola in the points.

I honestly don’t think Earnhardt has lost anything despite missing half the season last year, but he hasn’t had good luck (three DNFs due to crashes) and the car hasn’t been all that great in the other races. Bristol wasn’t going to be a memorable race for him even before his oil cooler broke.

He described his car as being too tight and said other drivers were “beating me really bad back to the gas” out of the corners.

“That ain’t no way to run anywhere, really,” he said.

5. Roush Fenway keeps plugging along

Chip Ganassi Racing’s hot start has been well-documented. Kyle Larson is the points leader and Jamie McMurray is tied for sixth in the standings.

But it’s not just Ganassi that is out-running some of the bigger teams this season.

Roush Fenway Racing is much improved, and both drivers finished in the top 11 on Monday (Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was ninth and Trevor Bayne was 11th). In addition, Bayne is 12th in the standings and Stenhouse is 16th (although would currently be on the outside of the playoffs because Kurt Busch has a win and is 18th).

If they keep collecting top-15 finishes, that will be enough to keep them in playoff contention all summer. And right now, they’ve combined for 11 top-15s after having a combined 24 all of last year — this after just eight races.

Are they going to win? Probably not anytime soon. But they’re both ahead of six drivers in the standings from Hendrick, Gibbs and Stewart-Haas, so that’s an accomplishment after the last couple years.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Texas Motor Speedway race

Five thoughts from Sunday’s race at Texas Motor Speedway:

1. Stop questioning the 48 team for any reason

One of the dumbest NASCAR storylines — which I’ve probably been guilty of buying into several times over the years — is questioning Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus. Seriously, it’s really, REALLY dumb.

Incredibly, the Johnson/Knaus questions were doubled at Texas, which is extra ridiculous — especially after he got win No. 7 here.

— With only one top-10 heading into the race, had the defending champion lost a step? (OBVIOUSLY NOT, NO. HE NEVER DOES.)

— After spinning out in qualifying and being forced to start in the rear of the field, would Johnson be able to come from the back and win? (DUH, OF COURSE. HAVE YOU EVER WATCHED NASCAR?)

Johnson loves to rub it in his doubters’ faces when he wins, and he should.

“I guess I remembered how to drive, and I guess this team remembered how to do it,” he said in victory lane.

Remember, Johnson was asked at Fontana about his lack of performance so far this season and sounded annoyed.

“Sixteen years, 80 wins and seven championships and people want to question us?” he said then. “I mean, come on.”

Make that 81 wins.

Anyway, I’ve decided to never doubt Johnson and the No. 48 team until A) Johnson retires, B) Knaus retires or C) Johnson goes three years without winning.

Other than that, let’s just all make a pact not to bring up such a silly question again.

2. Short-term vs. long-term gain

Is it better go to for a stage win or get track position for the real win?

That was the dilemma facing the field at the end of Stage 2, when a debris caution presented the opportunity for a strategy play.

Ryan Blaney — who was dominating the race with 148 laps led — decided to stay out and go for the stage win (and a playoff point). He won the stage, but restarted 20th for the final stage as a result. After getting bottled up on the restart and later sliding through his pit, Blaney finished 12th. Obviously, that was a bummer.

On the other hand, Johnson and Kyle Larson used the same strategy as Blaney — and ended up finishing first and second. So it’s not like there was necessarily a right or wrong answer. It’s up to teams what is more important and what the priorities are.

“It’s easy to look back on it and say, ‘Oh, we should have done this, should have done that,’” Blaney said. “But you can’t really change any of that now.

“We thought we had enough time after (Stage) 2 to work our way back up through there. … I thought we made the right call to stay out there and try to win that segment. I’m for that.”

Knaus made a similar argument afterward, saying he was “very confident our car was going to be able to drive back through traffic” but added “you get a big pit in your stomach” after losing the track position.

“All you can do is make a decision and then adjust to the decision you make,” Knaus said.

I’m honestly not sure what the correct play is for future situations, especially since the results were a mixed bag. Either way, I enjoyed the added strategy element, which is just another plus for the stages.

3. Woe is Gibbs

Nearly 20 minutes after the race had ended, pit road had been emptied of the cars and most drivers were probably at the airport already.

But as a cloud of confetti drifted by, Denny Hamlin stood with his hands on his hips, talking to team owner Joe Gibbs, crew chief Mike Wheeler and a couple other team members.

It’s obvious why Hamlin wanted to linger on pit road: Joe Gibbs Racing is struggling so far this year.

“We were a 20th-place car at best most of the day,” Hamlin told me afterward. “I didn’t think any of us were very good.”

Texas was another bad race for JGR. The top finisher was 15th-place Kyle Busch, followed by Matt Kenseth (16th), Daniel Suarez (19th) and Hamlin (25th).

The performance can no longer be brushed off as an early-season fluke; JGR is not meeting its own high standards. And with Hendrick Motorsports finally getting a win, the “What’s wrong with JGR?” questions will only getting louder.

So what now?

“We just work harder,” Hamlin said. “We’re already working hard, but it takes time to get things figured out. We’ve got a new Camry and a lot of new things, and we’re just trying to adjust to it at this point. There’s a lot of different rules we’re trying to adjust to as well.”

4. Finally, a positive for Dale Jr.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. hadn’t scored a top-10 finish since June 6 at Pocono. That was 10 straight races without a good result.

You could tell it had started to wear on him, even though he was trying to be as optimistic as possible — for both himself and his team.

So a fifth-place finish at Texas was a welcome development for both his points position (he moved from 25th to 20th) and his psyche (he moved from “upside down face” emoji to “grinning face with sweat drop” emoji).

“I was trying not to get frustrated, but you can only take so much,” Earnhardt said afterward.

Texas was both a physical and mental challenge for a driver who had only completed one 500-mile event since returning from his concussion.

His air conditioning blower didn’t work all day, so he had to run with his visor up for the entire race. Afterward, he was more gassed than I’ve seen him in a long time; he chugged portions of two water bottles and cradled the cold, wet towel around his neck like a kid with a blankie.

Earnhardt said it was on “the backside of the top 10” most uncomfortable races he’s had in the car, which is saying a lot considering he’s made 602 Cup starts.

And it was a challenge to stay in the game mentally as well.

“When you don’t do (500-mile races on a regular basis), your mind is not as mentally tough,” he said. “I felt it. This was a tough race for us — physically and mentally. It was good exercise. Hopefully it will help make us stronger.”

5. That’s four twos for the 42

Another day, another top-two finish for Kyle Larson. Larson has finished in the top two in five of the last six races; that’s a win and four second-place results.

“We thought we’d start the year off good,” Larson said. “I don’t think we thought we’d start the year off this good.”

It looks like Larson is going to be a fixture toward the top of the series point standings this season, because he certainly isn’t showing any signs of losing speed.

At this point, it’s clear Chip Ganassi Racing isn’t just having a cute little stretch of good races, where everyone gets excited and then it turns out to be a blip in a long season. No, Ganassi is definitely for real — and so is Larson.

That’s exciting for NASCAR, because there’s a new face contending every week; even more exciting that he’s only 24 years old.