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.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Chicago and Sonoma races

Five thoughts after NASCAR’s playoff opener at Chicago and the IndyCar season finale at Sonoma…

1. U-S-A, U-S-A!

In 2012, when Ryan Hunter-Reay became the first American to win an IndyCar title in six years, there was hope his victory would help lead to a revitalization of open-wheel racing in the United States.

That didn’t happen. Perhaps that was in part because IndyCar doesn’t make enough ripples in the national sports scene to have an impact, but it also may have been because Hunter-Reay wasn’t able to finish in the top five in points since.

So it’s with a note of caution here when we say Josef Newgarden really could be the next great hope for helping to rejuvenate American open-wheel racing — but only if everything falls into place over the next several years.

Even before he signed with Team Penske this season, Newgarden was a tremendously marketable young driver. He’s a 26-year-old from suburban Nashville with tons of charisma, talent and the face of a movie star. Now he’s a champion — thanks to a near-flawless weekend at Sonoma — with plenty of years ahead of him.

It might be a fallacy that a big-time American star would really boost IndyCar to the next level, but that’s often been a debate that doesn’t get a chance to get settled because there hasn’t really been one. This generation of IndyCar has been dominated by South Americans and Europeans, and the top American open-wheel talents have largely ended up getting funneled into the NASCAR pipeline (Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne, Kyle Larson, etc.).

Look, Newgarden is going to have to win a lot. He’s going to have to win more titles and an Indy 500 or two. But should Newgarden continue to shine, there’s a chance his visibility could rise on a national scale at the same time IndyCar does. And as the series champion, he’ll have more of a platform now to make an impact with sports fans.

“We don’t want a championship filled with just American drivers, but it’s important to have the best of America in it,” said Newgarden, who celebrated with an American flag draped around his shoulders. “We have to have the best from Europe and from anywhere overseas, because if it’s just Americans running, it wouldn’t mean anything. But certainly, having successful Americans is a big deal, too.”

2. Missed opportunity

This might anger all my new friends in IndyCar (seriously, everyone is so nice here!), but the Sonoma race didn’t do the series any favors in terms of winning over some NASCAR fans.

With the Chicagoland race serving as a lead-in on NBCSN, IndyCar had a golden opportunity to show stock car fans how compelling its brand of racing can be. Instead, Sonoma was a caution-free race with little drama — at least not the kind NASCAR fans are used to.

IndyCar fans probably love that, because they are fiercely proud of their purer brand of racing — no stages, no playoffs, no questionable cautions (even though they do have double points races and push to pass).

But here’s the thing: IndyCar needs to dip into the pool of NASCAR fans — present and former — to provide its best opportunity for growth. A mainstream sports fan is going to be harder for open-wheel racing to hook than a fan who is already predisposed to liking race cars.

I hope IndyCar continues to take steps toward being more and more relevant again in the sports world — and at the same time is able to coexist with NASCAR to have two very healthy forms of motorsport. Though their fans may argue (RIP my mentions this weekend), everyone still shares the common bond of being a race fan — which is becoming a rare breed these days.

3. Truex, again

Even when Martin Truex Jr. and his team screw up, like they did on Sunday, he still finds a way to win by more than seven seconds in a playoff race.

That’s a sobering fact for the competition, which looked like it might have a chance to beat Truex after he sped on pit road and later had to make an extra pit stop for missing lug nuts, which left him in 17th place.

The No. 78 car is so fast that it can overcome seemingly anything, though — at least if it happens early enough in the race — and Truex was back to the lead in plenty of time.

Truex now has 58 playoff points for Rounds 2 and 3, and the only realistic chance of beating him will come when the four contenders battle straight-up for the championship at Homestead.

In the meantime, expect a lot more races like Chicagoland in the coming weeks.

“We really don’t have any tracks I feel like we’re not good at,” Truex said. “It’s just being confident each and every week no matter where we’re going is the difference. We don’t have any big question marks on the schedule anymore.”

4. Keselowski’s great tweet

Brad Keselowski pissed off the Toyota NASCAR contingent this weekend with his tweet, but personally, I loved it.

People have been complaining lately that too many NASCAR storylines revolve around off-track issues. Well, guess what? This drama was about on-track stuff. It was about performance and rules and had everything to do with the playoffs.

That’s great! I mean, it resulted in Kyle Busch tweeting “STFU” with a crying emoji to another driver. Wild! NASCAR needs rivalries like this to add spice to the races.

Honestly, it’s great to see Busch and Keselowski not even pretending to be civil. All the drivers these days seem like they are way too tight, with the group text and drivers council and bike rides and wives/kids hanging out. It’s nice for them to get along, but it’s refreshing for everyone else when there’s some real sourness between two of the top competitors. It makes it more fun to watch.

And by the way, there was nothing wrong with what Keselowski tweeted. Politicking for manufacturer advantages has been a part of NASCAR for a long time, and that’s what he was obviously doing.

5. Burnout talk

OK, let’s have a chat about burnouts for a second. It seems like NASCAR race winners routinely destroy their cars on purpose these days — and not just in the name of celebration.

Today’s burnouts are intentionally designed to cause tire blowouts, which mess up the back of the car and make it harder for NASCAR to run the cars through post-race tech inspection.

A decade ago, drivers did kickass, smoky burnouts without blowing off the rear quarterpanels. But that’s not the case now. It seems like every winner does it, and some drivers (coughDennyHamlincough) have even tapped the wall in the process.

We know this makes a difference because cars can be illegal if they’re off a thousandth of an inch, and destroying part of the car removes that area from scrutiny. Fair or not, the appearance is not good.

NASCAR has indicated it does not want to step in and outlaw burnouts or institute a rule that limits them. After all, fans might complain that NASCAR officials are the fun police and they’re taking yet another enjoyable part away from the sport.

But drivers are smart enough to know how to do a burnout without shredding their tires. So perhaps in the interest of maintaining a level playing field for the playoffs, NASCAR should decide burnouts themselves are OK — but tire blowouts are not.

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.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Southern 500 at Darlington

Five thoughts after Sunday night’s Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway…

1. Denny’s Drive

Denny Hamlin sometimes seems like the forgotten Joe Gibbs Racing driver when compared to teammate Kyle Busch, who is constantly in the spotlight.

But Hamlin’s impressive weekend at Darlington might have been the best of his NASCAR career, and it reminded everyone how good he can be.

It looked like Hamlin had choked away a chance to win the Southern 500 when he missed pit road under the green flag late in the race — a mistake that cost him more than 10 seconds (he was 23 seconds behind the leaders when he came out of the pits).

From that point, though, the rally was on. Hamlin charged through the field and retook the lead with three laps to go when Martin Truex Jr. blew a tire.

The win will go down as one of Hamlin’s signature moments, and deservedly so. As good as he is at Darlington — his average finish here was the best among active drivers entering the race — Hamlin still had to execute an incredible comeback after his mistake.

“Denny is obviously a wheel man here,” crew chief Mike Wheeler said. “If you don’t win here with Denny, you probably didn’t have a good enough car.  Seeing him coming from 10 seconds back in one stint, I was really happy with that effort, and I knew we probably had the fastest car.”

2. Asphalt’s fault

Goodyear did a great job with the Darlington tire and deserves praise, but the tire wear that allowed Hamlin to tear his way up through the field — as others fell off the pace — was due to the track surface more than anything.

That’s really what it comes down to: Does the track surface wear and get abrasive after a repave, or does it act like Charlotte?

Darlington, despite being the closest track in proximity to Charlotte, has certainly aged much differently since being repaved. As such, tires make a massive difference — which truly makes it a throwback race to the times there were comers and goers throughout the course of a run.

Hamlin’s charge was the shining example, but don’t forget the end of Stage 1, either.

Truex tracked down Kyle Larson and caught him from several seconds back — something that never happens on 1.5-mile tracks where the tires don’t wear as quickly (if anything, clean air just allows the leader to drive away at those places).

But with tires making a difference, Truex made the pass at the line.

Great stuff. And it’s because of the surface — yet another reminder these tracks should hold off on repaves as long as possible.

3. Hot take?

I don’t share in the belief regular season champion Martin Truex Jr. is a lock for Homestead, even though he obviously has a great chance to get there after going into the playoffs with at least 52 points for each round.

Here’s the thing: Sure, he has a massive advantage over a driver like Jamie McMurray, who has zero playoff points. But the top contenders for the title — Truex’s primary competition like Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson — will enter the playoffs with well over 20 points.

So by the time Round 3 rolls around, Truex might have a 30-something point advantage on Busch and Larson — half a race — but not a full-race lead.

In that case, he’s a virtual guarantee to make Round 3. But after that, anything can happen, like if three different winners left only one spot on points, which could be a battle if Truex has problems.

Truex will be in my final four picks, of course. But let’s just pump the brakes on acting like he’s unstoppable or can’t get caught up in someone else’s wreck at Martinsville.

4. Come back, throwback!

Prior to the green flag, Motor Racing Network announcer Mike Bagley said I really should check out the view from the Earnhardt Towers suites in Turn 3 if I’d never seen that perspective before.

So I stood alongside Bagley as the field rode around behind a pace car and Richard Petty’s old No. 43 car — driven by Petty himself — on the parade laps. The pace car turned off its lights (the signal the race was about to go green), but then a funny thing happened: Petty didn’t get off the track.

I’m not sure if Petty just forgot when he was supposed to come to pit road or just chose to stay out for fun, but the result was NASCAR trying to communicate with The King — and methods included a black flag (how hilarious is that?) followed by pace car driver Brett Bodine emphatically waving Petty by, with his hand outside the window.

Finally, Petty got the hint.

On the team radios, drivers sounded tickled as spotters relayed why the race would be delayed one lap. NASCAR’s original seven-time champion wouldn’t get off the track to start Darlington’s throwback race. Ha!

I absolutely loved it and am still smiling about that as I type this. What else could sum up the throwback weekend so well than a Hall of Famer taking an extra moment in the spotlight after he and his colleagues were celebrated?

The “reunion” part of the throwback concept continues to build. It’s really turned into a Homecoming for old drivers — not just Hall of Famers, but anyone who used to be involved with NASCAR — and that’s a beautiful thing.

Although the throwback concept is planned out for upcoming years, the theme will change each time (the next two years are open to all years of NASCAR history). That should do enough to keep the weekend fresh, and I hope it becomes a permanent fixture that people won’t tire of.

5. Delusional Dale Jr. fans

Crew chief Greg Ives will be likely suspended for one race after the No. 88 team left two lug nuts loose on the right rear wheel during the final pit stop.

NASCAR pulled Earnhardt out of line at the end of pit road after spotting the loose lugs (Earnhardt was initially told there were four, not two) and the driver spent some time peering at the wheel with his crew.

“There was a real bad vibration on the last run, and there was a bunch of them loose on the right rear,” he told me. “They must have just had a screw-up. It’s nothing intentional. You wouldn’t want to leave four loose like that. I mean, they’re not even up on the wheel.”

Either way, two or more lug nuts means at least a one-race suspension (three or more is a three-race suspension), which means Ives won’t be at Richmond next week unless Hendrick Motorsports appeals the upcoming penalty.

Here’s the thing: Earnhardt fans on Twitter responded to this with not disappointment, but much rejoicing because they don’t like Ives. I don’t want to call out individuals and embed their tweets here, but more than a few fans seemed to think this would give Earnhardt a chance to turn things around next week.

Damn! Are you people serious?

Ives isn’t the problem — at least not the sole problem. It’s all of Hendrick Motorsports right now. Look at Darlington: After a glimmer of hope in practice, none of the team’s drivers ran very well all night or finished in the top 10 (Chase Elliott was 11th).

So you really think just because an engineer gets to be crew chief for a week that Earnhardt will suddenly find speed that the rest of the team doesn’t have?

C’mon. There will be no Richmond miracle, with or without Ives. It’s not the crew chief, it’s the cars in general.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Michigan race

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

1. Oh, that restart

Kyle Larson’s brilliance behind the wheel of a race car — it doesn’t matter what kind — is the sort of raw ability that every race fan can appreciate. And that was on display for all to see on Sunday.

Larson’s fourth-to-first move on the overtime restart — first slicing his way up the middle, then getting right to the bottom before anyone had time to really counter — was perhaps the best moment of his NASCAR career so far.

Today’s NASCAR is so much about the car and less about the driver, but Larson has shown several times how much the driver still matters. He is willing to try things others do not or cannot, and it provides for quite a show whether the attempt succeeds or fails.

This time, it worked — and Larson completed a week where he forced those who scoffed at his “last true racer” comment several months ago to wonder if maybe he was right.

2. Truex vs. Kyle

In the majority of races this season, the fastest cars have been either Truex or Kyle.

It’s just that the “Kyle” role has switched between Larson and Busch.

Larson was leading the points until he dropped off a cliff recently and tumbled to third with five finishes outside the top 20 in a seven-race stretch. It looked like he lost all his momentum as the Toyotas took over, but questions remained whether that was a product of losing his crew chief to a suspension.

That meant Michigan was going to be a huge test: Would Larson run well on a 2-mile track (a layout which has now generated all four of his career victories)? If not, that would seem to confirm his summer slump.

Apparently, things are just fine. Even though Larson didn’t have a dominant day, he was there at the end and figured out a way to win.

We’re back on the bandwagon now. Pencil him back in for the Final Four at Homestead, along with Truex, Busch and Jimmie Johnson.

3. Kenseth’s nightmare scenario

Matt Kenseth was in a lose-lose situation on the final restart that ended up with the lesser of two evils.

Going into overtime, Kenseth lined up third — on the inside of the second row — behind Erik Jones. His best shot would have been to push Jones on the restart and hope he could make it three-wide, but that could have resulted in a Jones victory.

And that was not going to be good for Kenseth. A new winner from below Kenseth’s spot in the points could have knocked him out of the playoffs (he’s currently holding on to the last spot). Plus, it would have meant helping Jones, the driver who is replacing Kenseth, get his first career win. That probably wouldn’t feel great.

I am not sure what happened and didn’t see any quotes from Kenseth after the race. But on the restart, Kenseth appeared to lay back and try to get a push from Chase Elliott (either that, or he spun his tires).

Ultimately, Kenseth ended up with a flat tire in the ensuing mess and finished 24th. He’s now 31 points ahead of Clint Bowyer for the final spot (see standings below) with three races to go.

The overtime finish cost Kenseth roughly 20 points, which is pretty painful in the battle for a playoff spot. But actually, that wasn’t the worst-case scenario. Because if Jones had won, Kenseth might not have had any points race to worry about at all.

4. Did you notice?

Chris Buescher is having a much better season this year than 2016, when he made the playoffs thanks to his rain-shortened Pocono win.

Buescher finished sixth at Michigan — his best finish of the year — and was right in the mix for a top five on the overtime restart. That was really impressive for a car that doesn’t typically contend there.

Overall, Buescher has improved his average finish from 26.1 to 20.7, already has as many lead-lap finishes as all of last year (11) and picked up his third top-10 of the season.

He’s not going to make the playoffs this season, but he’s trending in the right direction regardless.

5.  Uncertain futures

Bubba Wallace’s victory in the Truck Series race on Saturday was both a feel-good story and a frustrating reminder of the state of NASCAR.

Wallace has been sitting at home for a month, got into a truck for a one-off deal — and won. That’s great on the surface, because everyone watching probably went, “Yes! This will help his chances of getting a ride — and he deserves it.”

But will he get one? Despite being both talented and marketable, there’s no good news yet.

It’s the all-too-familiar problem of today’s NASCAR: Unless a driver personally has money — whether through family or a loyal sponsor — he can only hope the exact right opportunity at the exact right time magically comes his way.

I got another reminder of this on Sunday while watching the race with Gracin Raz (we recorded the post-race podcast, which you can find here). Raz finished fourth in K&N West Series points as an 18-year-old and then was fifth last year. Now 20, Raz has been forced to cut to a part-time schedule running a Late Model he and his dad work on in their garage.

We were chatting during the race and I was asking what the next steps are. The answers aren’t clear, but the solution is: Money. There’s not really much — if anything — Raz can do to jump in a car and prove himself, because that’s not what matters. It’s what money he can bring somewhere to get an opportunity.

Here’s a talented young driver who was just starting his career (and won a K&N West race in 2015), but there’s no pathway forward. The ladder to the top has broken rungs. The same can be said for Wallace, who waits in the same situation — just at a higher level.

It’s a sobering reminder: How many young drivers are there out there, scattered across the country, who could excel if they got the right opportunity?

Sadly, only a lucky few will ever find out — and that’s not healthy for a sport that should be built on the best talents.

———–

PLAYOFF PICTURE

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

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

Points Bubble with four races to go:

14. Chase Elliott +62

15. Jamie McMurray +52

16. Matt Kenseth +31

—-

17. Clint Bowyer -31

18. Joey Logano -98

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

The Top Five: Breaking down the Watkins Glen race

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

1. Total Toyotas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So is Truex a lock for Homestead?

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

2. Blink and you’ll miss it

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

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

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

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

A recap:

— At Sonoma, the final 55 laps were green.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

3. Brad and Kyle, Part 389

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Points battle blown open

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

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

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

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

5. Must-See TV

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

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

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

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

———–

PLAYOFF PICTURE

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

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

Points Bubble with four races to go:

14. Chase Elliott +39

15. Jamie McMurray +34

16. Matt Kenseth +28

—-

17. Clint Bowyer -28

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

The Top Five: Breaking down the 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)