The Top Five: Breaking down the Martinsville race

Five thoughts after Sunday’s insane playoff race at Martinsville Speedway…

1. Fair game?

Denny Hamlin is now Public Enemy No. 1 in NASCAR for the rest of this season after wrecking the popular Chase Elliott out of the lead at Martinsville. The fans booed him vociferously after his image appeared on the screen following the race, then cheered loudly when Elliott’s face popped up instead.

Before we go any further, it’s important to remember these incidents are often viewed through a different lens depending on which drivers are involved. If Kyle Busch got wrecked, for example, many fans wouldn’t feel as angry as they do now.

But the very worthy debate in the aftermath (tune in to Sirius/XM this week if you want your fill!) will be whether what Hamlin did was fair game.

Do you think it was? If so, do you feel the same about what Elliott did to Brad Keselowski just moments earlier?

No? Well, here’s the thing. Both drivers were likely attempting to do the same thing. I say “likely” because Hamlin insisted afterward he was not trying to wreck Elliott — he was trying to move him up the track, just like Elliott did to Keselowski — and I’m leaning toward believing him.

Was Hamlin guilty of poor execution? Indeed. But I’d imagine it’s a very fine line when a driver tries to move someone out of the way and ends up turning them instead.

Here’s the thing, though. Even if Hamlin wasn’t telling the truth (I’m sure he wouldn’t have minded that much if Elliott’s spin resulted in Hamlin winning the race and going to Homestead), isn’t that just part of the playoffs?

After all, this is the situation all drivers find themselves in! This is exactly what NASCAR wanted when it created the elimination playoff format.

Winning is everything! Game 7 moments! No more talk about “good points days.”

So aren’t drivers sort of supposed to do whatever they can to win in that situation?

People will say, “Well it doesn’t take any talent to wreck someone for the win.” Very true! And it’s not classy or sportsmanlike or anything like that.

Buuuuut…if wrecking someone for the win gets you to the championship, isn’t it worth it?

That’s up to each driver’s personal code, but they can probably live with the boos and the bad publicity for awhile if they end up with the trophy in the end. Elliott himself almost wrecked Keselowski in the same way Hamlin got him — and would you have blamed Elliott?

Look, NASCAR has changed. This format rewards dirty racing over clean racing. It just does. So whether or not Hamlin meant to outright wreck Elliott or just move him out of the way, would you honestly do it differently if you had the chance?

2. Busch is Back

Remember when Kyle Busch couldn’t win a race in the playoffs? Those pre-2015 days are a distant memory now, because Busch is back in the championship race and a serious threat to win another title.

When Busch is on the ropes, like he was heading into the elimination race of Round 2, and escapes? That’s incredibly dangerous for the rest of the field. You can’t give Busch a second life like that. Now, just a week later, he’s already capitalized by putting himself into the final four.

That’s really bad news for the rest of the field.

3. Second-guessing, Part I

This is professional sports, so unfortunately that comes with some second-guessing. In this case, it’s worth wondering if Keselowski made the wrong move by picking the outside line on what looked like would be the final restart.

Yes, Keselowski made that move work earlier in the race by beating teammate Joey Logano down the backstretch. But did Keselowski out-think himself in this case?

In a moment with everything on the line at Martinsville, Keselowski opened the door for Elliott to run side by side with him — which turned out to be an invitation for a hungry young driver to knock him up the track. If Keselowski had been on the inside, would that have happened?

4. Second-guessing, Part II

Speaking of Team Penske-related second-guesses, driver/PR guy Ryan Ellis brought up a great point on Twitter: Why in the world didn’t Penske have Joey Logano pit with his severe tire rub?

Think about it: With smoke billowing out of the rear tire after contact from Busch, it was only a matter of the time before the tire blew. Everyone at Martinsville and watching on TV could see that.

But at that moment, Keselowski was leading the race and en route to a victory he had called a must-win after Talladega. So why not have Logano pit and change the tire? It’s not like Logano was racing for anything but a win, the chances of which had severely been diminished.

5. How great is Martinsville?

There’s so much more to talk about after this race, and that’s because of Martinsville. God, I love this place so much.

Seriously, this is the best track in NASCAR. It always comes through with some sort of excitement. And it’s not just about the wrecks; the entire race was very compelling with close-quarters racing and drama.

It’s such a crime NASCAR doesn’t have more short tracks. It hurts to think how much different NASCAR would be today if all the 1.5-mile tracks were short tracks and the intermediate track racing was the style we only saw a few times a year.

Maybe those track owners considering converting their boring 1.5-mile tracks into rovals should find a way to build short tracks in their infields instead.

 

NASCAR Playoff Rules, explained

NASCAR changed its Chase — er, playoffs — format again this year, so don’t feel bad if you’re not an expert on the all the rules yet.

Some of you might be embarrassed to ask questions on Twitter or admit you don’t understand what can be a confusing system. If so, that’s OK! Hopefully this will help.

Here’s a quick primer on the playoff format this year:

Overall, the format hasn’t changed much. Just like the previous two seasons, there are three rounds and a championship race. Four drivers are eliminated after each round, so the playoff field will be whittled from 16 to 12 to eight to four over the course of the first nine weeks.

— In another carryover from the previous format, a race win by a playoff driver will advance that driver into the next round. Even though “playoff points” have been a big talking point this year, it’s still win-and-in for each round. Then the remaining spots will be filled by non-winners based on points.

— Speaking of playoff points, those represent the biggest and most important change from the previous system. Drivers collected playoff points all season (one point for a stage win and five points for a race win, plus bonus points based on finishing in the top 10 of the regular season standings). Now that the playoffs have begun, drivers will start each round with that amount of points as long as they’re still in the competition.

Let’s pause to take a quick look at how many points each driver has heading into Chicago:

  1. Martin Truex Jr. — 53
  2. Kyle Larson — 33
  3. Kyle Busch — 29
  4. Brad Keselowski — 19
  5. Jimmie Johnson — 17
  6. Kevin Harvick — 15
  7. Denny Hamlin — 13
  8. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — 10
  9. Ryan Blaney — 8
  10. Chase Elliott — 6
  11. Ryan Newman — 5
  12. Kurt Busch — 5
  13. Kasey Kahne — 5
  14. Austin Dillon — 5
  15. Matt Kenseth — 5
  16. Jamie McMurray — 3

— It’s important to remember drivers can continue to add to their playoff points in each round. So if Truex wins two stages at Chicagoland, he will start Round 2 with 55 points instead of 53. It doesn’t matter whether he “uses them up” or not; they will be there to start the round if he’s still in the playoffs.

— Of course, the rules for the championship race at Homestead are different. That race is still a winner-take-all, no-points event for the final four drivers. Yeah, there will still be stages at Homestead, but they don’t matter for the final four drivers (they’re just for drivers still battling for fifth in the point standings). So even though Truex has a ton of playoff points, that won’t matter in the final race. It might help him get there, but it won’t help him win the title.

— A question I’ve seen a lot on Twitter this week is what happens if a race winner — or the champion — has an encumbered finish in an elimination race? Technically, NASCAR would have to change the outcome of the round (somewhat likely) or the championship (very unlikely). NASCAR would disagree with this, but if the championship car was found to be illegal several days later, I don’t think we’d ever hear about it. Officials do not want to strip the title and award it to someone else days after the race has already concluded.

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 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.

Thoughts on New Hampshire losing a race

In the brief time since it was made official this afternoon that New Hampshire Motor Speedway is losing its September race to Las Vegas Motor Speedway in 2018, I’ve seen plenty of NASCAR fans grumbling on Twitter about the loss of a short track and the addition of another cookie cutter 1.5-mile track.

Usually I’d be right there with them (More short tracks!!!) but not in the case of New Hampshire. The truth is NHMS is not a very exciting track for stock cars.

When is the last great NHMS Cup race you’ve seen? I asked myself that as well, and I can’t remember one. The common refrain during New Hampshire weekend is the Modified race is the best event at the track, and that’s true — not only because it’s a good race, but because the Cup race is usually a bad one.

Last year, both New Hampshire races rated in the bottom seven points races of my weekly “Was it a good race?” Twitter poll. And that’s where they should have been, because they weren’t very good races.

Let’s just be honest here: As much as cookie cutter tracks are boring, Las Vegas had a better race than NHMS last year (71 percent of people liked that race as opposed to 50 percent and 48 percent for the two New Hampshire races, respectively). If you want to call NHMS a short track because it’s only 1 mile, then I guess that’s fine — but it certainly doesn’t race like one.

Plus, it’s not like NASCAR isn’t going there at all anymore — just one less time. Seriously, did NASCAR really need to visit New Hampshire twice in 10 weeks every year? I don’t think so.

Look, it would suck if this was going to add another 1.5-mile track to the playoffs and the overall schedule, but it’s not. As Nate Ryan reported yesterday, they’re likely going to take the Charlotte fall race and run it on the infield road course.

So what is NASCAR really trading here? The actual swap is a ho-hum flat track race in exchange for a road race — in the playoffs!

What’s so wrong with that?