The Top Five: Breaking down the New Hampshire race

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

1. The heavyweight contenders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Finally, some points drama!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Hands off!

Thanks a lot, 24 team.

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

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

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

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

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

4. Goodbye, Loudon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. Common sense solutions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He laughed.

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

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

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

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

 

News Analysis: Chase Elliott docked 15 points, Alan Gustafson suspended for spoiler modification

What happened: Chase Elliott was penalized 15 points and crew chief Alan Gustafson and car chief Joshua Kirk were suspended for one race apiece — plus a $25,000 fine for Gustafson — after NASCAR ruled the No. 24 team illegally modified the spoiler at Chicagoland using tape. In addition, the race was ruled to be an encumbered finish — meaning Elliott will not get credit for the playoff point he earned at Chicago if he makes Round 2.

What it means: On Monday, several teams sent pictures and video around the industry of the No. 24 team appearing to have tape hanging off the spoiler and down the sides of the car. This photo evidence was sent to NASCAR and also ended up on Reddit, where it became public. It’s interesting the teams, who have photographers shooting high-resolution images of every car during the race, became sort of a second set of eyes for NASCAR after studying the pictures (Elliott had passed at-track inspection after the race). This shows if there’s a visible part of the car that is illegally modified, teams themselves are likely to catch it and report to NASCAR and/or the media in order to keep a level playing field for themselves. Ultimately, though, the penalty might not harm Elliott that much; he was a comfortable 33 points inside the cutoff, but now falls from sixth place to eight place — 18 points head of the final playoff spot for Round 2.

News value (scale of 1-10): Three. This isn’t very big in the grand scheme of things, but it’s newsworthy in the sense that the NASCAR community — namely the teams, but also Reddit by proxy — sniffed out an act of cheating.

Three questions: Teams privately have said the tape added a significant amount of downforce to the car, but how much of a difference did it really make? Is there any way this could actually cost Elliott in terms of making the next round? What else will the garage be able to find in future weeks by examining the photo evidence each team takes during races?

News Analysis: Denny Hamlin’s Darlington sweep ruled encumbered

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

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

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

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

Kyle Larson’s team keeps running afoul of NASCAR rules

Oh boy. Here we go again with Kyle Larson’s No. 42 team.

Two days after NASCAR slammed the 42 with a major penalty — a three-race crew chief suspension, $75,000 fine and 35-point deduction — Larson won the pole at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

At least for about 45 minutes. After Larson’s car went through post-qualifying inspection, NASCAR discovered the car’s rear decklid fin was unapproved. NASCAR indicated the fin was designed to move when it wasn’t supposed to be — and that’s a no-no, obviously.

That caused Larson’s pole-winning time to be disallowed, meaning he’ll start last for the second straight week. It’s starting to become a pattern.

At Kentucky, Larson couldn’t get through pre-qualifying inspection (for the third time this season) and never made it onto the track. Then his car had to make multiple attempts to get through pre-race inspection at Kentucky — something that resulted in a 30-minute penalty for Saturday’s final Cup Series practice at New Hampshire.

So yeah, it’s been a bit of a rough stretch for Larson’s team when it comes to dealing with NASCAR. Considering he said Friday he knows nothing about the race cars (he just drives), Larson must be wondering what’s going on.

As are we.

Has the team been doing things outside the rules all season and it’s just now catching up to them? Perhaps NASCAR is taking a closer look at a team whose performance has been the class of the field at times?

Larson was all smiles about his car on Friday after appearing to win his fourth pole position of the season.  His car was handling well and had excellent speed, and he was optimistic for a good race after leading practice and every round of qualifying.

But now his weekend just got a lot more difficult, and he’s going to have to pass a lot of cars to see the front on Sunday. Again.

News Analysis: Kyle Larson penalty costs him points lead

What happened: Kyle Larson’s team was hit with a significant penalty on Wednesday after NASCAR discovered an infraction during its post-race teardown following the Kentucky Speedway race. Larson crew chief Chad Johnston was suspended for three races and fined $75,000 while the team lost 35 points — this after NASCAR found the No. 42 team violated a rule that says: “Openings in the rear brake cooling hoses and/or tubes to exhaust air between the inlet and exhaust mounting points will not be permitted.”

What it means: Larson, who was up by one point over Martin Truex Jr. in the standings, is now 34 points out of the lead. That’s a big blow, because the regular season champion gets an additional 15 playoff points while second place gets 10. The difference between the two is the equivalent of a race win.

News value (scale of 1-10): Four. It’s noteworthy in that the penalty affects the regular season points battle, but there’s still enough time (eight races) for Larson to recover — especially with stage points in the mix. It would be a bigger deal if this occurred in the playoffs or if Larson had won the Kentucky race and the encumbered finish meant something.

Three questions: How much did this have to do with Larson’s impressive speed at Kentucky? If this was a performance advantage, will Larson now be slower in upcoming races? Will the points penalty itself turn out to play a role in the playoffs should Larson miss out on those five extra playoff points?

This image from the NASCAR rulebook depicts a proper rear brake cooling assembly. The infraction in question took place in the hoses shown in the upper right (I-2). (Screenshot from NASCAR rulebook)

News Analysis: Kyle Busch not penalized for Las Vegas fight

What happened: NASCAR’s penalty report from Las Vegas Motor Speedway contained no penalties of any kind for Kyle Busch, Joey Logano or any of their crew members following Sunday’s pit road fight.

What it means: Angry drivers are allowed to punch someone after a race, and NASCAR is going to embrace that emotion. If that seems like a change from recent years, welcome to the Monster Energy Era. Mixing it up on and off the track is exactly what the series sponsor wants, and apparently even fights are fair game. It’s nice to see NASCAR didn’t act in a hypocritical fashion and fine Busch while profiting from the publicity and using it to promote upcoming races.

News value (scale of 1-10): Six. It’s above average news for the reason it might set a new precedent for how NASCAR will react to such altercations.

Questions: How far can a driver go before getting penalized now? If Busch had injured Logano, would the situation be different? Should Busch get a gift card or something for all the attention he got for NASCAR this week?

Here’s a slo-mo version of the video if you want to break it down frame-by-frame: