The Top Five: Breaking down the Bristol Night Race

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

1. Kyle Busch drinks his haters’ tears

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

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

So then the fan gave him a double bird.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Yes, he’s that damn good

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Erik Jones making big gains

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

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

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

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

4. More frustration for Dale Jr.

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

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

Goosebumps.

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. Two to go!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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PLAYOFF PICTURE

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

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

Points Bubble with two races to go:

14. Chase Elliott +69

15. Matt Kenseth +61

16. Jamie McMurray +58

‚ÄĒ-

17. Clint Bowyer -58

(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‚Äôt 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

‚ÄĒ-

17. Clint Bowyer -28

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

The Top Five: Breaking down the Daytona race

Five thoughts after Saturday night’s Coke Zero 400¬†at Daytona International Speedway…

1. Stenhouse, repeated

As the field¬†lined up for the overtime restart on Saturday night, only one driver in the top nine already had a win this season. So surely, there was going to be a new winner and throw yet another wrinkle into this year’s unpredictable playoff picture.

Nooooope!¬†That one¬†previous winner in the top nine — Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — used a run on the bottom to blow past David Ragan as the No. 38 car left the door open, then sailed through what was a relatively calm final lap (at least compared to the rest of the race).

Stenhouse has apparently gotten pretty good at this plate racing thing, which is weird to say. As recently as the first stage of the Talladega race, Stenhouse looked like a weapon. Then he ended up winning that race.

And Talladega wasn’t a fluke, because he led four different times at Daytona before securing his second career victory and second straight plate win.

Yes, Saturday was definitely a race of survival where the best cars were taken out. But you can’t use that as an argument to take anything away from Stenhouse, because when it was Big Boy Time, he put himself in position to win and executed in the end. Again.

“He’s learned a lot,” runner-up Clint Bowyer said. “He’s become a good plate racer. I remember when he came in, he was a little bit chaotic, but he’s not now. He’s got it figured out, and he’s won two of them.”

2. What might have been

Stenhouse was a nice story because he hasn’t won very much, but¬†his presence in victory lane oddly felt like¬†a letdown because of all the potential new winners late in the race.

Ragan¬†or Michael McDowell would have been major¬†stories for NASCAR, with¬†underdog teams launching themselves into the playoffs at a to-be-determined star driver’s expense.

Or a Bowyer win would have triggered¬†a major victory party that would have rolled on until the sun came up — and it would have been good for NASCAR fans to see him¬†win again.

Or maybe the dawn of the new Young Guns could take another step with an unexpected victor. Rookies Ty Dillon and Daniel Suarez had shots to win and ultimately got shuffled back, as did Bubba Wallace (how huge would that have been for NASCAR to have an exciting young talent win in the No. 43 car on July 4th weekend?).

Anyway, you get the point. But one reason it didn’t happen is because the inexperienced drivers made moves that either didn’t work or were incorrect.

Take Dillon, for example. Dillon sought out Bowyer for a conversation after the race on pit road because he was unsure if he did the right thing by pulling out of line to try and go for the win (no one went with him and he got shuffled back to 16th).

Could he have done anything different? Ultimately, Bowyer told him there was no right answer.

“I’m kicking myself, because the finish doesn’t show what we’re capable of,” Dillon said. “But I think I’d be more disappointed just sitting there riding and not making something happen. I’m a go-getter. My personality might have gotten us a bad finish, but it also got us up toward the front.”

Suarez got stuck in the bottom lane on the last two restarts and called it “bad luck.” But there was also an element of inexperience that played a role.

“I’m still learning, so I don’t really know how aggressive you need to be to win these races,” he told me. “So maybe I have to push a little bit harder.”

Ragan, of course, has plenty of plate experience and just didn’t realize Stenhouse had that big of a run coming on the bottom (he was more concerned with trying to protect the top). He was disappointed, of course, but it won’t be the worst thing he’s experienced.

“Hey, I lost a Daytona 500 down here,” he said. “Losing a Coke Zero 400 — that ain’t nothin’.”

3. Wreckfest!

The wild race included 14 cautions, which is a record for the summer race¬†and the second-most of any Daytona race ever — including all of the Daytona 500s except for 2011 (16 cautions). That’s saying a lot, considering there were¬†100 fewer miles for something to happen.

Of course, two of those cautions were for stages. But that’s still 12 cautions, and for all the chaos over the years, there have only been double-digit cautions at Daytona 10 times in 141 races here.

What happened? Well, Brad Keselowski tweeted a theory. He said it had something to do with a softer tire brought by Goodyear.

It certainly¬†had an unusual feel, even for a plate race.¬†Aggression really seemed to pay off in a big way (look at McDowell, who drew drivers’ ire with his moves but ended up with a career-best fourth-place finish).

“You’ve got to block hard, you’ve got to cut people off, you’ve got to push hard, you’ve got to stick your nose in there where it doesn’t belong — all the things that you know are capable of disaster,” Bowyer said. “But if you don’t, the next guy is going to, and nine times out of 10, it works. That’s just the nature of the beast.”

4. Dammit, Dale

Beat-up cars can end up winning plate races depending on the circumstances, so when Dale Earnhardt Jr. rallied from two laps down and got himself back into the top 10, I was starting to wonder if we were witnessing an Earnhardt Miracle.

But that thought didn’t last long, since Kevin Harvick had a flat tire and spun in front of Earnhardt. That’s a shame, since Earnhardt fans were really craving a win and felt Daytona might have been their driver’s last, best chance to do so before the playoffs.

So now what? Well, there are nine races left for Earnhardt to win and make the playoffs (it’s not happening on points). In theory, he’s got a shot at places like Pocono and Michigan, where he’s run well and won before. But time is starting to run out, and it’s a very real possibility fans won’t get to see Earnhardt get that feel-good victory¬†like Tony Stewart or Jeff Gordon had in their final seasons.

That shows two things: First, it’s a reminder of how hard it is to win any race in NASCAR (which should give us more of an appreciation for those who win often). Second, that should permanently put to rest any dumb conspiracy theories¬†of NASCAR being rigged — because you know execs would love nothing more to have Earnhardt as part of the playoffs.

5. What’s the point?

Earnhardt isn’t the only one with playoff worries. Joey Logano’s encumbered win looms bigger and bigger every week.

There have been 10 different winners with non-penalized wins, which leaves six playoff spots open. Those currently belong to Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, Jamie McMurray, Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer and Matt Kenseth. Logano, who finished 35th after crashing, is currently out by three points.

Logano will probably rally points-wise, but if one more new driver wins who is below him¬†in the standings¬†— say AJ Allmendinger at Watkins Glen, for example — Logano might actually miss the playoffs. That seems inconceivable given how good that team is, but it’s possible.

Of course, Logano could¬†put all this to rest sometime in the next few weeks with a win, but it’s certainly an interesting development to watch — particularly because he’s 12th in the standings, and you don’t typically see drivers that high up miss the playoffs.