The Top Five: Breaking down the Dover race

Five thoughts after Sunday’s playoff race at Dover International Speedway…

1. Learning from the best

Chase Elliott often beats himself up even after a good day, so coughing up a lead of more than four seconds over the final 60 laps left him understandably devastated.

After pulling onto pit road, Elliott took his helmet off and covered his face with his hands while sitting in his car. Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson quickly arrived in hopes of letting Elliott vent a few curse words without the cameras around, and the two chatted for several long minutes — though the seven-time champ acknowledged there was little he could say in the way of comfort.

Elliott, who now has five career runner-up finishes without a victory, said Busch “did a better job than I did” and cited his “lack of performance” and “failure” in executing.

It might be painful for Elliott fans to hear this, but he’s right: This is big-time auto racing, and Elliott didn’t deliver when it really counted. People can feel bad for him and tell him not to beat himself up so much — and he’s certainly a sympathetic figure after several heartbreaks. But the reality is he got schooled by the best in the game.

Johnson said he told Elliott the Dover race is typically won by sticking to the bottom of the track. That’s the case 95 percent of the time, Johnson said, and “lapped traffic probably played a bigger role in it than anything” for Elliott.

But that wasn’t the whole story. Because as the leader approached, Busch later said, Elliott needed to change his line.

“When you are Chase and you have been leading for that long and you’ve lost that amount of distance to the car behind you, you’ve got to move around,” Busch said in response to a question about what Elliott could have done differently. “You can’t give up four seconds of the lead and not do something else. I feel like that’s kind of where they lost it today.

“I don’t know if he was getting communication from his spotter or his crew chief or somebody just saying ‘Stick to the bottom, stick with what has got you to this point,’ but that was obviously bad advice. He should have moved around and searched for something and tried to pick off cars and traffic as quickly as possible.”

Again, we can all tiptoe around the facts because they’re uncomfortable and people want Elliott (who got some of the loudest cheers in driver introductions) to succeed and be a regular winner on the circuit. And he may very well become that, but races like Sunday will serve as painful lessons on his road to success.

“The best guys at these type of tracks aren’t scared to move around, even if they’re making decent lap time,” Busch crew chief Adam Stevens said. “You’re not going to pass the guy if you’re running in his tire tracks, so you have to be able to move and find something different.”

2. Don’t hate the player, hate the game

Speaking of lapped traffic, no one should be upset at Ryan Newman for holding up Elliott in the final laps. Newman was two points short of advancing to the next round and raced his guts out in an attempt to get in position to make up spots — should something happen in the final laps.

So expecting him to suddenly pay a courtesy to the leader in that situation, especially since Newman always races hard, just isn’t reasonable.

In that regard, Jeff Gordon’s comment to Newman after the race that resulted in a minor incident was unfortunate — but understandable given the emotion of the situation.

Gordon, despite being a FOX Sports broadcaster, is still heavily invested in Hendrick and the No. 24 team. So he apparently couldn’t help himself in the immediate aftermath of Elliott’s loss (Gordon said something sarcastic along the lines of “thanks for the help”).

Naturally, Newman didn’t appreciate the comment.

“You don’t think I was racing for my own position?” Newman said. “Just watch what you say, man.”

Gordon tried to defuse the situation by saying Newman took his words the wrong way.

“You said it as a smartass,” Newman said.

Newman was right to object to the statement, and I’m guessing Gordon felt bad. The two later made up in the garage, according to tweets from writer John Haverlin, so it’s just another moment that can be chalked up to the emotion of an elimination-style playoff.

3. Quick sand

What’s the fastest way to make up ground in a crucial playoff race? Well, one way is to stay out and hope for a fluke caution.

That’s what happened to Ricky Stenhouse Jr. during Stage 1. He was one of five cars that had yet to pit when Jeffrey Earnhardt spun out coming to Dover’s tricky pit road and nailed the sand barrels, causing a red flag.

That trapped all cars a lap down with the exception of those five — and it turned out to be a huge benefit for Stenhouse.

Just like that, Stenhouse went from seven points out of the cutoff line for Round 1 to more than 30 points in the clear. And by being able to having good track position for the rest of the stage, Stenhouse was able to finish fourth and gain seven stage points — something his rivals Austin Dillon and Newman weren’t able to get.

Ultimately, he advanced by less than the amount of those stage points — meaning that was a pivotal playoff moment.

“The feeling is lucky, really,” Stenhouse said.

He’s right, but in a survive-and-advance format, sometimes that can make all the difference.

By the way, Stenhouse’s good fortune could give him an opportunity that goes beyond just making it to Round 2. Talladega is the middle race of this round, and Stenhouse has won the most recent two plate races. What an upset it would be if he could be among the final eight drivers this season.

4. Saying goodbye

None of the four cars eliminated — Newman, Austin Dillon, Kasey Kahne or Kurt Busch — were serious title contenders, so their departure isn’t much of a surprise.

Even though the Richard Childress Racing cars finished ahead of them in the round, Kahne and Busch were probably the two who most people would have had advancing based on the strength of their teams. I actually predicted Kahne would make a mini playoff run after getting a fresh start following his Indy win, but it wasn’t to be.

Busch is probably the most puzzling of all. He started off by winning the Daytona 500 but never was much of a factor after that despite Stewart-Haas Racing having decent speed with Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer.

“Winning the Daytona 500, you always see the jinx that happens afterwards,” he said. “We experienced it. There’s a lot that goes on with it. My car never had the handle in it this year; I was always loose in, tight on exit.

“I don’t know why we had that so bad this year.”

It’s definitely weird and hard to explain, as Busch’s average finish declined from 12.0 last year to 16.2 so far this season.

5. Who’s the favorite?

Three Chevrolets and one Ford were eliminated from playoff contention, leaving each manufacturer with four cars remaining.

There are four Toyotas (Truex, Busch, Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth), four Chevrolets (Kyle Larson, Johnson, Elliott and Jamie McMurray) and four Fords (Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Stenhouse and Ryan Blaney).

Truex remains the favorite, of course, but Busch has now gained 10 playoff points on the No. 78 car in the last two races. He’s now just 18 behind, which could come into play if the teams have to race for the last spot in Round 3.

Honestly, it’s hard to predict and I’m just as unsure about who has the championship edge as I was when the playoffs started three weeks ago.

My pre-playoff picks included Truex, Busch, Larson and Hamlin — with Busch as the champ. So I guess I’ll stick with that for now, although it seems to be constantly changing.

“Week to week, you can probably change your favorite,” Busch said. “Early on the first third of the race, I probably would have said Larson is your new championship favorite. But you’ve got to let these things play out.

“I still think it’s 78, 18, 42 — and there’s different distances between us every week, depending on how we run and what all kind of goes on.”

There’s still so much left to be decided, and now it gets a bit more intense as Round 2 begins.

12 Questions with Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

The series of 12 Questions interviews continues this week with Ricky Stenhouse Jr., a two-time race winner this season for Roush Fenway Racing. I spoke with Stenhouse at Bristol Motor Speedway.

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

That’s a tough question. I think a lot of us feel like we got here on our natural ability, but a lot of hard work goes into that as well. Growing up racing sprint cars, I had to work on all my cars and do all the work with some buddies. When I got here to NASCAR, you try to refine and hit your marks and maybe get a little more patient. So I don’t know if there’s a percentage, but it definitely takes both.

2. Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and now Dale Earnhardt Jr. have all either retired in the last couple years or will retire soon. What’s your pitch for fans of theirs to become fans of yours?

I’m not really good at sales pitches. But I think right now we’re doing a good job at trying to get (Dale) Junior’s fans. Obviously, winning the superspeedways, Junior’s fans, I feel like he got a ton from his success on those, and he’s kind of got a big group of followers. So I’d like to snag a few.

But really, I just need to keep going out and getting us to perform better. I know that our best performances are still ahead of us. We’re still gaining on it, so I think if the fans want something to look forward to as we keep building, definitely come be a fan of ours.

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

The hardest part is really just managing time. We don’t get a whole lot of time at home. There’s things that we have to do for our job, but there’s things that we want to do for our fun time outside of it, and it tends to end up causing a lot of travel. Sometimes I think you just get run down. So really trying to manage all of that — like right now I’ve been home one night in three weeks, so I think it’s just trying to not run yourself down too much and manage that.

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

Yeah, I don’t mind at all. I think that’s cool, being recognized outside the racetrack. It’s funny, I got a lot of people coming up to me outside the racetrack at dinners and stuff, asking me if I did American Ninja Warrior. So that’s kind of cool. But yeah, just come on up.

So they recognize you from the show? They’re like, “Hey, aren’t you that guy?”

Yeah, and I told (Ryan) Blaney that — since he did it with me this year — and he’s said he’s gotten that a few times as well.

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

There’s teams that do a lot with a little — and you recognize it, people talk about it a few times throughout the year at superspeedways. There’s points in the weekend that a car that doesn’t have as much resources is able to go put some fast laps down for the equipment that they have. Not necessarily go to the top of the board or anything like that. But I feel like that happens quite often.

6. Who is the last driver you texted?

Last driver I texted? (Kyle) Larson.

You have golf game coming up or something?

No, we went to dinner last night. We went to play golf yesterday on our golf group (the Golf Guys Tour). Last night we got back and we were like, “We’re tired, let’s go to bed.” Then he texted me, “Hey, are you still gonna go eat?” And I was like, “Yeah, let’s go.” So we went and had some Mexican (food).

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

Yeah, I think we are entertainers. I think everybody in sports is here for entertainment. Is it circus entertainment? No, it’s competitive entertainment where a lot of fans enjoy what we do and the show that we put on, and we try to go out and do the best that we can for our fans and our sponsors. But really, we want this to be a good race, which will be a good show for people to watch.

It does seem like a circus sometimes, though.

(Smiles) Yeah, I wasn’t gonna say that, but it seems like a circus sometimes.

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

I may have done it one time. I get really mad if somebody does it to me — I feel like it’s kind of rude. Every now and then people will give a hand out of window and it’s like, “Oh, OK, they’re not super happy about that.” But the finger, I feel that’s a little far and I’ll try to run into them if they do it. So it really gets me kind of irritated.

So you’re not a finger-giver. Only one time.

Yeah, maybe once. Maybe. I’m saying maybe because I don’t recall. But yeah, I think it’s a little disrespectful.

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

One hundred percent. I think that’s really the key if you want some of your races to go smoothly. If somebody lets me by and I’m way faster, if that position gets reversed, I try to remember that so I can pay that favor back to them and you can kind of expect that a few times. It goes both ways, but I think it’s starting to get back around.

I feel like back in the day, that was kind of known to be the code. Now I think people are realizing that they can make it tougher on themselves if they want. 

So after Mark Martin left, it kind of went the other way and now it’s sort of getting back to being more respectful because the younger guys sort of figured things out, perhaps?

Yeah, I guess so. From the sounds of it, Mark was really good at really…I don’t know if you say “courteous” on the racetrack. But some of your fans don’t like (being respectful) and some of your teams don’t, so you gotta balance it. You can’t just let everybody go; you have to race. We’re out there to race. So you just pick and choose your battles: When do you think it will pay off better for you to let somebody go, or to really push it?

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

I don’t know. Probably Luke Bryan.

He’s pretty popular.

At that dinner, Pharrell stopped by. We didn’t technically have dinner with him, but he came by and hung out for a little while. That dinner was Blake Shelton, Luke Bryan, Pharrell stopped by and Little Big Town. It was a big group.

That’s a good dinner right there. That’s pretty epic.

Yeah, it was good. It’s fun sometimes. At the ESPYs you get a lot of good dinners as well — before Peyton (Manning’s) last year, we all had dinner. And there were also a lot of other people eating dinner — Blake Griffin, too.

You’ve had a better answer than a lot of the drivers this year.

Oh, that’s good. Yeah, Danica and I get to meet a lot of cool people.

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

Patience. I get a little irritated pretty quick. Even if it’s throughout practice and we make changes that don’t quite go the right way. I’ll come in and talk to (crew chief Brian) Pattie and he’ll say, “Look, we had to do that. That was on the list of things we needed to try.” And I’m like, “Well if you felt like it wouldn’t be better, we shouldn’t do it!” So I get a little frustrated pretty quick, but sometimes it’s better. Not all the time. (Smiles)

12. The last interview I did was with Chase Elliott.  His question was: How is your golf game, and are you expecting to win the Golf Guys championship this year?

Oh wow. (The Thursday before Bristol) my golf game was not good, but I’m sitting third in points, so I feel like I have a good opportunity to win our championship. I really want to. Denny (Hamlin, who founded the competition) won it last year and we say he makes all the rules, so it kind of worked in his favor. But he’s second in points right now, so it’s gonna be a good battle.

I’ve got to go work on my game. We’ve been really busy this whole year, so I haven’t been able to work on my game as much as I wanted to. But we’re running better over here, so that’s really what matters to me.

How many matches or rounds do you have left?

I believe four rounds. We do eight events. The points increase as we go the last two events or three events. You want to run second or third every event, so then you can win the points by a lot.

When you win, it puts you at deficit. I won one event so far, but you gotta get so many points based on your handicap. Well when you win an event, we always add two points to your points that you have to get, so it makes it difficult and challenging to keep scoring those points. So you want to come on a run right as the Tour Championship (is approaching).

I don’t know who the next driver is, but do you have a question I can ask another race car driver in general?

My question for any driver would be: What did they do on the off weekend? And if it was fun, why didn’t they invite me?

I mean, I got plans, but…

At least you could get the invite.

Yeah, I mean a little reach-out like, “Hey, we’re doing this. Do you want to come?” That would be cool.

This interview was brought to you by Dover International Speedway. The cutoff race for the first playoff round takes place at Dover on Oct. 1. Here’s a link to buy tickets (and make sure to come say hi at the tweetup).

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.

Someone at FOX Sports has big balls

Television broadcasting is hard. REALLY hard.

The professionals make it look easy, but it takes true talent to be able to think of something, make that something come out of your mouth without tripping over your words and then actually provide insight — all while some producer is giving instructions in your earpiece.

So when FOX Sports turns over its entire Xfinity Series broadcast at Pocono to a bunch of amateurs, it’s going to be must-see TV.

Now, these aren’t just any amateurs — they’re experts in their field — but FOX’s concept is a fascinating experiment. From the booth to pit road to the Hollywood Hotel, all of the “talent” will be active Cup drivers.

These drivers all have experience in front of the camera, which definitely makes a difference. It’s not like they’re going to be blankly staring into your TV.

But still, they’re going to struggle with all the things required of a professional. Getting to a commercial without leaving too much dead air? Throwing from one reporter to another on pit road? Setting up a replay?

It could be a total mess. Or it could be one of the best and most enjoyable broadcasts in years.

Either way, you sort of have to tune in, right?

It’s fun to picture Kevin Harvick as a play-by-play guy, trying to wrangle Clint Bowyer and Joey Logano as analysts. Then there will be Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ryan Blaney and Erik Jones trying to describe pit stops and interview wrecked drivers. And Danica Patrick and Denny Hamlin will make small talk in the Hollywood Hotel while keeping the show moving.

That’s the plan, anyway. How exactly is this all going to work? I’m as curious as anyone — and I can’t wait to see what happens. My guess is a lot of viewers feel the same way.

So nice move, FOX. We’ll be watching.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Talladega NASCAR race

Five thoughts on Sunday’s NASCAR race at Talladega Superspeedway…

1. First-time winner, but no fluke

Both of this year’s restrictor-plate races have been won by drivers who had never won on a plate track before (or anywhere, in Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s case).

That’s surprising in a time where the current plate package seemed to favor a few drivers who had perfected how to manipulate the draft once they got a lead: Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, Dale Earnhardt Jr., to name a few.

Kyle Busch is one of the good ones, too — but he seemed to get snookered by Stenhouse in overtime.

So what the heck happened?

When Stenhouse moved up to block Kasey Kahne’s run on the top side, Busch moved up to block Stenhouse — expecting to take away his momentum or at least get a shove.

And actually, Busch got what he wanted: A shot from behind. But to his surprise, it didn’t advance him.

“He got to my back bumper and actually hit me, and I thought that was going to shoot me forward,” Busch said. “He just turned left and passed me after hitting me. So, pretty impressive.”

Busch wasn’t being sarcastic; he meant it. It was impressive, and he repeated the term later in a second interview. Stenhouse deserved to win this race.

There have been fluky winners on restrictor-plate races throughout history, but Stenhouse isn’t one of them. For one thing, he started from the pole — which means Roush Fenway Racing built a very fast speedway car. And Talladega is also tied with Bristol for Stenhouse’s best track — he has a 10.4 average finish at both.

Look, it’s hard to read too much into any plate victory, because nothing translates to a “real racetrack” (as Busch put it Sunday).

But Roush Fenway really does seem to have something good going on this season. Stenhouse is now in the playoffs (wow!) and Trevor Bayne would also be in if it started today (he’s 16th in the standings).

Clearly, there’s been a lot of improvement over the offseason for a team whose three cars finished 21st, 22nd and 23rd in the point standings last season.

“(Over) the offseason, the whole attitude at our shop changed, and the people in each department were putting in more hours and working harder to make sure we started the season as best we could,” Stenhouse said. “We started a little stronger than we thought we would, but then we’ve also continued to make gains and continued to up our performance.”

2. The joy of winning

I’m sure this story is going to be everywhere, but this still deserves mention because, well, it’s completely awesome.

Apparently, Ricky Stenhouse Sr. was briefly detained by track security after the race while trying to get to victory lane and celebrate with his son.

Here’s the story, as told by Talladega public relations chief Russell Branham:

He was extremely excited about his son winning today, and naturally so. He was actually perched on the back straightaway up top the Alabama Gang Superstretch in an RV.

His son wins the race, he goes down, he tries to find a way to get across the track. He tried to climb the fence, found out he couldn’t. He begins running down outside of the perimeter road of Turn 3 outside the venue. He wants to go through the tunnel and get in here.

Our (security) guys saw it. Naturally, they stopped him, asked him who he was, said, ‘Would you get in the car?’ They placed him in the car, talked to him, they said, ‘Who are you?’

He said, ‘I’m Ricky Stenhouse’s father.’ (They said) ‘Hold on one second, sir. Let me call the director of security.’ Called our security, and our security guy said, ‘Take him to victory lane,’ and that’s what happened.

Seriously, how great is that? Even better is Stenhouse Jr. actually figured his dad would try to climb the fence (he did it before at Kentucky) and looked for Stenhouse Sr. when he came around on the cool-down lap.

“I went down the back straightaway after the race was over and looked up to see if he was there, but I didn’t see him,” Stenhouse Jr. said. “My dad has done so much for me in my career. … Everything that I know about racing I learned from him, and I’m glad that he was able to be here in victory lane.”

3. What’s up with Dale Jr.?

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was as discouraged as I’ve seen him in quite awhile following his 22nd-place finish.

Earnhardt, frustratingly to himself and his fans, wasn’t a factor all day after starting second. He scored no stage points — at a place where he’s normally toward the front — and failed to lead a lap at Talladega for only the fifth time in 34 career starts (and second time in a row).

The loose wheel at the end of the race ruined his shot at a good day, but the No. 88 car wasn’t a player anyway. So what gives?

Well, Earnhardt said he hasn’t loved this rules package at plate races after a horsepower change at the start of last season.

“When they changed the motor after (2015), it took a lot of the speed out of the cars as far as how they create runs and maintain runs and how you can put together passes and do things on the track,” he said. “Now everybody is just stuck side-by-side. If you aren’t in the first or second row, you really are just kind of riding behind those guys with nowhere really to go. You can’t do much about it, because the cars don’t create the runs like they used to.”

That makes sense if you look at the results. In 2015, Earnhardt finished third, first, first and second at the four plate races.

Since then, he’s finished 36th, 40th, 21st, 37th and 22nd.

“I’d change a few things if I was the king of this deal,” he said. “But as long as the fans enjoyed the show, we’ll keep going down the road with what we’ve got.”

If that’s the case, it doesn’t sound like winning one of his remaining two plate races is as great of a chance as it once was.

4. Air AJ

Airborne cars scare the crap out of me, but AJ Allmendinger played it pretty cool after he landed on his roof on Sunday. Allmendinger even joked he had a “nice flight” during the Big One.

“It’s better than some of the flights we take back home,” he said.

But what wasn’t as fun was hanging upside down in his No. 47 car as fluids leaked and Allmendinger waited for the safety crew to flip him back onto his wheels.

“Get me the hell back over,” he thought.

Allmendinger acknowledged he was worried the car would catch on fire, but said the key was to not panic. And he was reassured by the safety team’s rapid response.

“If they weren’t there that quick, I might have thought of trying to slide out,” he said. “But it kind of rolled over onto the window, so there wasn’t a lot of room that I was going to get out.”

Plus, he said, he didn’t want to loosen his belts and take another hit to the head, even though he joked “there’s not much in there to be that worried about.”

5. Snap away

NASCAR was featured as one of Snapchat’s Live Stories on Sunday and even had a new lens which could alter people’s faces.

But many fans were unable to use it due to the terrible cell phone reception at the track. Ugh. What a giant missed opportunity.

Granted, I still have Sprint, so maybe I just have a bad network. Some people had a signal (one of my friends has T-Mobile and said his worked). But I saw plenty of chatter from other people who had similar problems.

Talladega is in a relatively rural area, so you wouldn’t expect it would normally have decent cell service. And when about 70,000 people show up for a race, it certainly gets a lot worse.

But we live in an era where people want to share all their experiences via social media They want to show their friends where they are and what they’re doing. That’s basically free advertising for NASCAR! If fans can’t get any sort of cell service, though, a lot of that gets lost.

I don’t know what phone companies charge to bring in portable cell phone towers, but tracks need to figure out how to make it happen. Clearly, there isn’t a large-scale move to invest in wifi (though Daytona did it), so there needs to be another solution. Speedway Motorsports Inc. tracks have some sort of Verizon technology, but what about those of us who don’t have that carrier?

The whole NASCAR industry would benefit from better cell service at the tracks. This needs to be a very high priority on the list of fan amenities.