Five thoughts after Sunday’s NASCAR playoff race at ISM Raceway…
1. Big stage is set
After all the crazy twists of these playoffs, NASCAR ended up with the best four drivers of the season going for the championship.
There are no flukes here. Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano and Martin Truex Jr. have the best average finishes of anyone in the Cup Series this season (in that order). In the traditional/non-playoff point standings, which are still kept by racing-reference.info, those four drivers are also tops in season-long points.
It’s a stout group, and you could make a case for any of them winning the title.
“This is the closest four that have been in our sport in a long time,” Busch said.
There are no newcomers among them, either. Each contender has been in the final four at least twice — even though this is only the fifth year of its existence. Logano is the least experienced of the contenders — and yet this is his 10th season.
“Three of us have won in the format and all four of us have lost in the format,” Busch said. “Overall, it just comes back to a lot of things having to go your way.”
So what’s going to happen at Homestead? Well, it would be a surprise if the drivers didn’t run 1-2-3-4 for much of the race, and maybe even finish that way.
Harvick though, remains the favorite. It’s a 1.5-mile track and he’s consistently been the fastest off the truck all year. Strange things can happen, as we saw at Phoenix, but the Fords are still better than the Toyotas on intermediate tracks.
So that said, my prediction for the finishing order of this year’s final four is: Harvick-Logano-Busch-Truex.
2. Playoff races raise the game
It’s OK to have a love/hate relationship with this playoff format. There are days when it seems far from the best way to decide an auto racing champion.
But Sunday was not one of those days. The playoff pressure absolutely elevated the Phoenix race and made it far more compelling than it may have been otherwise.
Look at how desperately Aric Almirola was driving at the end. Look at the decisions made by Kurt Busch and his team to try to preserve their points position over Harvick. The whole atmosphere and vibe of the race was dramatically enhanced by the playoffs, and it made for a highly entertaining day.
Yeah, it’s still weird to have one race at a given track decide the season-long winner. On the other hand, it gains credibility when the best drivers all advance — and the addition of playoff points have certainly helped.
“I think the format we have now is the absolutely best scenario we could have when you look at it for the entirety of the year,” Busch said.
3. Smoke’s thoughts
Tony Stewart had his hands full on Sunday. He knew it would be challenging for a team owner — that’s what happens when you have four teammates going for one spot. But he had to step into an extra role as well: Counselor.
As Kurt Busch was having a meltdown on the radio after a tough penalty took the race lead away and cost him a lap, Stewart intervened and told Busch to take a deep breath. After the race, Stewart consoled Busch with an embrace and words of encouragement — something Busch expressed gratitude for later.
It was if the current Stewart was talking to the racer Stewart from 10 years ago as the voice of reason.
“Scary, isn’t it?” Stewart told me after the race. “Got some experience in those situations. I think that helps, at least being in that position. (Kurt is) a good guy. He’s come a long way, but he still gets in those positions where the heat of battle takes over. It’s understandable. That’s why we do what we do.
“Can’t blame him for it. You just know everybody is going to hang on every word he says, so you just try to help him out more than anything. After his penalty, he did an awesome job of locking back in. He was running the leaders down from the back. Pretty proud of him.”
Overall, Stewart was unhappy about the race unfolded. He called it “chaotic” and indicated there were too many factors affecting such a big race.
What specifically stuck out?
“The scenarios and everything around it, drivers that shouldn’t even be in the Cup Series causing cautions, stupid stuff happening,” he said.
4. Harvick’s comeback
This will probably be lost to history, but let’s take a moment to appreciate Harvick’s remarkable feat at Phoenix.
After dominating the first stage, he had a tire go flat with two laps left in the stage and limped to pit road — which was actually fortunate timing, because the stage break saved him from going more laps down.
Then he fought his way to the free pass position — and got it — despite a damaged car. Later, his team used strategy to put him in a favorable spot to be in front of the late wreck that would have ended his playoff hopes — but instead helped him sail through on points as his competitors crashed.
Harvick downplayed it all afterward, saying it was “just another day.” He said his only thoughts were trying to get back to the pits instead of worrying about the championship.
But the survival and focus of his team to persevere through a day that could have been a heartbreaker is one to remember — especially if he ends up winning his second title next week.
5. What if?
An intriguing scenario popped up late in the race with Kyle Busch and Almirola restarting side-by-side. If Busch allowed Almirola to beat him on the restart — and potentially for the win — then it would have eliminated Harvick, who is clearly Busch’s biggest competitor for the title.
Busch said it crossed his mind, but never seriously. He wasn’t going to give up a win, even if it means Harvick would beat him next week.
“You always want to go up against the best of the best, and the strength of the season has been us three and the 22,” Busch said.
In addition, Busch said it wouldn’t have worked anyway. Had Almirola gotten by on the restart and Busch fallen in line, he predicted Brad Keselowski would have won instead.
“I don’t think the 10 was capable enough of being able to lead the race and not have somebody else pass him, know what I mean?” Busch said. “That would have been dumb.”
Crew chief Adam Stevens, though, seemed like he wouldn’t have been disappointed had it happened.
“It wouldn’t have upset me if it did happen, but we weren’t going to do anything to make it happen,” Stevens said.
I’m not at all saying Busch should have done it — no real racer would give up a win, and it also would have been a huge scandal for not letting the race play out — but it’s an interesting scenario that only pops up in NASCAR’s unique playoff format.