Lapped cars part of racing, but how much courtesy should they give?

Three cars in Saturday’s practice sessions were at least 1.5 seconds off the pace, meaning the leaders should reach them — and start lapping them — within the first 20 laps on Sunday in Phoenix.

It certainly won’t be the only time those cars are lapped, as drivers were reminded again last week at Las Vegas. Reed Sorenson, driving for Spire Motorsports, finished 15 laps down. Cody Shane Ware, driving for Rick Ware Racing, was 14 laps down.

Both cars were running at the finish and were not involved in any incidents, meaning they simply had much slower cars than most of the field.

Sunday’s race will see more of the same, except on a smaller, narrower track than Vegas. The cars of Ware, RWR teammate Bayley Currey and Quin Houff (Spire) all look slow — with Currey and Houff making their first career Cup starts.

Lapped cars have caused some frustration that has bubbled up in different ways for contending drivers of late, and Phoenix might only increase that sentiment.

“Have you been listening to our radios the last couple weeks?” Aric Almirola joked.

First and foremost, drivers say they simply want lapped cars to be respectful and get out of the way — a command the flagman expresses at tracks all over the country via the “move over” flag.

NASCAR has a move over flag, but Almirola noted it’s not even necessary because the lapped cars all have spotters.

“You have a spotter telling you, ‘Hey, the leaders are catching you again and the guy that’s catching you has been running the bottom the last five laps.’ (So) give him that lane,” Almirola said. “I realize they’re here with just as much equal right to the racetrack, but it’s just a common courtesy…and those guys are multiple, multiple laps down and not really going to change their position one way or the other.”

William Byron said lapped cars need to look in their mirrors and see where the faster cars are running — “just like driving on the highway,” he said.

“Honestly, it’s not just enough to say ‘Run the bottom every time’ because I might be running the top at a certain racetrack, and if you come up and block that, you’re completely killing the run,” he said. “You’ve got to constantly adapt. … But you’ve got to be predictable.”

One problem is how the slower cars get out of the way is up for debate. Though Almirola and Byron want the lapped cars to be aware of the faster cars’ preference for top or bottom groove, Denny Hamlin said that could cause other issues.

“As long as a lapped car, especially one that is off the pace, decides that, ‘OK, everyone is going run below me,’ I think that’s fine,” Hamlin said. “It’s when you get the ones that actually have great intentions of letting (someone go by saying) ‘OK, this guy has been running here, I’ll let him have the bottom’ and ‘This guy has been running the top, let me move down’ – that’s where things kind of get bad.

“It ends up being a moving target and you don’t really know where they are. As long as they pick one side or the other and they want to let the field go, it’s good.”

Ryan Newman said he doesn’t care where the lapped cars go — as long as they get out of the way. But he also noted drivers in every form of racing have to deal with slower cars.

“At some point you’re going to be in the way and you just hope it doesn’t adversely affect somebody else’s race, but in the end, that’s part of it,” he said. “… Everybody has to work around those cars, whether it’s the first, second, third or 20th-place car. So how you use them or how they affect your race is a part of racing.”

But Alex Bowman said he takes a different view, having driven a slower car in the past during his days at Tommy Baldwin Racing. Bowman said he was “way more stressed out doing that stuff than I am today (driving for Hendrick Motorsports)” because drivers in the back are trying to balance staying out of the way with trying to get the best finish possible.

“Really all you can ask is for a guy to do the same thing every time so you at least know what to expect when you get there and do the same thing for everybody,” Bowman said. “Their job is honestly, technically, probably harder than our job. The race car is driving worse, so I don’t really think they get enough credit. They get talked crap about and kind of put down sometimes in situations that it’s really not completely their fault.”

12 Questions with Aric Almirola (2019)

The 12 Questions series of interviews continues this week with Aric Almirola of Stewart-Haas Racing. These interviews are recorded as a podcast but also transcribed for those who prefer to read.

1. Are you an iPhone person or an Android person, and why?

iPhone. Simply because from the very beginning, I had an iPod and I liked it, so then I got the iPhone because I already had an iTunes account so I could have the music on my iPhone. And then once you have an iPhone, you’re kind of stuck.

Like once you go down that path, I’ve switched everything. I’ve got Apple iPad for the plane, I’ve got a Mac at home. It just makes everything a lot easier.

2. If a fan meets you in the garage, they might only have a brief moment with you. So between an autograph, a selfie or quick comment, what is your advice on the best way to maximize that interaction?

It’s tricky because there are different times throughout the year and different days of the weekend that the drivers are a little bit less stressed and a little bit less in a hurry to get to wherever they’re going. If you find them in that moment, the driver will most likely chat you up, will sign an autograph for you, will take the time to take a picture for you.

But then if you catch a driver walking out to his car for qualifying or you catch him walking out to the car for pre-race or anything like that, that guy is intensely focused in that moment. Like you’d never ever get access to Tom Brady walking out the tunnel to go onto the field to warm up, or walking out on the field to get ready to play a game. You would never get access to a basketball player walking out. And that’s the access that we get here in NASCAR.

And I love it. I do. I love our fans and I love interacting with them, and you catch us at the right time and the right place, we’ll spend a lot of time with you. But if you catch us in that moment to where we’re ultra-focused and ready to go 200 miles an hour inches apart from other drivers, we’re going be a little more zoned out. And when we’re zoned out, we obviously don’t pay a lot of attention to our surroundings.

That’s not just (toward) the fans, it’s that way with everybody. You kind of just get this tunnel vision of thinking about what you are getting ready to do and being prepared for qualifying or the race or whatever it is. So that’s a tough question to just answer directly.

Obviously if we’re sitting at an autograph appearance for an hour or two, come on (over). You can get an autograph, you can get a picture, we’ll chat with you, we’re there for whatever time we’re slotted to be there. And usually I stick around even longer to make sure we take care of everybody. So it depends on the timing.

3. When someone pulls a jerk move on the road when you’re driving down the highway, does that feeling compare at all to when someone pulls a jerk move on the track?

Yes. Absolutely. The only difference is on the racetrack, you can actually run up there and run into the back of them — and on the road, that’s frowned upon.

4. Has there ever been a time where you’ve had a sketchy situation with your safety equipment?

One time a couple years ago, my steering wheel rubbed my seatbelts and turned the camlock on my seatbelts and it actually made my seatbelts come undone. I know a few other drivers who that has happened to as well. So yeah, that is pretty scary when that happens.

Was that during a race?

Yes. So you kind of check up and slow down and wait for the caution to come, or on the straightaways you’re trying to drive with your legs and people probably think you’re drunk out there on the racetrack — but you’re trying to focus on what you have going on to get your seatbelts in.

It hasn’t happened in a long time. The seatbelts and the locking mechanisms and all that have gotten a lot better. But years ago, and when the camlock system first came out, that was certainly more of an issue.

5. If your crew chief put a super secret illegal part on your car that made it way faster, would you want to know about it?

I would not. No. I would not want to know. I want to describe what the race car is doing and tell the crew chief and the engineers what is happening from my vantage point as a driver, and then I want them to go to work and fix that. I’ve never really been in the details of what springs are on the car, what shocks are on the car, how much wedge do we have in the car, all of those things.

I know what all those things do, and I can voice my opinion, but the sport has evolved so much. The setups are so much different than anything that I’ve learned and knew growing up. So much more goes into it from the engineering and the computer side of it that the old school mentality is not really relevant.

So I’ve always been that way to where I show up, drive, tell them what’s going on with the car, and they handle the car and it’s their job to figure out how to make the car go as fast as it can. That’s not my role.

6. What is a food you would not recommend eating right before a race and are you speaking with personal experience with this recommendation?

So I think it’d probably be a bad idea to consume a lot of dairy right before a race. I think that’s a really bad idea just because dairy sits so heavy and then you get hot in the car — like really hot — and I just think that’s a terrible combination.

7. Is there life in outer space, and if so, do they race?

You said these questions were out there. You were not kidding.

I don’t know. I don’t believe there is life in outer space. Maybe there is, but I would have to be proven wrong on that one. So the answer to the other part of the question is…

They can’t race if there’s no life.

That’s right.

8. What do drivers talk about when they’re standing around at driver intros before a race?

It depends on what two drivers are talking or what group of drivers is talking. Usually for myself, I go up there and I’m kind of zoned in and ready to go race and everybody up there is a frenemy. I’m really just kind of focused on getting ready to race.

If you see somebody or whatever, you’re like, “Hey man, how’s it going? How’s your car?” And I think that’s most of the conversation, at least what I see and I think.

Most of the people exchange pleasantries. You’re getting ready to go race against this guy for the next four hours and you want to crush them. So you’re not a jerk, but you’re not overly friendly, either. You’re just ready to go racing, ready to go compete.

And then there’s the guys like (Clint) Bowyer, some of the other guys, they’re up there just having a jolly good ol’ time, laughing it up, just really laid back and relaxed, and they’re just getting ready to get the party started.

9. What makes you happy right now?

There’s a lot, actually. I find a lot of happiness right now with my family. I’m really fortunate I’ve got a great family — my wife (Janice), 6-year-old son (Alex), 5-year-old daughter (Abby), they’re so much fun to be around right now and watch them grow and get bigger and watching them start to branch out into doing their own things.

For the first several years of their life, everything kind of revolved around me still. The things that revolved around them were making sure they were fed and their diapers were changed. But as they grow up and get older, my son’s now playing basketball and playing baseball and riding BMX bikes and my daughter’s doing gymnastics and she’s doing theater and things like that. So that kind of stuff, it’s just fun as a dad to see that stuff, so that’s been making me happy.

And then just being around my team and being at the racetrack and racing and competing. I’ve been finding a lot of happiness in this past year and going into the new season just because of how competitive we are, and showing up to the racetrack is fun. Every weekend that we show up at the track is like, “Hey this is a new weekend, new opportunity, we can go win.” And that makes it fun. This last year just really rejuvenated me as a race car driver and it made going to work fun again, and I’ve found a lot of happiness in it.

10. Let’s say a sponsor comes to you and says, “We are going to fully fund the entire rest of your racing career on the condition that you wear a clown nose and an 80’s rocker wig in every interview you do forever.” Would you accept that offer?

Yeah, sold.

Wow, that was easy.

At the end of the day, that’s a small price to pay to get to do what you love to do and have somebody else pay for it, right? When you think about that, I have one of the coolest jobs in the world. I get to do what I’ve dreamed about doing since I was 8 years old, and I get paid really well to do it, and I do it at the very highest level. So yeah, if the sponsor wants me to wear a clown nose and an 80’s wig in an interview, then yeah, whatever. Let’s do it.

11. This is the 10th year of the 12 Questions. There has never been a repeat question until now. Pick a number between 1 and 100, and I’m going to pull up a random question from a past year’s series.

Can we just go with like 10 since that’s my car number?

I anticipated that. Joey Logano tipped me off that people would be using their car number, so I pulled that up had you asked that.

What if I said like 76?

I wouldn’t have that ready, but I could pull it up.

But 10 you have ready.

So this is the 10th question from the first 12 questions in 2010. If a rookie asks you one driver they should learn from and one driver they should avoid learning from, who would those two people be?

I think if you have the opportunity to learn from Kevin Harvick, I’ve had my eyes opened up this past year to be in meetings with him and be around him and see his dedication and see the work ethic he puts in. And it’s kind of quiet. He doesn’t blast it out to everyone on social and all that stuff, but he puts a lot of work it, and he’s really detail-oriented.

So I think him or Jimmie Johnson. Jimmie Johnson, from the aspect of not only has he been so successful, but he’s so gracious about it at the same time. He’s a seven-time champion and yet he’s one of the most humble people you’ll meet, and so I would tell any rookie driver to look at that. Just because you’ve had success and just because you win races, you might climb the ladder of our sport, it doesn’t mean that you should have an ego, and it doesn’t mean that you should treat people like crap. (Johnson is) a guy, out of all people, who could have an ego — won tons of races, won seven championships. And he’s confident in himself, but he’s very humble and a gracious guy, so that’s pretty cool.

And then one who you would not learn from. I’m not going to single any one guy out, but the list is pretty long of guys that have come into our sport, don’t do the right things with the sponsors and their partners, don’t do the right things on the racetrack, they tear up a lot of equipment, and they put a lot of pressure on themselves and they end up driving over their head — and then what happens is they come and go out of the sport.

And so for a rookie driver, I think it’s really important to look at that and see, “Hey, there are the mistakes this guy made and you don’t want to do that.” If you want to be here for a length of time, you want to make sure you take care of your partners and your sponsors and are a good representation for them, and you don’t show up thinking that you’re going to win every race and try way too hard and end up putting yourself in bad positions and tearing up a bunch of equipment.

12. The last interview was with Kyle Larson. He said he ran into you at Volusia and you introduced him to your grandfather (Sam Rodriguez) who raced sprint cars and of course that caught Kyle’s attention. So he wants to ask you, do you have any memories of watching your grandfather race at all, and if so, what sticks out?

So I have a lot of memories of watching my grandfather race. I watched my grandfather race all the way until I was 8 years old when he retired and then bought me a go-kart and then I started racing.

The memories that stick out the most to me was, I would say 50% of the time we went to the racetrack, he won. So my favorite part about going to the racetrack was when the race was over, he would stop on the front straightaway and take a picture with the crowd. They would actually let the crowd come onto the racetrack, so I would stand with him for a picture of just us and the crew, and then they would let fans come out and take a picture with the feature winner.

Then the fans would go back in the stands and he would put me in the seat of his sprint car and he would ride on the left side nerf bar and he would let me drive the sprint car — with the engine not running; we were getting pushed on a four-wheeler. But he would let me drive the sprint car, standing up in the seat, back to the tech barn after the race was over for tech. So those were really cool days and that’s what made me so passionate about racing.

Do you have the question I can ask the next driver? It’s William Byron.

Yes, so his bus is actually parked right next to me, and so the few times that they have pumped him out this week, it stinks really bad. So I guess my question would be, has anybody told him that his poop stinks?

That’s something only you would know living here in this motorhome lot.

No, you want a real question? And I think a great question for William would be, coming into this sport at such a young age and with such high expectations and stuff, what does he enjoy doing to sort of get away from all of the hysteria of NASCAR and the pressure of being counted on at Hendrick Motorsports?

Previous 12 Questions interviews with Aric Almirola:

— Oct. 3, 2012

— Aug. 20, 2013

— July 21, 2015

— Aug. 16, 2016

— Sept. 6, 2017

July 3, 2018


The Top Five: Breaking down the Martinsville playoff race

Five thoughts after Sunday’s Round 3 opener at Martinsville…

1. What if….

I recently invented a special machine that allows me to travel between parallel universes and watch NASCAR races in two different dimensions. I just arrived back from the alternate universe where Joey Logano elected to race cleanly and NOT move Martin Truex Jr. for the win at Martinsville.

If you’re wondering how that decision went over with everyone, I brought the postrace transcript from Logano’s runner-up press conference from the parallel universe. Here it is.

REPORTER 1: “Joey, it looked like you had a chance to move Martin out of the way on that last lap and backed out of it. What was going through your mind there, knowing that may have cost you a chance to reach Homestead?”

LOGANO: “Look, I love winning. But clean driving is everything to me. If I can’t have the respect of my competitors, I don’t want to be doing this. Martin raced me fair and square, so I wanted to do the same in return.”

REPORTER 2: “That’s great, but what do you say to your fans and team after passing up a guaranteed shot to make the final four?”

LOGANO: “Martin is a classy guy. We attend each other’s charity events and he’s always so nice when my wife and I see him in the motorhome lot. I know we’ll be friends for years to come. It’s just not worth it to ruin that relationship. Heck, we’re supposed to go out on the lake together this week!”

REPORTER 3: “Joey, it looks like Twitter is lighting up with fans who say you must not want a championship badly enough if that’s how you race. How do you answer critics who say you get paid millions of dollars to do whatever it takes to win?”

LOGANO: “Have you ever been loudly booed by a crowd? Have you ever had a driver’s significant other tweet something negative about you? I mean, geez. Those things hurt. I don’t want any part of that. I would rather be a good guy and keep my reputation intact than do anything to make people think I’m a dirty driver.”


SPONSOR: “Joey, we like you a lot, but we’re paying $20 million a year for our car to win races and championships. We’re going to be moving on.”

LOGANO: “Aw, OK. I hope we can still be friends!”

2. Respect for Truex

Is it possible to agree with Logano’s last-lap move and still empathize with the obvious anger felt by Truex and Cole Pearn?


Truex had an incredible drive on Sunday. He had his qualifying time thrown out and started in the back, only to make it through the field — at Martinsville, no less! — and contend in the top five almost the entire day.

Truex fought his way toward the front, then patiently and cleanly worked Logano for the lead until making what seemed to be the winning pass.

Had Truex won, that would have been one of the highlights of his career: First short track win, a win-and-in ticket to Homestead, high stakes with his team getting ready to shut down and people loudly saying he’s the most vulnerable of the Big Three drivers to miss the final four.

Instead…Logano ran into him. And now making Homestead is no sure thing.

Frustrating! Super, super frustrating! Who wouldn’t be angry about that?

I still don’t blame Logano for making the move, but it’s completely understandable why Truex and his fans would be upset about it. When looking back in a couple weeks, that one moment could very well be the difference between competing for a championship and missing out altogether.

That said, as mad as he may be now, I see no scenario under which Truex retaliates. He’s just not that kind of driver. Even if he doesn’t make Homestead, Truex isn’t going to go out and ruin Logano’s championship race with a crash. He might race Logano hard, but Truex won’t pull a Matt Kenseth. No way.

3. What’s the code?

I’m not a driver, so this is just one interpretation of what’s OK on the last lap in NASCAR and what isn’t.

— If you can move someone out of the way and do it without ruining their day — i.e. without wrecking them or costing them more than a few positions — then it’s not only acceptable in NASCAR, but expected. And even encouraged by series officials.

— If you have a chance to door someone for a side-by-side finish, it’s a coin toss as to whether the other driver and the general fan base will think it’s an acceptable move. This often depends on the person initiating the contact.

— If you accidentally wreck the person while trying to move them (like Denny Hamlin on Chase Elliott), that is considered off-limits and there will be repercussions from both the other driver and fans.

— If you crash the person in a reckless-but-unintentional way (not necessarily on purpose, but understanding there will be full contact like Noah Gragson on Todd Gilliland), people may view it the same way as a blatant takeout.

— If you completely crash someone on purpose in order to win, that’s viewed as a dirty move that takes no talent and the fallout might stain your reputation for years.

Logano’s move on Truex — like any bump-and-run at a short track — is about the least offensive way to physically move someone and falls into the first category. That’s the type of move that can only happen in stock car racing and is a hallmark of what makes NASCAR fun. You’re not going to get that in Formula One, let’s put it that way.

4. Stuff that doesn’t matter

Over the last four weeks, I’ve taken a step back from NASCAR as I got off the road for the birth of my daughter. Though I’ve tried to follow the news as much as possible, there’s no doubt having a newborn at home makes it difficult to be as immersed in the NASCAR bubble as the weeks when I’m on the road at races.

And I’ve got to tell you: Looking at the big picture, it’s a bit alarming how the NASCAR world seems to get caught up in minor, tiny crap that doesn’t really matter and actually detracts from the sport.

One example is the race day morning inspection where qualifying times get thrown out. Here I am as a TV viewer who woke up excited to spend my Sunday watching some short-track racin’ across the country. I opened my Twitter app, and what was the big storyline of the day? Drivers getting their qualifying times disallowed, starting at the back for unapproved adjustments, crew members getting ejected, etc.

Seriously? This is what we’re talking about on playoff race day morning?? For a short track where aero doesn’t even really matter???

Officiating things that way certainly seems excessive. And yes, I know all about the reasons why they do it; I’m explaining the big-picture view of why it seems silly.

Another example was the race a couple weeks ago at Talladega. My wife was in the hospital that day and I was unable to pay much attention to the race, though we had it on in the background on mute.

When I tried catching up with what happened, the big controversy was apparently about whether NASCAR should have made the caution one lap shorter and whether officials should have thrown a yellow for a wreck on the last lap instead of having it finish under green.

Look, I completely understand why those are significant debates for those in the NASCAR industry and fans who are super passionate about the sport. But can you imagine how all this looks to casual fans or people who might want to give NASCAR a chance?

Headlines like Drivers criticize NASCAR for running them out of fuel with long caution! and Fans angry NASCAR chose drama over safety on last lap! just seem like such minor things from afar. As does Defending champion will start at the back today for failing laser scan on first try!

I’m not suggesting I have the solution to all this, because I don’t. And I’m not criticizing the media, certainly; when I get back at Texas next week, I’ll be all-in with the bubble once again.

But if these are the storylines, NASCAR has some real work to do. It cannot afford to be stuck on the minutiae, because there aren’t enough people left who care that much. Simplify things, focus on what really makes people want to spend their time on the sport (great racing and interesting driver storylines) and everyone will be much better off.

5. What’s next?

Logano taking a guaranteed spot at Homestead means at least one of the Big Three is going to have to point their way into the final four. After Martinsville, Truex and Kevin Harvick are tied for the last two spots, 25 points above the cutline.

I think both will be OK, as will Kyle Busch. Harvick is probably going to win Texas, Phoenix or both; Busch might win one of those as well. That means Truex, with a pair of top-five finishes, should be just fine.

Aric Almirola, Chase Elliott, Clint Bowyer and Kurt Busch are already facing big points deficits after just one week. Are any of them going to win a race in this round? I actually think it’s more likely a non-playoff type like a Denny Hamlin or a Brad Keselowski will win, which would open up an addition points position for a Big Three member.

So as it turns out, perhaps all of the Big Three will make it to Homestead after all — just maybe not exactly how we expected.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Dover playoff race

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

1. Harvick’s championship to lose

Once again, in the midst of the best season of his life, Kevin Harvick had the fastest car on Sunday. At this point in the year, it feels inevitable the No. 4 car will continue to unload that way each weekend.

No, Harvick didn’t end up winning. But he should have. The No. 4 team has let too many wins slip away over these last few years.

That seems to be the only thing that could prevent Harvick and his team from winning the title this year: A self-inflicted error like the one at Dover. Otherwise, the equipment is currently unmatched.

Harvick already has a career high in wins (seven). His average finish is currently the best of his career (8.6, even better than his dominant 2015 season). He’s on pace to earn a career high in top-10 finishes (Sunday was his 25th; best is 28) and perhaps even set a new personal mark in top-fives (he needs three more).

In the meantime, championship rival Kyle Busch hasn’t been as fast lately. Despite having his own career year for most of the season, Busch has now finished either seventh or eighth in four of the last six races — with the exception being the Roval and a short track (Richmond).

Seventh or eighth isn’t going to cut it at this point in the season — at least at Homestead. Busch has acknowledged as much.

What about Martin Truex Jr.? While the No. 78 team has been good, they aren’t Harvick-level good right now.

Here’s what is going to happen: Harvick is going to survive Talladega, win at Kansas and Texas and show up at Homestead as the favorite for the final four.

Still, Harvick might not win the championship. Days like Dover are still very possible,  and that execution will need to be shored up before they get there.

But you can bet wherever it matters for the rest of the season, he’s going to be the car to beat.

2. Don’t blame Bowyer

For the second time this season, Aric Almirola seemed to have a potential win thwarted by a caution caused by his own teammate — Clint Bowyer.

As he did at New Hampshire, Bowyer felt terrible about it. But he shouldn’t take the blame.

OK, so Bowyer’s team knew he had a potential mechanical problem and sent him back out. But what’s wrong with that? This is the playoffs! As we all saw last week at the Roval, EVERY point has the potential to matter. If Bowyer could limp around the track without falling apart, that might have been the difference in making it to the next round.

Besides, Almirola and his team still had the chance to control their own fate in some ways. Almirola was the one who overdrove the corner on the restart and made contact with Keselowski. That’s not Bowyer’s fault. And Almirola’s team could have put him in a different position (he could have stayed out or taken two tires like the cars in front of him). That’s not Bowyer’s fault, either.

Of course the situation was highly unfortunate for everyone involved, but let’s not declare “Bowyer costs teammate a win!” when that’s not entirely the case.

3. For Chase, now what?

Instead of being outside the playoff bubble heading to Talladega — a possibility at times on Sunday — Chase Elliott is already locked in to Round 3.

So what will he do with that opportunity? How far can Elliott go?

Elliott will probably have to win in Round 3, because he’s going to be up against the Big Three and their Big Playoff Points to make it to Homestead. Crew chief Alan Gustafson said as much after the race.

The Hendrick cars still haven’t been spectacular at most tracks this season — and the same for Chevrolet overall, really. Racing journalist Geoffrey Miller pointed out this was the first win for the Camaro on a non-plate oval (Chevy’s other wins this season were at Daytona and Watkins Glen).

If that’s the case, Elliott probably isn’t going to win at Texas or Phoenix — so it all comes down to Martinsville. Can Elliott win Martinsville? Obviously, yeah. He almost did last fall.

Still, it’s going to be tough. It’s not like one or two drivers are good at Martinsville; a ton of them are. But if Elliott can put together a magical race and get the automatic bid to the final four, we all know Homestead is capable of some unexpected twists.

Elliott as the 2018 champ? Unlikely, though not impossible. Stranger things have happened in NASCAR, but not many.

4. Johnson, Hamlin headed toward winless seasons

It’s looking more and more like Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin will fail to win a race for the first time in their careers.

Dover might have been Johnson’s last, best shot this season — although we’ll never know, thanks to his bizarre mechanical failure on the pace laps. It’s so weird to think of Johnson as someone who can’t catch a break these days after he won seven titles and was Mr. Golden Horseshoe, but he sure seems to be a luckless driver in 2018.

Then there’s Hamlin. It’s much easier to picture Hamlin winning one of the final six races, since Joe Gibbs Racing brings competitive cars to a variety of tracks.

But Hamlin had a golden opportunity on Sunday and didn’t produce. He had fresher tires than Elliott and was starting on the front row for an overtime restart — something Elliott has struggled with in the past — and yet Hamlin was beaten straight up.

Hamlin earned some brownie points with Elliott fans, who have despised him since Martinsville last year. Was the possible blowback from another incident in Hamlin’s mind?

“After last fall, I was really making sure I didn’t make any contact, to be honest with you,” Hamlin said.

That’s unfortunate he felt that way, because perhaps racing more aggressively could have gotten him a win. On the other hand, can you imagine if Hamlin went full send and wrecked Elliott again while going for the lead?

Hamlin’s image might have never recovered from that, and a driver can’t afford to be that hated in today’s sponsor climate.

5. Talladega is going to be nuts

I’m happy Talladega is the middle race of Round 2 again this year, because it’s way too crazy to have it as a cutoff race. NASCAR doesn’t need to put eliminations on the line to have major drama at Talladega anyway.

Just check out the drivers from fifth to 10th in the standings: Joey Logano, Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski, Ryan Blaney, Aric Almirola and Clint Bowyer. DUDE! That is a stacked lineup of some of the best plate racers in all of NASCAR.

Oh, and they happen to all need the points! There aren’t going to be any strategy plays or dropping to the back to be conservative among that group, because stage points are a big thing. 

The only thing to do is go like hell and hope they don’t wreck. That’s going to be verrrrrry interesting. I can’t wait.

Post-Brickyard 400 podcast with NASCAR playoff drivers

Five NASCAR playoff drivers (Aric Almirola, Kyle Larson, Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin), along with @nascarcasm and Paige Keselowski, join me on the frontstretch at Indianapolis Motor Speedway to help break down the upcoming NASCAR playoffs.

The Top Five: Breaking down the New Hampshire race

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

1. Beauty in bumping

A well-executed bump-and-run is NASCAR’s most magnificent work of art, full of intricacies and accepted by nearly everyone as a fair way to settle a race.

In one move, it sums up everything people love about stock car racing: Contact, close racing and aggression — but without any wrecked vehicles as a result.

Kevin Harvick’s bump-and-run to win Sunday night at New Hampshire Motor Speedway was absolute perfection, providing a textbook example that can be used for years to come.

Even the driver on the receiving end — Kyle Busch — calmly said the move was just fine with him.

“It was just a bump,” Busch said. “It wasn’t a big deal. He didn’t wreck me or anything like that. He did it early enough, but he did it way harder to push me out of the groove three lanes. It just takes you so long to recover here, there was just no possible way I could get back to him. I was in the way, so no harm, no foul.”

Busch’s only quibble? He wished Harvick would have raced him cleaner first before making contact. Busch said if the roles were reversed, he would have tried using lapped cars for a few more laps before deciding to play bumper cars.

“When you’re slower, you kind of expect it,” Busch said. “But you also think a guy is going to race you fair and pass you clean first. I don’t think he ever tried to pass me clean once he got there.”

But that’s exactly what Harvick anticipated Busch would be thinking, which is why the Stewart-Haas Racing driver decided to make the move at the first available opportunity.

“I needed to do it when he wasn’t expecting it,” Harvick said. “The more opportunities to get in his wheelhouse, his thought process, the less chance you have. He’s that good.

“If you wait until two or three to go, the entries are going to get shallower, he’s going to start grinding on the brakes a little bit harder. He’s going to put himself in a position not to get hit. He’s going to go on defense, start to really get aggressive, too.

“I wanted to do it earlier just to try to catch him off guard.”

There’s a fine line to executing the move — it means moving the other driver up the track enough to make a pass while escaping into the lead — “get away from him far enough because you know they’re going to be mad,” Harvick said — and all without causing a wreck.

Harvick did exactly that. And though it opens the door for Busch to do the same thing in the same situation, Harvick had no regrets about the decision.

“He still finished second, right?” Harvick said.

2. The Huge Three

NASCAR fans hate storylines that are overhyped, so there are likely some out there who can’t stand to hear one more word about the “Big Three.”

But as much as Harvick, Busch and Martin Truex Jr.’s dominance has been discussed, this is the rarely hyped NASCAR story that might actually be underplayed.

Seriously, this is almost surreal at this point in the season. There have been 20 races this season, and three drivers have combined to win 15 of them. Fifteen! WHAT!? There are only 16 races left in the whole year! How many more are they going to get? That’s amazing.

Another crazy stat: The Big Three have 88 playoff points — not counting the points Harvick had taken away with a penalty — while the entire rest of the field only has 45 combined.

How is this even possible? Two of these drivers have teammates (and the Joe Gibbs Racing drivers are basically Truex’s teammates), and yet it’s still only three cars winning all the races. And they just keep doing it, even in races that seemed headed for a different outcome like Sunday.


3. Almost Almirola

Aric Almirola appeared more bummed and upset about failing to win at New Hampshire than he did after being wrecked out of the lead at the Daytona 500 in February.

How’s that possible? Well, Daytona was just the start of Almirola’s rebirth as a driver, the first race with a team that could finally make him a regular winner. There seemed to be much more to come.

But now — in late July, the 20th race of the season — coming close and failing to win stings worse.

“Everybody keeps talking about the Big Three, but I feel like we were stomping them pretty good today,” he said. “That’s why they are so good — they execute all race long. Unfortunately, we didn’t today.”

Almirola had the fastest car in New Hampshire — even Harvick said so — but “lost control of the race” on the final pit stop. His pit crew had a slower stop than Kyle Busch’s team, which put Almirola at Busch’s mercy for the restart. Then Busch went at the soonest possible moment, which caught Almirola off guard and left him spinning the tires as a result.

He ended up finishing third and initially seemed devastated. But Almirola said there’s more to come from his team.

“We’re peaking,” he said. “As the 10 team, we’re peaking at the right time. You’ve seen the speed we had at Chicago (when he almost won) and we’re putting things together. … We’re starting to get what we need out of the race cars.”

4. Teammate blues

Speaking of Almirola, Clint Bowyer was gutted after hesitation to get off the track with a broken car potentially cost his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate a victory.

“It just sucks,” Bowyer said. “I hate that for my teammate (Almirola). He was dominating the race.”

With Almirola leading the race and Harvick running second, Bowyer was called into the pits to serve a one-lap penalty for pitting outside the box. Upon returning to the track, Bowyer radioed to the team and said something broke on his car.

At that point in the race, there was going to be no salvaging the day — Bowyer was already two laps down due to the penalty and broken part. As such, the No. 14 team should have brought Bowyer into the pits immediately.

What was the purpose in staying out? Bowyer is already secured in the playoffs this season with two wins and points mean little for him.

But for whatever reason, Bowyer was kept on the track. By the time the team finally decided to make the call, it was too late.

“I was trying to nurse it around,” Bowyer said. “Something in the left rear was broke and…Brett (Griffin, his spotter) told me, ‘We’re having trouble, let’s just get off the track,’ and I was kind of thinking the same thing. Literally, as he was saying that and I’m thinking it, something broke on the right side and away it went. That sucks. I hate it for him.”

Bowyer has been involved on the wrong end of a team orders situation before, but surely this wouldn’t have been viewed in the same category. Calling a car in for repairs — or to the garage — while a teammate is leading under green would be a perfectly acceptable move in future situations.

5. Points picture

The battle for the non-win playoff spots grew less dramatic this week after the three Hendrick bubble drivers all had top-11 days while Ricky Stenhouse Jr. finished five laps down in 30th place.

Jimmie Johnson (14th in the playoff standings) and Chase Elliott (15th) now have whopping 97- and 95-point leads over Stenhouse for the final playoff spot.

Alex Bowman, who finished 11th, is up by 28 points over Stenhouse.

The next-closest drivers to pointing their way into the playoffs? After Stenhouse, Paul Menard is 29 points behind Bowman and Ryan Newman is way back (-74 points). Everyone else behind Newman (like Daniel Suarez, William Byron and Jamie McMurray) pretty much have to win at this point with only six races until the playoffs.

The most likely wild card possibility could be if AJ Allmendinger (25th in points) wins in two weeks at Watkins Glen and moves the cutoff line up to Elliott’s position.

But that could generate even less drama heading into the final regular season races, because Bowman is 67 points behind Elliott.

12 Questions with Aric Almirola (2018)

Aric Almirola has increased his average finish by more than six positions (18.8 to 12.5) from last year. He has already tied a career-high in top-10 finishes for a season. (Getty Images photo)

The series of 12 Questions driver interviews continues with Aric Almirola, who is currently enjoying the best season of his career during his first year with Stewart-Haas Racing. 

1. How often do you have dreams about racing?

Most of my dreams about racing stem from panic. Panic sets in because I’m late to the race. Like I’m trying to put my firesuit on as fast as I can, I’m trying to find my shoes, the cars are lined up, the national anthem just finished, everybody’s getting in their cars and I’m not dressed yet and I’m like in this massive panic to try and get in the car and hurry up and run to the car and get my belts on while the other cars are out on the track making pace laps.

And then usually I wake up in a cold sweat in the bed because I’m freaking out that I’m going to miss the race. So that’s usually what any racing dreams are about.

2. If you get into someone during a race — intentional or not — does it matter if you apologize?

I think it’s very situational. Most of us know when it’s intentional and unintentional. If it’s unintentional, you can typically take care of it on the track, you give a little wave out the window and it’s all good. Life goes on.

But when it’s flat-out intentional or an accident that takes them out of the race, then I think it’s important to be able to work through that and try to hash that out — or at least make an effort.

When everybody’s mad in the heat of the moment, I think it usually falls on deaf ears. But later on in the week or leading up to the next race, once everybody kind of calms down, it usually works itself out.

3. What is the biggest compliment someone could give you?

I feel like through the years, having people walk up to me and say, “Hey, we really think that you’re a class act.” Lately a lot of people have walked up and said, “Hey, the way you handled post-Daytona 500 media, you’re truly a class act and that was awesome of you and we really think the world of you because of that,” or whatever. That makes me feel good. The racing side is one thing, but character is a whole other thing and I think character is really important.

4. NASCAR comes to you and says they’re bringing a celebrity to the track and they want you to host them. Who is a celebrity you’d be excited to host?

I am totally drawing a blank on that. I don’t know.

Are you not much of a celebrity guy?

I’m not much of a celebrity guy. I prefer kind of my own little world and my own little group of friends. I don’t know. I got nothing for you on that one, Gluck.

That’s fine. That’s an answer in itself because it reveals something about you.

I’m not one who really cares or gets that excited or anything about famous people. I like real people. I like the people that are just normal, everyday people — not that celebrities can’t be real people.

5. In an effort to show this is a health conscious sport, NASCAR decides to offer the No. 1 pit stall for an upcoming race to the first driver willing to go vegan for one month. Would you do it?

Can I put bacon on everything?

I don’t think that counts as vegan.

Can I eat a completely vegan salad and then just top it with lots of Smithfield bacon? Would that be OK?

Let’s reverse this in light of your sponsor. What if they said you could get the No. 1 pit stall you went all-bacon for a month?

Bacon only?


Like breakfast, lunch, and dinner? Well, I already do that, so I think sure, why not?

So all-bacon diet for the No. 1 pit stall?


That’s a deal.

When are we gonna do that? What race?

Which pit stall do you want the race for? Dover’s a pretty good one to have, right?

Yeah. Well this one (Sonoma). Let’s go with this one. This is like moments before qualifying, right? So can you just go talk to NASCAR and tell them?

Yeah, they’re over there. I can see what I can do.

See if you can do that. Then I’d be done for the day. Then I won’t have to qualify.

6. It’s time for the Random Race Challenge. I’ve picked a random race from your career and you have to tell me where you finished. This is the 2013 New Hampshire spring race.

2013 New Hampshire spring race. Did I finish like fourth or fifth?

You finished fifth!

I remember that race. We had a good car, we ran top 12-ish most of the day and late in the race we took two tires and I restarted on the front row with my now-boss Tony Stewart and I lost a couple of spots to a few cars that had four tires and we finished fifth.

Wow. That’s a really good memory. Brian Vickers won that race, you finished right behind Brad Keselowski and ahead of Jimmie Johnson.

Yeah, there you go.

7. Who is the best rapper alive?

(Laughs) I’m not much into rap, so I couldn’t even guess and throw a name out there. But a guy that I listen to who plays country music, or like kind of somewhat of a new age style of country music, is a guy named Corey Smith. And he occasionally breaks off of a chorus and goes into somewhat of what you would call rap, I think. So I’m gonna go with Corey Smith.

8. Who has the most punchable face in NASCAR?

Does it have to be a driver?

No, it could be anyone. It could be me. But give me some warning.

Actually, it would be a toss-up between you and (Bob) Pockrass. I think you would probably get the nod because Bob wears glasses. What movie is that where the guy says, “You would never hit a guy with glasses, would you?” And then he hits him.

I don’t have that luxury. I have sunglasses. I feel like I want to take two steps back now.

No, it’s good.

9. NASCAR enlists three famous Americans to be involved with your team for one race as part of a publicity push: Taylor Swift, LeBron James and Tom Hanks. Choose one to be your crew chief, one to be your spotter and one to be your motorhome driver.

Oh wow. Hmm.

(Note: My recorder died right at this moment. Fortunately, Almirola was willing to resume the interview on the following day. However, he said this secured my position as having the most punchable face.)

I currently have a woman motorhome driver who is amazing. She is an incredible bus driver. She takes care of me like a mom. She cooks awesome. She loves our kids and she’s just great. So I’m going to stick with the woman theme, so Taylor Swift is going to be my bus driver.

I’m going to go with LeBron James as crew chief. He seems pretty methodical and he’s pretty intense, so that’s a guy you would want to lead your team. He does seem like a good leader from time to time. I think his intensity would rub off and motivate the whole team.

And then spotter is Tom Hanks. I think he role plays all the time — that’s what he does for a living. I’m sure if he could just listen to somebody else spot for a few minutes and he could pick right up on it.

10. What is the key to finding the best pre-race bathroom?

Experience. There’s a lot of experience that comes into play with that. Occasionally the racetracks will move where they position the port-o-potties. But usually they’re in the same location at the same track. So after several years of doing this, you get out of the truck you ride around in for pre-race and there’s usually a line of drivers waiting at the same port-o-potties.

11. NASCAR decides they miss the highlight reel value brought by Carl Edwards’ backflips and want a replacement. How much money would they have to offer for you to backflip off your car following your next win?

No amount of money. There would be no monetary figure that would actually help me complete the backflip. If I had a chance, I would throw a big number out there. But I know I have zero chance of completing the backflip. I feel like I would get halfway around and land on my head.

But I’d be willing to give a somersault a whirl.

Maybe they’d give you $1 for that.

That’s where you put your head on the ground and roll ass over teakettle. My 5-year-old son and my 4-year-old daughter can both do it; surely I can do it.

12. Each week, I ask a driver to give me a question for the next interview. Last week was Chase Elliott, and he wanted to know: What’s the biggest thing SHR does that has helped you this year or your favorite part about being there now?

The thing SHR does that helps me the most is they have the ability to pay attention to every single detail. And that’s something that is new for me. But they have the resources, the manpower and the ability to not only make race cars go fast, but deliver a lot of information to me — tons of data, tons of engineers and people willing to go and get data I’m looking for or sit down and talk with me.

The personal aspect is something I think has helped me the most. Being around a group of almost 400 employees who are hardcore racers and all are pulling the rope in the same direction. To have that many people and all of them willing to work together for a common goal, I just seem to fit in. Everybody has welcomed me with open arms, and they’re all willing to help in any way possible.

Not that I haven’t had that in the past — the attention to every detail — but (now) including me as a detail. At other race teams I’ve been at, the driver carries his own weight. You prepare in your own way and you show up and do your job. But at SHR, you’re part of the team and the detail. They put just as much time and energy into me as they do the race cars.

This might increase my face punchability, but I don’t know who the next interview is going to be with. Do you have a question I can ask another driver in general?

Ughhhhh. Are you really that unscheduled? Do you wing it this often?

Pretty much, yes.

How about you come back to me when you know who the next interview is with?

Will you make sure to give a question?

Yes. I could have left you (earlier)! It could have been Eight Questions with Jeff Gluck instead of 12 Questions with Jeff Gluck.

Previous 12 Questions interviews with Aric Almirola:

Oct. 3, 2012

Aug. 20, 2013

July 21, 2015

Aug. 16, 2016

Sept. 6, 2017