The Top Five: Breaking down the Bristol spring race

Five thoughts after Sunday’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway…

1. An off-day for an elite race team

One of the top crew chiefs in the garage faced reporters after the Bristol race and gave a frank assessment of his team’s lack of speed.

“This was probably about the worst car I gave him to go race with this year,” the crew chief said. “We didn’t make a lot of headway in practice. We weren’t as good as we hoped to be.”

The driver echoed that sentiment, saying the team never hit on the right setup for the entire weekend.

“We just didn’t quite have the speed,” he said. “We just didn’t show exactly what we needed there.”

Added the crew chief: “They had us covered today. We weren’t very good, like I’ve said a dozen times already.”

Yikes. Clearly, it sounds like a very tough Sunday at Bristol for…(checks notes)…Kyle Busch and crew chief Adam Stevens?!?!

That’s crazy. In a season where Busch has already been stellar, the field somehow allowed the No. 18 team to score yet another victory and add to its already-impressive playoff point total. Busch now has 19 playoff points, which is by far the most after the first eight races under this system (12 was the previous best).

We all know there are times when Busch loses races on days he had the best car. On Sunday, he won a race where he clearly wasn’t the fastest. This is shaping up to be a long season for Busch haters yet again.

“Hopefully we can get back on our horse and give him something he can race with a little closer next week,” Stevens said.

2. Odd ending

Bristol was a really fun and interesting race from Lap 1, with all sorts of unpredictable twists (from wrecks to loose wheels) that kept the pace moving quickly. Fears of a dreadful race due to the aero effects of the new package didn’t come to fruition and the traction compound appeared to last throughout the day (instead of wearing out halfway through).

All in all, it was the best race of the season so far.

But it sure ended in an anti-climactic way. One of the Team Penske cars was headed toward victory lane — they’d been the class of the field, leading 344 laps.

And then, strangely, the Penske trio just handed the race to Busch by pitting before a restart that ultimately came with 14 laps to go.

Track position won out, with the top two finishers — the Busch Brothers — pulling away on old tires. Joey Logano went from eighth to third, but wasn’t really a threat for the win.

Later, Logano said he thought the pit decision was a no-win situation for the frontrunners.

“The last thing you want is a caution with 15 to 20 to go at Bristol and you’re the leader, because you know everyone is going to make their decision off of what you do,” he said. “If you stay out, you’ve got to expect half the field is going to pit, maybe more. If you come in, five or six stayed (out). So it’s just part of the game.”

But is it? I’m having a hard time visualizing it. If the leaders stayed out — let’s say it was only the three Penske cars and a few others — they would have been in the same situation as the Busch Brothers ended up in.

Perhaps Logano was just trying to avoid throwing his team under the bus for a strategy decision that clearly cost him the race. And for viewers at home, it certainly made for a weird ending.

3. Race recap from a parallel universe

BRISTOL, Tenn. — As continuous cheers rained down from the stands for 15 minutes following the checkered flag, Kurt Busch stood atop the victory lane building in Bristol Motor Speedway’s infield and shrugged his shoulders with a grin.

“I really wanted to beat him,” Busch said of his younger brother, Kyle. “I decided I was going to wreck him, and if I got close enough when we took the white, I was just going to drive straight into Turns 3 and 4 and wreck him.”

Busch did exactly that, sending his brother’s No. 18 car spinning and crashing as the No. 1 car crossed the finish line. Bristol fans, weary of seeing Kyle win yet another race, responded by erupting in joy as Kurt circled the track with a Polish victory lap.

It also may have sparked a rivalry at a time when NASCAR could use some bad blood.

“I’ll get him back,” Kyle said on the track’s public address system as fans showered him with jeers. “I don’t care if it takes me all season and I don’t care what the penalty is. He’ll regret this day ever happened.”

In related news, Bristol reported ticket sales saw an immediate increase for its upcoming Night Race in August.

4. Yes, we see it

The stands looked bad. Attendance has steadily been getting worse over the last decade. It’s not going to get much better anytime soon. Everyone acknowledges this. No one I’ve seen is trying to talk around this fact, nor appearing to hide it or sugarcoat it.

But given it’s 1) Not anything new and 2) Not going to change … can we please just stop talking about it for awhile? The topic is exhausting.

5. You picked a fine time to leave me

This weekend turned into a celebration of Darrell Waltrip’s career, which is probably the first of many tributes he will receive leading up to his retirement from broadcasting in late June.

Drivers gave him hugs and recorded video messages that left him emotional in the booth, and the track gave him one of its signature gladiator swords following a news conference where he shared many reflections on his time in NASCAR.

Waltrip, one of NASCAR’s all-time great drivers and a uniquely special broadcaster, deserves the fond farewells.

But they’re also long overdue. The moment Jeff Gordon stepped into the FOX booth and brought his current knowledge of the cars, teams and drivers — while Ol’ DW preferred to rely on his old-school experiences — it was painfully obvious a change was needed.

Given television’s crucial role in how NASCAR is represented, it’s absolutely fair to question whether the best product is being shown to viewers. In that sense, it’s also perfectly acceptable to look forward to a fresher voice in the booth.

Waltrip passionately defended himself on Friday, though, and it’s clear many people agree with him.

“People say, ‘He’s not relevant any more, hasn’t driven a car,'” Waltrip said. “I’ve been in the cars. I know what they feel like. I know what it feels like to win a race here. You want to listen to some guy that’s never won a race somewhere tell you how to drive a car? I don’t think so.

“I have the knowledge. I have the experience. Look, I don’t sit at home Monday through Thursday twiddling my thumbs.  I talk to crew chiefs.  I talk to drivers. … I know how they do it. I could build the damn car myself if I had to. Tell somebody else, some of these guys, build a car, see how it runs.

“Nobody shook me and said, ‘Man, it’s time to give it up.’ It’s just that time.  72 years old. I could do this til’ I’m 90.

“This is what I know, this is what I do best. I’ve loved every minute of it.  I think I’m pretty damn good at it, to tell you the truth.”

Heading into the weekend, the controversial Jenna Fryer column was a hot topic, and she got a lot of crap for it. But if anything, Fryer may have done him a favor: Rallying DW’s supporters for a celebration tour while drowning out the previously loud voices of his detractors.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Martinsville spring race

1. Does Brad get enough love?

Is it possible Brad Keselowski has been underrated all this time?

Keselowski is certainly a star driver and a regular contender, so it’s not like he gets ignored. But when people discuss the best of the best — the absolute top drivers in NASCAR — Keselowski feels overlooked.

For example: While it’s not a hot take to say “Brad Keselowski is a great driver,” it seems like you’d get more pushback if you said, “Brad Keselowski is the best driver in NASCAR.”

But why is that? People would probably say Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick were among the best, or even Kyle Larson when it comes to pure talent.

Keselowski isn’t always mentioned in the same breath. Penske teammate Joey Logano, the defending Cup Series champ, gets more recognition lately than Keselowski does.

Maybe it’s time to change how we view Keselowski after he led 446 laps (!!) on Sunday at Martinsville.

After all, this wasn’t a one-off performance. Keselowski has now won five of the last 18 Cup races dating back to the Southern 500 — more than anyone else during that time.

This is a 35-year-old who can win on superspeedways and intermediates and short tracks — and every size oval in between. His combination of smarts, talent and aggression seems to consistently allow him to run up front.

I’m not saying he’s the best — Kyle Busch has a pretty firm grip on that label at the moment — but I also don’t think Keselowski is that far behind.

2. Straight as the aero

This is getting to be an unpleasant topic, and I really don’t want to dwell on it much because it seems repetitive. But Martinsville was more evidence the new aero package may have had impacts beyond just the intermediate tracks — and in a negative way for short tracks.

Keselowski had a great day, but it seemed like Chase Elliott actually had a faster car when he passed Keselowski under green. Once Keselowski got the lead back in the pits, however, Elliott was never able to pass him again.

“I think the stats maybe look a little bit more dominant than I think it really was,” Keselowski said. “I thought Chase was probably the best car most of the day today, and he passed me there with 150 or so to go. I thought that might be the end of our day.

“(My) pit crew did an excellent job gaining or retaining our track position all day, which is critical here at this racetrack. … That was so, so key to being able to win today, because I think Chase, if he’d have been out front that run, he would have drove away from the field with what I saw from his car.”

Considering this is a short track we’re talking about, that is…not great! Of all places, you’d think Martinsville would be immune to aero issues. But as Denny Hamlin noted, the huge spoilers this year make traffic “just a little bit tougher” than before — and perhaps that’s all it took to put a damper on passing.

Again, I don’t want to harp on this because there’s clearly more to be determined this season. But if the short track package was enough to hurt the Phoenix race and perhaps even affect Martinsville, what’s it going to do to Bristol, Richmond and New Hampshire?

3. Call it maybe?

With David Hoots out of the control tower, NASCAR has new direction when it comes to calling races — including determining what is a caution and what isn’t.

But Martinsville showed the circumstances for throwing a yellow flag still aren’t clearly defined.

During a long, green-flag run, William Byron had contact with Ty Dillon that resulted in Byron doing a half spin. Byron saved it, gathered the car back up after momentarily slowing and kept rolling.

NASCAR called a caution, labeling it as “#13, 24 Incident Turn 4” on the official race report.

Shortly after the ensuing restart, Erik Jones got damage that ended up giving him a flat tire and a torn fender. He limped around the track, shedding potential debris, while unable to get down to pit road. He finally did — under green — and there was no caution called.

The difference between those two moments seemed slight. If either was caution-worthy, it might have been Jones over Byron. But the Jones incident didn’t really go with the flow of the race, while Byron’s half-spin came at a time when a caution was helpful to reset the field.

So when is a caution necessary and when is it not? Is it a 100-percent safety-related decision? Does the flow of the race help determine when a yellow comes out? I don’t know those answers.

It would be nice to hear NASCAR lay out why a flag is thrown in some instances and why it is not in others. Perhaps it could even spell out what the tower deems caution-worthy for future races, because fans and competitors alike would benefit from that kind of transparency.

4. Panic time?

Chase Elliott finished second and could have won the race on Sunday.

His Hendrick Motorsports teammate, nine-time Martinsville winner Jimmie Johnson, was 24th — two laps down.

What gives? While it’s true Johnson hasn’t been his former self at Martinsville for awhile — aside from his 2016 win, he hasn’t finished better than ninth since 2014 — you wouldn’t have expected him to be so far off.

Surely there’s an explanation for this and the team has more answers, but as an outsider, it’s baffling. Johnson is still in amazing physical shape — he’s training for the Boston Marathon! — and presumably still has great hand-eye coordination. What’s lacking is the proper feel he needs from the car.

It’s one thing for Hendrick to miss it as a team at intermediate tracks. But at Martinsville, which should be an equalizer? And on a day when Elliott was performing so well? Seeing Johnson struggle like that is just strange, and it raises far more questions than answers.

5. More short tracks

Even though the race was tame by Martinsville standards (Sunday was only the fourth time since 1997 there were less than eight caution flags), it was still a better race than at most intermediate tracks.

Keselowski, despite being dominant, never really drove away. And there was always some battle going on somewhere on the track — as opposed to the field getting strung out and single-file.

Expectations color everything in NASCAR these days, and Martinsville definitely has very high expectations based on its history (especially in the fall races). This may not have lived up to the hype, but it was still a fine race.

So yeah. Let’s keep beating the “More Short Tracks” drum. Because a short track race on a bad day is still pretty decent.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Las Vegas race

 Five thoughts after Sunday’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway…

1. Expectations left unfulfilled

Imagine there’s a new movie coming out and it has all the buzz of a must-see blockbuster. Hollywood news outlets are pumping up the all-star cast, critics who have gotten sneak peeks say it’s Oscar-worthy and your timeline is filled with tweets about people who can’t wait to see it.

You can’t afford to miss out, so you buy advance tickets in the first hour they go on sale. You count down the days after months of hype, and finally — FINALLY — you settle into your seat with popcorn and a giant soda.

The lights dim. The movie starts. And…it’s just…OK.

Under normal circumstances, if you’d gone into the theater with standard expectations of what you want out of a movie, it’d be fine. This, though, feels like such a bummer.

This film wasn’t just supposed to be average; it was supposed to be AMAZING. You’d bought into the talk of how this movie could revolutionize Hollywood. Maybe it would even set a new standard for entertainment.

Not surprisingly, you’re quite unhappy about this development. Your emotions alternate between feeling deflated, disappointed and outright pissed — at yourself and those who oversold it — because it didn’t live up to your hopes.

You obviously get where I’m going with this, but that’s what happened Sunday in Las Vegas. The new rules package (how many times have you heard those three words together in the last year?) dominated the conversation for so long, and you’d read and heard everything there was to read and hear about it.

Then it debuted, to much ado. And it was just fine.

For a mile and a half track, it was quite a decent race. A good race by many historical standards.

But given how sky-high the expectations were, and the buildup and anticipation surrounding it…well, it felt like a letdown.

It sucks to feel that way about a race that had thrilling restarts, great battles for the lead and a close finish after a long green-flag run. When you’re expecting to see something epic, though, it’s hard to settle for pretty good.

2. What happened

Let’s back up for a moment and talk about why there was so much genuine hope espoused by many people in the garage. From officials to drivers to spotters to media, there w