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 was a public expectation of a wild Sunday that featured solid racing throughout the field. (It’s important to note I don’t think this was phony hype to trick people into watching, but rather a true belief in what was to come.)

The evidence for this was based primarily on four 25-lap “races” during the Las Vegas test in January, but it also extended to Saturday’s final practice — where drivers were all over the track.

If practice looks this good, imagine the race itself!

But once the rag dropped on Sunday, it was more spread out than even NASCAR officials thought it would be. The fact there were no cautions didn’t help, either — since restarts were the best part of the race.

As it turns out, the drivers weren’t surprised by this development. When I asked Martin Truex Jr., Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Brad Keselowski if they were caught off guard by the field breaking apart quicker than at the January test, they all said no.

“I knew they were going to break apart,” Stenhouse said. “Watching in the test, they started breaking away fairly quick — and there were cooler conditions then and less cars. I knew if they were breaking apart then, they were going to break apart here (with much warmer weather).”

Many of you were quick to point out on Twitter that you knew all along the drafting would look different under actual race conditions. Apparently you were right.

“The testing is never like racing,” Keselowski said.

It would have been nice if someone had said that before the race in order to set more realistic expectations for how Las Vegas. If they did, I missed it.

3. On the bright side

Whoever is the defending NASCAR champion has traditionally had a platform for opinions and had a receptive audience when stumping for change — at least among reporters eager to print any interesting viewpoints.

Joey Logano has yet to really use his platform for that purpose, although he had some very strong opinions about the Vegas race that reflected his optimistic nature and sunny outlook on life.

Logano enthusiastically endorsed the new rules package and was baffled to hear a reporter mention that fans on Twitter didn’t love it as much as Logano did.

“I don’t really know what to say if you don’t like that,” he said. “It’s not very often where you’re going to have a green flag run that long (100 laps) and have a finish that close between three cars. That’s something, I’ll tell you what.”

Logano said Vegas was a “great race” and said the new package was “a big thumbs up for the sport.”

“I thought the racing was awesome,” he said. “You’re side by side. There’s aggressive blocks and big moves and bumping and banging. That’s NASCAR, baby! I don’t really know what else to tell you.”

NASCAR itself (or at least the person speaking for NASCAR — competition chief Steve O’Donnell) took a more conservative approach to evaluating the race. O’Donnell said he “liked what I saw” but was also “not satisfied” at the same time. He said the package remained a work in progress.

“Was it tremendous improvement (over last year)? Probably not,” O’Donnell said. “But as a fan, you want to see lead changes. We saw that today. In the past with no cautions, we would have seen someone check out all race long and we wouldn’t have seen a lead change.”

Though most drivers either bit their tongue or were salty about how the package raced (coughKyleBuschcough), some indicated they’re just along for the ride.

“If it was entertaining to watch, then I don’t care (about how it raced),” Chase Elliott said. “That’s the main thing. If entertainment is produced, I’m happy to drive whatever it is.”

4. O caution flag, where art thou?

After flirting with a caution-free race twice last year, the Cup Series finally produced one on Sunday (not counting the pre-planned stage cautions, of course). That made for the first race without a “natural” caution flag since October 2002 at Talladega.

Of everything that happened Sunday, that was by FAR the most shocking. There was a real concern the race would be a total wreckfest, with drivers unable to handle ill-handling cars in traffic and on crazy restarts. There was actually a bet available at the Vegas sports books that had the over/under of “cars out of the race at the halfway point” at 1.5. I didn’t play it, but was thinking that bet would be the lock of all locks.

Instead, no cars were officially out of the race by the halfway point (and only one, Joey Gase, didn’t finish).

Even O’Donnell said he was surprised by the lack of cautions.

“You go back before the race, and I think even some of the media (said) — and it probably came from the garage — ‘We’re going to wreck the entire field. This isn’t going to be a race,’” he said. “Didn’t happen.”

Why not? According to Denny Hamlin, it’s because the cars can’t get close enough to each other once the field breaks apart following the restarts.

“Once it gets strung out like that, it’s honestly so tough to run kind of near someone — especially late in a run — that the chance of someone running into each other is less likely,” he said.

It will be fascinating to see if this becomes a trend in the new package, or whether Vegas was an anomaly.

5. TV’s role 

During a key moment of the race, when Team Penske teammates Keselowski and Logano were battling for the lead, viewers briefly lost perspective on the action. FOX was showing the race from Logano’s bumper cam, and the drivers suddenly had some sort of contact — but it was hard to tell what happened. A replay from a wider angle was never shown (unless I missed it, which is definitely possible).

That’s ironic, since Keselowski on Friday had stumped for NASCAR’s TV partners to “zoom the cameras out” when showing races.

“Whether it’s this rules packages or last year’s rules package, I just don’t feel like with the cameras zoomed in you can really appreciate all that’s going on,” he said. “If I was sitting on my couch watching the race, the first thing I would say is  ‘Zoom the cameras out!’ That’s what I’m saying when I watch an Xfinity Series race or something.

“I think more so than any rules change, the biggest thing we can do is try to give a better perception of how much great racing there is across the whole field.”

This year it’s going to be more important than ever for TV to offer enough of a glimpse to pull back and show the big picture of what’s happening — particularly since it seems like the leader may be tough to pass in clean air. The real racing may be a cluster of cars fighting for fifth rather than first.

Now, did FOX missed much action on Sunday? No. From what I saw live, the racing was often single-file on the bottom groove, so the TV angles may not have mattered. But as the season marches on, let’s hope Keselowski’s wish comes true and helps NASCAR give the rules package a fighting chance with viewers at home.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Atlanta race

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

1. Answer blanks

If it was possible to learn even less than we expected at Atlanta, that’s what happened. There were zero answers to anything, and nothing conclusive was revealed that would help shed any light on how this season will unfold.

For example:

— How did the new rules package perform? Trick question! That was only part of the new rules package, and Atlanta’s worn-out surface only offered a reflection of future races if you like looking in funhouse mirrors.

“This is a one-off race,” Clint Bowyer said. “There is no track we go to anymore that is as slick as this and as hard on tires.”

— Who was the fastest car? Debatable! Kyle Larson led the most laps and was great in clean air, but only finished 12th after he had to restart in traffic. Martin Truex Jr.’s chance at a win was denied because he couldn’t pass a lapped car for a long time. Kevin Harvick had bursts of speed but faded, and Brad Keselowski was a top-five car who capitalized on the timing of a caution.

“I got out of the car and I was like, ‘How did the 2 win?'” Erik Jones said. “I don’t think today is a good judge (of speed). It was an odd race.”

— Who is in trouble? No one! Yeah, Hendrick Motorsports’ top finisher was 15th, so that’s a bad day. But when everyone drafts at Vegas next week, Hendrick might be just fine. It’s definitely not a Chevy problem, because the Ganassi cars looked good. So who knows? I don’t. You don’t. They don’t.

As much as I’d LOVE to jump to conclusions about everything — the racing, the championship favorites, the potential playoff misses — there really aren’t any answers to be had.

That’s frustrating in some ways, but in other ways it keeps the intrigue going while the predictable racing — which was hated so much when the Big Three dominated last summer — is kept at bay.

2. Atlanta still Atlanta

If you didn’t know there was anything different about the cars, what would you have noticed about this year’s racing at Atlanta compared to last year?

The cars did seem noticeably slower from the press box view, and they also seemed to hang together on restarts a bit longer. Other than that, it looked like a typical Atlanta race — wild restarts followed by strung-out racing, long green-flag runs and an exciting finish out of nowhere.

The rugged surface makes it such a quirky place, I’m not sure there’s any form of stock car racing that would look any different over the course of 500 miles. I don’t care if it’s the Gen 5, Gen 6, Gen 7 or the Gen 12 (assuming the Gen 12 isn’t flying cars); Atlanta is just Atlanta, and if you show up expecting anything more, you’re going to be disappointed.

3. Keselowski guts it out

Do you remember the last time you had the stomach flu or food poisoning? Remember how it felt?

Whoa, whoa, whoa…I didn’t ask for details! Keep it to yourself, geez. No one wants to hear about that, and I’m surprised you would think this is the appropriate place to share your story.

Anyway, I’m guessing it was unpleasant for you. So it’s actually quite hard to even imagine someone racing for 500 miles — let alone winning the race — on the day after that happens.

Good for Keselowski, whose win was certainly surprising based on both his health and his car’s performance in qualifying (which was also ill).

A scientist or psychologist needs to come to NASCAR and do a study on why drivers seem to elevate their game when battling illness or pain. From Keselowski’s broken ankle win at Pocono to Denny Hamlin’s victories in 2010 and 2015 after knee injuries to Tony Stewart’s legendary poopy pants win at the Glen, drivers seem to be able to focus and perform even when not feeling well.

I’m guessing it has something to do with adrenaline and concentration masking the discomfort, but it’s quite fascinating no matter the reason.

4. Saving money on hearing aids

Remember the whole controversy about how NASCAR was considering reducing the noise of the engines? Well that actually happened as a side effect of the lower horsepower engines, and the result is actually quite pleasant.

The pedestrian tunnel at Atlanta requires people to walk down steps right next to the track, and I took that route Sunday while traveling from the press box to the infield late in the race.

In the past, I can remember having full ear protection in that spot and the cars somehow still being ear-piercing. But today it was noticeably more tolerable — so much that I experimented with not using any ear protection to see what it sounded like. Honestly, it was no problem.

Were the engines still loud? Oh, for sure. They just weren’t painfully noisy, which isn’t something I missed. So far, the volume with the 550 horsepower package seems to be “loud, but not too loud.” That’s not a bad thing.

5. Media Matters

You probably didn’t notice — because there’s no reason you would, really — but this weekend was the debut of a new media model NASCAR is trying. For the most part, it went great.

That’s important for fans because you’ll end up getting more content and exposed to more storylines when the media speaks with the drivers more often. In addition, reporters get exposed to more opinions and insight, which helps shape our understanding of what’s going on.

Some of the new media features include increased interview opportunities on Fridays, a requirement that every driver stop in a media bullpen after his qualifying lap, the fastest driver from each manufacturer speaking after final practice on Saturday and the top 10 drivers coming to a bullpen on pit road after the race.

That’s wayyy more access than the media was getting a year ago at this time, and NASCAR has now made such things mandatory. It’s not something you may be aware of on a weekly basis, but hopefully you’ll notice through the coverage from the outlets you regularly follow.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Charlotte Roval race

Five thoughts after Sunday’s first-round elimination race at the Roval…

1. Roval Love

There were so many things to love about the entire Roval weekend before the race even started. The hype was real, the freshness of a new course injected a boost of enthusiasm into a long season and the whole thing replaced a traditionally ho-hum event with a huge unknown.

Given all that, the Roval was probably going to be viewed as a success even if the race turned out to just be OK.

At least they tried something different!, people would say.

Most of it was a fuel-mileage affair, where drivers tiptoed around the track and kept themselves out of trouble — which honestly was fine! That was the smart thing to do, and the strategy and doubts over whether they could make it to the end on fuel offered enough intrigue to keep fans interested.

But then the race suddenly delivered on its potential for chaotic entertainment — and without crossing the line into shitshow territory. Brad Keselowski stuffed it into the Turn 1 wall and the other leaders followed him into the barrier like the old Lemmings computer game.

GAHHHH!!! WHAT WAS THAT!?!?!

As it turned out, it wasn’t even the craziest moment of the race. As the playoff elimination battle was unfolding behind the race leaders, Jimmie Johnson saw a chance and tried to pass Martin Truex Jr. for the win — only to ruin both of their races.

Just like that, Ryan Blaney drove through the spins and ended up being declared the first official winner in a Cup Roval race.

But the unofficial winners were many: Marcus Smith, the father of the Roval who saw his brainchild come to life in a majorly successful way; NASCAR, which continues to have an excellently fun second half of the season; and the fans who came from all over the country to check the Roval out for themselves, then surely left feeling like they got their money’s worth.

Damn. When NASCAR is good, it can be so, so, SO good. And this was one of those weekends. I got so much enjoyment out of the entire Roval experience; I can’t imagine anyone feeling otherwise.

2. The idea of going for it

Imagine you’re Jimmie Johnson on the last lap. You barely made the playoffs, haven’t won all season — and hear about it constantly — and now you see an opening to grab a victory with a last-turn pass in the playoffs.

Now tell me you’re NOT going to go for it there. Really? Come on. I don’t believe you.

Yes, Johnson screwed up. Yes, he threw his playoff hopes away. But those type of calculations can’t possibly be factored in during a split-second decision.

Gee, what if I try to pass him, but spin myself out and then get passed by seven cars and miss the next round?

There’s no WAY that would even enter a seven-time champion’s mind! Winning racers don’t think that way. He saw a chance and went for it. I don’t even think it was that much of a “just gonna send it!” type gamble; he just messed up.

“If I knew the outcome was going to be that, no (I wouldn’t have tried it),” he said. “I want to stay alive in the championship points. But I really felt like I could pull that pass off.

“I wish I could go back in time and let off the brakes a little bit and take that opportunity, because the championship is what we’re here for.”

Of course he regretted the move with hindsight factored in. But at the time, you wouldn’t want him to do anything differently.

Truex seemed to have a much harsher viewpoint, though. He showed his displeasure by spinning Johnson out after the race — which is understandable, given the lost opportunity to win and get five extra playoff points.

“(Johnson) wasn’t ever going to make it through that corner whether I was there or not,” Truex said. “Just desperation on his part and pretty stupid, really, if you think about it because he was locked into the next round and now he’s out. I guess if there’s a silver lining, that’s it.”

3. Larson’s epic last lap

Someday, when we compile all of the great NASCAR moments from the otherwordly talent that is Kyle Larson, let’s not forget the last lap of the Roval.

Larson was out of the playoffs for about 20 seconds until he somehow drove all the way around the track with a wrecked car and passed Jeffrey Earnhardt about 100 feet before the finish line.

I normally wouldn’t dedicate so much space to a single quote, but you’ve got to read how he described it:

I knew I was in bad shape, so I guess you could say (I was) giving up. I couldn’t even drive my car, it was so badly destroyed.

But then they said (Johnson and Truex) were all crashed and they were coming to the checkered. I was getting on the oval (in the traditional Turn 1 location), and they said they were starting to crash, so I ran hard. We had so much camber and toe in our car, they said if I ran fast, I would blow a right front. But I was like, “You’ve got to go.”

So I ran hard through (the oval Turns) 1 and 2 and through the (backstretch chicane), and then I blew a right front (in the) center of (oval Turns) 3 and 4 and plowed the wall.

I was like, “Crap. I don’t know if I’m going to be able to get down to make the (front) chicane.” But luckily, it came down off the banking and I could turn right OK.

So I got through the 16th corner, and then I hit the wall again on the front stretch, and (Earnhardt) was stalled the whole time. He was like 100 feet from the start/finish line. I could start to see him creep in when I was getting to 16. I was like, “Gosh, don’t go! Don’t go!” And we were able to make it. Hey, I was pretty lucky.

Amazing, right!? Check out those last few turns:

To add to the barely-made-it storyline, there’s this nugget: NASCAR gives drivers with damage three laps to meet minimum speed. Larson, who had no chance of getting back up to speed, was on his third lap.

So had the race been one lap longer, he would have been eliminated through that rule alone.

4. Oh yeah…the winner!

How have we gotten this far without talking about Ryan Blaney? He won the race, after all.

Blaney might have seemed unusually chill after the race in some of his interviews, but that was because he didn’t really know how to digest the win. He appeared almost apologetic at times, like a driver who wins a rain-shortened race or through some other fluke scenario.

This really wasn’t in the same category, though, since he put himself in position to win if something happened. The leaders have wrecked and given the win to the third-place car many times in racing history — though not necessarily very often on NASCAR’s biggest stage. The bottom line is he shouldn’t feel bad about it.

But Blaney also isn’t the type of guy to be overly impressed with himself or brag in the first place, so feeling like he didn’t really deserve it was consistent with his personality.

“You’re happy you won the race. You’re happy for the team to do that,” Blaney said. “But me personally inside, there’s some of me (that thinks) … you don’t want people to look at it as, ‘Oh, you just won because the two guys wrecked.’ And that’s what it was.”

Blaney said that scenario had never happened to him in any race he’d ever run — including quarter midgets as a kid. So he just wanted to remain humble while also acknowledging the victory was worth celebrating.

“You don’t want to be kind of overjoyed about it, I guess, but you have to have some pride in it,” he said. “It’s a weird feeling.”

5. Moving on

Two big names are out of the playoffs after Round 1 — Johnson and Denny Hamlin — while young drivers Erik Jones and Austin Dillon also saw their hopes of gaining additional playoff experience come to an end.

Left behind are only two Toyotas — Truex and Kyle Busch — and three Chevrolets — Larson, Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman.

Everyone else? Well, it’s a LOT of Fords. All of Stewart-Haas Racing and all of Team Penske has advanced to Round 2, setting up for a Ford-dominated playoffs just three years after the manufacturer was completely shut out of the final four.

I only correctly picked two of the eliminated drivers for Round 1 (Dillon and Jones), so take these next predictions with a grain of salt. (And yes, I’m updating my picks in the middle of the playoffs. Weak, I know.)

— Round 2: I can potentially see the second-round eliminations being less shocking than the opening three races. I’ll pick Bowman, Blaney, Aric Almirola and Clint Bowyer to get eliminated this round.

— Round 3: That sets up a final eight of Truex, Harvick, both Busch brothers, Keselowski, Joey Logano, Elliott and Larson. Out of those, Truex, Harvick, Keselowski and Kyle Busch will advance to the final four (not going out on a limb at all, in other words).

— Champion: I’ll stick with Harvick as my pick to win it all. For now.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Richmond playoff race

Five thoughts after Saturday night’s NASCAR playoff race at Richmond Raceway…

1. This week was about next week

I’ve never seen drivers so sketched about a race as they are about the Charlotte Roval. Even when Talladega was in the elimination slot, there still wasn’t this much uncertainty and outright fear over what kind of impact a single race could have on their playoff hopes.

And that apparently had an effect on how Richmond unfolded. Whereas the middle race of a playoff round is often the crazy one, this one was mostly tame. Saturday saw only one “natural” caution (aside from the two stage breaks), which was tied for the fewest in the Stage Era.

“I’m honestly shocked by what we saw today,” Brad Keselowski said. “I thought this would be a slugfest. I thought there would be five cars running at the end. I think all these guys are so scared of next week, they didn’t want to dare put a fender on each other.”

It makes sense, right? The Roval is the biggest unknown to hit NASCAR in years. No one knows what the race will be like or how bad the attrition will be.

And it’s a playoff elimination race, at that!

Jimmie Johnson, currently on the outside of the playoff bubble, said he had “no clue what to expect” and plans to drive however is “the easiest way to survive.”

“(The Roval) is a hard enough lap to make on your own without any other cars out there,” Johnson said.

Keselowski, who is already locked in for the second round, said he’ll have “as much fun as you can have going into a race knowing you’re going to destroy about 30 cars.”

So instead of Richmond following in the footsteps of a wild opener at Las Vegas, it turned out to be more of an opportunity for drivers to hold serve and try not to screw themselves before they ever get to Charlotte.

2. Non-verbal communication

Kyle Busch and Keselowski don’t speak, so almost all their communication comes through their actions on the track or reading what the other had to say in an interview.

Richmond added another small chapter to their long rivalry. Keselowski passed Busch for the lead with 58 laps to go, but Busch caught him back about 10 laps later and they battled hard for the position.

When Busch pulled up in front of Keselowski after completing what turned out to be the race-winning pass with 36 laps to go, Keselowski gave him a mild shot to the back bumper.

“We rubbed a little bit,” Keselowski said. “Nothing big.”

But Busch didn’t like it. An NBCSN replay zoomed in to show Busch holding his hand out the window, palm open.

What did it mean?

“That was just, ‘C’mon, man,'” Busch said.

“I spent a lot of time racing hard with him, and it was good to be able to do that cleanly on my part,” Busch said. “And then when you spend 15, 20 laps trying to pass the guy and you get run into right as soon as you pass him, it’s kind of like, ‘Come on, man. Really?’ But oh well.”

Busch’s biggest gripe with Keselowski over the years is they always seem to run into each other when they’re racing. So Saturday probably won’t help.

For his part, Keselowski has tried to extend the olive branch in the past and does his best to practice a personal credo of “truth and grace.” But Busch tests that more than anyone.

“I don’t try to read his mind,” Keselowski said when asked for his interpretation of Busch’s hand gesture. “That’s the last place I need to be.”

As NASCAR’s only true, ongoing rivalry, it wouldn’t exactly be a terrible thing for the sport if their bad blood started boiling again in the midst of the playoffs.

3. September surprise

Of all the drivers in the playoffs, the easiest pick for first-round elimination seemed to be Austin Dillon. And you can’t blame people (like me) for feeling that way; he was the only driver outside the top 16 in points to make the playoffs, which made him an obvious choice.

But damn if Dillon isn’t putting together a nice little run through the first two races. He opened by finishing 11th at Las Vegas, then pulled off the surprise result of the Richmond race by running sixth. And that was no fluke finish; he ran in the top 10 for almost the entire race.

Now Dillon goes into the Roval with a 10-point cushion over the cutoff spot. It’s not much, but it’s better than being on the outside.

So where did this come from? Dillon seems to have picked the perfect time to have his first back-to-back top-12 finishes of the season.

“It’s heart, man,” he said. “That’s what we do at RCR. We might not have everything, but we’ve got a big heart and we’re going to work hard to do it.”

4. A word about Kyle

I didn’t want to start with this item, lest the angry mob of Kyle Busch haters suddenly close the browser window without reading the rest of the post-race column.

But, um…Busch is really, really good. It’s just that his brashness and unapologetically abrasive nature often blinds people to what we’re all witnessing.

In this case, we just witnessed a 33-year-old pass racing legend Tony Stewart on NASCAR’s all-time wins list — in 128 fewer starts.

Fifty wins already, and Busch is barely entering what are normally the prime years of a driver’s career. Jimmie Johnson, who now has 83 wins, only had 43 when he was Busch’s age.

The biggest question is: How high up NASCAR’s all-time wins list can Busch get? He’s tied for 11th now with Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson.

Specifically, I’m wondering if Busch can catch Jeff Gordon’s 93 wins. Even David Pearson’s 105 doesn’t seem out of reach.

That’s a lonnnng way to go, to be sure. But if Busch can somehow pass Pearson for No. 2 on the all-time list in this era, that achievement might put him as the greatest driver ever — no matter how many championships he’s able to win.

5. The bubble

From the time the schedule came out, the Roval has been perhaps the most anticipated race of the 2018 season. And now it’s finally here.

“I don’t know if I’ve seen more talk about something than the Roval, really,” Joe Gibbs said.

So what’s that going to do to the points picture? Well, it could be anything. Great analysis, I know. But seriously! Your guess is as good as anyone’s.

Only three of the 12 spots are clinched heading into the elimination race, although Kevin Harvick is all but through. But there’s a LOT to be decided among the remaining drivers.

For example: Would you feel comfortable heading into the Roval if you were only 25 points ahead of the cutoff? Because that describes fifth-place Joey Logano, which means everyone below him is even less secure.

This is going to be insane, and I honestly cannot wait. Here are the current points:

Clinched: Martin Truex Jr. (points), Kyle Busch (win), Brad Keselowski (win).

Almost clinched: Kevin Harvick.

Everyone else:

Joey Logano +25

Aric Almirola +23

Kyle Larson +17

Kurt Busch +15

Chase Elliott +10

Austin Dillon +10

Alex Bowman +5

Ryan Blaney +4

——

Clint Bowyer -4

Jimmie Johnson -6

Erik Jones -21

Denny Hamlin -29

 

 

 

 

 

 

Playoffs Media Day podcast with NASCAR drivers

In this goofy special edition of the podcast, half of the NASCAR playoff drivers took a few minutes on Media Day in Las Vegas to discuss a variety of subjects. Topics include Ryan Blaney’s Twitter emoji, what reporting style they’d use if they became a media member, Kyle Larson’s upcoming mid-playoffs wedding and the proper dress code for a racetrack. The podcast features appearances from (in order): Denny Hamlin, Kyle Larson, Erik Jones, Ryan Blaney, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch, Alex Bowman and Martin Truex Jr.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Brickyard 400

Five thoughts after Monday’s race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway…

1. Keselowski a threat?

Ever since the “Big Three” entered the NASCAR lexicon in June, the obvious question has been: Which driver is the fourth? After all, having a four-man championship race requires more than just a Big Three.

Brad Keselowski won the Southern 500 last week, but just one race is nothing to get too excited about when it comes to championship contention. He hadn’t even won all year before Darlington.

But now Keselowski has won two in a row — and two of the biggest races of the season, at that — which makes him a lot harder to ignore entering the playoffs. When you combine Keselowski’s knack for managing the elimination system with his team’s ability to capitalize on opportunities like it has the last two weeks, that could be dangerous even for rivals who have more raw speed.

As we all know, the fastest car doesn’t always win in NASCAR — and the fastest four cars definitely don’t always make it to Homestead. Keselowski suddenly has the fourth-most playoff points (19), and I’d hate to be a driver having to beat him in a must-win situation.

Momentum is real in racing. So I’ve seen enough to pick Keselowski as my fourth playoff driver for Homestead (my complete predictions are in Item No. 5).

2. Unrestricted racing

This may very well have been the last unrestricted Brickyard 400 for the foreseeable future. So it’s fitting it ended with a classic, NASCAR-style finish.

On a restart with three laps to go, Clint Bowyer spun the tires and opened the door for Keselowski to challenge Denny Hamlin for the race lead. Despite Keselowski having fresher tires, he had to use every move in his driver bag of tricks to get by Hamlin as they were coming to the white flag.

What we saw were two drivers going all out and doing everything they could while operating at their peak talent level in order to win. It was the kind of moment that makes NASCAR so special.

But that’s likely going away soon. The All-Star aero package (or whatever your name for it is) was used in the Xfinity race earlier Monday, and you get the feeling most fans would say they preferred that racing over the Brickyard 400 itself.

NASCAR reportedly wants to run that package in up to 14 Cup races next year, and the Brickyard will certainly be one of them. And it works better here than other places.

At the same time, that is going to be tough to swallow. The idea of the Brickyard 400 — even with stages and competition cautions and the like — still has a purity. It’s the best stock car racers on the planet pushing themselves to the absolute limit and forcing their equipment to race on the edge of disaster. The best drivers often win the battle.

That might be the case in the future as well, but it will be more of a coincidence. Pack racing and drafting takes a different skill set, and it doesn’t take the same incredible talent to just run wide open around a 2.5-mile course.

So I’ll miss Cup races like today’s, even if it was boring at times compared to the Xfinity race. Because when it was all said and done, it felt more like real racing than what the future appears to hold.

3. One-day show for the win

Hey, did you notice NASCAR held two races without a single practice or qualifying lap on Monday — and had no problems whatsoever?

No one has dared to start a Cup race without some laps on the track since I can remember (2004 until now), although the weather has always allowed for some on-track activity before the race.

It turned out just fine, though. The drivers and engineers don’t need practice. They honestly don’t even need qualifying.

This proves NASCAR could easily do a one-day show if it wanted to. Show up to a track on a Wednesday night, give teams a 30-minute shakedown practice at 2 p.m., qualify at 4 p.m. and race at 7 p.m. It would be a great event and probably wouldn’t turn out any different if it was a three-day weekend with four hours of practice.

Officials should at least try it a couple times to see if it can work. After Indy, it seems like it would be an easy way to condense the season schedule without actually losing any races.

4. On the outside

As the playoffs begin, we bid farewell to the once-promising seasons of several drivers.

Jamie McMurray had made the playoffs for three straight seasons and everyone figured his consistency would get him back again this year. Instead, he finished the regular season ranked 21st in points and had news of his imminent departure from a full-time ride at Chip Ganassi Racing reported before Monday’s race.

Daniel Suarez, who finished the regular season 20th in the standings, was unable to capitalize on the great speed shown by Joe Gibbs Racing almost all season long. His three teammates made the playoffs while he did not. Meanwhile, reports have Truex replacing Suarez in what is currently the No. 19 car next season.

Then there’s Ryan Newman, who has made the playoffs seven times but was the first driver out this season. His future at Richard Childress Racing is in doubt as well.

Paul Menard couldn’t make the playoffs in his first season at Wood Brothers Racing, although Ryan Blaney did it in the same ride last year. And William Byron missed the playoffs in his rookie year as his three Hendrick Motorsports teammates all got through (albeit taking two of the last three spots).

5. Playoff predictions

I recorded a preseason playoff predictions podcast with Bubba Wallace in January. The results: I got 13 of the 16 drivers (I had Newman, McMurray and Byron instead of Austin Dillon, Alex Bowman and Aric Almirola) and Wallace got 12 correct (he had Newman, McMurray, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and himself instead of Almirola, Bowman, Kurt Busch and Clint Bowyer).

So I’m not exactly that great at predictions, but I’ll try again anyway for the playoffs.

In the first round, it will be Dillon, Bowman, Blaney and Jones getting eliminated.

In Round 2, Johnson’s shot at Championship No. 8 will end, along with Almirola, Kurt Busch and Logano.

When it gets down to the final eight drivers, it will be a shocking elimination for Truex, along with Bowyer, Hamlin and Larson.

Then it will come down to the final four: Kyle Busch, Harvick, Keselowski and Elliott — with Harvick winning his second title over Busch.

Brad Keselowski’s pit crew adds to Kyle Larson’s string of frustration

By John Haverlin

If Kyle Larson’s final pit stop were a mere tenth of a second quicker, he probably would have beaten Brad Keselowski off pit road and won the Southern 500.

Larson’s No. 42 car had looked untouchable all night. He swept the first two stages and led 284 of the 367 laps at Darlington. But when it came down to the key moment of the race, it was Keselowski’s crew that turned a lightning-fast stop instead of Larson’s.

Once again, the Chip Ganassi Racing driver came away with a frustrating ending to what could have been a perfect night. For two consecutive races, he’s settled for something short of what he might’ve deserved. It’s not that his pit crew was bad during the race; it just didn’t have the extra bit of speed necessary to top Keselowski’s group.

“We didn’t get beat off pit road by much, but it was enough,” Larson said. “Being the control car at any racetrack is huge, and we just didn’t have that. … Just lost a little bit of our edge there for the restart and I was pretty loose on that last run and lost a lot of ground there.”

Although he didn’t dominate Bristol two weeks ago, he was the pole winner and finished second to Kurt Busch. For the final 13 laps of that race, he pushed as hard as he could to catch the Stewart-Haas Racing car. 

The Bristol night race is an event Larson has said is the one he wants to win more than anything in NASCAR — other than maybe the Daytona 500. It was agonizing for him to not win after going to victory lane the day before in the Bristol Xfinity Series race.

Now to come up short again after dominating one of NASCAR’s most historic races is just another punch in the gut.

But Larson sees the silver lining: He gained two playoff points and earned 54 of a possible 60 points overall. That’s the type of performance that can help him in a few weeks when the competition intensifies during the postseason.

“We got some stage points, which is good for the playoffs,” he said. “Disappointed, but happy about the car we brought.”

So was there a difference for the No. 2 team during the race? Well, actually there was.

Winning crew chief Paul Wolfe admitted the pit crew did something new, but he wouldn’t reveal the secret.

“If you watch closely, you’ll probably see a difference, but I’m not going to talk about it a lot,” he said. “We’ve had an up-and-down year on pit road, and we continue to try and work on that and get better. We did some different things tonight, and we’re still learning — a good bit of confidence for those guys going into the playoffs.”

Keselowski’s Ford was a top-five car all night, and Team Penske finished 1-2, so you can’t take that away from Joey Logano and his race-winning teammate. Penske has been a ‘B’ team compared to the Big Three of Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. most of the year, but it found something in the setups this weekend that no one else could replicate.

“I’ve got to give a lot of credit to my pit crew,” Keselowski said. “We were running second and that last stop they nailed it and got us out in the lead. I thought Kyle was really good, and he was flat-out flying. … In 2015, we led a bunch of laps and lost it on the last pit stop, and today my team won it on the last pit stop.”

Does Keselowski know what his team did to help him beat Larson off pit lane?

“I’m not privy to that information, so I couldn’t tell you,” he said. “But I’ll take it, whatever it was.”