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 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 Texas playoff race

Five thoughts after Sunday’s NASCAR playoffs race at Texas Motor Speedway…

1. Ford goodness’ sake

After yet another Ford-dominated weekend — Ford drivers combined to lead 321 of the 337 laps at Texas — Martin Truex Jr. brought up a solid point.

What if the Toyotas were crushing everyone like the Fords are now?

“If this is last year, they would all be complaining we’re too fast,” Truex said on pit road. “So I don’t know if I should do a (Brad) Keselowski and start whining about it or not. They’re really fast, and if we’re off just a little bit, we can’t run with them.”

That was the case at Texas, as none of the top Toyotas — or Chevrolets, for that matter — could hang with the Fords. And with only two weeks to go in the season, nothing is going to change before Homestead. It’s a Ford world now.

In all likelihood, that means Texas race winner Kevin Harvick is going to head to Miami as the heavy favorite for the championship. I’d even put Joey Logano above Truex and Kyle Busch at this point, since they just don’t have the raw speed the Fords seem to.

It’s not a given Harvick will win it all — Jimmie Johnson won his most recent championship as the fourth-fastest car among the title contenders — but the final four is going to feel more like “Harvick and Friends” than “The Big Three and Joey.”

Who is going to beat the No. 4 team aside from themselves?

“I feel as a team we’ve been strong down there,” crew chief Rodney Childers said. “Last year going into Homestead, I felt we didn’t have the cars to run for a championship, and we almost ran with them. So overall I think we have good cars right now.

“Everybody has done a great job. It’s just going to come down to executing and doing the best we can on pit road.”

I feel like I’ve written this a zillion times in 2018, but it’s still Harvick’s championship to lose.

2. Veteran move

Experience still matters sooooo much in today’s Cup Series, and that’s why drivers like Harvick can make the difference in crunch time situations.

Just look at Texas. Harvick got beaten by Ryan Blaney on a late restart, but he patiently caught back up and stuffed his car underneath Blaney’s in Turns 1 and 2 for what seemed like the winning pass. It was a pretty slick move that appeared easier than it was.

Then, on the overtime restart, Harvick switched up the strategy and started on the top — something no leader had chosen to do all race. If anyone doubted him, though, it worked — he easily cleared Blaney and sailed on to victory.

Blaney, to his credit, anticipated Harvick’s decision.

“I figured he wouldn’t make that move three times,” Blaney said. “We almost cleared him the first restart up top. Then I did on the second one. I figured he’d take the top.

“You get beat in one, you almost get beat the next one, you’re going to take the top, not restart on the bottom.”

Blaney can put that in his memory bank for the future, and that’s valuable. Those kind of scenarios can’t be simulated or pre-planned — only learned through actually being in those environments. But the winning veterans, like Harvick or Keselowski or Kyle Busch, already have those situations in their driver toolkits.

3. NASCAR mistake

Fans are continuing to light up NASCAR officials after Jimmie Johnson was mistakenly sent to the back of the field prior to the race.

For what it’s worth, NASCAR apologized in person to Chad Knaus and Hendrick representative Jeff Gordon, then told the media (through executive vice president Steve O’Donnell) the error was “unacceptable” and “disappointing.” O’Donnell vowed to make sure it wouldn’t happen again.

It was certainly a big mistake, and this isn’t the first time NASCAR has goofed on a call. It seems to happen more often than anyone would like, which is inexcusable.

That said, I remember the not-too-distant past, when NASCAR officials never would have admitted fault on something like this and instead made up some B.S. reason to justify the call. They’d say something like, “Oh, that’s our policy now. You didn’t know that?” Seriously, I feel like that used to be practically commonplace. I hated that about covering this sport; it drove me nuts.

Now NASCAR has a tendency to admit fault and apologize when something like this happens. Yeah, the whole thing isn’t good, and acknowledging an error doesn’t erase the error — but at least it takes some of the sting out of it.

4. Texas needs help

It’s time to stop racing 1,000 miles per year at Texas Motor Speedway.

The repave and reconfiguration hasn’t made for good racing in the Cup Series, this time even drawing the ire of typically mild-mannered Chase Elliott.

Elliott said Texas is “a really frustrating racetrack ever since they ruined it two years ago” and added: “I don’t know what genius decided to pave this place or take the banking out of (Turns) 1 and 2, but not a good move for the entertainment factor, in my opinion.”

Texas wasn’t very entertaining before, and now it’s gotten worse. A controversial new rules package will arrive for Cup next year, which could make the racing better — but it’s also going to make it a lot longer.

With the cars going slower, the 3.5-hour average time of the Texas races could creep closer to four-hour territory. Is that really necessary?

Even Texas president Eddie Gossage, by all accounts a great promoter, can’t do much with the racing product recently. Gossage’s customers have told him they don’t want any races to be shortened — they want more miles for their dollars — but given the sparse attendance on Sunday, is that even a consideration anymore?

A 300-mile race could be a lot more entertaining at Texas, since it could promote urgency and take away the time where drivers can just log laps. Either that, or it could be a chance for NASCAR to try a timed, three-hour race — just as an experiment.

Neither of those ideas could make it any worse, right?

5. Points drying up in the desert

At first glance, it doesn’t look like NASCAR is in store for much drama at Phoenix. The points are blown wide open, with the two remaining spots held by drivers who are at least 25 points ahead of the cutoff.

Kurt Busch isn’t in a must-win situation, but close. He’d need a lot of help. Meanwhile, Chase Elliott, Aric Almirola and Clint Bowyer have to win Phoenix or will miss out on the final four.

But if there is a new winner among that group, things could get interesting very quickly. Kyle Busch and Truex would be in position to battle for the last spot on points, and they’re only separated by three at the moment.

“We might be racing the 78,” Busch crew chief Adam Stevens said. “We’ve got to out-run the 78 to make sure we’re OK, then hope there is a repeat winner or a non-(playoff) winner, I guess.”

If anyone can do it, the pick would be Elliott. He has the second-best average ever at Phoenix (6.8, second only to Alan Kulwicki) in his five career starts. He’s never finished lower than 12th there and has a second- and third-place result in his last two Phoenix races.

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.”

(TWO MONTHS LATER)

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?

Absolutely.

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 Kansas playoff race

Five thoughts following Sunday’s Round 2 elimination race at Kansas Speedway…

1. Contenders narrow

It’s been 14 races since Martin Truex Jr. won. It’s been 10 since Kevin Harvick won. Kyle Busch has one win in the last 11 races.

And yet, regardless of how each team is running, the Big Three have to be thrilled with how the playoffs are shaping up at this point.

That’s because the drivers who would seem to be the biggest threats to beat them at Homestead keep getting eliminated. Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin were out after Round 1, and now Kyle Larson and Brad Keselowski are gone after Round 2.

Chase Elliott is perhaps the favorite to get the last Homestead spot right now, but can you really picture someone other than a Big Three driver winning the title? With apologies to the remaining five challengers, none of those remaining have the experience and history at Homestead that the Big Three brings.

Anything can happen, of course, and none of the remaining drivers are pushovers. It’s just that Homestead seems to require an extra level of speed and execution. Given the increased pressure and performance demanded by a championship situation, having been in that spot before — and achieving the ultimate goal — really does count for a lot.

2. What to make of Round 2?

Brad Keselowski won three straight races bridging the start of the playoffs, giving a false impression of how good his team really was. Keselowski himself was frank about the streak all along, saying he didn’t have the fastest car in any of the three races he won. But when a team goes on a roll like that, the momentum feels impossible to ignore. Suddenly, everyone had Keselowski penciled in to Homestead.

Then came a ninth-place finish at Richmond, a crash while leading the Roval and finishes of 14th, 27th and sixth in Round 2. Just like that, Keselowski was out.

Now Elliott has won two races in three weeks, and has seemed to be running better in general as the fall approached. That said, is Elliott’s recent run that different than Keselowski’s? Wins shouldn’t be ignored, but in terms of making a statement, it’s Harvick who was going to win both the races Elliott won — including on Sunday — without self-inflicted mistakes on pit road (one by the team, one by the driver).

So it’s tough to figure how seriously to take Elliott’s playoff hopes. He’s racing with confidence and his team is putting him in situations to capitalize on potential wins. Is that enough to put him in the Homestead conversation, though? I’m going to take raw speed over anything at this point in the season, and that still seems like Harvick every week.

3. SHR channeling JGR

All four Stewart-Haas Racing drivers advanced to Round 3, making up half of the playoff field heading into the last four races.

When is the last time such a feat occurred? Actually it was only two years ago, when all four Joe Gibbs Racing drivers — Busch, Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth — made it to the Round of Eight.

Kenseth and Hamlin were eliminated after Phoenix that year, with Busch and Edwards advancing to Homestead. Edwards then was infamously in position to win the championship until a late caution,  which reset the field, ended in a wreck with Joey Logano and ultimately turned out to be his final career race.

So how will this year unfold for SHR? Will more than one of its drivers get to the final four?

I’m going to say no. Harvick is a lock, but Aric Almirola, Kurt Busch and Clint Bowyer probably need to win a race during this round if they’re going to make it. That’s because there’s such a large playoff points deficit to the Big Three, and you would think at least one of that trio will need to advance on points.

Bowyer could win Martinsville, but so could a number of drivers. The best bet for other SHR contenders might be if a non-playoff team wins one of the races and opens up an extra spot to reach Homestead on points.

Otherwise, Harvick might be riding solo into the championship round despite having three teammates in the semifinals.

4. Stale schedule hurts Round 2

Kansas was an OK race. It got exciting at the end, when there was a late battle for the lead. But had the playoff elimination scenario not been present all day, it would have been your standard, ho-hum 1.5-mile track race.

Logano dominated the early part of the race in clean air, until Harvick took over and did the same. Aside from the stage breaks, there was only one caution — for oil on the track when William Byron blew up.

It was just another reminder that NASCAR’s No. 1 issue isn’t personalities or tires or rules packages, but the tracks themselves — and where those tracks fall on the schedule.

The excitement and freshness of Round 1 seems like a distant memory after a relatively uneventful Dover race, a disappointing Talladega and then Sunday’s event at Kansas. This round’s watchability was masked by the good fortune of two popular Elliott wins, which pump up many in NASCAR. Overall, though, Round 2 promised more thrills than were actually delivered.

But remember the chaotic playoffs opener at Las Vegas? The first-time playoff event at Richmond? The hype and craziness of the Roval? The playoffs had gotten off to such a good start and were part of a string of great races that spanned a couple months.

Thankfully, Martinsville lies ahead next week and Round 3 also contains Phoenix’s new layout with the start/finish line in a turn (which might not change much with the racing, but at least it’s something new to talk about).

Maybe this is a wacky theory, but is it possible a stale schedule can leak into the on-track product at times? When a race gets hyped so much that even the drivers buy into it, is it possible they race differently? Perhaps it’s just coincidence, but Round 1 was a hell of a lot more compelling than Round 2 — and that seems backward for a playoff format that usually picks up steam as it goes.

5. Frustration continues for racing in U.S.

One of the year’s most-attended races in the United States happened on Sunday, and it wasn’t the NASCAR race.

Formula One and NASCAR went head-to-head once again this season — same day, same time —  and it only figures to get worse next year when they run in the same state as well.

I understand the reasoning for both series — F1 goes all over the world and doesn’t really care what NASCAR does, and NASCAR doesn’t have much of a window to avoid F1 — but that still doesn’t make it productive for either.

Think about this: What if NASCAR held the Kansas race on a Saturday afternoon? Then it could have sent its drivers to flood the F1 paddock, where they would have been portrayed as celebrities to the worldwide TV feed, increasing the international profile of the stock car series. Conversely, F1 is trying to gain a foothold in the U.S. but can’t really do that without dipping into the NASCAR fan base, which is the largest and most receptive audience in this country.

It all seems so self-defeating when you think about the challenges all forms of racing face today. With so many smart people working in both series and the obvious crossover opportunities, a greater effort should be made to lift up both NASCAR and F1 — even if one has to give a little more than the other to make it work.

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.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Watkins Glen race

Five thoughts after Sunday’s race at Watkins Glen International…

1. The Amazing Chase

It’s just one win, and on a road course at that. So we probably shouldn’t view Chase Elliott’s first career victory on Sunday as some sort of watershed moment.

On the other hand, it’s tempting to think this changes everything.

Elliott has been living under a dark cloud — one created in his own mind — when it comes to his racing in the Cup Series. At times he has clearly felt inadequate and undeserving of even having his ride. That might sound crazy, but Elliott possesses a competitive mindset in which he knows what he is capable of — and feels he’s letting people down if he does not live up to it.

This bleeds through in everything he does, because it’s as if he doesn’t feel he’s even earned the right to act like he belongs until he proves he does. And in his mind, he should have proved it a long time ago.

Whatever any of Elliott’s critics have said about him? He already has thought those things about himself, so he’s more likely to agree than be offended. He believes driving for Hendrick Motorsports requires winning races and championships, and anything less is simply unacceptable.

So over these last few years, as wins have slipped away, Elliott hasn’t wanted to hear anyone’s words of consolation. Eight second-place finishes? Nice for some people, but not satisfying for him. He had to win.

On Sunday, though, there was a sense of real relief. He’s now a winner in the Cup Series. He gave Hendrick Motorsports its 250th victory. He is ready to take the torch as the face of the team in the future, ready to seize upon this confidence and win more.

He can and will — and must, in his mind.

“Definitely relief I would say would be one way to describe it,” he said. “I’ve left these races pretty down over the past couple years at times and had some great opportunities.

“I learned a lot about myself the past couple years. I’ve learned a lot racing in general. I felt like the end of last year I was probably (more) at the top of my game than I’ve ever been racing as a race car driver in general. … The past few weeks have been encouraging and I feel like we’ve been running more like we did last fall, which was really nice.

“No reason why we can’t do that more often.”

This really could be the type of situation where Elliott the high achiever takes those almost races and turns them into wins on a regular basis. He’s already elevated Hendrick beyond where its cars were typically running over the last couple years. Now that the team seems to be turning a corner as a whole? Well, it could just be the beginning for him.

Welcome to Chase Elliott’s world, everyone.

2. What if…

As great as Sunday turned out to be for NASCAR as a whole, let’s talk about what would have happened if things had gone sliiiiiightly differently.

Imagine for a moment if Elliott had blown Turn 1 on the final lap, allowing Truex to pass him (and not run out of gas, just for the sake of this scenario).

First of all, it would have been a masssive gut punch for a lot of NASCAR fans. A member of the Big Three would have won yet another race, and while snatching it from the driver who seems to have the largest support in the fan base at that.

Meanwhile, it would have been a tough blow for Elliott’s career overall. His reputation as a driver who was unable to close out races would have had a signature lowlight and it would have become that much harder to overcome those demons.

Honestly, it would have been uncomfortable to watch for both those on TV and in person.

Instead, Elliott not only got a win — but it was a resume-building one. He beat the best in the sport — passing Kyle Busch earlier in the race and then holding off Truex at the end — in a straight-up, non-fluky way.

How he did it is just as important as the fact he did it at all, in Elliott’s case.

“That’s just satisfying as a racer when you’re able to go and race with the guys who are dominating this deal right now — and actually be a legit contender and not back into one,” Elliott said. “That’s pretty cool.”

3. Road courses are back!

A ho-hum Sonoma race in June made me doubt my love of road courses for a moment there, but…phew! Watkins Glen brought it all back in a major way.

Damn, that was some good stuff! I’m not sure how anyone could watch that race and be bored or dissatisfied with their time investment in any way. Even when Busch was out front and building a lead in Stage 2, there was still entertaining and action-packed racing taking place.

As many have noted over these last few years, double-file restarts completely changed the quality of racing at road courses. These circuits put on a phenomenal show these days, maybe the best product NASCAR has to offer. Yes, consistently better than even short tracks at times.

One reason is they check all the boxes fans are concerned about. Fans are tired of hearing about aero (not much of a factor here) and inspection (35 of 37 cars passed on their first try) and they desire close racing (got it), lead changes (yep), passing (oh yeah) and a showcase for driver skill to come through (no doubt).

I’m not sure how the Roval will turn out this fall, but at least we get a shot to see one more Cup race in that style this season — and several more lower-series races. I wish there were even more road races on the schedule, but maybe someday.

By the way, that race was only 2 hours and 13 minutes — the shortest full-distance points race of the year. Do races need to be 3.5 hours to be enjoyable? Clearly not.

4. The remarkable Kyle Busch

It’s too bad so many fans can’t stomach Busch, because that seemingly stops them from being able to appreciate what he can do in a car every single week. I get much of it has been self-inflicted over the years with his attitude, but Busch might be the most purely talented NASCAR driver — ever.

Just look what he did during the final run on Sunday: After a fueling mishap, Busch restarted 31st and then drove all the way back to third. Third! He was passing the best of the best like it was nothing. That is insane!

Imagine if Busch was as well-liked as Elliott and people were going crazy over all his moves instead of hating on them. I honestly believe NASCAR would be a much different place in terms of popularity, because people would be tuning in for the Tiger-like dominance effect.

Alas…

5. Points picture

As always, the last item of the Top Five looks at the regular season points picture.

Elliott became this season’s eighth different winner, which means there are currently eight playoff spots available on points.

Those are currently held by Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Larson, Denny Hamlin, Ryan Blaney, Aric Almirola, Jimmie Johnson and Alex Bowman.

Honestly, there’s not much drama in the points right now — and with only Michigan, Bristol, Darlington and Indianapolis remaining, there might not be another new winner to shake it up.

The closest points battle is between Bowman and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., but they have more than an entire race’s worth of points between them (62!). And Paul Menard is 72 points behind Bowman, so he’s not close either.

Daniel Suarez, for all the gains he’s made lately, is still 89 points behind Bowman. He’ll have to win to make it.

If there were to be a new winner outside the top 16 in the last four regular season races, that would move the line up to Jimmie Johnson as the cutoff. The seven-time champ is currently 40 points ahead of Bowman, so he should be safe either way.