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.

12 Questions with Chase Elliott (2018)

(Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

The series of 12 Questions interviews continues this week with Chase Elliott of Hendrick Motorsports. These interviews are recorded as a podcast but also transcribed for those who prefer to read.

1. How often do you have dreams about racing?

Racing’s weird. A lot of times I lay in bed at night — I don’t go to sleep very quickly — and I’ll think about it a little bit before going to bed. Especially if it’s race weekend or something like coming (to Sonoma), kind of running laps around the road course in your head. And when I do that, I never fall asleep, so it kind of keeps me up. So my mind wanders elsewhere.

The last dream I had about racing was, somehow or another I was running the Indy race somewhere. Actually it was an F1 race. Weirdest thing ever. And I get in the race, qualified like third or fourth, and we’re going out to the grid. We’re about to get into the cars and I realize I didn’t have my suit on. I was in my street clothes, and I had to go run and change really fast and I missed the start of the race. Nightmare, basically.

Lewis Hamilton’s not going to let you win when that happens.

No, definitely not.

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

I think it kind of depends on the circumstance and whether or not the other person knows whatever drove to that contact in that situation. Sure, if I get into somebody — whether it’s on accident, on purpose, whatever — I do think if an explanation is needed, it’s probably in your best interest to at least say something. You race around the same people every week, so you’re gonna be around that person again and they can make your life easier or harder.

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

Within racing, I just think the kind of competitor you are. If somebody’s bragging on the type of competitor you are and how you conduct yourself, I think that’s a pretty big compliment regardless of performance. I just think if you’re appreciated and respected from your peers, I think you’re doing something right. It’s not necessarily a compliment, but if respect is there, I think that’s a pretty big one in itself and you can typically tell whether someone respects you or not. I think that goes a long way.

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

I had a chance to hang out with Daniel Ricciardo from the F1 side (at Texas last fall). He’s not a celebrity — a California celebrity — but obviously a very well-known racer. Had a lot of fun with that.

I think kind of keeping it in the racing community, hanging out with people that understand what you have going on is a lot more fun than hosting somebody that has no clue. I’m a fan of different things. But hosting other people within a type of racing, I think is very cool because they know a lot about racing,

Obviously if they’re invited here, they are well-known in whatever area they race in. And they know a lot about it, they just don’t know a lot about this kind of racing, and I don’t know a lot about their kind of racing. So it’s an easy cross and an easy thing to talk about the differences and similarities as well.

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

No, absolutely not. No. I’ll take my chances.

6. It’s time for the Random Race Challenge. I’ve picked a random race from your career and you have to tell me where you finished. This is the 2015 Kentucky Fall race for Xfinity. It wasn’t really the fall, but second Kentucky race.

Second Kentucky race 2015 — was it repaved yet? No, it was not repaved in 2015. I wanna say we finished either second or third to Brendan Gaughan?

Nope, this was P4.

P4, I was close.

Blaney won this race.

That’s right.

You remember this?

I remember that now. There was another one, we had a real huge race with Brendan Gaughan and I think Ty Dillon, us three raced really hard there at the end for a race. That might have been the first Kentucky that year, maybe it was in ’14. But I remember that one too.

How good are you at remembering races in general?

Depends on the race. If something memorable happens or you’re up towards the front and you’re contending — I feel like I remember a lot more from when I’m contending or am relevant in a race. When you’re back there rooting and gouging for 15th, 12th or worse, I try to forget those really fast.

7. Who is the best rapper alive?

I’m a J. Cole fan, so I think he’s pretty good for a rapper. I don’t know a lot about the rapping world, but always kind of liked his music.

8. Who has the most punchable face in NASCAR?

I think it depends on the week. To be honest with you, I feel like that probably changes often. I had a favorite there last fall. You all can figure that one out.

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

That’s pretty funny. I’m going to say LeBron on the crew chief side because his ability to remember plays in a game is very impressive to me. I’m going to say Tom Hanks spotting because I think he’ll keep his mouth shut. And Taylor Swift can drive the motorhome just because I would get to hang out with her more in that sense, so that would be a good option for her.

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

Finding one that nobody else is going to. That’s the key, going off the beaten path. When Dale Jr. was here, there was one in his hauler, so I went there every Sunday before the race. And then this year, for some reason — there’s a lot of people not happy about this, me being one of them — it’s no longer there. They turned it into an IT room to house a bunch of the electronics and whatnot. I always went there. So this year has been tough. That’s an important part of your Sunday is getting that done at the right time.

11. NASCAR misses the highlight reel value brought by Carl Edwards’ backflips and decides a replacement is needed. How much money would they have to pay you to backflip off your car after your next win?

I couldn’t. I cannot backflip off the side of a car, so the price would be high. Real high.

12. Each week, I ask a driver to give me a question for the next interview. Last week was Ricky Stenhouse Jr. He wants NASCAR to race at Bristol on Wednesday nights once a month as points races. Would you be up for that?

I would entertain that idea. Bristol’s pretty close to me and that’s a fun place, so why not?

The next interview is going to be with Aric Almirola. Do you have a question I can ask him?

To be honest with you, I don’t really know Aric that well.

That’s so interesting to me when drivers say that. I think it was Noah Gragson who tweeted you this week and he’s like, “Chase Elliott knew who I was!” I was like, “Why would Chase Elliott not know Noah Gragson? Of course he knows that.”

Well, I think he was being a little sarcastic. Maybe he wasn’t, but I’m pretty certain he was. But yeah, I thought he did a good job there at Iowa, put on a show. So that was fun to watch for me.

But as far as for Aric, I don’t know. Really the most I’ve learned about him in recent times was his show he did, I guess, he went to Cuba, right?

Yeah, FS1 did a feature on that.

But I think kind of keep it more on a racing side. … Obviously his switch, he has an opportunity to drive some really good cars this year. What does he feel like SHR does as a whole is better or what his favorite part about being there now is? What is the best thing that’s helped him from where he’s been in years past? I think that will be interesting to know.


Previous 12 Questions interviews with Chase Elliott:

April 15, 2014

May 6, 2016

Aug. 23, 2017

 

NASCAR driver popularity in the Dale Jr. Era

Since Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the Most Popular Driver award 15 straight times, there’s no dispute which driver was the most liked by fans in the last decade and a half.

But who were the other popular drivers during that time? Well, we actually know the answer to that question because the National Motorsports Press Association (which administers the award) has released a top 10 of the voting each year since Earnhardt first won it in 2003.

Only seven of the current 10 most popular drivers will return next season — Ryan Blaney, Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne, Kyle Larson and Martin Truex Jr. That’s in alphabetical order, because the NMPA no longer releases the order of the final voting (they used to not only release the order, but also the vote totals).

Who will the other three be? It seems fairly wide open at the moment.

That’s because only two active drivers — Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski — have ever made the top 10 in the past and failed to make it this year.

All other active drivers — including the likes of Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano and Clint Bowyer — have never appeared on the top 10 list.

At the bottom of this post, I’ve compiled a spreadsheet of all the data dating back to 2003. But first, a few observations:

What happened to Harvick? This is the biggest mystery from the voting. Harvick was the third-most popular driver in 2003 and 2004, then dropped to the bottom half of the list over the next decade — but was still in the top 10 for every year from 2003-13. But he has now missed the top 10 in three of the last four years (starting with the year he won the championship, oddly enough). Perhaps it’s because he’s been more affected than anyone with old-school fans abandoning the sport (assuming his fan base early on had a large portion of Dale Sr. fans after he took over that ride in 2001). What are some other theories?

— Truex on the rise. Martin Truex Jr. never made the top 10 in voting until the past two seasons — this despite being a full-time driver since 2006.

— New faces emerge. Ryan Blaney and Kyle Larson both made the top 10 in voting for the first time this season. Chase Elliott has made it in each of his first two years.

— Streak continues. Of the remaining active drivers, who has the longest streak of making the list? It’s a tie between Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne, who have both appeared every year since 2004. But while Johnson has typically been in the bottom half of the voting when the order has been revealed, Kahne is usually toward the top (and got as high as second in 2013).

— That 2014 list! Seven of the 10 drivers from 2014 are no longer in the sport full time. Of course, that’s a bit misleading since Josh Wise made the top 10 that year based on the Reddit push. But the other six drivers (Earnhardt, Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Danica Patrick and Tony Stewart) took up a combined 68 spots in the top 10 over 15 years — and that’s going to be hard to replace.

Here’s the spreadsheet I compiled if you want to look at the raw data. “Yes” signifies they appeared in the top 10 that year; in years when the NMPA released the order, the driver’s position in the top 10 is noted.