The Top Five: Breaking down the Phoenix spring race

Five thoughts after Sunday’s race at ISM Raceway…

1. Passing Pain

Kevin Harvick is the all-time leader in wins and laps led at Phoenix, so you’d figure he’s better at passing cars than anyone here.

But after Sunday’s race, Harvick said passing was “extremely difficult” — even for him — and he struggled to get around cars that were “six-, seven-, eight-tenths slower than us at the end of the race.”

What happened? Well, it appears this version of the 2019 rules package — last year’s horsepower level (750) combined with the giant spoiler — created a combination of speed and dirty air that drivers found difficult to overcome.

“It was really, really, really, really, really hard to pass,” Joey Logano said. “You start to catch a car and you just stop. That big spoiler on the back makes it really, really challenging to even get to the car in front of you to make something happen.”

Even race winner Kyle Busch noted he wouldn’t have been able to win unless Ryan Blaney got into lapped traffic toward the end of a long run — because Blaney “had the same problems I had (when) he’s behind other cars in front of him.”

“If it’s a 10-lap run, (the win) is his,” Busch said. “If it’s 20, 30, 40, 50 laps, it’s probably his race.”

But it was a 73-lap run, and that allowed Busch to take advantage of lapped cars. Otherwise…

“You were really stuck and mired behind guys,” he said.

At least one driver aside from Busch didn’t mind the conditions.

“I mean, it’s been really hard for me to pass anyone the last year and a half or two years,” Jimmie Johnson said after finishing eighth. “I know other are guys standing here complaining more, but shit, that’s the best I’ve run in awhile. So I’m good.”

2. Restarts all the rage

But hey, how about those crazy restarts? Those were cool; certainly the highlight of the race, much like Las Vegas.

Logano said restarts “became everything” because drivers knew if they got through the first couple laps of a restart and let the race settle out, they could pretty much stay there.

Kyle Larson started 31st and finished sixth, but credited restarts for most of his gains.

“I don’t think I made many actual green-flag passes — I felt like I just had some really good restarts,” he said. “Restarts were kind of what saved us. Once you got in line, it was hard to pass until the very end of that last run there (when the tires finally wore out).”

The other reason restarts were so wild, Logano said, was because the bigger blade on the back of the car gave more grip — so drivers were “sending it off in there.”

“They were able to be more aggressive on restarts,” Logano said. “But after that, it didn’t matter how aggressive you were — you weren’t going to get there. It was too hard to catch them.”

If the first few races are any indication, eye-popping restarts should become one of the themes of this season.

3. Strategy, strategy, strategy

Another theme of this season could end up being how teams adapt to the track position game by using tire strategy or pit road strategy.

It’s not just restarts, Denny Hamlin said, but pit crews and every part of strategy that matters even more now. Drivers simply can’t afford to lose any positions, because they might not get them back (or take them a very long time to do so, like with Harvick after he pitted and only got back to ninth).

“All of that is so important because you cannot drive around someone if you’re significantly faster,” Hamlin said. “They have to actually move out of the way or you have to somehow catch them in a bad spot.”

Kyle Busch crew chief Adam Stevens said the track position game didn’t surprise him — he thought it was going to be “even harder to pass than it was.”

But he was intrigued by how some of the better cars who played tire strategy (like Johnson taking two) were able to hold onto their positions throughout a run.

“There’s going to be a lot of data for us to dig into so we can plan how we’re going to strategize the next race when we come back,” he said.

One can only imagine how many races will be won by strategic decisions that might push the envelope or seem unorthodox at the time. When the NASCAR garage is tasked with coming up with different ways to approach a race, crew chiefs and engineers usually deliver.

As for Harvick, he said the lesson was pretty simple on how to play the strategy for the next Phoenix race.

“Just restart first,” he said.

4. O, Fontana

I’m not going to lie here — I’m getting a little worried about the various forms of this package after the first three races. We’ve seen three different uses of it — at Atlanta, Vegas and now Phoenix — with ho-hum results. Certainly nothing spectacular yet.

But Fontana really seems to be a place where that could change. I have high hopes of seeing the first great race of the season, because the extreme form of the package (550 horsepower with the aero ducts) combined with a sweeping 2-mile track that happens to have worn-out asphalt…well, all the ingredients are there.

If it’s not a good race? Gulp. Let’s not think about that yet, because it could mean this might be a long season.

Maybe this means there’s a lot riding on Fontana, but if any track is going to work with this rules package, you’d think that would be one.

5. In the (Fan) Zone

After a couple times seeing the new ISM Raceway “INfield” in action, I’m convinced it’s the best fan experience in NASCAR. With apologies to the Neon Garage in Las Vegas, the new Richmond Raceway garages (similar to Phoenix) and the Daytona fan zone, Phoenix just goes above and beyond with the combination of amenities and access.

It’s not cheap — $129 for a three-day pass and $89 on Sunday only, which is on top of your regular race ticket. But damn, I would think it’s worth it.

Take practice sessions, for example. The fans are literally inside the garages, with just a waist-high fence separating them from the cars and drivers. There are no windows or barriers between them and their favorite teams, which is pretty amazing in itself.

Then there’s the race day experience, which goes as far to allow any INfield passholder into victory lane (try to get a spot with at least 50 laps to go) for the celebration.

Plus there’s stuff like a margarita bar and plenty of screens (and it’s right behind pit road, so you can see some of that action).

This probably sounds like an advertisement (sorry), but I wanted to make sure it was on your radar.  In an alternate universe where I wasn’t a journalist and was just at the track for fun, I could easily picture myself spending an enjoyable, sun-drenched afternoon there with my friends.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 Daytona 500

Five thoughts after Sunday’s season-opening Daytona 500…

1. Daytona’s lesson

Up until the green flag Sunday, the relentless hand-wringing over how the racing would look in the Daytona 500 was the theme of Speedweeks.

There were serious worries over seeing a single-file line cling to the top for hours in front of the biggest TV audience NASCAR gets all year. Ack! Any potential momentum heading into the season would be squandered. A disaster in the making!

The fears persisted until the start of the race. Even moments before engines were fired, a spotter for one of the top drivers confidently predicted the drivers would spend the first stage looking like the Xfinity drivers did in their awful borefest of a “race.”

I believed it, because it made logical sense. That’s how the Clash looked, how the Duels looked. There was no reason to think otherwise. Even the drivers thought it would be like that. Why would they push it and run double-file?

But…they did.

“I was expecting us all to be up against the wall, and quickly found out pretty early in the race that this was going to go a lot different than what we thought it was going to,” Joey Logano said.

Isn’t that incredible? Even the drivers, despite their group texts and manufacturer teamwork, are just as clueless as the rest of us when it comes to forecasting the rhythm of a race. The crew chiefs don’t know. The engineers don’t know. The media doesn’t know.

And yet we all work ourselves into a huge frenzy (see Twitter from Saturday night) after each little development leading up to the race.

The lesson from all this, once again: NASCAR is completely unpredictable. Just when you think you have a feel for what’s going to happen, you never do.

Let’s remember that for next week at Atlanta (new rules package), Las Vegas (extreme new rules package) and beyond. This is going to be a season of uncertainty, and it cannot be predicted with any degree of confidence.

In the absence of answers, maybe it’s OK to just let things happen, let the races breathe and maybe — MAYBE — even let ourselves enjoy the show along the way.

2. Toyota time

Speaking of nobody knowing anything, how about Toyota going 1-2-3 in the Daytona 500 and leading the most laps when most predictions had Fords dominating the race?

Toyota Racing Development head David Wilson was making rounds through the media center on Sunday morning, so I jokingly asked if he wanted to help with my NASCAR Fantasy Live team.

He inquired who was on my team, so I opened the page — forgetting I’d picked Ford, Ford, Ford, Ford, Ford and Ford. I cringed at his potential reaction, but he seemed understanding.

After all, Ford had the strength in numbers. Ford had dominated the Duels. Ford executed a near-perfect Talladega race last fall. Wilson conceded all those things.

But he gave a sly grin. Toyota had a plan, Wilson said. Hmm…

As it turned out, that creative plan apparently included teaming with Hendrick Motorsports cars to get the numbers that would take on the Fords. And together, the Toyota+Hendrick line actually seemed to work better than the pre-race favorites.

But the plan went out the window — for everyone — after multiple crashes narrowed the field. In the end, there were two Toyotas, two Fords and a Chevrolet lined up for the final restart.

Even then, the Toyotas — Hamlin and Busch — cooperated on the start of overtime while the Fords — Joey Logano and McDowell — didn’t stick together and ended up having words over it on pit road.

After the race, I bumped into Wilson on his way out of the media center. He broke into a wide smile.

“Sorry about your fantasy team,” he said, not actually sorry at all.

3. NASCAR’s Leader

One of the biggest moments of Sunday happened two hours before the race.

Jim France, the new CEO of NASCAR, got up in front of all the drivers and said a few words reminiscent of his late brother, Bill France Jr.

“I hope a few of you drivers will get down on the bottom with Denny and Chase and make a show today,” France said.

Ultimately, that’s exactly what happened. Now, was that because of France’s comment? Maybe not directly, but there was certainly a shift in tone and attitude among the drivers once the race began.

France clearly has the respect of the garage — I’ve heard nothing but universal praise for his consistent presence at the track — and the drivers are willing to trust his vision.

More than anytime in the last two decades, NASCAR seems intent in putting on a show. They use the buzzwords like “entertainment” — and for the most part, the drivers seem to be on board with the push in that direction. Or at least they’ve accepted it, even if they don’t agree.

Either way, France has their ear. His not-so-subtle message likely stuck in their memories as they prepared to take the green flag on Sunday.

That’s leadership, and it couldn’t come at a better time for a sport that has lacked in it from the CEO position for so long.

4. Hamlin HOFer

Last week, I made an innocent Twitter joke that turned into a reminder of how under appreciated Denny Hamlin’s career has been. In suggesting Hamlin was a Hall of Famer — something I thought was a given — I was surprised at the resistance to the idea.

I get that people aren’t necessarily fond of Hamlin (especially Elliott fans) and the Internet loves to poke fun at his “10,000 races.”

But damn. The guy is unquestionably a Hall of Famer. If you didn’t agree before, there’s no disputing it now.

Hamlin is now a two-time Daytona 500 winner and has 32 Cup wins overall — which ties him with Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett for 24th on the all-time list. He hasn’t won a championship, but he’s had 10 seasons of top-10 points finishes — a pretty solid run of consistency in the playoff era.

While Hamlin shied away from comparisons with Jarrett (“He’s so much better than I am. … I shouldn’t even be mentioned in the same breath as Dale Jarrett.”), the guy is only now entering his prime seasons age-wise. According to Motorsports Analytics’ David Smith, a driver’s peak age is 39; Hamlin just turned 38 in November.

And while this chapter of restrictor-plate racing may be over (Talladega will start the tapered spacer era at superspeedways), Hamlin should be noted as one of the best — along with Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and Dale Earnhardt Jr. — of his era on such tracks.

5. The Brain Problem

As mentioned, restrictor plates won’t appear on NASCAR Cup cars anymore. But they sure had one last hurrah in the final laps as a wreckfest broke out and somewhat sullied what had previously been a very good plate race.

With 50 laps to go in the race, only one car was out of the race. But in the end, only 19 finished — less than half the field — and just a handful of cars escaped with no damage.

So what gives? How do drivers who used patience and talent for 400 miles suddenly lose their heads at the end?

“Brains come unglued,” Kyle Busch said. “That’s all it is. Everybody just ‑‑ the brain connection from right up here to the gas pedal foot doesn’t quite work the same anymore.”

Humans are imperfect, and drivers under pressure strapped inside hot race cars for four hours are even more imperfect.

In a way, that’s lucky for us. It gives us something to watch, something to react to, something to talk about.

And in that sense, the chance of highly skilled people making mistakes or bad decisions is the formula that makes these crazy races worth watching.

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.

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

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