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.
Here’s a roundup of the conversation that took place Friday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway…
— Kyle Larson wants NASCAR to stay out of the dirt game
Despite the success of the Eldora Truck race leading some in the NASCAR world — including Tony Stewart — to stump for an Xfinity or Cup show on a dirt track, Kyle Larson doesn’t think it’s a good idea.
“Tony is probably going to get mad, but I would like to see it just stay as it is,” Larson said. “I wouldn’t like to see Cup on dirt. To me, Cup belongs on pavement and real road course tracks.
“If we went to Eldora, yeah, I would be excited because I would be really fast and I feel like I would definitely have the best shot to win. But at the same time, I think we are fine not going there.”
Why not? Well, Larson seemed to indicate it wouldn’t be a very good show.
“Maybe if Goodyear could make a way better tire and us be actually able to use the horsepower — or even more horsepower in our Cup cars — on a dirt track, I think it would be a lot more fun,” he said. “I don’t really know how to answer the question without making people mad.”
— Denny Hamlin says schedule changes are a fantasy.
People have been chiming in with their opinions on possible schedule changes this week (more short tracks, dirt and road courses among the proposals), but Denny Hamlin says the whole conversation is pointless.
Asked about racing on Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Hamlin said he’d “love to,” but…
“Honestly, none of this is ever going to happen,” he said. “Not until these tracks and NASCAR get together and are willing to make changes. No track is going to give up tens of millions of dollars every time the race cars show up at the racetrack, so it’s going to have take a bold change.
“It’s going to have to take someone way high up saying, ‘We’re making changes and this is what we’re going to do,’ for it to happen. But it definitely won’t happen in the next few years until that contract (through 2020) is over with.”
— Martin Truex Jr. wishes 5-hour decision had come sooner
Defending Cup Series champ Martin Truex Jr. said he wasn’t totally surprised by the decision for sponsor 5-hour Energy to leave the sport — company executives had been “on the fence for awhile,” he said — but the timing leaves Furniture Row Racing in somewhat of a bind.
“I wish it didn’t take quite as long as it did and (it) kind of puts us in a tough spot now,” Truex said. “… I don’t see (team owner) Barney (Visser) putting Furniture Row back on the car and doing that. I don’t know that he can make that work anymore. So we’ll see where it goes from here.”
Truex said he was optimistic the team would be able to find a new sponsor and also still plans to sign a contract extension with the team (his current deal expires at the end of the season). But despite the typical Silly Season months starting to arrive, Truex said he wasn’t too concerned with a contract yet.
“It’s not really a pressing issue for me,” he said. “I know what the team wants. I know where we’re all at. It’s not like I’m nervous they’re going to sign somebody else or I’m going to be searching for a ride. It’s nothing like that. It’s more just trying to focus on racing and feeling like it will get done when it gets done.”
— Joey Logano says New Hampshire could be a case study for tracks having one race.
NASCAR has oversaturated markets like Pocono, Michigan and Kansas by running two races per season at those tracks. Joey Logano is wondering how New Hampshire will respond to having its calendar reduced.
“I think if you go to a racetrack once, it makes it more of an event,” he said. “This weekend will be a great test to see how that works as Loudon goes from two to one. When you think there are two races and you’re a fan that can only afford to go to one, you’re most likely going to choose the playoff race here.
“So it will be interesting to see what the stands look like on Sunday, because now it’s an event. You can’t miss this one and have a chance to go to the next one.”
The series of weekly driver interviews continues with Joey Logano of Team Penske. I spoke with Logano last weekend at Pocono Raceway. These interviews are recorded as a podcast but are also transcribed for those who prefer to read.
1. How often do you have dreams about racing?
I have dreams a lot about racing. I recently had a dream in Charlotte that it started raining during the race, so I got out of the car, went back to the hauler to get some food and the race started back up without me. And I went running back onto pit road and my team was changing out my seat and they were putting Paul Menard’s seat in.
So I woke up and of course it was raining — like in real life it was raining — and I was like, “Oh my God, am I actually missing this?” And I was nervous. Usually I have dreams about missing things. Which is probably why I’m early to everything in my life.
That’s a good policy though.
Yeah. I like being early. I get really nervous about being late.
2. If you get into someone during a race — intentional or not — does it matter if you apologize?
Yes, I think it matters. I don’t know about apologizing, but what I’ve learned at least is sometimes it helps just to talk about it. You know? Say, “Hey, here’s what happened.” And if it’s good or bad, at least you know what happened. Talk about it.
A lot of times those conversations aren’t really good, especially if it’s recent, like if it just happened. It’s usually not a good conversation, but I’ve learned in life sometimes the tough conversations are the best ones.
3. What is the biggest compliment someone could give you?
I’d say the biggest compliment would be something about your integrity or who you are as a person. I think a good job, pat on the back doesn’t really hold much. But when someone talks about your character, it probably holds more value to me. Someone that knows me that says something about my character means the most.
Not somebody on Twitter or something?
I appreciate everyone on Twitter and their opinions. But it’s hard to know somebody from just social media alone, which is why I try to do things that show who I am more often, whether you like it or not. Sometimes I think social media, it’s all about the posts, it’s about what you put up — and a lot of people post things that aren’t real life sometimes. And I’m not talking about racing and all that, but just in general. People always post the good days, they don’t post the bad days or the work that gets to that post you put up. So I always take social media with a grain of salt when I look at other people’s stuff.
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 really excited to host at a race?
(Deep sigh) I don’t know. (Thinks for a moment)
That was a big sigh. Are you not real big on celebs?
Not really. I mean, I think it’s great we’re bringing celebrities to the racetrack, that means there’s a lot of great things that come along with that for our sport. Honestly, I kind of live in my own little world sometimes. I get excited about meeting people — a lot of times athletes, because I like asking them a bunch of questions. Most of the time, I ask about their life and how they handle pressure and how they handle the family and work and putting all that together — what they do, how they prep for a game. I really enjoy meeting athletes more than probably anyone.
I guess like Tom Brady or somebody would be cool to talk to. But just because I’m a New England fan. No one else really sticks out in my mind, because a lot of times, it’s fun to invite people to the racetrack — but you’re still doing your job, so you never really have time to meet them. I’d rather have the time to go to dinner and actually get to know somebody than just like, “Hey, thanks for coming out, I’ll shake your hand, cool to meet ya.” That doesn’t really get anywhere to me.
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?
So my wife and I watched this documentary called What The Health. Don’t ever watch it, because it scared the crap out of us. (Laughs) And we did go vegan for about two weeks until we said, “What are we doing?” (Laughs) I needed a hamburger. So that was the end of that. But yeah.
So with that being said, I’ve kinda done it already somewhat. If there was like a pot of gold at the end like a first pit stall, yeah. I think let’s do it.
Most people have said no to that?
Yeah, most people said absolutely not, no way. Which I thought was kind of surprising.
There’s still a lot of things you can eat.
Yeah. And a lot of that food is disguised to taste good.
It’s not that bad. If you put enough barbecue sauce on something, you can make anything taste good. (Laughs)
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 2014 Michigan spring race for Cup.
Hmm. Is that the one I won? I think I won 2015 there. I think we won that race? No…
No, I don’t make it that easy on you.
The answer is ninth. You started ninth, finished ninth, you led 29 laps at one point. Jimmie Johnson won. You finished behind Kyle Larson and ahead of Clint Bowyer. That’s all I know.
Eh. I don’t remember that. (Laughs)
Are you typically good at remembering races or not?
No. Not at all. That’s why I have to write notes and have to rewatch races to remember what happened. I don’t even remember the last time we were at Pocono (in 2017).
7. Who is the best rapper alive?
(Crinkles his face while thinking.) Honestly, I don’t know many rappers.
I wish the face you just made could have translated to the interview.
Yeah, I don’t know. I mean, I listen to a lot of different types of music, and I’ll listen to some rap — but it’s more like older rap, like 90s to early 2000s. But I don’t know. I’m not into music a whole bunch to know that. Like I said, I live in my own little world sometimes, and I don’t really know what’s going on.
8. Who has the most punchable face in NASCAR?
You, for asking the question. How’s that sound? (Laughs)
I’m surprised nobody said that yet. I think I actually do have a punchable face. I’m worried about it at times when I look in the mirror.
If someone’s going to ask that question, you’re probably going to get punched in the face.
That’s fair. I think I might get off this golf cart now though.
(Laughs) Has anyone answered me for that?
It didn’t happen to me.
Oh, that’s right. He missed.
I slipped it. If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a punch. Isn’t that how it went? If you can dodge a ball?
I thought at the time you were just saying you didn’t get punched — but you actually didn’t?
No! I did an interview after. You didn’t see it on my face, did you?
No, but I just thought you were trying to save face.
Not my face, at least. I know that.
I believe you.
I will say that the camera did show that it looked like (Busch connected). I will say that.
It was like The Matrix where you’re like barely getting out of the way.
It was close. I think I felt some breeze. Just a cool breeze. (Laughs)
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.
I’m gonna say LeBron James is the crew chief.
You like sports guys, so you want him.
Yeah, I feel like he’s gonna have a little sports insight.
I’m gonna put Taylor Swift as the spotter because she’s got a good voice, and that’s a talking job and she’s a singer, so that makes sense. And then Tom Hanks is gonna drive the bus and we’re gonna hang out and have a good time together.
10. What is the key to finding the best pre-race bathroom?
Some places, they don’t have a really good place to go. But whatever’s closest when you get off the truck after the parade lap — you just (go to) whatever’s closest.
It’s always kind of funny for us, because there’s always fans around because fans are smart enough that they figure it out this is where everybody’s going and they sit there and wait. And it’s kind of weird because they want to shake your hand. And I’m gonna be honest with you — I wash my hands, but I don’t see every driver washing their hands in there afterward. And then I see them (going for the handshake) and I’m like, “That’s…um…” and I go for the knuckles on the way out because I don’t want a chance for the germs.
So this is a public service announcement.
Yes. Go for the knuckles. Do that. (Laughs)
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’m not sure if I’m capable. I’ve never tried to do a backflip, not even on a trampoline or anything because I’m really scared of landing on my head and my neck. I’ve got a long neck, I’m afraid I’m gonna snap my neck. (Ryan) Newman probably wouldn’t have this problem at all. (Laughs)
But I think you have to look at it and say, how long is it gonna put you out of work? So if it’s gonna put you out your whole career, you need whatever the rest of your career is. Like if it’s gonna paralyze you, the rest of your career is paid. If it’s gonna put you out for three months, then you have to look at that, too. So I think you have to look at worst-case scenario, and that’s what it would cost.
12. Each week, I ask a driver to give me a question for the next interview. Last week was Alexander Rossi and his question was: What do you think of Danica?
I think Danica is a pioneer in our sport from a women’s standpoint in the things that she was able to accomplish. I think what she brought to our sport as far as eyeballs that watched it, a lot of fans came from it, and I think the improvement and the hard work she put into it is admirable.
Obviously, as a woman in our sport has a lot of challenges. I think she overcame a lot of them. Honestly, I think she earned a lot of respect in here that no one really cared if she was a boy or girl or whatever. I don’t think it really mattered at the end. So I look up to her for that, because I think there was a lot that comes with that.
And I also kind of like how she’s smart enough to realize that racing is something that is sometimes here today and gone tomorrow, and she has put herself in position to invest into her future outside of motorsports. I don’t think all athletes do that, so that’s impressive to see. She’s got the wine thing, she’s got some clothing stuff. I think that’s admirable as well. So I think she’s done a lot. I think she should be proud of her career and proud of what the next steps are.
The next interview I’m doing is with a yet-to-be-determined NASCAR driver. Do you have a question I can ask him?
I thought about this a while ago, I was reading one of these articles, and I thought, “Man, I’ve got a good question for next time I do this.” And now I’ve completely forgotten. (Laughs)
That wasn’t the setup I thought you were going for.
I know! I completely forgot. So I’m trying to think of something.
How about, “What do you think of Joey Logano?” (Laughs hysterically) That could be funny. From Joey Logano!
So “What do you think of me?”
I think that’s an alright question. “What do you think of Joey Logano?” (Laughs) I think that’s kinda funny. (Laughs)
Previous 12 Questions interviews with Joey Logano:
Five thoughts after Sunday’s race at Talladega Superspeedway…
1. At long last, Logano has reason to squint again
Joey Logano was strangely irrelevant last year, falling off the map after his encumbered Richmond win. It was hard to understand what happened to that team, which had previously looked like it would be perennial contenders and perhaps even become the next 48 team (I actually thought that for awhile).
But those problems seem mostly fixed now. Logano came into Talladega second in the point standings and left in the same position, except now with a win to lock him into the playoffs.
The Team Penske driver is far from a fan favorite — he gets more boos than cheers, to be sure — but a winning Logano is good for the sport. He seems to ruffle other drivers’ feathers enough to cause some bad blood (the Kyle Busch fight and Matt Kenseth incident at Martinsville, to name a couple) while pissing off fans in the process. And fans need to be pissed off at times, because it’s better than being apathetic.
Logano is a hard-charging, no apologies driver on the track and a surprisingly warm, friendly personality off it. NASCAR needs him to be contending every week, because he’s a veteran by experience and a young gun by age who can be appealing to both audiences.
He’s back now. And by the way, here’s a guess: Logano will go the rest of his career without a winless streak as long as the 36-race drought he just experienced.
2. Ford goodness sake
Ford is seemingly unstoppable at Talladega. Not only did the manufacturer win its six straight race there, but it had six of the top seven finishers on Sunday.
No one was going to be able to touch the front-running Fords without getting help from other Fords. That sounds weird, but just look at Chevrolet’s Chase Elliott: He was third, but had nothing for the top two unless other Fords pushed him into the mix.
Clearly, Fords are still the ones to beat on restrictor-plate tracks. After all, they’ve now won nine of the last 10 plate races and had a driver (Ryan Blaney) who dominated the other race (the Daytona 500 in February).
That dominance is going to last until at least the end of this year, when the other manufacturers can only hope the new Mustang somehow doesn’t race as well on plate tracks in 2019 as the Fusion does right now.
On the topic of new cars, Sunday was another blow for Chevrolet. After winning 13 straight manufacturer titles from 2003-15, the new Camaro gave Chevy teams so much hope coming into this season.
But now Chevrolet hasn’t won a race since the Daytona 500. Since then, it’s been five wins by Ford and four by Toyota. Talladega would have been a much-needed morale boost for Chevy that ultimately didn’t happen.
3. Shoulda woulda coulda
Speaking of missed opportunities, there’s still only been one winner (Austin Dillon) who is outside the top 16 in points this season.
Every other race winner is at least ninth, and four of this season’s six race winners make up the top four in the standings.
So Talladega was a giant missed chance for an underdog driver to steal a playoff bid. Yeah, there are still the two road courses and Daytona — but seeing Talladega won by a driver who is second in the standings had to be a blow for drivers like Bubba Wallace and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who entered the day thinking they could pull off a win.
On the other hand, it potentially opens another spot available to make the playoffs on points, setting up the next 16 races to be one of the fiercer points battles the midfield has seen in recent years.
4. This message brought to you by frustration
Sunday’s race had the fewest lead changes for a Talladega race since 1998, and FOX missed three of the green-flag lead changes while at commercial. It also missed the first Big One.
The amount of commercials was infuriating and, frankly, insulting to the viewers. FOX continues to disrespect the remaining few NASCAR fans who have stuck around to watch the races, apparently with no intention of making any changes to make the broadcasts more tolerable.
I’m not talking about the talent or the production, either. FOX wants to keep the Grid Walk and Boogity Boogity and the Vortex Theory? Fine, whatever.
The immense frustration here lies with the commercials: SHOW. US. THE. RACE!
Sunday’s broadcast reminded me of a timeshare presentation. They lure you to watch Talladega with promises of excitement and action, then waste your time trying to get you to do something you don’t want — in this case, eating artery-clogging KFC and buying whatever drug helps you recover from your KFC-induced heart attack.
FOX not only seems to air as many commercials as ever, but has “innovated” by inserting all sorts of DVR-proof ads right into the broadcast. But this is Emmy-worthy sports coverage, so what do I know?
Along those lines, it doesn’t matter to FOX what I think and it definitely doesn’t matter what you think. FOX execs have instructed its team to get whatever money it can, and if that allows viewers to see part of the race, then lucky us.
NASCAR has many problems. The relentless amount of commercials being shoved down viewers’ throats is among the most pressing, but is also sadly among the least likely to change.
5. Back to real racing
Up next, it’s the May slate of events: Dover, Kansas and the two Charlotte races. The races will be won by (in no particular order): Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. and another Gibbs or Stewart-Haas car.
I’m still particularly interested in the Harvick vs. Busch battle. Two different teams and manufacturers, two drivers at different places in their careers and yet equally hungry for more wins and championships. Plus, it seems like their cars are pretty even for now.
Other than that, the summer is rapidly approaching with NASCAR still starving for one of its young drivers to step up and create a secondary storyline that generates some badly needed interest and enthusiasm.
Five thoughts after Sunday’s race in Fontana…
1. We were robbed
Nothing against Martin Truex Jr.’s dominating win, but Sunday sure could have been a lot more interesting had Kevin Harvick not wrecked with Kyle Larson during the first stage.
What would have happened? Would Harvick have won his fourth straight race? Would Truex have thumped the field anyway?
“We’ll never know,” Truex said.
ARGH! That stinks. Even Furniture Row Racing owner Barney Visser sounded a little disappointed about it.
“After the beginning of the season there, watching Harvick run away with everything, I wasn’t sure where we were at,” Visser said. “I wish he would have not had the problems he had today and we could have run him again. I think we had something for him today.”
Now everyone has to wait for three weeks — until Texas Motor Speedway — to find out who will win a head-to-head battle on an intermediate track (Martinsville is next week, followed by an off week).
Still, the lack of evidence didn’t stop drivers from guessing what would have happened.
“Just the little bit I was around Kevin, I felt like he still had the best car,” Larson said. “Who’s to say, though?”
Truex said he left pit road after the first stop and drove away from Harvick — which leads him to believe the No. 78 car might have won anyway. It was pretty damn fast, after all.
But there’s no way to know for sure.
Sigh. Oh well.
“I’m sure we’ll have plenty of chances to race each other throughout the rest of the season,” Truex said.
2. What was that?
So what exactly happened in the Larson/Harvick incident?
Though it initially seemed Harvick was somehow retaliating against Larson for hard racing (a theory floated by the FOX broadcast), that turned out not to be the case.
Harvick said he went down to side-draft Larson when they came off the corner, and he was “trying to get a little too much right there.”
“That’s my fault for coming down the racetrack and trying to side draft,” he said. “… That was just a dumb mistake on my part.”
Larson had a more detailed explanation when asked if he was surprised Harvick was racing him so hard. Harvick had pitted one lap earlier than Larson, so the Chip Ganassi Racing driver was coming with slightly fresher tires.
“I think he knew he was better than I was overall, so he was just trying to hold me off, race me hard to maybe burn my stuff up, and then he could stay in front of me and not have to worry about me 10, 15 laps later when he would be better than me,” Larson said.
Makes sense, right? At that point, Harvick just made a mistake rather than acting out of malice.
“I was actually having a lot of fun racing like that because this place is really cool and you can just kind of go wherever,” Larson said. “I respect Kevin a lot. I think he respects me a lot, too. You never want to see anything like that happen.”
3. Harvick, and…
After five races, it’s not much of a mystery which team is the one to beat. And it’s not the one that ended up in victory lane.
“I don’t think anything changes with the 4 car being the fastest car in the field right now,” Brad Keselowski said.
“He’ll be good every weekend,” Larson said.
If that’s the case, Truex — now the points leader — is probably second-best, with Kyle Busch also right there.
But who else is good?
Larson, for one. Keselowski and Joey Logano, too. The thing is, they’re all a half-step away from being able to run up front regularly like Harvick, Truex or Busch.
“I’ve been happy to see how we’ve started so far,” Larson said. “But we still have a little ways to go to win.”
Keselowski said he’s been about a fifth-to-10th place car most weeks and noted the team hasn’t seriously contended for a win. And Logano, who missed the playoffs last year after his infamous encumbered penalty at Richmond, said his team is “getting closer” but isn’t there yet.
“Today we had some decent speed and it’s progress in the right direction,” Logano said. “We still have a ways to go, but we’re getting closer to where we can have solid runs, score stage points, score good finishes and keep ourselves up there for points.”
There are really no surprises in the top half of the playoff standings. Truex and Busch are 1-2, followed by the Team Penske trio of Logano-Keselowski-Ryan Blaney. Then it’s Denny Hamlin and Larson.
4. Standings surprises
Speaking of the point standings, there are still a few unexpected trends after five races.
— Despite winning three of the first five races, Harvick is only eighth in the standings. That’s because of Daytona and Fontana, where he got only two points.
— All four Stewart-Haas Racing drivers are in the top 11 of the standings. In fact, they are 8-9-10-11 (Harvick-Clint Bowyer-Aric Almirola-Kurt Busch).
— Chase Elliott is the lowest-running Hendrick driver (21st) after Jimmie Johnson moved up to 18th in the last couple weeks. The lead Hendrick driver is Alex Bowman, who is 16th.
— Jamie McMurray, who has pointed his way into the playoffs, is only 26th in the standings — behind Michael McDowell and both JTG Daugherty Racing drivers.
— Daniel Suarez is 23rd in the standings while all of his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates are 13th or higher.
5. The clock says Bubba Time
As Bubba Wallace walked off pit road following a 20th-place finish at Fontana, he was already looking toward next week — his first visit to Martinsville Speedway since winning the Truck Series race there four years ago.
“Man, I’m so pumped up and so excited to get there,” he said. “I want to win this fucker. … We’ll have to be ready there.”
Unlike recent weeks — such as Phoenix, where two loose wheels turned a possible top-15 day into a 28th-place finish — the No. 43 team might be rolling into the next race with some positive mojo.
There wasn’t anything particularly special about Fontana, except nothing went wrong.
“Smooth on pit road all day, didn’t make any dumb moves on the racetrack and came home 20th,” Wallace said. “We can improve from that.”
Wallace and his team are still figuring each other out, and the team is transitioning to Chevrolet and its alliance with Richard Childress Racing at the same time. But in only nine career Cup starts, Wallace now has top-20 finishes in five of them — all with a mid-level team — and has a three-point lead in the Rookie of the Year battle with William Byron.
“We came back here (after the Phoenix disappointment), regrouped, took a deep breath and can use this as a little bit of momentum going into Martinsville,” he said.
Five thoughts after Sunday’s season-opening exhibition race at Daytona International Speedway…
1. Calm Clash
Well, that was weird. An exhibition race with no points on the line, and most of the field ran single-file as Brad Keselowski led the last half of the race. OK then.
“Who would have thought they’d just run single-file for 30 laps?” said Kevin Harvick, who lost the draft while trying to make a move. “It didn’t all make sense to me.”
As the laps wound down, a few cars tried to take shots at building a low lane to challenge the frontrunners, but it was mostly a failure. They’d just drop to the back if anyone tried anything.
So what happened? According to several drivers, the cars weren’t handling well with the new restrictor-plate rules package, which made it difficult to run side-by-side or three-wide. They actually had to drive the cars — at least more than usual at Daytona — instead of running wide open while playing the typical chess game.
“I know it looks like we were just riding around the top, but we were actually lifting and trying not to run over each other when you get those big runs,” Austin Dillon said.
The new package helped cars suck up much quicker, but they’d hit the invisible air bubble just as hard. Meanwhile, the stability offered by the previous rules package — which made for lap after lap of pack racing as drivers tried to side draft and pick off positions — became a thing of the past.
“They were too much of a handful to race side-by-side and three-wide,” Erik Jones said. “Earlier in the race when we were doing that, I was out of control and just uncomfortable. I had to back out and give everybody some space.”
When a driver would pull out of line, he not only dropped to the back — but actually risked losing the draft altogether. Harvick said he was trying to slow the car in front of him in order to get a run, but he slowed both down that the draft just left them behind.
If a car stays in line, it never loses its momentum. Plus, the cars are running significantly faster than before — Keselowski said he ran a 199 mph lap while leading (not with a run), which was eye-opening.
“I was trying to make moves, but you just have to accept the pack being single-file or you’re going to be at the back of it,” Harvick said.
So that’s it. The drivers wanted to go and were eager to make something happen, but there was no overcoming the momentum deficit with so few cars and a single-file lane up top.
2. Now what?
The big question now is whether the Duels and the Daytona 500 itself will be less than exciting (or whatever term you want to use), as was the case with the Clash.
As Jones noted, the Duels on Thursday night will probably look similar to what fans saw Sunday because it’s an impound race and teams already have their race setups installed — which are close to the setups in their Clash cars.
And the 500? It’s obviously a concern, but Harvick said not to worry yet.
“I’ve seen this a little bit before (in the small field of the Clash),” he said. “It’s just different when you get all the cars out there.”
As for the contenders for the remainder of Speedweeks? Well, it would be a surprise if anyone but a Ford won the 500.
Fords have looked so strong on plate races over the last couple years (they’ve won seven straight plate races!), and they finished 1-2-3-4 in the Clash. What was especially striking was Harvick said his car was comfortable and stable despite losing the draft — which was the opposite of what other drivers were saying about handling.
Logano, too, said his car didn’t feel much of a change from last year after the team made a few adjustments.
“Not as much (change) as I thought it was going to be when I went to sleep last night,” he said.
If that’s the case, the Fords will return to the track Thursday night with a significant edge on the rest of the field.
3. Team orders?
As the Team Penske cars ran 1-2-3 in a line with the laps winding down, you may have wondered to yourself if Ryan Blaney and Logano would just be content to push Keselowski to the win.
“I don’t know about you guys, but for the last 20 laps, I was in there going crazy waiting for someone to make a move,” Logano said. “I was ready to go.”
Of course Logano and Blaney wanted to win for themselves. It’s just they were in a similar situation as everyone else, realizing they needed help to make something happen.
Blaney eventually tried it and made a move coming to the white flag — but all it did was drop him through the field. That move wasn’t the original plan, but it was perhaps his best option in the moment.
“I feel like I was in a good spot because Joey was behind me, and he would have gone with me for the win no matter where I went,” Blaney said. “I was going to kind of hang out until the lane started to form and then I’d jump out. It just never did.”
Roger Penske and Keselowski agreed if that scenario happened again in the Daytona 500, it would be an every-man-for-himself situation in the final laps (like it was with the Toyotas a few years ago). So there’s little chance all the drivers would have just stayed in line while Keselowski just cruised to a win.
4. Rules are rules
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. passed below the double yellow line, which is a penalty. You can’t do that.
NASCAR’s rule is it will overlook such a pass if the driver was forced below the line by another driver — but Stenhouse wasn’t.
Stenhouse, his team and a whole mess of people on Twitter argued otherwise, but NASCAR’s call was extremely consistent and fair compared to how officials have called it before.
The 2008 Regan Smith/Tony Stewart incident is the defining moment for this rule. If that wasn’t forcing someone below the yellow line, it clearly must be very obvious for NASCAR to call it.
So you might not like it, but NASCAR made a fair call in this case — which is all anyone should hope for.
Stenhouse had a run coming, but it looked like Busch’s car had already started to move down (Busch said his car got sucked down there and he wasn’t trying to go that low). Could Stenhouse have forced the issue with a wreck? Sure, but what’s the point?
It’s not unlike a driver getting a huge run on the outside and the leader moving up to block. What happens then? If the oncoming driver presses the issue, they’re both in the wall. So most of the time, they back out of it.
Stenhouse tweeted next time he could just turn Busch and wreck the whole field, but he either A) Could have backed out of it or B) If he felt that was impossible given his momentum, he could have given the position back and there would have been no penalty. So it’s not like that was the only option.
5. The new pit stop ballet
NASCAR took away a pit crew member from each team in the offseason, which forced crews to rearrange their choreography. Plus, tire changers now have to all use the same pit gun. There was much talk about how it would look and impact the races — and rightfully so.
But although the stops were significantly slower (FOX said more than four seconds!), it was hardly noticeable.
We probably won’t see the true impact until there’s a “race off pit road” situation at 1.5-mile tracks — where track position really matters. Daytona doesn’t make that big of a difference (although Keselowski did use a two-tire strategy to take the lead).
Overall, though, it just didn’t seem like a big thing. A month from now, we probably won’t even give it a second thought.
Five thoughts after Sunday’s championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway…
1. Truex gets his due
Ladies and gentlemen, Martin Truex Jr. is a NASCAR Cup Series champion.
It’s too bad we can’t send messages from the future back to our past selves, because it would have been almost impossible to believe that a few years ago.
In 2014, Truex wrapped up his first season at Furniture Row Racing with a single lap led. He finished 24th in points. And he had two career wins to his name at the time.
Now he’s the dominant car of the past two seasons, with 12 wins and 4,062 laps led in that span. Plus he’s got a championship to go with it.
I’m as guilty of this as anyone, but due to his career history (two wins in his first nine seasons) it’s been easy to just say, “The cars are just that good” when talking about Truex’s success. Since he didn’t win much until Cole Pearn showed up as crew chief and Furniture Row improved, Truex probably hasn’t gotten enough credit as a driver.
That should change after Sunday night. Kyle Busch was chasing him down — with what appeared to be a better car — and stalking him in case there was even the slightest bobble in the 78 car.
“Then I could try to pounce,” Busch said. “But that never happened.”
Truex drove a flawless 20 laps and showed he’s worthy of being in the conversation about the sport’s best drivers.
Toyotas are elite, but as Brad Keselowski noted: “He’s still beating the other Toyotas, so he deserves credit for that.”
Good point, right? And that’s not lost on Truex.
Yes, he’s basically driving a Joe Gibbs Racing car — just tweaked by Furniture Row. But he’s beating all the JGR drivers with it.
“That’s the coolest part of it, is showing people that you’ve got it, that you can do it,” Truex said. “It’s the best feeling in the world to have the same thing as somebody else and beat ’em with it.”
And Truex was especially pumped about out-driving Busch, who he called “one of the best drivers ever.”
“To beat him,” Truex said, “was awesome.”
2. This Bud’s for Dale
When Dale Earnhardt Jr. told the media about his goals for the weekend — I just want to finish all the laps, he kept saying — it turns out he was only telling part of the story.
There was a reason behind the wish: He wanted to turn his No. 88 car into a mobile Whisky River, right there on pit road.
“That’s why I kept saying, ‘Man, I hope I finish all the laps,'” he said with a grin. “I know it sounds ridiculous, but that’s really why I was saying that. Everyone says, ‘Who are you going to miss the most?’ and it’s my family. (The 88 team) is my family. We are so close.
“I told them, ‘The one thing I want to do is finish the race, and we’re going to drink a beer together.’ That’s the only thing that kept coming to my mind about what I do when I get out of the car: I want to have a beer with my guys. I want to have a moment with them that sort of closes it up for us.”
So there they were, Earnhardt and the members of the 88 team, using the car as a bar and chugging Budweisers in the middle of a mob scene on pit road. If it was possible to have an intimate moment while surrounded by a couple hundred people, they had it.
Earnhardt and the crew posed for selfies, tossed beers at each other until the coolers were empty and raised toast after toast.
Ayyyyyyyyyyyyyy, they yelled in unison, holding their cans to the sky.
“Standing around the car and the heat coming off the car and drinking them cold beers — they were so cold, they had them in those Yeti (coolers), man. Those things are so awesome,” Earnhardt said. “That’s what I wanted. I said, ‘Whatever I do after the race, I don’t care about anything else — I just want to have a beer with my team.'”
It was one of the most unusual postrace scenes in NASCAR history. But it was the first step toward normalcy — something Earnhardt is craving after a weekend he called “weird.”
All the various things swirling around Earnhardt — his retirement from the Cup Series, the upcoming birth of his first child, his best friend winning the championship, his team’s Xfinity Series success, his new job with NBC Sports — it all played into it.
“I’ve got this job next year that I got to get ready for that I have no idea what the hell I’m doing. I know nothing about it. I’m freaking out,” he said. “There’s just so many things happening for me. I mean, what the hell!? It’s ridiculous what’s going on in my life. So I can’t put my emotions about finishing my Cup career in a capsule. I can’t single it out.”
So what’s next? A hangover, Earnhardt predicted. But then he hoped for an uneventful week ahead.
“It’s been an amazing weekend,” he said. “I’m ready to go feel normal, though. I’m ready to go just do nothing for awhile.”
He looked at the group of reporters. His team had left — the celebration was over for now — and Earnhardt lingered on pit road, willing to fill reporters’ notepads with golden quotes like he’d done so often over the years.
“But I’ll miss all y’all,” he said. “And I’ll be back because of that.”
With that, Earnhardt smiled, gave a thumbs up and disappeared into the crowd of waiting fans one more time.
3. Like a punch in the face
The primary reason for Kyle Busch not being able to catch Truex in the final laps, Busch said, was a tough battle with Joey Logano.
Busch had been on his way toward the front and easily passed Kevin Harvick, but then he reached Logano. That pass proved to be a lot tougher.
Logano took the top lane and pinched Busch down; Busch had to back out of it, reset for a couple laps and try again.
“Just wasting too much time with him,” Busch said afterward. “He held me up. He was there blocking every chance he got, so got a real buddy there. But that’s racing. That’s what happens.”
Logano’s move was subtle, and perhaps it was nothing more than racing hard for his own victory — but it does raise questions.
For example: Did Busch’s ongoing rivalry with Logano teammate Brad Keselowski play a part in the hard racing? Or perhaps did lingering ill will between the two — Busch did punch Logano in the face earlier this year, after all — have anything to do with it?
There aren’t any quotes from Logano on the post-race transcripts about that, but I’d love to know whether that played a role.
If so, it’s just another example of the entire season building toward the pinnacle that is Homestead.
4. Keselowski the politician
Leave it to Brad Keselowski to get one more shot in before the offseason begins.
Keselowski stumped hard for NASCAR to help Ford after claiming Toyota got too much help with its new nose this season.
If you missed it, here are his comments:
“When that car (the new Camry) rolled out at Daytona and I think we all got to see it for the first time, I think there were two reactions. One, we couldn’t believe NASCAR approved it, and, two, we were impressed by the design team over there.
“With that said, I don’t think anyone really ever had a shot this year the second that thing got put on the racetrack and approved. It kind of felt a little bit like Formula 1, where you have one car that kind of makes it through the gate heads and tails above everyone, and your hands are tied because you’re not allowed to do anything to the cars in those categories that NASCAR approves to really catch up.”
Keselowski concluded by saying he assumed Chevrolet “would be allowed to design a car the same way Toyota was” in terms of the new Camaro — and Ford doesn’t have any plans for a redesign.
“If that’s the case, we’re gonna take a drubbing next year,” Keselowski said.
Honestly, I don’t have any problem with what Keselowski said. He’s very calculating and certainly knows his words will get picked up and echo around the garage.
He also knows he’s going to get criticized for whining or being a loudmouth, but he’s willing to sacrifice that in order to get his point across.
If it helps, and the talk somehow generates rule changes in Ford’s favor, then it will all be worth it.
5. Thoughts on 2018
There’s going to be plenty of time to reflect on this season and what next year might bring, but here are a few thoughts on what lies ahead.
The biggest storylines heading into Daytona next year will be NASCAR’s new identity — Life After Dale, so to speak. The hype and marketing push for the young drivers will be even bigger than this year, and the pressure will increase on the likes of Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney to produce.
On the track, there will be much talk about whether the new Chevrolet nose with the incoming Camaro can somehow help the manufacturer gain on Toyota. If not — and with only minor changes to the 2018 rules package — there’s no reason to think Truex and the JGR drivers can’t dominate again next season.
Overall, the goal for 2018 should be to determine a floor for NASCAR’s long slide. Attendance and ratings will almost certainly be down every week — a natural side effect of the most popular driver leaving — so that’s just going to be a fact of life. But the sport should look at that and say, “OK, this is the low point; now we rebuild.” Use it as a launching point for a new era and get on track toward strengthening NASCAR’s health for the next generation.