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.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Phoenix playoff race

Five thoughts after Sunday’s NASCAR playoff race at ISM Raceway…

1.  Big stage is set

After all the crazy twists of these playoffs, NASCAR ended up with the best four drivers of the season going for the championship.

There are no flukes here. Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano and Martin Truex Jr. have the best average finishes of anyone in the Cup Series this season (in that order). In the traditional/non-playoff point standings, which are still kept by racing-reference.info, those four drivers are also tops in season-long points.

It’s a stout group, and you could make a case for any of them winning the title.

“This is the closest four that have been in our sport in a long time,” Busch said.

There are no newcomers among them, either.  Each contender has been in the final four at least twice — even though this is only the fifth year of its existence. Logano is the least experienced of the contenders — and yet this is his 10th season.

“Three of us have won in the format and all four of us have lost in the format,” Busch said. “Overall, it just comes back to a lot of things having to go your way.”

So what’s going to happen at Homestead? Well, it would be a surprise if the drivers didn’t run 1-2-3-4 for much of the race, and maybe even finish that way.

Harvick though, remains the favorite. It’s a 1.5-mile track and he’s consistently been the fastest off the truck all year. Strange things can happen, as we saw at Phoenix, but the Fords are still better than the Toyotas on intermediate tracks.

So that said, my prediction for the finishing order of this year’s final four is: Harvick-Logano-Busch-Truex.

2. Playoff races raise the game

It’s OK to have a love/hate relationship with this playoff format. There are days when it seems far from the best way to decide an auto racing champion.

But Sunday was not one of those days. The playoff pressure absolutely elevated the Phoenix race and made it far more compelling than it may have been otherwise.

Look at how desperately Aric Almirola was driving at the end. Look at the decisions made by Kurt Busch and his team to try to preserve their points position over Harvick. The whole atmosphere and vibe of the race was dramatically enhanced by the playoffs, and it made for a highly entertaining day.

Yeah, it’s still weird to have one race at a given track decide the season-long winner. On the other hand, it gains credibility when the best drivers all advance — and the addition of playoff points have certainly helped.

“I think the format we have now is the absolutely best scenario we could have when you look at it for the entirety of the year,” Busch said.

3. Smoke’s thoughts

Tony Stewart had his hands full on Sunday. He knew it would be challenging for a team owner — that’s what happens when you have four teammates going for one spot. But he had to step into an extra role as well: Counselor.

As Kurt Busch was having a meltdown on the radio after a tough penalty took  the race lead away and cost him a lap, Stewart intervened and told Busch to take a deep breath. After the race, Stewart consoled Busch with an embrace and words of encouragement — something Busch expressed gratitude for later.

It was if the current Stewart was talking to the racer Stewart from 10 years ago as the voice of reason.

Scary, isn’t it?” Stewart told me after the race. “Got some experience in those situations. I think that helps, at least being in that position. (Kurt is) a good guy. He’s come a long way, but he still gets in those positions where the heat of battle takes over. It’s understandable. That’s why we do what we do.

“Can’t blame him for it. You just know everybody is going to hang on every word he says, so you just try to help him out more than anything. After his penalty, he did an awesome job of locking back in. He was running the leaders down from the back. Pretty proud of him.”

Overall, Stewart was unhappy about the race unfolded. He called it “chaotic” and indicated there were too many factors affecting such a big race.

What specifically stuck out?

The scenarios and everything around it, drivers that shouldn’t even be in the Cup Series causing cautions, stupid stuff happening,” he said.

4. Harvick’s comeback

This will probably be lost to history, but let’s take a moment to appreciate Harvick’s remarkable feat at Phoenix.

After dominating the first stage, he had a tire go flat with two laps left in the stage and limped to pit road — which was actually fortunate timing, because the stage break saved him from going more laps down.

Then he fought his way to the free pass position —  and got it — despite a damaged car. Later, his team used strategy to put him in a favorable spot to be in front of the late wreck that would have ended his playoff hopes — but instead helped him sail through on points as his competitors crashed.

Harvick downplayed it all afterward, saying it was “just another day.” He said his only thoughts were trying to get back to the pits instead of worrying about the championship.

But the survival and focus of his team to persevere through a day that could have been a heartbreaker is one to remember — especially if he ends up winning his second title next week.

5. What if?

An intriguing scenario popped up late in the race with Kyle Busch and Almirola restarting side-by-side. If Busch allowed Almirola to beat him on the restart — and potentially for the win — then it would have eliminated Harvick, who is clearly Busch’s biggest competitor for the title.

Busch said it crossed his mind, but never seriously. He wasn’t going to give up a win, even if it means Harvick would beat him next week.

You always want to go up against the best of the best, and the strength of the season has been us three and the 22,” Busch said.

In addition, Busch said it wouldn’t have worked anyway. Had Almirola gotten by on the restart and Busch fallen in line, he predicted Brad Keselowski would have won instead.

“I don’t think the 10 was capable enough of being able to lead the race and not have somebody else pass him, know what I mean?” Busch said. “That would have been dumb.”

Crew chief Adam Stevens,  though, seemed like he wouldn’t have been disappointed had it happened.

“It wouldn’t have upset me if it did happen, but we weren’t going to do anything to make it happen,” Stevens said.

I’m not at all saying Busch should have done it — no real racer would give up a win, and it also would have been a huge scandal for not letting the race play out — but it’s an interesting scenario that only pops up in NASCAR’s unique playoff format.

NASCAR sheds light on Kevin Harvick’s illegal spoiler penalty

NASCAR senior vice president of competition Scott Miller held a teleconference with reporters on Wednesday night to discuss the penalty issued to Kevin Harvick’s No. 4 team earlier in the day.

Among the notable comments:

— Teams are required to purchase the spoilers from a single supplier called Richardson. As such, there’s typically no need to check the spoiler at the racetrack because they’re all the same and can’t be modified. However, NASCAR believes the No. 4 team actually manufactured its own spoiler and passed it off as the standard one — except the illegal spoiler was offset to the right in relation to the center of the car, which was “definitely (an) aerodynamic performance (advantage),” Miller said. NASCAR considered making it an L2 penalty (75 points) but settled on the high end of an L1 penalty (40 points).

— A NASCAR inspector at the track had noticed something “a little suspicious” about the spoiler at the track, Miller said. That led officials to further examine it after returning to the NASCAR Research and Development Center in North Carolina. However, Miller said the penalty was not something that was obvious to the eye or stuck out. But once it was discovered and compared against the CAD drawing in the rulebook, Miller said it was “black and white.”

— Due to the No. 4 team’s infraction, Miller said NASCAR will now be unbolting every spoiler and examining them during at-track inspection for the final two races. That will add another step to the inspection process, which NASCAR obviously didn’t want. “It’s unfortunate now we’ll be pulling spoilers off and have to do another inspection,” Miller said. “The teams should really be bringing legal cars to the racetrack and we shouldn’t have to do that inspection all the time.”

Miller made it clear NASCAR is tiring of teams pushing the limits and is ready for a further crackdown. “I think we’re getting into borderline ridiculous territory,” he said. So what does that mean? For one thing, NASCAR is considering disqualifying illegal cars next season, and officials will discuss the possibility during the offseason. “We’ve heard the fans call out to, ‘Why don’t you disqualify the offending car?’ That’s actually a topic of discussion, along with other things related to the deterrence model,” Miller said. He added the penalties and consequences for teams who bring cars that don’t pass inspection or fit within the rules will be increased next season to a harsher level. “We are hoping we can change the culture to where we don’t have to play this cat-and-mouse game with the teams all the time,” he said. “We have to make the consequences more than just saying, ‘Take that off.’ ‘Take that off’ isn’t working anymore.”

— NASCAR will perform an engine teardown and enhanced post-race inspection immediately after the Homestead race (as it has done in the past) rather than wait until midweek to scrutinize the championship car for any funny business. “Homestead could potentially turn into a Sunday night issue, but it certainly won’t be in the middle of the week,” Miller said. “We will be able to have eyes on those cars and see those things quickly at pre-race and post-race at Homestead. We feel good about the process.”

News Analysis: Kevin Harvick penalized, loses locked-in spot at Homestead

What happened: Kevin Harvick’s ticket to Homestead was revoked after NASCAR found his team used an illegal spoiler during the No. 4 car’s dominating win at Texas. Harvick will technically keep the win, but he lost the benefit that advanced him to the championship race at Homestead. He also lost 40 points (of the 60 he earned in the race), which now puts him just three points ahead of the cutoff line heading to Phoenix. Crew chief Rodney Childers and car chief Cheddar Smith were suspended for the rest of the season, and Stewart-Haas Racing said it will not appeal. Former Kurt Busch crew chief Tony Gibson will lead Harvick’s team for the final two races. The second-place car of Ryan Blaney and the fourth-place car of Erik Jones were also found to have serious violations; the third-place car of Joey Logano was not brought back to NASCAR’s R&D Center for the same type of thorough inspection.

What it means: Given the severity of the penalty, the timing of the championship implications and the lack of an appeal by the team, the logical conclusion is this must have been a blatant attempt to skirt the rules rather than some sort of mistake or misunderstanding. It’s tough for fans to hear a race winner was cheating like this, but it’s a reminder all of the top NASCAR teams are likely pulling some sort of trickery and working in gray areas to find speed. That’s how teams separate themselves in NASCAR and why crew chiefs get paid the big bucks. Was it worth the risk? It’s hard to say, because we don’t know how long Harvick’s team had been doing this or how much of an impact it had on the team’s speed. Harvick also had another encumbered win earlier this season (in Las Vegas), but still ended up with the most successful season of his career anyway. Plus, Harvick still goes to his best track with a chance to advance to Homestead and win the championship in spite of the penalty. If NASCAR had taken all 60 of the points Harvick earned in the race instead of 40 — thereby completely erasing his Texas performance short of taking the trophy — it might be a different story.

News value (scale of 1 to 10): Nine. When the best team all year dominates a race and is found to have broken the rules, then gets removed from the championship, that’s about as big as it gets. I would put this as a 10, but I have to leave some room in case the Homestead winner cheats and gets stripped of the championship — which seems like a real possibility now.

Three questions: What exactly did Harvick’s team do to the spoiler that made it illegal? Will Harvick experience any dropoff in performance after the team was caught, or will this not have any impact on the car’s speed? If NASCAR had taken the win away in this case, who would get the trophy given the second-place car was also illegal and the third-place car wasn’t inspected as thoroughly?

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.