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.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Martinsville playoff race

Five thoughts after Sunday’s Round 3 opener at Martinsville…

1. What if….

I recently invented a special machine that allows me to travel between parallel universes and watch NASCAR races in two different dimensions. I just arrived back from the alternate universe where Joey Logano elected to race cleanly and NOT move Martin Truex Jr. for the win at Martinsville.

If you’re wondering how that decision went over with everyone, I brought the postrace transcript from Logano’s runner-up press conference from the parallel universe. Here it is.

REPORTER 1: “Joey, it looked like you had a chance to move Martin out of the way on that last lap and backed out of it. What was going through your mind there, knowing that may have cost you a chance to reach Homestead?”

LOGANO: “Look, I love winning. But clean driving is everything to me. If I can’t have the respect of my competitors, I don’t want to be doing this. Martin raced me fair and square, so I wanted to do the same in return.”

REPORTER 2: “That’s great, but what do you say to your fans and team after passing up a guaranteed shot to make the final four?”

LOGANO: “Martin is a classy guy. We attend each other’s charity events and he’s always so nice when my wife and I see him in the motorhome lot. I know we’ll be friends for years to come. It’s just not worth it to ruin that relationship. Heck, we’re supposed to go out on the lake together this week!”

REPORTER 3: “Joey, it looks like Twitter is lighting up with fans who say you must not want a championship badly enough if that’s how you race. How do you answer critics who say you get paid millions of dollars to do whatever it takes to win?”

LOGANO: “Have you ever been loudly booed by a crowd? Have you ever had a driver’s significant other tweet something negative about you? I mean, geez. Those things hurt. I don’t want any part of that. I would rather be a good guy and keep my reputation intact than do anything to make people think I’m a dirty driver.”

(TWO MONTHS LATER)

SPONSOR: “Joey, we like you a lot, but we’re paying $20 million a year for our car to win races and championships. We’re going to be moving on.”

LOGANO: “Aw, OK. I hope we can still be friends!”

2. Respect for Truex

Is it possible to agree with Logano’s last-lap move and still empathize with the obvious anger felt by Truex and Cole Pearn?

Absolutely.

Truex had an incredible drive on Sunday. He had his qualifying time thrown out and started in the back, only to make it through the field — at Martinsville, no less! — and contend in the top five almost the entire day.

Truex fought his way toward the front, then patiently and cleanly worked Logano for the lead until making what seemed to be the winning pass.

Had Truex won, that would have been one of the highlights of his career: First short track win, a win-and-in ticket to Homestead, high stakes with his team getting ready to shut down and people loudly saying he’s the most vulnerable of the Big Three drivers to miss the final four.

Instead…Logano ran into him. And now making Homestead is no sure thing.

Frustrating! Super, super frustrating! Who wouldn’t be angry about that?

I still don’t blame Logano for making the move, but it’s completely understandable why Truex and his fans would be upset about it. When looking back in a couple weeks, that one moment could very well be the difference between competing for a championship and missing out altogether.

That said, as mad as he may be now, I see no scenario under which Truex retaliates. He’s just not that kind of driver. Even if he doesn’t make Homestead, Truex isn’t going to go out and ruin Logano’s championship race with a crash. He might race Logano hard, but Truex won’t pull a Matt Kenseth. No way.

3. What’s the code?

I’m not a driver, so this is just one interpretation of what’s OK on the last lap in NASCAR and what isn’t.

— If you can move someone out of the way and do it without ruining their day — i.e. without wrecking them or costing them more than a few positions — then it’s not only acceptable in NASCAR, but expected. And even encouraged by series officials.

— If you have a chance to door someone for a side-by-side finish, it’s a coin toss as to whether the other driver and the general fan base will think it’s an acceptable move. This often depends on the person initiating the contact.

— If you accidentally wreck the person while trying to move them (like Denny Hamlin on Chase Elliott), that is considered off-limits and there will be repercussions from both the other driver and fans.

— If you crash the person in a reckless-but-unintentional way (not necessarily on purpose, but understanding there will be full contact like Noah Gragson on Todd Gilliland), people may view it the same way as a blatant takeout.

— If you completely crash someone on purpose in order to win, that’s viewed as a dirty move that takes no talent and the fallout might stain your reputation for years.

Logano’s move on Truex — like any bump-and-run at a short track — is about the least offensive way to physically move someone and falls into the first category. That’s the type of move that can only happen in stock car racing and is a hallmark of what makes NASCAR fun. You’re not going to get that in Formula One, let’s put it that way.

4. Stuff that doesn’t matter

Over the last four weeks, I’ve taken a step back from NASCAR as I got off the road for the birth of my daughter. Though I’ve tried to follow the news as much as possible, there’s no doubt having a newborn at home makes it difficult to be as immersed in the NASCAR bubble as the weeks when I’m on the road at races.

And I’ve got to tell you: Looking at the big picture, it’s a bit alarming how the NASCAR world seems to get caught up in minor, tiny crap that doesn’t really matter and actually detracts from the sport.

One example is the race day morning inspection where qualifying times get thrown out. Here I am as a TV viewer who woke up excited to spend my Sunday watching some short-track racin’ across the country. I opened my Twitter app, and what was the big storyline of the day? Drivers getting their qualifying times disallowed, starting at the back for unapproved adjustments, crew members getting ejected, etc.

Seriously? This is what we’re talking about on playoff race day morning?? For a short track where aero doesn’t even really matter???

Officiating things that way certainly seems excessive. And yes, I know all about the reasons why they do it; I’m explaining the big-picture view of why it seems silly.

Another example was the race a couple weeks ago at Talladega. My wife was in the hospital that day and I was unable to pay much attention to the race, though we had it on in the background on mute.

When I tried catching up with what happened, the big controversy was apparently about whether NASCAR should have made the caution one lap shorter and whether officials should have thrown a yellow for a wreck on the last lap instead of having it finish under green.

Look, I completely understand why those are significant debates for those in the NASCAR industry and fans who are super passionate about the sport. But can you imagine how all this looks to casual fans or people who might want to give NASCAR a chance?

Headlines like Drivers criticize NASCAR for running them out of fuel with long caution! and Fans angry NASCAR chose drama over safety on last lap! just seem like such minor things from afar. As does Defending champion will start at the back today for failing laser scan on first try!

I’m not suggesting I have the solution to all this, because I don’t. And I’m not criticizing the media, certainly; when I get back at Texas next week, I’ll be all-in with the bubble once again.

But if these are the storylines, NASCAR has some real work to do. It cannot afford to be stuck on the minutiae, because there aren’t enough people left who care that much. Simplify things, focus on what really makes people want to spend their time on the sport (great racing and interesting driver storylines) and everyone will be much better off.

5. What’s next?

Logano taking a guaranteed spot at Homestead means at least one of the Big Three is going to have to point their way into the final four. After Martinsville, Truex and Kevin Harvick are tied for the last two spots, 25 points above the cutline.

I think both will be OK, as will Kyle Busch. Harvick is probably going to win Texas, Phoenix or both; Busch might win one of those as well. That means Truex, with a pair of top-five finishes, should be just fine.

Aric Almirola, Chase Elliott, Clint Bowyer and Kurt Busch are already facing big points deficits after just one week. Are any of them going to win a race in this round? I actually think it’s more likely a non-playoff type like a Denny Hamlin or a Brad Keselowski will win, which would open up an addition points position for a Big Three member.

So as it turns out, perhaps all of the Big Three will make it to Homestead after all — just maybe not exactly how we expected.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Dover race

Five thoughts after Sunday’s playoff race at Dover International Speedway…

1. Learning from the best

Chase Elliott often beats himself up even after a good day, so coughing up a lead of more than four seconds over the final 60 laps left him understandably devastated.

After pulling onto pit road, Elliott took his helmet off and covered his face with his hands while sitting in his car. Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson quickly arrived in hopes of letting Elliott vent a few curse words without the cameras around, and the two chatted for several long minutes — though the seven-time champ acknowledged there was little he could say in the way of comfort.

Elliott, who now has five career runner-up finishes without a victory, said Busch “did a better job than I did” and cited his “lack of performance” and “failure” in executing.

It might be painful for Elliott fans to hear this, but he’s right: This is big-time auto racing, and Elliott didn’t deliver when it really counted. People can feel bad for him and tell him not to beat himself up so much — and he’s certainly a sympathetic figure after several heartbreaks. But the reality is he got schooled by the best in the game.

Johnson said he told Elliott the Dover race is typically won by sticking to the bottom of the track. That’s the case 95 percent of the time, Johnson said, and “lapped traffic probably played a bigger role in it than anything” for Elliott.

But that wasn’t the whole story. Because as the leader approached, Busch later said, Elliott needed to change his line.

“When you are Chase and you have been leading for that long and you’ve lost that amount of distance to the car behind you, you’ve got to move around,” Busch said in response to a question about what Elliott could have done differently. “You can’t give up four seconds of the lead and not do something else. I feel like that’s kind of where they lost it today.

“I don’t know if he was getting communication from his spotter or his crew chief or somebody just saying ‘Stick to the bottom, stick with what has got you to this point,’ but that was obviously bad advice. He should have moved around and searched for something and tried to pick off cars and traffic as quickly as possible.”

Again, we can all tiptoe around the facts because they’re uncomfortable and people want Elliott (who got some of the loudest cheers in driver introductions) to succeed and be a regular winner on the circuit. And he may very well become that, but races like Sunday will serve as painful lessons on his road to success.

“The best guys at these type of tracks aren’t scared to move around, even if they’re making decent lap time,” Busch crew chief Adam Stevens said. “You’re not going to pass the guy if you’re running in his tire tracks, so you have to be able to move and find something different.”

2. Don’t hate the player, hate the game

Speaking of lapped traffic, no one should be upset at Ryan Newman for holding up Elliott in the final laps. Newman was two points short of advancing to the next round and raced his guts out in an attempt to get in position to make up spots — should something happen in the final laps.

So expecting him to suddenly pay a courtesy to the leader in that situation, especially since Newman always races hard, just isn’t reasonable.

In that regard, Jeff Gordon’s comment to Newman after the race that resulted in a minor incident was unfortunate — but understandable given the emotion of the situation.

Gordon, despite being a FOX Sports broadcaster, is still heavily invested in Hendrick and the No. 24 team. So he apparently couldn’t help himself in the immediate aftermath of Elliott’s loss (Gordon said something sarcastic along the lines of “thanks for the help”).

Naturally, Newman didn’t appreciate the comment.

“You don’t think I was racing for my own position?” Newman said. “Just watch what you say, man.”

Gordon tried to defuse the situation by saying Newman took his words the wrong way.

“You said it as a smartass,” Newman said.

Newman was right to object to the statement, and I’m guessing Gordon felt bad. The two later made up in the garage, according to tweets from writer John Haverlin, so it’s just another moment that can be chalked up to the emotion of an elimination-style playoff.

3. Quick sand

What’s the fastest way to make up ground in a crucial playoff race? Well, one way is to stay out and hope for a fluke caution.

That’s what happened to Ricky Stenhouse Jr. during Stage 1. He was one of five cars that had yet to pit when Jeffrey Earnhardt spun out coming to Dover’s tricky pit road and nailed the sand barrels, causing a red flag.

That trapped all cars a lap down with the exception of those five — and it turned out to be a huge benefit for Stenhouse.

Just like that, Stenhouse went from seven points out of the cutoff line for Round 1 to more than 30 points in the clear. And by being able to having good track position for the rest of the stage, Stenhouse was able to finish fourth and gain seven stage points — something his rivals Austin Dillon and Newman weren’t able to get.

Ultimately, he advanced by less than the amount of those stage points — meaning that was a pivotal playoff moment.

“The feeling is lucky, really,” Stenhouse said.

He’s right, but in a survive-and-advance format, sometimes that can make all the difference.

By the way, Stenhouse’s good fortune could give him an opportunity that goes beyond just making it to Round 2. Talladega is the middle race of this round, and Stenhouse has won the most recent two plate races. What an upset it would be if he could be among the final eight drivers this season.

4. Saying goodbye

None of the four cars eliminated — Newman, Austin Dillon, Kasey Kahne or Kurt Busch — were serious title contenders, so their departure isn’t much of a surprise.

Even though the Richard Childress Racing cars finished ahead of them in the round, Kahne and Busch were probably the two who most people would have had advancing based on the strength of their teams. I actually predicted Kahne would make a mini playoff run after getting a fresh start following his Indy win, but it wasn’t to be.

Busch is probably the most puzzling of all. He started off by winning the Daytona 500 but never was much of a factor after that despite Stewart-Haas Racing having decent speed with Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer.

“Winning the Daytona 500, you always see the jinx that happens afterwards,” he said. “We experienced it. There’s a lot that goes on with it. My car never had the handle in it this year; I was always loose in, tight on exit.

“I don’t know why we had that so bad this year.”

It’s definitely weird and hard to explain, as Busch’s average finish declined from 12.0 last year to 16.2 so far this season.

5. Who’s the favorite?

Three Chevrolets and one Ford were eliminated from playoff contention, leaving each manufacturer with four cars remaining.

There are four Toyotas (Truex, Busch, Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth), four Chevrolets (Kyle Larson, Johnson, Elliott and Jamie McMurray) and four Fords (Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Stenhouse and Ryan Blaney).

Truex remains the favorite, of course, but Busch has now gained 10 playoff points on the No. 78 car in the last two races. He’s now just 18 behind, which could come into play if the teams have to race for the last spot in Round 3.

Honestly, it’s hard to predict and I’m just as unsure about who has the championship edge as I was when the playoffs started three weeks ago.

My pre-playoff picks included Truex, Busch, Larson and Hamlin — with Busch as the champ. So I guess I’ll stick with that for now, although it seems to be constantly changing.

“Week to week, you can probably change your favorite,” Busch said. “Early on the first third of the race, I probably would have said Larson is your new championship favorite. But you’ve got to let these things play out.

“I still think it’s 78, 18, 42 — and there’s different distances between us every week, depending on how we run and what all kind of goes on.”

There’s still so much left to be decided, and now it gets a bit more intense as Round 2 begins.

News Analysis: Kurt Busch’s contract option will not be picked up

What happened: Kurt Busch’s contract option to race at Stewart-Haas Racing in 2018 won’t be picked up by the team, the Daytona 500 winner has been told. The news was first reported by Jerry Jordan of KickinTheTires.net on Sunday, but Lee Spencer of Motorsport.com posted Tuesday that “the expectation is that Busch will not drive the No. 41 Ford for SHR in 2018.” Moments later, NBC’s Nate Ryan also posted Busch’s contract will not be picked up. But shortly after those stories, SHR tweeted a denial: “We don’t comment on contract status, but we expect @KurtBusch back in our @MonsterEnergy / @Haas_Automation Ford in ’18. Just sayin’.” I asked for clarification from SHR on this, but was told to just refer to the tweet.

What it means: Busch is a free agent. Jordan and Spencer both have solid relationships with Busch, so the news his contract option wasn’t picked up is almost certainly accurate. However, that doesn’t mean SHR won’t bring Busch back with a renegotiated deal, which is perhaps why it issued a denial. The Monster Energy piece of this is the big question, because Monster likely was balking at sponsoring both the series and a race team (after all, it got a pretty good bargain on being the Cup title sponsor). We still need more information to understand what’s going on here, but the best guess is SHR told Busch it wasn’t bringing him back under the current deal, freeing him to look elsewhere while also hoping to negotiate a new deal with better terms.

News value (scale of 1-10): 8. The news of Busch’s option not being picked up is about a 5, but I’m rating this so highly because we aren’t actually sure what’s going on here. Media reports said one thing and the team said another thing, which is very unusual in NASCAR. Either way, it’s gotten everyone’s attention today.

Three questions: Um, what the hell? Is Busch really out, or is this confusion driven by Monster’s unorthodox way of conducting business? When will SHR let everyone know what’s going on with its other Silly Season situation — Danica Patrick?

12 Questions with Kurt Busch

The 12 Questions series of interviews continues this week with Daytona 500 winner Kurt Busch of Stewart-Haas Racing. I spoke with Busch at Dover International Speedway.

1. How much of your success is based on natural ability and how much has come from working at it?

I would say that it’s a balance of both, but in all honesty, my dad, Tom, taught Kyle and I everything about the race car. First up was how to work on it, and that taught us how to respect it. And then (was) how to race it. He was always there helping us with our go-karts.

You know what’s funny is that I always looked forward to watching the race with him on Sundays as a kid, because he would point out certain things that the veteran drivers were doing, like Dale Sr. was doing this or Bill Elliott did that, and it was really neat to digest that and then apply it to the little go-kart we had.

Does he still give advice from time to time now?

Oh yeah. He hasn’t slowed down one bit. (Laughs) He still knows it all.

2. Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and now Dale Earnhardt Jr. have all either retired in the last couple years or will retire soon. What’s your pitch for fans of theirs to become fans of yours?

There’s the opportunity in NASCAR that’s different than any other sport and that is that we have 40 guys that take the green flag every weekend. There’s two sports teams usually, like right now it’s the (Golden State) Warriors against the (Cleveland) Cavaliers (in the NBA Finals), and are you a fan of either? Usually by this time of year your guy or your team is out of it, and so you choose one or you move on to another situation.

But I always encourage people to stay involved in NASCAR and find a driver that they think is similar to their driving style or to their demeanor (or) to their ability of fun level. I think the fun level is what this sport needs to continue to focus on. Everyone talks about power rankings, stages, points, wins — let’s talk about fun level.

3. What is the hardest part of your job away from the racetrack?

That’s a good question. My job is great, I love it. There’s always so many different hats you have to wear, whether it’s a media hat, a sponsor hat, working with the crew guys and the engineers, studying wind tunnel numbers.

That’s maybe the toughest part right now, balancing all the rule changes of NASCAR and trying to find a common thread on how to get that advantage. The sport is all about having that advantage and being the top team, and right now we’ve been working our buns off balancing all of the different things that are changing.

4. A fan spots you eating dinner in a nice restaurant. Should they come over for an autograph or no?

Oh sure. There’s a moment in time where you always have that one chance to make a new fan or to keep a fan of the sport of NASCAR. It’s nice when you’re done eating to come over.

I remember one time — it was actually here in Dover, Delaware — where I was having ribs and somebody wanted me to sign what they wanted me to sign. I was like, “Guys, I’m eating.” They were just so ecstatic, they wanted me to sign and I really had rib barbecue sauce all over my hands and signed what they wanted signed. They wanted that part of it as well.

Here’s some barbecue sauce from my meal. It’s like an extra souvenir here.

Yeah, it was like icing on the cake.

5. What’s a story in NASCAR that doesn’t get enough coverage?

I would say it’s just the genuine racing on the track and who’s doing what and how that move or pass happened. It’s similar to like old-school journalism on where guys were out-dueling each other out on the racetrack.

6. Who is the last driver you texted?

I had lunch with Matt Crafton this week, so maybe that was the last driver I texted.

That would make sense.

I do need to text Jimmie Johnson, though. My wife’s playing polo and his buddy Nacho is playing polo, and so we gotta figure out if we’re gonna go watch polo.

That’s something you’d never thought you’d say a few years ago, right?

Yeah. Polo, right?

7. Do you consider race car drivers to be entertainers?

Yeah there’s that aspect of it. Ultimately we’re just hardcore racers, and then you learn at this level the TV side of things because we’ll be like, “The track’s ready to go, the track’s green,” but we still got another hour or so before live TV hits. So there’s a little bit of that, but at the end of the day you just roll with it and focus on driving the car.

8. What is your middle finger policy on the racetrack?

I haven’t used it in a while because it came with so many penalties — not from other drivers, just from NASCAR. Honestly I haven’t used it in a while. It’s usually when somebody does something so blatant and that blatant moment was backed up by three consistent blatant moments. So you usually need to have three strikes to get something pretty big.

So three strikes, then the finger.

Yeah, I would say.

9. Some drivers keep a payback list in their minds. Do you also have a list for drivers who have done you a favor on the track?

Yeah, you have all the different lists. Like when we get to the cutoff for the playoffs and you know guys are really pushing hard to run consistent and to get into the playoffs. Then there’s the good guy list, the bad guy list; you keep track of it all. That’s an element that if you’re good at that situation, you’re in that top percentile.

10. Who is the most famous person you’ve had dinner with?

I’m trying to think. I had a beer with Reggie Jackson the other day.

That’s pretty cool. How was that?

It was pretty solid. We were hanging out at the Yankee Club restaurant in New York City, but I don’t know (about dinner).

Oh, I got it. We just finished Indy, so Indy’s fresh in my mind. Having dinner with Mario Andretti at an Italian restaurant in Tampa, Florida, was one of the coolest moments that I’ve had. To sit down with him — I had my family, his family there was really neat.

That’s awesome, especially being able to pick his brain and stuff like that I imagine.

Just hanging out in one of his cool Italian spots and the way that racing was the anchor of the conversation. I saw the joy in my dad’s eyes and the way that everybody was really just chill, but really engaged in the situation.

11. What’s something about yourself you’d like to improve?

My ability to communicate. I’ve had things in my head all the time on what I’m thinking or what I would like to see happen with the car or it could be something simple as schedule.

I think I told my wife the other day, “Yeah, we’re gonna have lunch when we get to New York City and we’ll meet up afterwards,” and she was just confused if she was doing lunch or if I was just doing lunch. It’s a little thing. I think that’s just a part of being husband and wife, but honestly I can do a better job with Tony Gibson and anybody that works at Stewart-Haas, just to be clear on communications.

12. The last interview I did was with James Hinchcliffe because I went to the Indy 500. His question was: “Do you think that Jimmie Johnson will be able to break the championships record, and if so, how many do you think he’ll end his career with?”

I’ll answer your question, James Hinchcliffe, in reverse. I think he’ll end with eight. I think if he gets it, he’ll be done; he’ll walk away, drop the mic. Will he get it? I’ll tell you, the combination of Chad Knaus, Rick Hendrick, Lowe’s, Jimmie Johnson — that is a power package that has never been assembled and probably never will ever again, and it’s mind-boggling to see their results and watch them continue each and every year to power through it. I wish them all the best. I think they’ve got the best potential out of everybody to ever set that type of record.

Will he do it? I’m on the fence; I’m 50/50 because I’m out there still competing and I don’t want him to get another one while I’m out here. I wanna get one. I wanna get another one. So we’ll see how it pans out. I’m gonna say 50/50 that he gets it, but when he does, 100 percent he’ll drop the mic and walk away.

The next interview that I’m doing with is with Paul Menard. Do you have a question that I could ask Paul?

What’s the slogan for Menard’s? “Everything’s better at Menard’s,” or what’s the slogan? Oh, “Save big money at Menard’s.” So I wanna ask Paul Menard who came up with that tagline, and then if he was ever a box boy or a bag guy at Menard’s.

Editor’s Note: Unfortunately, Paul Menard will not be the next 12 Questions interview. Due to another interview running long, I was late for Menard and he was unable to reschedule the interview for the Dover weekend. My apologies.

The Top Five: Breakdown of the Daytona 500

Each week, I’ll provide some quick analysis through a post called the Top Five — five notable storylines from the just-completed race. Next up: the Daytona 500.

Stars align for Kurt Busch, Monster and Stewart-Haas

Kurt Busch’s Daytona 500 victory was one of those things that just sort of makes sense in a head-shaking way.

Busch had never even won a restrictor-plate race and was 0-for-63 at Daytona and Talladega entering Sunday. Yet in Monster Energy’s first race as Cup Series sponsor, the car carrying the Monster logo ended up in victory lane.

Perfect!

It was also the first race without Tony Stewart as a full-time driver — and he went to the winner’s circle as a car owner after never winning the 500 himself.

Naturally!

Plus, the win came during a turbulent time for Stewart-Haas Racing — a move to Ford this season with uncertain results ahead, trouble finding sponsorship for two drivers and a lawsuit against a now-former sponsor.

Great timing!

It was only two years ago that Busch was suspended for an alleged domestic violence incident, forcing him to miss the 500. Since then, the woman who accused him was indicted for stealing from the charity she ran and Busch got married in the offseason to his new wife, Ashley Van Metre.

There always seems to be an answer for Busch, a comeback around the corner, a second chance, another shot.

Just look no further than this Speedweeks. It began with headlines about Busch getting sued by his former agent and ended with Busch earning NASCAR’s greatest prize.

Of course!

Drivers ‘scared’ to make move at the end

After a wild race that eliminated more than half the field, it seemed like the remaining drivers were hesitant to make a move and form two lines in the final laps.

Joey Logano kept trying, ducking down over and over to see if he could get anyone to go with him. It didn’t work, and the result ultimately allowed the leaders to stay in line and determine the win themselves.

What gives? I asked Logano why no one went with him. He opened his mouth but no words came out, and he just shrugged.

“Scared, I guess,” he finally said. “I don’t know. I don’t have any answer.”

Logano said he was shocked everyone decided to play it so conservatively.

Here’s a guess: Some of the drivers in the top 10 — like AJ Allmendinger, Aric Almirola, Paul Menard — obviously wanted to win, and would have made a move if it presented itself. But instead of forcing something, it was better to stay put for a sure-thing finish rather take a risk for the win and potentially drop back to 11th.

Each of them ended up with a top five to start the season, so you can’t fault them; but you can also understand Logano’s frustration.

Another upset for underdog Matt DiBenedetto

For the second straight year, Matt DiBenedetto scored an impressive finish in a car that had no business being that good in a Cup race.

DiBenedetto finished ninth in the Daytona 500, climbing out of his car to the cheers of his family and new GoFas Racing team on pit road (they literally clapped and yelled as he got out).

I asked him whether this finish was better than his sixth-place result at Bristol for BK Racing last spring.

“This one was a little more survival, that one was a little more racing,” he said with a smile. “I’d say they were different feelings. But the Daytona 500, just being in it in the first place is unbelievable. This one feels really good, because it’s been my dream since I was 5 to even be in it. So to get a top-10 in it, man, I’m just checking off all these dreams come true.”

Honestly, there were several great stories in the top 10. Look at Michael Waltrip! (You probably didn’t have a choice on the post-race show, but still…) The guy finished eighth in the Daytona 500 at age 53 and ended his career with a top-10. Not bad.

Also, Brendan Gaughan finished 11th — his best finish in a Cup race since Homestead…in 2004!

Kyle Busch throws down with Goodyear

No matter how much Kyle Busch changes over the years, one thing is consistent: If his equipment lets him down at an unacceptable level in his eyes, Busch is going to sound off about it.

He’s ripped Toyota engines, for example, as well as Goodyear several times. And on Sunday, it was the latter who drew his ire again after he spun and started a crash that took out several cars, including Dale Earnhardt Jr., Erik Jones and Matt Kenseth.

“Goodyear tires just suck,” he told reporters in his garage, according to Yahoo.

He also told FOX that Goodyear’s tires “aren’t very good at holding air.”

Yeesh. That’s probably not going to go over very well, but I also doubt Busch regrets his comments.

I asked Goodyear director of race tire sales Greg Tucker for his company’s side of things. He said Goodyear found evidence of a rub or a cut on Busch’s left rear tire, but the No. 18 team felt it was the right rear that went down. Stucker said there was a break on the right rear, but was inconclusive as to whether it was there beforehand or was caused when Busch spun and crashed.

Stucker acknowledged it was “tough for anybody” to hear criticism like Busch’s but said the top priority was to “get the facts and get it back to the team.”

So will Goodyear speak with Busch? Stucker said Goodyear has a regular call with the whole JGR team.

“It’ll come up there and get discussed at that point,” he said.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. escapes wreck with no injury

Earnhardt hit Kyle Busch’s car hard during Stage 2, which ended his Daytona Day. But it was a very respectable return — he was at the front when the incident happened — and he also showed the ability to take a decent hit without sustaining a concussion.

That sounds like a low bar for safety, but it has to be somewhat of a relief.

Afterward, the driver credited work on the headrests for keeping him safe.

“We changed some things in the interior that I feel will help me going forward,” he said. “I just appreciate all the effort NASCAR has put in to safety. I know we say that a lot, but if they hadn’t put the money into the studies that they did, I probably would have gotten hurt again right there.”

What exactly were the headrest changes? Earnhardt said the team “closed it up to where we really have no gap on each side.”

Basically, a driver’s head usually leans one way before hitting the wall and then slams over to the headrest on the other side (“It’s like hitting a baseball bat when you get there,” Earnhardt said), even if it’s only a couple inches of a gap.

But by making the headrests so close together they basically cradled his helmet, Earnhardt was able to absorb less of a jarring impact.

“The car itself sees a whole lot less (G forces) than the body does, and if you close (the headrests) up, you can minimize the Gs and get closer to what the car is seeing in those impacts,” he said.

It wasn’t too long ago, Earnhardt said, that drivers didn’t even want left-side head rests. They wanted room to be able to move around; now, that’s been proven to be more dangerous.

“That was really, really smart for us to go and have those meetings with NASCAR and say, ‘Hey, what can we do better?’ and talk about it,” he said. “That’s something I’m happy I did.”

2017 NASCAR Playoff Picks

Here are my picks for the 2017 NASCAR Cup playoffs (alphabetical order):

  • Clint Bowyer
  • Kurt Busch
  • Kyle Busch
  • Austin Dillon
  • Dale Earnhardt Jr.
  • Chase Elliott
  • Denny Hamlin
  • Kevin Harvick
  • Jimmie Johnson
  • Kasey Kahne
  • Matt Kenseth
  • Brad Keselowski
  • Kyle Larson
  • Joey Logano
  • Jamie McMurray
  • Martin Truex Jr.

A few expanded predictions:

— Clint Bowyer will get back to his old competitive self after joining Stewart-Haas Racing. By September, any hiccups SHR has in the transition to Ford will be forgotten.

— Four Toyotas will make it, but rookies Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez will barely miss out because of a few late-race mistakes.

— All four Hendrick drivers will be in the playoff, including Kasey Kahne after his best season in several years. Dale Earnhardt Jr. will finish the regular season within the top 10 in points.

— Both Chip Ganassi Racing drivers will be in and Kyle Larson will win two times in the regular season.

— Austin Dillon will win his first Cup race by late August.

— Overall, Hendrick Motorsports will be the best team in the regular season (with Jimmie Johnson having the most wins), followed by Team Penske. Joe Gibbs Racing will experience a slight drop-off after two great years, just part of the usual cycle in racing.

— I hate leaving Ryan Blaney out, but I’m not a Blaney detractor. I picked him to make it last year, and it’s certainly possible he could have a great year.

Joey Logano will win his first championship in 2017.