In this goofy special edition of the podcast, half of the NASCAR playoff drivers took a few minutes on Media Day in Las Vegas to discuss a variety of subjects. Topics include Ryan Blaney’s Twitter emoji, what reporting style they’d use if they became a media member, Kyle Larson’s upcoming mid-playoffs wedding and the proper dress code for a racetrack. The podcast features appearances from (in order): Denny Hamlin, Kyle Larson, Erik Jones, Ryan Blaney, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch, Alex Bowman and Martin Truex Jr.
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.
By John Haverlin
If Kyle Larson’s final pit stop were a mere tenth of a second quicker, he probably would have beaten Brad Keselowski off pit road and won the Southern 500.
Larson’s No. 42 car had looked untouchable all night. He swept the first two stages and led 284 of the 367 laps at Darlington. But when it came down to the key moment of the race, it was Keselowski’s crew that turned a lightning-fast stop instead of Larson’s.
Once again, the Chip Ganassi Racing driver came away with a frustrating ending to what could have been a perfect night. For two consecutive races, he’s settled for something short of what he might’ve deserved. It’s not that his pit crew was bad during the race; it just didn’t have the extra bit of speed necessary to top Keselowski’s group.
“We didn’t get beat off pit road by much, but it was enough,” Larson said. “Being the control car at any racetrack is huge, and we just didn’t have that. … Just lost a little bit of our edge there for the restart and I was pretty loose on that last run and lost a lot of ground there.”
Although he didn’t dominate Bristol two weeks ago, he was the pole winner and finished second to Kurt Busch. For the final 13 laps of that race, he pushed as hard as he could to catch the Stewart-Haas Racing car.
The Bristol night race is an event Larson has said is the one he wants to win more than anything in NASCAR — other than maybe the Daytona 500. It was agonizing for him to not win after going to victory lane the day before in the Bristol Xfinity Series race.
Now to come up short again after dominating one of NASCAR’s most historic races is just another punch in the gut.
But Larson sees the silver lining: He gained two playoff points and earned 54 of a possible 60 points overall. That’s the type of performance that can help him in a few weeks when the competition intensifies during the postseason.
“We got some stage points, which is good for the playoffs,” he said. “Disappointed, but happy about the car we brought.”
So was there a difference for the No. 2 team during the race? Well, actually there was.
Winning crew chief Paul Wolfe admitted the pit crew did something new, but he wouldn’t reveal the secret.
“If you watch closely, you’ll probably see a difference, but I’m not going to talk about it a lot,” he said. “We’ve had an up-and-down year on pit road, and we continue to try and work on that and get better. We did some different things tonight, and we’re still learning — a good bit of confidence for those guys going into the playoffs.”
Keselowski’s Ford was a top-five car all night, and Team Penske finished 1-2, so you can’t take that away from Joey Logano and his race-winning teammate. Penske has been a ‘B’ team compared to the Big Three of Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. most of the year, but it found something in the setups this weekend that no one else could replicate.
“I’ve got to give a lot of credit to my pit crew,” Keselowski said. “We were running second and that last stop they nailed it and got us out in the lead. I thought Kyle was really good, and he was flat-out flying. … In 2015, we led a bunch of laps and lost it on the last pit stop, and today my team won it on the last pit stop.”
Does Keselowski know what his team did to help him beat Larson off pit lane?
“I’m not privy to that information, so I couldn’t tell you,” he said. “But I’ll take it, whatever it was.”
Five thoughts after Saturday night’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway…
1. Again…MORE SHORT TRACKS!
The next time someone asks me what I like about NASCAR, I’m just going to point to this year’s racing at Bristol.
NASCAR was at its best on Saturday night. There were great battles for the lead all night, fantastic moves throughout the field, unpredictable outcomes, high emotions and almost too much to keep track of at times.
It was fun! Three hours of pure entertainment that never got boring and had intriguing subplots from the opening laps.
Is it being greedy to ask for more?
“Bristol is an awesome place,” Kyle Larson said afterward. “If we could race here every Saturday and Sunday, our grandstands would be packed, our TV ratings would be very high. Let’s build more Bristols.”
Amen! For all the talk of what ails NASCAR and how it could be better, the issue so often comes down to the tracks themselves. And it continues to feel like more short tracks could solve a lot of NASCAR’s problems.
Yet the reality of adding more short tracks seems so unlikely at the moment. Instead, NASCAR is locked into this intermediate track racing and now has seemingly come up with a solution to slow down the cars in order to put on a better show next season.
If only someone in power could slam their fist down on the table and say, “NO! Enough. That’s not what we need. The real solution is to shake up the schedule and start going to more short tracks.”
No, it wouldn’t change things overnight, but 20 short track races per season sure would do a lot for the health of the sport.
The problem is it’ll never happen. It’s a pipe dream at this point. So we just have to somehow accept there’s only two more short track races for the rest of the year.
Sigh. At least we had Saturday night.
2. Kurt makes case for No. 4
Any race winner who isn’t part of the Big Three at this point is going to spend a week being the focus of the “Are they the fourth driver?” storyline.
It just happened with Chase Elliott after Watkins Glen. Now it’s Kurt Busch’s turn. Kurt, c’mon down! You’re the next driver to get the spotlight as No. 4!
But “Who is the fourth?” is a valid question because it seems so up in the air, doesn’t it? I have no idea who would be the last driver at Homestead if all of the Big Three were to advance.
Elliott? Busch? Clint Bowyer? Denny Hamlin? Larson? Those seem to be the top candidates, but that’s a lot of drivers for one spot.
Seriously though, it might very well be Busch. He has playoff experience, is still at the top of his game and Stewart-Haas Racing continues to show it’s consistently the best team at this point in the season.
But there’s also a chance by the time you read this column in a couple weeks, we could all be focused on someone else.
3. Common sense, please
I totally get that people were angry with Kyle Busch for wrecking Martin Truex Jr. while going for second place in the final stage.
But to say he did it on purpose? C’mon, guys.
There would be absolutely no logic or reason for Busch to suddenly wreck Truex, his pseudo-teammate (Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row share information and debrief together) and fellow title contender (how dumb would it be to start a feud at this point in the season?).
It wasn’t a battle for the lead and it wasn’t a bump-and-run situation, because there were still plenty of laps to go. Busch just screwed up. I would bet almost any amount of money he didn’t do it on purpose.
He said as much after the race, though surely not everyone will take his word for it.
“I crashed the 78, so that was my bad, totally,” he said. “Totally misjudged that one just coming off the corner. Knowing there were still plenty of laps left, I wasn’t even in a hurry and I just misjudged it by four or six inches, whatever it was and I clipped him there and sent him for a ride.
“He knows that wasn’t intentional at all and we’ve worked really, really, really, really well together these last two or three years and that shouldn’t ruin anything between us.”
Busch and Truex crew chief Cole Pearn have a good relationship as well, so again — while the 78 team might be mad in an emotionally charged moment, they surely know it was unintentional.
“Maybe I’ll send them a sorry cake to the Denver shop for the guys having to work extra,” Busch said. “They’ll probably throw that (car) away anyway, but it ruined their day from being able to get a win or even a second.”
4. You’re ruining it for everyone, you idiot
After the race, Kyle Busch walked out of the infield tunnel and up the ramp to where drivers get in their golf carts. Fans typically line the chest-high fence there for autographs, and Busch actually stopped to sign a few despite his sour mood.
As he got in his golf cart, though, a fan went after Busch. According to several eyewitnesses, the fan gave Busch some not-so-friendly pats on the arm before reaching into the golf cart and making much harder contact. That brought Busch out of the cart to defend himself, and the two men were chest to chest as public relations woman Penny Copen stepped in between them. Police then arrived to detain the fan.
As if it wasn’t obvious, that is a totally unacceptable situation. No fan should ever, EVER confront a driver after the race. Between this and the guy who accosted Denny Hamlin on pit road at Martinsville last year, everyone is walking a fine line. It’s not going to take much for fans to completely lose access to the drivers, which is something that has made NASCAR great over the years.
Busch, no matter how much you may dislike him, shouldn’t need to be fearing for his safety when he’s leaving a racetrack. This is ENTERTAINMENT, after all. The drivers are putting on a show. It’s not some political demonstration where two sides clash in the streets.
Don’t make NASCAR bring in riot police to get drivers out of the track. If you see this start to happen at a track, don’t be afraid to alert security. You’re not snitching, you’re saving your fellow fans from losing valuable access to the stars of the sport.
5. Playoff picture
This is turning into such a weird season. Not only have three drivers dominated at the top, but there’s virtually zero points drama at the bottom when it comes to the playoff bubble.
I can’t remember if there’s been a cutoff race where it was only win-and-in, but this year’s Brickyard 400 is shaping up to be that way.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. missed a chance to capitalize on his best track, pitting under green twice with problems Saturday to finish five laps down while Alex Bowman snagged a top-10.
That leaves Stenhouse a whopping 79 points behind Bowman for the final spot with two races left.
Even if someone else wins Darlington or Indy — like a Daniel Suarez or Ryan Newman — there still won’t be much playoff drama with the points. That’s because Bowman is 32 points behind Jimmie Johnson for the 15th playoff spot, which is where the line would move to.
This storyline is not a huge deal — since whoever is the last person in the playoffs isn’t going to beat the Big Three anyway — but it’s kind of odd to see the standings look this way.
Brad Sweet found himself feeling tense and nervous all day heading into the Knoxville Nationals, the race he’s worked his entire life to win.
Sweet had the fastest car in Iowa all week and was starting from the pole position for sprint car racing’s Super Bowl. But that did nothing to alleviate the nerves.
Thoughts swirled through his head about his game plan — stick to the bottom — and the notes he’d been taking since the very first race of the season at Volusia. What can I learn in this race that can apply to Knoxville?
But then, before the racing started, everyone in the pits stopped what they were doing. A video paying tribute to the late Jason Johnson, who was killed in a June sprint car race, appeared on the track’s big screen.
The tribute footage included moments from Johnson’s own Knoxville Nationals win, and suddenly everything changed for Sweet.
“It really brought a calm over me,” Sweet said later. “I didn’t feel any pressure anymore. It put things in perspective. He was just a tough guy who would go run the shit out of it. So once that happened, I kind of just got in the race car and just drove.”
Ultimately, that’s what Sweet had to do to win his first career Nationals and etch his name among the greats who have won the legendary race.
The Kasey Kahne Racing driver’s lead over 10-time Nationals winner Donny Schatz was erased by a red flag with two laps to go, and Sweet sat in his car knowing he’d have to hold off the world’s two best sprint car racers — Schatz and Kyle Larson (Sweet’s soon-to-be brother-in-law) to win.
Two more laps. Just two more laps. Sweet decided to run the bottom, as he’d done all weekend, leaving Schatz a chance to win from the top.
“I ran the bottom 75 straight laps this whole week, so what was two more?” Sweet told himself.
One mile later, Sweet was screaming with joy while standing on top of his wing in victory lane. He’d done it. The Californian was the 2018 Knoxville Nationals champion.
“Everything about what just happened to me is what I’ve strived for my whole life and my whole career,” he said. “This means the world to me.”
The side-by-side finish at the line over Schatz was recorded at a margin of 0.133 second, which was the second-closest in Nationals history. Schatz said he was hoping for one more lap, but ran out of time.
“I can guarantee one thing: I didn’t lift on the pedal,” Schatz said. “I really thought I had a good shot at Brad. He just didn’t make any mistakes.”
Larson, meanwhile, will have to wait another year to try and win his first Nationals. But Sweet, the brother of Larson’s fiancee Katelyn, had at least one member of the Larson family who was quite pleased with the outcome.
An hour before the final night began, Larson held 3-year-old son Owen in his arms and asked an innocent question: Which driver did Owen want to win the Nationals: Owen’s dad or Owen’s uncle?
“I want Uncle Brad to win!” Owen said.
Owen, as it turned out, got his wish.
— World of Outlaws (@WorldofOutlaws) August 12, 2018
There are roughly 90 drivers entered in this year’s Knoxville Nationals, and the format is similar for 88 of them:
— Score enough points during your prelim night (through qualifying, heat races and the feature races) and you’re locked into the big show on Saturday night.
— If you don’t score enough points, there’s essentially a chance to try again on Friday night before Saturday’s lineups are set.
But two drivers — Kyle Larson and Kasey Kahne — don’t have that luxury due to their NASCAR commitments this weekend in Michigan. That meant their chances of making the main event for sprint car racing’s Super Bowl seemed to be resting solely on how they performed in Wednesday night’s prelims.
It went well for Larson, who scored the most points of anyone — even 10-time Knoxville Nationals champ Donny Schatz — but it didn’t go well for Kahne, who found himself in poor position to return Saturday.
“Your prelim night is important for everybody, but it’s really important for me because I can’t come back on Friday,” Larson said. “I knew I had to be locked in to be able to come back Saturday and race. So it would have been very disappointing if I didn’t have a good night tonight and came back to Knoxville and was just watching.”
Points are scored based on single-car qualifying, then how cars do in their heat races (which have an eight-car invert) followed by how they fare in the features.
The night started well for both: Larson qualified 10th — despite drawing the 45th and final pill — and Kahne was ninth.
But then their results went in opposite directions. While Larson went from the last row to finish second place in his heat — thus advancing to the A-Main — Kahne finished eighth in his heat. Then, relegated to the B-Main, Kahne finished seventh (only the top four advanced) while Larson drove from sixth to third in the A.
That left Kahne sitting 22nd in the points with half the field still to run on Thursday. If he can’t figure out a way to get from Michigan to Iowa on Friday night, it’s probably pointless for Kahne to even return on Saturday.
Why? Because Kahne would likely have to start in an E-Main and race his way up the ladder (which is extremely difficult and rare).
“Really bad position,” Kahne said. “I don’t know if I could come back. I don’t know how it would all work.”
Could Kahne possibly return Friday and salvage an attempt? Larson said the NASCAR buddies walked into the Knoxville drivers meeting together on Wednesday and were examining the schedules closely in case they found themselves in that very position.
“We were looking at qualifying, when that starts, when it would finish, how long it takes to get to the airport, the time change, what airport to fly into,” Larson said. “I think he can make it work. It’s just a matter of whether he pulls the trigger and does it.”
Cup cars qualify at Michigan at 5:05 p.m. ET on Friday (4:05 p.m. CT). Kahne would have to qualify, get to the airport, fly to Iowa, get to the track and get in his car by the time hot laps start around 8:15 p.m. ET (7:15 p.m. local).
“I just feel like it would be really hard to make qualifying,” Kahne said. “I’m going to look at it, but I might be done.”
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.”