Five thoughts from Sunday’s playoff race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway…
1. The heavyweight contenders
Many of the races this season turned into a battle between Martin Truex Jr. — the dominant car of 2017 — and Kyle Busch, his Toyota teammate who has plenty of speed but perhaps not quite as much as the 78.
That was the case again on Sunday at New Hampshire. Truex and Busch combined to lead all but one lap (!!!) of a 300-lap event (Kyle Larson led the other one during pit stops in the break between Stages 1 and 2).
And although it looked like Truex might end up dominating had he not been caught up in the Lap 150 pileup, Busch happily said his team made gains on its chief rival for the championship.
“Today was a good catch‑up moment for us,” Busch said. “Obviously they’ve been so fast all year long. … But it was going to come down to that again and who was going to be in the lead, who was going to have the opportunity on restarts and whatnot to control the field.”
Many fans insist they are sick of Toyotas, which is bad news for them, because this domination doesn’t seem to be ending anytime soon. The four Toyota drivers in the playoffs are all in the top six in points, and only Kyle Larson has shown he can consistently challenge them.
So Busch vs. Truex is the battle to watch for now, and it’s actually pretty interesting. For example: Busch gained five playoff points on Truex during Sunday’s race, which puts Truex at 59 and Busch at 36.
That’s only a 23-point difference. So if the third round comes around and it has three different winners with one spot available on points to advance to Homestead, that could be determined by a Truex vs. Busch battle. And 23 points between them isn’t even a half-race.
Everyone seems to treat Truex in the finale as a given — and it’s highly likely — but it’s not going to be a cakewalk if he has to deal with Busch in a points race.
2. Finally, some points drama!
It’s been awhile since anyone had to worry about the points picture going into an elimination race — after all, points were not a factor at Richmond this year — which means Dover next week will be a welcome sight.
Austin Dillon and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. are tied for the last spot (the tiebreaker is best finish in the round) after Stenhouse and his team had a gutsy comeback after struggling all day.
Stenhouse, one of many drivers looking completely wiped after an unseasonably hot and humid day, said he “felt like we were in a boxing match with Floyd Mayweather all week.”
“We just couldn’t find speed, couldn’t find the handle on the car,” he said.
But after making up a few spots late in the race — thanks to consecutive cautions that put him back on the lead lap — Stenhouse gained valuable points that could put him in a showdown with Dillon and Ryan Newman (who is one point behind both drivers).
“It makes you feel good,” Stenhouse said. “We needed to make up a little bit and made up a little bit at a track that I didn’t think we were great at all weekend.”
As for Dillon, he was also optimistic about Dover after surviving Sunday with a 19th-place finish.
“Just have a good run like we did last year,” he said. “Go run in the top five and we’ll probably make it.”
Dillon also avoided what could have been a playoff-ending incident for himself when he made contact with Kevin Harvick to trigger a multi-car wreck at lap 150.
“He kept coming left, and I was in the gas,” Dillon told me after the race. “He bobbled and I hit him, and it was over. When he got loose, I connected and it hit him. I barely tapped him. I lifted after, but nothing I can do at that point. Hate it for him and hate it for (Kurt Busch).”
Busch, collected in the wreck when he rammed Harvick, is 15th in points — but too far back (-17) to hope anything but a win will get him in. Same with Kasey Kahne (-21), who said he hadn’t seen the points but wasn’t surprised to hear he was in 16th after a broken track bar.
“It’d be pretty tough” to make it now, Kahne said.
3. Hands off!
Thanks a lot, 24 team.
That’s probably what the rest of the playoff crews were thinking after NASCAR made them stand away from the cars for at least five minutes after the race — a new policy in reaction to Chase Elliott’s crewmen being caught on video removing tape from the spoiler last week.
Inspectors appeared to take a much closer initial look at some of the playoff cars than typically happens immediately after the race. At most races the last couple years — since NASCAR began stopping all cars on pit road instead of having them go back to the garage — crewmen go over the wall and approach the cars as soon as they pull to a stop.
But NASCAR obviously felt that might be an opportunity to mess with something before post-race inspection — the 24 team proved that — so now that won’t be happening for the near future.
If it was annoying for the pit crews, though, it was also irritating for the media. The cars were parked against the pit wall and no one —reporters, crewmen or public relations representatives — could go past the halfway point of pit road. Many drivers simply got out of their cars, saw no one was waiting to talk to them, and walked away.
Hopefully, NASCAR can figure out a solution to wrangle the playoff drivers for at least a moment before they disappear into the crowd. Otherwise, the sport might miss out on some much-needed emotion after one of these upcoming races; if there was a confrontation between drivers on Sunday, we likely would have missed it.
4. Goodbye, Loudon
The final New Hampshire fall race was fairly typical of most other New Hampshire races in memory. And that’s not really a compliment.
This is a great area with wonderful people who are true, passionate race fans, and they have a fantastic track for some cars.
But those cars don’t include the Cup Series, which has long struggled to put on a decent show here.
“It always lends to exciting moments; we had one today,” Kyle Busch said. “Sometimes the racing, though, is a little strung out with this place being so hard to pass.”
Busch called it “frustrating to race here sometimes” and explained in detail why that’s the case, if you want to dive in:
“It’s just not lending itself to being able to be right on top of or right close to the guy in front of you, because you just get so tight when you’re behind that guy. And you build air pressure in the front tires and you slow down and that guy drives away from you, and then you kind of accordion back to the next guy, he’s catching you thinking he’s going to pass you and then he gets tight, and it kind of goes back to the next guy.”
Look, it’s not like the Las Vegas race — New Hampshire’s replacement — is going to be that much more compelling. But it gives NASCAR a chance to open the playoffs in a high-profile market and then keep a short track (Richmond) as the second race, all while keeping an event at Loudon in July. So with apologies to the locals who love this place, that’s not the worst development.
5. Common sense solutions
Let’s talk about the NASCAR dunce cap penalty for a second.
Until the race — and until Richard Petty and Richard Childress got a bunch of national attention for saying they’d fire employees who kneeled for the anthem (just the publicity NASCAR needs!) — the biggest story of the weekend was Joey Logano serving a penalty on pit road for the entire final practice session.
It’s silly that it got so much attention, but it’s what fans were most interested in (I can see the numbers). So the media reported it and Dale Earnhardt Jr. reacted to it and it became a thing.
Yes, other drivers have served longer penalties under this policy (up to 60 minutes, where Logano’s penalty was 50), but those were in practices where they eventually got on the track for some laps.
That’s why Logano’s punishment seemed so wacky: He sat in the car on pit road for the entire practice session and never got on track.
When odd things happen in this sport, it often seems to catch NASCAR by surprise. After all, they are tasked with enforcing the rules and put in a very difficult position by teams trying to push the limit in every little area — and so officials are viewing it as doing their jobs.
So I feel bad for NASCAR in that sense, because what should be justice ends up ricocheting back at them and turns into a pie in the face. But the penalties they come up with could use a little work in the public eye.
If NASCAR wants to have a team miss practice, just make the team park the car in the garage and put a cover on it so crew members can’t work on it. But don’t make the driver sit in there — that comes across like they’re shaming a troublemaking child.
Or maybe NASCAR can increase the punishment by doing things like making a team serve its penalty at the end of Stage 1 — which would impact the race itself.
NASCAR’s heart is in the right place, because it has to keep teams in line. But maybe there’s a better way to do that.