The Top Five: Breaking down the Long Beach and Richmond weekends

Five thoughts after the IndyCar race in Long Beach and the NASCAR race in Richmond…

1. It’s an event

The Long Beach Grand Prix — at least the IndyCar part of it — was an uneventful race dominated by one driver who started from the pole and only lost the lead during cycles of green-flag pit stops. Alexander Rossi, the winner, won by more than 20 seconds (!!!) — the largest margin in more than two decades.

By most traditional measures, it was not a good race.

But I’m willing to guess the majority of the massive crowd at Long Beach didn’t care at all — and maybe didn’t even notice.

Street circuits like Long Beach aren’t about the racing so much as they are about the scene. And it was a glorious scene.

“This isn’t a slight at any other series, but this is an event,” team owner Chip Ganassi said. “I go to races all the time; I love going to events. I wish there was an event every weekend.”

As mentioned here Friday, there’s a real joy about being in Long Beach for the three days of racing — and Sunday was no different. People stood on tiptoes along fences with cell phone cameras aloft and craned their necks for a better view on elevated walkways and bridges. They strolled along the perimeter of the track (a freaking harbor!) and soaked up the sunshine while seated in various grandstands around the course.

The attraction at the Long Beach Grand Prix really is the event itself, and it’s no wonder attendance set another modern day record this year (187,000 over the three day festival). There were six different racing series on track, plus concerts, DJs, a car expo, food and drink options galore and Instagram-worthy photo spots at literally every turn. It’s an absolute must-go if you ever get a chance.

But while there are certainly hardcore IndyCar or IMSA fans who attended, most people were just here to see cars and spend a fun day walking around with their families or friends.

So are those people going to get bent out of shape about a lack of passing in the IndyCar race? Uh, NO. But that’s what happens when the focus is on the event more than the race, which is almost always the case at street circuits.

Long Beach is a weekend that can certainly serve the devoted race fan and give them all the racing they could desire from dawn to dusk every day. And it’s also a place that can satisfy even the most casual of race fans — including those who might never see another race.

All of that adds up to make it the greatest racing event in America — not race, but event. When the event is the attraction, there’s no such thing as a bad day on the track, even if the main event was a snoozer.

2. Scott-blocked

Just when it looked like Graham Rahal had held off Scott Dixon for a podium finish at Long Beach, IndyCar stewards Max Papis and Arie Luyendyk ruled the spot should be taken away.

IndyCar said Rahal violated its blocking rule — which is reviewed in the drivers meeting — that says, “A driver must not alter his or her racing line to pursuing drivers.”

Essentially, officials decided Rahal made a movement in reaction to Dixon — though NBCSN analysts Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy disagreed and said Rahal moved first. Nevertheless, Dixon was awarded third place and Rahal was dropped one spot, which IndyCar said was the lightest penalty option available.

The outspoken Rahal was calm in his postrace television interview, and later met with officials to discuss the incident. He then told reporters after seeing the replay, “I stand behind the move even more than I did before.”

“Hell yeah, I blocked,” he said. “Anybody would have blocked. The thing is you can do it legally.”

But the stewards, along with race director Kyle Novak, disagreed. Blocking — which IndyCar tells drivers is defined as “movement in reaction to (a) pursuing competitor” — is not allowed. There’s nothing that says a driver is allowed to make one move.

And that decision raises more questions, team owner Bob Rahal said, because similar cases happen all the time.

“Everybody is blocking all the time,” he said. “So to call that a block? What’s a block? … It opens up a can of worms.

“Now the issue is you’ve got to live up to that for every single race from now on in. You make this call, then what’s the difference with the next one?”

Bob Rahal said he hates it when positions aren’t settled on the track, and I have to agree. It’s not unlike a referee calling a borderline holding penalty that alters an NFL game on the final drive.

I get the blocking rule is in place for a reason: On a narrow street circuit with open-wheel cars, unregulated blocking could be disastrous from a safety standpoint. You don’t want drivers zig-zagging back and forth to defend position.

Still, this call…eh. It sure seemed close enough to let it slide as a racing incident — and on the last lap of a IndyCar’s second-biggest race while going for the podium, it would have been preferable to see the drivers’ battle determine the position instead of officials.

3. Stop the bickering

It’s an odd experience to cover IndyCar because for some reason, any positive comments about another series creates a lot of sensitivity and tension for NASCAR and its fans.

Many NASCAR supporters were quick to chime in this weekend when they saw something NASCAR does better — No blocking rule here! Our drivers never win by 20 seconds! — and IndyCar fans took shots at NASCAR when they could — The best driver wins our races! We don’t have cars failing inspection!

It’s almost as if people don’t realize one series can be praised and appreciated without taking it as a backhanded shot at the other. There are things IndyCar actually does better that NASCAR can learn from — but by the same token, there are also things NASCAR does better that IndyCar can learn from.

The fact the series are considering joining forces for a doubleheader in the future is a good thing, because they offer very different philosophies.

NASCAR emphasizes the show/entertainment in a desire to please its fans, with stages and overtime and playoffs. IndyCar emphasizes pure speed/pure racing, preferring to let the races play out in a traditional way.

Cup racing, Rossi noted, “is very different than what we do.”

There’s nothing wrong with liking both, or liking dirt or Supercross or sports cars or Formula One or whatever it may be. It’s all motor racing, right?

“More people are coming to the realization today is we shouldn’t be pitting one against the other,” Ganassi said. “We shouldn’t be in a circular firing squad. Should we all be shooting at each other? I don’t know what purpose that serves.”

4. Mercedes vs. Ferrari

Formula One gets ripped for having only two teams that dominate the sport — and rightfully so. It would be great to see other teams like Red Bull or even Haas F1 Team have a shot to win, but Mercedes or Ferrari have won 91 of the last 103 races. F1 has let things get out of hand with the spending of its powerhouse teams, so much so that F1 actually promotes the “midfield” battle (which is really just the race for “best non-Mercedes/Ferrari/Red Bull car.”)

But while NASCAR certainly has more competitive racing than F1, a two-headed team domination has formed in the Cup Series of late. And to be honest, that’s a bit worrisome.

Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske have now combined to win 11 straight Cup races — the first nine of 2019 and the final two of last season.

Stewart-Haas Racing has had its chances, but everyone else — including Chevrolet teams Hendrick Motorsports and Chip Ganassi Racing — seems behind right now.

NASCAR is at its best when a wide variety of teams and drivers are winning. It keeps the storylines fresher throughout a marathon season and in turn helps keeps fans more engaged (and less annoyed).

Let’s hope the other teams can step up to catch Gibbs and Penske sooner than later, or there’s danger of a predictable slog of a season that could make the “Big Three” look like child’s play.

5. Inspection wars

Taking a step back and being across the country from NASCAR this weekend made it hit home how bad it looks for cars to be failing inspection and crew members to be getting ejected on the day of a race.

Everyone understands NASCAR has a job to do with keeping these sneaky teams in line, but there has to be a better way on those two-day weekends where post-qualifying inspection takes place on the day of the race. Those inspection failures — the ones that come with stripping starting positions and throwing people out of the garage — is so self-defeating for NASCAR.

In the very moments when excitement should be building for the race, the string of updates about failed inspections only builds anger and frustration instead.

Just like with qualifying, this is a problem that can be solved. It might require some give-and-take and creative thinking, but NASCAR has to get out of the business of creating its own bad headlines so people can get back to focusing on what they like and enjoy about what is still by far the No. 1 form of auto racing in America.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Richmond playoff race

Five thoughts after Saturday night’s NASCAR playoff race at Richmond Raceway…

1. This week was about next week

I’ve never seen drivers so sketched about a race as they are about the Charlotte Roval. Even when Talladega was in the elimination slot, there still wasn’t this much uncertainty and outright fear over what kind of impact a single race could have on their playoff hopes.

And that apparently had an effect on how Richmond unfolded. Whereas the middle race of a playoff round is often the crazy one, this one was mostly tame. Saturday saw only one “natural” caution (aside from the two stage breaks), which was tied for the fewest in the Stage Era.

“I’m honestly shocked by what we saw today,” Brad Keselowski said. “I thought this would be a slugfest. I thought there would be five cars running at the end. I think all these guys are so scared of next week, they didn’t want to dare put a fender on each other.”

It makes sense, right? The Roval is the biggest unknown to hit NASCAR in years. No one knows what the race will be like or how bad the attrition will be.

And it’s a playoff elimination race, at that!

Jimmie Johnson, currently on the outside of the playoff bubble, said he had “no clue what to expect” and plans to drive however is “the easiest way to survive.”

“(The Roval) is a hard enough lap to make on your own without any other cars out there,” Johnson said.

Keselowski, who is already locked in for the second round, said he’ll have “as much fun as you can have going into a race knowing you’re going to destroy about 30 cars.”

So instead of Richmond following in the footsteps of a wild opener at Las Vegas, it turned out to be more of an opportunity for drivers to hold serve and try not to screw themselves before they ever get to Charlotte.

2. Non-verbal communication

Kyle Busch and Keselowski don’t speak, so almost all their communication comes through their actions on the track or reading what the other had to say in an interview.

Richmond added another small chapter to their long rivalry. Keselowski passed Busch for the lead with 58 laps to go, but Busch caught him back about 10 laps later and they battled hard for the position.

When Busch pulled up in front of Keselowski after completing what turned out to be the race-winning pass with 36 laps to go, Keselowski gave him a mild shot to the back bumper.

“We rubbed a little bit,” Keselowski said. “Nothing big.”

But Busch didn’t like it. An NBCSN replay zoomed in to show Busch holding his hand out the window, palm open.

What did it mean?

“That was just, ‘C’mon, man,'” Busch said.

“I spent a lot of time racing hard with him, and it was good to be able to do that cleanly on my part,” Busch said. “And then when you spend 15, 20 laps trying to pass the guy and you get run into right as soon as you pass him, it’s kind of like, ‘Come on, man. Really?’ But oh well.”

Busch’s biggest gripe with Keselowski over the years is they always seem to run into each other when they’re racing. So Saturday probably won’t help.

For his part, Keselowski has tried to extend the olive branch in the past and does his best to practice a personal credo of “truth and grace.” But Busch tests that more than anyone.

“I don’t try to read his mind,” Keselowski said when asked for his interpretation of Busch’s hand gesture. “That’s the last place I need to be.”

As NASCAR’s only true, ongoing rivalry, it wouldn’t exactly be a terrible thing for the sport if their bad blood started boiling again in the midst of the playoffs.

3. September surprise

Of all the drivers in the playoffs, the easiest pick for first-round elimination seemed to be Austin Dillon. And you can’t blame people (like me) for feeling that way; he was the only driver outside the top 16 in points to make the playoffs, which made him an obvious choice.

But damn if Dillon isn’t putting together a nice little run through the first two races. He opened by finishing 11th at Las Vegas, then pulled off the surprise result of the Richmond race by running sixth. And that was no fluke finish; he ran in the top 10 for almost the entire race.

Now Dillon goes into the Roval with a 10-point cushion over the cutoff spot. It’s not much, but it’s better than being on the outside.

So where did this come from? Dillon seems to have picked the perfect time to have his first back-to-back top-12 finishes of the season.

“It’s heart, man,” he said. “That’s what we do at RCR. We might not have everything, but we’ve got a big heart and we’re going to work hard to do it.”

4. A word about Kyle

I didn’t want to start with this item, lest the angry mob of Kyle Busch haters suddenly close the browser window without reading the rest of the post-race column.

But, um…Busch is really, really good. It’s just that his brashness and unapologetically abrasive nature often blinds people to what we’re all witnessing.

In this case, we just witnessed a 33-year-old pass racing legend Tony Stewart on NASCAR’s all-time wins list — in 128 fewer starts.

Fifty wins already, and Busch is barely entering what are normally the prime years of a driver’s career. Jimmie Johnson, who now has 83 wins, only had 43 when he was Busch’s age.

The biggest question is: How high up NASCAR’s all-time wins list can Busch get? He’s tied for 11th now with Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson.

Specifically, I’m wondering if Busch can catch Jeff Gordon’s 93 wins. Even David Pearson’s 105 doesn’t seem out of reach.

That’s a lonnnng way to go, to be sure. But if Busch can somehow pass Pearson for No. 2 on the all-time list in this era, that achievement might put him as the greatest driver ever — no matter how many championships he’s able to win.

5. The bubble

From the time the schedule came out, the Roval has been perhaps the most anticipated race of the 2018 season. And now it’s finally here.

“I don’t know if I’ve seen more talk about something than the Roval, really,” Joe Gibbs said.

So what’s that going to do to the points picture? Well, it could be anything. Great analysis, I know. But seriously! Your guess is as good as anyone’s.

Only three of the 12 spots are clinched heading into the elimination race, although Kevin Harvick is all but through. But there’s a LOT to be decided among the remaining drivers.

For example: Would you feel comfortable heading into the Roval if you were only 25 points ahead of the cutoff? Because that describes fifth-place Joey Logano, which means everyone below him is even less secure.

This is going to be insane, and I honestly cannot wait. Here are the current points:

Clinched: Martin Truex Jr. (points), Kyle Busch (win), Brad Keselowski (win).

Almost clinched: Kevin Harvick.

Everyone else:

Joey Logano +25

Aric Almirola +23

Kyle Larson +17

Kurt Busch +15

Chase Elliott +10

Austin Dillon +10

Alex Bowman +5

Ryan Blaney +4


Clint Bowyer -4

Jimmie Johnson -6

Erik Jones -21

Denny Hamlin -29







The Top Five: Breaking down the Richmond race

Five thoughts after Saturday night’s race at Richmond Raceway…

1. How times have changed

Kyle Busch has a pretty good memory, but he couldn’t remember a time when he had ever climbed into the grandstands after win before.

So why did he think Saturday night at Richmond — Cup Win No. 46 — was the right time to try such a celebration?

“It was a 10‑year anniversary,” he said with the hint of a grin, referencing the infamous 2008 Richmond race where he spun Dale Earnhardt Jr. while racing for the lead.

Except if he’d gone into the stands 10 years ago, the fans might have left him bruised and battered instead of giving him high fives and pats on the back, as they did Saturday.

Busch might not be a crowd favorite, but he no longer needs a security escort just to leave the track. And the public sentiment has evolved to the point where he can go celebrate with fans if he feels like it.

“I was wondering if I’d come out alive,” he joked. “It certainly was different tonight.  I saw a lot of yellow (M&Ms colors) there at the front fence line.”

Team owner Joe Gibbs didn’t see the celebration and was borderline shocked to hear Busch had done it.

“Did you?” he asked Busch, incredulous.

“Yeah, buddy!” Busch said.

“Oh my gosh!” Gibbs replied. “You should not do that! That’s a risk.”

Gibbs said he wouldn’t encourage Busch to do it again, but then added: “I think that’s great though. He went up there and came back.”

Let’s be clear: Busch has a long way to go until he’s viewed positively by the majority of NASCAR fans. But is there starting to be a thaw in the longtime deep freeze between Busch and his detractors? That’s too early to say, but it will be worth watching as the season progresses.

2. Cautions Cut

Earth Day isn’t supposed to be until Sunday, but NASCAR drivers seemed to celebrate Saturday night by going green for much of the race.

After 354 of 400 laps, the only cautions had been for the two stage breaks.  That’s it. At a short track!

Richmond isn’t Martinsville, to be sure, but there are typically at least six cautions per race here (there had only been less than that number once in the past eight races).

So what gives? And why has this seemed like a season-long trend?

“The drivers are really, really good,” Joey Logano said with a laugh. “The drivers are amazing, really.”

OK, but for real. Is that the actual reason?

“I think the drivers are good, yes,” he said. “But there’s also not as many (mechanical) failures, so the teams are getting better. There’s not as many tires popping, there’s not as many motors blowing — a lot of cautions (used to come) from stuff like that.”

The crash damage vehicle policy likely has had an impact, too. Logano noted if there is a crash, the cars don’t then return to the track with damage and blow out a tire again.

In general, though, the durability of the cars plays a large role in the green-flag runs.

“These cars are fairly reliable now,” Denny Hamlin said. “The drivers take care of their cars more so than they used to. It’s just kind of a product of that.”

Plus, as Chase Elliott said, the two stage cautions are basically two planned debris cautions. Last June, drivers ripped NASCAR for all the perceived fake cautions, and NASCAR stopped calling the races that way.

“NASCAR has chosen to let these races play out fairly for the competitors,” Hamlin said. “Might not always be the best for TV, but it’s certainly fair for us.”

3. That said…

Despite the lack of yellows, it wasn’t a bad race. The Richmond race 10 years ago? That was a bad race until the end, in large part because Denny Hamlin led almost every lap.

But on Saturday, no one driver was dominant. There were 16 lead changes among seven drivers, which is pretty decent considering how much of the race was green before the four late cautions.

“Nobody dominated, really,” Busch crew chief Adam Stevens. “You saw four‑car races for the lead pretty much the entirety of the race.”

The various battles were indicative of position changes through the field, which happens when some drivers conserve tires better than others and some cars are set up better for the long run.

“The cars were coming and going and moving around the racetrack,” Logano said. “I’d get passed early in a run and get them all back and vice versa sometimes. And it came down to a late-race restart. It was really fun for me as a driver. I thought it was a good product today.”

Ultimately, as so many of these races do, it comes down to the track surface/tire combination. If the tire wears, it’s a good race; if not, well…

“If the car runs the same speed every lap, you can run 100 percent every lap,” Logano said. “But you can’t afford to do that here.”

4. Busch vs. Harvick, revisited

Earlier this weekend, I posted a story where drivers weighed in on who was the bigger championship threat right now: Busch or Harvick. The drivers who commented seemed to think Harvick was faster at this point in the season.

And despite Busch’s victory on Saturday, that probably won’t change. Even Busch noted he didn’t have as fast of a car as Harvick.

“I thought the 4 and the 14 (Clint Bowyer) were probably best on the long haul,” Busch said.

Harvick certainly has the raw speed, but his team seems to be having trouble putting a full race together at times. That happened again at Richmond, when he got a penalty for his crew throwing equipment — which happened when a crewman tossed a wrench over the pit wall.

Overall, though, Harvick was pleased to leave with a top-five finish.

“This race was really important just for the fact that we hadn’t run as well as we needed to run here,” he said. “Tonight we contended, and that is a much better building block than we had coming into the weekend.”

5. Golden opportunity

Remember the whole “What if there are more than 16 different winners?” storyline? Yeah, that’s definitely not a thing this year.

Busch and Harvick have combined to win six of the first nine races, meaning there have only been five different winners so far. While it’s certainly possible for others to win, this season is shaping up to be dominated by the familiar frontrunners.

That means for teams like Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (19th in the standings), Elliott (20th) or even Jamie McMurray (24th), next week’s race at Talladega Superspeedway is almost a playoff race.

Yeah, it’s still only April — but there are not going to be many opportunities to move up in the points (particularly if stage points are hogged by the top drivers). Aside from fuel-mileage races or rain-shortened events, superspeedways are the best chance to steal an unexpected playoff spot.

Since there are only two of them left on the regular season schedule, there’s absolutely an urgency to make something happen.

But good luck to whoever goes into Talladega needing to win.

“I think it’s easier to win the Powerball than to win at Talladega,” Busch said.

Post-Richmond Podcast with Random Playoff Drivers

After the Richmond race, I ambushed several unwitting playoff drivers to join me on the post-race podcast. Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Brad Keselowski, Austin Dillon and Kasey Kahne discuss their thoughts on Richmond and the upcoming NASCAR playoffs.

DraftKings Fantasy NASCAR picks: Richmond

I’m playing DraftKings this season and will be posting my picks here each week. Disclosure: If you want to play and sign up using this link, DraftKings will give my website a commission.

Last race’s results: Played $4 Brake Pad contest. Finished 100th of 3,400. Won $15.

Season results: $80 wagered, $95 won in 20 contests.

This week’s contest: $4 Brake Pad game (single entry).

Richmond picks:

— Martin Truex Jr. ($10,400): Oof. This was a tough call, because I ultimately had enough money under the salary cap to pick either Truex or Kyle Busch ($10,700) in this spot. I feel strongly Busch will have a great night (he has the best average finish of any driver at Richmond), but Truex should also run up front. So it’s really a toss-up here. I might even swap them at the last minute, as they were one-two in 10-lap average for final practice. Take your pick.

— Denny Hamlin ($10,000): The Toyotas are going to be strong, and I’m going all-in on that theory. My picks will be screwed if I’m wrong. In that sense, it came down to a decision between Hamlin and polesitter Matt Kenseth ($9,000). My tiebreaker for the slot was 10-lap average in final practice: Hamlin was ninth, Kenseth was 19th. But if you think Team Penske will have another strong Richmond performance, you could also pick Brad Keselowski or Joey Logano here (which was tempting).

— Erik Jones ($8,300): Like I said above, Toyotas figure to have a good night. Jones is one of the drivers who has to race his way into the playoff and will need the performance of his life to do so, but it’s possible. He wasn’t great in final practice and didn’t do 10 consecutive laps (he had a 60-minute penalty), but he was decent in first practice (eighth-fastest single lap).

— Dale Earnhardt Jr. ($7,800): My decision at this slot came down to Earnhardt or Kasey Kahne ($7,700), but Earnhardt actually might have a decent car this week (he estimated it was a sixth-to-12th-place car on Friday). He was 13th-fastest in 10-lap average for final practice and is obviously racing for a playoff spot for the final time in his career. Maybe there will be some magic.

— Daniel Suarez ($7,600): Again, it’s all about Toyota for my picks. I just envision them being strong here. If I’m wrong, it’ll cost me. But Suarez was sixth-fastest in 10-lap average for final practice and had the third-fastest single lap, so he may be good.

— David Ragan ($5,500): In order to make this expensive, Toyota-heavy lineup work, I needed a pretty cheap driver. I’m going with Ragan. He was 20th-fastest for 10-lap average in final practice and had the 14th-fastest single lap, which is very respectable. Plus, Ragan has three top-five finishes at Richmond — his best non-plate track.

News Analysis: Joey Logano’s win at Richmond ruled encumbered

What happened: NASCAR discovered a major infraction on Joey Logano’s  winning car during post-Richmond inspection at its Research and Development Center, resulting in a huge penalty for the No. 22 team. Logano’s victory was ruled “encumbered,” which means he cannot use it to qualify for the NASCAR playoffs this fall, nor does he get the five playoff points for it. In addition, Logano was docked 25 regular season points and crew chief Todd Gordon was suspended for two races and fined $50,000.

What it means: This is the first time since the “encumbered” term entered the NASCAR lingo last fall that it’s really had playoff implications. This will be a key moment if Logano somehow misses the playoffs (unlikely) or turns out to need those five playoff points sometime this fall (more likely). Logano still gets the trophy and is the official winner of the race, just without the playoff benefits.

News value (scale of 1-10): Eight. This is pretty big, but you know what would be bigger? If NASCAR did the right thing and actually stripped the win entirely. Why should an illegal car still be allowed to keep the win? I’ll never truly understand that.

Questions: How much longer can NASCAR refuse to take the win away, especially when the race winner’s car is illegal enough for this severe of penalty? Is there any chance Logano’s championship hopes will be affected by this, or will he just shrug it off? Did NASCAR officials find this by chance, or were they looking for it?

This is a screenshot from the NASCAR rulebook. NASCAR said Logano’s team violated No. 6 on the list above. (From NASCAR rulebook)