The Top Five: Breaking down the Las Vegas race

 Five thoughts after Sunday’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway…

1. Expectations left unfulfilled

Imagine there’s a new movie coming out and it has all the buzz of a must-see blockbuster. Hollywood news outlets are pumping up the all-star cast, critics who have gotten sneak peeks say it’s Oscar-worthy and your timeline is filled with tweets about people who can’t wait to see it.

You can’t afford to miss out, so you buy advance tickets in the first hour they go on sale. You count down the days after months of hype, and finally — FINALLY — you settle into your seat with popcorn and a giant soda.

The lights dim. The movie starts. And…it’s just…OK.

Under normal circumstances, if you’d gone into the theater with standard expectations of what you want out of a movie, it’d be fine. This, though, feels like such a bummer.

This film wasn’t just supposed to be average; it was supposed to be AMAZING. You’d bought into the talk of how this movie could revolutionize Hollywood. Maybe it would even set a new standard for entertainment.

Not surprisingly, you’re quite unhappy about this development. Your emotions alternate between feeling deflated, disappointed and outright pissed — at yourself and those who oversold it — because it didn’t live up to your hopes.

You obviously get where I’m going with this, but that’s what happened Sunday in Las Vegas. The new rules package (how many times have you heard those three words together in the last year?) dominated the conversation for so long, and you’d read and heard everything there was to read and hear about it.

Then it debuted, to much ado. And it was just fine.

For a mile and a half track, it was quite a decent race. A good race by many historical standards.

But given how sky-high the expectations were, and the buildup and anticipation surrounding it…well, it felt like a letdown.

It sucks to feel that way about a race that had thrilling restarts, great battles for the lead and a close finish after a long green-flag run. When you’re expecting to see something epic, though, it’s hard to settle for pretty good.

2. What happened

Let’s back up for a moment and talk about why there was so much genuine hope espoused by many people in the garage. From officials to drivers to spotters to media, there was a public expectation of a wild Sunday that featured solid racing throughout the field. (It’s important to note I don’t think this was phony hype to trick people into watching, but rather a true belief in what was to come.)

The evidence for this was based primarily on four 25-lap “races” during the Las Vegas test in January, but it also extended to Saturday’s final practice — where drivers were all over the track.

If practice looks this good, imagine the race itself!

But once the rag dropped on Sunday, it was more spread out than even NASCAR officials thought it would be. The fact there were no cautions didn’t help, either — since restarts were the best part of the race.

As it turns out, the drivers weren’t surprised by this development. When I asked Martin Truex Jr., Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Brad Keselowski if they were caught off guard by the field breaking apart quicker than at the January test, they all said no.

“I knew they were going to break apart,” Stenhouse said. “Watching in the test, they started breaking away fairly quick — and there were cooler conditions then and less cars. I knew if they were breaking apart then, they were going to break apart here (with much warmer weather).”

Many of you were quick to point out on Twitter that you knew all along the drafting would look different under actual race conditions. Apparently you were right.

“The testing is never like racing,” Keselowski said.

It would have been nice if someone had said that before the race in order to set more realistic expectations for how Las Vegas. If they did, I missed it.

3. On the bright side

Whoever is the defending NASCAR champion has traditionally had a platform for opinions and had a receptive audience when stumping for change — at least among reporters eager to print any interesting viewpoints.

Joey Logano has yet to really use his platform for that purpose, although he had some very strong opinions about the Vegas race that reflected his optimistic nature and sunny outlook on life.

Logano enthusiastically endorsed the new rules package and was baffled to hear a reporter mention that fans on Twitter didn’t love it as much as Logano did.

“I don’t really know what to say if you don’t like that,” he said. “It’s not very often where you’re going to have a green flag run that long (100 laps) and have a finish that close between three cars. That’s something, I’ll tell you what.”

Logano said Vegas was a “great race” and said the new package was “a big thumbs up for the sport.”

“I thought the racing was awesome,” he said. “You’re side by side. There’s aggressive blocks and big moves and bumping and banging. That’s NASCAR, baby! I don’t really know what else to tell you.”

NASCAR itself (or at least the person speaking for NASCAR — competition chief Steve O’Donnell) took a more conservative approach to evaluating the race. O’Donnell said he “liked what I saw” but was also “not satisfied” at the same time. He said the package remained a work in progress.

“Was it tremendous improvement (over last year)? Probably not,” O’Donnell said. “But as a fan, you want to see lead changes. We saw that today. In the past with no cautions, we would have seen someone check out all race long and we wouldn’t have seen a lead change.”

Though most drivers either bit their tongue or were salty about how the package raced (coughKyleBuschcough), some indicated they’re just along for the ride.

“If it was entertaining to watch, then I don’t care (about how it raced),” Chase Elliott said. “That’s the main thing. If entertainment is produced, I’m happy to drive whatever it is.”

4. O caution flag, where art thou?

After flirting with a caution-free race twice last year, the Cup Series finally produced one on Sunday (not counting the pre-planned stage cautions, of course). That made for the first race without a “natural” caution flag since October 2002 at Talladega.

Of everything that happened Sunday, that was by FAR the most shocking. There was a real concern the race would be a total wreckfest, with drivers unable to handle ill-handling cars in traffic and on crazy restarts. There was actually a bet available at the Vegas sports books that had the over/under of “cars out of the race at the halfway point” at 1.5. I didn’t play it, but was thinking that bet would be the lock of all locks.

Instead, no cars were officially out of the race by the halfway point (and only one, Joey Gase, didn’t finish).

Even O’Donnell said he was surprised by the lack of cautions.

“You go back before the race, and I think even some of the media (said) — and it probably came from the garage — ‘We’re going to wreck the entire field. This isn’t going to be a race,’” he said. “Didn’t happen.”

Why not? According to Denny Hamlin, it’s because the cars can’t get close enough to each other once the field breaks apart following the restarts.

“Once it gets strung out like that, it’s honestly so tough to run kind of near someone — especially late in a run — that the chance of someone running into each other is less likely,” he said.

It will be fascinating to see if this becomes a trend in the new package, or whether Vegas was an anomaly.

5. TV’s role 

During a key moment of the race, when Team Penske teammates Keselowski and Logano were battling for the lead, viewers briefly lost perspective on the action. FOX was showing the race from Logano’s bumper cam, and the drivers suddenly had some sort of contact — but it was hard to tell what happened. A replay from a wider angle was never shown (unless I missed it, which is definitely possible).

That’s ironic, since Keselowski on Friday had stumped for NASCAR’s TV partners to “zoom the cameras out” when showing races.

“Whether it’s this rules packages or last year’s rules package, I just don’t feel like with the cameras zoomed in you can really appreciate all that’s going on,” he said. “If I was sitting on my couch watching the race, the first thing I would say is  ‘Zoom the cameras out!’ That’s what I’m saying when I watch an Xfinity Series race or something.

“I think more so than any rules change, the biggest thing we can do is try to give a better perception of how much great racing there is across the whole field.”

This year it’s going to be more important than ever for TV to offer enough of a glimpse to pull back and show the big picture of what’s happening — particularly since it seems like the leader may be tough to pass in clean air. The real racing may be a cluster of cars fighting for fifth rather than first.

Now, did FOX missed much action on Sunday? No. From what I saw live, the racing was often single-file on the bottom groove, so the TV angles may not have mattered. But as the season marches on, let’s hope Keselowski’s wish comes true and helps NASCAR give the rules package a fighting chance with viewers at home.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Daytona summer race

Five thoughts after Saturday night’s race at Daytona International Speedway…

1. Jonesing for a victory

Given all the talk this week about one of the younger drivers needing to win, Erik Jones’ first career victory came at a great time. It was one of the more prominent races (Daytona!) and a solid spotlight (first race of the season on NBC’s broadcast channel, a moment so important they brought in Mike Tirico to host).

Fans who probably don’t know much about Jones got to see him light up in the post-race interview and show some personality. That’s an important platform for a young driver who needs to get more exposure.

Seriously, this is great stuff:

Does this change anything? Jones was likely going to be in the playoffs whether he won or not (he’s 13th in the standings). But a victory might do wonders for his mindset; after all, he’s still only 22.

“I’m really expecting even bigger things from him,” crew chief Chris Gayle said. “You get a little confidence in him…we all know we can do it at this level. It just kind of helps you once you kind of get the first win. Everyone in the entire team knows that. So I’m looking for big things. It’s cool.”

Out of all the big name young drivers who have come onto the scene lately — like Elliott, Blaney, Suarez, Wallace, Byron, Bowman, Ty Dillon and Jones — only one of them had won a race so far. That was Blaney last year at Pocono.

So Jones makes it two, and now maybe he has something to build on. NASCAR can certainly hope.

2. They’re wrecking…again

I’m so conflicted about races like these. On the one hand, it certainly was exciting and entertaining. It’s not like anyone watching Saturday night would say, “This is boring!” People in attendance certainly got their money’s worth and the time investment for those at home definitely paid off.

On the other hand, it’s not satisfying to see so many cars wreck in multiple crashes. Seeing a Big One is part of the game at plate tracks, so it would almost feel odd if at least one didn’t happen — like going to a concert and your favorite band not playing their famous hit song. But you also don’t need to hear that song three times in the same concert.

And yet…you can’t deny narrowing the field set the stage for a crazy finish and a first-time winner. So those are positives and added to the entertainment factor.

Then again…sigh. I don’t know, I guess I don’t really have a take here other than I’m glad these races only happen a few times a year. They’re OK in very small doses.

Thrilling and dramatic? Yes. “Racing?” Eh…

3. Ricky has had better nights, but…

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. miscalculated a side draft and took out Kyle Busch and William Byron while they were battling for the lead.

Not good.

Other than that, I didn’t view his night quite as harshly as most others seemed to on social media (and in the stands, judging by the cheers from when he wrecked).

On the first Big One, I’m leaning toward Brad Keselowski’s point of view that Byron threw too big of a block.

As Keselowski spotter Joey Meier tweeted, there’s a fine line between managing a race (with the whole block-and-defend maneuvers perfected by Keselowski, Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin and others) and throwing a block.

From what I can tell, managing the lead requires moving up and down the lanes to take away the momentum from runs. In those cases, there’s no contact.

But blocking from the lead is when the move is last-minute enough that it leaves the trailing car with two options: Check up and hit the brakes or just drive through the leader.

Keselowski elected to check up, which caused Stenhouse — who had full momentum in the draft — to get into him. That’s why I don’t blame Stenhouse for that one.

Not that Stenhouse hasn’t been guilty of such a move before.

“I thought (Byron) blocked (Keselowski), but I did that here in February and threw an aggressive block down the back straightaway that in turn caused a big crash like that, too,” Stenhouse said. “I can’t be too mad because I felt like I did that in February.”

Stenhouse won two stages, but obviously wasn’t happy about his role in the race (he was officially part of five cautions on the race report) and even made a karma reference on himself regarding Kyle Larson taking him out later due to a cut tire.

“I was frustrated with myself causing crashes like that,” he said. “You don’t ever really want to do that.”

So would he have to do some damage control with other drivers this week?

“No, it’s aggressive speedway racing,” he said. “We needed to win to get in the playoffs, so it is what it is.”

That’s probably true, but unfortunately for him, situations like these often lack nuance. He’s going to take most of the blame for everything that happened Saturday night, even though he’s only partially at fault.

4. Underdogs have their day

In a race like this, there are always going to be some unusual results. Unless I missed someone, it looks like five of the 40 drivers in the race had their best career finishes — including Jones, of course.

Ty Dillon was sixth — his best career finish and first top 10. Jeffrey Earnhardt was 11th, which was the first top 20 of his career. Also, DJ Kennington had his best career result (13th). Ray Black Jr. was in just his fourth Cup race, but he hadn’t finished better than 34th before placing 16th on Saturday night.

There were other underdogs who had great nights, too.

How about JTG Daugherty Racing getting both of its drivers in the top five? AJ Allmendinger finished third and Chris Buescher was fifth, although it was Buescher who really had a chance to win the race.

Buescher, who gave Jones the winning push past Truex, said he thought he could shove the 20 car far enough to leave the two of them to determine the race. Then he planned to nudge Jones up the hill in Turn 3. But Truex side-drafted him and took away his momentum, leaving Jones to streak to the finish line well ahead of them both.

Also, Matt DiBenedetto was seventh, which was the second-best finish of his career and shouldn’t be overlooked. And Brendan Gaughan had yet another solid result at a plate race, finishing in 12th.

5. Points Picture

Erik Jones became this season’s seventh different winner, joining Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Truex, Joey Logano, Clint Bowyer and Austin Dillon.

That means there are currently nine spots available to make the playoffs on points with just eight races left in the regular season.

Keselowski, Kurt Busch, Kyle Larson, Hamlin, Aric Almirola and Ryan Blaney are virtual locks.

Jimmie Johnson is currently safe by 54 points, Chase Elliott is in by 37 points and then Bowman (the cutoff position) is 19 points ahead of Stenhouse.

Stenhouse and Paul Menard (-55) are the only drivers with a realistic shot right now of making it on points.

Up next: Kentucky Speedway, where it should be back to the usual suspects running up front.

12 Questions with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (2018)

(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

The series of 12 Questions interviews continues with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. of Roush Fenway Racing. These interviews are recorded as podcasts, but also transcribed on for those who would rather read.

1. How often do you have dreams about racing?

I don’t dream very much. Well I’m sure I do, but I don’t actually remember them or wake up and be like, “Oh wow, that was crazy.” When I was younger, I used to dream quite a bit around racing. Now that I do it for a living, maybe I don’t dream about it as much.

2. If you get into someone during a race — intentional or not — does it matter if you apologize?

I always feel it’s necessary to apologize if it’s an accident. I’ve gotten into people on purpose and I definitely ain’t calling them if I feel like they deserved it, right? So I’m not apologizing. That’s the way I roll.

If somebody gets into me on accident and I know it’s on accident, I expect at least like a, “Hey, sorry about that.” And then I’ll let it roll off. But if it seems intentional, I’m like, “I’ll get them back.”

So there’s no fake explanation later where you’re like, “Oh, I really didn’t mean to do that” even though you did? You just don’t bother.

Yeah, I just don’t bother. I feel like they really understand after that: “Alright, he meant to do that.”

3. What is the biggest compliment someone could give you?

Throughout my racing career, I always loved when people are like, “I love how aggressive you drive, on the edge,” because I feel like that’s my driving style. So I like it when people feel like I do that. And get the most out of the car. I feel like that’s always a positive compliment you can get as far as driving a race car.

4. NASCAR comes to you and says they’re bringing a celebrity to the track and they want you to host them. Who is a celebrity you’d be excited to host?

Probably Alan Jackson, that’d be cool. I feel like there’s a lot of cool sports celebrities and people that come to the track that you get to meet, but I feel like Alan Jackson doesn’t do a whole lot outside his (singing), so I think that’d be cool.

That brings up a good point because we see so many country artists — but not Alan Jackson, unless he came through in the 90s or something. Surely he’s been to a NASCAR race at some point. (Editor’s note: We forgot about this notable Alan Jackson video featuring some legendary drivers.)

I would think so. His music and him scream NASCAR, so I don’t know. That’s who’d I want to come hang out with me. I wish I could have hair like he did, especially in the 90s.

You almost did for a little while.

Yeah. I might try and get it again, but I don’t know. I mean, long blonde hair is pretty solid.

5. In an effort to show this is a health conscious sport, NASCAR decides to offer the No. 1 pit stall for an upcoming race to the first driver willing to go vegan for one month. Would you do it?

Who says vegan’s healthy? There’s people that say you need to eat some meat, right? Protein.

That’s a good point.

But for a No. 1 pit stall, it depends on what track they would give it to you at. I would definitely do it for pit stalls where it feels like it’s a huge advantage, a track position racetrack. So I’d probably do it. I quit eating candy for a month one time, and I feel like that was probably harder than going vegan for a month.

6. It’s time for the Random Race Challenge. I’ve picked a random race from your career and you have to tell me where you finished. Are you good at remembering races or no?

I’m OK, but I don’t know. After so many years, I feel like they run together.

Do you remember where you finished in the 2014 Bristol night race?


That was the year before, I think.

No, that was the first race (that year)! When we raced at night (because of a rain delay). So we finished ninth?


Well I don’t remember that one then.

You started 21st, you finished sixth.

I do know that we don’t qualify good there, or we didn’t. We did this year.

You actually started 21st in that race where you finished second as well.

Yeah, so that threw me off, because we ran like four night races in a row, I feel like, at Bristol, because of rain. So that was a trick question.

You finished behind Kurt Busch and ahead of Carl Edwards in this race. Do you remember racing them at all?

Yeah, that one’s kind of a blur. Now the spring race of that year, I remember. Carl won, we finished second, it was raining like two laps to go.

That would have been too easy though if I was like, “Oh, second.” It sticks out. I had to make it somewhat hard.

No, that was good. I like that. That was cool. Has anybody for sure guessed it?

Yes, some people have totally nailed it out of nowhere.


7. Who is the best rapper alive?

I don’t really think any rappers are good. I like Colt Ford, he’s solid. Is Kanye West considered a rapper?


I’ll go with Kanye West. I could not tell you a song that he sings, but we’ll go with Kanye.

8. Who has the most punchable face in NASCAR?

Oh, I remember this question. I told (Kyle) Larson I was doing this when we were watching sprint car races last night.

That’s right, he picked you (in the 12 Questions earlier this year).

Yeah, he said me because we actually did (punch each other) at Knoxville last year (explained here).

I really think any face is punchable, just depending on what they did. Like if somebody crashes me and they want to come up and complain to me about why we got in a wreck, I’d probably do that. It just depends on how mad I am.

I mean, there’s a few that you would punch and then run the other way.

I don’t know how people would fare with Newman. I don’t think very well.

Yeah, I don’t know. You might want to get five hits in real quick. But you gotta be ready to take another one.

9. NASCAR enlists three famous Americans to be involved with your team for one race as part of a publicity push: Taylor Swift, LeBron James and Tom Hanks. Choose one to be your crew chief, one to be your spotter and one to be your motorhome driver.

Oh wow. I’d probably put Tom Hanks as my spotter; I feel like he’s somebody I’d want to listen to. I feel like he probably has pretty good ideas of what’s going on.

I feel like LeBron would be a good crew chief, just because I feel like he basically coaches his teams now from the court. So I feel like that’s what a crew chief does.

And so I guess Taylor will be driving my bus. Hope she can cook. I doubt she cooks, but I don’t know, maybe she does.

She probably has people who do that.

Yeah. Well as long as she can bring those people.

10. What is the key to finding the best pre-race bathroom?

Pre-race bathrooms are a necessity. I think (car chief Scott) Brewer here, he helps point them out for me. He scouts them out for me. I’ll get to the car after intros and he’s like, “Hey, nearest one is over here or over there.” So that’s the way we roll over here on the 17.

But it’s kind of tricky. At the 600, our cars were on the racetrack (instead of pit road before the race). They got done with the national anthem and I was like, “Man, I’ve got to go to the bathroom.” I had to run all the way across the grass into basically the media center, go to the bathroom and run all the way back out.

So you probably were breaking a sweat already before you got in the car.

Yeah, I was definitely getting warmed up. But even if you don’t have to go to the bathroom, you go to the bathroom just to make it easy. Like I had to pee at Pocono on Lap 10, and I just was miserable.

11. NASCAR misses the highlight reel value brought by Carl Edwards’ backflips and decides a replacement is needed. How much money would they have to pay you to backflip off your car after your next win?

Well, I haven’t tried a backflip in a while, but I used to be able to do a standing back tuck on the ground without jumping off the car. I used to give Carl a hard time when he was here at Roush; I was like, “You can’t do them on the ground? You do them off the car?” But I haven’t done them off an object other than into pools and stuff. I used to be able to do them just standing on the ground. Maybe I’ll send you a video.

I mean, I would take any kind of money. But I don’t really care because that means we won the race, and that’s really all I need. Probably a Bristol night race would be cool. I might try it there. Try it. I might leave my helmet on.

12. Each week, I ask a driver to give me a question for the next interview. Last week was Jamie McMurray. He said that you and Clint Bowyer used to gang up on him and make fun of him for working out, things like that. He noticed that you now work out a lot and it’s a part of your lifestyle. So he wants to know, what changed in your life that made that important to you?

I tell Jamie — I still mess with him — he rides his bicycle for like four or five hours a day. Who has time to ride a bicycle for four or five hours a day? I always mess with him and say, “I don’t know why they wear aerodynamic spandex and stuff. Just pull a parachute and ride your bike for an hour instead of four hours being aerodynamic.”

But no, I did CrossFit for a long time and enjoyed it, but just kinda got burnt out and just decided to stop working out. I twisted my ankle and hurt my wrist and then I was like, “Nah, this isn’t going to work out.”

And then after that — I’m not superstitious, but there’s times like last year where I’m like, “We’re running good, guess I’m not going to work out. I just can continue to play golf and race.” And so that’s what we did.

But then this offseason I got with PitFit training in Indy. They do a lot of IndyCar drivers, a lot of (NHRA) Top Fuel drivers, some sprint car drivers work out there. But it’s more race car driver based, a lot of the workouts that they’ve got me doing and things like that. You know, reaction time, hand-eye coordination when your heart rate’s really high, things like that. So I’ve been enjoying doing that over the last probably month and a half.

I don’t know who the next interview is going to be with. Do you have a question I can ask another driver in the garage?

I think you should ask your next driver if they would be game to have a Wednesday night race, like a one-day show, at Bristol once a month.

Once a month?


Like a side series or part of Cup?

Like part of Cup. Just go in there, kind of like a (local) short track race. Like you have an hour of practice, then qualifying, then race that night. Do it all in the afternoon and night. I’ll see what the driver’s poll is on that. Because I really would like to run Bristol every other week.

Yeah, I can see that based on your results.

Yeah, every other week let’s go there.

Previous 12 Questions interviews with Ricky Stenhouse Jr.:

Sept. 28, 2011

March 28, 2012

May 18, 2016

Aug. 30, 2017


News Analysis: Matt Kenseth returning to NASCAR

What happened: Matt Kenseth will return to the NASCAR Cup Series on a part-time basis, Roush Fenway Racing officially announced Wednesday. As Jordan Bianchi of first reported, Kenseth will split the No. 6 car with Trevor Bayne at Roush, where Kenseth started his career. Kenseth’s first race back will be the Kansas Speedway race in May.

What it means: Roush found a new sponsor, and it’s likely any sponsor wants a big-name driver if possible. It certainly makes a deal more attractive. That coincided with an opportunity to improve performance; Bayne’s best finish this season is 12th and he sits 26th in the point standings, while teammate Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is 19th in the standings. At the very least, Kenseth can come in, drive some races and give feedback on whether the problem is the cars or the drivers. He just won his second-to-last start in November and the cars haven’t changed much since then.

News value (scale of 1-10): Uh, 9? Pretty high! As far as driver comebacks, the only thing bigger would be if Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart decided to race again for some reason. This is also be significant in the ongoing narrative about young drivers, since it could represent a shift back toward putting value on veteran performance.

Three questions: How will Kenseth perform in what currently appears to be second-tier equipment? How many races will he ultimately drive this season? Is there still time for Bayne to save his job, or is this the beginning of the end?

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.

12 Questions with Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

The series of 12 Questions interviews continues this week with Ricky Stenhouse Jr., a two-time race winner this season for Roush Fenway Racing. I spoke with Stenhouse at Bristol Motor Speedway.

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

That’s a tough question. I think a lot of us feel like we got here on our natural ability, but a lot of hard work goes into that as well. Growing up racing sprint cars, I had to work on all my cars and do all the work with some buddies. When I got here to NASCAR, you try to refine and hit your marks and maybe get a little more patient. So I don’t know if there’s a percentage, but it definitely takes both.

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?

I’m not really good at sales pitches. But I think right now we’re doing a good job at trying to get (Dale) Junior’s fans. Obviously, winning the superspeedways, Junior’s fans, I feel like he got a ton from his success on those, and he’s kind of got a big group of followers. So I’d like to snag a few.

But really, I just need to keep going out and getting us to perform better. I know that our best performances are still ahead of us. We’re still gaining on it, so I think if the fans want something to look forward to as we keep building, definitely come be a fan of ours.

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

The hardest part is really just managing time. We don’t get a whole lot of time at home. There’s things that we have to do for our job, but there’s things that we want to do for our fun time outside of it, and it tends to end up causing a lot of travel. Sometimes I think you just get run down. So really trying to manage all of that — like right now I’ve been home one night in three weeks, so I think it’s just trying to not run yourself down too much and manage that.

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

Yeah, I don’t mind at all. I think that’s cool, being recognized outside the racetrack. It’s funny, I got a lot of people coming up to me outside the racetrack at dinners and stuff, asking me if I did American Ninja Warrior. So that’s kind of cool. But yeah, just come on up.

So they recognize you from the show? They’re like, “Hey, aren’t you that guy?”

Yeah, and I told (Ryan) Blaney that — since he did it with me this year — and he’s said he’s gotten that a few times as well.

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

There’s teams that do a lot with a little — and you recognize it, people talk about it a few times throughout the year at superspeedways. There’s points in the weekend that a car that doesn’t have as much resources is able to go put some fast laps down for the equipment that they have. Not necessarily go to the top of the board or anything like that. But I feel like that happens quite often.

6. Who is the last driver you texted?

Last driver I texted? (Kyle) Larson.

You have golf game coming up or something?

No, we went to dinner last night. We went to play golf yesterday on our golf group (the Golf Guys Tour). Last night we got back and we were like, “We’re tired, let’s go to bed.” Then he texted me, “Hey, are you still gonna go eat?” And I was like, “Yeah, let’s go.” So we went and had some Mexican (food).

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

Yeah, I think we are entertainers. I think everybody in sports is here for entertainment. Is it circus entertainment? No, it’s competitive entertainment where a lot of fans enjoy what we do and the show that we put on, and we try to go out and do the best that we can for our fans and our sponsors. But really, we want this to be a good race, which will be a good show for people to watch.

It does seem like a circus sometimes, though.

(Smiles) Yeah, I wasn’t gonna say that, but it seems like a circus sometimes.

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

I may have done it one time. I get really mad if somebody does it to me — I feel like it’s kind of rude. Every now and then people will give a hand out of window and it’s like, “Oh, OK, they’re not super happy about that.” But the finger, I feel that’s a little far and I’ll try to run into them if they do it. So it really gets me kind of irritated.

So you’re not a finger-giver. Only one time.

Yeah, maybe once. Maybe. I’m saying maybe because I don’t recall. But yeah, I think it’s a little disrespectful.

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?

One hundred percent. I think that’s really the key if you want some of your races to go smoothly. If somebody lets me by and I’m way faster, if that position gets reversed, I try to remember that so I can pay that favor back to them and you can kind of expect that a few times. It goes both ways, but I think it’s starting to get back around.

I feel like back in the day, that was kind of known to be the code. Now I think people are realizing that they can make it tougher on themselves if they want. 

So after Mark Martin left, it kind of went the other way and now it’s sort of getting back to being more respectful because the younger guys sort of figured things out, perhaps?

Yeah, I guess so. From the sounds of it, Mark was really good at really…I don’t know if you say “courteous” on the racetrack. But some of your fans don’t like (being respectful) and some of your teams don’t, so you gotta balance it. You can’t just let everybody go; you have to race. We’re out there to race. So you just pick and choose your battles: When do you think it will pay off better for you to let somebody go, or to really push it?

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

I don’t know. Probably Luke Bryan.

He’s pretty popular.

At that dinner, Pharrell stopped by. We didn’t technically have dinner with him, but he came by and hung out for a little while. That dinner was Blake Shelton, Luke Bryan, Pharrell stopped by and Little Big Town. It was a big group.

That’s a good dinner right there. That’s pretty epic.

Yeah, it was good. It’s fun sometimes. At the ESPYs you get a lot of good dinners as well — before Peyton (Manning’s) last year, we all had dinner. And there were also a lot of other people eating dinner — Blake Griffin, too.

You’ve had a better answer than a lot of the drivers this year.

Oh, that’s good. Yeah, Danica and I get to meet a lot of cool people.

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

Patience. I get a little irritated pretty quick. Even if it’s throughout practice and we make changes that don’t quite go the right way. I’ll come in and talk to (crew chief Brian) Pattie and he’ll say, “Look, we had to do that. That was on the list of things we needed to try.” And I’m like, “Well if you felt like it wouldn’t be better, we shouldn’t do it!” So I get a little frustrated pretty quick, but sometimes it’s better. Not all the time. (Smiles)

12. The last interview I did was with Chase Elliott.  His question was: How is your golf game, and are you expecting to win the Golf Guys championship this year?

Oh wow. (The Thursday before Bristol) my golf game was not good, but I’m sitting third in points, so I feel like I have a good opportunity to win our championship. I really want to. Denny (Hamlin, who founded the competition) won it last year and we say he makes all the rules, so it kind of worked in his favor. But he’s second in points right now, so it’s gonna be a good battle.

I’ve got to go work on my game. We’ve been really busy this whole year, so I haven’t been able to work on my game as much as I wanted to. But we’re running better over here, so that’s really what matters to me.

How many matches or rounds do you have left?

I believe four rounds. We do eight events. The points increase as we go the last two events or three events. You want to run second or third every event, so then you can win the points by a lot.

When you win, it puts you at deficit. I won one event so far, but you gotta get so many points based on your handicap. Well when you win an event, we always add two points to your points that you have to get, so it makes it difficult and challenging to keep scoring those points. So you want to come on a run right as the Tour Championship (is approaching).

I don’t know who the next driver is, but do you have a question I can ask another race car driver in general?

My question for any driver would be: What did they do on the off weekend? And if it was fun, why didn’t they invite me?

I mean, I got plans, but…

At least you could get the invite.

Yeah, I mean a little reach-out like, “Hey, we’re doing this. Do you want to come?” That would be cool.

This interview was brought to you by Dover International Speedway. The cutoff race for the first playoff round takes place at Dover on Oct. 1. Here’s a link to buy tickets (and make sure to come say hi at the tweetup).