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.
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