The Top Five: Breaking down the Texas playoff race

Five thoughts after Sunday’s NASCAR playoffs race at Texas Motor Speedway…

1. Ford goodness’ sake

After yet another Ford-dominated weekend — Ford drivers combined to lead 321 of the 337 laps at Texas — Martin Truex Jr. brought up a solid point.

What if the Toyotas were crushing everyone like the Fords are now?

“If this is last year, they would all be complaining we’re too fast,” Truex said on pit road. “So I don’t know if I should do a (Brad) Keselowski and start whining about it or not. They’re really fast, and if we’re off just a little bit, we can’t run with them.”

That was the case at Texas, as none of the top Toyotas — or Chevrolets, for that matter — could hang with the Fords. And with only two weeks to go in the season, nothing is going to change before Homestead. It’s a Ford world now.

In all likelihood, that means Texas race winner Kevin Harvick is going to head to Miami as the heavy favorite for the championship. I’d even put Joey Logano above Truex and Kyle Busch at this point, since they just don’t have the raw speed the Fords seem to.

It’s not a given Harvick will win it all — Jimmie Johnson won his most recent championship as the fourth-fastest car among the title contenders — but the final four is going to feel more like “Harvick and Friends” than “The Big Three and Joey.”

Who is going to beat the No. 4 team aside from themselves?

“I feel as a team we’ve been strong down there,” crew chief Rodney Childers said. “Last year going into Homestead, I felt we didn’t have the cars to run for a championship, and we almost ran with them. So overall I think we have good cars right now.

“Everybody has done a great job. It’s just going to come down to executing and doing the best we can on pit road.”

I feel like I’ve written this a zillion times in 2018, but it’s still Harvick’s championship to lose.

2. Veteran move

Experience still matters sooooo much in today’s Cup Series, and that’s why drivers like Harvick can make the difference in crunch time situations.

Just look at Texas. Harvick got beaten by Ryan Blaney on a late restart, but he patiently caught back up and stuffed his car underneath Blaney’s in Turns 1 and 2 for what seemed like the winning pass. It was a pretty slick move that appeared easier than it was.

Then, on the overtime restart, Harvick switched up the strategy and started on the top — something no leader had chosen to do all race. If anyone doubted him, though, it worked — he easily cleared Blaney and sailed on to victory.

Blaney, to his credit, anticipated Harvick’s decision.

“I figured he wouldn’t make that move three times,” Blaney said. “We almost cleared him the first restart up top. Then I did on the second one. I figured he’d take the top.

“You get beat in one, you almost get beat the next one, you’re going to take the top, not restart on the bottom.”

Blaney can put that in his memory bank for the future, and that’s valuable. Those kind of scenarios can’t be simulated or pre-planned — only learned through actually being in those environments. But the winning veterans, like Harvick or Keselowski or Kyle Busch, already have those situations in their driver toolkits.

3. NASCAR mistake

Fans are continuing to light up NASCAR officials after Jimmie Johnson was mistakenly sent to the back of the field prior to the race.

For what it’s worth, NASCAR apologized in person to Chad Knaus and Hendrick representative Jeff Gordon, then told the media (through executive vice president Steve O’Donnell) the error was “unacceptable” and “disappointing.” O’Donnell vowed to make sure it wouldn’t happen again.

It was certainly a big mistake, and this isn’t the first time NASCAR has goofed on a call. It seems to happen more often than anyone would like, which is inexcusable.

That said, I remember the not-too-distant past, when NASCAR officials never would have admitted fault on something like this and instead made up some B.S. reason to justify the call. They’d say something like, “Oh, that’s our policy now. You didn’t know that?” Seriously, I feel like that used to be practically commonplace. I hated that about covering this sport; it drove me nuts.

Now NASCAR has a tendency to admit fault and apologize when something like this happens. Yeah, the whole thing isn’t good, and acknowledging an error doesn’t erase the error — but at least it takes some of the sting out of it.

4. Texas needs help

It’s time to stop racing 1,000 miles per year at Texas Motor Speedway.

The repave and reconfiguration hasn’t made for good racing in the Cup Series, this time even drawing the ire of typically mild-mannered Chase Elliott.

Elliott said Texas is “a really frustrating racetrack ever since they ruined it two years ago” and added: “I don’t know what genius decided to pave this place or take the banking out of (Turns) 1 and 2, but not a good move for the entertainment factor, in my opinion.”

Texas wasn’t very entertaining before, and now it’s gotten worse. A controversial new rules package will arrive for Cup next year, which could make the racing better — but it’s also going to make it a lot longer.

With the cars going slower, the 3.5-hour average time of the Texas races could creep closer to four-hour territory. Is that really necessary?

Even Texas president Eddie Gossage, by all accounts a great promoter, can’t do much with the racing product recently. Gossage’s customers have told him they don’t want any races to be shortened — they want more miles for their dollars — but given the sparse attendance on Sunday, is that even a consideration anymore?

A 300-mile race could be a lot more entertaining at Texas, since it could promote urgency and take away the time where drivers can just log laps. Either that, or it could be a chance for NASCAR to try a timed, three-hour race — just as an experiment.

Neither of those ideas could make it any worse, right?

5. Points drying up in the desert

At first glance, it doesn’t look like NASCAR is in store for much drama at Phoenix. The points are blown wide open, with the two remaining spots held by drivers who are at least 25 points ahead of the cutoff.

Kurt Busch isn’t in a must-win situation, but close. He’d need a lot of help. Meanwhile, Chase Elliott, Aric Almirola and Clint Bowyer have to win Phoenix or will miss out on the final four.

But if there is a new winner among that group, things could get interesting very quickly. Kyle Busch and Truex would be in position to battle for the last spot on points, and they’re only separated by three at the moment.

“We might be racing the 78,” Busch crew chief Adam Stevens said. “We’ve got to out-run the 78 to make sure we’re OK, then hope there is a repeat winner or a non-(playoff) winner, I guess.”

If anyone can do it, the pick would be Elliott. He has the second-best average ever at Phoenix (6.8, second only to Alan Kulwicki) in his five career starts. He’s never finished lower than 12th there and has a second- and third-place result in his last two Phoenix races.

12 Questions with Ryan Blaney (2018)

(Photo: Getty Images)

The 12 Questions series of interviews continues this week with Ryan Blaney of Team Penske, who won the recent race at the Charlotte Roval. This interview was recorded as a podcast but is also transcribed below for those who prefer to read.

1. How often do you have dreams about racing?

It depends. I dream about races that never happened sometimes that you really don’t understand what’s going on. I’ve dreamt about bad races before, reliving wrecks or something. I guess you could call those nightmares. So yeah, those really are the only two times I’ve dreamt about racing, if it’s just a random occurrence or something that’s never happened before and I can’t really make any sense of it. Or the wrecks, there’s a few bad ones that you sometimes dream about I guess.

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

I definitely think it does, especially if it was unintentional. I think you should apologize for sure if it was your fault, and you hope the other person understands. Now if it was intentional, I don’t think you go apologize. You did it intentionally, you’re not gonna go be sorry for it. If it’s an accident and I screw up and I get loose under somebody and spin them out or we both spin out, I’ll try to find them as soon as I can or call them and say that was obviously my fault. But yeah. Different answers for intentional or unintentional stuff.

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

Something that’s really cool to me is when parents tell me that their kids look up to me. That’s a super cool compliment because they’re talking about how their kids are huge fans of me and they love racing, they want to be just like you on and off the track. Like man, that’s pretty cool. I don’t know if I’ve met you guys before, but this kid wants to be like me and he doesn’t really even know me, he just knows me from around the racetrack or from racing and the social stuff that’s out there. That’s really cool and makes me feel good because that’s part of the reason why we do it.

You want to be as good of a role model as you can. I remember I was a kid who loved racing and was running around the garage and wanted to be like this driver or that driver just because I liked what they did. So to kind of have the roles now, me being in that spot, that makes me feel really good when parents tell me that or their kids come up to me and are wearing my shirt and they’re super happy to see me, because that just shows they’re big fans and they look up to me. It’s like a big brother moment, I guess. I think that’s the best compliment I can be paid.

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?

I’ll do a male and female version. I’m a big, big Ryan Reynolds fan, I think he’s an awesome actor. I’d love to have him. Did you say who’s the person or what would we do?

Just who would you like to take around?

Ryan Reynolds, that’s the guy. And the girl…ooh that’s tough. A lot of celebrity crushes. I’m a big Daisy Ridley fan. Do you know who she is?

Yeah. Well, you met her. She didn’t know who you were at the Lakers game.

She had no idea. But yeah, maybe that can be a second meeting. She probably doesn’t remember the Lakers thing, but I always will. But yeah, those will be my two.

Just next time be like, “Hey, by the way, I’m a NASCAR driver. Just come on out.”

Invite her out, yeah.

5. In an effort to show this is a health-conscious sport, NASCAR decides to offer the pole for an upcoming race to the first driver willing to go vegan for one month. Would you do it?

It’s only one race for the first pit stall? One month of vegan? That’s a hard one, that’s a good one. My sister is vegan, and I don’t know how she does it.

Which one?

The little one, Erin. And she’s in college and being in college and being a vegan, that’s tough. And I’ve seen what she has to eat, and it’s not pleasant. But I don’t know. I feel like I could only do the vegan thing for two weeks. I like meat too much and I eat way too much of that stuff. So I don’t know if I could do the vegan thing. I would try, but I just don’t think I would succeed.

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. This is the Kentucky Truck race from 2014. Do you remember this race at all?

Yes I do. I ran third. Kyle (Busch) won the race and Bubba got second.

Holy crap! Wow! That’s impressive.

It took me a second to think about but yeah, I remember that race. We had a shot to win, and the last restart didn’t really work out. Yup, I remember that. That was the old Kentucky.

Are you good at remembering races in general, or does that one just happen to stick out?

I’m pretty good at remembering races when people bring up what race it was, what year. I can usually remember that. But if I’m standing here, I’m not gonna be like, “Yeah, that race in 2015, so and so.” But if you bring up a race, I can usually think back and remember it. I don’t just think about races all the time. But when it gets brought up in discussion, I can easily usually think back on it.

7. Who is the best rapper alive?

I don’t really listen to rap music. I don’t know. I think Eminem is a good rapper. I feel like there’s only a few rappers I listen to, but Eminem, Notorious B.I.G., I listened to Tupac as a kid. Kendrick Lamar is really good. I saw a J. Cole concert a couple years back when he came out with that album, he was really really good. Post Malone’s good, I saw him in concert in Charlotte like a month ago, and I got to hang out with him for a little bit. Super nice guy.

Would you get the Post Malone eye tattoos under your eyes?

You know, that might be an offseason thing for me. And then laser them off.

8. Who has the most punchable face in NASCAR?

That’s an interesting one because I’ve seen you, heard you ask that question before. It’s not even really who would you punch, it’s who has the most punchable face. That’s almost like calling someone ugly, I don’t know. (Laughs) There’s certain people that sometimes I look at them after the race and I’m like, “God, I want to kick your ass.” And it’s really nothing against them, it’s just how they raced me, if they fenced me in or something.

But most punchable face, there’s one I would say but I don’t know how to say it. Have a lot of people have said Kyle Busch?

Yeah, he and Brad kind of get most of the answers.

OK. I guess those guys have punchable faces. I don’t know what a punchable face is, but I could say those two would be a tie. I’m just going to go with what everyone else says.

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.

I would like to hear Tom Hanks’ voice on the radio all the time, so I would do the spotter thing for him. LeBron should be the crew chief because of his work ethic. And Taylor can be the bus driver, because who wouldn’t want to be in a bus with Taylor Swift? (Laughs)

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

I think there’s multiple people involved in this. There’s myself, so when we’re walking out to intros and you’re kind of figuring out where the car is staged, look around for some port-a-johns. Ian (Moye), my PR guy, he’s good for looking for some bathrooms. And then my interior guy is also really good. So it’s a group effort. If neither of us see one while walking out, I’ll ask Kyle (Belmont), my interior guy, and he’ll usually have a good spot for me to go.

Is that because he doesn’t want to have to clean up if you can’t find the bathroom?

Well, I’ll never do that to him. I’ll rupture inside before I do that to him. But no, he’s always just on the lookout because, you know, those guys are on the grid for a while, so they have to scout out all the bathrooms. Yeah, so it’s a group effort, teamwork. Teamwork in everything nowadays.

11. NASCAR decides they would like the highlight reel value brought by the former Carl Edwards backflips and want their own version. How much money would they have to offer for you to backflip off your car following your next win?

Not much. I just have to practice it. If I’m going out there green, I don’t know if I can do it. That’s hard. It’s hard enough to do a backflip on a trampoline. I can do plenty of stuff on trampolines, but off a car, that’s tough. If I could get like five shots at it off a car door into like a foam pit first, then I’d do it for nothing.

Just for the good of the sport.

Yup, for the good of the sport. That’s what we’re in this for.

12. Each week, I ask a driver to give me a question for the next interview. Last week was with Michael McDowell and David Ragan. Their question for you is: Why don’t you ever go sprint car racing?

The reason why I didn’t grow up sprint car racing, number one, was I grew up in North Carolina, and by the time I was old enough to drive, my dad was already racing NASCAR and there’s just really no dirt tracks around. It’s asphalt, Late Model stuff. And Legend cars and quarter midgets, but that was kind of the main deal in North Carolina and where we were.

But why I don’t do it now is I’m really not allowed. It’s not encouraged for me to go do it. I’ll tell you a story. It was 2012, I’d just signed with Penske, and we were at the Texas (Xfinity) race and I was doing that one in the 22 car. My dad, until 2011, 12, 13, was building his own sprint cars and was testing them and racing them. So I’d help him build them a little bit, and I go run some laps in them to go test it. And I was testing it in the week before Texas.

We got done with practice at Texas and Tim Cindric, president of Penske, comes in and we’re talking about the car. I’m just starting at Penske and he walks out and he turns around like, “Oh, by the way, no more driving sprint cars.” It was like, “Oh man. OK.” How did he know that I was testing sprint cars? That’s baffling to me.

And so I was telling my dad this story just a few weeks ago, and he was like, “Yeah, because you scared the shit out of me driving that sprint car and I thought you were gonna wreck and I told him to tell you that you can’t drive sprint cars anymore.” Like man, you threw me under the bus! I can’t believe him. Yeah. I just found that out. So much for trust in dad.

But yeah, that’s really why I don’t do it. I’d love to do it, it’s what my dad does full time right now, it’s what my family grew up on pretty much and I love going to the races and learning about those cars and absolutely love that side of racing, but it’s just not something I can go do really right now. Maybe when I’m done with this deal, I’d like to go do it just because it was a family thing, but not right now.

So Tim Cindric had to do your dad’s dirty work, basically.

Yeah. I know! Dad just should have come to me and told me, but no, he didn’t want to be that guy. He wanted to use a middleman. He was using Tim Cindric as a middleman. That’s pretty rough.

I don’t know who the next interview is going to be with. You can either give me a general question or I’ll try to double back with you when I know the next driver.

Yeah, just get back with me whenever you know. I’m gonna ask a hard-hitting question.


Previous 12 Questions interviews with Ryan Blaney:

Nov. 5, 2014

Oct. 7, 2015

Feb. 25, 2016

July 5, 2017

 

The Top Five: Breaking down the Charlotte Roval race

Five thoughts after Sunday’s first-round elimination race at the Roval…

1. Roval Love

There were so many things to love about the entire Roval weekend before the race even started. The hype was real, the freshness of a new course injected a boost of enthusiasm into a long season and the whole thing replaced a traditionally ho-hum event with a huge unknown.

Given all that, the Roval was probably going to be viewed as a success even if the race turned out to just be OK.

At least they tried something different!, people would say.

Most of it was a fuel-mileage affair, where drivers tiptoed around the track and kept themselves out of trouble — which honestly was fine! That was the smart thing to do, and the strategy and doubts over whether they could make it to the end on fuel offered enough intrigue to keep fans interested.

But then the race suddenly delivered on its potential for chaotic entertainment — and without crossing the line into shitshow territory. Brad Keselowski stuffed it into the Turn 1 wall and the other leaders followed him into the barrier like the old Lemmings computer game.

GAHHHH!!! WHAT WAS THAT!?!?!

As it turned out, it wasn’t even the craziest moment of the race. As the playoff elimination battle was unfolding behind the race leaders, Jimmie Johnson saw a chance and tried to pass Martin Truex Jr. for the win — only to ruin both of their races.

Just like that, Ryan Blaney drove through the spins and ended up being declared the first official winner in a Cup Roval race.

But the unofficial winners were many: Marcus Smith, the father of the Roval who saw his brainchild come to life in a majorly successful way; NASCAR, which continues to have an excellently fun second half of the season; and the fans who came from all over the country to check the Roval out for themselves, then surely left feeling like they got their money’s worth.

Damn. When NASCAR is good, it can be so, so, SO good. And this was one of those weekends. I got so much enjoyment out of the entire Roval experience; I can’t imagine anyone feeling otherwise.

2. The idea of going for it

Imagine you’re Jimmie Johnson on the last lap. You barely made the playoffs, haven’t won all season — and hear about it constantly — and now you see an opening to grab a victory with a last-turn pass in the playoffs.

Now tell me you’re NOT going to go for it there. Really? Come on. I don’t believe you.

Yes, Johnson screwed up. Yes, he threw his playoff hopes away. But those type of calculations can’t possibly be factored in during a split-second decision.

Gee, what if I try to pass him, but spin myself out and then get passed by seven cars and miss the next round?

There’s no WAY that would even enter a seven-time champion’s mind! Winning racers don’t think that way. He saw a chance and went for it. I don’t even think it was that much of a “just gonna send it!” type gamble; he just messed up.

“If I knew the outcome was going to be that, no (I wouldn’t have tried it),” he said. “I want to stay alive in the championship points. But I really felt like I could pull that pass off.

“I wish I could go back in time and let off the brakes a little bit and take that opportunity, because the championship is what we’re here for.”

Of course he regretted the move with hindsight factored in. But at the time, you wouldn’t want him to do anything differently.

Truex seemed to have a much harsher viewpoint, though. He showed his displeasure by spinning Johnson out after the race — which is understandable, given the lost opportunity to win and get five extra playoff points.

“(Johnson) wasn’t ever going to make it through that corner whether I was there or not,” Truex said. “Just desperation on his part and pretty stupid, really, if you think about it because he was locked into the next round and now he’s out. I guess if there’s a silver lining, that’s it.”

3. Larson’s epic last lap

Someday, when we compile all of the great NASCAR moments from the otherwordly talent that is Kyle Larson, let’s not forget the last lap of the Roval.

Larson was out of the playoffs for about 20 seconds until he somehow drove all the way around the track with a wrecked car and passed Jeffrey Earnhardt about 100 feet before the finish line.

I normally wouldn’t dedicate so much space to a single quote, but you’ve got to read how he described it:

I knew I was in bad shape, so I guess you could say (I was) giving up. I couldn’t even drive my car, it was so badly destroyed.

But then they said (Johnson and Truex) were all crashed and they were coming to the checkered. I was getting on the oval (in the traditional Turn 1 location), and they said they were starting to crash, so I ran hard. We had so much camber and toe in our car, they said if I ran fast, I would blow a right front. But I was like, “You’ve got to go.”

So I ran hard through (the oval Turns) 1 and 2 and through the (backstretch chicane), and then I blew a right front (in the) center of (oval Turns) 3 and 4 and plowed the wall.

I was like, “Crap. I don’t know if I’m going to be able to get down to make the (front) chicane.” But luckily, it came down off the banking and I could turn right OK.

So I got through the 16th corner, and then I hit the wall again on the front stretch, and (Earnhardt) was stalled the whole time. He was like 100 feet from the start/finish line. I could start to see him creep in when I was getting to 16. I was like, “Gosh, don’t go! Don’t go!” And we were able to make it. Hey, I was pretty lucky.

Amazing, right!? Check out those last few turns:

To add to the barely-made-it storyline, there’s this nugget: NASCAR gives drivers with damage three laps to meet minimum speed. Larson, who had no chance of getting back up to speed, was on his third lap.

So had the race been one lap longer, he would have been eliminated through that rule alone.

4. Oh yeah…the winner!

How have we gotten this far without talking about Ryan Blaney? He won the race, after all.

Blaney might have seemed unusually chill after the race in some of his interviews, but that was because he didn’t really know how to digest the win. He appeared almost apologetic at times, like a driver who wins a rain-shortened race or through some other fluke scenario.

This really wasn’t in the same category, though, since he put himself in position to win if something happened. The leaders have wrecked and given the win to the third-place car many times in racing history — though not necessarily very often on NASCAR’s biggest stage. The bottom line is he shouldn’t feel bad about it.

But Blaney also isn’t the type of guy to be overly impressed with himself or brag in the first place, so feeling like he didn’t really deserve it was consistent with his personality.

“You’re happy you won the race. You’re happy for the team to do that,” Blaney said. “But me personally inside, there’s some of me (that thinks) … you don’t want people to look at it as, ‘Oh, you just won because the two guys wrecked.’ And that’s what it was.”

Blaney said that scenario had never happened to him in any race he’d ever run — including quarter midgets as a kid. So he just wanted to remain humble while also acknowledging the victory was worth celebrating.

“You don’t want to be kind of overjoyed about it, I guess, but you have to have some pride in it,” he said. “It’s a weird feeling.”

5. Moving on

Two big names are out of the playoffs after Round 1 — Johnson and Denny Hamlin — while young drivers Erik Jones and Austin Dillon also saw their hopes of gaining additional playoff experience come to an end.

Left behind are only two Toyotas — Truex and Kyle Busch — and three Chevrolets — Larson, Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman.

Everyone else? Well, it’s a LOT of Fords. All of Stewart-Haas Racing and all of Team Penske has advanced to Round 2, setting up for a Ford-dominated playoffs just three years after the manufacturer was completely shut out of the final four.

I only correctly picked two of the eliminated drivers for Round 1 (Dillon and Jones), so take these next predictions with a grain of salt. (And yes, I’m updating my picks in the middle of the playoffs. Weak, I know.)

— Round 2: I can potentially see the second-round eliminations being less shocking than the opening three races. I’ll pick Bowman, Blaney, Aric Almirola and Clint Bowyer to get eliminated this round.

— Round 3: That sets up a final eight of Truex, Harvick, both Busch brothers, Keselowski, Joey Logano, Elliott and Larson. Out of those, Truex, Harvick, Keselowski and Kyle Busch will advance to the final four (not going out on a limb at all, in other words).

— Champion: I’ll stick with Harvick as my pick to win it all. For now.

Playoffs Media Day podcast with NASCAR drivers

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.

Young drivers express concerns over future of All-Star aero package

Four of NASCAR’s top young drivers expressed reservations Friday about moving forward with the high-drag/downforce aero package in future races.

While Bubba Wallace, Ryan Blaney, Alex Bowman and Christopher Bell all agreed on the entertainment value of the aero package — which was highly popular with fans in the recent All-Star Race — they said it wouldn’t be fitting for the Cup Series unless tweaks were made.

“As a race car driver, it’s pretty easy to drive,” Bowman said. “We’re the premier stock car series in the world, so obviously you would like it to be a little more difficult to drive. You don’t just want to go everywhere and be wide open.”

The aero package was first used at the Indianapolis Xfinity race last season and most recently at Charlotte for the All-Star Race, which drew widespread praise from fans. It will also be used in Saturday’s Xfinity race at Pocono and next week’s Xfinity race at Michigan.

Drivers also expressed confidence NASCAR will try it again in the Cup Series this season, perhaps even at multiple races later this summer.

But while it might make for a better show, it also brings up a major dilemma: The level of difficulty is decreased.

“We’re all race car drivers; we want to show we’re the best,” said Bell, who has won the last two Chili Bowls and last year’s Truck Series title. “You can’t (show) that when you’re not pushing the issue of the tire and you’re not grip-limited. Whenever you’re not getting the most out of your race car, it’s just a different style of racing. It almost becomes more of chess racing, so to speak.”

Wallace said he saw a post on social media that said the dream of reaching the Cup Series meant being at a superior level, and the All-Star Race felt more like jumping into a local Saturday night race. The Richard Petty Motorsports driver agreed with that assessment.

“If you had the need for speed and decent car control, anybody could have driven that,” Wallace said. “And it shouldn’t be like that when you get up to the big leagues. You know: ‘I can play with LeBron; I can match him.’”

Blaney said the cars were “a little easy to drive” in the All-Star Race and preferred it to be more challenging. Like the others, he praised NASCAR for trying to improve the racing but said changes would be needed  — whether it’s more horsepower or less downforce — to keep more of an emphasis on handling.

That’s the balance that will be hotly debated in racing circles over the coming months as NASCAR tries to figure out which direction it should go. What matters more: The show or the purity of the racing?

“(The All-Star Race) was a great race, and the fans are why we’re here and why we’re allowed to be paid to be race car drivers,” Bowman said. “From that side of things, I loved it. … You have to look at what’s best for the sport, and making the race fans happy is what’s best for not only me, but everybody in this room.”

Kaz Grala, listening to Bell and fellow Xfinity driver Matt Tifft talk about their expectations for Saturday’s race with a similar package, said he was confident the racing would be entertaining.

“I’m sure it’s going to be very exciting to watch,” Grala said. “We’re all just biased because we like to have more control in our hands.”


MORE: Analysis on whether adding more downforce is the right direction in racing

The Top Five: Breaking down the Kansas race

Five thoughts after Saturday night’s race at Kansas Speedway…

1. For the love of the game

There are few things in NASCAR more boring than when one driver dominates a bunch of races (or championships). It typically sucks all the oxygen out of the sport, because it suddenly feels predictable — and predictability often equals a lack of excitement.

But Kevin Harvick’s crazy start to the 2018 season feels different. It’s more of the holy-crap-that’s-amazing dominance than the oh-geez-not-this-again snoozefest.

Five wins in the first 12 races of the season. In-SANE! Harvick has already tied his career high for wins in a season and is on pace to become the first driver since Jimmie Johnson in 2007 to reach double digit wins.

Look, we’ve seen teams come out and kick butt for a season in recent years — Martin Truex Jr. last year and Harvick in 2014 come to mind.

But winning at this rate? It’s been a long time since we’ve seen anything like this, and Harvick knows he’s in the midst of something very special.

Like everyone else, he’s curious to see how far it can go.

“Now it feels like a game,” he said. “You want to see how many races you can win. You want to see how many laps you can lead. We know that we’re riding a momentum wave that is hard to come by, and you need to capitalize on it as many times as you can — because it may never come again.”

I wasn’t around for Jeff Gordon’s 13-win season in 1998, but I’m guessing what Harvick and Rodney Childers are doing is shaping up to be the closest thing. Harvick said the feeling is “addicting” and it feels like Homestead in terms of the level of focus each week.

“It’s something that you may never do again in your career,” Childers said. “… The reason we all are here is because of watching people like Jeff Gordon and Ray Evernham win 12 races a year, and that’s what your goal should be no matter what race team you are.”

Can they get there? It’s intriguing to consider the possibility, and it’s starting to make me actually look forward to watching this kind of dominance rather than dreading it.

2. Larson the beast

Kyle Larson has still never won a 1.5-mile track race, but he sure looked on his way to doing it at Kansas.

Even though he didn’t win, that performance might have been the best NASCAR race of Larson’s career. He ripped around the high line more effectively than anyone and executed it to perfection, clearly elevating his car to another level.

In a race dominated once again by Fords and Toyotas, Larson was the one Chevrolet driver who can run up front — and stay there. But Larson wasn’t taking credit for the performance; he said the cars have been pretty good.

“I was happy about the performance in our Chevy,” he said. “It looks like (Chevrolet) has been struggling, but I don’t think we really have been that much.”

Still, it has to have a lot to to with Larson. Remember earlier in his career when he used to ride the high lane but then hit the wall every time he was having a good race? He’s not doing that anymore. The guy is just extremely talented, and it’s a joy to watch when he’s on like he was at Kansas.

So did he agree it was one of his best races? He’s not really one for boasting, so he actually downplayed it.

“It’s not too hard to run the wall here,” he said. “It’s fairly smooth and has a lot of grip. But yeah, I was happy with it. I felt pretty calm out front.”

3. Truex team has lost a step

Martin Truex Jr. almost won at Kansas for the third straight time, but that was thanks to pit strategy rather than pure speed.

For the most part, Kansas reaffirmed Truex’s car isn’t where he needs it to be right now.

It’s not like the 78 is awful, but the flat splitter and the enhanced inspection have certainly cost it some speed. Meanwhile, the Fords have gained at the same time and it makes Truex look vulnerable.

“We’re going to have to find something,” Truex said. “We’ve had good speed throughout the season at points, we just haven’t been as consistent as last year in finding it.”

I wouldn’t discount Truex’s chances of making another final four, but it just seems like he’s going to be doing the chasing instead of being chased this summer.

“It’s pretty evident the Fords have an unfair advantage this year,” he joked, referencing the accusations lobbed Toyota’s way in 2017. “I’ll just throw that out there.”

4. YRB’s bummer

It’s not like Ryan Blaney meant to hit Larson, but he felt there was no choice but to aggressively side-draft in the situation that led to the No. 12 car wrecking out after leading 54 laps.

“You have to run inches from each other,” Blaney said. “Can’t pass nobody anyway, so you have to do that.”

Blaney took blame for the incident, but said he essentially had to race Larson that way or “he would have sucked me around into (Turn) 1.”

“The cars are really edgy and hard to handle,” Blaney said. “Harvick went by me a foot from me — probably 10 mph faster — and about spun me out.”

Was it fair game? After all, Larson had done a similar side-draft on Harvick earlier.

But Larson rejected the direct comparison when I brought it up.

“It wasn’t the same move, because when I was side-drafting Harvick to get by him, I had more of a run than Blaney had on me,” Larson said. “I was able to clear (Harvick) when I side-drafted. (Blaney) was just trying to side-draft and slow me down and get to my door.”

5. A penny for Trevor’s thoughts

Trevor Bayne showed up at Kansas to be a good team player, even though Matt Kenseth had basically taken his ride. The point of Kenseth returning to Roush Fenway Racing is to get the program headed back in the right direction, but this weekend was probably a rude awakening as to how far off Roush actually is.

Kenseth finished 36th after getting caught in a crash, but the night wasn’t great before that. He was running two laps down in the mid-20s when the wreck happened.

I’d love to know Bayne’s true thoughts after watching Kenseth struggle in the car — or at least run about where Bayne had been this season. There had to be some sense of, “See, guys? It’s not just me!”

Maybe it was never realistic for Kenseth to show up and immediately make the No. 6 into a top-10 car, but there were definitely people (um…me!) who thought a Cup champion who had just won a race last November could immediately elevate that ride beyond its typical finishes.

Perhaps that will be the case later this season, but now we know the car is definitely more to blame for poor results than the driver.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Daytona 500

Five thoughts after Sunday’s 60th running of the Daytona 500…

1. That’s racing

I’m sort of baffled by the outrage over Austin Dillon driving through Aric Almirola — after Almirola admitted he saw Dillon coming and threw a last-ditch block. There’s no sound reason behind the anger here, other than fans can’t stand Dillon and his perceived silver spoon background — while Almirola would have been a likable winner and feel-good story after last year’s broken back and transition to Stewart-Haas Racing.

I get that Dillon irritates fans (he doesn’t care, by the way; Dillon believes in the “as long as they’re making noise” philosophy), but geez. Seriously, folks? Take the emotion out of it for a second.

Dillon had a huge shot of momentum from a Bubba Wallace push when the Almirola block happened, and it was on the last lap of the freaking Daytona 500. So what was Dillon supposed to do, let off the gas and cut Almirola a break?

“I guess I could have lifted and gave it to him, and not had this Daytona 500 ring that I’m wearing,” Dillon said.

But even if he did lift, Dillon probably would have gotten turned by Wallace behind him.

After all, that’s what seemed to happen when Ryan Blaney blocked Chase Elliott in the first Big One (Elliott lost momentum, got loose and spun off Brad Keselowski, starting a pileup). And when Denny Hamlin blocked Kurt Busch in the last Big One, Busch lost his momentum and got turned by the air off Blaney’s nose.

As we saw throughout Speedweeks, superspeedway racing has evolved into a risky, ballsy game of chicken when it comes to blocking. Almirola had no choice but to throw that block — in hopes Dillon would somehow blink — and Dillon had no choice but to drive through him.

Unless he wanted to lose, of course.

“I had such a run,” Dillon said, “and I had to use it.”

2. A star is born

NASCAR got stuck in some political debates last year, which prompted outsiders to once again bring up stereotypes about the sport’s fans.

But the majority of race fans aren’t racist. How do I know? Because Bubba Wallace is quickly becoming one of the most popular drivers in NASCAR.

Fans at Daytona gave Wallace a loud cheer before the 500, and his high profile in the media this week (including a feature on ESPN, a six-part docu-series on Facebook and then some air time in front of the largest audience NASCAR has all year) allowed fans to take a closer look at whether they like him or not.

It certainly seems like they do. And it has everything to do with his personality, which is refreshing, energetic, fun, raw and real.

I mean, what other driver shows emotions like this?

If Wallace can do anything in the 43 car and is even halfway competitive, it will be massive for NASCAR. His profile only grow if that’s the case.

But Richard Petty Motorsports has a lot of work to do judging by last year’s results, and if Wallace doesn’t run in the top 10, he risks becoming another Clint Bowyer.

Fun guy, hilarious, great personality, people love him, but…

At the tweetup on Sunday, fans emphasized they seek the perfect combination of personality and results. A driver needs both to truly be a superstar.

Those who deliver in both ways are the types of drivers NASCAR needs to succeed. Wallace certainly has the personality; now we’ll see whether he can produce on the track.

3. For Blaney, wait til next year

This really seemed to be the Ryan Blaney 500, especially after so many other contenders wrecked out. It looked like Blaney had the strongest car and could do anything with it. He led 118 laps in playing the typical Keselowski role, a dominating performance on a day when no one else led more than 22 laps.

Blaney was leading a single-file line with 10 laps to go when William Byron spun in his damaged car, which brought out a caution that ultimately cost him the race after the ensuing restart.

“That stunk,” Blaney said of the caution. “That grouped everyone back together. I tried to block as best I could, but it’s just so hard when they’re coming so much faster than you.”

Still, a green-flag finish wouldn’t have guaranteed a Blaney win. He had the best car of those remaining, though that doesn’t mean everyone would have stayed in line. But he’ll always wonder.

“It definitely was going to get tough there, and it was starting to brew up to where people were going to start to go,” he said. “With five to go, it was probably crunch time — and we were five laps away from that.

“But I thought we could control the lead pretty good, and it just didn’t play out that way.”

Ryan Blaney collects himself after climbing from his car following a seventh-place finish in the Daytona 500. (Photo: Jeff Gluck)

 

4. Logic doesn’t prevail

I don’t know if this will go down as one of the best Daytona 500s ever, but it was certainly one of the most entertaining.

Honestly, it shouldn’t have been.

With drivers knowing their cars were less stable than in previous years thanks to the new rules package, it seemed running single-file (like in the Clash) would be the smart way to go.

It certainly would have been very boring, but logic dictates that’s what the drivers should have done in order to still be racing at the finish.

Instead, the drivers got all crazy over the end of Stage 1 and took out a bunch of great cars. Then more wild moves finally bit them just after the halfway point.

“It looked like everybody thought that was the finish of the Daytona 500 and it was really only lap 59 coming to 60,” Jimmie Johnson said of the first incident. “… I’m not sure everybody was thinking big picture and really using their head through that.”

I’m sure they weren’t. But I can’t really figure out why. Drivers had privately predicted a single-file race, perhaps even with several groups of six-to-12 car lines spread across the track. Then they would all go hard for the win at the end.

Instead, it seemed like the opposite happened in the first two stages. It was weird. Super entertaining, but weird.

Perhaps the start of a new season left everyone too antsy to use the patience required to make it to the finish, or maybe racers just can’t help themselves from racing hard — even when it’s not necessary at the time.

5. Underdogs shine

Speaking of those who patiently bided their time and made it to the finish, there were some surprise names who had solid results after others wrecked out.

Chris Buescher previously had only one top-10 finish at a restrictor-plate track in nine starts, but he finished fifth on Sunday.

Michael McDowell finished ninth to record his sixth career top-10 finish — five of which have come at Daytona.

Justin Marks had a surprising run in his first career Cup race at Daytona and finished 12th despite being one lap down.

Also, David Gilliland made his first Cup Series start since 2016 — and recorded a 14th-place finish, his first top-15 since the 2015 Daytona 500.

And finally, despite all the drama and questions about whether it could even get the car on the track, BK Racing got a 20th-place finish with Gray Gaulding. Not a bad day for a team that just filed for bankruptcy protection.