Five thoughts after Sunday’s race at Sonoma Raceway…
1. Trick Play
Rodney Childers climbed down from the pit box with his headset still on, bent down to tie his shoes and tapped the button on his radio.
“I kind of let everybody down,” he told driver Kevin Harvick and the No. 4 team.
“All good,” Harvick replied. “Always want to win, but that stuff happens.”
“That stuff” was getting duped by an unusual case of trickery that likely cost Harvick the race on Sunday.
Here’s how it went down.
The No. 4 was the fastest car — as has been the case so often this season — with Martin Truex Jr. as the second best.
With that in mind, Truex crew chief Cole Pearn pulled off an Oscar-worthy performance to try and lure Harvick into the pits. He told Truex to pit and had the crew jump on the wall like a pit stop was about to happen, then called Truex off.
It didn’t work the first time. So then Pearn tried it again — he told Truex to pit, then reversed the call before Truex came down pit road. Truex had no idea what was going on (there was no code language or anything), but just knew to trust his crew chief.
This time, Pearn’s ploy worked. Childers — who was scanning the No. 78 team’s radio — took the bait and called Harvick to the pits earlier than originally planned, which opened the door for Truex to then stay out longer.
In turn, that gave Truex an advantage late in the race with fresher tires, which he used to easily pass Harvick.
“We’re in California — they went to acting school this week,” Truex said with a grin. “They were in L.A. for a couple days on the off weekend learning how to do screenplays and such.”
Furniture Row Racing president Joe Garone said he was aware of what Pearn was trying to do and termed it as a “flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants” call when it appeared the No. 4 car was going to win out if the race went green.
“Obviously the first time we called it, it didn’t work,” Garone said. “So it was really cool that we were able to call it the second time. What a great move by Cole.”
Pearn downplayed the move and said it was just a product of road-course racing. where a fake-out has a longer window of opportunity to work. Childers echoed that sentiment, saying road courses are the best place to try a move because “you’ve got time to react.”
Unfortunately for Childers, he did react — even though he had been determined not to let another team influence his strategy.
“I’ve been preaching for two days to not worry about what everybody else was doing,” he said. “… We could have just turned the scanners off altogether and just ran our race. Probably would have been better off.”
Harvick, though, gave Childers his full support. He walked over to the crew chief and patted him on the back afterward, and the two spent several minutes speaking to one another.
“He shouldn’t beat himself up over a pit call,” Harvick said.
2. Fair game?
Was Pearn’s fake-out a cheap move? Childers didn’t think so at all and instead tipped his hat to the No. 78 team, even going to victory lane to offer his congratulations. As we’ve seen several times this season, the No. 4 team shares a mutual respect with both the Nos. 18 and 78 teams, which make up the big three contenders of the season (they’ve won 12 of the 16 races so far).
“That’s really why I like racing those guys the most — the 18 and the 78,” Childers said. “Those guys are really good at what they do. They make all of us better. And we make them better every week. It’s awesome what they did and I have to congratulate them for that.”
It’s refreshing that although the top three teams keep running up front together each week, there’s no bad blood between them. Sure, a bitter rivalry would be fun — very fun, actually. But it’s also cool to see the mutual respect and sportsmanship that exists.
After all, Pearn noted, they’re just playing a game.
“We have a great relationship,” Pearn said of Childers. “I respect him a lot, and I feel like he does the same. Him and Martin worked together back at MWR, so they’re good friends. I always try and congratulate them when they win, and he always does it when we win.
“There’s plenty of days where they’re going to be up. Kevin Harvick is an awesome race car driver, and I’ve got a lot of respect for him. I think it’s pretty cool to be able to race them like we do.”
3. Unusually calm
There were the fewest “natural” cautions (yellow flags other than stage breaks or competition cautions) in track history on Sunday. The only yellow flag other than the end of Stages 1 and 2 was for AJ Allmendinger’s car on the track after he blew an engine.
So what’s up with that?
For one thing, drivers say the field has gotten more skilled at road racing. Truex pointed to the Xfinity and Truck Series running more road courses, which means the younger drivers have a chance to get used to that type of racing by the time they reach Cup. Meanwhile, the Cup guys have raised their game as well.
But another reason is stage racing. It’s had a profound impact on road courses because the races turn into more of a strategy play than a straight-up, head-to-head battle. When the field gets spread out while using various strategies, there’s less chance for a wreck and no one is pushing the issue.
Still, that doesn’t mean NASCAR needs to change anything or suddenly get rid of stages at road courses. It’s much better to have a consistent race format for each week of the season than get into the business of tweaking it at certain venues in the name of entertainment.
That might produce some Formula One-type races at times —where strategy seems to prevail over all else — but it’s not like it happens every week.
4. ‘Dinger’s Despair
We all know there are pretty much two shots for Allmendinger to make the playoffs each season: Sonoma and Watkins Glen. And while Allmendinger has a decent track record at the Glen, Sonoma has been a nightmare.
Something always seems to either break on the car or Allmendinger loses his cool when faced with mid-race adversity. That’s why the talented road racer has more career finishes of 35th or worse at Sonoma (five) than top-10 finishes (two).
In that sense, his team’s strategy Sunday was puzzling. With Allmendinger in agreement, the 47 team had its driver stay on track for stage points while the other leaders pitted late in Stage 1. Allmendinger ended up winning the stage and got 10 stage points — but for what?
The driver entered the race 23rd in points. He’s not racing for points; he’s racing for wins.
After that decision — with all his track position lost and now tasked with trying to come through the field — Allmendinger made a mistake, missed a shift and blew his engine.
The whole sequence just didn’t make sense, and it turned into another deeply disappointing day for the ‘Dinger.
5. Points Positions
In this unusual NASCAR season — perhaps historically so, with the fewest winners through 16 races since 1978 — one item in the Top Five will be a weekly look at the point standings.
After all, this playoff field is shaping up to have the most drivers getting their playoff spots on points since the start of the Win-And-In Era.
With Daytona 500 winner Austin Dillon outside the top 16 in the standings, that moves the cutoff position to 15th in points — which is currently Alex Bowman. He’s safe by 17 points over Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and by 25 points over Paul Menard.
Erik Jones has a 13-point lead over Bowman (and thus a 30-point cushion to Stenhouse). After that, the cutoff isn’t really close because Chase Elliott is another 35 points ahead of Jones and therefore 65 points inside the cutoff.
The winless drivers who would make the playoffs right now are Brad Keselowski, Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Larson, Aric Almirola, Ryan Blaney, Jimmie Johnson, Elliott, Jones and Bowman.