The Top Five: Breaking down the Phoenix playoff race

Five thoughts after Sunday’s NASCAR playoff race at ISM Raceway…

1.  Big stage is set

After all the crazy twists of these playoffs, NASCAR ended up with the best four drivers of the season going for the championship.

There are no flukes here. Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano and Martin Truex Jr. have the best average finishes of anyone in the Cup Series this season (in that order). In the traditional/non-playoff point standings, which are still kept by racing-reference.info, those four drivers are also tops in season-long points.

It’s a stout group, and you could make a case for any of them winning the title.

“This is the closest four that have been in our sport in a long time,” Busch said.

There are no newcomers among them, either.  Each contender has been in the final four at least twice — even though this is only the fifth year of its existence. Logano is the least experienced of the contenders — and yet this is his 10th season.

“Three of us have won in the format and all four of us have lost in the format,” Busch said. “Overall, it just comes back to a lot of things having to go your way.”

So what’s going to happen at Homestead? Well, it would be a surprise if the drivers didn’t run 1-2-3-4 for much of the race, and maybe even finish that way.

Harvick though, remains the favorite. It’s a 1.5-mile track and he’s consistently been the fastest off the truck all year. Strange things can happen, as we saw at Phoenix, but the Fords are still better than the Toyotas on intermediate tracks.

So that said, my prediction for the finishing order of this year’s final four is: Harvick-Logano-Busch-Truex.

2. Playoff races raise the game

It’s OK to have a love/hate relationship with this playoff format. There are days when it seems far from the best way to decide an auto racing champion.

But Sunday was not one of those days. The playoff pressure absolutely elevated the Phoenix race and made it far more compelling than it may have been otherwise.

Look at how desperately Aric Almirola was driving at the end. Look at the decisions made by Kurt Busch and his team to try to preserve their points position over Harvick. The whole atmosphere and vibe of the race was dramatically enhanced by the playoffs, and it made for a highly entertaining day.

Yeah, it’s still weird to have one race at a given track decide the season-long winner. On the other hand, it gains credibility when the best drivers all advance — and the addition of playoff points have certainly helped.

“I think the format we have now is the absolutely best scenario we could have when you look at it for the entirety of the year,” Busch said.

3. Smoke’s thoughts

Tony Stewart had his hands full on Sunday. He knew it would be challenging for a team owner — that’s what happens when you have four teammates going for one spot. But he had to step into an extra role as well: Counselor.

As Kurt Busch was having a meltdown on the radio after a tough penalty took  the race lead away and cost him a lap, Stewart intervened and told Busch to take a deep breath. After the race, Stewart consoled Busch with an embrace and words of encouragement — something Busch expressed gratitude for later.

It was if the current Stewart was talking to the racer Stewart from 10 years ago as the voice of reason.

Scary, isn’t it?” Stewart told me after the race. “Got some experience in those situations. I think that helps, at least being in that position. (Kurt is) a good guy. He’s come a long way, but he still gets in those positions where the heat of battle takes over. It’s understandable. That’s why we do what we do.

“Can’t blame him for it. You just know everybody is going to hang on every word he says, so you just try to help him out more than anything. After his penalty, he did an awesome job of locking back in. He was running the leaders down from the back. Pretty proud of him.”

Overall, Stewart was unhappy about the race unfolded. He called it “chaotic” and indicated there were too many factors affecting such a big race.

What specifically stuck out?

The scenarios and everything around it, drivers that shouldn’t even be in the Cup Series causing cautions, stupid stuff happening,” he said.

4. Harvick’s comeback

This will probably be lost to history, but let’s take a moment to appreciate Harvick’s remarkable feat at Phoenix.

After dominating the first stage, he had a tire go flat with two laps left in the stage and limped to pit road — which was actually fortunate timing, because the stage break saved him from going more laps down.

Then he fought his way to the free pass position —  and got it — despite a damaged car. Later, his team used strategy to put him in a favorable spot to be in front of the late wreck that would have ended his playoff hopes — but instead helped him sail through on points as his competitors crashed.

Harvick downplayed it all afterward, saying it was “just another day.” He said his only thoughts were trying to get back to the pits instead of worrying about the championship.

But the survival and focus of his team to persevere through a day that could have been a heartbreaker is one to remember — especially if he ends up winning his second title next week.

5. What if?

An intriguing scenario popped up late in the race with Kyle Busch and Almirola restarting side-by-side. If Busch allowed Almirola to beat him on the restart — and potentially for the win — then it would have eliminated Harvick, who is clearly Busch’s biggest competitor for the title.

Busch said it crossed his mind, but never seriously. He wasn’t going to give up a win, even if it means Harvick would beat him next week.

You always want to go up against the best of the best, and the strength of the season has been us three and the 22,” Busch said.

In addition, Busch said it wouldn’t have worked anyway. Had Almirola gotten by on the restart and Busch fallen in line, he predicted Brad Keselowski would have won instead.

“I don’t think the 10 was capable enough of being able to lead the race and not have somebody else pass him, know what I mean?” Busch said. “That would have been dumb.”

Crew chief Adam Stevens,  though, seemed like he wouldn’t have been disappointed had it happened.

“It wouldn’t have upset me if it did happen, but we weren’t going to do anything to make it happen,” Stevens said.

I’m not at all saying Busch should have done it — no real racer would give up a win, and it also would have been a huge scandal for not letting the race play out — but it’s an interesting scenario that only pops up in NASCAR’s unique playoff format.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Kansas playoff race

Five thoughts following Sunday’s Round 2 elimination race at Kansas Speedway…

1. Contenders narrow

It’s been 14 races since Martin Truex Jr. won. It’s been 10 since Kevin Harvick won. Kyle Busch has one win in the last 11 races.

And yet, regardless of how each team is running, the Big Three have to be thrilled with how the playoffs are shaping up at this point.

That’s because the drivers who would seem to be the biggest threats to beat them at Homestead keep getting eliminated. Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin were out after Round 1, and now Kyle Larson and Brad Keselowski are gone after Round 2.

Chase Elliott is perhaps the favorite to get the last Homestead spot right now, but can you really picture someone other than a Big Three driver winning the title? With apologies to the remaining five challengers, none of those remaining have the experience and history at Homestead that the Big Three brings.

Anything can happen, of course, and none of the remaining drivers are pushovers. It’s just that Homestead seems to require an extra level of speed and execution. Given the increased pressure and performance demanded by a championship situation, having been in that spot before — and achieving the ultimate goal — really does count for a lot.

2. What to make of Round 2?

Brad Keselowski won three straight races bridging the start of the playoffs, giving a false impression of how good his team really was. Keselowski himself was frank about the streak all along, saying he didn’t have the fastest car in any of the three races he won. But when a team goes on a roll like that, the momentum feels impossible to ignore. Suddenly, everyone had Keselowski penciled in to Homestead.

Then came a ninth-place finish at Richmond, a crash while leading the Roval and finishes of 14th, 27th and sixth in Round 2. Just like that, Keselowski was out.

Now Elliott has won two races in three weeks, and has seemed to be running better in general as the fall approached. That said, is Elliott’s recent run that different than Keselowski’s? Wins shouldn’t be ignored, but in terms of making a statement, it’s Harvick who was going to win both the races Elliott won — including on Sunday — without self-inflicted mistakes on pit road (one by the team, one by the driver).

So it’s tough to figure how seriously to take Elliott’s playoff hopes. He’s racing with confidence and his team is putting him in situations to capitalize on potential wins. Is that enough to put him in the Homestead conversation, though? I’m going to take raw speed over anything at this point in the season, and that still seems like Harvick every week.

3. SHR channeling JGR

All four Stewart-Haas Racing drivers advanced to Round 3, making up half of the playoff field heading into the last four races.

When is the last time such a feat occurred? Actually it was only two years ago, when all four Joe Gibbs Racing drivers — Busch, Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth — made it to the Round of Eight.

Kenseth and Hamlin were eliminated after Phoenix that year, with Busch and Edwards advancing to Homestead. Edwards then was infamously in position to win the championship until a late caution,  which reset the field, ended in a wreck with Joey Logano and ultimately turned out to be his final career race.

So how will this year unfold for SHR? Will more than one of its drivers get to the final four?

I’m going to say no. Harvick is a lock, but Aric Almirola, Kurt Busch and Clint Bowyer probably need to win a race during this round if they’re going to make it. That’s because there’s such a large playoff points deficit to the Big Three, and you would think at least one of that trio will need to advance on points.

Bowyer could win Martinsville, but so could a number of drivers. The best bet for other SHR contenders might be if a non-playoff team wins one of the races and opens up an extra spot to reach Homestead on points.

Otherwise, Harvick might be riding solo into the championship round despite having three teammates in the semifinals.

4. Stale schedule hurts Round 2

Kansas was an OK race. It got exciting at the end, when there was a late battle for the lead. But had the playoff elimination scenario not been present all day, it would have been your standard, ho-hum 1.5-mile track race.

Logano dominated the early part of the race in clean air, until Harvick took over and did the same. Aside from the stage breaks, there was only one caution — for oil on the track when William Byron blew up.

It was just another reminder that NASCAR’s No. 1 issue isn’t personalities or tires or rules packages, but the tracks themselves — and where those tracks fall on the schedule.

The excitement and freshness of Round 1 seems like a distant memory after a relatively uneventful Dover race, a disappointing Talladega and then Sunday’s event at Kansas. This round’s watchability was masked by the good fortune of two popular Elliott wins, which pump up many in NASCAR. Overall, though, Round 2 promised more thrills than were actually delivered.

But remember the chaotic playoffs opener at Las Vegas? The first-time playoff event at Richmond? The hype and craziness of the Roval? The playoffs had gotten off to such a good start and were part of a string of great races that spanned a couple months.

Thankfully, Martinsville lies ahead next week and Round 3 also contains Phoenix’s new layout with the start/finish line in a turn (which might not change much with the racing, but at least it’s something new to talk about).

Maybe this is a wacky theory, but is it possible a stale schedule can leak into the on-track product at times? When a race gets hyped so much that even the drivers buy into it, is it possible they race differently? Perhaps it’s just coincidence, but Round 1 was a hell of a lot more compelling than Round 2 — and that seems backward for a playoff format that usually picks up steam as it goes.

5. Frustration continues for racing in U.S.

One of the year’s most-attended races in the United States happened on Sunday, and it wasn’t the NASCAR race.

Formula One and NASCAR went head-to-head once again this season — same day, same time —  and it only figures to get worse next year when they run in the same state as well.

I understand the reasoning for both series — F1 goes all over the world and doesn’t really care what NASCAR does, and NASCAR doesn’t have much of a window to avoid F1 — but that still doesn’t make it productive for either.

Think about this: What if NASCAR held the Kansas race on a Saturday afternoon? Then it could have sent its drivers to flood the F1 paddock, where they would have been portrayed as celebrities to the worldwide TV feed, increasing the international profile of the stock car series. Conversely, F1 is trying to gain a foothold in the U.S. but can’t really do that without dipping into the NASCAR fan base, which is the largest and most receptive audience in this country.

It all seems so self-defeating when you think about the challenges all forms of racing face today. With so many smart people working in both series and the obvious crossover opportunities, a greater effort should be made to lift up both NASCAR and F1 — even if one has to give a little more than the other to make it work.

12 Questions with Clint Bowyer (2018)

Clint Bowyer puts his winner sticker on the car after winning at Michigan this year. (Getty Images)

The 12 Questions series of interviews continues this week with Clint Bowyer of Stewart-Haas Racing. This interview is recommended as a podcast, but is also transcribed for those who would rather read.

1. How often do you have dreams about racing?

I don’t really dream, Jeff. Helluva question.

Really? You just sail right through the night?

I can’t even remember my dreams. Don’t you ever wake up, and you’re like, “What the hell happened?”

Yeah, but sometimes I’m interviewing you in my dream. It freaks me out.

I don’t have that, Jeff. I don’t ever dream I’m interviewing with you.

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

Yes, but it means zero. You’re still going to get retaliated, and sometimes, with peers and things like that, it just depends who it is. If it’s somebody you’ve kind of had a run-in with before or you don’t get along or you don’t speak off the racetrack or something else, they don’t really know you, they don’t know that that was (unintentional).

I mean, a guy like Jamie McMurray. He’s gotten into me before and it was a situation, like that wasn’t on purpose. Pissed you off, it was a bad deal, but it didn’t mean anything to me and I knew he’d be calling and as soon as he did, I was like, “I get it. It’s all good. Shit happens.” Same goes on the flip side of that.

It just depends. If it’s a kid that’s been racing you hard and doing something stupid for four or five weeks and making it hard and over-pushing the envelope and it finally catches up to you, that’s the one that gets to you and makes you mad.

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

I think the biggest compliment now in life is, “Your kid’s a good kid” and “he was polite.” (Bowyer’s son Cash) went over to somebody’s house the other day and they’re like, “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe how polite he was.” You’re like, “Yes!” He didn’t get that from me, by the way.

But nonetheless, your pride comes from different things now. Once you have a family and kids and everything else, you know, yes — when somebody says you did a good job in the race car or something else, that’s meaningful. But when they say that about something that is your pride and joy gives you a compliment, it’s a good feeling.

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 think all of them. It doesn’t matter. If it’s a celebrity, it’s meaningful that they’re there, that they want to be there, that they’re choosing to be at our sport. So it’s always fun for me that we get to meet celebrities because I don’t view myself as worthy of being able to hang out with celebrities. I’ve always been starstruck and big-eyed. When you see somebody that you see on TV or grew up seeing on TV, I’m no different from anybody else. Like, “Holy shit, that’s whoever!” It still rocks you back on your heels and it’s a big deal.

If I had to pick somebody who the next celebrity would be or would blow me away, I don’t know. It would have to be somebody funny, because I like having fun in our sport, I like having fun in general. But when you are around people like that, you can kind of embrace the relationship a little bit more and show them the funny side of our sport. Get them in a car and put them in a situation and they’ll freak out or something like that. I like that aspect of celebrities and things like that.

That’s kind of a shitty answer to your question, but I’m serious, it doesn’t really matter who it is. If it’s a celebrity and they’re interested in our sport, they’re there, I want to be involved and I want to show them our sport.

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?

For a pit stall? Hell no! For a win or something? I don’t even pick stalls anyway — we just complain about them.

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.

I’ll tell you right now: Fail.

This is the 2014 July New Hampshire Cup race.

No clue, buddy. Not one clue.

You finished sixth. You started eighth. You led 36 laps this race. Brad Keselowski won. So you don’t remember this race?

No. I don’t even know what car I was driving.

7. Who is the best rapper alive?

(Laughs) What? There’s no such thing. There’s literally no such thing.

I will say this, I was at the beach with my spotter Brett Griffin and his two daughters and they sang this Cardi B song in the back of the van and I had to stop the van, I was crying laughing so hard. And I don’t know if I was crying laughing so hard because of the fact it was awesome they were doing it or the fact that I knew that Brett was going to be in trouble with his wife because they are definitely getting thrown out of school because of the words in that song that they knew already at such a young age. He is definitely going to get an ass-chewing. And that’s really why I was laughing, because I knew at some point it was going to come full circle to him getting in trouble, because I know damn well they knew that song because of him, not because of his wife.

8. Who has the most punchable face in NASCAR?

God, that’s easy. Everybody knows that’s Kyle (Busch). (Laughs)

That’s terrible though. You set me up for failure there! That’s bullshit.

You acted like you knew the answer right away! 

I’m going to give you 12 questions one of these days.

He’s not even the most common answer this year.

Really…?

Yeah. Brad is.

It’s kind of the same face.

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.

How did you pick those three?

I’m running out of questions, here…

Your dreaming is real. This is your dream? Holy shit. Your dreams are out of control. You pick Taylor Swift, Tom Hanks, and who?

LeBron. Choose one to be your spotter, one to be your motorhome driver, and one to be —

The jack man.

No, your crew chief. You could do jack man if you want, mix it up.

I think LeBron would be big enough. You wouldn’t want Tom Hanks to be the jack guy, you know what I’m saying. Taylor Swift wouldn’t be a very good jack guy.

No.

Well, we clearly couldn’t have Taylor Swift being the motorhome driver as a married man, because that wouldn’t last very long. One or the other wouldn’t last: You’d break down or your wife would break up.

That’s a good point.

(Laughs) So I appreciate you setting me up for failure once again on that.

But what are we gonna do with LeBron? Well Tom Hanks will be the spotter, you can understand him and he will be good. And then the crew chief, I guess LeBron’s in.

Well, you’re going to have to put Taylor there since you can’t have her as your motorhome driver. She’s going to be calling the shots.

Yeah. I don’t think LeBron could fit in the motorhome seat though, his head would be rubbing.

He might know how to grill or something cool.

Yeah, he makes enough money. All three of them make enough money that they aren’t going to drive your bus. That’s just the facts. But your dreams, I’m following along in your dreams here. They’re really screwed up, by the way.

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

Ho ho! This is the key to success in motorsports. Everybody always asks, “What do you do pregame? What do you do before the race?” If you don’t do one thing before the race, you’re gonna wish you did that one thing the entire race. It’s three and a half hours out there, Jack. If you’ve got a Number Two issue on your hands for three and a half hours, you’ve got a hell of an issue on your hands. It’s a shitty situation. (Pretends to be upset with the question.) One more opportunity to set me up for failure!

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?

I win the championship, I will do whatever you want. If you want me to do a backflip, get the pads out because I’m gonna need them. No way in hell am I gonna land on my feet.

This year?

Homestead. Done. You just bring it up and I will attempt a backflip. I probably need the roof to get the full rotation around and make sure I don’t land on my head because the door stop’s probably not enough, but I’ll go for it.

12. Each week, I ask a driver to give me a question for the next interview. Last week was Rico Abreu. He wants to know: Why don’t more Cup drivers pull like a Larson or a Kahne or a Stewart and dive back into some of these lower series, whether it’s sprint car racing or Late Models or things like that?

Rico, if he can’t be a big enough star on his own and he needs Larson to come back and bring the crowd for him, there’s enough being said. (Grins)

Here’s the thing: I do contribute to that level. I don’t race in it anymore, but I own two Dirt Late Model teams. I feel like through that connection, I am connected and I enjoy that. I enjoy short track racing and I think that’s very, very important, it’s always been a good platform for me. Partners, we’ve always built good partners at that level and even brought them to the Cup Series.

I love short track racing. I mean, if I never made it to Cup and I always raced at Lakeside Speedway in the Midwest and raced at Iowa in the (IMCA) Super Nationals that just happened, I was plenty content. Had a good time, was successful, had a lot of fun and made a lot of memories with a lot of good people. That’s plenty good enough for me.

Do you have a question I can ask the next interview?

Can you tell me who it is?

The schedule’s up in the air right now, so it’s either going to be Justin Haley from the Truck Series or Ryan Blaney.

Which I literally have nothing in common with. Like I don’t even think we speak the same language. I don’t know Fortnite like these kids do.

I don’t know. My question for the next driver is: Are they OK with me beating them? How bad does it bother them when somebody as crazy as I am is able to beat them on any given Sunday? Does it make them feel like a lesser person? Does it embarrass them? Does it keep them up at night dreaming like Jeff Gluck?


Previous 12 Questions interviews with Clint Bowyer:

Nov. 3, 2010

Nov. 16, 2011

June 27, 2012

Aug. 28, 2013

Aug. 27, 2014

June 22, 2016

April 5, 2017

 

The Top Five: Breaking down the New Hampshire race

Five thoughts after Sunday’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway…

1. Beauty in bumping

A well-executed bump-and-run is NASCAR’s most magnificent work of art, full of intricacies and accepted by nearly everyone as a fair way to settle a race.

In one move, it sums up everything people love about stock car racing: Contact, close racing and aggression — but without any wrecked vehicles as a result.

Kevin Harvick’s bump-and-run to win Sunday night at New Hampshire Motor Speedway was absolute perfection, providing a textbook example that can be used for years to come.

Even the driver on the receiving end — Kyle Busch — calmly said the move was just fine with him.

“It was just a bump,” Busch said. “It wasn’t a big deal. He didn’t wreck me or anything like that. He did it early enough, but he did it way harder to push me out of the groove three lanes. It just takes you so long to recover here, there was just no possible way I could get back to him. I was in the way, so no harm, no foul.”

Busch’s only quibble? He wished Harvick would have raced him cleaner first before making contact. Busch said if the roles were reversed, he would have tried using lapped cars for a few more laps before deciding to play bumper cars.

“When you’re slower, you kind of expect it,” Busch said. “But you also think a guy is going to race you fair and pass you clean first. I don’t think he ever tried to pass me clean once he got there.”

But that’s exactly what Harvick anticipated Busch would be thinking, which is why the Stewart-Haas Racing driver decided to make the move at the first available opportunity.

“I needed to do it when he wasn’t expecting it,” Harvick said. “The more opportunities to get in his wheelhouse, his thought process, the less chance you have. He’s that good.

“If you wait until two or three to go, the entries are going to get shallower, he’s going to start grinding on the brakes a little bit harder. He’s going to put himself in a position not to get hit. He’s going to go on defense, start to really get aggressive, too.

“I wanted to do it earlier just to try to catch him off guard.”

There’s a fine line to executing the move — it means moving the other driver up the track enough to make a pass while escaping into the lead — “get away from him far enough because you know they’re going to be mad,” Harvick said — and all without causing a wreck.

Harvick did exactly that. And though it opens the door for Busch to do the same thing in the same situation, Harvick had no regrets about the decision.

“He still finished second, right?” Harvick said.

2. The Huge Three

NASCAR fans hate storylines that are overhyped, so there are likely some out there who can’t stand to hear one more word about the “Big Three.”

But as much as Harvick, Busch and Martin Truex Jr.’s dominance has been discussed, this is the rarely hyped NASCAR story that might actually be underplayed.

Seriously, this is almost surreal at this point in the season. There have been 20 races this season, and three drivers have combined to win 15 of them. Fifteen! WHAT!? There are only 16 races left in the whole year! How many more are they going to get? That’s amazing.

Another crazy stat: The Big Three have 88 playoff points — not counting the points Harvick had taken away with a penalty — while the entire rest of the field only has 45 combined.

How is this even possible? Two of these drivers have teammates (and the Joe Gibbs Racing drivers are basically Truex’s teammates), and yet it’s still only three cars winning all the races. And they just keep doing it, even in races that seemed headed for a different outcome like Sunday.

Wild!

3. Almost Almirola

Aric Almirola appeared more bummed and upset about failing to win at New Hampshire than he did after being wrecked out of the lead at the Daytona 500 in February.

How’s that possible? Well, Daytona was just the start of Almirola’s rebirth as a driver, the first race with a team that could finally make him a regular winner. There seemed to be much more to come.

But now — in late July, the 20th race of the season — coming close and failing to win stings worse.

“Everybody keeps talking about the Big Three, but I feel like we were stomping them pretty good today,” he said. “That’s why they are so good — they execute all race long. Unfortunately, we didn’t today.”

Almirola had the fastest car in New Hampshire — even Harvick said so — but “lost control of the race” on the final pit stop. His pit crew had a slower stop than Kyle Busch’s team, which put Almirola at Busch’s mercy for the restart. Then Busch went at the soonest possible moment, which caught Almirola off guard and left him spinning the tires as a result.

He ended up finishing third and initially seemed devastated. But Almirola said there’s more to come from his team.

“We’re peaking,” he said. “As the 10 team, we’re peaking at the right time. You’ve seen the speed we had at Chicago (when he almost won) and we’re putting things together. … We’re starting to get what we need out of the race cars.”

4. Teammate blues

Speaking of Almirola, Clint Bowyer was gutted after hesitation to get off the track with a broken car potentially cost his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate a victory.

“It just sucks,” Bowyer said. “I hate that for my teammate (Almirola). He was dominating the race.”

With Almirola leading the race and Harvick running second, Bowyer was called into the pits to serve a one-lap penalty for pitting outside the box. Upon returning to the track, Bowyer radioed to the team and said something broke on his car.

At that point in the race, there was going to be no salvaging the day — Bowyer was already two laps down due to the penalty and broken part. As such, the No. 14 team should have brought Bowyer into the pits immediately.

What was the purpose in staying out? Bowyer is already secured in the playoffs this season with two wins and points mean little for him.

But for whatever reason, Bowyer was kept on the track. By the time the team finally decided to make the call, it was too late.

“I was trying to nurse it around,” Bowyer said. “Something in the left rear was broke and…Brett (Griffin, his spotter) told me, ‘We’re having trouble, let’s just get off the track,’ and I was kind of thinking the same thing. Literally, as he was saying that and I’m thinking it, something broke on the right side and away it went. That sucks. I hate it for him.”

Bowyer has been involved on the wrong end of a team orders situation before, but surely this wouldn’t have been viewed in the same category. Calling a car in for repairs — or to the garage — while a teammate is leading under green would be a perfectly acceptable move in future situations.

5. Points picture

The battle for the non-win playoff spots grew less dramatic this week after the three Hendrick bubble drivers all had top-11 days while Ricky Stenhouse Jr. finished five laps down in 30th place.

Jimmie Johnson (14th in the playoff standings) and Chase Elliott (15th) now have whopping 97- and 95-point leads over Stenhouse for the final playoff spot.

Alex Bowman, who finished 11th, is up by 28 points over Stenhouse.

The next-closest drivers to pointing their way into the playoffs? After Stenhouse, Paul Menard is 29 points behind Bowman and Ryan Newman is way back (-74 points). Everyone else behind Newman (like Daniel Suarez, William Byron and Jamie McMurray) pretty much have to win at this point with only six races until the playoffs.

The most likely wild card possibility could be if AJ Allmendinger (25th in points) wins in two weeks at Watkins Glen and moves the cutoff line up to Elliott’s position.

But that could generate even less drama heading into the final regular season races, because Bowman is 67 points behind Elliott.

12 Questions with Aric Almirola (2018)

Aric Almirola has increased his average finish by more than six positions (18.8 to 12.5) from last year. He has already tied a career-high in top-10 finishes for a season. (Getty Images photo)

The series of 12 Questions driver interviews continues with Aric Almirola, who is currently enjoying the best season of his career during his first year with Stewart-Haas Racing. 

1. How often do you have dreams about racing?

Most of my dreams about racing stem from panic. Panic sets in because I’m late to the race. Like I’m trying to put my firesuit on as fast as I can, I’m trying to find my shoes, the cars are lined up, the national anthem just finished, everybody’s getting in their cars and I’m not dressed yet and I’m like in this massive panic to try and get in the car and hurry up and run to the car and get my belts on while the other cars are out on the track making pace laps.

And then usually I wake up in a cold sweat in the bed because I’m freaking out that I’m going to miss the race. So that’s usually what any racing dreams are about.

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

I think it’s very situational. Most of us know when it’s intentional and unintentional. If it’s unintentional, you can typically take care of it on the track, you give a little wave out the window and it’s all good. Life goes on.

But when it’s flat-out intentional or an accident that takes them out of the race, then I think it’s important to be able to work through that and try to hash that out — or at least make an effort.

When everybody’s mad in the heat of the moment, I think it usually falls on deaf ears. But later on in the week or leading up to the next race, once everybody kind of calms down, it usually works itself out.

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

I feel like through the years, having people walk up to me and say, “Hey, we really think that you’re a class act.” Lately a lot of people have walked up and said, “Hey, the way you handled post-Daytona 500 media, you’re truly a class act and that was awesome of you and we really think the world of you because of that,” or whatever. That makes me feel good. The racing side is one thing, but character is a whole other thing and I think character is really important.

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 am totally drawing a blank on that. I don’t know.

Are you not much of a celebrity guy?

I’m not much of a celebrity guy. I prefer kind of my own little world and my own little group of friends. I don’t know. I got nothing for you on that one, Gluck.

That’s fine. That’s an answer in itself because it reveals something about you.

I’m not one who really cares or gets that excited or anything about famous people. I like real people. I like the people that are just normal, everyday people — not that celebrities can’t be real people.

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?

Can I put bacon on everything?

I don’t think that counts as vegan.

Can I eat a completely vegan salad and then just top it with lots of Smithfield bacon? Would that be OK?

Let’s reverse this in light of your sponsor. What if they said you could get the No. 1 pit stall you went all-bacon for a month?

Bacon only?

Yeah.

Like breakfast, lunch, and dinner? Well, I already do that, so I think sure, why not?

So all-bacon diet for the No. 1 pit stall?

Yes.

That’s a deal.

When are we gonna do that? What race?

Which pit stall do you want the race for? Dover’s a pretty good one to have, right?

Yeah. Well this one (Sonoma). Let’s go with this one. This is like moments before qualifying, right? So can you just go talk to NASCAR and tell them?

Yeah, they’re over there. I can see what I can do.

See if you can do that. Then I’d be done for the day. Then I won’t have to qualify.

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 2013 New Hampshire spring race.

2013 New Hampshire spring race. Did I finish like fourth or fifth?

You finished fifth!

I remember that race. We had a good car, we ran top 12-ish most of the day and late in the race we took two tires and I restarted on the front row with my now-boss Tony Stewart and I lost a couple of spots to a few cars that had four tires and we finished fifth.

Wow. That’s a really good memory. Brian Vickers won that race, you finished right behind Brad Keselowski and ahead of Jimmie Johnson.

Yeah, there you go.

7. Who is the best rapper alive?

(Laughs) I’m not much into rap, so I couldn’t even guess and throw a name out there. But a guy that I listen to who plays country music, or like kind of somewhat of a new age style of country music, is a guy named Corey Smith. And he occasionally breaks off of a chorus and goes into somewhat of what you would call rap, I think. So I’m gonna go with Corey Smith.

8. Who has the most punchable face in NASCAR?

Does it have to be a driver?

No, it could be anyone. It could be me. But give me some warning.

Actually, it would be a toss-up between you and (Bob) Pockrass. I think you would probably get the nod because Bob wears glasses. What movie is that where the guy says, “You would never hit a guy with glasses, would you?” And then he hits him.

I don’t have that luxury. I have sunglasses. I feel like I want to take two steps back now.

No, it’s good.

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. Hmm.

(Note: My recorder died right at this moment. Fortunately, Almirola was willing to resume the interview on the following day. However, he said this secured my position as having the most punchable face.)

I currently have a woman motorhome driver who is amazing. She is an incredible bus driver. She takes care of me like a mom. She cooks awesome. She loves our kids and she’s just great. So I’m going to stick with the woman theme, so Taylor Swift is going to be my bus driver.

I’m going to go with LeBron James as crew chief. He seems pretty methodical and he’s pretty intense, so that’s a guy you would want to lead your team. He does seem like a good leader from time to time. I think his intensity would rub off and motivate the whole team.

And then spotter is Tom Hanks. I think he role plays all the time — that’s what he does for a living. I’m sure if he could just listen to somebody else spot for a few minutes and he could pick right up on it.

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

Experience. There’s a lot of experience that comes into play with that. Occasionally the racetracks will move where they position the port-o-potties. But usually they’re in the same location at the same track. So after several years of doing this, you get out of the truck you ride around in for pre-race and there’s usually a line of drivers waiting at the same port-o-potties.

11. NASCAR decides they miss the highlight reel value brought by Carl Edwards’ backflips and want a replacement. How much money would they have to offer for you to backflip off your car following your next win?

No amount of money. There would be no monetary figure that would actually help me complete the backflip. If I had a chance, I would throw a big number out there. But I know I have zero chance of completing the backflip. I feel like I would get halfway around and land on my head.

But I’d be willing to give a somersault a whirl.

Maybe they’d give you $1 for that.

That’s where you put your head on the ground and roll ass over teakettle. My 5-year-old son and my 4-year-old daughter can both do it; surely I can do it.

12. Each week, I ask a driver to give me a question for the next interview. Last week was Chase Elliott, and he wanted to know: What’s the biggest thing SHR does that has helped you this year or your favorite part about being there now?

The thing SHR does that helps me the most is they have the ability to pay attention to every single detail. And that’s something that is new for me. But they have the resources, the manpower and the ability to not only make race cars go fast, but deliver a lot of information to me — tons of data, tons of engineers and people willing to go and get data I’m looking for or sit down and talk with me.

The personal aspect is something I think has helped me the most. Being around a group of almost 400 employees who are hardcore racers and all are pulling the rope in the same direction. To have that many people and all of them willing to work together for a common goal, I just seem to fit in. Everybody has welcomed me with open arms, and they’re all willing to help in any way possible.

Not that I haven’t had that in the past — the attention to every detail — but (now) including me as a detail. At other race teams I’ve been at, the driver carries his own weight. You prepare in your own way and you show up and do your job. But at SHR, you’re part of the team and the detail. They put just as much time and energy into me as they do the race cars.

This might increase my face punchability, but I don’t know who the next interview is going to be with. Do you have a question I can ask another driver in general?

Ughhhhh. Are you really that unscheduled? Do you wing it this often?

Pretty much, yes.

How about you come back to me when you know who the next interview is with?

Will you make sure to give a question?

Yes. I could have left you (earlier)! It could have been Eight Questions with Jeff Gluck instead of 12 Questions with Jeff Gluck.


Previous 12 Questions interviews with Aric Almirola:

Oct. 3, 2012

Aug. 20, 2013

July 21, 2015

Aug. 16, 2016

Sept. 6, 2017

The Top Five: Breaking down the Michigan race

Five thoughts following Sunday’s rain-shortened race at Michigan…

1. Ford Sure

From Friday onward, there seemed to be no doubt this would be a Ford-dominated weekend. And…yep! It definitely was. Fords accounted for seven of the top eight finishers — including a Stewart-Haas Racing podium sweep (the first by a single team since 2008, according to ESPN).

We hear all the time about how much this track matters to manufacturers, which is pretty much a cliche at this point. It’s like, “Yeah, OK, we get it. Michigan is important to the OEMs.”

But it really is SO important to those who work in the auto industry, which makes an ass-kicking of this magnitude quite special to Ford.

“Man, it’s just an unbelievable start to the season with the wins and success we’re having,” said Mark Rushbrook, global director of Ford Performance Motorsports. “(We) come here to our home track with our employees here watching with their friends and family — to have this performance and strength across all of our teams, to win the race, it’s just tremendous for all the company.”

Ford has been having a great season (eight wins in 15 races plus the All-Star Race), but Michigan was the most dominant of Ford days.

So why this track? Perhaps the most crucial factor at the sweeping 2-mile oval was the engines.

“It’s a real honor to drive the Roush‑Yates engines when you get to a place like this because you can be a lot easier on your car,” Harvick said. “Doug Yates and those guys, they like to make big horsepower on the big end of the motor and put a lot of effort into this particular race weekend.”

Kurt Busch said Michigan is about bragging rights, and he can see the importance when all the bigwigs from various departments show up. And aside from just the engine, it’s hitting on every facet that truly elevates an organization.

“It’s a team effort to not have any weaknesses,” he said.

2. Boy oh Bowyer

Clint Bowyer’s career renaissance continued with his Michigan win, and there are likely more to come before the season is over.

A year like this one following a long slump makes for some fun stats, including:

— Bowyer went from October 2012 to March 2018 (nearly 5.5 years) between wins. Then it only took less than three months until his next win.

— Bowyer has almost as many wins this year (two) as he had top-10s in 2016 (three).

— Bowyer has now led 308 laps this season, which is more than double the previous four seasons combined (145).

No wonder the guy is so happy lately.

“We’re going to drink a little bit tonight, by the way,” he said. “That’s going to happen. I know you guys are questioning it. It’s going to happen tonight.”

3. No Hail Mary

Another wild-card type race, another lost chance for a driver outside the top 16 in points to steal a playoff bid. There was no Chris Buescher or Aric Almirola stealing a rain-shortened win this time, as a driver who already had a win just got another one.

Kasey Kahne crew chief Travis Mack had his driver stay out initially, but then called him to the pits before the final restart when the rain didn’t come in time.

Aside from that, it seemed surprising no one actually tried to pull some crazy strategy — especially in the win-and-in era. What do some of these teams have to lose?

I asked Bowyer crew chief Mike Bugarewicz about that, but he seemed to think the strategy wouldn’t have worked.

“In one sense, if you do that, yeah, maybe you win the race,” he said. “But I think if you’re that far off — if you’re a 24th-place car — I don’t know you’re going to compete with the top five cars (on a restart), to be honest. Maybe you can hold them off for a lap.

“Look at Harvick on the inside of us. We felt like we were a very competitive car. Him on four tires, it was a battle from that point coming to the start/finish line on the first lap. I think a guy staying out with no tires, already kind of struggling in the race, would have been a real challenge to try to pull that off.”

Maybe so. But based on the success of Kahne and Paul Menard using track position and clean air to run up front earlier in the race, you would have thought somebody would go for it with the rain about to arrive at any second.

 

4. NASCAR got it right in the rain

A rainy weekend like this one makes for intense scrutiny on NASCAR calls, but officials pretty much nailed it.

OK, there was that mixup at the end of the race where the pace car came down pit road when it wasn’t supposed to. But that didn’t affect anything about the race, since officials were just trying to end it at that point.

Other than that, all the calls were correct — even in tough circumstances.

Let’s start with Xfinity. Officials got past the end of Stage 2 despite a soggy day, then restarted the race after a caution as rain started to fall — a ballsy move, to be honest. It could have ended badly if the field had wrecked in the wet, but instead the fans at least got a battle for the win before the race-ending weather caution.

Then came Sunday. Everyone woke up a bit surprised with a drastically changed overnight forecast (which is why NASCAR hadn’t moved the race up with the 24-hour policy). A Monday race was starting to look like a foregone conclusion.

But officials waited out the rain, dried the track as fast as possible and then got the race started. There was an initial hiccup at the end of Stage 1 — NASCAR said pit road would be open before quickly realizing there weren’t enough laps in the stage to do so, then restarted the race with one lap to go in the stage.

NASCAR’s Richard Buck later said that was in line with policy. First of all, pit road is closed with two laps to go in a stage; second, teams had asked NASCAR to avoid situations under caution that would result in a strategy shakeup. That’s the fairest thing for everyone, which actually makes sense.

And finally, NASCAR called the race at the right time. With rain arriving again, there’s no chance the track could have been dried before darkness fell (Michigan doesn’t have lights).

Sometimes it seems that NASCAR makes questionable decisions, but I agree with all the ones they made this weekend — particularly under pressure.

5. Up Next

With no underdog taking advantage of a rain-shortened race at Michigan, there are seemingly three wild card races remaining of the 11 regular season events on the calendar: Sonoma, Daytona and Watkins Glen.

After an off-week next weekend, it’s time for Sonoma. It’s tempting to think an AJ Allmendinger type could win there, but recent Sonoma winners who are still active have been names like Harvick, Kyle Busch and Truex. So actually, it may be one of the familiar faces in victory lane instead.

That would be another blow to the playoff hopes of drivers mired deep in the standings — Jamie McMurray (19th), Daniel Suarez (21st) and Ryan Newman (22nd) among them — who could really use a road course win to propel them into the final 10 races this fall.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Dover race

Five thoughts after Sunday’s race at Dover International Speedway…

1. You see where this is going, right?

There have been plenty of NASCAR seasons when one driver stomps everyone and shows up as the team to beat every week. For example: Martin Truex Jr. last year.

But this year seems a bit different: There are two drivers on two different teams who seem evenly matched — and are collectively destroying the competition.

Of course, we’re talking about Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch, who have combined to win seven of the 11 races so far. After nearly one third of the season, the duo is on pace to win 23 races! Crazy.

It’s just been a tag-team butt-kicking, and they’re not always on at the same time.

But together, the drivers have accounted for more than half of the playoff points awarded so far — and that’s after Harvick lost some with his encumbered win earlier in the season.

This is a battle that is shaping up to continue all summer. And you know what? While it might not be ideal for fans who don’t like either driver, it’s a hell of a lot better than just one guy dominating week after week.

2. Stewart-Haas is the best team

Sorry, Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row. You’ve been dethroned.

Though the Fords in general have been strong, it’s clear Stewart-Haas Racing in particular is the team to beat so far. SHR has the fastest, most consistent cars among all four of its entries — with three top-five finishes at Dover to emphasize that point.

Harvick has been great, but it’s not just him. Clint Bowyer (second on Sunday) has won a race and shown potential for more. Kurt Busch has become a regular face in the top 10 again and Aric Almirola is making people say, “Damn! Aric Almirola can drive!”

One key to the team’s success, aside from moves like Tony Gibson coming off the road to help guide collaboration in the shop, is the drivers apparently require similar things from the car. Bowyer said the various setups “are all relatively the same, and it shows on the racetrack.”

That’s a pretty important factor, because it means only one driver or crew chief needs to find something for all of them to benefit each week.

“When you can get four cars that are running as well as these four did today, it’s an awesome feeling,” Tony Stewart said.

3. Suarez on the rise

Doesn’t it seem like Daniel Suarez often gets left out of the top young drivers conversation?

Sometimes it feels like it’s all about Chase and Blaney and Bubba (and maybe Larson, if you consider him young enough to be in that group).

But after a horrible start to the season which saw him sitting 26th in the point standings after seven races, Suarez has put together an impressive four-week stretch: 11th, 10th, 10th and now third at Dover.

Suarez’s best career oval finish boosted him to 17th in the standings — suddenly just seven points out of a playoff spot.

“Once you get to this level, it’s always tough for (drivers),” Joe Gibbs said after the race. “We brought him up a year early. I think he’s just now getting confidence as he goes.”

Suarez said it was a combination of both driver and team getting better at the same time. And he’s learning every week, he said.

“If I have confidence and the team doesn’t, it doesn’t work,” he said. “Momentum in this sport is huge. In the last five or six weeks, we’ve had good speed and consistency — and that’s something I’m very proud of for my team and myself.”

It feels like Suarez is starting to emerge as a driver who can consistently run in the top 10 — and on a good day like Sunday, perhaps battle for wins.

4. What about the 48?

Dover is Jimmie Johnson’s best track, so it was a good weekend to watch how his team performed and see if the 48 is any closer to a turnaround.

The verdict? Eh, maybe.

Johnson got to third place for awhile on Sunday before a pit call cost him track position he never fully regained. He finished ninth, which isn’t great by his standards — but it was the best result by a Chevrolet driver.

And maybe that’s the fairest way to judge Johnson right now. He might be the greatest driver in history, but even the best can’t just take a 10th-place car and manhandle it to a win.

If Johnson gets outrun by Chase Elliott or even Kyle Larson every week, then it definitely makes people wonder if he and Chad Knaus have lost their magic. But Johnson is actually the top Hendrick driver in the standings now (12th) and the second-best Chevrolet to Larson. He has four straight top-12 finishes.

That’s not to say his team is in championship form at the moment. But he might not be as far off as it has seemed at times.

5. Stage 1’s odd ending

NASCAR made an unusual call on Sunday at the end of Stage 1 that is worth further examination.

Typically, NASCAR lets TV go to a commercial at the conclusion of a stage and then opens pit road as the commercials end. That has been part of the rhythm of stage racing since it began last year.

But at Dover, with many cars close to running out of fuel thanks to a strategy play, NASCAR opened pit road as soon as it could. That allowed drivers to make it safely to pit road with a little gas left in their tanks.

That was helpful to those teams, to be sure. But should NASCAR factor team strategy into their decisions? There’s no rule that says NASCAR can’t open pit road in that situation; it just hasn’t happened in other races.

NASCAR said it changed course primarily out of concern for the potential shitshow (my words, not theirs) it could cause if a dozen cars suddenly ran out of fuel at the end of the stage. NASCAR wouldn’t have had enough wreckers to get the potentially stalled cars to pit road, and then might have been in an even worse situation if pit road was blocked for a time. Because then other cars then would have run out of gas and created one of those only-in-NASCAR circus moments.

The desire to avoid that makes sense on many levels. On the other hand, if cars were going to run out of fuel, that’s not NASCAR’s fault. That’s part of the race; some drivers and teams would have played it better than others, and those who didn’t would suffer. Fans would understand that.

So if possible, NASCAR should avoid straying from its typical procedure — it looks bad, because some teams will always benefit more than others when that happens.