The Top Five: Breaking down the Daytona 500

Five thoughts after Sunday’s season-opening Daytona 500…

1. Daytona’s lesson

Up until the green flag Sunday, the relentless hand-wringing over how the racing would look in the Daytona 500 was the theme of Speedweeks.

There were serious worries over seeing a single-file line cling to the top for hours in front of the biggest TV audience NASCAR gets all year. Ack! Any potential momentum heading into the season would be squandered. A disaster in the making!

The fears persisted until the start of the race. Even moments before engines were fired, a spotter for one of the top drivers confidently predicted the drivers would spend the first stage looking like the Xfinity drivers did in their awful borefest of a “race.”

I believed it, because it made logical sense. That’s how the Clash looked, how the Duels looked. There was no reason to think otherwise. Even the drivers thought it would be like that. Why would they push it and run double-file?

But…they did.

“I was expecting us all to be up against the wall, and quickly found out pretty early in the race that this was going to go a lot different than what we thought it was going to,” Joey Logano said.

Isn’t that incredible? Even the drivers, despite their group texts and manufacturer teamwork, are just as clueless as the rest of us when it comes to forecasting the rhythm of a race. The crew chiefs don’t know. The engineers don’t know. The media doesn’t know.

And yet we all work ourselves into a huge frenzy (see Twitter from Saturday night) after each little development leading up to the race.

The lesson from all this, once again: NASCAR is completely unpredictable. Just when you think you have a feel for what’s going to happen, you never do.

Let’s remember that for next week at Atlanta (new rules package), Las Vegas (extreme new rules package) and beyond. This is going to be a season of uncertainty, and it cannot be predicted with any degree of confidence.

In the absence of answers, maybe it’s OK to just let things happen, let the races breathe and maybe — MAYBE — even let ourselves enjoy the show along the way.

2. Toyota time

Speaking of nobody knowing anything, how about Toyota going 1-2-3 in the Daytona 500 and leading the most laps when most predictions had Fords dominating the race?

Toyota Racing Development head David Wilson was making rounds through the media center on Sunday morning, so I jokingly asked if he wanted to help with my NASCAR Fantasy Live team.

He inquired who was on my team, so I opened the page — forgetting I’d picked Ford, Ford, Ford, Ford, Ford and Ford. I cringed at his potential reaction, but he seemed understanding.

After all, Ford had the strength in numbers. Ford had dominated the Duels. Ford executed a near-perfect Talladega race last fall. Wilson conceded all those things.

But he gave a sly grin. Toyota had a plan, Wilson said. Hmm…

As it turned out, that creative plan apparently included teaming with Hendrick Motorsports cars to get the numbers that would take on the Fords. And together, the Toyota+Hendrick line actually seemed to work better than the pre-race favorites.

But the plan went out the window — for everyone — after multiple crashes narrowed the field. In the end, there were two Toyotas, two Fords and a Chevrolet lined up for the final restart.

Even then, the Toyotas — Hamlin and Busch — cooperated on the start of overtime while the Fords — Joey Logano and McDowell — didn’t stick together and ended up having words over it on pit road.

After the race, I bumped into Wilson on his way out of the media center. He broke into a wide smile.

“Sorry about your fantasy team,” he said, not actually sorry at all.

3. NASCAR’s Leader

One of the biggest moments of Sunday happened two hours before the race.

Jim France, the new CEO of NASCAR, got up in front of all the drivers and said a few words reminiscent of his late brother, Bill France Jr.

“I hope a few of you drivers will get down on the bottom with Denny and Chase and make a show today,” France said.

Ultimately, that’s exactly what happened. Now, was that because of France’s comment? Maybe not directly, but there was certainly a shift in tone and attitude among the drivers once the race began.

France clearly has the respect of the garage — I’ve heard nothing but universal praise for his consistent presence at the track — and the drivers are willing to trust his vision.

More than anytime in the last two decades, NASCAR seems intent in putting on a show. They use the buzzwords like “entertainment” — and for the most part, the drivers seem to be on board with the push in that direction. Or at least they’ve accepted it, even if they don’t agree.

Either way, France has their ear. His not-so-subtle message likely stuck in their memories as they prepared to take the green flag on Sunday.

That’s leadership, and it couldn’t come at a better time for a sport that has lacked in it from the CEO position for so long.

4. Hamlin HOFer

Last week, I made an innocent Twitter joke that turned into a reminder of how under appreciated Denny Hamlin’s career has been. In suggesting Hamlin was a Hall of Famer — something I thought was a given — I was surprised at the resistance to the idea.

I get that people aren’t necessarily fond of Hamlin (especially Elliott fans) and the Internet loves to poke fun at his “10,000 races.”

But damn. The guy is unquestionably a Hall of Famer. If you didn’t agree before, there’s no disputing it now.

Hamlin is now a two-time Daytona 500 winner and has 32 Cup wins overall — which ties him with Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett for 24th on the all-time list. He hasn’t won a championship, but he’s had 10 seasons of top-10 points finishes — a pretty solid run of consistency in the playoff era.

While Hamlin shied away from comparisons with Jarrett (“He’s so much better than I am. … I shouldn’t even be mentioned in the same breath as Dale Jarrett.”), the guy is only now entering his prime seasons age-wise. According to Motorsports Analytics’ David Smith, a driver’s peak age is 39; Hamlin just turned 38 in November.

And while this chapter of restrictor-plate racing may be over (Talladega will start the tapered spacer era at superspeedways), Hamlin should be noted as one of the best — along with Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and Dale Earnhardt Jr. — of his era on such tracks.

5. The Brain Problem

As mentioned, restrictor plates won’t appear on NASCAR Cup cars anymore. But they sure had one last hurrah in the final laps as a wreckfest broke out and somewhat sullied what had previously been a very good plate race.

With 50 laps to go in the race, only one car was out of the race. But in the end, only 19 finished — less than half the field — and just a handful of cars escaped with no damage.

So what gives? How do drivers who used patience and talent for 400 miles suddenly lose their heads at the end?

“Brains come unglued,” Kyle Busch said. “That’s all it is. Everybody just ‑‑ the brain connection from right up here to the gas pedal foot doesn’t quite work the same anymore.”

Humans are imperfect, and drivers under pressure strapped inside hot race cars for four hours are even more imperfect.

In a way, that’s lucky for us. It gives us something to watch, something to react to, something to talk about.

And in that sense, the chance of highly skilled people making mistakes or bad decisions is the formula that makes these crazy races worth watching.

How I Got Here with Jeff O’Keefe

Jeff O’Keefe, far left, stands with his Golin co-workers who handle PR for Toyota Racing after Martin Truex Jr. won the championship last season. (Courtesy Jeff O’Keefe)

Each week, I ask a member of the racing community to describe their career path and shed some light on how they reached their current position. Up next: Jeff O’Keefe, who does digital and social media for Toyota Racing through the Golin agency.

What do you do right now in racing?

So right now I work with Lisa Kennedy and her team at Golin, but we work with Toyota Racing in their motorsports department handling content creation, working with Toyota — Kristine Curley, who you had on earlier this year — and the social strategy, social content creation and publishing for all things Toyota Racing.

I assume that wasn’t something that was on your radar to start out. So how did this all start for you? Did you grow up wanting to be in sports or anything like that?

So we’re going to go a little way back. I grew up in New Jersey — Exit 18, because that’s how you define where you’re from in New Jersey — off route 78 in a little town called High Bridge, New Jersey. Nobody knows where that is. However, about 15 minutes away was a place that many NASCAR people know: Flemington Speedway.

Flemington was kind of iconic on the local tracks scene, but then hosted a lot of Craftsman Truck Series races, and it was known being a place where you never went straight on the track. Growing up, me and my dad, he started bringing me to the races when I was a kid and we just started going there: Sprint cars, it was dirt, and then they transformed to pavement, saw some truck races there, and that’s how we bonded, just spending time with dad.

From there, growing up, we would go to Nazareth Speedway, which is about an hour away from where I grew up. Back then, they Busch races and Truck races. I remember it used to rain at Nazareth and they didn’t have track dryers, so they would take pickups with tires chained to the bumper and just drag them around the track. We waited about six hours to watch the first Truck race there. And literally so we went up there until about early 2000s from mid to late ’90s. That’s how me and my dad bonded, just by going to races and everything.

And then we went to Bristol in 1999. Walking into Bristol in the late ’90s, it was something like you’d never seen before in your life. You’re just like fully taken aback, and just the amount of people. And as I grew older, went to college and everything, I started to learn more (about what was surrounding the track). I was always interested in PR, and growing up in New Jersey has some really great opportunities because New York City was near there. So in college, studying communication and PR and everything, and as we continued to go to these races every year, you started to notice things more. Whether it’s the fan experience, the activation, even the drivers signing autographs and merchandise, people lined up. My brain started ticking: “How do they get people there? Why do they have all these activations set up? Why are people drawn to look at production vehicles at a racetrack?” And then as we sat in the stands, I had total FOMO — and granted it probably wasn’t a word back in 2003 — but that sat in, like “Man, I want to be in there. I want be inside and like I want to be going in there. They seem cool. They seem like really in the know.”

And by that point, I was about a junior, senior in college and I was like, “Alright, I want to do this. This is really cool. But I still live and go to college in New Jersey.” They would ask me (at college), “What do you want to do?” And I was like, “I want to do PR in NASCAR.” “What? Excuse me?” And the school, the communication program at Montclair was amazing. Senior year, like they challenge you to basically prepare you for life after college, how to get a job, the interview process, forced you to go get informational interviews. I was like, “On yeah. This is going to be great.” Graduated, and then you think you’re on top of the world — and then couldn’t find a job for a year, and you’re just like, “Oh, this is life.”

And you’re trying to, at the time, purely break into NASCAR? Like you’re looking for racing jobs at that point?

Yeah. At that point, started with racing jobs, but when I knew I wasn’t going to do a full-time job right away, I was like, “I have to stay active in some sort of industry.” So being fortunate enough to live so close to New York, I got a few internships in New York City. I ultimately ended up in 2007 interning for the agency Sunshine Sachs, and I basically told them in my interview, I was like, “Listen. I’m not leaving until you’ve hired me.” It’s a great thing to say in an interview, I’m sure, now looking back on it. (Laughs) But ultimately, they ended up hiring me in about May of 2007. And I was (working at the) front desk. So first job out of college, straight front desk. I referred to myself as the “Director of First Impressions” because it was a much better title than what “receptionist” would be.

So you’re working in New York City as a receptionist, not NASCAR as a PR person.

Nope, not at all. But it was in the industry, learning PR and was what life was like. And you know you’re young, you’re dumb and you’re just being blindsided by just what the world was like.

And ultimately progressed and continued to move up, became the assistant to both the President and the CEO, which at that time, we were about 17 people in this agency. But this agency, the head of the agency, Ken Sunshine and Sean Sachs, they come from completely different backgrounds but in a way the same. Ken was a former chief of staff for David Dinkins, mayor of New York back in the ’90s. He also worked in the music industry, and then Sean has a really big political background. So their backgrounds really meshed well, but expanded their client base. They had clients ranging from very famous celebrities down to nitty gritty on-the-ground stuff in New York, very close to people like Al Sharpton.

Nothing like going into Harlem into Al Sharpton’s office when you’re 24 years old and you’re just like, “This is such an experience, but it’s really cool.” And so just being their assistant, you’re just a typical assistant doing everything –travel, ordering lunch, making sure their lives are on point. Sitting in meetings, you have no earthly idea of like, “How am I in here right now?”

So like big time people?

Yeah. Big time people, big time stuff. As we moved along, one of the things we worked on, a lot of stuff that came in in a way, very last minute — for instance Michael Jackson’s funeral. That happened in the middle of the summer, and I remember being at home, my boss, Ken, he’s like, “Hey, this is probably coming down and we’re going to probably handle this.” It was like, “Alright.”

What does that mean, “handle it?” Like do the publicity part, organize it?

Everything. So it was working with the family on just everything that was surrounding that. He was pretty much in line with the family, but it was OK, everything that was going to happen at the Staples Center, what the media presence was going to be like, how we were going distribute everything to the media. As they set up press conferences, he’s on CNN, I’m literally sitting in the office ready to hit send on a mail merge because we didn’t have fancy Constant Contact, all these web services now. Mail merge from an Excel document of people wanting to cover this. Now, mail merge breaks in the middle of this so you now have to turn into BCC. I’m the only one in the office doing this, and it’s just a time where it’s very high intensity, but just it had to get done.

I missed my flight that night to go to LA, I ended up sleeping on the couch in my boss’s office, booked the next flight out and it was just three days of like, “OK, we’re on the ground.” We didn’t have time to make fancy credentials, so they were like gold, club wristbands — that’s literally what the all-access piece was like. Could have been counterfeited easily. But just the sheer chaos — organized chaos, that’s what it was — was insane, and it just worked. And I was the guy who just, the guy was on the ground just doing stuff. So like that just is kind of in a way just the randomness in the variety of stuff that we worked on.

From there, I started working with, as I progressed and moved on to kind of being like a junior publicist or something, started working with people like Bette Midler, Barbra Streisand, Anna Deavere Smith and then Calvary Hospital.

That’s a wide range.

Exactly. And that’s what they were known for and what primed us for being able to handle the variety. Now, with that, you’re young, you’ve graduated college, you don’t know what life is about. And Sean, who was the CMO, he was younger, he was really cool, but he was like your older brother who just tried to teach you life lessons — but in that older brother kind of way.

He literally tried to teach us the importance of networking, and he got to the point where he said, “I will pay for your dinner and drinks and stuff if you go meet media.” And we were like, “What? No, we don’t want to go out. We just want to go home, we’re doing our job. Why do we want to work?” Because, again, we’re 24 years old, why do we need to do this? And it got to the point where he threw a whiteboard on the wall and he wrote all the assistants’ names on it. He said, “Whoever has the most business cards at the end of the month wins dinner on me,” or something like that. Like, “Oh, OK.” So it turned into a competition.

And just these little things he started teaching us about how to handle stuff. Like (he’d say) “Hey, I need dinner reservations with this type of client.” “OK, where do you want to go?” He’d be like, “Alright, go to” And you’re just like, “I hate you, why are you doing this?” You’re just like so frustrated when is this happening, you’re just not understanding it. But he was just teaching you a lesson that you didn’t know what was happening.

I remember with work stuff he would say, “If I have to ask, you’ve already failed.” “What?” You’d get so mad. Now, 10 years later, it’s like, “Oh my God, he came to me from the future. This is crazy.”

So with that, still going to races, still very much loving NASCAR and wanting to get into the sport. I never really had a favorite driver, I was just more of a fan of the sport and everything that was happening. And I wanted to get into it more. Through a co-worker of mine, she worked with a gentleman named Don Rohr at one point at a record company. Now Don was Brian Vickers’ business manager. It was like, “Oh, I’ll introduce you.” He was in New York one time and she introduced us and he literally became one of my closest friends really quick — whether just because I explained what I wanted to do and what I’ve done or just because he’s a great guy. But literally he would try to help me and just communicate and talk with me. I am sure that I annoyed the hell out of him for like three years, and we would IM each other, he would kind of give me ideas on job leads and stuff, and ultimately I interviewed with Braun Racing to do PR for the 11 Nationwide car at the time. Didn’t end up getting that job, but fast forward a year, Don told me (about a job) again and I interviewed again.

I went and flew down to North Carolina, told work I was sick, I met with, now that was gonna be Turner in 2011, interviewed there, and just hit off. Like it worked really well, ended up getting the job, and I literally gave my notice to Sunshine in my annual review. You couldn’t have kind of scripted it any weirder. I sat down with Sean, my boss, and he’s like, “So, give me the State of Jeff.” And I was like, “Oh, that’s how it’s gonna go. Great.” I’m like, “Well, I’m leaving.” His reaction was shocked and surprised, but after explaining to him what I was doing, where I was going, he said he understood and everything. I literally put my two weeks in, the next weekend I looked for an apartment, the following weekend I moved to North Carolina.

Jeff O’Keefe with Mark Martin in 2011. (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images for NASCAR)

So there was no hesitation, even though you had a good thing going with your work with Bette Midler and Barbra Streisand and stuff. This is what you wanted, you wanted to chase that NASCAR dream all the way.

Yeah, I couldn’t turn back at point. I put my eggs in a basket and I was like, “Man, I’ve gotta do this.” Working with Bette, Barbra and everything was really cool.

What was that like?

It was unreal. You’re doing a lot of different stuff at the time. Bette, she had a few CD releases, she had the HBO special for her Vegas show happening, so we did media tours around the city for that and everything. And it’s just, with that stuff, you needed to be five steps forward — even from making sure the car is where it needs to be and the exit that you’re gonna leave out of, because if you go down the wrong exit and there’s say a mosh pit of fans, you’re screwed.

Just being able to making sure she’s ready, making sure she’s ready for interviews, trying to control the questions in a way, but you know, let them ask what they want to ask. You knew what the interview situation was going to be going in, and making sure she was ready, like talking to her about her Vegas show. I wasn’t working on the account when she had her Vegas show, but she would ask me, “OK, let’s talk about Vegas, remind me.” I’m like, “I wasn’t there, but…” and I just started reminding her stories and stuff.

She is a legend for a reason. She knows what she wants, she’s a perfectionist, and she doesn’t accept anything less, which is amazing. Same thing with Barbra. And working with the two of them, and even with any of the other clients, like you just learn, you just really quickly pick up on how to handle certain situation and certain small things.

Yes there’s a glitz and glamor about all of that, but it’s down and gritty. I mean, I just found a photo of us doing the Late Show with Jimmy Fallon, and I’m in Asics sneakers, jeans, sweater, a peacoat and a scarf that doesn’t match, and longer hair, and I’m like, “What the hell was I wearing?” But again, I’m 26 years old, and it was at the end a long day of press touring up and down New York City, going to different places, and you can just tell, you’re just like, “Well, we’re done.” And it’s an amazing photo, but it’s just the grind of everything that was, so those are experiences you never forget.

Jeff O’Keefe (right of center) with Bette Midler on the set of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.

So how does working one-on-one with Bette Midler or Barbra Streisand compare to working with NASCAR drivers? Because now you’ve done Turner, you’ve done RCR stuff, now you’re with Toyota, so you’ve worked with a variety of drivers. Is there any comparison?

I mean, there is. It’s handling personalities, how to work with people, how to handle logistics, how to manage social. One of the things that we did with Bette when she wasn’t filming anything, she didn’t have a tour going on, is we got her on Twitter. And she was resistant on it at first, so I remember we’re coming home from an event in DC and on the train, and we’re sitting there and she’s like, “Jeff, teach me this Twitter.” It’s like, “What? Alright. Here you go. This is your timeline, you pop this open, you can write anything you want. And if you want to mention somebody, you do the @ symbol.” Literally basics. And she’s like, “What?” And you know, just getting her comfortable and acclimated to it.

And eventually, even after I moved on, when she got into a little bit of a back and forth with Kim Kardashian, I’m like a proud parent watching their kid go off to school. Like this is so great, I’m going to frame this.

But all of that in working with different types of personalities, whether it’s celebrities, whether it’s the people at Calvary Hospital in the palliative care unit, it just teaches you how to handle variety but also think different ways and be creative, whether you’re doing PR, whether you’re doing social and not box yourself in.

Did you ever get comfortable around Bette and Barbra? I feel like with NASCAR drivers, they’re a little more down to earth maybe than I would picture those women being, because they feel diva-ish. Is that fair?

You get comfortable to a point with everybody. You get comfortable to a point with whether it’s Bette Midler, Barbra Streisand, Anna Deavere Smith, again, Calvary Hospital, or whether it’s Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Daniel Suarez or Erik Jones. It doesn’t matter. You get comfortable with them up to a point, but you have to stay professional. You don’t want to become that friend zone with them. You still need to act professional because there’s going to be a time where you need to handle business with them, and you need them to have that trust with you, whether it’s handling PR or whether it’s handling social media, whether you need to tell them they did a great job on a social post or be like, “Eh, we need to talk about this.” There needs to still be that level of separation.

In general, what would you recommend to people who would love to be in your position?

That is probably one of the best questions because from Turner, at the end of 2011, I got laid off. They lost a couple sponsors, I think Dollar General, Ricky Carmichael and Monster moved out, so they just didn’t have room for people and they cut a few people out of their marketing and PR department.

I didn’t have a job. I moved down here, picked up my life and moved down here to work in NASCAR, I was like, “What do I do now?” And I saved up money, but to bring this full circle, I just remembered Sean always saying, “Networking. You have to go out and network.” And I just remembered the whiteboard with the business cards, I was like, “Alright.”

This is 2012. I interviewed with people and just circumstances, so whether you don’t get jobs, jobs don’t get filled and literally coming to Daytona, people were like, “Make sure you’re in Daytona because you don’t want to get left out. You don’t want to not be on the bus.” I’m like, “Oh my God, what?” So I did anything I could to get myself to Daytona. I ended up freelancing for an ARCA team doing PR.

Oh wow, I didn’t realize that.

Yeah. Then the next week, I was like, “Well I’ve got black pants, I’ve got a white shirt, I’ve got a hot pass through a friend. I’m going back down.” And just walked in like I owned the place. Just, “Alright, I need to be on pit road.” I had a truck hot pass, and I’m going out for the Duels.

I didn’t have a job for a year. But in that time, the amount of networking I did, the amount of doors I banged on, whether it’s PR reps, the amount of team PR reps with MWR, RCR, Hendrick, you name it, I was like, “Let’s grab coffee.” I grew an addiction to coffee through that year trying to meet people. And it all comes full circle no matter what. It may not happen right away.

One of the first people I met in this sport outside of Turner was at the Darlington truck race. (Then-coworker) Chip Wile, who was James Buescher’s PR rep who is now pretty big time, he’s kind of a big deal with Daytona (Wile is president of Daytona International Speedway). He brings me in the media center, introduces me to people, I’m dressed at that time in slacks and dress shoes, oversized button down shirt that we had to wear at Turner, and he introduces me to Lisa Kennedy from Toyota, I’m like, “Oh hi, nice to meet you.” You know, cool. Literally the first person I ever met outside of Turner.

I go through ’11, ’12, I ended up doing freelance work for Red Horse — a Toyota team — then ultimately doing freelance work for Ryan Truex. I was doing about eight or nine Gibbs races. Well that tied me right back into Lisa and her team at Toyota.

Then, you know, so in that year, I picked up freelance work, I made a lot of money, and then the government took it with the 1099. It was amazing. Did the RCR (social media) job, which is a whole other story with social because it was literally creating a social presence, literally taking baseline accounts and just being like, “OK, what is our voice? How are we handling all of this?” From (Kevin) Harvick in his final year through Austin (Dillon) going up to Cup to winning a Nationwide championship to the years with (Ryan) Newman to almost winning a championship, like how are we handling this on social? And going through and just through all that, learning the social world, to tie this back to social.

And three, four years in, you’re in a job for awhile and we’re in Chicago and Lisa comes to me. She goes, “Hey, let’s talk.” And all of a sudden, that led to my time now with Golin and Toyota Racing.

So the biggest thing, back to your question because that was a really short answer, is network. You never know who you’re going to run into and you never know who you’re going to talk to.

That’s a great lesson. Hopefully people will pay attention that because I think that’s probably the biggest thing, the whole key to this. Where can people follow you on Twitter if they want to shout at you?

@JeffOKeefe, it’s a very Irish name. And then obviously you have to follow @ToyotaRacing.

The Top Five: Breaking down the NASCAR championship race

Five thoughts after Sunday’s championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway…

1. Truex gets his due

Ladies and gentlemen, Martin Truex Jr. is a NASCAR Cup Series champion.

It’s too bad we can’t send messages from the future back to our past selves, because it would have been almost impossible to believe that a few years ago.

In 2014, Truex wrapped up his first season at Furniture Row Racing with a single lap led. He finished 24th in points. And he had two career wins to his name at the time.

Now he’s the dominant car of the past two seasons, with 12 wins and 4,062 laps led in that span. Plus he’s got a championship to go with it.

I’m as guilty of this as anyone, but due to his career history (two wins in his first nine seasons) it’s been easy to just say, “The cars are just that good” when talking about Truex’s success. Since he didn’t win much until Cole Pearn showed up as crew chief and Furniture Row improved, Truex probably hasn’t gotten enough credit as a driver.

That should change after Sunday night. Kyle Busch was chasing him down — with what appeared to be a better car — and stalking him in case there was even the slightest bobble in the 78 car.

“Then I could try to pounce,” Busch said. “But that never happened.”

Truex drove a flawless 20 laps and showed he’s worthy of being in the conversation about the sport’s best drivers.

Toyotas are elite, but as Brad Keselowski noted: “He’s still beating the other Toyotas, so he deserves credit for that.”

Good point, right? And that’s not lost on Truex.

Yes, he’s basically driving a Joe Gibbs Racing car — just tweaked by Furniture Row. But he’s beating all the JGR drivers with it.

“That’s the coolest part of it, is showing people that you’ve got it, that you can do it,” Truex said. “It’s the best feeling in the world to have the same thing as somebody else and beat ’em with it.”

And Truex was especially pumped about out-driving Busch, who he called “one of the best drivers ever.”

“To beat him,” Truex said, “was awesome.”

2. This Bud’s for Dale

When Dale Earnhardt Jr. told the media about his goals for the weekend — I just want to finish all the laps, he kept saying — it turns out he was only telling part of the story.

There was a reason behind the wish: He wanted to turn his No. 88 car into a mobile Whisky River, right there on pit road.

“That’s why I kept saying, ‘Man, I hope I finish all the laps,'” he said with a grin. “I know it sounds ridiculous, but that’s really why I was saying that. Everyone says, ‘Who are you going to miss the most?’ and it’s my family. (The 88 team) is my family. We are so close.

“I told them, ‘The one thing I want to do is finish the race, and we’re going to drink a beer together.’ That’s the only thing that kept coming to my mind about what I do when I get out of the car: I want to have a beer with my guys. I want to have a moment with them that sort of closes it up for us.”

So there they were, Earnhardt and the members of the 88 team, using the car as a bar and chugging Budweisers in the middle of a mob scene on pit road. If it was possible to have an intimate moment while surrounded by a couple hundred people, they had it.

Earnhardt and the crew posed for selfies, tossed beers at each other until the coolers were empty and raised toast after toast.

Ayyyyyyyyyyyyyy, they yelled in unison, holding their cans to the sky.

“Standing around the car and the heat coming off the car and drinking them cold beers — they were so cold, they had them in those Yeti (coolers), man. Those things are so awesome,” Earnhardt said. “That’s what I wanted. I said, ‘Whatever I do after the race, I don’t care about anything else — I just want to have a beer with my team.'”

It was one of the most unusual postrace scenes in NASCAR history. But it was the first step toward normalcy — something Earnhardt is craving after a weekend he called “weird.”

All the various things swirling around Earnhardt — his retirement from the Cup Series, the upcoming birth of his first child, his best friend winning the championship, his team’s Xfinity Series success, his new job with NBC Sports — it all played into it.

“I’ve got this job next year that I got to get ready for that I have no idea what the hell I’m doing. I know nothing about it. I’m freaking out,” he said. “There’s just so many things happening for me. I mean, what the hell!? It’s ridiculous what’s going on in my life. So I can’t put my emotions about finishing my Cup career in a capsule. I can’t single it out.”

So what’s next? A hangover, Earnhardt predicted. But then he hoped for an uneventful week ahead.

“It’s been an amazing weekend,” he said. “I’m ready to go feel normal, though. I’m ready to go just do nothing for awhile.”

He looked at the group of reporters. His team had left — the celebration was over for now — and Earnhardt lingered on pit road, willing to fill reporters’ notepads with golden quotes like he’d done so often over the years.

“But I’ll miss all y’all,” he said. “And I’ll be back because of that.”

With that, Earnhardt smiled, gave a thumbs up and disappeared into the crowd of waiting fans one more time.

3. Like a punch in the face

The primary reason for Kyle Busch not being able to catch Truex in the final laps, Busch said, was a tough battle with Joey Logano.

Busch had been on his way toward the front and easily passed Kevin Harvick, but then he reached Logano. That pass proved to be a lot tougher.

Logano took the top lane and pinched Busch down; Busch had to back out of it, reset for a couple laps and try again.

“Just wasting too much time with him,” Busch said afterward. “He held me up. He was there blocking every chance he got, so got a real buddy there. But that’s racing. That’s what happens.”

Logano’s move was subtle, and perhaps it was nothing more than racing hard for his own victory — but it does raise questions.

For example: Did Busch’s ongoing rivalry with Logano teammate Brad Keselowski play a part in the hard racing? Or perhaps did lingering ill will between the two — Busch did punch Logano in the face earlier this year, after all — have anything to do with it?

There aren’t any quotes from Logano on the post-race transcripts about that, but I’d love to know whether that played a role.

If so, it’s just another example of the entire season building toward the pinnacle that is Homestead.

4. Keselowski the politician

Leave it to Brad Keselowski to get one more shot in before the offseason begins.

Keselowski stumped hard for NASCAR to help Ford after claiming Toyota got too much help with its new nose this season.

If you missed it, here are his comments:

“When that car (the new Camry) rolled out at Daytona and I think we all got to see it for the first time, I think there were two reactions. One, we couldn’t believe NASCAR approved it, and, two, we were impressed by the design team over there.

“With that said, I don’t think anyone really ever had a shot this year the second that thing got put on the racetrack and approved. It kind of felt a little bit like Formula 1, where you have one car that kind of makes it through the gate heads and tails above everyone, and your hands are tied because you’re not allowed to do anything to the cars in those categories that NASCAR approves to really catch up.”

Keselowski concluded by saying he assumed Chevrolet “would be allowed to design a car the same way Toyota was” in terms of the new Camaro — and Ford doesn’t have any plans for a redesign.

“If that’s the case, we’re gonna take a drubbing next year,” Keselowski said.

Honestly, I don’t have any problem with what Keselowski said. He’s very calculating and certainly knows his words will get picked up and echo around the garage.

He also knows he’s going to get criticized for whining or being a loudmouth, but he’s willing to sacrifice that in order to get his point across.

If it helps, and the talk somehow generates rule changes in Ford’s favor, then it will all be worth it.

5. Thoughts on 2018

There’s going to be plenty of time to reflect on this season and what next year might bring, but here are a few thoughts on what lies ahead.

The biggest storylines heading into Daytona next year will be NASCAR’s new identity — Life After Dale, so to speak. The hype and marketing push for the young drivers will be even bigger than this year, and the pressure will increase on the likes of Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney to produce.

On the track, there will be much talk about whether the new Chevrolet nose with the incoming Camaro can somehow help the manufacturer gain on Toyota. If not — and with only minor changes to the 2018 rules package — there’s no reason to think Truex and the JGR drivers can’t dominate again next season.

Overall, the goal for 2018 should be to determine a floor for NASCAR’s long slide. Attendance and ratings will almost certainly be down every week — a natural side effect of the most popular driver leaving — so that’s just going to be a fact of life. But the sport should look at that and say, “OK, this is the low point; now we rebuild.” Use it as a launching point for a new era and get on track toward strengthening NASCAR’s health for the next generation.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Texas Motor Speedway playoff race

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

1. Didn’t see that coming

It’s not like Kevin Harvick was an upset winner at Texas, but his victory Sunday was definitely a surprise.

Did you expect him to win? I didn’t.

First of all, Harvick had never gone to victory lane at Texas. So there’s that.

But who would have legitimately picked Harvick to win at a 1.5-mile track when those races have been completely dominated by Martin Truex Jr. lately? It’s not like Harvick or his Stewart-Haas Racing teammates had a bunch of wins since moving to Ford, either; the only victories for SHR this season had been Harvick’s road course win at Sonoma and Kurt Busch’s restrictor-plate win in the Daytona 500.

So when Harvick tracked down Truex and passed him like it was nothing? Wow! That was both a show of power and an unexpected outcome — although crew chief Rodney Childers noted the team has been bringing more speed over the last month.

“I feel like we should have won more races this year,” Childers said. “It’s disappointing. I don’t like to lose. It’s been a hard year. So to finally get one back into victory lane, to feel like we have something we can race with the last four or five weeks, (that) has been impressive to me.”

Maybe everyone wasn’t paying enough attention as the No. 4 team crept back toward winning again. Guilty as charged here.

But either way, Harvick and Childers have served notice they’re back and are capable of winning another title.

After all, you never want to let the hard-nosed Harvick get a whiff of potential victory if you’re one of his competitors.

2. Truex vulnerable?

Almost immediately after the race, Martin Truex Jr. — unprompted — tried to get in front of the potential storyline that his team had somehow lost momentum by finally failing to win a 1.5-mile track race.

“People are going to say, ‘Well, I think the balance of power (has shifted)’ and ‘Did Harvick steal our confidence by beating us at the end?'” he said. “All that Voodoo stuff I’m sure will be brought up.

“The bottom line is our last run we weren’t as good as we needed to be. We got beat, but we still did what we needed to do. … To think we came up eight laps short…is pretty good.”

It’s true Truex has been dominant on 1.5-milers (he’d won four in a row and six overall this season), but his playoffs have been a bit odd compared to the regular season. Where Truex won 18 stages in 26 regular-season races, he’s won just one stage in the eight playoff races.

That’s a bit misleading considering he has three wins in the playoffs, but it still could be a sign the team isn’t unloading as fast off the truck as it was earlier in the year.

Yes, Truex will still be the favorite going into Homestead no matter what. But Harvick tracking him down and passing him late in a playoff race on a 1.5-miler shows the 78 team is certainly beatable in the right circumstances.

3. Last One In

In theory, there are five drivers fighting for one spot at Phoenix. Personally, I think it’s more like two.

Brad Keselowski currently holds the final playoff spot by 19 points over Denny Hamlin. I think the race will come down to those two.

Sure, Ryan Blaney is within range — he’s only 22 points behind Keselowski. But although the Wood Brothers Racing driver has two top-10s in three Phoenix starts, I don’t see him outrunning the other two drivers by enough points to make it.

Then there’s Jimmie Johnson and Chase Elliott, but it’s hard to imagine either of them winning outright — which will be a must next week.

So the battle is likely between Keselowski and Hamlin. And even though he’s behind, I’ll give the edge to Hamlin.

Here’s why: If you recall, Toyota drivers dominated the two New Hampshire races this summer — those drivers led 589 of 601 laps at NHMS this year — and that track is a 1-mile flat oval that is the most similar to Phoenix.

With stage points playing such a factor in the standings these days, I can envision Hamlin running in the top three and chipping away at Keselowski’s lead before the halfway point — then outrunning him in better equipment at the finish.

Nothing against Keselowski, but it just seems like the better bet is the team that has consistently shown more speed.

4. The Levy Was Dry

Barring a Johnson or Elliott victory at Phoenix, Chevrolet is headed toward being shut out from Homestead for the first time in the existence of the new format.

Chevy had two entries among the final four the first two years of the championship race, then had one entry last year. Toyota has had at least one driver every season — and will now have at least two for the second straight year — and Ford missed 2015 but had one in the other two seasons.

Even though we know Hendrick Motorsports has been down this season, it’s still jarring to think of no Chevrolets running for the title — especially since many people viewed Chip Ganassi Racing’s Kyle Larson as a lock to make it.

A lot of people are banking on the new Camaro changing Chevrolet’s fortunes next year, but I’m not sure it will be that simple.


5. Daydreaming

Hey, remember last week at Martinsville when the race was totally awesome and featured thrilling battles for the entire 3.5-hour event?

And remember how energized everyone seemed after so much excitement and drama that showcased the best of what this playoff format has to offer?

And remember how the race was so good that we talked about it for the like whole week?


Me too.

Aaron Bearden: Now more than ever, Toyota’s title to lose

By Aaron Bearden

If there was ever a doubt about which manufacturer is the favorite to claim the NASCAR Cup Series championship, that was settled on Sunday at Kansas Speedway.

It’s Toyota, and by a noticeable margin.

Toyota lost one of its contenders in Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 when Matt Kenseth was eliminated after a late crash and a damaged vehicle policy violation. However, what the team lost with Kenseth was easily made up for with the unexpected elimination of Kyle Larson and the advancement of 2015 Cup Series champion Kyle Busch.

Larson, 25, had previously been Toyota’s biggest threat. The fourth-year Chip Ganassi Racing driver tallied four victories during the regular season.

It was also common knowledge Larson is among the best drivers in the Cup Series at Homestead-Miami Speedway — the site of the season finale. After two subpar runs in 2013 and ’14, Larson rode the high line to a top-five at Homestead in 2015 and dominated in 2016 before losing the race on the final restart to Jimmie Johnson.

With his Homestead prowess and strong regular season, Larson entered this year’s playoffs among the championship favorites for Homestead. All he had to do was get there.

That all went up in smoke on Lap 73 at Kansas, when Larson’s No. 42 Chevrolet blew its motor.

The result was similar to Martin Truex Jr.’s 2016 playoff run, when a dominant first round gave way to an early elimination after Furniture Row Racing encountered bad luck in the second round.

“Things happen,” Larson said. “You look at the past playoffs and the 78 had an engine issue last year and he was the best car all year. And then us, this year. So it’s disappointing.”

While Larson watched hopelessly from afar, Busch used strong runs in the day’s opening two stages to tally 16 critical stage points.

Those stage points ended up being enough for Busch to overcome Larson for the final playoff spot, even after being forced to take the wavearound after being trapped on pit road by a caution during a green-flag pit stop.

In fact, Busch also beat Jimmie Johnson — who struggled home in 11th after two crashes.

“Fortunately, our situation today was that we had to race guys that ended up crashing out,” Busch said. “Hate it for them. I would have liked to race it heads up and that might have been a different situation, but all in all we’ll take what was given to us today and we’ll live to see another day and fight again next week going to Martinsville.”

Then there’s Truex.

Sunday threw the kitchen sink at Truex and the No. 78 team. After starting on the pole, Truex was issued an early pass-through penalty for driving below the white apron line as the leader on a Lap 36 restart.

Truex fought back from that, only to be brought back to pit road on Lap 91 and trapped a lap down.

For most teams in the field, two consecutive setbacks would be a dealbreaker. But Truex bounced back with ease and won the race, completing the first-ever season sweep at Kansas Speedway. He also tallied his fourth straight win on a 1.5-mile oval in the same race that saw him lead his 2000th lap of the season.

Their Kansas trips complete, Truex and Busch head into the third round seeded first and second in the standings with 69 and 42 playoff points, respectively. Truex holds a 52-point edge — nearly a full race — on fifth-place Johnson, and Busch also maintains a hefty 25-point advantage.

Denny Hamlin also advanced to the third round, though he’s currently three points outside of the playoff bubble in sixth.

All told, Toyota holds three of the eight remaining postseason spots, tying them with Ford and giving them one more contender than Chevrolet.

More important, though, Toyota carries the most consistent speed of all three manufacturers.

Of the remaining playoff contenders, Toyota has tallied 13 of the group’s 21 total victories. The Toyota trio also all rest in the top four positions in average finish. Truex leads the field at 10.3, followed by Hamlin (11.4), Kevin Harvick (12.0) and Busch (12.1).

To his credit, Truex remained cautious in assessing his championship odds leaving Kansas.

“There’s no guarantee we’ll even get to Homestead yet,” Truex said. “One race at a time. You look at me like I’m crazy, but Larson was plus-29 today. He was (third) in points. He didn’t make it.

“I’ve been saying it all year. They all say I’m a lock because I’ve got so many playoff points, but I’m telling you, it’s not that simple. We’ve gotta go out there and perform. We can’t have an engine failure. We can’t go out and crash five laps in at Martinsville. We’ve gotta focus on one race at a time, do the best job we can do and try to keep the momentum going.”


No, a title isn’t certain.

But with Larson — the only driver that’s proven capable of contending with Toyota on a consistent basis — out, and two of the manufacturer’s three drivers sitting in the best position of anyone to advance to the title race, it’s hard to pick any manufacturer but Toyota to claim the first championship under the Monster Energy banner.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Watkins Glen race

Five thoughts following Sunday’s race at Watkins Glen International…

1. Total Toyotas

Fans can be upset and drivers (coughBradKeselowskicough) can politic all they want, but Toyota is absolutely dominating the series right now.

After a slow start for Joe Gibbs Racing, the four-car team has joined Furniture Row Racing to put six of the fastest cars on the track every week. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s a big track or a road course — Toyotas are likely going to be running up front most of the day.

Just check out Sunday’s finishing order: Toyotas swept the top four spots (for the first time ever) and had all six of its main cars in the top 10. And Toyota drivers also combined to lead 59 of the 90 laps.

As Kyle Larson has faded (he’s now third in the point standings behind Truex and Kyle Busch), it’s increasingly looking like the Toyotas will roll into the playoffs just as strong as they were last year.

Of course, a Chevrolet ended up winning the 2016 title — so that doesn’t mean a Toyota championship is a sure thing.

But it’s certainly looking good at the moment, particularly with Truex holding 34 playoff points (plus staring at another 15 if he hangs on to be the regular season champion).

As a reminder, that means Truex would start each round of the playoffs with at least 49 points — close to a full race — and could still add more points in the regular season and the playoffs races themselves.

So is Truex a lock for Homestead?

“It doesn’t mean that it’s a free pass or we’re just going to skate through,” Truex said. “We’re still going to work hard and try to do the best we can. But I do think that as the playoffs start, the thought process probably shifts more toward, ‘How do we figure out how to run really well at Homestead? Have a shot at winning there?’ Because that’s what it’s going to come down to.”

2. Blink and you’ll miss it

Sunday’s race was the shortest full-distance Cup Series points race in NASCAR’s modern era (1972-present). It was actually three minutes shorter than Saturday’s Xfinity Series race, which is kind of amazing in itself.

The last time a full-distance Cup points race was less than the two-hour-and-seven-minute run-time of Watkins Glen? Hickory in August of 1971, according to NASCAR.

One big reason was there were only three cautions — and NASCAR let the race play out at the finish, with the final 36 laps all under green.

That’s becoming a trend lately, since NASCAR seemingly has stopped calling late debris cautions after an outbreak of criticism following the Michigan race in June.

A recap:

— At Sonoma, the final 55 laps were green.

— Daytona was an overtime finish, but that was set up by an accident.

— Kentucky was an overtime finish, but that was set up by Kurt Busch blowing up after a 100-lap run.

— At New Hampshire, the final 35 laps were green.

— Indianapolis finished in overtime, but that was set up due to multiple wrecks.

— At Pocono, the last 55 laps (all of Stage 3) were green.

I love that. Yeah, it might be more exciting to see a crazy double-file restart in overtime — but if a caution is not warranted, then it’s good to let the race play out. And that’s what NASCAR seems to be doing.

Plus, a long run at the end doesn’t mean it’s a boring race. The finish Sunday was still in doubt and had plenty of excitement right down to the final seconds. So those are all positive things, and I like how NASCAR is officiating these races. I hope this trend continues through the playoffs, when the races mean so much more.


3. Brad and Kyle, Part 389

Based on his radio chatter, I thought Busch was going to go punch Keselowski in the face after the race, but that didn’t happen. Instead, Busch shook hands with AJ Allmendinger and laughed about something, then walked briskly toward the garage with reporters trailing behind.

He didn’t say anything notable (“Imagine that,” he said about the contact) — saving his thoughts for a mid-flight Twitter Q&A on the way home — but it was clear he was once again upset with his nemesis.

This is my favorite rivalry in NASCAR. On the surface, the two men have a lot in common: Both Busch and Keselowski are such unapologetically hard racers, both each have one title, both own a Truck Series team and each has a child who was born days apart from the other.

Yet there is ZERO common ground between the two, who have no relationship (despite Keselowski’s attempt at an olive branch through his blog a couple years ago). And they conduct themselves in a much different manner.

I think both are fantastic for the sport and are compelling, interesting people. They add spice to the race weekends on a regular basis. So it doesn’t bother me that they don’t see eye to eye, because that’s entertaining for the rest of us.

Oh, and don’t expect them to ever chat about Sunday’s incident, either.

“I don’t think he is really the listening type, so that is pretty doubtful,” Keselowski said.

4. Points battle blown open

If you haven’t paid attention, the points gap for the final playoff spot (see below) is only getting wider with four races to go.

Joey Logano is now completely out of the picture — he’s 106 points behind Matt Kenseth for the final spot — and in a must-win situation. That’s crazy, by the way.

Meanwhile, Kenseth added to his lead over Clint Bowyer and is now up by 28 points. Bowyer needs either Kenseth, Chase Elliott or Jamie McMurray to have a bad race (or two) while he has really solid results at Michigan, Bristol, Darlington and Richmond.

Of course, this all changes with a new winner. But it’s fairly obvious after Sunday there won’t be 16 different winners, so there should be at least a couple spots available to make the playoffs on points.

5. Must-See TV

NBCSN’s experiment with using a radio-style call for its TV broadcasts this weekend was a smashing success and as well-received on Twitter as any new thing can possibly be these days.

Mike Bagley of the Motor Racing Network fame was phenomenal in his role at the top of the esses, bringing all the excitement and enthusiasm from the radio to a TV screen. But just as impressive was Parker Kligerman, a driver with no formal announcing training, being able to pick up Bagley’s lead and call the action through the inner loop. Jeff Burton also brought a ton of insight in a fast-paced environment.

In addition, Leigh Diffey’s play-by-play announcing from the booth was top-notch. The F1 announcer was filling in for Rick Allen (who was in London for the track and field world championships) and was perfect alongside Steve Letarte, who was typically excellent in breaking down the strategy.

All in all, it made for one of the best NASCAR TV broadcasts in recent memory.



By patron request, I’m going to start including the playoff picture at the bottom of the Top Five each week. Here’s how it looks now:

IN (13): Truex, Larson, Harvick, Ky. Busch, Keselowski, Hamlin, Johnson, Blaney, Ku. Busch, Newman, Stenhouse, Kahne, A. Dillon.

Points Bubble with four races to go:

14. Chase Elliott +39

15. Jamie McMurray +34

16. Matt Kenseth +28


17. Clint Bowyer -28

(Everyone else more than 100 points or one win behind)

The Top Five: Breaking down the Pocono race

Five thoughts on Sunday’s race at Pocono Raceway…

1. Two-time Cup champion Kyle Busch?

Kyle Busch haters can skip over this part, but the guy is a serious championship contender despite not having won in more than a year until Sunday.

For most of the season, the best car each week has been either Martin Truex Jr. or Kyle Larson. But Busch has been creeping into the picture lately, and he’s been the one to battle Truex the last couple weeks while Larson hasn’t shown as much speed (even before incidents which resulted in finishes of 28th and 33rd).

Busch hadn’t won since the 2016 Brickyard 400 and Joe Gibbs Racing hadn’t won all season until two weeks ago, so everyone has been busy talking more about that than how the 2015 Cup champ might have a pretty good shot to do it again.

Busch has the most poles, second-most laps led and third-most top-five finishes this season. And perhaps most important, he is now tied for the third-most playoff points with Larson and Brad Keselowski.

As JGR continues to gain speed, Busch has been out front the most. He’s led at least 74 laps in four straight races now. That’s a very dangerous car for his rivals to deal with.

“… We’ve had speed, we’ve been right there, we’ve been able to do what we should be doing: That’s running up front,” Busch said. “It’s just been a bit frustrating on the finishing side.”

It’s scary, because with all the near-misses until Sunday, you get the feeling the No. 18 team hasn’t even performed to its potential yet. If Busch and his team start converting all the close calls into wins? Watch out.

2. What’s the point?

Speaking of championship contenders, I was puzzled by the No. 78 team’s decision to pit late in Stage 2 and give up what seemed like a sure playoff point — which would have made 30 on the season.

I get that Truex and Cole Pearn were going for the win, which meant sacrificing a stage win. Had it worked, they would have made a trade for four additional points than a stage victory brings.

But that’s only if it works. It didn’t. So instead of one playoff point, the team left with zero.

“That was the gamble,” Truex said. “That was our mindset before the race. We figured if we felt like we were good enough to possibly win the race, we’d have to pit before the end of that second stage. Just stuck to our plan.

“It didn’t work out, so obviously now I wish we would have stayed out and won that stage. That’s part of it.”

I can’t recall every situation that led to 14 stage wins for Truex this season, but it seems like the team had been going all-out for playoff points every week until Pocono. And as has been discussed frequently, those points are going to be a massive factor this fall in deciding who makes it to Homestead. So why not take as many as possible when the opportunity presents itself?

Truex and Pearn had an easy one point, gambled for four more and ended up with none. That’s what a team in a trailing position should do, not the leader.

This was like a basketball player passing on a wide-open layup with a 20-point lead; there’s no need to take a contested three in that situation.

3. A different level of speed

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was pumped after finishing 12th, pleased he and the No. 88 team “finally put one together” and had a “complete race” despite an early speeding penalty. Earnhardt ran in the top 10 for much of the second half of the day — something he didn’t anticipate after fighting a loose condition on corner entry all weekend.

But even on a good day, he wasn’t really close to running with the top cars.

“Man, I don’t know where the speed is that the front three or four have,” he said on pit road after the race. “They’ve got it every week. We don’t have that, and we’re not going to find in that garage on Friday or Saturday. If we don’t show up with it, we’re not going to find it. That’s somewhere in the shop.”

Earnhardt said it was probably only a matter of time before Busch started matching Truex’s speed, given the information-sharing arrangement between alliance partners JGR and Furniture Row Racing.

But he’s not sure where the speed is coming from, and that’s concerning.

“It’s nothing you can visually see,” he said .”We’re all in the garage together. We can see under their cars, see the springs they’re running, stuff like that. But it’s not in anything like that.

“They’ve got a lot of speed somehow. They’ve got a lot more speed than everybody else. Gotta give ’em credit.”

4. Season slipping away for Logano

Joey Logano’s season of misery just keeps snowballing as the playoffs approach all too quickly for his team’s liking.

Sunday was another race where everything seemed to go wrong.

Not only did the team lack the speed it needed to be competitive, but both Logano and crew chief Todd Gordon made mistakes on pit road.

Logano was caught speeding with 36 laps to go and had to serve a pass-through penalty under green, but then locked up his tires coming to pit road. When Logano told the team he hurt his tires enough to possibly incur a flat, Gordon quickly made the call to pit for four tires.

But that was a no-no, because pitting while serving a penalty requires another pass-through down pit road. By the time it was all over, Logano finished 27th and one lap down.

The result was Logano’s eighth finish outside the top 20 in the 12 races since he won at Richmond but had the win ruled to be encumbered. He’s now 69 points behind the cutoff with just five races until the playoffs begin.

I caught up with Logano as he was walking glumly away from his car on pit road and asked whether he’s ever faced such a stretch of adversity in his career.

“I don’t think so,” he said.

But Logano said his team “still knows how to do it” and added “we’ve just got to built some momentum back up.”

The thing is, momentum might not be necessary. It just takes one great race (or one good race where everything falls into place) to make the playoffs, and Logano is certainly capable of doing that.

There’s not much time left, though.

5. Sunday doubleheader (kind of)

Qualifying on the same day as the race was kind of weird, even though there were a lot of positives on paper.

The flow of race day seemed all messed up, and the laid-back atmosphere that qualifying brings took away from the typical Sunday morning vibe — where the anticipation builds in the hours before the event.

Maybe I’ll get used to it (a similar schedule will be tried again next week), and I hope that’s the case — because there definitely some good sides of it. Fans get added value with on-track activity before the race itself (some of whom never get to see a Friday session at the track because they don’t come for the whole weekend) and drivers/teams get an extra day at home (after all, the Cup Series really doesn’t need to be at some of these tracks for three days).


I just wish the schedule could be tightened up a bit. After qualifying, there was roughly a 45-minute gap until the drivers meeting, then a 90-minute gap until the green flag.

Lunchtime quietly rolled by without much fanfare, and the sun started to shift in the sky before the race finally went green at 3:21 p.m. ET.  People were just milling around waiting for it to start.

But come on — this is NASCAR! Big-time auto racing, right? It shouldn’t feel like waiting for the leaders to tee off at a golf tournament.



By patron request, I’m going to start including the playoff picture at the bottom of the Top Five each week. Here’s how it looks now:

IN (13): Truex, Larson, Harvick, Ky. Busch, Keselowski, Hamlin, Johnson, Blaney, Ku. Busch, Newman, Stenhouse, Kahne, A. Dillon.

Points Bubble:

14. Chase Elliott +39

15. Jamie McMurray +38

16. Matt Kenseth +17


17. Clint Bowyer -17

18. Joey Logano -69

(Everyone else more than 100 points or one win behind)