The Top Five: Breaking down the New Hampshire race

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

1. Mixed bag for Gibbs

So Joe Gibbs Racing is back in victory lane for the first time since Texas last fall, which was Carl Edwards’ final career win.

While that’s great for Denny Hamlin, you’ll have to forgive teammates Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch if they didn’t leave the track with a smile on their faces.

Busch sped twice on pit road to take him out of contention and now hasn’t won in a year (his last win was Indianapolis, which is next on the schedule). That seems crazy, because Busch is third in the standings and “he’s had a chance to win maybe eight times” (as Gibbs put it); yet he’s winless.

All the Xfinity wins in the world don’t make up for something that you just know has to be eating away at the ultra-competitive Busch.

Then there’s Kenseth. After official word of him getting the boot from JGR was released earlier in the week, his chance to win for the first time in a year went away thanks to bad strategy. Kenseth had passed Martin Truex Jr. with fresher tires, but then only took two tires on the final pit stop — while everyone else behind him took four, costing him the race.

Kenseth said the move had worked in the past, which may have led crew chief Jason Ratcliff down the wrong path.

“I just couldn’t hang on with two tires,” Kenseth said. “Typically here you can get away with that — we won in the spring doing that (last year). Four tires just made big charges today all day long. When we were the only one without lefts, I knew we were probably in big trouble.”

Gibbs made a beeline for Kenseth’s car to pat him on the back after the race, but that probably wasn’t much consolation after what would have been a sweet victory for a 45-year-old free agent.

Alas, it was Hamlin celebrating instead.

2. Joe Low

After the race, I asked Joey Logano if he knew what went wrong. I was referring to the part that broke — the one that took 33 laps to repair in the garage and resulted in a 37th-place finish — but he had to ask for clarification.

“Which part?” he said. “The (being) slow part or the car that broke?”

Yeah, it seems Logano has a lot of problems right now.

With another disappointing result, Logano is 52 points behind Kenseth for the final playoff spot with seven races remaining.

His hopes of contending for a title are not looking so good, which is fairly shocking considering how strong the No. 22 has been in recent years. I doubt many people picked Logano to miss the playoffs, but it’s trending that direction.

“We might have to win now,” he said. “It’s a pretty big hit. We’re in trouble. We’ve got to get going.”

Logano reminded reporters the team has been on the outside before and executed to advance. But that was in the playoffs — and during a time when the team was running much better.

Right now, Logano just isn’t getting very good cars.

“We’ve got to stick together and keep faith in each other — and we’ve got to make our cars faster, because we’re just slow,” he said. “It’s plain and simple and blunt as can be: We’re slow, and we’ve got to get faster.”

To make matters worse, NASCAR confiscated a part from Logano’s car after he went to the garage. A decision will be made on that during further inspection this week, although the team certainly can’t afford any more of a points penalty if it hopes to make the playoffs without a victory.

3. Hail Dale

Dale Earnhardt Jr. stayed out on old tires while the entire field pitted, which put him in the lead on a restart with 35 laps to go.

As you might guess, it didn’t work. He plummeted through the running order and ended up 18th.

But given his points position (21st), Earnhardt and his team had to try something. They have to win, not go for top-10s.

So I asked Earnhardt: Was that strategy call pretty much a Hail Mary?

“It was like a Hail Mary when you’re down 14,” he said with a chuckle.

Earnhardt said he and crew chief Greg Ives were hoping some others would stay out behind them and provide a buffer, but even that probably would have been a longshot call.

If they didn’t try it, though?

“We’d have finished 10th at best,” Earnhardt said. “Tenth to 18th is no big deal. We’ve got to try to win. That wasn’t an opportune risk to take, but we’re going to have to take them every week — no matter how (much of) a longshot it is.”

4. TrackBite leaves a mark

I’ll acknowledge the VHT/PJ1 TrackBite/sticky goo storyline was overhyped this weekend, and that made some fans cranky on Twitter.

Nobody likes hearing about the same thing over and over, after all. Any angle being hammered by the media seems to annoy people, no matter what the topic is.

But the TrackBite really was worthy of discussion, because it changed the race. So even though it wore off after awhile, NASCAR should keep pushing forward with experimenting again at future tracks.

“It hasn’t been one of my favorite racetracks because it is so one lane, but today I thought there was a lot of different lanes you could run, and it was all because of the PJ1 that they put on the track,” Kyle Larson said. “So for sure, I think NASCAR should look at doing it at other racetracks.”

What kind of tracks? While Larson said it should be done at places where slower speeds are run in the corners, Hamlin said he could envision it working on repaved tracks like Kentucky and Texas — provided it’s placed on the high line, not the normal groove.

“NASCAR is easing into it,” Hamlin said. “I think it created a multi-lane racetrack we hadn’t seen here in awhile.”

The bottom line (excuse the pun) is this: Drivers are in favor of the experiment, so expect to see it used again in future races.

5. Meme-able Moment

One thing about racing at New Hampshire is there are rarely any classic races. And I’m thinking Sunday’s probably isn’t going to qualify as a memorable one years from now, either.

But Hamlin’s last two wins have produced a couple moments that will be talked about for awhile.

In 2012, you’ll recall Hamlin made his guarantee before the Chase race — and came through, complete with a Babe Ruth swing during the celebration.

And now: Lobster Phobia.

Who knew Hamlin was so sketched out about lobsters? I guess anyone who has eaten a seafood dinner with him is aware, because he said he can’t sit next to someone who is chowing down on lobster.

But seeing him scamper away from the giant lobster when crew chief Mike Wheeler approached? Pretty funny.

Dan Gelston of the Associated Press asked Hamlin what he would do with the lobster now (since it’s a reward for the winner).

“I’m not going to do anything with it,” he said. “I’ve seen it and touched it for the last time. As far as I’m concerned, they need to put it back in the water and let it live.”

Sometimes when the races aren’t great, at least we have these kind of meme-able moments that make NASCAR fun.

At New Hampshire, sticky stuff PJ1 gets another test run

Whatever you call the sticky stuff on the track — VHT, PJ1 Trackbite — it’s been applied to New Hampshire Motor Speedway with a new strategy spurred on by the drivers council.

The middle lane at New Hampshire is the actual racing groove, which the track left untouched. But the high lane got a 10-foot-wide strip of PJ1 in the corners, and the low lane got a five-foot strip to help them hook the bottom.

So there’s basically two stripes on the track where drivers can try and gain some grip.

Here’s a picture of the 10-foot-wide strip of PJ1 is in the middle of the track. Unfortunately, it’s hard to see the five-foot-wide strip in the low lane in this picture, but it’s there.

And unlike the tire dragon at Kentucky Speedway, the drivers council was totally in the loop this time.

“I like it when they (ask for input) instead of just (springing) it on all of us when we get to the track, because if it doesn’t work, then it’s just their bad idea,” Kyle Busch said. “But at least if the council is involved, it’s all of our bad idea.”

In a small group session with reporters on Friday morning, Jimmie Johnson recalled how the conversations shifted from just putting the PJ1 on the high side to also adding it on the low lane — which he said “shocked” him.

Why? Because “we could almost make the bottom lane the place to be, and the goal is to create extra lanes,” Johnson said.

The compromise was to make a much smaller patch on the bottom lane. The idea, Johnson said, was drivers would have to work really hard to get down there but only have a mild reward for it.

Meanwhile, the top lane would pay bigger dividends if a driver chose to use it.

Will it work? Well, that remains to be seen. There’s a chance one of the PJ1-aided lanes could become too dominant, in which case the track could just reapply less of it on Saturday.

Either way, Johnson said, “I don’t think there’s a wrong move right now.”

“I think the wrong move would be for us to do nothing,” he said. “I think the wrong move would be for us not to experiment. I truly feel the way we can add lanes through this product, we have to explore, we have to try and we will develop and evolve the process. I think a year from now, we’ll have a much clearer vision on what works and how to do it.”

After the Bristol experiment was at least a moderate success with the way it shook up the racing, drivers are eager to see how PJ1 works at other tracks. And why not? The alternative is tracks completely tearing up the surface and reconfiguring, which isn’t going to happen at a place like New Hampshire (which got cut to one race per year starting in 2018).

So the sticky stuff is worth trying on tracks that typically don’t put on a good show (coughNewHampshirecough).

“After 10 or 15 laps here, everyone is kind of where they are at and passes don’t happen often,” Joey Logano said. “The wider we can make the racetrack, the more air we can get on the nose, the more passes that can be made.

“It is a learning process on how it works. I think it’s great that NASCAR, the tracks, drivers, teams, everyone is open to trying it. It is something that could be a larger deal than we all think, for sure.”

UPDATE: NASCAR added four feet to the width of the bottom lane prior to Saturday’s on-track activity, thus making a full groove for drivers to try. 

The Top Five: Breaking down the Bristol race

Five thoughts from Monday’s rescheduled race at Bristol Motor Speedway:

1. What a race!

Bristol was one of those races that was so enjoyable to watch, I was disappointed when it ended.

That’s it? Only 500 laps? How about 600?

Seriously though, I could have watched that racing all day. It was just SO much fun to see the drivers going all out, with close-quarters racing and two equal grooves (yes, even though the bottom wasn’t the dominant lane).

I found myself smiling through many of the battles for position (which seemed constant) — and even while watching the leaders navigate lapped traffic.

It didn’t matter there was no late caution or restart to spice things up (the last 32 laps were green), nor did it matter there was a typical winner (Jimmie Johnson, again?). Bristol was just highly entertaining all day long, with the VHT-aided bottom groove just good enough to even things up with the top lane. As it turned out, that made for perfect racing conditions.

“Honestly, I don’t think it gets much better than that,” Kyle Larson said.

The sticky VHT slowly wearing off through the course of the race made it so that the track was constantly changing, and Bristol and NASCAR deserve a lot of credit for making it work.

Jimmie Johnson explained it this way: When there’s anything that’s consistent in NASCAR, the garage will figure it out. Everyone is too smart. But when the surface underwent a constant evolution like it did on Monday, Johnson said no one could exactly nail the setup.

“The track intentionally tried to create the need to be on the bottom,” Johnson said. “… This race, without a doubt, would have been single-file around the top without the VHT on the bottom,” Johnson said.

There was only one bad thing about the race: It was held Monday, when many fans were at work or school and couldn’t watch. Thanks a lot, Mother Nature.

How unfortunate that so many people missed one of the best races in recent years.

2. Larson Legend

I made a beeline for Larson’s car after the race, because watching him was half the fun of Monday’s race. He got out of his car and we made eye contact, and he looked sort of puzzled because I was grinning.

It took a second for me to remember he finished sixth on a day where he could have won, and probably wasn’t thrilled about the result. But I don’t really care where he finishes; I just know he put on quite a show — and usually does.

This seems so premature to say about a driver with two career wins, but Larson is really going to be an all-timer in this sport. I don’t know if his dry wit will ever translate into superstardom outside NASCAR (he might be too reserved to be the Jeff Gordon type who can guest-host a morning talk show), but he’ll be a legend within it by the time he’s done.

Larson’s driving style makes races more interesting to watch, and that’s not something you can say about many drivers. No matter what his career stats say by the time he’s done, he’ll be remembered as one of the greats of this generation.

3. Ol’ Jimmie does it again

Seven-Time, already the best driver in NASCAR history, just keeps adding to his career tally.

He now has 82 wins, which is one short of Cale Yarborough and two shy of Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison. It seems very possible that by the end of the season, the only drivers ahead of him on the all-time list will be Richard Petty, David Pearson and Jeff Gordon — and he may be alone in championships by the end of November.

It will be extra special for Johnson to tie Yarborough whenever he does, because Yarborough was the only NASCAR driver he knew while growing up. Johnson recalled walking into a Hardee’s as a kid and thinking he was in Yarborough’s race shop.

However, I fully recognize it’s not so great for everyone else living in the Jimmie Era — not just fans of other drivers, but the other drivers themselves.

“The damn 48,” Clint Bowyer said. “You know what I mean? Hasn’t he had enough?”

He certainly has, but that doesn’t mean he’s about to stop winning.

4. Dale Earnhardt Jr. in trouble

If the playoffs started today, Earnhardt would miss the cut by 50 points. It’s not even close right now, and Earnhardt — with the exception of his top-five at Texas — just isn’t running that well.

That’s not news to him or his fans, of course. But if this keeps up, he’s going to be in the type of territory where he needs to win — and that changes how a team goes about a race, particularly with strategy.

It’s been a fairly miserable start for Earnhardt, who is 24th in the standings — behind rookies Daniel Suarez and Ty Dillon. He’s five spots behind Aric Almirola in the points.

I honestly don’t think Earnhardt has lost anything despite missing half the season last year, but he hasn’t had good luck (three DNFs due to crashes) and the car hasn’t been all that great in the other races. Bristol wasn’t going to be a memorable race for him even before his oil cooler broke.

He described his car as being too tight and said other drivers were “beating me really bad back to the gas” out of the corners.

“That ain’t no way to run anywhere, really,” he said.

5. Roush Fenway keeps plugging along

Chip Ganassi Racing’s hot start has been well-documented. Kyle Larson is the points leader and Jamie McMurray is tied for sixth in the standings.

But it’s not just Ganassi that is out-running some of the bigger teams this season.

Roush Fenway Racing is much improved, and both drivers finished in the top 11 on Monday (Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was ninth and Trevor Bayne was 11th). In addition, Bayne is 12th in the standings and Stenhouse is 16th (although would currently be on the outside of the playoffs because Kurt Busch has a win and is 18th).

If they keep collecting top-15 finishes, that will be enough to keep them in playoff contention all summer. And right now, they’ve combined for 11 top-15s after having a combined 24 all of last year — this after just eight races.

Are they going to win? Probably not anytime soon. But they’re both ahead of six drivers in the standings from Hendrick, Gibbs and Stewart-Haas, so that’s an accomplishment after the last couple years.

Old Bristol shows a hint of returning, but drivers resist

With the reemergence of the fast bottom groove at Bristol Motor Speedway, some of the younger drivers don’t seem to be having a very good time.

“Well…. Bristol used to be fun..” Kyle Larson tweeted Friday night.

“Wonder when we will get to Bristol again,” Ricky Stenhouse Jr. tweeted later.

No offense to those guys, but I hope their version of Bristol never returns. After all, they’re talking about New Bristol — and New Bristol, in case you haven’t noticed, hasn’t exactly been the big hit with fans that Old Bristol was.

Old Bristol was the high-banked, one-groove track where cars had to knock each other out of the way to make a pass on the bottom. It once sold out 55 straight Cup races and the Night Race was the hottest ticket in all of sports because fans knew there was going to be guaranteed action.

New Bristol is the multi-groove track that has witnessed a precipitous decline in attendance starting two years after the track was redone with progressive banking. Drivers can race at New Bristol because they have options, which is good for them but boring for everyone else.

Fans don’t come here to get pumped about a side-by-side battle! They just don’t. NASCAR fans can see racing at every other track on any other week. If you want real racing, go to a 1.5-mile track; there’s plenty of them.

But Bristol became famous for tempers and wrecks and bent-up sheet metal — and fans who travel from hundreds of miles away to rural Tennessee want to see that again, damn it!

The bottom groove was the key to that formula. So the sticky VHT in the low lane — or the “grip strip,” as FOX calls it — is a friend to Bristol race fans.

Let’s hope it lasts. As I write this during final practice, Larson is doing his best to work in the top lane with rubber and show that it’s fast enough for other drivers to follow him. Their hope is enough rubber can be laid down in the top lane to negate the effect of the VHT.

Nooooo! I like Larson — he’s wickedly funny, bluntly honest and out-of-this-world talented — but I hope his top-lane efforts fail this weekend. To be clear, I’m not rooting against him personally — just rooting against a race where the high line is viable.

I want to see a one-groove, bottom-lane race as bad as I want to win the lottery (OK, maybe not that bad, but close).

If the VHT doesn’t make drivers stick to the bottom, I suggest putting spike strips on the top.

UPDATE: The VHT was no match for Larson working in the top lane in the Xfinity race, so forget everything I just said.