Five thoughts after Sunday’s playoff race at Dover International Speedway…
1. Harvick’s championship to lose
Once again, in the midst of the best season of his life, Kevin Harvick had the fastest car on Sunday. At this point in the year, it feels inevitable the No. 4 car will continue to unload that way each weekend.
No, Harvick didn’t end up winning. But he should have. The No. 4 team has let too many wins slip away over these last few years.
That seems to be the only thing that could prevent Harvick and his team from winning the title this year: A self-inflicted error like the one at Dover. Otherwise, the equipment is currently unmatched.
Harvick already has a career high in wins (seven). His average finish is currently the best of his career (8.6, even better than his dominant 2015 season). He’s on pace to earn a career high in top-10 finishes (Sunday was his 25th; best is 28) and perhaps even set a new personal mark in top-fives (he needs three more).
In the meantime, championship rival Kyle Busch hasn’t been as fast lately. Despite having his own career year for most of the season, Busch has now finished either seventh or eighth in four of the last six races — with the exception being the Roval and a short track (Richmond).
Seventh or eighth isn’t going to cut it at this point in the season — at least at Homestead. Busch has acknowledged as much.
What about Martin Truex Jr.? While the No. 78 team has been good, they aren’t Harvick-level good right now.
Here’s what is going to happen: Harvick is going to survive Talladega, win at Kansas and Texas and show up at Homestead as the favorite for the final four.
Still, Harvick might not win the championship. Days like Dover are still very possible, and that execution will need to be shored up before they get there.
But you can bet wherever it matters for the rest of the season, he’s going to be the car to beat.
2. Don’t blame Bowyer
For the second time this season, Aric Almirola seemed to have a potential win thwarted by a caution caused by his own teammate — Clint Bowyer.
As he did at New Hampshire, Bowyer felt terrible about it. But he shouldn’t take the blame.
OK, so Bowyer’s team knew he had a potential mechanical problem and sent him back out. But what’s wrong with that? This is the playoffs! As we all saw last week at the Roval, EVERY point has the potential to matter. If Bowyer could limp around the track without falling apart, that might have been the difference in making it to the next round.
Besides, Almirola and his team still had the chance to control their own fate in some ways. Almirola was the one who overdrove the corner on the restart and made contact with Keselowski. That’s not Bowyer’s fault. And Almirola’s team could have put him in a different position (he could have stayed out or taken two tires like the cars in front of him). That’s not Bowyer’s fault, either.
Of course the situation was highly unfortunate for everyone involved, but let’s not declare “Bowyer costs teammate a win!” when that’s not entirely the case.
3. For Chase, now what?
Instead of being outside the playoff bubble heading to Talladega — a possibility at times on Sunday — Chase Elliott is already locked in to Round 3.
So what will he do with that opportunity? How far can Elliott go?
Elliott will probably have to win in Round 3, because he’s going to be up against the Big Three and their Big Playoff Points to make it to Homestead. Crew chief Alan Gustafson said as much after the race.
The Hendrick cars still haven’t been spectacular at most tracks this season — and the same for Chevrolet overall, really. Racing journalist Geoffrey Miller pointed out this was the first win for the Camaro on a non-plate oval (Chevy’s other wins this season were at Daytona and Watkins Glen).
If that’s the case, Elliott probably isn’t going to win at Texas or Phoenix — so it all comes down to Martinsville. Can Elliott win Martinsville? Obviously, yeah. He almost did last fall.
Still, it’s going to be tough. It’s not like one or two drivers are good at Martinsville; a ton of them are. But if Elliott can put together a magical race and get the automatic bid to the final four, we all know Homestead is capable of some unexpected twists.
Elliott as the 2018 champ? Unlikely, though not impossible. Stranger things have happened in NASCAR, but not many.
4. Johnson, Hamlin headed toward winless seasons
It’s looking more and more like Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin will fail to win a race for the first time in their careers.
Dover might have been Johnson’s last, best shot this season — although we’ll never know, thanks to his bizarre mechanical failure on the pace laps. It’s so weird to think of Johnson as someone who can’t catch a break these days after he won seven titles and was Mr. Golden Horseshoe, but he sure seems to be a luckless driver in 2018.
Then there’s Hamlin. It’s much easier to picture Hamlin winning one of the final six races, since Joe Gibbs Racing brings competitive cars to a variety of tracks.
But Hamlin had a golden opportunity on Sunday and didn’t produce. He had fresher tires than Elliott and was starting on the front row for an overtime restart — something Elliott has struggled with in the past — and yet Hamlin was beaten straight up.
Hamlin earned some brownie points with Elliott fans, who have despised him since Martinsville last year. Was the possible blowback from another incident in Hamlin’s mind?
“After last fall, I was really making sure I didn’t make any contact, to be honest with you,” Hamlin said.
That’s unfortunate he felt that way, because perhaps racing more aggressively could have gotten him a win. On the other hand, can you imagine if Hamlin went full send and wrecked Elliott again while going for the lead?
Hamlin’s image might have never recovered from that, and a driver can’t afford to be that hated in today’s sponsor climate.
5. Talladega is going to be nuts
I’m happy Talladega is the middle race of Round 2 again this year, because it’s way too crazy to have it as a cutoff race. NASCAR doesn’t need to put eliminations on the line to have major drama at Talladega anyway.
Just check out the drivers from fifth to 10th in the standings: Joey Logano, Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski, Ryan Blaney, Aric Almirola and Clint Bowyer. DUDE! That is a stacked lineup of some of the best plate racers in all of NASCAR.
Oh, and they happen to all need the points! There aren’t going to be any strategy plays or dropping to the back to be conservative among that group, because stage points are a big thing.
The only thing to do is go like hell and hope they don’t wreck. That’s going to be verrrrrry interesting. I can’t wait.