Five thoughts following Sunday’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway…
1. Well actually…
A couple months ago, this NASCAR season seemed destined to go down as one of the most predictable in years. The Big Three won 17 of the first 23 races, some of which were as exciting as watching a cooking show rerun for the seventh time.
It just felt like such an effort to try and find something good out of the races, particularly at the intermediate tracks.
But everything has changed now, and 2018 is quickly turning into one of the best seasons in years.
The second half of the Cup Series schedule has completely come alive with a string of entertaining, enjoyable, unpredictable races. The Bristol night race was close to racing perfection, and that came on the heels of a fantastic Watkins Glen race that was excellent from start to finish. Chicago (“Slide Job!”) was a classic. Daytona had a fun new winner (“How about that race, boys and girls?”), New Hampshire was unexpectedly entertaining for flat-track standards and Indianapolis had a thrilling finish.
Then came Sunday in Las Vegas, which turned out to be one of the craziest playoff openers NASCAR has seen. And it happened at a 1.5-mile track, at that!
Suddenly, the seemingly inescapable slog of watching the same drivers win every week has turned into a season no one could have seen coming.
NASCAR actually has a really good thing going with its on-track product right now. That extends to other series as well; Las Vegas was a weekend tripleheader where all three races were excellent — again, at an intermediate track! — and NASCAR has an entertainment-to-time-investment ratio that is as much as any race fan could ask for lately.
I know it sounds crazy based on how completely BLAH this season seemed for awhile, but this honestly could turn into a memorable year which people end up longing for when it’s gone (especially if it’s the last year with the “true racer” package).
Either way, the playoffs are off to a wildly unpredictable start, and with Richmond and the Roval up next, this is shaping up to be the best first round since the elimination format began.
2. What NASCAR has going for it
I’ve been covering a lot of different forms of racing this year, and it’s made me realize what NASCAR is doing right — although it doesn’t seem to be talked about or appreciated very much, even by the people who work in it.
NASCAR is the pinnacle of major league racing in the United States. That’s not an insult toward IndyCar — which I enjoy very much! — but the crowd sizes, TV numbers and facilities aren’t consistently in the same ballpark. Even with NASCAR’s decline, it’s still the big gorilla of American motorsports.
The Cup Series races on the greatest oval tracks in the world, beautiful and well-kept modern venues that can accommodate everyone from drivers to fans to media to production to sponsors and more. It’s important to remember as much as we all may pine for more short tracks and road courses, the vast majority of those tracks are not up to the high standards of Cup racing.
But most important, Cup reflects the soul of American racing. Most racing around this country is done at the local tracks, not the big NASCAR tracks, and the Cup Series is a fabulous melting pot of drivers you’d NEVER get to see race against each other without it. From asphalt Late Models to sprint cars to dirt Late Models, the most talented can ascend to the Cup Series and race each other to find out who is the best.
Take Sunday’s late battle for the lead as an example: Brad Keselowski, the scrappy and analytical racer who cut his teeth on pavement short tracks of the upper Midwest, was competing against Kyle Larson, who some in the dirt community believe may be the most talented dirt racer ever based on his ability to parachute into any race and instantly have a chance to win.
Larson used his freakish natural talents to once again will his car into exceeding its likely potential for the day and battled Keselowski for as long as possible as the former Cup champion used his techniques to try and get the position.
That’s an incredible thing that may be unique to NASCAR in all the world. For example: In Formula One, all the drivers come up wanting to drive in Formula One and are on that path from the start. Not so in Cup.
But too many people like myself learn about motorsports through NASCAR first and thus view everything through the NASCAR prism. Folks, there’s a lot of other racing out there — and that should be celebrated and lifted up when some of those racers try their hand at stock cars.
So instead of NASCAR telling Larson to shut up about his dirt racing, they should be promoting the hell out of it. TV should make sure every fan is immediately familiar with each driver’s background, just as much as fans know the sponsors and teams. I think that would add a lot to the viewing experience for others, because it’s absolutely changed things for me.
3. Even the best make mistakes
Speaking of the best drivers in America…uh, what the heck happened at Las Vegas?
I asked several drivers, but no one seemed to have a great answer that made sense. Mostly it was about the heat (it affected the tires and made the drivers more irritated with each other) and the playoff situation (with more on the line, drivers tried to be more aggressive if they were having bad days).
Denny Hamlin’s comment struck me the most: He said he tried to take a 15th-place car and get more out of it. Then he went over the limit, spun and hit the car-killing grass (which is another topic in itself).
Is it a situation where one driver gets more aggressive, and suddenly they all do?
“A certain element to motorsports will always be that we play a game of chicken,” Keselowski said. “Whether it’s on restarts or whatever scenario it might be, understanding who has what stakes on the line is really important.
“When one person pushes you hard and then you let them in or let it go, then eventually someone else does it, and now you find yourself in the back playing from behind, and now you start to do it. It creates an escalating effect.
“With that in mind, eventually both guys don’t lift, and things happen. With that said, the playoffs, of course, when you’re playing from behind can make you take more risks.”
4. Not the best date for Vegas
The hot track made for great racing and was a fitting opener for the playoffs, especially since NASCAR could have a little pomp and circumstance with the burnout parade and fan events down on the Strip.
But Las Vegas clearly didn’t provide the ideal experience for fans in person — not because of the track itself (which might be the best overall when considering the Neon Garage), but the brutal heat. There was no escaping the baking, scorching desert sun in the seats, so the options were either to suffer through it or go underneath the stands. When I crossed from the press box to the infield with about 80 laps to go, I was sort of blown away at how many people were sitting on the ground, heads in their hands or wet towels on their necks or faces. People looked red and overheated; a few, truthfully, looked like they were suffering.
NASCAR and Las Vegas are in a tough spot. The city wants fans to be in the casinos and restaurants at night — not at the track — so the race needs to be during the day. But at this time of year, it’s still soooo hot (it’s not like these temperatures were a surprise, in other words).
So yes, this race should probably be later in the playoffs. If that’s the case, though, what else does NASCAR slot in for the opener of its most important 10-race stretch?
5. Points picture
Throughout the year, this item has been for discussion of the current points situation. That won’t change now with an especially intriguing playoff picture heading into the second race of Round 1.
Denny Hamlin, of all people, is last in the playoff standings, already 20 points behind the cutoff. He’s on pace to go winless for the first time in his career.
Erik Jones, who had a string of top-10 finishes entering the playoffs and won the Las Vegas pole, suddenly finds himself 19 points out of a transfer spot. That has to be tough to swallow.
Then there’s Hendrick teammates Chase Elliott and Jimmie Johnson, both who seemed headed toward solid finishes only to see them disappear. Elliott is nine points behind the cutoff spot (currently the other Hendrick driver, Alex Bowman) and Johnson is down by six.
Here are the full standings:
Brad Keselowski (clinched Round 2 spot)
Martin Truex Jr. +65
Kyle Busch +63
Kevin Harvick +38
Joey Logano +34
Kurt Busch +24
Ryan Blaney +20
Kyle Larson +19
Aric Almirola +12
Austin Dillon +9
Clint Bowyer +7
Alex Bowman +6
Jimmie Johnson -6
Chase Elliott -9
Erik Jones -19
Denny Hamlin -20