NASCAR Playoffs: Larson Blows Up While Blaney Blasts Off

KANSAS CITY, KS - OCTOBER 22: Kyle Larson, driver of the #42 Credit One Bank Chevrolet, speaks with the media after having engine trouble during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway on October 22, 2017 in Kansas City, Kansas. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Kyle Larson experiences the media crush after engine troubles eliminated him from the NASCAR playoffs. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

Sunday’s elimination race at Kansas Speedway was a tumultuous contest, with favorite Kyle Larson, driver of the Chip Ganassi Racing #42 Chevy, eliminated from Championship contention, while Ryan Blaney, driver of Wood Brothers #21 Ford, delivering a storybook finish to advance to next round of NASCAR’s playoffs.

An engine detonation relegated Larson to the garage on lap 73 of the Hollywood Casino 400, extinguishing his Championship quest.  As one of the leading favorites to make the Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Larson’s fortunes going up in smoke caused fans on social media to melt down and lose their collective minds.

Conversely, Ryan Blaney started from the rear at Kansas Speedway but drove a stellar race and dodged several bullets to finish 3rd and remain alive in the playoff picture.

Surely, these contrasting challenges encompass the Game 7 drama that NASCAR sought when they introduced this multi-stage playoff elimination format.  No doubt playoff outcomes can be influenced by fortuitous luck or haphazard chance, but mechanical equipment has always been part of the equation in racing success.

Such mechanical misfortune could befall Martin Truex Jr. at the Homestead-Miami final, should he advance that far.  Truex, Sunday’s winner at Kansas and the perennial favorite to win the Championship, has a series-leading seven wins this season, and anything less than a Championship will seem unjust to the fans of the Furniture Row racing team, regarded as the “little team that could”.

Certainly, this Championship format is demanding.  Larson undeniably didn’t have a dazzling 2nd playoff round.  With previous finishes of 10th at Charlotte and 13th at Talladega, Larson had a narrow point cushion to rely on for advancement beyond Kansas.

 Ryan Blaney, driver of the #21 Wood Brothers Ford, raced through the field to a 3rd place finish in Hollywood Casino 400 (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

Ryan Blaney raced through the field to a 3rd place finish in the Hollywood Casino 400 (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

Conversely, Blaney and his Wood Brothers Racing Team are alive in their quest to win this year’s championship. Blaney explained, “I would say this is probably the most fun I’ve ever had racing with anybody, no matter what car.  They just make it a fun year.  Just to be competitive, still be in this thing, that’s just a bonus, to be honest with you.”

And, naturally, seven-time Champion Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe’s Racing Chevy, persevered to advance in a less than stellar season for him, showing composure when confronted by desperate unscheduled pit stops that would have derailed a lesser team.  Johnson again revealed the golden horseshoe often attributed to him, spinning out not once but twice, including a critical journey into the infield grass that could have torn up his car and destroyed his quest for a record setting 8th Championship, but didn’t.

The abrupt nature of playoff elimination for those drivers and their fans always will generate an empty and hollow void at the end of each playoff round.  It’s the game we now have in NASCAR, and as each round concludes, the playoff cuts only get stiffer as worthy drivers are eliminated.

Still, the remaining eight contenders provide a perfect balance for the Championship chase.  We have a compelling mix of drivers, with four former champions (Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, and Brad Keselowski), two young guns (Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney), and two experienced vets who have just fallen short of the title chase before and are as hungry as ever (Martin Truex Jr and Denny Hamlin).

We also have manufacturer diversity in the title chase, with three Toyotas, three Fords, and two Chevrolets among the eight remaining contenders, despite the perceived dominance of Toyota during NASCAR’s regular season.

Vegas odds now favor Truex, Busch, Harvick, and Keselowski to make the Ford Championship Weekend in Homestead-Miami.

Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota, displays his 7 victory decals in a stellar season (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

Martin Truex Jr displays his 7 victory decals in a stellar season (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

Truex will likely waltz to the Finals given the playoff point buffer he has already accumulated with seven race wins this season.  And Harvick can surely get the job done at Phoenix, the penultimate race, with 8 previous wins at his home track.  Meanwhile, Kyle Busch is just on fire, with raw speed, talent, and conviction all converging at the right time.

Yet, I’m calling an audible on Keselowski, with the anticipation that either Hamlin or Johnson will rip a win at next weekend’s race at Martinsville Speedway.  Johnson and Hamlin are the preeminent active drivers at the oddly-shaped paperclip short track, having netted 9 and 5 wins, respectively, which would guarantee either’s advancement to the Homestead Final.

Then again, that’s just my reasonable conjecture.  In the congruence of man vs. machine, NASCAR’s playoff format requires that teams and drivers bring their best stuff to EVERY race.  Isn’t that why we should be tuning in, for the both the triumph as well as the agony that this playoff system delivers?

By Ron Bottano

Let’s connect on Twitter at @rbottano and share your final four contenders. 

NASCAR: Talladega Turmoil Produces Playoff Perfection

TALLADEGA, AL - OCTOBER 15: Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Miller Lite Ford, celebrates in victory lane after winning the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Alabama 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on October 15, 2017 in Talladega, Alabama. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

TALLADEGA, AL: Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Miller Lite Ford, celebrates in victory lane after winning the Alabama 500 (Photo: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

If high speed racing in clustered three-wide packs is truly an acquired taste, then I’m craving more.  Sunday’s racing at Talladega Superspeedway was nothing short of the finest that such super long ovals with high-banked corners can deliver in NASCAR.

The Alabama 500 was certainly inspiring, with a packed house and the best TV ratings for a Talladega race in five years.

Fans were loud and boisterous, although devotees of Dale Earnhardt Jr. likely left frustrated that he couldn’t snag a checkered flag in his final appearance at the track, despite starting from the pole.

If there was any solace, Earnhardt Jr was running for the prize at the end, and that passionate energy was apparent as he survived multiple near misses, like a cat with nine lives.

Even more promising, a rising star named Chase Elliott garnered significant cheers when he drove the Hendrick Motorsports #24 Chevrolet to the front, and the dash to the finish line with Penske driver Brad Keselowski sweeping to the bottom in front of Ryan Newman to steal the victory on the final lap propelled fans into a frenzy as well.

Inevitably, the last restrictor-plate race of the season was a wreckfest that featured multiple red flags and the elimination of more than one-half of the cars prior to the conclusion of the race.  Such chaos ensures there will always be cynics who demand that Talladega “bulldoze the banks” and bring back normalcy to racing.

Yet, crashes serve to remind us of the fundamental risk in motorsports, with drivers on the edge of the competitive scalpel.  As the adage goes, we don’t want to see drivers injured, but we can’t look away from a spectacular pileup.

Oct 15, 2017; Talladega, AL, USA; A pack of 17 drivers wreck in turn three during the Alabama 500 at Talladega Superspeedway. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

A pack of drivers wreck in turn 3 during the Alabama 500. (Photo: John David Mercer/USA TODAY)

So what qualities make these superspeedway races so appealing?

First, driver skill was evident throughout the race.  No doubt there is randomness to such racing, but all forms of competitive sport feature a certain amount of luck.  However, superspeedway races require a mental toughness and spatial awareness that taxes the drivers’ focus.  Situational awareness is critical in knowing when to make the right move and at what time.

Hard racing, side by side and in close quarters, was on display throughout the day.  Drivers could not afford to hang back with three stages of playoff points in play.  The tension in the pack was evident, and required a fine balance of patience and aggressiveness, like a game of high stakes poker.

More prominently, playoff stress escalated tremendously.  At the halfway point of the ten race NASCAR playoffs, Talladega injected sorely needed buzz into a championship chase that seemed on autopilot, with an inexorable march of four Toyota teammates originally anointed to reach the Championship final at Homestead-Miami in November.

With Brad Keselowski’s win, Ford broke up the Toyota juggernaut that had won the all the playoff races to this point.

Crucially, for the Kansas Speedway elimination next weekend, former Champions Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch, and Jimmie Johnson are on the brink of elimination unless they deliver the goods.

With two victories in the 1st playoff round, Busch looked primed to punch his ticket to the Championship.  Now, two poor back-to-back finishes has jeopardized his quest.  Nothing wrong with that.  Being on the brink of elimination often showcases the true mettle of Champion contenders in overcoming adversity and proving their pedigree.

Superspeedway races resemble a marathon sprint, challenging both the driver’s and team’s mental stamina and physical endurance.  Sunday’s race featured almost four hours of racing, as well as compression on pit crews to repair damage quickly and get back on the field of play.  Many drivers, including Jimmie Johnson and Joey Logano, soldiered on despite damage to their vehicles early in the race, with Logano netting a 4th place finish for his efforts.

Conversely, risk and reward are on full display.  Jamie McMurray, driver of the Chip Ganassi #1 Chevy, made an ill-advised dart for pit road to refuel, eerily like being on the interstate while crossing three lanes of traffic without a turn signal, and paid the price.  Now, the Chip Ganassi playoff contender sits at the bottom of the standings, desperately needing a win at Kansas Speedway to avoid elimination.

TALLADEGA, AL - OCTOBER 15: Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Mountain Dew Chevrolet, waves to the crowd on his driver introduction lap prior to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Alabama 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on October 15, 2017 in Talladega, Alabama. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Mountain Dew Chevrolet, bids farewell to his legion of fans at Talladega Superspeedway prior to the race. (Photo: Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Most satisfying, in the post-race conversation, the sport’s fan base is not griping about aero push, the leader running away from the field, or the advantage of the Toyota powerplant.  Instead, fans are chattering about the actual competition on the track, the drama of the playoffs, and the final lap sequence to the checkered flag.

Genuinely, I ‘m now a superspeedway convert, captivated by the lore of these tracks’  legacy in NASCAR.  Liking such races may be heretical for racing purist.  The action is pure mayhem at times.  Yet, Talladega is a great equalizer, putting the emphasis more on the driver and the choices made with the wheel, rather than the mechanics of the car.  For drivers, somebody will surely be mad at you at the end of the race, and that’s ok.

Next year, NASCAR’s playoffs will be spicier with a mile long concrete monster (Dover International Speedway), Talladega Superspeedway, and Kansas Speedway comprising the 2nd Round elimination segment, along with the twist of the newfangled Charlotte road course concluding the 1st round playoff eliminator.  For enthusiasts desiring a shift away from the dominance of tedious 1.5-mile ovals, such an assortment will surely ramp the drama meter in 2018.  Count me in!

By Ron Bottano (@rbottano)

Share your take: Does Talladega deserve a place in the Playoffs? Take our Twitter poll at @racingunplugged

Chase Elliott: What’s In A Name?

Chase Elliott's debut at Martinsville was hampered by a bad power steering unit.

Chase Elliott’s debut at Martinsville was hampered by a bad power steering unit.

Everyone one loves an overnight success, don’t they? The only problem with that affection is that it’s more often than not misplaced, or at least not accurate.

Auto racing and music are famous genres’ for this human perception and NASCAR’s young Chase Elliott is a shining example.

His Sprint Cup debut at Martinsville wasn’t what he, Hendrick or the uneducated masses, wanted it to be. But it was a start. You can only go up from 38th place. Richmond is up next.

To be completely fair, he had power steering problems at the worst time and in the worst place possible. At Martinsville you’re in a perpetual state of turning and turning a 3500 lb. car is no easy task.

The old adage that you have to walk before you run really does mean something in motorsports. There are several types of driver:

The Engineer: This type of driver has technical prowess and usually requires more experience to get up to speed even in the lower classes. They approach the effort as a project from a logical point of view using mathematics, software and a great deal of practice to hone the craft.

The Natural: The natural is just that, just naturally gifted. It’s someone who has an uncanny sense of what’s going on beneath them. Niki Lauda said it best: “I have the greatest ass in the world.” In other words, he could feel what the car was doing by the seat of his pants. However, in the world of modern racing, this ‘Gift’ will only take you so far.

Next up for Sprint Cup cars, Richmond.

Next up for Sprint Cup cars, Richmond.

Formula One’s Kimi Raikkonen only had 21 races of any kind under his belt before he sat in a Formula One Car, but it’s now taken years to get back to his ‘crashed onto the scene’ levels.

Then there’s the third type and it’s the rarest of all. The Natural Engineer. This driver has the ability to feel the car intimately but also be able to understand the dynamics of what they’re feeling. They don’t have to be expert engineers, just understand it and make decisions that reflect that understanding.

The common denominator among all three of these types is a very human one. Passion. To achieve the results of the engineer or natural you have to have passion and that emotion rarely comes together with a driver who is a natural and engineer, but when it does you have a Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, and almost certainly, Chase Elliott on your hands.

These are rare individuals who seem to come out of nowhere and rise rapidly with very few races, or years under their belt.

Now it’s Chase Elliott. However, the kid has been at it for a while despite the fact that he’s only 19.

With Elliott, he had his famous Father, Bill Elliott, working with him and the passion to take it all in as well as a few years in the lower ranks to hone those skills.

This wont bode well for his future competitors.

There are a number of drivers at the top levels of motorsports, whether NASCAR, IndyCar or Formula One who have gotten to the top through the machinations of their famous Fathers. Most of these drivers have a very tough time living up to the family hype. Why?

They don’t really want it badly enough to have learned all of the aspects of racing that their Fathers didn’t face. It’s harder today than it was 20 years ago but Chase Elliott has put in the time, effort and passion to make it to the top and the near future will prove this out.

A famous name will only get you so far without the talent that you picked up as a result of being around and involved in the racing game.

Many of these divers have a mistaken sense of entitlement and that becomes obvious when they excelled in the lower ranks but seem mediocre at the very top. I wont name names, I don’t have to.

Chase Elliott doesn’t fit into that category.

He maybe in one of his own.

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