NASCAR Playoffs: Harvick Takes Down Truex at Texas Speedway

FORT WORTH, TX - NOVEMBER 05: Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Mobil 1 Ford, poses with the winner’s decal in Victory Lane after winning the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on November 5, 2017 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Kevin Harvick claimed the playoff prize with his victory in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup AAA Texas 500 (Photo: Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

When it’s playoff time, Kevin Harvick knows how to lock-in.  On Sunday, Harvick stampeded past Martin Truex Jr to win the AAA Texas 500, clinching his position in the Championship 4 finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway in two weeks.  Harvick also checked another track off the list where he had not previously won.

More importantly, Ford (and explicitly Harvick’s Stewart-Haas Racing Team) fired a salvo at Toyota’s dominance, whose teams had won all the playoff races so far (except for the Talladega wildcard).

At the outset, Kurt Busch, a Stewart-Haas teammate, secured the AAA Texas 500 pole with not only a track record qualifying speed approaching 201 MPH, but also the fastest lap at any 1.5-mile intermediate speedway ever, validating that the team’s development work with the switch from Chevrolet to Ford at the beginning of the season is now paying dividends.

During the race, Harvick tracked down Toyota driver Truex Jr with a power move around the outside with just nine laps to go, after loosening Truex up with air at the bumper, extremely impressive given Truex has already won six races at intermediate tracks this year.  Also noteworthy was Harvick completed the pass without spinning Truex out or ramming him from behind.

Harvick explained in victory lane, “I knew I had a really good car.  I knew I had to do something different.  I started driving a whole lot deeper in Turn 1—a whole lot deeper.  I started doing that earlier in the race, but I was afraid I didn’t have the brakes to continue to do that all day.  So, I waited until the end and was able to get on the outside of Martin and got him loose and brushed across the back of him and was able to get by on the outside down there.”

Truex, despite his second-place finish, also clinched his berth in the Championship 4 race based on his playoff points total.  Kyle Busch, last week’s Martinsville winner, is also locked into the Championship 4, leaving only one spot up for grabs at Phoenix among five remaining playoff eligible drivers.  Expect the Zoomtown USA desert race to be blazing, as drivers gamble to secure the final spot.

With Texas hosting playoff races for all three of NASCAR’s main series, several other takeaways stood out.

Downforce Leads to Sizzling Speed

Remember all the aero package rules changes that took downforce out of NASCAR Cup cars at the start of the season? It’s back.

The engineering teams have regained the majority of downforce that was removed, given the blistering qualifying speeds.  Five NASCAR drivers exceeded 200MPH in the final round of qualifying at Texas Motor Speedway.  That’s crazy fast for a 1.5-mile oval, especially since the track was reconfigured with a repave last year that lowered the banking through Turns 1 and 2 so that drivers would have to lift off the throttle.

Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin, qualifying 2nd on the front row, summarizes tersely, “The biggest thing is just the development, and trust me, I don’t know of any driver that was comfortable running the speeds that we’re running right now.”

Critically, aero push was obvious at the Texas race.  For some fans in the stands, the most entertaining activity was watching lead cars try to pass lapped cars without wadding everybody up, given the absence of on-track passes at the front.  Todd Gordon, crew chief for Penske driver Joey Logano, observed that Logano would drive up through the field to 10th to 15th place and then his car would simply stall out.

during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on November 5, 2017 in Fort Worth, Texas.

With record speeds at Texas, drivers often experienced aero constraints when trying to pass other cars in the pack (Photo: Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

Our mid-race Twitter poll of fan reaction reinforced this snooze fest, with almost 60% suggesting the race was a “couch nap”, while only 7% agreeing that the race lived up to the “No Limits” credo of excitement for Texas Motor Speedway.

Undoubtedly, NASCAR needs to reexamine the 2018 rules configuration, or the momentum the sport has shown this year in terms of fan interest may regress just like the number of on-track passes for the lead.

XFINITY Playoffs Sputter

The quandary of Monster Energy Cup drivers dropping down to XFINITY Series races to steal the show is still a thorn in the side of NASCAR’s playoff system expansion to all three series, with the “win and advance” setup.  Despite rule changes curbing some participation, NASCAR Cup drivers continue to claim the checkered flags in the XFINITY playoff races, to the detriment of XFINITY playoff contenders.

Saturday night, the craze continued, just as it has through all five XFINITY playoff races, as the top three finishers were all Cup regulars, with Erik Jones leading 137 of 200 laps in claiming the top spot.  Ryan Blaney finished 2nd, and Kyle Larson claimed the final podium spot in 3rd.

XFINITY races have become two separate competitions within the main event, which chills the excitement when XFINITY playoff contenders can’t get to victory lane.  Surely, this is not what NBC envisioned when the network introduced its novel interview of the race winner right on the front straightaway after crossing the finish line to capture the winner’s excitement.  Instead, these interviews lack passion, with the XFINITY playoff contenders relegated to pit lane commentary on point standings.

The XFINITY Championship 4 for the Homestead-Miami title race is determined next week in Phoenix; right now, there likely will be no magic Cinderella contender that advances based on claiming race victory, so the Champion contenders would instead be set by points, with Elliott Sadler, William Bryon, Justin Allgaier, and Brennan Poole currently holding the four magic slots.  Sadler, the point leader, has yet to win a race this season.

Chevrolet Fading Fast from Championship Spotlight

For the first time under NASCAR’s elimination playoff format, Chevrolet may not have a contending driver in the mix for the Monster Energy Cup Championship.

FORT WORTH, TX - NOVEMBER 05: Chase Elliott, driver of the #24 Hooters Chevrolet, stands on the grid prior to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on November 5, 2017 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Despite three 2nd place finishes in the playoffs, Chase Elliott heads to Phoenix in a must-win situation (Photo: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

With Chase Elliott and Jimmie Johnson below the cut line by 49 and 51 points, respectively, these two remaining Hendrick Motorsport playoff contenders are in the basement of the standings.  Either of these Chevy drivers must win at Phoenix to advance to Homestead-Miami, with wild strategy gambles necessary, given the general speed malaise that seems to be afflicting this team.

For Johnson, he finished 27th at Texas and was 3 laps down at one point, at a track where he has won seven times, including the April race earlier this season.  More striking, Johnson, usually the calm and collected seven-time Champion, expressed displeasure:

“We’ve got to figure something out,” Johnson said.  “I’m definitely disappointed.  And, I honestly just feel bad for my team.  These guys are working so hard.  And to work this hard and not see any speed go back in the car and have bad results as the last three weeks have been is pretty disappointing.”

For Chevy, having unveiled the 2018 Camaro ZL1 race car to replace the aging Chevy SS platform after this season, the testing that has shown improved aerodynamic performance cannot come soon enough when the actual cars hit the track next year at Daytona.  We will likely have to wait until then to potentially see a Chevrolet in victory lane.

By Ron Bottano

Let’s connect on Twitter at @rbottano.

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. 

To Be Sure, Talladega Race Lived Up To Its Billing

Clint Bowyer won for the first time this season in a typical, unpredictable Talladega race. The win was especially rewarding for Bowyer, whose six-season tenure with Richard Childress Racing comes to an end after this season. Bowyer presented Childress with his 100th victory as a team owner.

The Good Sam Club 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, the sixth race in the 10-event Chase, was characterized as the “wild card” event of the “playoffs.”

That’s because of the typical unpredictability of the race. With high speeds and two-car “dance partner” drafting that is a part of the 2.66-mile Talladega track and its sister, Daytona, it’s almost impossible to pinpoint what is going to happen – much less an outcome.

Championship contenders could have poor finishes, or fall by the wayside, for many reasons – all related to the complexities of restrictor-plate racing. A driver in the lead on the last lap could very well find himself outside the top 10 by the time he got to the finish line. An unheralded, even unknown, competitor could find the means to win – consider young Trevor Bayne, who took the victory in the Daytona 500.

The Good Sam Club 500 lived up to its billing. It was indeed a “wild card” race.

The winner was certainly not unheralded or unknown. But he was unexpected. It’s very likely few, in any, predicted he would triumph at Talladega.

But that’s exactly what Clint Bowyer did. He won for the first time this season – his last victory came in this race in 2010 – he became the first Chase non-qualifier to win in the “playoff.” He earned the distinction of providing the 100th Cup series victory for Richard Childress Racing.

Ironically, it came five races before Bowyer’s tenure with Childress comes to an end. Largely because of a lack of sponsorship, Bowyer will move over to Michael Waltrip Racing next season and RCR may well be reduced from four teams to three.

As for the Chase contenders, overall, they fared worse at Talladega than in any other race since the title hunt began at Chicagoland on Sept. 19.

Only three of them finished among the top 10. Two placed 11th-20th and a whopping seven were 25th or worse.

Replacing them at the head of the pack were such drivers as Jeff Burton (second), Dave Blaney (third, his best finish of the season), Brian Vickers (5th), Kasey Kahne (6th), Waltrip (9th) and Martin Truex Jr. (10th).

Really, now, who could have predicted that?

And who could have predicted that the Chase leaders, those drivers atop the standings when the Talladega event began, would experience mediocre to dismal results?

Carl Edwards, No. 1 in the standings, finished 11th, his first run outside the top 10 since the Chase began. Kevin Harvick, who was hot on Edwards’ heels prior to the race, experienced on-track misfortune and wound up 32nd. Matt Kenseth, third when the green flag fell, could do no better than 18th.

Resurgence for Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch came to an end as they saw momentum die with finishes of 26th and 33rd, respectively.

For all of that, Edwards not only retains his lead in the point standings, he now has largest margin in the first six races of the Chase – largely because he finished ahead of all but two of his rivals.

Edwards now has a 14-point margin over the new runnerup, Kenseth. He’s 18 points ahead of Brad Keselowski, who ran fourth at Talladega, and 19 over Tony Stewart, who finished seventh and was a victory contender for a large portion of the race.

Harvick came into Talladega No. 2 in points, just five behind Edwards with steady Chase performances. But he was involved in a multicar accident after 107 of 188 laps and was forced to report to the garage area for repairs, including a broken oil line. He finished nine laps down and is now fifth in points, 26 in arrears.

Kyle Busch, 33rd at Talladega after his involvement in a multicar wreck, is presently sixth in points, 40 behind Edwards. Johnson’s bid to win a sixth consecutive title took a serious hit with his 26th-place finish, which puts him seventh in points and 50 out of the lead. Kurt Busch wound up 36th at Talladega, also the victim of a wreck, and he’s eighth in points, 52 down.

The remainder of the top 12 in points has, for the most part, been removed from championship consideration. They are Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin and Ryan Newman.

“I don’t know that I have ever been so excited about 11th place,” said a relieved Edwards. “This race was one that was nerve-racking for everyone but we came in here with a small points lead and so it was a huge day for us.

“I cannot believe how much Greg (Biffle, Roush Fenway Racing teammate) helped us today. I owe him a lot. Greg stuck with me all day. On the last lap he was driving my car from back there. It is good to get a good finish and even though it is not a win, it is a big battle in the war and a huge day for us.”

Edwards wisely added that although he’s boosted his points lead, competitively, he couldn’t let up.

“We’d have to have a 100-point lead to take a breath,” he said. “Anything can happen. I’m proud of our team, where we’ve come from, how far we’ve come in the last 18 months. We’re doing well.

“But I’m a little nervous about Matt, honestly, because I know how good he is and how good his team is. Having him in second doesn’t make me breathe easier, competitive-wise.”

Despite Edwards’ surge in the Chase, the most compelling Talladega tale was Bowyer’s victory.

The Emporia, Kan., native, who has spent all of his six full Sprint Cup seasons with Childress, finished among the top 10 in points in three of the last four seasons.

But he was 14th when the Chase began this year. And as the season wound down, it became clear that all attempts to secure a sponsorship package that would allow him to remain with Childress were going to fail.

Some lame duck drivers waddle toward the end of a season. Bowyer has clearly not done that.

To win at Talladega, Bowyer hooked up in the draft behind leader and teammate Burton when the race restarted from its ninth, and final, caution period with just two laps to go.

The two were well ahead of the pack when Bowyer made his move, pulling to the inside of Burton on the last lap. Burton retaliated, the two bumped, but Bowyer held on to win by a half-car length in yet another Talladega race decided by a last-lap pass.

“Trust me, I was prepared to push Jeff to the win no matter what the cost was if we would have had people breathing down or necks,” Bowyer said. “It just wasn’t meant to be for him. He’s been a great teammate and I’ve learned a lot from him. He’s already won a lot of races. I think he’s won like 20 or so. I’ve only won five.

“You owe it to your team and to your sponsors to go out and win the race.”

Bowyer quickly admitted he wanted to win to reward the efforts of his team and to indicate he wasn’t going to be the typical lame duck.

“It’s just so important to me to be able to cap off such a good relationship with Richard,” he said. “Everybody at RCR, it’s like family over there. It meant a lot for me to be able to win before we end this deal.

“The stars were lined up today with having the hundredth anniversary of Chevrolet on my race car. If I won the race, it was going to be Richard’s hundredth win.

“I’m excited that it was.”

 

Print This Post Print This Post