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. 

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

Joey Logano Must Gamble for NASCAR Playoffs

Joey Logano is down to his final two races to make NASCAR's playoffs

Joey Logano is down to his final two races to make NASCAR’s playoffs

Joey Logano, driver of the #22 Penske Racing Ford, is down to his final two racetrack spins of the regular season.  And the odds may be more stacked against him making the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup playoffs than your winning the latest Powerball drawing.

Logano’s struggle to qualify for the playoffs is arguably the greatest shock of the NASCAR season, given that Logano made it all the way to the final round of Championship 4 drivers at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 2014 and 2016.

Even though Logano won at Richmond Raceway in April, that victory doesn’t count toward playoff eligibility because his car failed inspection after the race.

Mathematically eliminated in terms of points, Logano is in a must-win situation to qualify for the playoffs with only a return to Richmond and Darlington Raceway left in the regular season.

Two weeks ago, Logano confessed at Michigan International Speedway to being desperate, but felt the final stretch of regular-season tracks was a good fit for his driving style.

Yet, at Bristol where he has won twice previously, Logano wrestled his way to a 13th place finish in Saturday’s Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race, lacking corner entry stability and having to rebound from being a lap-down by utilizing the free-pass.

Since the Richmond penalty was announced, which included a loss of team points and crew chief suspension for two races, the momentum has been sucked out of the #22 team.  In his last 14 NASCAR Cup races, Logano has led only 7 laps.

Logano was all smiles after winning Richmond in April, but was later penalized for car template violations

Logano was all smiles after winning Richmond in April, but was later penalized for car template violations

Back in February, Logano was on top of the world, as he, crew chief Todd Gordon, and sponsor Shell signed contract extensions running through 2023, delivering the team stability that Roger Penske craves.

Logano, saying it was a day he would never forget, proclaimed, “When a seven-year deal is thrown in front of you, obviously you jump on that opportunity to go out there and win championships together.”

So, will Logano be able to cash in on victory lane in either of the two remaining regular season races?

Richmond is the better bet of the two tracks, given Logano has won there twice (including the “encumbered” April win).  His average finish of 8.9 over last 10 races is 2nd among active drivers.

Darlington, with its odd egg-shaped design and legend as the “track too tough to tame”, is a definite shortcoming in Logano’s repertoire.  His average finish of 18.4 is 17th best among active drivers, including just two top-5’s in eight starts.

Logano maintains optimism, asserting “Every moment becomes more and more important on the racetrack, and that’s ok.  That’s where you find out what you’re made of, so I’m all right with that.”

Logano is spot-on.  The #22 team has had its back against the wall before and Team JL has delivered.

Crew Chief Gordon will need to tap his playbook to make crafty pit calls

Crew Chief Gordon will need to tap his playbook to make crafty pit calls

However, right now, the Penske Fords just haven’t been fast enough and appear off.

Penske’s two teams of Logano and Keselowski can crank a fast lap time in practice and qualifying, but they’re just not drivable in race conditions, either due to a shortfall of aero downforce or mechanical grip in race conditions.

Luck, of course, plays a big factor, and a shrewd pit call by master crew chief Todd Gordon could rescue the day at either track.  But, time is now the enemy, and this perplexing season may leave Team JL with mixed emotions given its early season success, followed by its recent struggles.

By Ron Bottano

Give your take: Will Logano make the Playoffs? Take our Twitter poll at @rbottano

 

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