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.

Danica Patrick: Different Series, Same Old…

If Patrick and Tony Stewart can't bring the level of sponsorship to the team they're used to seeing, it could spell trouble.

If Patrick and Tony Stewart can’t bring the level of sponsorship to the team they’re used to seeing, it could spell trouble.

No one can say with authority that Danica Patrick isn’t a worthy professional racing driver, she is.

However, it can be said that she appeared in her early racing career as a potential super competitor turned mediocre by today’s standards.

Auto racing as an endeavor to master machinery under stress is agnostic to color, race, creed or gender. It doesn’t care. The bottom line is all that counts.

Unfortunately her bottom line has been more monetary than on track results.

GoDaddy ultimately took her in as a potential historical racing figure in which to base it’s main marketing focus. Now, after a very long stint as her primary sponsor, they are leaving.

The question now remains: Will Danica Patrick be able to move up in stature in NASCAR or slowly grind her way back down the grid?

As it stands she shows brief flashes of skill on par with her main competitors, her teammates at Stewart-Haas Racing, but hasn’t delivered on-track as hoped. As long as the money train was in play, she was very relevant to both IndyCar and NASCAR.

In IndyCar she won one race. In virtually all of the lower formulas of her racing after Formula Ford, she was merely a few steps above average.

What she has excelled at is marketing. Other than the Earnhardt clan she may be the most marketable driver to have driven in either series.

Racing teams, racing series and corporations have flocked to her, used what they needed and either they moved on or she did. Ask Bobby Rahal how he feels.

Could GoDaddy take her back to Europe and into the WEC?

Could GoDaddy take her back to Europe and into the WEC?

Whatever the reasons, it has to be understood that all is fair in ‘Love, War and Racing’. She used whatever she needed to get where she is and no one can take that from her or fault her.

What can be taken from her is that if she can’t produce another sponsor at GoDaddy’s level, she will move further down the grid. Stewart Haas didn’t hire her for her driving prowess. Don’t be fooled into thinking that the money doesn’t get spread around the SHR camp.

However you look at it, she won’t see equipment like she presently enjoys should SHR decide to cut her loose.

I’ve no doubt that she will land on her feet, but unless she can show up with the magic funding number, she won’t get another chance. She’ll be the next single car team driver du jour.

Should Patrick fail to produce the dollars required to keep her on a top team, she may very well do herself a favor and move to a sports car endurance series such as the Tudor series or even the World Endurance Championship.

GoDaddy is on record as saying they want a more global marketing presence, which would make WEC sense, but that may not include Danica Patrick.

The bottom line? When you run out of cash, they take you out of the game.

 

Patrick Wins in Tommy Baldwin NASCAR Deal, Barrichello Considering IndyCar, Courtney Force

Danica Patrick benefitted from the points deal made between Stewart-Haas and Tommy Baldwin Racing. Baldwin gets technical and personnel help and Danica gets the points from the #36 car. Rubens Barrichello is considering a move to IndyCar. Barrichello has just left Williams Formula One. Courtney Force, daughter of John Force, will make her debut in Funny Cars in February in Pomona, California. Courtney Force says she’s ready.

Loudon Cup Race and Waltrip Sues Williams F1

The Cup race at Loudon, NH yesterday produced a badly needed win for Ryan Newman. The competition has tightened. Michael Waltrip has filed suit against Williams F1 Engineering for hiring away Mike Coughlan, the designer caught up in the F1 espionage scandal.

Numbers Tell Us The Competition Ain’t Bad, For Now

As the 2011 season heads into Texas Motor Speedway for the running of the Samsung Mobile 500 tonight it is interesting to note how, competition-wise, the preceding six races have provided excellent storylines.

This is NASCAR’s opinion, you understand, not mine – but I must say that I agree with it.

“Storylines” might be the wrong word here. Let’s just say that what has transpired so far are simply facts that deserve our attention.

Why, you might ask. It’s because some of what we might have expected so far this season has not happened – and some of what we did not, in many ways, has.

I use as evidence of all this information provided by NASCAR; information that puts its competition in a good light. But when it comes to competition, the sanctioning body is all about promoting the quality therein whenever possible – which is its job, after all.

The facts and figures are accurate. They are not manipulated. They are what they are, and, to be honest, they are intriguing.

We’re told that two of last year’s top winners, Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson, remain winless going into Texas. I’m not sure about you, but I’m one of those who thought either one of them would have been victorious by now. Heck, if nothing else, they were the hands-down favorites at Martinsville.

And you knew that, didn’t you?

Interestingly, lead-change records have fallen in three of the six Sprint Cup races so far, at Daytona, Phoenix and Martinsville.

There has been, NASCAR tells us, an average of 31.5 lead changes per race, the most after six events in series history.

Now I would be one of the first to say this is nothing but the result of racing circumstances. But I would quickly add that races that have produced record lead changes at such a high average are, if not great, certainly compelling.

After all, which race is better – one in which several drivers swap the lead or one in which a driver dominates to the point of boredom? I think you know.

NASCAR tells us that, through six races, there has been an average of 13 leaders per race, the most in series history.

Again I would say this is the result of circumstances. But I would also say that, as far as fan and media appeal, it beats the hell out of anything else.

We know that prior to Kevin Harvick’s win at Martinsville, his second in a row, there were five different winners in the first five races of the season. It’s the first time that’s happened since 2005.

Once more, it’s all about circumstances.

But then, given what has happened so far, consider this: You tell me, if you like real competition, what is more appealing – that one or two drivers dominate or that several win – and in some cases we are ultimately greatly surprised when they do?

Case in point: Face it, when Trevor Bayne and Wood Brothers Racing won the Daytona 500 was that not a big, pleasant surprise that ultimately captured national attention?

Headed into Texas, seven different teams occupied the top seven positions in the point standings. They were Joe Gibbs Racing, Roush Fenway Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Penske Racing, Richard Childress Racing, Stewart Haas Racing and Chip Ganassi Racing.

Hey, I like it. To me it’s a more intriguing scenario than oh, say, for Roush to have four teams among the top seven and Hendrick the other three – unless you’re a big fan of either team, or both.

Finally, NASCAR pointed out that the top four drivers in the point standings all run different manufacturers.

If I had to guess, the sanctioning body revels in this statistic more than any other. It’s proof, somewhat, that its ongoing efforts to create a level playing field for all its participating manufacturers are paying off – for now, anyway.

I know all of this is NASCAR tooting its own horn. But why not? There have been seasons in the past when it didn’t have a horn to toot.

Tooting aside, the numbers do tell us the competition in NASCAR, so far, ain’t been bad at all.

Starting at Texas tonight, we’ll see if stays the same, gets better or gets worse.

 

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