Letarte: Why 2017 playoffs have chance to be best ever after Richmond missteps

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NASCAR admittedly messed up last Saturday at Richmond Raceway, and now the pressure is on as it never has been during the most critical stretch of the season.

Let me tell you why I think that is a good thing – both for the sanctioning body and the industry as a whole, and it might make the 2017 playoffs the most flawlessly executed and enduringly memorable (for the right reasons).

I’m a sports fan because I love the big stage. I love to watch Super Bowls, the World Series, Ryder Cup golf, the closing holes of the Masters. But I don’t even have to be a huge fan. I don’t know anything about Olympic handball, but I was captivated by the gold-medal match because it was the biggest stage.

Between life-threatening storms, political disagreements and cultural strife, we all as Americans want the diversions of being entertained, and nothing entertains like sports. In its quest to grow through its entertainment value, NASCAR has a platform in these final 10 races to deliver highly captivating moments.

We have the storylines to do it, from superstar veterans to rising stars. We have the great mix of teams, from perennial contenders Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske to emerging power Furniture Row Racing to beloved historical fixture Wood Brothers Racing.

Every part and piece is there to make a beautiful recipe.

But everyone who has a NASCAR hard card needs to understand they have a hand in the mix. Everyone needs to be held accountable. The most pressure to perform always is on the drivers, teams and pit crews, but now the pressure on the supporting staff also becomes real.

The restructuring of the playoffs – first in 2014 with the addition of points resets and eliminations and now this year with the addition of playoff points – has put a hyper-focus on performance these last 10 races.

That is performance that extends WAY beyond just the drivers behind the wheels, which generally is only what fans are thinking about.

You can’t focus the microscope on a nine-race playoff and a championship race and then have the officiating become a major story. But you also can’t have stories that result from questionable team ethics or missteps made by track personnel (as happened at Richmond) or even major errors by the broadcast network.

I can’t be part of the story. My job is to cover the superstars who are creating the stories. For Jeff Burton and I, we can’t forget a rule or stumble through an important setup or misspeak when a pass is coming. Rick Allen’s play-by-play call Sunday has to be at the premium level at which the winner at Chicagoland Speedway deserves.

But over the next two months of NASCAR, we are at a Super Bowl level of scrutiny. Every flag being thrown, every play being made (or not made), every commentator’s opinion – the attention and potential impact of every action by every actor at every level of every race is multiplied by a more intense spotlight that can tarnish an event with a major mistake (like Richmond) just as much as it can elevate it to greatness.

That’s where we’re at – and that’s where I want us to be. Everyone needs to feel that pressure. It’s a collective effort.

NASCAR has created a playoff system built on the essence of what makes sports great – high-pressure situations.

And no one is beyond that pressure and scrutiny, whether it’s the driver, crew chief, pit crew, engine builder, sanctioning body, track promoter, operations staff or the broadcast partners. I will have more nerves about feeling obligated to perform on air with exhaustive preparation in the final 10 races because the fan base and viewers deserve it – and they will notice it even more if we aren’t on point.

After throwing a questionable caution flag that created the opportunity for a different outcome (pit crews and a restart still were the reasons Martin Truex Jr. lost to Kyle Larson), I want to hear what NASCAR will do differently to make sure it doesn’t happen again at Chicagoland Speedway. We don’t need a detailed explanation, but NASCAR owes us a reassurance that the methods for throwing a caution have received heavy investigation and a reworking if necessary.

The pressure is on to deliver high-quality races – but it also is on everybody. I hope that everyone realizes – between teams, drivers, crew chiefs, broadcast partners and the tracks – that the final mulligan this season for the sport’s reputation was used at Richmond. Even if the ambulances are in proper position at Chicagoland, there can’t be a malfunctioning ticket scanner or something else instead. Expectations now are higher to be perfect.

Before an industry that lives in an enormous glass house starts tossing stones at the NASCAR scoring tower, everyone has to have their own stuff buttoned up. Everyone needs to be on another level of preparedness for the level of big-event opportunity that is here.

In a season with so many first-time winners and the emergence of a fresh class of stars complementing some familiar names, we have the ability to see a spectacular playoff, and everyone needs to understand the responsibility in creating that.

NASCAR is at its quintessential best with man and machine vs. man and machine, and may the best team win. It’s that simple.

The way to do that is through the NASCAR industry’s across-the-board execution, which is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.

That time is now.

It’s the playoffs, and everyone must deliver on the sport’s biggest stage.

Kyle Larson wins Stage 1 at Miami, Brad Keselowski leads Championship 4 drivers

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Kyle Larson won Stage 1 of Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, dominating by leading 67 of the stage’s 80 laps, holding a nine-second edge when he took the checkered flag.

Meanwhile, here’s how the four Championship 4 drivers finished after the first 80 laps of the scheduled 267-lap event: Brad Keselowski is second, Kyle Busch is third, Kevin Harvick is fourth and Martin Truex Jr. in fifth.

Truex, with six of his seven wins this season coming on 1.5-mile tracks like Homestead-Miami, wasted little time to take the lead away from pole-sitter Denny Hamlin.

The first caution of the race came out on Lap 6 when Joey Gase appeared to blow a tire and hit the Turn 1 wall hard.

During the subsequent pit stop, the only Championship 4 driver to hit pit road for four new tires was Keselowski, putting him off-sequence of the other contenders.

The move worked, though, as Keselowski quickly climbed from ninth on the restart on Lap 9 to third by Lap 12 and second by Lap 14.

Larson, who also pitted with Keselowski, took the lead away from Truex on Lap 13 and held on for the remaining 67 laps of the stage.

On Lap 38, Jimmie Johnson blew a right rear tire and came to pit road for four new tires. Even though there was no caution, all four championship contenders pitted over the following two laps.

On Lap 58, Harvick passed Truex and into third place for the first time in the race, zeroing on Keselowski in second.

Johnson got into the wall again on Lap 60, even though there was no caution, and sustained moderate damage, pitting for four tires and fuel.

Kyle Busch passed Harvick to take over third on Lap 77.

Sixth through 10th were Chase Elliott, Kurt Busch, Hamlin, Joey Logano and Clint Bowyer.

Watch: Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s fans on what the driver means to them

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The fan base of Dale Earnhardt Jr. is large and devoted.

Those fans, affectionately called “Junior Nation,” has voted Earnhardt as NASCAR’s most popular driver 14 years in a row.

Justin Hartley of NBC’s “This is Us” is a member of Earnhardt’s fan base. The actor narrates the above essay on the close relationship between the driver and his fans.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. talks to Bob Costas about his career, legacy before final Cup start

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Sunday marks Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s last start as a full-time Cup driver in NASCAR.

NBC Sports’ Bob Costas sat down with the 14-time most popular driver before the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway to get Earnhardt’s thoughts before he climbed in the No. 88 Chevrolet for the last time.

Earnhardt addressed what he hopes his legacy will be after 20 years in the sport as a driver, including his impact on attitudes towards concussions in sports in general.

Earnhardt, who will join NBC Sports in 2018, also talked about what life has in store for him in the near future.

Earnhardt also made sure to credit his devoted fan base for making his career possible.

“I understand the driving force behind my success and opportunity in this sport, whether it be inside the car or outside the car, is all because of Jr. Nation,” Earnhardt said. “This year we’ve tried our best to show appreciation to them.”

Watch the above video for the full interview.

 

Furniture Row Racing going for Cup title after year of success, tragedy

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It’s been a historic year for Furniture Row Racing, the Cup team that has its base of operations in an old water bed factory in Denver, Colorado.

With Martin Truex Jr. piloting the No. 78 Toyota, they won a team record seven races and a series record six races on 1.5-mile tracks. Combined with a dominating performance under the new stage racing format, Truex has put the team in its second Championship 4 in three years.

But it’s also been a season of perseverance and tragedy.

NBC Sports’ Nate Ryan narrates the above video essay on the story of Furniture Row Racing’s 2017 season.