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.

Results, point standings after Truck race at Las Vegas

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Austin Hill won Friday night’s Truck Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for his second win of 2020.

He beat Sheldon Creed for the victory.

The top five was completed by Tanner Gray, Stewart Friesen and Chandler Smith.

IndyCar driver Conor Daly finished 18th and Travis Pastrana was 21st.

Click here for the race results.

Check back for the point standings.

Austin Hill wins Las Vegas Truck race

Austin Hill
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Austin Hill won Friday night’s Truck Series playoff race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, leading the final 39 laps to score the victory.

Hill took the lead on a restart and held off charges from Sheldon Creed over the final 20 laps.

Creed’s progress was slowed with 11 laps to go when he got loose and scraped the wall in Turn 1. He was never able to get close enough to Hill to make a challenge.

Creed dominated the early portion of the race, leading 89 laps before he struggled to get going on the final restart and briefly fell to seventh.

The win is the second of the year for Hill. He’s the first playoff driver to win in the postseason and it come after he finished 25th at Bristol.

“We didn’t have the best truck tonight by no means,” Hill told FS1. “Pit crew did a hell of job on that last pit stop getting me into the position I needed to. I just had to go out there and get it. … Sheldon was definitely way faster than me. … I was probably looking in my mirror more than I was our front. I knew he was better than we were.”

The top five was completed by Tanner Gray, Stewart Friesen and Chandler Smith.

More: Race results and point standings

STAGE 1 WINNER: Sheldon Creed

STAGE 2 WINNER: Sheldon Creed

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Tanner Gray, Stewart Friesen and Chandler Smith all matched their best results of the season … While he was the first driver to finish one lap down, IndyCar driver Conor Daly placed 18th in his first career Truck Series start … Travis Pastrana placed 21st in his second start of the season.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Rachael Lessard finished 20th after he had to pit early in the race following contact with the wall … Ben Rhodes finished 23rd after he spun from contact with Stewart Friesen and hit the inside wall on Lap 84 … Jordan Anderson’s engine expired on the ensuing restart. He finished 32nd.

NOTABLE: Natalie Decker, who was not medically cleared to compete Friday night, was treated and released from the infield care center.

WHAT’S NEXT: Race at Talladega Superspeedway, 1 p.m. ET Oct. 3 on FS1

 

Natalie Decker not medically cleared for Las Vegas Truck race

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NASCAR announced right before Friday night’s Truck Series race that Natalie Decker hadn’t been medically cleared to compete.

No details were provided about the issue that prevented Decker from being cleared. During the final stage of the race, NASCAR announced she had been treated and released from the infield medical center.

The Niece Motorsports driver would have started 23rd. Due to her No. 44 truck having cleared inspection and having been placed on the starting grid she was credited with a last-place finish.

Decker has made 11 starts this year. She missed the June 28 race at Pocono after she was hospitalized due to bile duct complications related to her gallbladder removal in December.

Brandon Brown hopes to shed underdog role in Xfinity playoffs

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Brandon Brown knows the odds are against him advancing beyond the first round of the Xfinity playoffs.

“If I went out and we did a survey and we asked 1,000 NASCAR fans to create a playoff bracket, I guarantee that 90 to 99 percent of them have me getting eliminated in the first round,” he told NBC Sports.

But that’s not stopping him.

Brown is in the Xfinity playoffs for the first time, earning the final spot last weekend with his family-run team. He enters Saturday’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) last in the 12-driver field. Brown has 2,000 points and is 10 points behind Ross Chastain, who holds the final transfer spot, entering the first round.

MORE: Saturday’s Xfinity race start time, lineup, forecast

Regardless where he is in the standings, Brown still met the team’s preseason goal of making the playoffs.

“It’s hard to put it into words,” the 27-year-old said of making the playoffs. “It’s so exciting and so thrilling. We’re just happy. Life is good. We’re seeing the fruits of our labor.”

Much of the Xfinity playoff focus will be on Chase Briscoe, who enters with a series-high seven wins. Or Austin Cindric, who won the regular-season title. Or Justin Allgaier, who has won three of the last seven races and could be the favorite if he makes it to the championship race at Phoenix Raceway.

Brown, who is in his second full season in the series, has four consecutive top-20 finishes going into this weekend. He knows the challenge he faces.

He said a key for this weekend is to have no mistakes, be running at the end and try to take advantage of any mistakes other playoff drivers have.

Then, he’ll look to Talladega. He’ll have an upgraded Earnhardt Childress Racing engine for that race, the team spending the extra money for the engine upgrade.

“I go into that track with confidence,” he said. “I need to go out there and make it happen, go win and make an name and go ahead and punch my ticket.”

While Brown knows most look at him as the underdog of these playoffs, he hopes to drop that title someday.

“The goal will be to get rid of that underdog title and to build that program that is going to be looked on as a powerhouse of the NASCAR Xfinity Series,” he said. “I enjoy the ride (as underdog), but now I’m ready to advance past it.”

Points entering Xfinity playoffs 

2,050 – Chase Briscoe

2,050 – Austin Cindric

2,033 – Justin Allgaier

2,025 – Noah Gragson

2,020 – Brandon Jones

2,018 – Justin Haley

2,014 – Harrison Burton

2,010 – Ross Chastain

2,002 – Ryan Sieg

2,002 – Michael Annett

2,001 – Riley Herbst

2,000 – Brandon Brown

First Round races

Sept. 26 – Las Vegas Motor Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN)

Oct. 3 – Talladega Superspeedway (4:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN)

Oct. 10 – Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval (3:30 p.m. ET on NBC)