16 drivers, 16 questions: Analyzing the Cup playoff competitors

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No matter what has come before, the playoffs represent hope. For those who have been strong all season, there is a hope that such performances will continue. For those who have struggled, there is hope that things will change.

Reality will intercede when cars get on track this weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Until then, there is hope.

Here is a key question for each playoff driver:

Kyle Busch (2050 points)

Is this his title to lose?

Yes. Two of his six wins this year were at tracks that will host playoff races (Texas and Richmond), and he finished second at three other tracks this year that will host playoff races (Las Vegas, Phoenix and Martinsville).

(Photo: Getty Images)

A key for him could be the second round, which features Dover (35th in the spring, mechanical issue), Talladega (13th in the spring) and Kansas (10th in the spring). He failed to lead a lap in all three races, making that the only time he’s failed to lead a lap in three consecutive races this season.

The 50 playoff points he has should provide a cushion for him but he knows all too well how cruel the playoffs can be. He was second in the points entering the second round cutoff race at Talladega in 2014. While riding toward the back, he was involved in a crash and eliminated from title contention.

He should go further in the playoffs. Much further.

 

Kevin Harvick (2050)

Is this his title to lose?

Yes. Four of his seven wins this year have come on tracks the series will go to in the playoffs (Las Vegas, Phoenix, Dover and Kansas).

He has not finished worse than fifth this year at a track that will host a playoff race and has an average finish of 2.5 at those tracks.

How is anyone going to beat that?

If he’s not racing for the title in Miami, it will be shocking.

 

Martin Truex Jr. (2035)

Is there too much for Martin Truex Jr. to overcome to win another championship?

This team will no longer exist in 10 weeks and enters the playoffs with some uneven performances. It’s either setting up to be a disappointing finish for Truex or a feel-good story that could match last year’s championship run.

The performances lately, though, leave some questions.

(Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

The team failed inspection three times at Indy and had to start at the rear. Truex said during the pace laps that his brakes didn’t feel right. A brake failure ended his day after 41 laps, leaving him with a season-worst 40th-place finish.

At Darlington, Truex was fast and ran in the top three in the first half of the race before a penalty for an uncontrolled tire caused him to fall off the lead lap. It took most almost the rest of the race to get back on the lead lap because there were so few cautions. He recovered to finish 11th but the mistake cost him.

He started 17th at Bristol — the only time in the last seven races before Indianapolis that he started so far back. He was collected in an early accident, overcame that and was running near the front when contact from Kyle Busch sent him into the wall.

At Michigan, Truex spun, his team struggled on pit road and he ran out of fuel, ruining what could have been a much better finish than 14th.

“Being fast and doing all the little things right is important,” Truex told NBC Sports. “I feel like the guys that are on top of their game and … can bring speed to the race track are going to be hard to beat.”

Maybe these recent races mean nothing. Maybe they are a sign that this team isn’t as solid as it was last year. We’ll soon find out.

 

Brad Keselowski (2019)

He’s won the past two races by his team executing well instead of having the fastest car. Can that be the pathway to a title or will the lack of speed hurt this team?

So often the fastest car doesn’t win the race. Over time, though, a fast car is more likely to succeed. At some point in the playoffs, Keselowski will need to win.

At Darlington, his pit crew helped him take the lead off the final pit stop. At Indianapolis, pit strategy and a timely caution put him in position to win. He wasn’t the fastest in either race but won.

(Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)

“We want more speed,” crew chief Paul Wolfe said after the Indy win. “We know we’re off a little bit there. But I believe we can get through the first round for sure by just executing and not making mistakes. 

“As I look at the second and third round, there’s some great opportunity races there. We know we can go to Talladega and win, and we know we can go to Martinsville and win. We have a little bit of work to do on the intermediate tracks to find a little more speed, but winning the last two weeks definitely is a little booster for everyone at Team Penske.”

 

Clint Bowyer (2015)

Can he be consistent enough to contend for a spot in Miami?

His longest streak of top-10 finishes is four in a row this season. Worse is that he has failed to finish in the top 10 in seven of the last nine races.

The Stewart-Haas Racing cars are fast, but he’s not been faster than teammate Kevin Harvick and hasn’t matched the consistency of teammate Kurt Busch. With many expecting at least two of the Big 3 — Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. — to make it to the finals in Miami, that leaves little room for the rest of the field and inconsistent finishes won’t do it.

 

Joey Logano (2014)

He made the championship race in 2014 and 2016. Can he keep the even-year streak going?

In 2014 and 2016, Logano came into the playoffs on a hot streak. He had scored three consecutive top 10s before playing 13th at Indy on Monday.

The sting of his Indy performance left him viewing the playoffs more critically.

We just have to get going, that’s all,” Logano said. “The playoffs are about to start and hopefully we’ll do better than that.”

One thing that Logano fans can look forward to are the tracks in the playoffs. He scored six top-10 finishes in the eight races at playoff tracks earlier this year, including his win at Talladega.

 

Kurt Busch (2014)

Is consistency enough to get him far in the playoffs?

The Bristol winner enters the playoffs with eight consecutive top-10 finishes, which ties Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kevin Harvick for the longest active top-10 streak. That also matches what Kyle Busch did earlier this season for the longest top-10 streak of the season.

(Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Kurt Busch said the turnaround came at New Hampshire in July when he won the pole, led 94 laps and finished eighth. He’s encouraged that the team has been good on a variety of tracks even though none of the tracks in his current streak will be in the playoffs.

As for the playoffs, he has a simple philosophy.

“There is no reason to change anything going into the playoffs,” Kurt Busch told NBC Sports after finishing sixth at Indianapolis. “This is one of the best Brickyard cars that I’ve ever had, I just didn’t execute on restarts to the best of my ability.”

 

Chase Elliott (2008)

Can momentum carry this team forward?

Last year, Chase Elliott finished no better than eighth in the eight races leading into the playoffs. But that didn’t matter. He had three runner-up finishes in the first four playoff races and finished the year with four top 10s in the last five races.

This year, Elliott enters the playoffs having scored six top 10s in the last seven races, making him among the hottest drivers.

“I think our speed has been better,” Elliott said. “We’ve just got to keep improving.”

 

 

Ryan Blaney (2007)

Is he a contender or pretender?

The Team Penske driver is an interesting case study. Eight of his 12 top-10 finishes this season came in the first 15 races of the year.

But since his 40th-place finish at Daytona in July, he has not placed worse than 15th in a race. To be a true title contender, those finishes need to be better in the coming weeks.

Some of his best tracks — other than Bristol — are playoff tracks. He finished third at Martinsville in the spring and was fifth at Texas and fifth at Las Vegas earlier this year. So there’s a foundation for him to be a contender.

 

Erik Jones (2005)

Can he step it up in his first Cup playoffs?

He enters the playoffs after a runner-up finish at Indianapolis and nine top 10s in the last 11 races, but the playoffs are so much different from the regular season.

It’s a point Jones discovered in 2016 in the Xfinity Series.

(Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

“I thought it was going to be a breeze to get to the final four because we were so fast and had won races all year, but really it wasn’t,” Jones told NBC Sports. “It was very challenging. We almost missed out in the final four.

“It’s going to be tough. Even the round of 16 (this year), as much as you want to think yea, it will be easy, just top 10 our way through it, it never seems to go like that.”

But if Jones can do what he’s done lately — he has averaged 34.3 points a race — that should get him through the opening round comfortably.

“We’ve done a good job the last month of really sticking with it, and when we’re not having a great day,  making it into one that is more than salvageable,” he said.

 

Austin Dillon (2005)

Can this team get beyond the first round?

This team has shown improvement in the second half of the season with an average finish of 16.3 in the last nine races.

That likely won’t be good enough in the playoffs. He failed to advance out of the first round last year with an average finish of 17.0. Teammate Ryan Newman had an average finish of 16.3 in the first round of last year’s playoffs and also failed to advance.

“We have had fast cars here lately and that is a good thing,” Dillon said. “So, we are capable of bringing some speed to the track, and Vegas has been a good track for us in the past. Hopefully, we can just take what we have been good with the last couple of weeks and run it there.”

 

Kyle Larson (2005)

Can he find a way to Miami and win the title at what is his best track?

Kyle Larson is encouraged by the speed he’s had in the car the past two weeks at Darlington and Indianapolis.

(Photo: Getty Images)

The key is to get to Miami. Even if the Big 3 all made it to the championship race, some observers would view Larson as the favorite there if he also qualified for that race because of how good he is there.

Getting there has been the challenge for Larson even when he’s been better.

Larson was vocal after Monday’s race at Indianapolis about what needs to be fixed if he is to make it to Miami.

“We’re still horrible on pit road,” he told NBC Sports. “That’s discouraging. We’ll clean it up. I made mistakes on pit road as well. So I wasn’t happy with myself and my performance on pit road, but our pit crew needs to be better if we want to win the championship.”

 

 

Denny Hamlin (2003)

Was Indianapolis a sign of things to come?

The bothersome issue with this team has been the speed it has had in qualifying — Hamlin had four front-row starts in the six races before Indy — yet he had not finished better than eighth in those races.

(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

With qualifying rained out at Indianapolis, Hamlin showed speed in the race. He led 37 laps, tying Clint Bowyer for most laps led, and was in position to win the race until a late caution. Brad Keselowski, whose car had fresher tires, took advantage of the last restart and beat Hamlin.

Indianapolis is a track that shows what teams have the best horsepower and aero package. That said, the question is would Hamlin have led as much had Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick not had various issues on pit road? It’s doubtful.

But maybe it is the surge Hamlin and his team need entering the playoffs.

“Typically in history, we’ve performed better in the playoffs than we have in the regular season just about always,” Hamlin said. “We’ll have to take a bigger jump this year than what we’ve taken in years past. We’ve typically been pretty good and then we’ve been great in the playoffs. This year we’ve been mediocre, and I think that the big jump to great is a big one.”

 

Aric Almirola (2001)

What is a realistic expectation for this team?

For a team that hasn’t won — and is the only Stewart-Haas Racing team without a victory this season — getting past the second round could be considered a success.

He has not scored more than back-to-back top-10 finishes this year. This team will have to step it up to avoid being eliminated early.

I feel like we’ve got fast race cars and we’ve got a chance to go up there and compete to win races and go far into the playoffs,” Almirola said after finishing 23rd at Indianapolis, saddled by a flat tire while running in the top five. “Just thinking about today and another lost opportunity for us. We had a car capable of challenging to win and run up front and we just keep having things pop up.”

 

Jimmie Johnson (2000)

Will his worst season end in an early playoff exit?

It’s hard to discount a seven-time champion, but what has his team shown this year?

This team has not finished better than ninth in its last 12 races. His last top-five finish was a fifth at the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte on Memorial Day weekend. Johnson’s winless streak is a career-long 49 races.

“Honestly, we’re not in a position, I think, just to go out and drive our way in right now, sadly,” Johnson told NBC Sports. “It’s hard to admit that, it’s hard to say that, but it’s the truth. That’s not going to change our work effort, our determination, our mindset and we’ll keep swinging.”

 

Alex Bowman (2000)

Could he be the Cinderella story of the playoffs?

Alex Bowman drove underfunded cars earlier in his career, found out on social media he had lost a ride, decided his best opportunity was to join Hendrick Motorsports as the driver for its simulator program and filled in well enough when Dale Earnhardt Jr. was out in 2016 to take over the No. 88 this season.

(Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

There’s already a lot there. Now add that Hendrick Motorsports has not been as competitive this season, Bowman’s career-best finish of third came a few weeks ago at Pocono, he had to battle through damage from a crash at Indianapolis to clinch the final playoff spot and he enters the postseason as the last seed.

“To come from where I was at in my career is so unobtainable,” Bowman said. “Just driving for Hendrick Motorsports seemed unobtainable, but to make the playoffs in my first year back is really cool. It’s a special thing to be a part of.”

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NASCAR America: Turning Point in Kyle Busch’s Auto Club win

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Twice this year Kyle Busch has been denied a chance at victory thanks to a pit road penalty (speeding in the Cup race at Las Vegas, tire violation in the Xfinity race at Auto Club Speedway)

But a speeding penalty in Sunday’s Cup race at Auto Club Speedway wasn’t enough to keep Busch from Victory Lane and 200 national NASCAR series wins.

The speeding penalty on Lap 123 and how Busch and his team responded to it is this week’s “Turning Point” on NASCAR America.

Steve Letarte, Jeff Burton and Dale Jarrett discussed how Busch navigated the rest of the race after restarting 18th.

Letarte said the tone for the final stretch of the race was set by crew chief Adam Stevens’ counseling of Busch before the green flag and throughout the rest of the race.

Stevens told Busch, “We’ll get back up here in the top 10 in a handful of laps, get a couple of cautions and get right back in it.”

Said Jarrett: “(Stevens) knew how much he beat himself up after Las Vegas for the mistake he made there. But look at the moves (Busch) made here (on the restart). This doesn’t look like to me a driver who listened to any of that.”

As the final stage played out, Busch went from 10th to fifth in 23 laps, while the gap between him and race leader Brad Keselowski grew.

“Now he has a choice,” Letarte said. “You can try to short pit Brad Keselowski, I feel that would be futile. Brad knows who he’s racing, he’d short pit on top of you. Instead he runs long and he lets Brad come to pit road first.”

But Stevens was right. A caution would wave on Lap 165 for debris during the green flag stops and while Busch was leading.

After he pit under caution, Busch restarted second with 30 laps to and took the lead five laps later.

Watch the above video for the full segment.

Ryan: Which teams have mountains to climb after West Coast Swing?

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Kyle, Kyle, Kyle.

Kyle. Kyle.

Kyle.

As NASCAR leaves the land of Hollywood, hopefully it also will be shaking its “Being John Malkovich”-esque meta feedback loop that has been on repeat for two race weekends with a dizzying relentlessness.

Let’s wrap this up quickly!

Yes, Kyle Busch’s 200 national series victories are a laudable achievement worthy of his already Hall of Fame career.

No, it isn’t comparable to Richard Petty’s 200 Cup wins, which happened in another century (mostly with completely different tracks and circumstances) and stand on their own merits.

Maybe there are other things happening in NASCAR that are worthy of further examination with the completion of the fourth annual Nevada-Arizona-California hopscotch?

Running through a few of them:

–This is the first time in 19 years that Hendrick Motorsports has yet to record a top five through the first five races (and that 2000 team had one fewer car).

After a mediocre start to 2018 in the Camaro’s debut, the team somehow seems in the same straits with the model this season while adapting to the 2019 configuration of lower horsepower and higher downforce.

Because of the hurdles in running three consecutive races more than 2,000 miles from the industry’s Charlotte hub, it was expected that course-correcting any car deficiencies would be more difficult than it already is.

Never mind the expense of changing on the fly, it’s logistically impossible to make significant updates to cars while trying to ship them to the other side of the country amid a carefully coordinated and highly regimented plan of hauler swaps and highway gymnastics.

The March 31 race at Texas Motor Speedway will be the first 1.5-mile race in which teams have been able to digest everything learned in real-world conditions and apply them to their cars.

Alex Bowman finished 21st at Fontana and still is seeking his first top 10 in 2019 for Hendrick Motorsports (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images).

If Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman, William Byron and Jimmie Johnson leave Texas without a top five, it won’t be the end of the world for Rick Hendrick’s squad. Last year, it took until August for Elliott to earn the first of three victories for the team, and Hendrick has an Optical Scanning Station in house (it didn’t a year ago), along with a better grasp on its personnel restructuring that occurred before the 2018 season.

All four drivers have run well at times this season, too, and Phoenix was a major rebound in qualifying.

But a collective one top 10 across 12 starts at Atlanta, Las Vegas and Fontana is troubling and indicative that much work remains to be done for a storied organization that takes great pride in its 12 Cup championships.

–Stewart-Haas Racing didn’t miss the boat as much with its new Mustangs, but its lead driver also was chalking some of his recent success up to being a veteran.

After a fourth at Fontana, Kevin Harvick said his team made ‘a lot out of not very much.’ (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

“I don’t think as a group we feel like our cars are where they need to be but that experience has led to decent finishes so we can change the things we want to when we get home,” Kevin Harvick said two days before his third top five and fourth consecutive top 10 this year. “Experience is always going to matter.”

So is money and sponsorship, which is why Stewart-Haas, Hendrick and other high-budget teams will be well positioned to retrofit their cars (or perhaps rebuild them entirely). Harvick estimated there could as many as a half-dozen combination of car styles that will need to be developed and require “an extreme amount of work” for the armies of engineers employed by teams.

“I think we are seeing some of the unintended consequences of this package,” he said. “It isn’t what everybody expected from the testing with the drafting and low drag and things you are prepared for. I feel like we have had top five, top three cars (at Atlanta, Vegas and ISM Raceway). They are just not quite winning cars.

“It is really just a survival game at this point trying to keep up with the schedule. We are learning at such a rapid pace right now that the changes to the car will be extreme by the time you get to Texas. … One of the things that caught a lot of people off guard are the differences you will have to have from race track to race track with the things you do to the car and how they work. The workload is going to be absolutely extreme on the race teams this year.”

–According to one crew chief whose team has figured out the 2019 package as well as anyone, body construction and rear ride heights are the keys to hitting the right combination of downforce and balance.

Paul Wolfe, whose No. 2 Ford posted a first, second and third with driver Brad Keselowski on the big ovals since Daytona, said his team still is finding the handle on this season’s setup, but those areas have been the most impact.

“There is a window there where you can change your rear ride height to change your drag, but that also changes the overall balance of your car,” Wolfe said after Saturday practice at Auto Club Speedway. “So then, your mechanical balance to go with the aero balance could be different. Some guys may have gone down the path of really trimming their cars out with their body build and then when you get (to Fontana), you just can’t put downforce back in it enough to be good at the tracks where you need to start to lift (off the throttle) because of tire fall off.

“There are a lot of options and lots of different things to do. It is about trying to understand not only being fast by yourself but how these cars seem to get extremely tight or they could get loose in the dirty air.”


During the throes of crisis after Dale Earnhardt’s death in 2001, NASCAR executives angry about media coverage were counseled by a wise man (in a story recounted in this episode of the NASCAR on NBC Podcast) that “being pissed off is not a PR strategy” .

Hope isn’t a strategy, either, but that seems to be what NASCAR has clung to in hoping that group qualifying can remain viable in the era of drafting.

The most disconcerting part of last Friday’s self-proclaimed “mockery” at Auto Club Speedway is how eminently predictable the debacle was. If teams aren’t incentivized to be on the track first, then they justifiably will stay put until someone else does.

Of course, that was a terrible look at Fontana for NASCAR, and of course, the teams bear responsibility.

As do officials who blithely declared, “We’re in show business” when asked legitimate questions about why they were trying to implement procedures that have a dubious track record.

Group qualifying with a draft doesn’t work in the truck series, which reverts to a single-vehicle format. It also has failed in previous attempts at Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway (and was overhauled after some controversial wrecks in 2015).

“It didn’t work in trucks, it didn’t work in Xfinity, and I don’t know why anybody thought it was going to work in the Cup Series,” analyst Jeff Burton said Monday on NASCAR America.

If the strategy for having it work this time was “let’s hope that drivers and teams will do the right thing and choose the path that will benefit the greater good of fan entertainment instead of stubbornly sticking to their selfish performance interests,” well … that’s hopeless.


OK, we give in: here’s ONE note on Kyle Busch (for Rowdy Nation and all its lovers/haters).

For the second consecutive week, Busch joked about the possibility of driving for a Formula One team as the last undiscovered country of his racing career (well, aside from if he ever gets around to the Indianapolis 500).

It seems an unlikely prospect because “nobody from F1 is calling.

“They’re going to have to spend a lot of money to buy me out of Joe Gibbs Racing, that’s for sure,” said Busch, who recently signed a multi-year extension that probably takes him through at least 2022 in the No. 18 Toyota. “I don’t know if it’s worth their investment. … I’d love to be able to give it a shot and kind of see. I don’t foresee the opportunity really blossoming.”

Ahh, but it once could have!

When the ill-fated USF1 team was planning a 2010 entry into Formula One (that unfortunately never happened), Busch was high on their radar screen – enough that USA TODAY reported that sporting director Peter Windsor had a cursory meeting with Busch’s business team.

“It’s definitely something I wouldn’t shoot down,” Busch said in 2009. “If I could win a championship (in NASCAR) in the next two or three years then I wouldn’t mind going doing (F1) for a few years and coming back. I think I’d still be young enough that if I could win a championship by 25, go run Formula 1 for a few years and be back (in NASCAR) by 28.”

That window has closed for Busch, who turns 34 in May.

But he doesn’t sound as if someone who has completely closed the door on considering the possibility again. So in the unlikely event an F1 team wanted to take a chance on a NASCAR champion in his late 30s …


Dustin Long’s report was intriguing on Cole Custer being the first choice as the replacement driver Sunday if an ailing Austin Dillon fell out of the No. 3 Chevrolet – and not just because Custer was consuming a “jumbo platter” when he got the call.

Typically, such arrangements don’t happen with drivers crossing manufacturer lines. But the time and travel constraints of the Fontana race made Custer (a native of nearby Orange County who had lingered after his Ford won Saturday’s Xfinity race) the easiest choice.

In the “corporate teammates” era in which automaker hardball on brand loyalty often is a barrier to drivers moonlighting as often as yesteryear, it was refreshing to confirm it doesn’t preclude a common-sense decision such as this.


Fontana again stirred some passionate debate about the efficacy of the 2019 rules package, which virtually has guaranteed wild restarts but also has produced a surprising amount of green-flag racing (there’s been one crash that could be considered “multicar” – and even that was a stretch – over 1,300 miles at Atlanta, Las Vegas and Fontana).

Two more points seem relevant:

–Kyle Busch’s 2.354-second margin of victory was a fraction of Martin Truex Jr.’s 11.685-second thumping at the same 2-mile oval last year.

–If you are advocating dumping the tapered spacers that limit horsepower to 550 at tracks such as Fontana, here’s your friendly reminder that restoring last year’s horsepower numbers would take a herculean effort by engine manufacturers who have already mapped out months of inventory at the current parameters. Reverting to 2018 probably would require months of hardware and logistical challenges.


NASCAR President Steve Phelps told the Arizona Republic that April 1 is the goal for releasing the 2020 schedule.

While next year’s slate likely won’t be unveiled this week, there is momentum within NASCAR for targeting the week between races at Martinsville Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway.

It still is expected to feature a fresh approach to the calendar, but any venue changes won’t happen until 2021, as Phelps said last month.

NASCAR America at 5 p.m. ET: Auto Club recap, Turning Point

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America airs from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN and will recap all the action from the weekend’s racing at Auto Club Speedway.

Steve Letarte is joined by Jeff Burton and Dale Jarrett.

The trio will dissect the turning point of the race and discuss what happened Friday in qualifying.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch it online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

Penalty report from Auto Club Speedway

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NASCAR has issued one fine for an unsecured lug nut during the Auto Club Speedway race weekend.

Chris Gabehart, crew chief on Denny Hamlin‘s No. 11 Toyota, was fined $10,000 for the infraction.

No other penalties were announced.