Ryan: Wild cards, computer games and other championship leftovers

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It was Year 5 for the Championship 4, a fitting milepost for analysis and evaluation of NASCAR’s playoffs.

The timing also is right judging by the reaction to this year’s champion, who undoubtedly has spurred the most debate of the elimination era despite having impeccable credentials.

Joey Logano might be the worthiest of any champion yet under this system – scoring the most points, accumulating the most top 10s and notching the best average finish of this year’s playoffs. So why has his title received blowback (we’ll get to our theory below)?

And there’s another reason that a big-picture playoff reflection seems ripe.

Since the inception of the Chase in 2004, this has been the longest period of stasis in NASCAR’s quasi-postseason for crowning a champion. Though the addition of stages and playoff points slightly altered the means for advancement, the method for qualifying and the size of the field has been constant since 2014.

That follows a period of significant structural changes at least every three to four years in the first decade of what once was known as “the Chase.”

In 2007, the field was expanded to 12 (and bonus points were added). In 2011, two slots were reserved for wild cards based on the winningest drivers outside the top 10. And in 2014, the system was overhauled with three-race elimination rounds and a 16-driver field.

Some would argue more changes (fewer races? fewer contenders?) still are needed – and perhaps the highly anticipated 2020 schedule makeover will reflect a new sheen.

But in the meantime, here are some lingering thoughts from the 2018 championship finale a week later:

Something wild: Congratulations, NASCAR: You crowned your first wild-card champion.

That’s what feels different about Logano’s title. (The notion that there is pushback simply because Logano’s aggression is polarizing seems reductive … was Kyle Busch’s 2015 title greeted the same way?)

The Team Penske driver was justified in resisting the underdog label that was thrust upon his team in the run-up to his matchup with “The Big Three,” and Logano even had jokes about racing against the dominant regular-season trio of Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. (which he conceded was far ahead of his team three months earlier).

The No. 22 Ford should have been given more credence as a contender entering Homestead-Miami Speedway because it essentially played the role of a 10-6 team getting hot during a Super Bowl run (six wild-card teams have won the NFL championship).

In five years of eliminations, Logano is the champion with the most nondescript regular season. As the slowest of the four contenders in the 2016 finale, Jimmie Johnson might have been a bigger underdog who won the finale and title, but he at least had four other victories on the way to his seventh championship.

Logano’s title felt more like an eighth seed knocking out a 13-3 team (or three). That’s much harder to reconcile in NASCAR, though, because the teams having epic seasons aren’t truly eliminated.

When an upset of the 15-1 Green Bay Packers occurs in the divisional round, they’re forgotten in the next two rounds. There is no omnipresent reminder that “Oh, the guy winning the championship wasn’t nearly as good as those other guys during the first 26 races.”

Logano emerged the rightful winner of an epic battle royale among the four best drivers of 2018, but it also was hard to ignore that two Hall of Fame drivers (Busch and Harvick) enjoyed career seasons.

That’s problematic, and it might be impossible for NASCAR to address beyond just educating fans on adjusting to it. By adding stages and playoff points, NASCAR ensured there virtually will never be an undeserving winless champion (which Ryan Newman flirted with becoming in 2014).

But some fundamentals likely can’t be “fixed” through tweaks – aside from “true” eliminations (i.e., removing cars ineligible for the title from the field of play) that would seem a non-starter.

–Four-way focus: Maybe that’s something to consider, though, considering how compelling the annual finale has become with only four cars that really matter.

The conventional wisdom goes it’s unfair to focus only on the championship contenders while ignoring the field. But there increasingly is no reason to focus on the rest, who have admitted to essentially racing the Championship 4 with mittens.

It’s clear the contenders and their teams prefer it that way – multicar teams quite obviously (and rationally) put a higher priority on whichever of their cars reach the finals.

Maybe it’s to the detriment for the other 30-something cars, but recent finales have shown it’s hugely compelling to follow only four cars’ strategies (stall selection! Short pitting! Short run vs. long run!). There’s virtually no compunction about voluntarily dismissing anyone else’s chances of winning.

The microtargeting is partly what makes this championship structure so good, allowing such dissection and analysis of what each of the four contenders is doing in execution and strategy.

Dual disappointments: In that vein, it was stupefying to contemplate how co-favorites Busch and Harvick caught every break and made all the necessary moves but still couldn’t capitalize.

Busch benefited from controversially having the No. 1 pit stall. It helped ensure he kept the lead when he got the yellow he needed late in the race (after crew chief Adam Stevens played the only card he could to keep his driver in the game). But his No. 18 Toyota simply wasn’t fast enough on the restart, plummeting from first to fourth.

It was indicative of the final 10 races for Busch, who won at Richmond and Phoenix but struggled mightily for race-winning speed at the four 1.5-mile ovals.

That was shocking because Joe Gibbs Racing (like any championship contender) brought “next-generation” chassis for the playoffs that somehow weren’t on par with the Fords of Team Penske and Stewart-Haas Racing. At least in the finale, Gibbs’ Toyotas also weren’t the equal of Truex’s (Furniture Row Racing and JGR assuredly weren’t working as closely in the final races of their alliance).

Harvick had the third-fastest car at Miami, but he still had a chance to win on a brilliant strategy call by substitute crew chief Tony Gibson, who short-pitted a lap earlier than the other three. Though crew chief Rodney Childers certainly was missed, strategy is the weakest part of his game, so Harvick might have benefited tactically from having a better shot to win with Gibson on the box. But ultimately, the final caution ensured it didn’t matter – even if the yellow hadn’t flown, Truex still would have beat Harvick under green.

The bottom line is that barring any major mistakes or problems by Logano and Truex, there was no way Busch and Harvick – the co-dominant drivers of 2018 — could win the championship, even if the race went exactly their way in the closing stages.

It was a stunning development given how the regular season unfolded. But maybe less stunning given how the playoffs did.

Computer age: Harvick’s performance was another emphatic confirmation of the so-called “arms race” that has engulfed the Cup Series, for better or worse. His No. 4 Ford seemed well off Friday and Saturday, but a marathon simulation session by Childers and engineer Dax Gerringer impressively restored Harvick to fighting shape for Sunday (and fastest before night fell).

That’s good in a way because it underscores that the investment of effort, money and time pays off.

But do you want races won essentially as much on high-fidelity software as on the racetrack?

That’s one of the dilemmas for modern-day NASCAR.

Money talks: One of the more awkward moments during the race championship weekend came during the news conference involving the contending owners (and their top lieutenants). When asked about the sponsor trends in NASCAR, Penske Corp. vice chairman Walt Czarnecki cited a well-attended sponsor conference the team was holding while racing for the championship.

“So there’s an appetite out there as long as you’re delivering the value,” Czarnecki said.

It was jarring because Czarnecki was sitting beside Furniture Row Racing president Joe Garone, who disclosed a few minutes later that a third of his team’s 62 employees still hadn’t found work beyond the team’s impending shutdown. Because of a lack of sponsorship (despite its 2017 championship), the Denver-based team and Truex finished second (to Penske and Logano) in their final race a day later.

The dichotomy between the top two teams in the 2018 standings reveals some inconvenient truths in Cup. Success undoubtedly helps drive sponsor interest, but it’s no guarantee of the necessary cash flow to fund the exorbitant annual budgets that stretch well into the tens of millions.

The ShellPennzoil sponsorship of Team Penske’s championship team is predicated on a strong business-to-business relationship because of Roger Penske’s automotive empire (which guarantees revenue to its backer). It would appear that Hendrick Motorsports’ new deal with Ally to sponsor Jimmie Johnson has similar characteristics.

It’s a business structure that is disconcertingly sui generis to some degree – every car owner in NASCAR generally has amassed some type of fortune, but only a select few happen to have the independent businesses that can attract sponsorship motivated more by revenue than results.

For the owner of a mattress and furniture store chain, facing off against rivals with broader and more lucrative portfolios might be a taller order than beating their race cars.

Let’s have some fun: A postscript on the most memorable thing Jimmie Johnson did this season (aside from the last lap of the Roval). His trip to the Formula One season finale invigorated the seven-time champion, whose giddiness over an impending car swap with Fernando Alonso was palpable via social media.

Yes, some of Johnson’s unbridled happiness naturally stems from being free of the stressors that suck the joy from competing at NASCAR’s highest level. (He also is free from his toughest season in Cup.)

But it also seemed to stem from being around a different environment. Witness the postrace interviews Sunday in Abu Dhabi with F1 drivers who didn’t seem ready for the season to end. Again, their championship system isn’t as inherently pressurized as NASCAR’s (and thus produces a different range of emotions), but they also are traveling thousands of miles annually and don’t seem as worse for the wear.

It recalled a salient question during NASCAR president Steve Phelps’ state of NASCAR news conference from veteran racing journalist Jeff Gluck, who has spent some of the past two years taking his eponymous website’s coverage to other series.

Gluck discovered that drivers and riders outside stock cars seemed to be having more fun and showing more passion, prompting a trenchant observation: Is NASCAR doing enough to ensure its stars are displaying as much of that infectious happiness and passion?

Phelps replied that Gluck’s question was a generalization (which is a fair response), but as a 2020 schedule overhaul is contemplated, let’s hope that Johnson’s exuberance is remembered.

William Byron focused on Talladega, not upcoming appeal

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — William Byron enters today’s Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway not knowing if he truly is above the cutline or below it.

He’s listed as eight points outside the final transfer spot after NASCAR penalized him 25 points for spinning Denny Hamlin under caution last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway.

Hendrick Motorsports’ appeal will be heard this week. Should the team win, Byron could get those 25 points back. 

But that doesn’t matter to Byron this weekend. He views himself outside a playoff spot.

“I race eight behind,” said Byron, who starts ninth in today’s race (2 p.m. ET on NBC).  “I don’t think about the hypotheticals.

“Obviously, I feel like we’ve got a good case and a good amount of evidence that we put together, but I race (as the points are). So just move forward with it. Go after the stage points and feel like we’re capable of running really well at superspeedways.”

If he wins today to advance to the next round, the points he was penalized won’t matter, but if he doesn’t win, those could prove valuable. 

The points deducted are an element of the Hendrick appeal. 

“The severity of the penalty, that’s what we were opposed to and that’s what the appeal is about,” Byron said.

His point is that being docked a similar amount of points in a three-race round as during a 26-race regular season is too severe. The suggestion being that point penalties should be modified for the playoffs because drivers have fewer races to make up those points before the playoff field is cut. 

That will be up to the appeal panel to determine. Should Hendrick lose, the team could further appeal that decision. 

Byron is in this situation after being upset with how Hamlin squeezed him into the wall last week at Texas. Martin Truex Jr. crashed to bring out the caution a few laps later. As Hamlin, running second, slowed, Byron ran up to Hamlin’s car and hit it in the back, sending Hamlin spinning through the infield grass. 

Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, said series officials in the control tower didn’t see the contact. Series officials did not penalize Byron during the event but announced a penalty two days later. 

Hamlin had wanted to be placed back in his original spot after the contact but series officials put him back in the field where he blended in. Asked if he was satisfied with the penalty to Bryon, Hamlin said: “It didn’t help my finish. … It didn’t change the fact that I could have won the race instead of finishing 10th.”

Byron said he and Hamlin spoke this week.

“It was a good conversation, learned a lot from him,” Byron said of Hamlin. “Got a better understanding of what he was thinking.”

Byron’s incident shares similarities to what happened to him at Darlington in May. Joey Logano was upset with Byron for crowding him into the wall with 26 laps left. Logano caught Byron and hit the back of Byron’s car, knocking it out of the way with two laps left. Logano won. Byron finished 13th. NASCAR did not penalize Logano.

That incident was under green and in the final laps — when NASCAR is more likely to allow drivers to settle the race between themselves within reason. Byron’s contact of Hamlin last week was under caution and NASCAR typically frowns upon such action.

Earlier this season in the Xfinity Series, NASCAR did not penalize Noah Gragson for wrecking Sage Karam and triggering a 13-car crash at Road America. Four days later, NASCAR penalized Gragson 30 points and $35,000.

Dr. Diandra: Is Talladega really the biggest, fastest, fiercest track?

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Talladega Superspeedway has a reputation as one of the wildest tracks on the NASCAR circuit.

Is it hype? Or do the numbers prove the point?

The biggest

Talladega is the longest oval track in the NASCAR circuit. At 2.66 miles (14,045 feet), one Talladega lap is the length of about 468 football fields. Talladega is longer than Mauna Kea is tall.

If we measure lengths in terms of Talladega:

  • The distance from Charlotte to Nashville (the location of the NASCAR awards ceremony) is 339 Talladegas.
  • If you flew direct from Los Angeles to New York City, you would cover 2500 Talladegas.
  • Martinsville is just 0.20 Talladegas.

Talladega also holds the record for banking in current Cup Series tracks with 33 degrees. Talladega’s banking is so high that the outside lane of the 48-foot wide racing surface is 26.1 feet higher than the inside lane. That difference is about the height of a two-story house.

Talladega is a tri-oval. Think of it as three straight lines connected by three curves.

A graphic showing the tri-oval shape and how it got its name

 

While tri-oval describes the track shape, it is also used to refer to the frontstretch — the most triangular part of the track.

And Talladega’s frontstretch is formidable. The 4,300-foot segment is banked at 16.5 degrees. Talladega’s frontstretch has more banking than all three of Pocono’s turns.

The backstretch, known as the Alabama Gang Superstretch, isn’t too shabby, either. It’s 1,000 feet longer than Daytona’s backstretch. If you were to unroll Richmond, its entire 0.75-mile length would just cover Talladega’s backstretch.

Talladega’s infield is so large that it could hold the L.A. Coliseum, Martinsville, Bristol, Dover, Richmond and the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

A graphic showing that it's possible to pack five smaller tracks, plus the NASCAR Hall of Fame into Talladega's infield

The Fastest

Bill France Sr. originally envisioned Talladega as Indianapolis Motor Speedway with higher banking. At a time when raw speed was the big attraction, higher banking would allow Talladega to wrest away the closed-track speed record from Indy.

In 1970, just six months after Talladega hosted its first race, Buddy Baker became the first driver to break the 200 mph mark on a closed course.

Baker’s breakthrough happened at a testing session. It wasn’t until 1982 that Benny Parsons became the first Cup Series driver to qualify over 200 mph. Just four years later, all but one of the 42 drivers starting the spring race qualified over 200 mph.

In May 1987, Bill Elliott set the all-time Cup Series qualifying record at 212.809 mph. That record will likely never be broken. During the race, Bobby Allison got airborne and crashed into the catchfence. NASCAR subsequently mandated restrictor plates (and now tapered spacers) to keep speeds down and cars on the ground.

Restricting airflow to the engine makes drafting even more important. That, in turn, leads to large packs of cars racing within inches of each other. That’s why four of the top-10 closest finishes in the Cup Series happened at Talladega.

In the spring 2011 race, Jimmie Johnson beat Clint Bowyer by just two-thousandths (0.002) of a second. That ties the famous 2003 Ricky Craven/Kurt Busch Darlington finish for the smallest margin of victory in Cup Series history.

Of all Talladega races run after NASCAR introduced electronic scoring in May 1993, 44 ended under a green flag. Of those races:

  • Seven (15.9%) were won by less than 25 thousandths of a second.
  • Fifteen (34.1%) were won by less than one-tenth of a second.
  • Thirty-nine (88.6%) were won by less than two-tenths of a second.
  • The largest margin of victory was 0.388 seconds.

The Fiercest

Pack racing leads to more contact. Out of 35 Talladega races run under the current green-white-checkered rule, 14 (40%) ended under caution. Rain caused one of those yellow/checkered finishes. The rest were due to accidents.

In 64 races since 1990, Talladega has seen 228 caution-causing spins or accidents, which involved 1,120 cars.

Almost half (49.2%) of these incidents involved only one or two cars. A one- or two-car accident is no less problematic for the drivers involved than a larger crash. But the more cars involved in accidents, the more likely a driver is to be knocked out of the race.

  • 3.5% of all accidents since 1990 involved 20 or more cars.
  • 5.7% of accidents collected 15 or more cars.
  • 16.7% were 10-car or larger crashes.
  • 38.2% involved five or more cars.

While probable, the Big One is by no means inevitable.

Neither are accidents in general. Three races since 1990 finished with no cautions, but all three of these races took place before 2003. The lowest number of cautions in a Talladega race since 2003 is three. That happened at the fall races in 2013 and 2015.

The average number of caution-causing accidents and spins in a Talladega race is 3.5.

  • Seven races (10.9%) had a single caution-causing accident or spin.
  • 14 out of 64 races (21.9%) had four caution-causing accidents or spins
  • 13 of 64 races (20.3%) had three caution-causing incidents.

Races with four or fewer accidents make up 71.9% of all Talladega races — which means that races with five or more accidents only account for 28.1%.

The numbers definitely uphold Talladega’s reputation. Although the track itself remains the same, the racing varies. Tune in to NBC (2 p.m. ET) to see whether this fall’s bout is accident-filled or accident-free.

Talladega Xfinity results: AJ Allmendinger edges Sam Mayer

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AJ Allmendinger, who had had several close calls in Xfinity Series superspeedway races, finally broke through to Victory Lane Saturday, edging Sam Mayer to win at Talladega Superspeedway.

Allmendinger’s margin of victory was .015 of a second. Mayer finished second by a few feet.

Following in the top five were Landon Cassill (Allmendinger’s Kaulig Racing teammate and his drafting partner at the end), Ryan Sieg and Josh Berry.

Noah Gragson, who had won four straight Xfinity races entering Saturday, was 10th. Austin Hill dominated the race but finished 14th.

MORE: Talladega Xfinity results

MORE: Talladega Xfinity driver points

AJ Allmendinger wins Xfinity race at Talladega Superspeedway

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Veteran driver AJ Allmendinger slipped past youngster Sam Mayer in the final seconds and won Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway.

As drivers in the lead pack scrambled for position approaching the finish line, Allmendinger moved to the outside and, getting a push from Kaulig Racing teammate Landon Cassill, edged Mayer by a few feet. The win ended frustration for Allmendinger on superspeedways.

Following Allmendinger, 40, at the finish were Mayer (who is 19 years old), Cassill, Ryan Sieg and Josh Berry.

Noah Gragson and Allmendinger have qualified for the next playoff round. The other six drivers above the cutline are Ty Gibbs, Austin Hill, Josh Berry, Justin Allgaier, Mayer and Sieg. Below the cutline are Daniel Hemric, Brandon Jones, Riley Herbst and Jeremy Clements.

MORE: Talladega Xfinity results

MORE: Talladega Xfinity driver points

“This is Talladega,” a wildly happy Allmendinger told NBC Sports. “Yes, I hate superspeedway racing, but it’s awesome to win in front of the Talladega crowd.”

Austin Hill dominated the race but dropped out of the lead to 14th place  in the closing five laps as drivers moved up and down the track in search of the best drafting line.

The first half of the race featured two and sometimes three drafting lines with a lot of movement and blocking near the front. In the final stage, the leaders ran lap after lap in single file, with Hill, Allmendinger and Gragson in the top three.

MORE: Safety key topic as drivers meet at Talladega

Hill led 60 laps and won the first two stages but finished 14th.

Gragson was in pursuit of a fifth straight Xfinity Series win. He finished 10th.

Remarkably for a Talladega race, the entire 38-car field finished. The race was the 1,300th in Xfinity history, marking only the third time the entire field had been running at the finish. The other two races were at Michigan in 1998 and Langley Speedway in Virginia in 1988.

Stage 1 winner: Austin Hill

Stage 2 winner: Austin Hill

Who had a good race: AJ Allmendinger got the “can’t win on superspeedways” monkey off his back with a great final lap. … Sam Mayer made all the right moves but was passed in the madness of the final run down the trioval. … Landon Cassill finished a strong third and gave Allmendinger, his teammate, the winning push.

Who had a bad race: The race had to be disappointing for Austin Hill, who ran the show for most of the afternoon, winning two stages and leading 60 laps, more than twice as many as any other driver. While blocking to try to maintain the lead late in the race, he fell to 14th. … Playoff driver Jeremy Clements finished a sour 20th and is 47 points below the cutline.

Next: The Xfinity Series’ next playoff race is scheduled Oct. 8 at 3 p.m. (ET) on the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval. The race will be broadcast by NBC.