Long: Managing mistakes defined Cup playoff opener

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Mistakes and how they were handled during Sunday’s Southern 500 could reverberate throughout the Cup playoffs.

Ryan Blaney, Martin Truex Jr. and Chase Elliott could feel the impact of what happened for the next few weeks. Austin Dillon, Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin could benefit in how they recovered.

Drivers talked last week about the need to be mistake-free in the playoffs. Some teams didn’t make it to the pre-race ceremonies without blunders.

NASCAR penalized Blaney 10 points, his starting spot and suspended crew chief Todd Gordon for the race before Blaney was on the grid.

A five-pound bag of lead used at the shop to simulate fluid weights before the engine is installed was accidentally left in Blaney’s car, the team stated. Gordon said Monday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Morning Drive” that the issue “was missed by several people.”

NASCAR saw it. The 10-point penalty could be devastating to Blaney.

Darlington and Richmond, the first two tracks in the opening round of the playoffs, are among Blaney’s worst. He’s not scored a top 10 at either in Cup.

Blaney’s Southern 500 issues were compounded when a left rear tire went down and he had to pit as the field took the green flag to begin the second stage. That cost him a lap. Blaney finished 24th. He’s last in the playoff standings and now heads to Richmond, a place he’s never finished in the top 15 in a Cup race.

Blaney’s team wasn’t the only one to have problems before the command to fire engines. Somehow, Dillon’s team switched the left front and right front tires on the No. 3 car.

“Somebody just didn’t see the L and didn’t see the R,” Dillon said of the markings that note left side and right side tires. “They’re Sharpied on there. That was how they found it.”

Dillon said crew chief Justin Alexander saw the issue shortly before the race. Had the error not been found, Dillon said “I would have probably knocked the fence down.” Dillon had to start at the rear for changing the tires since it came after pre-race inspection.

Dillon relied on FIDO — Forget It and Drive On — to get him through that challenge.

It’s an approach Dillon picked up from former Marine Lt. Clebe McClary, a motivational speaker and veterans advocate, who lost his left arm and left eye in combat in Vietnam. Clebe spoke at Richard Childress Racing before the season.

“It was probably one of the best luncheons we’ve had as a group, just an unbelievable speaker,” Dillon said. “I think it really hit home for me because I’m a fiery guy and I can dwell on things too long instead of moving on. That acronym is just an easy reminder, like hey, man, it’s over. There’s no need to play it back or wonder why we’re in the situation we’re in. It’s just get the most out of everything that I can.”

Dillon moved on and prepared to race from the back of the lineup. Challenges persisted. He had to pit under green during the first stage because a right rear tire was going flat. He overcame that obstacle and went on to finish second to winner Kevin Harvick.

Brad Keselowski’s team had their own challenges. Keselowski — whose playoff motto is “Why not us?” — hit the wall and had a flat right front tire on Lap 81 of the 367-lap race. Instead of making partial repairs and sending Keselowski back on track to stay on the lead lap, crew chief Jeremy Bullins calmly told his team they’d lose a lap while making the necessary repairs.

Keselowski eventually got back on the lead lap and went on to finish 11th. It wasn’t a memorable result, but it was better than 31st, his position after the incident.

Hamlin also was steady during a key point in the race. He was in a pack of cars and tried to get to the lower lane so he could pit under green. Hamlin was blocked by a car on the inside on the backstretch. He finally got to the bottom lane in Turn 3.

Hamlin recognized he was going too fast to pit and didn’t compound matters with a daring move that could have damaged his car. He lost positions by going back around the track before pitting, but he didn’t panic. A debris caution about 10 laps late stuck Hamlin outside the top 10 and he wasn’t able to recover. Still, his 13th-place finish was better than it might have been.

It was a better finish than Truex (22nd) and Elliott (20th). As they raced for the lead late, Truex got a run off Turn 4 and made a move under Elliott entering Turn 1 with 14 laps to go. Truex hadn’t cleared Elliott when he moved up but later said: “I thought I had enough momentum and distance on (Elliott) that he was going to let me in there. I didn’t expect him to be on my right rear and I was committed.”

They made contact and both hit the wall. Their chances to win were over.

The aggressive move is understandable. It’s 14 laps to go in the Southern 500. It’s a playoff race where a win moves the driver to the next round and scores five playoff points. Truex entered the playoffs with only 14 playoff points. But his hope that Elliott would let him up might have been overly optimistic. Could Truex have stayed on the low side and tried to pressure Elliott into a mistake over the remaining laps? Possibly. If he thought that was his one opportunity to take the lead, Truex had the take the chance. 

With risk comes reward, but there was no reward this time. Instead, Truex and Elliott each lost about 20 points and the potential for five playoff points because of the incident.

Will they need those points in the playoffs? Will those points be the difference in advancing to another round or the championship race? Or will it be only a footnote to what is to come in these playoffs?

With nine races remaining, there will be many challenges and mistakes made. How drivers and teams respond could  play a role in who races for a title.

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