As the Cup Series reaches the halfway point of the regular season, things are changing rapidly on the playoff bubble.
Richard Childress Racing’s Tyler Reddick recovered from an early speeding penalty to finish eighth Sunday at Dover International Speedway. His fifth top-10 finish in the last seven races broke a points tie with Matt DiBenedetto for the 16th and final playoff position.
Reddick now holds the spot outright by 17 points over DiBenedetto. Two weeks ago, DiBenedetto held the spot after the race at Kansas Speedway with Reddick in 18th place at 18 points back.
But DiBenedetto and his Wood Brothers Racing team have struggled in back-to-back races.
At Darlington Raceway, they missed the set-up on the No. 21 Ford and DiBenedetto finished three laps down in 19th. On Sunday at Dover, another ill-handling car saddled DiBenedetto with a 24th-place finish, this time five laps off the pace.
That’s given Reddick a path into the top 16 of the playoff standings. Reddick also helped himself by scoring 23 stage points the past three races. DiBenedetto hasn’t scored a stage point since Talladega when he won Stage 1 on his way to finishing fifth.
Following Sunday’s race, Reddick said he and his No. 8 team initially battled with corner entry but “really hit on something” toward the end of Stage 2.
“Track position was key today, even more so than fresh tires for us,” he said. “So once we got up in the top 10, we did everything we could to stay there, even though that meant staying out and making it a much longer final run for us on tires when those mid-stage cautions came out in Stage 3.”
Making gains! Another top ten after a costly penalty on the competition caution. We will take p8 and get ready for COTA! Photos by @Jwhap_Photo pic.twitter.com/x2o0GFArVC
— Tyler Reddick (@TylerReddick) May 16, 2021
Meanwhile, DiBenedetto ran outside the top 20 for much of the afternoon. He noted that the No. 21 team attempted some new set-up ideas after finishing 20th and 17th in last year’s Dover doubleheader.
“We tried to throw some things at our Motorcraft/Quick Lane Mustang going into this weekend, and unfortunately it didn’t work out,” he said. “We just had to be smart.”
We missed it. Rough day…no excuses but we will rebound pic.twitter.com/lYiTBlvmq5
— Matt DiBenedetto (@mattdracing) May 16, 2021
With Reddick’s rise, Richard Childress Racing now has both of its cars inside the top 16 of the playoff standings. Following a 14th-place finish Sunday, Austin Dillon remains 14th in the playoff picture. He is 60 points above the cutline.
Roush Fenway Racing’s Chris Buescher holds the 15th playoff spot (+28 above cutline). He finished 17th Sunday.
Talk it out
As colleague David Smith pointed out last Thursday, Hendrick Motorsports crew chief Greg Ives has utilized shrewd strategy and a remarkably consistent pit crew to help Alex Bowman this season.
That crew shined Sunday at Dover, when they executed the fastest four-tire stop of the season (12.1 seconds) to get Bowman the lead ahead of teammate Kyle Larson under caution at Lap 304. Bowman led the rest of the way.
Bowman summed it up: “If we don’t beat (Larson) off pit road, we probably don’t beat him in the race.”
In creating a high-caliber pit crew, Ives has focused on open communication with them.
After Sunday’s win, he discussed having them focus over the last few weeks on executing fast stops while making a lot of adjustments to the car. While doing so, he said he “created some uncomfortable situations” that didn’t always yield great times on pit road.
With that, he made it a point to talk with his crew this week.
“I broke down how well or how bad I was doing,” Ives said. “Rolling that left front tire (to the tire carrier), I wasn’t doing it right last weekend, opened it up. We all worked through it. They’re not scared to tell the crew chief that I need to get better in the situation.
“I think ultimately (it’s) being on the same platform as them, allowing them to make some mistakes – when mistakes come, learning from them rather than scolding them.”
Ives is also trying to keep the same open line with his driver, even though he admits that he sometimes has difficulty talking about what he needs out of him.
“That’s why he calls me ‘The Riddler,'” Ives said of Bowman.
“Ultimately, I get to the point where I just tell him what I want and he does it. Today, we were working through some brake pressure stuff, talked him through it. He didn’t get upset about it. I wasn’t trying to make him upset, I was trying to make him aware.
“Ultimately, you have to that have relationship of trust. If he understands and knows what I’m looking at, he has the ability to respond the proper way in the car. When we get out, there’s no hard feelings. We just go on our way and have fun again the next week trying to overcome either a bad race or a race win.”
With Hendrick Motorsports in a class of its own, Joey Logano had an eventful drive to fifth on Sunday.
The Team Penske driver was minus regular crew chief Paul Wolfe, who served a one-race suspension because Logano’s No. 22 Ford had two lug nuts not secure after last week’s race at Darlington.
With Jonathan Hassler serving as interim crew chief, Logano finished seventh in Stage 1. He fell out of the top 10 in Stage 2 as he dealt with handling problems stemming from a hole in the grille.
Finishing 18th in Stage 2, Logano had an extended stop during the stage break for grille repairs. Logano took advantage of his improved car and fresher tires to move forward. He moved into fifth place with less than 10 laps to go.
The result was his fifth career top-five at the Monster Mile and his fifth top-10 finish in the last six races there.
“We had some debris go through the grille early in the race, so we were pretty good beforehand and then knocked a big hole in the nose and that’s why the turn went away,” Logano said. “So it took a while to repair that and get everything to where it needed to be and we didn’t really get that until the last run and it’s a rocket ship. The Shell/Pennzoil Mustang was really fast.
“I was able to drive from, I think it was 16th to fifth in that last run there and had (William Byron) in the old sights but didn’t get there in time. Overall, very proud of the team and their recovery today. We definitely got dealt some adversity and we made the most of it. I wish it was a win. I wish we maybe could have raced those guys, but, overall, we’ll take that considering the way it was going.”
Our 22 team battled the Monster all day. Fresh tires were great to have on our last run. We will take the top-5. Looking forward to @nascar’s first trip to @COTA next weekend! #TeamJL pic.twitter.com/36IJFSAvDJ
— Joey Logano (@joeylogano) May 16, 2021
After a dominant win last week at Darlington, Martin Truex Jr. came back to Earth.
Truex led the first 15 laps on Sunday before slipping to fourth by the competition caution at Lap 35. On his first pit stop, a lug nut got caught in the jack and Truex fell out of the top 10.
Things didn’t get much better from there. Adjustments throughout the day on his No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota failed to get Truex righted, and he finished 19th.
No. 19 crew chief James Small later tweeted about plans to burn his so-called “lucky socks” featuring golf legend Jack Nicklaus.
Nope… not lucky, just sucky. Burning these ones when I take them off tonight @JamieLittleTV 🤦♂️😂 https://t.co/okLs85JzCX
— James Small (@james_small) May 16, 2021
The good news? Truex and the No. 19 team are among those who’ve gotten some early laps at Circuit of the Americas. The state-of-the-art road course in Austin, Texas hosts all three NASCAR national series for the first time this weekend.
Back in March, Truex and fellow Cup champions Chase Elliott and Brad Keselowski went to COTA for a Goodyear tire test. At the time, Truex characterized the 3.41-mile circuit as a hybrid of the technical Sonoma Raceway and the flowing Watkins Glen International. He noted a “handful of really good passing zones,” citing hard braking zones after the straightaways.
“I think there’s going to be plenty of opportunities there with it,” he said. “Especially the fact that (the track has) got older pavement and it’s going to have pretty decent tire wear. That’s going to open up a lot of opportunities as well and should be fun.”
Another group of drivers, including Austin Dillon, Tyler Reddick, and Corey LaJoie, took part in amateur-level races at COTA last December to familiarize themselves with the circuit.
COTA is the first of five road courses in the next 11 weeks of points-paying races for the Cup Series. Time will tell if drivers with bonus laps around there begin this critical stretch on the right foot.