Friday 5: Talladega’s unpredictability has playoff drivers on edge

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As he teeters above the cutline, heading into what can be one of NASCAR’s most unpredictable races, Joey Logano admits his position is “not comfortable.”

“It is stressful because your whole season can be decided this weekend and that may be somewhat out of your control,” he said of Sunday’s Round of 12 Cup playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET, NBC).

Logano enters the race six points above the cutline. He has never been eliminated before the Round of 8 in the Cup playoffs.

He’s made the championship race four times, winning the title in 2018. Logano was eliminated after the Round of 8 in 2015 and 2019. He did not make the playoffs in 2017.

Las Vegas, Talladega and the Charlotte Roval make this round unsettling for drivers because of the potential for chaos. One of the reasons Denny Hamlin celebrated his Las Vegas win last weekend so much was because it sent him to the next round.

“I’m more looking forward to it now than worrying about all the ‘what ifs’ of what can happen that can take you out,” Hamlin said. “During the course of my career, I’ve had just about all the ‘what ifs’ actually happen. It’s good to know we’ve got nothing to lose at this point.”

But Logano says someone could lose big in this round.

“This is the round that a true championship contender can be a surprise knockout,” he said.

Ryan Blaney, who enters Sunday’s race fifth in the standings with a 24-point cushion on William Byron – the first driver outside the cutline – says a driver can’t worry about what can happen at Talladega.

“You understand what Talladega is, and you understand you can get wiped out as an innocent bystander,” said Blaney, who has won two of the last four Cup races at Talladega. “It is what it is. If you let it eat at your head and get to you, then you’re kind of behind the eight-ball already. You’ve go to focus on how to win that race.”

Kyle Busch just wants to get a good finish.

Asked about his feelings going into a Talladega playoff race, he says: “Dread it.”

It’s understandable. Busch has never finished better than 11th in a Talladega playoff race. His average finish in Talladega Cup playoff races is 25.7.

He enters Sunday’s race third in the standings, 35 points above the cutline. That can provide some comfort.

Logano and Penske teammate Brad Keselowski, though, hold the final two transfer spots entering Talladega.

Neither has been spectacular, but both have been steady in these playoffs. Logano has finished between fifth and 11th in each playoff race. Keselowski has placed between sixth and 13th in those same races.

“I feel up to last week, we’ve done a tremendous job through the playoffs by getting every point,” Logano said. “That’s been our slogan: ‘Every point.’ Get every one. Every one. We left eight to 10 points on the racetrack last weekend. We’ve got to regroup and be better. That’s on all of us. We’ll regroup and try to make up those eight points.”

The superspeedway races have not been kind to Logano this year.

  • He led entering Turn 3 of the last lap for the Daytona 500 when contact with Keselowski wrecked both.
  • Logano was third when he was clipped by Denny Hamlin at Talladega in the spring. The contact turned Logano and sent his car into the air. His car landed on its roof. Logano was uninjured.
  • He suffered a flat tire with less than 10 laps left while running third in the Daytona regular season finale.

To me, it’s all about seeing the checkered flag,” Logano said. “Being toward the front but mainly seeing the checkered flag on the lead lap will be big for our points day.”

Many other playoff drivers would feel the same way.

2. Looking to rally again

Running at or below the cutline is not new to Alex Bowman.

In his first two playoff appearances (2018 and ’19), Bowman was at or below the cutline throughout the first round before advancing both times. He did the same thing in the first round of these playoffs.

Bowman enters Sunday’s race at Talladega 13 points behind Brad Keselowski for the final transfer spot to the Round of 8.

Bowman said having the experience of running while at or under the cutline previously helps.

“The biggest thing for me is just trying to maximize each and every race and every stage,” he said. “You can’t freak out and try any harder because I’m already trying as hard as I can every week. Approaching every race like normal and really just trying to maximize each and every thing.

“Last year we didn’t change what we were doing that worked. This year we didn’t change what we were doing that hasn’t worked. But just trying to maximize every stage and every race. You can’t really worry about the points. They kind of are what they are right now.

“We’re not in a great spot, and we’re going to a place that’s a huge wild card. But at the same time, we could be on the good side of the wild card and have other guys get torn up and have an opportunity to win the race. So, we’ve just got to wait and see how it shakes out. If it works out for us, it does. And if it doesn’t, it doesn’t.”

3. The race for rides

While the focus for some drivers is on the playoffs, this is a time where other drivers are trying to find a ride for next season.

Among those without Cup rides for next year are Matt DiBenedetto, Ryan Newman and Ryan Preece.

Corey LaJoie knows the feeling well, although he doesn’t have to go through that this year.

“Every year, up until this one, it was always uncertainty,” said LaJoie, who will return to Spire Motorsports next season. “A lot of times, my deals didn’t get done until late December or early January. Just when the music stopped, you hoped you had a seat you were holding on to. It’s really kind of a weird spot to know where I’m going to be at least next year and possibly many years after that.”

LaJoie sees those struggles play out with DiBenedetto, his friend.

DiBenedetto will not return to the Wood Brothers after this season. Harrison Burton will take over that ride next season. DiBenedetto has yet to secure a ride for next season.

“I’ve been working on everything,” he told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio this week. “It’s just crazy.

The performance of our team is obvious, and the things we’ve done to make some great improvements and be fast and performing very consistently, but still, as it is pertains to next year, man, it’s odd. Any door that kind of seems to crack open, closes.

“I’m trying to figure out what God’s plan is and what that means because, at this moment, I’ve got zero. Absolutely nothing. So it’s a very weird landscape.”

DiBenedetto also acknowledged the lack of sponsorship that he brings hurts.

“Now that I’m in a free agency market, I don’t have the funding behind me,” he told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

LaJoie knows that all too well.

“Unfortunately, where we’re at as a sport in its entirety is the only thing makes you stand out is how much sponsorship you bring with you,” LaJoie said. “You can write all the letters you want to and have all the good runs, win all the poles and have all the wins under your belt. If you don’t have good partners that continue to back you and keep growing their investment in the sport as much as my brand each and every year, then you’re going to be on the bottom of anybody’s list in terms of drivers.”

4. Admiration for former champ

Jimmie Johnson, the seven-time Cup champion, completed his first season running road courses and street courses in the NTT IndyCar Series last weekend.

It was not an easy transition.

Johnson placed 17th in the season-ending race at Long Beach. He finished on the lead lap in three of the last four races of the season after not recording a lead-lap finish in the first eight races.

Despite the challenges, he earned praised from some of his former NASCAR competitors for racing in another series.

“I know he’s gotten a lot of grief over this year, but it’s like ‘Give the guy a break,'” Ryan Blaney said. “He’s done plenty enough for NASCAR and he wants to try something else. … I feel like any motorsports racer wants to do that. You want to try new things and see how these cars compare to other cars, what’s different, what’s similar.

“He had a great opportunity to go do that. I think he’s done a good job this year, honestly. He’s gotten better and better. I got a chance to talk to him a good bit at Indy (when NASCAR and IndyCar raced on the same weekend in August) and watch him. He’s having a lot of fun with it, too.”

Kyle Larson said: “For him to step out of his comfort zone and try something new and dedicate a lot of time and effort to it, I think is amazing. … I hope to see him do some oval stuff.”

5. Another year together

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. confirmed Thursday what had been expected for some time. He’ll be back with JTG Daugherty Racing in the 2022 season.

The team had already stated it would be a single-car entry. It had only one charter this year, running Ryan Preece’s car without a charter. With the rising cost of the charter, JTG Daugherty Racing passed on securing one for its second car.

NASCAR Daytona Drafting Test
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is 21st in the points heading into Sunday’s race at Talladega. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

“I’m just looking forward to a third season with the team,” Stenhouse said. “I felt like this year was kind of like the first year with the organization, with the way last year went and the way it was kind of thrown on us and not being able to hang out with the guys and be in the shop and really spend time with each other.

“And now, I’m enjoying … we went to the Daytona test with the new car, and I felt like we had a successful test. It’s been fun going to the race shop and helping kind of design the cockpit of the car, where we want things, and just kind of make it custom to what I need and working with everybody in the shop. So, I think next year could be our best year yet, and even my best year in Cup in general. So I’m really looking forward to the opportunity that next year presents.”

As for being a single-car team instead of having two drivers, Stenhouse said there would be adjustments.

“I definitely think it could be a negative on one hand, and then a positive on the other,” he sad. “Obviously, when you’re practicing and testing, you can have more ideas and run different things through both cars. It definitely helps kind of speed the process up. But we would also have to share the seat when it comes to testing. So, I feel like what I look for in a race car and what somebody looks for in a race car and the way they drive, is sometimes totally different.

“So, I feel like we’re going to be able to kind of build around me and at least the set-ups and things like that will be more around what I’m looking for in the race car, and all our focus will be on one car. I feel like that will be a positive thing. I know everybody at JTG Daugherty Racing so far has been all in on the new car and trying to speed the process along.”

Long: NASCAR needs to quickly correct officiating issue from Texas

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NASCAR’s admission that it did not see William Byron spin Denny Hamlin under caution during Sunday’s Cup playoff race is troubling.

With video evidence of impropriety and Hamlin’s team vigorously arguing for relief, there were enough reasons for series officials to take a closer look at putting Hamlin back to second before the race returned to green-flag conditions. Or some other remedy even after the race resumed. 

Add the lack of access series officials had to Byron’s in-car camera— something fans could readily see at NASCAR.com and the NASCAR Mobile App — and changes need to be made before this weekend’s playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway.

While NASCAR should make every effort to judge matters between drivers regardless of their playoff status, that it was two playoff drivers involved in an incident demanded greater attention. With three races per round, one misstep can mean the difference between advancing or being eliminated. 

Just as more is expected from drivers and teams in the playoffs, the same should be expected of officials.

“If we had seen that (contact) good enough to react to it in real time, which we should have, like no excuse there, there would probably have been two courses of action,” said Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition Sunday night. “One would have been to put Hamlin back where he was, or the other would be to have made William start in the back.”

Here is how the incident played out:

The caution waved at Lap 269 for Martin Truex Jr.’s crash at 8:19 p.m. ET.

As Hamlin slowed, Byron closed and hit him in the rear. 

Byron admitted after the race the contact was intentional, although he didn’t mean to wreck Hamlin. Byron was upset with how Hamlin raced him on Lap 262. Byron felt Hamlin forced him into the wall as they exited Turn 2 side-by-side. Byron expressed his displeasure during the caution.

About 90 seconds after the caution lights illuminated, the USA broadcast showed a replay from a low angle of Byron directly behind Hamlin’s car and apparent contact. 

Contact can happen in multiple ways. It can come from the lead car hitting the brakes and forcing the car behind to hit them, or it can come from the trailing car ramming into the car ahead. The first video replay did not make it clear what caused the contact, making it difficult for any official to rule one way or the other based solely on that.

This also is a time when NASCAR officials were monitoring safety vehicles on track, checking the lineup and making sure pit road was ready to be open. It’s something NASCAR does effortlessly much of the time. Just not this time. 

A different replay aired on USA 11 minutes, 16 seconds after the caution that showed Byron and Hamlin’s car together. That replay aired about a minute before the green flag waved at 8:31 p.m. ET. Throughout the caution, Hamlin’s crew chief, Chris Gabehart argued that Hamlin should have restarted second.

But once the race resumed, the matter was over for NASCAR. Or so it seemed.

Three minutes after the green flag waved, the NASCAR Twitter account posted in-car video that showed Byron running into the back of Hamlin’s car while the caution was out. Such action is typically a penalty — often parking a driver for the rest of the race. Instead, Byron was allowed to continue and nothing was done during the rest of the event. 

After the race, Miller told reporters that series officials didn’t see the contact from Byron. 

“The cameras and the monitors that we’ve got, we dedicate them mostly to officiating and seeing our safety vehicles and how to dispatch them,” Miller said. “By the time we put all those cameras up (on the monitor in the control tower), we don’t have room for all of the in-car cameras to be monitored.

“If we would have had immediate access to (Byron)’s in-car camera, that would have helped us a lot, being able to find that quickly. That’s definitely one of the things we’re looking at.”

But it didn’t happen that way.

”By the time we got a replay that showed the incident well enough to do anything to it, we had gone back to green,” Miller said.

NASCAR didn’t act. By that time maybe it was too late to do so. But that’s also an issue. Shouldn’t the infraction be addressed immediately if it is clear what happened instead of days later? Shouldn’t officials have been provided with access to the in-car cameras so they could have seen Byron’s actions earlier and meted the proper punishment? Instead, Miller hinted at a possible penalty to Byron this week.

Miller didn’t reveal details but it wouldn’t be surprising to drop Byron in the field, costing him points. He’s 24 points from the cutline, so a penalty that drops him from seventh to 30th (the position ahead of Truex) could be logical and that would cost Byron 23 points, putting him near the cutline. 

Texas winner Tyler Reddick said something should have been done. He knows. He was parked in a 2014 Truck race at Pocono for wrecking German Quiroga in retaliation for an earlier incident.

“In William’s situation, whether he ran him over on accident or on purpose, there should be some sort of penalty for him on that side because he’s completely screwed someone’s race up, whether it was on purpose or not,” Reddick said. “I feel like there should be something done there.

“I’m sure (NASCAR will) make some sort of a decision. I’m sure there will be something they’ll address this week, updates, on NASCAR’s side. I’ll be curious to see what that is. We can’t really have this where you dump someone under caution, they go to the back and you don’t. That could potentially be an interesting situation in the future.”

Texas shuffles NASCAR Cup playoff standings

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Texas marked the fourth consecutive playoff race that the winner didn’t advance to the next round.

All three races in the first round were won by drivers not in the playoffs. Tyler Reddick won Sunday at Texas, a week after he failed to advance from the Round of 16 and was eliminated from title contention.

Texas did shake up the playoff standings. Chase Elliott entered as the points leader but a blown tire while leading sent his car into the wall, ending his race. He falls to the No. 8 spot, the final transfer position with two races left in this round. He’s tied with Daniel Suarez, but Suarez has the tiebreaker with a better finish this round.

Chase Briscoe, who scored only his second top 10 in the last 22 races, is the first driver outside a transfer spot. He’s four points behind Elliott and Suarez. Austin Cindric is 11 points out of the transfer spot. Christopher Bell is 29 points out of a transfer position. Alex Bowman is 30 points from the transfer line.

The series races Sunday at Talladega (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

 

XFINITY SERIES

Noah Gragson’s win at Texas moved him on to the next round. The win was his fourth in a row.

Ryan Sieg and Sam Mayer are tied for the final two transfer spots to the next round. Riley Herbst is one point behind them. Daniel Hemric is eight points from the final transfer spot. Brandon Jones is 13 points from the last transfer spot. Jeremy Clements is 29 points shy of the final transfer position.

The series races Saturday at Talladega (4 p.m. ET on USA Network).

 

 

CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES

The series was off this past weekend but returns to the track Saturday at Talladega. Ty Majeski has advanced to the championship race at Phoenix with his Bristol win.

 

Winners and losers at Texas Motor Speedway

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A look at the winners and losers from Sunday’s marathon race at Texas Motor Speedway:

WINNERS

Tyler Reddick – Reddick isn’t acting like a lame duck. Headed for 23XI Racing in 2024 (if not sooner), Reddick now owns three wins with Richard Childress Racing, the team he’ll be leaving.

Justin Haley – Haley, who has shown flashes of excellence this season for Kaulig Racing, matched his season-high with a third-place run.

Chase Briscoe — Briscoe wrestled with major problems in the early part of the race but rebounded to finish fifth. It’s his second top-10 finish in the last 22 races.

LOSERS

NASCAR Officials – Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, admitted that series officials missed William Byron spinning Denny Hamlin under caution after Martin Truex Jr.‘s crash. Such a situation could have major playoff implications, although Miller hinted that series officials may still act this week.

Christopher Bell – Bell met the wall twice after blown tires and finished a sour 34th, damaging his playoff run in a race that he said was critical in the playoffs.

Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. – Harvick (finished 19th) and Truex (31st) were late-race victims of the day’s tire dilemma. Both crashed while leading.

Track workers  Somebody had to clean up all that tire debris.

Chase Elliott – Elliott remains a power in the playoffs, but he left Sunday’s race in a fiery exit after a blown tire while leading and finished 32nd. He holds the final transfer spot to the next round heading into Talladega.

 

 

Blown tires end race early for several Texas contenders

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FORT WORTH, Texas — A Goodyear official said that air pressures that teams were using contributed to some drivers blowing tires in Sunday’s Cup playoff race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Chase Elliott, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. all crashed while leading after blowing a tire. Among the others who had tire issues were Alex Bowman, Chris Buescher Cole Custer and Christopher Bell twice. 

“We’re gaining as much information as we can from the teams, trying to understand where they are with regard to their settings, air pressures, cambers, suspicions,” said Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing Sunday. “For sure I can say without a doubt air pressure is playing into it. We know where a lot of the guys are. Some were more aggressive than others. We know that plays a part.

MORE: NASCAR says it missed William Byron spinning Denny Hamlin under caution 

“I’m not saying that’s the only thing, but it’s certainly a factor, so we’re just trying to understand everything else that is going on with regard to specific teams. We know a lot of guys have not had issues. We’ve had guys put full fuel runs on tires, but, obviously, other guys have had issues. We’ll be working with them to try to sort through that is.”

Eight of the 16 cautions were related to tire failures that caused drivers to spin or crash.

“It’s not a good look, that’s for sure,” Ryan Blaney said of the tire issues others had. “How many leaders blew tires tonight? Three or four?

“You just don’t understand what is making these things do that. From last week to this week, it’s really unfortunate. It’s just luck now.

“You never know if you’re going to blow one. You go into (Turn) 3 almost every lap with 40 laps on your stuff and I don’t know if one is going to blow out or not. That’s not safe. That’s for sure. Running (180) into (Turn) 3 and the thing blows out and you have no time to react to it. It’s unfortunate. I hope we can figure that out.”

Blaney said he was confused that the tires were blowing partly into a run instead of much earlier.

“It was weird because those tires didn’t blow right away,” he said. “Like the pressures were low. They blew like after a cycle or two on them, which is the weird thing.”

Asked how he handles that uncertainty, Blaney said: “Nothing I can do about it. Just hope and pray.”

After his crash, Elliott was diplomatic toward Goodyear’s situation:

“I’m not sure that Goodyear is at fault,” he said. “Goodyear always takes the black eye, but they’re put in a really tough position by NASCAR to build a tire that can survive these types of racetracks with this car. I wouldn’t blame Goodyear.”

Tyler Reddick, who won Sunday’s race at Texas, said his team made adjustments to the air pressure settings after Saturday’s practice.

“We ran enough laps, were able to see that we had been too aggressive on our right front tire,” he said. “So we made some adjustments going into the race, thankfully.”

This same time was used at Kansas and will be used again at Las Vegas next month in the playoffs. 

Reddick is hopeful of a change but also knows it might take time.

“I just think to a degree, potentially, as these cars have gotten faster and we’re getting more speed out of them, maybe, hypothetically speaking, we’re putting the cars through more load and more stress on the tire than they ever really thought we would be,” he said. 

“I know Goodyear will fix it. That’s what they do. It’s going to be a process. I know they’re going to be on top of it. Hey, they don’t want to see those failures. We don’t want to see them either. They’re going to be working on looking through and trying to find out exactly what is going on. We’ll all learn from it.

“It’s a brand-new car. It’s the first time in the history of our sport we’ve gone to an 18-inch wheel and independent rear suspension. All these things are way different, diffuser. All these things, way different. We’re all learning together. Unfortunately, just the nature of it, we’re having tire failures.”