Friday 5: What is proper etiquette between NASCAR playoff, non-playoff drivers?

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As Daniel Suarez discussed his first top-10 finish in nearly four months, Jeff Gordon walked by and said, “Nice job today.” Suarez thanked Gordon before the four-time Cup champion headed toward Victory Lane to celebrate Kyle Larson’s win last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway.

The topic then changed. Suarez was asked about his incident with playoff driver Martin Truex Jr. that sent Truex’s car into the wall.

Such is life for a non-playoff driver. A skirmish with a championship contender can overshadow everything.

While yellow spoilers and yellow windshield banners designate those eligible for the title, it’s as if non-playoff drivers carry a scarlet letter. There is an expectation that Cup playoff drivers be given more latitude by those not racing for a championship, but how far should that go?

Drivers who do not make the playoffs also have something at stake. It could be to keep their job, prove to sponsors they’re a good investment or earn contract bonuses, among other things.

When Suarez and Truex were racing together last weekend, it was for a spot inside the top 10. Suarez’s last top-10 finish came at Nashville in June.

“Let me tell you,” Suarez told NBC Sports, “I feel so bad for (Truex). I feel really, really sorry for him. He just can’t be doing that. I’m racing as well here.

“I have a lot of respect for the guys in the playoffs, but one thing is respect and (another) is taking advantage of the situation. He was not even close to be clear. I don’t know why he did that.

“We’re in the last (15 laps) of the race. I have (fresher) tires. He doesn’t have tires. I don’t know. I think he has to be a little more smart.”

Truex told NBC Sports after the incident: “I was definitely running tight trying to get all we could and maybe I squeezed (Suarez).”

Truex finished 25th. The former series champion enters Sunday’s race at Kansas Speedway (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN) 22 points out of the final transfer spot to next month’s title race.

NBC Sports analyst Dale Jarrett said this week on NASCAR America Motormouths that situational awareness is key for playoff drivers throughout these events.

“I actually think the drivers that are in the playoffs still need to consider who they are racing at this point in time and what the consequences might be,” he said. “Do the guys they are racing need this spot a little bit more?

“I said this on a radio show the other day … Martin Truex Jr. and his race team shouldn’t have been back there battling for 10th anyway. They’re a better team than that, and he’s, obviously, a championship driver. He should have been further up. 

“I’m all for these guys racing hard. You try not to have that contact, but sometimes it’s going to happen because things happen on a racetrack.”

NBC Sports analyst Kyle Petty applauded Jarrett’s comments and said of playoff drivers: “You have to take some responsibility. You can’t complain about non-playoff cars all the time.”

Asked last weekend if there is a lack of respect between non-playoff drivers and playoff drivers, Kyle Busch expressed his frustration.

“There’s a complete lack of respect everywhere, all over the place, so it doesn’t matter if it’s a playoff driver or a non-playoff driver,” Busch said. “The way all this has gone on the last four or five years with the newer generation coming in has completely ruined it from what it used to be.

“It might be exciting for the fans, but all you get is more torn up stuff. Next year, these car owners are not going to enjoy paying the bills on that new car, I guarantee you.”

Chase Briscoe, who is not in the playoffs, bounced off the wall while racing title contender Denny Hamlin for seventh with 62 laps to go last weekend. The contact resulted in a tire rub for Briscoe. The tire didn’t last, leading to a yellow flag.

During that caution, Hamlin said on his team’s radio of Briscoe: “That’s what he gets for being a … idiot.”

A video clip of the incident and Hamlin’s radio comments were posted on the NASCAR on NBC Instagram account. Briscoe posted a comment that read: “If only I had 10,000 races worth of experience under my belt …”

Hamlin saw Briscoe’s comment and replied: “@chasebriscoe_14 not sure you’ll get there. There’s cars racing for a championship. In case you forgot about taking out the leader and costing him 1 championship already this season. Perhaps when you learn give and take you will start to finish better.”

Briscoe responded: “@dennyhamlin I get paid to race, just because you guys are racing in the playoffs doesn’t mean I’m just gonna wave you by. One of the best cars we’ve had all year and I was trying to take advantage of it. I understand you guys are racing for a championship which is awesome for you guys but I’m racing for a job and results let me keep that job.”

Hamlin countered: “@chasebriscoe_14 well if your car is better and you are better on that day, you will get the spot back eventually. Risk management is how you optimize your finish each week. Maybe putting yourself in others shoes for 1 min would help. You had 25 races to get a chance to race for the post season. Respect is a underrated trait in today’s world it appears.”

The interaction showed the viewpoint of a playoff driver and non-playoff driver. For as fascinating as that was, such a conversation could have taken place privately. So, why did Hamlin engage Briscoe on social media?

“A lot of it, to me, is the mentality that the younger guys have is they can’t pick up the phone and call you,” Hamlin said. “They just make immature statements on social media, so I thought I would just go down to that level for a minute.”

Last weekend marked William Byron’s first race out of title contention after he failed to advance to the Round of 8. While he said he wasn’t raced differently by any of the playoff drivers, he was aware of his new situation compared to them.

“I was thinking about that throughout the race and some of the cautions,” Byron said. “As a race car driver, you’ve got a certain mindset and a certain way that you think as you go throughout the race, and it’s very hard to just kind of change that on the fly. So, you don’t really alter your whole strategy.”

Byron said he doesn’t want to have an incident with a playoff driver.

“I think that’s kind of the biggest thing for me is kind of trying not to wreck one,” he said. “But I didn’t feel like anyone raced me different, or that I raced them differently. You see the yellow spoilers. You kind of know who you’re around and things like that. I think you’re just kind of aware of those guys and what they’re trying to do.”

2. Wild West of restarts

It’s not always what a driver does that determines how well they restart at Kansas Speedway, but what the driver behind them does.

“I think the biggest thing with the 550 (horsepower) races is getting linked up to your push if you’re the leader,” William Byron said. “So, you’ve got to do things, whether you drag the brake or you roll into the throttle slow.

“You’ve got to make sure that that guy is linked up to your bumper to push you because if not, there’s not enough horsepower for you to just drive away, unless you’re in first gear or you have different ratios or something. So, that’s watching the mirror. That’s listening to my spotter and him count down when that guy is getting to my bumper.”

The final two restarts in the May race at Kansas showed how much the driver in the second row of a restart can dictate matters.

On the next-to-last restart, Kyle Larson was the leader and was on the outside line. Brad Keselowski was behind him. Kyle Busch led the bottom lane and had Ryan Blaney behind.

When the green flag waved, Blaney ran to the back of Busch’s rear bumper and pushed him. Keselowski had a gap to Larson’s rear bumper, leaving Larson without a push.

Blaney pushed Busch into the lead and also got by Larson, who led 132 laps in that event. An accident happened on that lap, setting up the final restart.

Busch restarted on the bottom and had Blaney to his outside. Larson restarted behind Blaney.

After the race resumed, Larson’s car attached to the rear of Blaney’s rear bumper.

“I thought I got a pretty good restart and so did (Larson) behind me,” Blaney said.

But trouble arrived in Turn 1.

“The push at Kansas that Larson gave me, you gotta realize when to get off somebody and you’re to the left side,” Blaney said. “That shouldn’t have happened. …That’s just a product of somebody being a little too aggressive at that point and kind of being in the wrong position on the bumper.”

Larson’s shove turned Blaney sideways in Turn 1 and sent Larson into the wall. They both lost speed and instead of racing for the win, fell into the pack. Larson finished 19th after leading nearly half the race. Blaney placed 21st. Busch won the race.

“I learned from it,” Larson said. “So far, I haven’t made that mistake again.”

Byron understands such woes with Kansas restarts.

“A lot of times, you can’t always win the restart at Kansas,” he said. “You have to just minimize the loss. Especially if you’re on the front row.”

3. Points race

Denny Hamlin is third in the standings, one point above teammate Kyle Busch and nine points above the cutline, but that’s not how he sees it.

Hamlin views himself as being on the cutline.

“We have to assume, based on past results, that one of those guys at the bottom – whether it be Joey (Logano) or Martin (Truex Jr.) are going to go out and win these next two races,” Hamlin said this week. “If they do that, then that cutline moves right to me, and I’m actually plus one, not plus nine or eight or whatever it is. That’s the number that I’m racing to – is plus one to even right now.”

The first driver outside a transfer spot is reigning Cup champion Chase Elliott. He won the 2018 playoff race at Kansas, finished second in the 2019 playoff race and was sixth in last year’s playoff race.

Elliott’s focus, though, isn’t on points.

“I don’t think there’s ever really a safe place with points unless you have a win,” he said.

While Elliott has two victories this season, neither came on an oval. He won on the road courses at Circuit of the Americas and Road America.

Elliott doesn’t worry that his last oval win came in last year’s title race at Phoenix.

“The results are what they are,” he said. “Whatever the reason may be doesn’t matter. You either do or you don’t, and we haven’t checked that box yet this year. I don’t feel like it’s been a lack of performance. On certain ovals, I feel we like we’ve been really solid. I feel like we’re just as capable as a year ago or the year before that.”

Elliott has five consecutive top-10 finishes on 1.5-mile tracks heading into Sunday’s race at the 1.5-mile Kansas Speedway. He finished second in the Coca-Cola 600 and in the Las Vegas playoff race.

4. Another memorable moment?

Although Joey Logano has won a championship, a Daytona 500 and two Bristol night races, Kansas Speedway has been the site of some significant moments in his career.

“Lot of good memories there,” Logano said.

He may need another such moment to advance to the championship race.

Logano enters Kansas 43 points out of the final transfer spot for the championship race. Realistically, he needs to win either at Kansas or next week at Martinsville to advance.

Three times he’s scored significant victories at Kansas.

The first came in 2009. His victory in the Kansas Xfinity race came a week after his tumbling crash in the Cup race at Dover.

In 2015, he won at Kansas when it was the middle race in the second round. Logano went on to sweep all three races in that playoff round, but his Kansas victory came at a price. He spun Kenseth as they raced for the lead. Kenseth paid Logano back at Martinsville, wrecking him as Logano led and hurting his title hopes.

Last year, Logano held off Harvick over the final 40 laps to win and advance to the title race.

“To me, it was like holding off the pack at a superspeedway,” Logano said of last year’s Kansas finish. “You’re up front. The guy behind you is building runs. He’s going to different lanes … and you’ve got to be able to move around. As your car changes, the preferred lane was moving. His car was a lot stronger than mine down the straightaways. We were just not as trimmed out a car.

“Just having all of that was mentally exhausting for 40 laps. You’re on it for a long time. Knowing that one mistake would cost you a win, and knowing what that win was going to mean on top of that, you’re willing to throw it all on the line for that. He (was) going to have to spin me out to get around me.

“That’s what playoff racing is. There’s so much on the line. It’s so important, especially in this round, to win. Drivers are willing to do about anything to win.”

5. Best on the 550 horsepower tracks in 2021

Kansas marks the final race with the 550-horsepower package this season. The final two races (Martinsville and Phoenix) feature the 750-horsepower package.

Here are the drivers who have won the races with the 550-horsepower package this season:

3 – Kyle Larson (Las Vegas I, Coke 600, Texas)

2 – Ryan Blaney (Atlanta I, Michigan)

2 – Kyle Busch (Kansas I, Pocono II)

1 – William Byron (Homestead)

1 – Alex Bowman (Pocono I)

1 – Kurt Busch (Atlanta II)

1 – Denny Hamlin (Las Vegas II)

NASCAR Saturday schedule at Texas Motor Speedway

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NASCAR Cup and Xfinity teams will be busy Saturday at Texas Motor Speedway.

The Cup Series enters the second round of the playoffs with 12 drivers remaining for the title. Cup teams will practice and qualify today.

The Xfinity Series begins its playoffs Saturday with 12 drivers in championship contention. Xfinity teams will practice and qualify before racing.

All track activity will be broadcast on USA Network. The temperature will climb into the mid-90s Saturday, according to Weather Underground.

Saturday, Sept. 24

Garage open

  • 8:30 a.m. — Xfinity Series
  • 9:30 a.m. – 3 p.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 10:30 – 11:05 a.m. — Xfinity Series practice (USA Network, NBC Sports App)
  • 11:05 a.m. – noon — Xfinity Series qualifying (USA Network, NBC Sports App)
  • 12:35 – 1:20 p.m. — Cup Series practice (USA Network, NBC Sports App)
  • 1:20 – 2:30 p.m. — Cup Series qualifying (USA Network, NBC Sports App)
  • 3:30 p.m. — Xfinity Series race (200 laps, 300 miles; USA Network, NBC Sports App, Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Saturday Texas Xfinity race: Start time, TV info, weather

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The Xfinity Series playoffs begin this weekend. Noah Gragson and Ty Gibbs enter as the favorites. They’ve combined to win 11 of the 26 races this season.

Gragson, who has six wins this season, seeks to win his fourth consecutive victory.

MORE: Noah Gragson’s special celebrations at Waffle House

Gibbs, who has five victories this year, is one of four drivers in the Xfinity playoffs for the first time. The other three are Josh Berry, Austin Hill and Sam Mayer.

Also in the playoffs are reigning series champion Daniel Hemric, Justin Allgaier, AJ Allmendinger, Brandon Jones, Jeremy Clements, Riley Herbst and Ryan Sieg.

Details for Saturday’s Xfinity race at Texas Motor Speedway

(All times Eastern)

START: The command to start engines will be given by Andy’s Frozen Custard executives Andy Kuntz, Dana Kuntz and Carol Kuntz at 3:38 p.m. … Green flag is scheduled to wave at 3:49 p.m.

PRERACE: Xfinity garage opens at 8:30 a.m. … Practice begins at 10:30 a.m. … Qualifying begins at 11:05 a.m. … Driver introductions are at 3 p.m. … The invocation will be given by Bret Shisler of Texas Alliance Raceway Ministries at 3:30 p.m. … Janie Balderas will perform the anthem at 3:31 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 200 laps (300 miles) on the 1.5-mile speedway.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends at Lap 45. Stage 2 ends at Lap 90.

TV/RADIO: USA Network will broadcast the race at 3:30 p.m. Countdown to Green begins at 3 p.m. on USA Network. The post-race show will air on USA Network. … Performance Racing Network coverage begins at 3 p.m. and also will stream at goprn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the PRN broadcast.

STREAMING: NBCsports.com

FORECAST: Weather Underground — Sunny with a high of 96 degrees and no chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST TIME: Tyler Reddick gave Big Machine Racing its first series win in May. William Byron was second and Sam Mayer was third.

 

Ryan Blaney’s team to appeal Bristol penalty

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Team Penske will appeal the penalty to Ryan Blaney‘s team from last weekend’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway, the organization confirmed Friday.

NASCAR suspended crew chief Jonathan Hassler, jackman Graham Stoddard and rear tire changer Zachary Price four races each after a wheel came off Blaney’s car during a pit stop. His left rear wheel rolled off when he exited his stall and the tire bounced down pit road through before it was captured.

The penalty would have caused Hassler and the pit crew members to miss all of the second round and the first race in the third round. With the appeal. Hassler, Stoddard and Price will be able to participate in Sunday’s Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway (3:30 p.m. ET on USA Network.).

Blaney enters the second round holding the final transfer spot. He, Denny Hamlin and Christopher Bell are tied with 3,013 points. He won the All-Star Race in May at Texas.

Chase Briscoe is the first driver below the cutline. He’s four points behind Blaney. Alex Bowman and Daniel Suarez are each six points behind Blaney. Austin Cindric is seven points behind Blaney.

 

Friday 5: Waffle House provides special memories for NASCAR drivers

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After the burnout and victory lane celebration last weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway, the focus for Noah Gragson and his Xfinity Series team was which Waffle House they were going to on the way home. 

There was one about 5 miles from the track and another about 7 miles away. One person was tasked with choosing the location and making sure everyone knew.

Gragson, his team and the JR Motorsports hauler all made it, continuing what has become a part of Gragson’s victory celebration.

Most times, drivers who win a Cup or Xfinity Series race go from the track to a plane and fly home. For races closer to the sport’s Charlotte, North Carolina base, competitors will drive, allowing them the chance to stop at a restaurant on the way home.

Such experiences hark back to the early days of a driver’s career —when they raced at local short tracks, didn’t finish until late at night and sought a place to eat, relax and relive that evening’s event. Go to any short track, particularly in the Southeast, and it’s not uncommon to hear the winning team say that they’re taking the trophy to a Waffle House or any other restaurant that is open all hours.

Gragson’s first Waffle House celebration came in 2015, when he won the K&N Pro Series West race in Tucson, Arizona, leading his team to a 1-2-3 finish.

When Gragson won the Xfinity race at Phoenix in March, he went to a Waffle House upon landing in North Carolina. After his Darlington victory earlier this month — the first of three in a row — the team’s hauler also stopped at the Waffle House, joining Gragson and the team.

“Got all the cooks and (everybody) out there taking pictures and just loving it,” Gragson said. “It’s a good time. We played music on the jukebox and told them to turn it all the way up.”

“He’ll look back on that when he’s 60 or 70 years old,” teammate Justin Allgaier said of Noah Gragson, “and those are going to be the moments he’ll remember forever.”

Gragson brought the sword and trophy he collected after his Bristol victory to the Waffle House last weekend. He used the sword to cut his waffle and placed half of the waffle on the sword’s tip before taking a bite. 

“That was really cool to be able to party with the fans and have some waffles,” Gragson said. 

The Waffle House was packed with several Gragson fans, including those wearing his T-shirt. 

“It’s funny that they go to Waffle House,’’ teammate Justin Allgaier said, “but he’ll look back on that when he’s 60 or 70 years old and those are going to be the moments he’ll remember forever.”

Jeremy Clements, who is 37 and in the Xfinity playoffs for the third time, already looks back on such times fondly. His early days of racing were filled with Waffle House stops. 

“We were in the Waffle House all the time,” Clements said. “The races were always late. We had to eat. It didn’t matter if we won or not most times. We had enough in the budget to eat at Waffle House.”

Like many, Clements said that when he won, he brought the trophy into the Waffle House. 

“Why not show it off and have some fun?” he said.

To reigning Xfinity Series champion Daniel Hemric, Waffle House represents special memories. 

“I’d say 90% of my childhood weekends were spent in the Waffle House on Friday and Saturday nights,” Hemric said of the beginning of his racing career. “

Even now, he still goes to a Waffle House regularly. His daughter Rhen, born in May 2020, insists.

“She loves Waffle House,” Hemric said. “It’s kind of one of our little Sunday traditions every week or two weeks. We go as a family on Sunday, just me, (wife) Kenzie and Rhen.”

Waffle House isn’t the only special place for Hemric. After he won  $250,000 in a Legends car race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 2010, he and about 20 family and friends went to a Steak ’n Shake about 4 miles from the track to celebrate. 

Hemric brought the trophy with him, but his celebration was muted. He had helped prepare about a dozen other cars for that event and was exhausted at that point of the night.

“Everybody was ordering food and I laid my head down and took a nap,” he said. 

Steak ’n Shake is a popular destination, particularly for Daytona 500 winners. The restaurant is located 2 miles from Daytona International Speedway.

Car owner Joe Gibbs took his family and the trophy in after winning the 1993 Daytona 500. Gibbs revived the tradition in 2019 after the second of Denny Hamlin’s three wins in that event. The Wood Brothers went there after Trevor Bayne’s 2011 Daytona 500 victory.

Cup rookie Austin Cindric celebrated his Daytona 500 win this year with family and his team.

“Really special to have both my mom and my dad there with my whole team,” Cindric said. “We had pit crew guys. We had everybody, and it’s one of those moments in life that you kind of have to appreciate while it’s happening … because it doesn’t happen every day.”

Cindric also brought the trophy into the restaurant. 

“Definitely cool to shut the place down with the biggest trophy,” he said.

2. NASCAR on Next Gen parts process, shifting and Martinsville

Former Cup champion Kevin Harvick has been critical of the Next Gen car in the playoffs, complaining about the vehicle’s “crappy-ass parts.”

Harvick was upset after a fire ended his race in the playoff opener at Darlington earlier this month. Two days after he was eliminated from title contention at Bristol, partially due to an issue with the left front wheel, Harvick posted a link to a T-shirt he was selling that played off his comment. 

John Probst, NASCAR senior vice president of Racing Innovation, explained to NBC Sports the process that NASCAR went through — with the teams and manufacturers — in determining the vendors that would supply parts for the Next Gen car.

This marks the first time vendors supply the main parts instead of teams making their own. 

As NASCAR developed the car, Probst said the sanctioning body, teams and manufacturers set the specifications for parts before sending a Request for Proposal to vendors. This took place in 2019.

NASCAR sent RFPs to as few as five vendors and as many as 30 vendors for some parts. For those companies interested, NASCAR held a call to answer questions not covered in the 30-50 pages of documents the sanctioning body sent. 

Vendors had two weeks to prepare for in-person meetings that included representatives from NASCAR, teams and manufacturers, Probst said. 

About five days after the meetings finished, team and manufacturer representatives gave NASCAR their ranking of the top three candidates to supply a particular part. Probst said the teams and manufacturers often provided feedback on all those who presented. 

“We would have people sitting (in the meetings) that pretty much spanned the gamut from large to small teams,” Probst said, “because we wanted to get a pretty good cross-section of feedback from our industry from the team side.”

The team representatives typically were senior engineers or technical directors, Probst said. In cases where a team was bidding to supply any particular parts, their representative was not a part of the meetings with other vendors to avoid any conflict. 

After the feedback, NASCAR, teams and manufacturers made their selections.

“More than not, we had pretty good alignment with us in the industry,” Probst said. “On parts selections, I wouldn’t say every part selection was unanimous. I can also say that we did not select, as a matter of any rule, the cheapest part. 

“We chose the part that we felt served the function that we needed to have done. It wasn’t a case of just going with the low-cost supplier. It was going with the supplier, with the right cost with the right product that met our needs at the time.”

Probst said he’s proud of how the car has been a factor in the series seeing 19 different winners this year, tying for the most all-time in a season. With perennial winners Ryan Blaney, Martin Truex Jr. and Brad Keselowski still seeking their first points victory of the season, that number could go beyond 20 before the season ends Nov. 6 at Phoenix.

Probst said he feels one misunderstanding with the car is the collaboration between NASCAR, teams and manufacturers.

“I think that sometimes when you read the driver quotes and the team feedback, crew chiefs are posting things on Twitter, it creates the sense of NASCAR vs. them vs. the world,” Probst told NBC Sports. 

“Really, it isn’t like that. I wish people could see how well we actually do work with the engineers on these teams, sorting through the problems. 

“I feel like we work hand-in-hand with them, but a lot of times when it gets to the public eye, for whatever reason, or if it’s in the heat of the moment, it comes across as though ‘NASCAR is making us do this,’ or ‘This is the dumbest thing ever,’ but I think, in reality, that is so far from the truth. We have a really good working relationship with all of the teams, and I just think that gets lost.”

The Next Gen car has provided better racing at intermediate tracks, while the racing at short tracks has been disappointing. The spring race at Martinsville faced criticism from drivers. With next month’s Martinsville race the final chance for drivers to make the championship event, what happens there will be critical. 

Probst said there will be a gear change for Martinsville, “but as far as big changes, there are no large changes that we’re making going back there. We’ve had one data point at Martinsville so far this year, the coldest race of the year. We put down no rubber. It’s really hard to make wholesale changes to the car based on that.”

Probst later said of making changes: “We’ll continue to make changes as we need to, but … I feel like we need to make these changes based on data and what we’re seeing from our metrics and just make the best decisions we can.”

Another key topic this year has been shifting, which has been blamed by some for making it hard to pass, but also been used at the intermediate tracks, which has seen a renaissance in the racing compared to recent years. 

“I would say the debate continues,” Probst told NBC Sports on whether to allow shifting or reduce the dependency of it. “I would say that we certainly have some of our drivers who are very insistent that shifting is bad, the race would be better if we didn’t have shifting.

“We also have other drivers, who haven’t been as vocal publicly (for it), but by no means is there any mass agreement across the drivers that shifting is good or bad.”

Probst raised questions about one suggestion of giving drivers 1,000 horsepower for short tracks.

“The 1,000 horsepower would imply that I’ve got torque on demand, and I can get back to the gas and ‘Man, that’s going to make really good racing,’” Probst said. “In my mind, shifting is almost the same thing. 

“So like, if I need torque in the middle of the corner, I can downshift and boom, I got the torque to drive up off like I got a monster engine and all gears. So, I personally do not feel like we have the data that says shifting is good or bad.”

3. Inside the mind of a Cup playoff driver 

As Ross Chastain spoke about the Oct. 2 playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway, he noted: “What’s so great about this sport and this series at this level is we’re allowed to just go and crash. 

“That’s on restarts, on a mile-and-a-half, or a short track, or racing all day at a superspeedway. I feel like it’s acceptable to just crash these expensive race cars. It’s a wild spot for me to be in, just mentally making that decision that I’m going to go put myself in that spot that I could be crashed or I could cause a crash.”

Sunday Dover Cup race
Ross Chastain is third in the Cup playoff standings.  (Photo by Jeffrey Vest/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Chastain, who enters Sunday’s Cup playoff race at Texas Motor Speedway third in the points, spent a few years in the Xfinity Series in underfunded equipment with JD Motorsports that he couldn’t afford to wreck. Asked how he learned to make the adjustment from overly protecting the car to racing more freely, Chastain noted a situation in last weekend’s Xfinity Series race at Bristol that hit home for him.

“I just watched Bayley Currey go and take the No. 4 car (for JD Motorsports) and run top three with it at Bristol and was fine,” he said. “Then it came down to the end and some late restarts and I could tell he was protecting his car and he finished 11th. I know he wanted a 10th. Not that I ever ran top three in Johnny’s car, but there was times where you go and you’re fast enough and then it comes down to the end and it’s like ‘Man, weighing out that risk versus reward.’

“I think Bayley did a lot better job than I ever did in that scenario. I still tend to tear them up. Now, just aside from not crashing and being out of the race for points, just the thought of these cars coming back torn up is just more accepted.”

Chastain recalls that his mindset changed after his first Xfinity practice session in the No. 42 car for Chip Ganassi Racing at Darlington.

“I just was complaining about how loose the car was and was going to crash. So, I was pretty slow. Mike Shiplett, my crew chief, walks over and opens the top door to crawl up into the upstairs of the hauler and the backup car is sitting there.

He says, ‘You see this?’

‘Yes sir.’

‘It’s built exactly the same as the car out there, the primary, so go drive the car. If you crash it, we will unload this one and you will feel it drives exactly the same. So, I don’t want to hear about it being loose anymore. I want you to go drive it.’”

Chastain won the pole in qualifying. 

“High risk, yes, but that was the first time that was ever said to me. I just never looked at a backup that way.”

4. Chase Elliott’s focus 

The second round of the Cup playoffs could be the most treacherous for teams. 

After Sunday’s race at Texas (3:30 p.m. ET on USA Network), the series races at Talladega and then ends the round with the Charlotte Roval.

Anything can happen at Talladega, and the Charlotte Roval could create some issues. Add rain there and it could be wilder. 

Texas schedule
Chase Elliott leads the points going into Sunday’s Cup playoff race at Texas Motor Speedway. (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images)

That’s why some drivers view the Texas race as pivotal. Win Sunday to advance to the third round and it doesn’t matter what happens the next two weeks.

While it might be easy for some to look ahead at the potential pitfalls, Chase Elliott, who  enters this round atop the playoff standings, doesn’t do that.

“I take it a week at a time in general,” he said. “Half the time I don’t know where we’re going the next week. 

“The object is to win every single weekend. I don’t show up to a racetrack with the mindset of ‘Yeah, let’s go out here and make stupid decisions and finish last. That’s just not ever the mindset. I don’t see where it changes a whole lot. 

“You always want to have a good run. It just so happens a fresh round is starting this weekend and fortunately we’re still a part of the deal. We’ll go out there and try to have a good run at Texas.

“Try to have a good Saturday, try to have a good practice, try to qualify well, hopefully get you a good pit pick and some nice track position to start Sunday. … Wherever we come out of that, we’ll reevaluate what the situation is and where we need to go from there. You’re always trying to have good weekends, and I think taking it a week at a time, a day at a time is is pretty important.”

5. Double duty will continue for Ty Gibbs 

Two of the Xfinity Series title contenders will continue to do double duty even with the playoffs beginning for that series this weekend.

Both Noah Gragson and Ty Gibbs are also entered in Sunday’s Cup race at Texas. 

Gragson has noted that he is a bit more cautious in the Cup car because of the impacts drivers are feeling with the Next Gen car. He doesn’t want an injury in a Cup car to hurt his championship chances.

Gibbs has been driving in place of Kurt Busch, who has been out since late July because of a head injury.

David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, told NBC Sports this week that the plan is for Gibbs to continue to drive the Cup car throughout the playoffs unless Busch is ready to return.

“We’re comfortable with Ty running both for the foreseeable future,” Wilson said. “We still don’t know what Kurt is going to do. To be fair, he left the door open to potentially get back into the car before the end of the season. (Ty) is learning a lot.

“I don’t think any of us have the mentality that we’re putting him in harm’s way wheeling a Cup car. … We know, obviously that hits can be harder with this car, and we know that the teams and NASCAR are working on that. We’re not going to put any of our drivers in a car that we believe is inherently unsafe. 

“On the whole, we think Ty running on Saturday and Sunday for the next handful of races is going to benefit Ty and is not going to compromise his ability to compete for an Xfinity championship.”