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.”
"That's what he gets for being a #*$*%* idiot."
— NASCAR on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) October 17, 2021
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.
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.”
An updated look at the #NASCARPlayoffs leaderboard.@KyleLarsonRacin locks in his spot in the Championship 4. Ryan Blaney, Denny Hamlin, and Kyle Busch currently holding the other three spots. pic.twitter.com/5AU5UOmiCC
— NASCAR on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) October 17, 2021
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.
“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)