Halfway to the playoffs, and two stories are emerging in NASCAR’s premier series with one common theme: Points.
There are the playoff points that Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick are accumulating at a rate quick enough that half of this year’s championship field might be sewed up by September.
And then there are the “regular” points that will become even more of a scramble over the next 13 races to snatch whatever berths remain in the 16-driver playoff field.
There have been six winners through the first 13 races, mostly because of Busch (four victories) and Harvick (five). If the two hottest drivers in NASCAR’s premier series can maintain their torrid pace, and if some combination of Martin Truex Jr., Joey Logano, Clint Bowyer and Austin Dillon also can repeat (which seems likely), there probably will be more spots available on points than ever in the five seasons the playoffs were reconfigured in 2014.
The playoff lineup is filled first by winners, and if there are fewer than 16, the remaining slots are awarded on points. The record for most points-eligible qualifiers was five in 2015 (Jamie McMurray, Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman, Paul Menard and Bowyer), and there seems a good chance for at least as many or more this year.
As NASCAR grinds through the grueling summer stretch with slick racetracks and oppressive heat, the tension could ratchet up against the backdrop of a points race – particularly with a fresh 2018 schedule that includes another 1.5-mile track (Chicagoland) and a new cutoff race.
In the regular-season finale Sept. 9 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, NASCAR seems to be learning toward using the All-Star Race rules package that mixes restrictor plates and aero ducts to bunch the field.
The current championship standings should make it a no-brainer, given there is virtually no chance of having 16 playoff berths for 16 winners.
If there is a points battle of, say, more than a dozen drivers vying for the last six or seven playoff berths, it could turn the Brickyard into the free-for-all that the 2.5-mile track desperately needs to help reinvigorate dwindling crowds.
Though last year’s race was among the most memorable because of the three-wide battles for the lead at the front, it could be even more captivating to watch several drivers duel for positions within the pack in the waning laps if the racing resembles the action produced in the All-Star Race.
Thus, Busch and Harvick inadvertently could make the Brickyard a must-watch event this season – while simultaneously turning the playoffs into a frenzied scrum of 14 drivers for two spots in Miami.
While it isn’t a foregone conclusion that they will be in the championship finale, Busch (25 playoff points) and Harvick (24) are tracking ahead of where defending series champion Truex was last season (16 after 13 races). At this rate, both will claim mega-bonuses from their regular-season standings and would enter the playoffs as co-favorites.
Kyle Busch has won at Charlotte Motor Speedway, which means he has won at every track on the Cup circuit.
This STILL will be true Sept. 30 when the first race is run on Charlotte’s road course. Yes, the track will carry a “Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval” designation on the schedule, and its debut will mean that he won’t have won at every Cup layout.
But Busch still will have won at every track for several reasons.
Start with the fact that the “Roval” course will use all but 400 feet of the 1.5-mile oval that Busch finally conquered Sunday night in the Coca-Cola 600.
And let’s remember that many famous ovals also have road courses that hold races, and there is little distinction made in designating them.
Jeff Gordon and Michael Schumacher are both five-time winners at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Will Power became a first-time winner of the Indianapolis 500 but is a four-time winner at IMS. Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt and Jamie McMurray have multiple signature victories at Daytona International Speedway – in the Daytona 500 and Rolex 24.
NASCAR apparently will be recognizing the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval as a “new” track, which opens a Pandora’s box of questions about retrofitting its record books.
Tracks rarely are given such reclassifications after repaves or reconfigurations that change the complexions of their races. The Roval layout might be on a different level, but so is Richmond Raceway’s 65-year evolution.
It started as a half-mile dirt track before being paved in 1968. Two decades later, it was torn down and rebuilt as the current 0.75-mile track.
None of this is abundantly obvious (unless you have an eagle eye for varying distances) on Racing-Reference.info, the deservedly respected bible of NASCAR historical information. Richard Petty has 13 wins at Richmond – not 10 on pavement and three on dirt (which should count as much as a “new” track as turning a 1.5-mile oval into a road course).
Busch apparently was told less than an hour after becoming the first driver of the modern era to win at every track that (because NASCAR is counting the Charlotte roval as a “new” track) the record would last for four months .
How about letting him enjoy it for much longer than that? As in, until the next time a new track actually is added to the schedule?
There’s always annual talk about which NASCAR driver might be the next to attempt the Indianapolis 500-Coca-Cola 600 doubleheader.
But how about IndyCar drivers coming the other direction?
Power’s Indy 500 win, coupled with his 2014 championship, should allow him to write his own ticket with team owner Roger Penske, who has IndyCar and NASCAR teams under the same roof in Mooresville, North Carolina. Power has expressed a desire to race a stock car, as have teammates Simon Pagenaud and Josesf Newgarden (who also have IndyCar titles).
“Hell, yes,” Newgarden said last week. “I love NASCAR. I think it’s awesome. Open wheel cars captured me as a kid. That doesn’t mean I don’t like stock cars. But I also like this resurgence of drivers who say they want to do everything. I think there’s a lot of guys who do want to do everything and always have.
Joked Pagenaud: “I’m very French but could do it. I can drink coffee while I drive, no problem. I can do it.”
Newgarden is frustrated by how segmented racing has become for drivers in the 21st century. “You have to have a side,” he said. “You have to choose one. I think it’s so stupid. I like it all. I watch everything. I watch NASCAR stuff. We all do. We all follow that stuff. We’d all love to try it.
“When you drive for Roger, you have to first focus on what you’re hired for, and you’re hired to win the Indianapolis 500 and the championship, and if you do a great job at that, maybe one day you’ll get an opportunity to try a stock car. I hope that happens.”
The growth of road courses in both the Xfinity (Road America is a longtime IndyCar venue) and Cup series also could offer more opportunities. James Hinchcliffe is among the IndyCar drivers who reportedly has been exploring one-off road-course rides in NASCAR.
And based how he handled single-file restarts Sunday in Indy, we wouldn’t mind seeing Alexander Rossi getting a shot, too.
For the second time this season, four Chevrolet drivers (Jimmie Johnson, Jamie McMurray, Kyle Larson and Alex Bowman) finished in the top 10 at Charlotte. It also happened at Bristol Motor Speedway, but accomplishing the feat at a 1.5-mile track is an encouraging sign for a new Camaro that has seemed to lack the aerodynamic advantage of Ford and Toyota.
The impact of NASCAR’s new Optical Scanning Station certainly seems to have helped Ford drivers, who have been hinting since the preseason that the new inspection system would benefit their Fusions with more rear downforce.
But the OSS also might have had an opposite effect on the Camaro, whose design and development was initiated before teams saw the system in action for the first time last fall (in demonstration mode during the playoffs).
Hendrick Motorsports recently acquired an OSS for its shop, joining several powerhouse teams that purchased theirs before the season. NASCAR managing director of competition and innovation John Probst said as many as 10 teams have OSS systems.
That isn’t unusual given that teams would have their own sets of templates when NASCAR used the metal silhouettes for measurements, but Probst said the efficiency and accuracy of the OSS (which relies on two dozen high-definition cameras and projectors) makes it a more attractive option for teams.
Though NASCAR offers an OSS for teams’ use at its R&D Center in Concord, North Carolina, many rely on OSS in their shops because they take measurements throughout the car-building process.
“I think we anticipated teams would buy this,” Probst said on last week’s episode of the NASCAR on NBC Podcast. “Teams measuring (cars) multiple times as it goes throughout the shop, that’s a very reasonable thing to do.
“There are a lot of reasons to buy the technology. It’s relatively simple, the results are fairly quick and accurate. It’s relatively cheaper compared to many other solutions. It’s a more efficient system in general.”
Listen to Probst on the podcast via the embed below or on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify or Google Play.
Erik Jones had a miserable night in the pits with a magnificent car Sunday at Charlotte, and it was the pit stop between Stages 3 and 4 that really had to hurt.
Jones’ No. 20 Toyota entered in second place but left in 19th because of a stop that went several seconds longer because his front tire changer switched to a backup pit gun.
The reason? Kasey Kahne ran over the primary gun’s hose while entering his stall just ahead, ripping it from changer Houston Stamper’s hands.
It would seem unfair to suffer because of the actions of a rival driver who faces no repercussions at all. But there are two important rules of thumb to consider.
–A driver entering his stall has every right to enter as sharply and swiftly as desired (without intentionally and blatantly violating the boundaries of another car’s pit box).
–Each pit crew is responsible for keeping its equipment out of harm’s way.
The only feasible way that NASCAR could have penalized Kahne would be if he’d gone out of his way to affect Jones’ stop.
In two of the past three seasons, the Coca-Cola 600 has been a runaway in which the winner has led at least 94 percent of the laps.
The record for highest percentage of laps led in the previous 55 years of NASCAR’s longest race was 83 percent (Jim Paschal in 1967).
How is this dominance possible in a race that historically has demanded constant adjustments to keep up with a temperature-sensitive surface that can vary wildly over the course of four hours in the transition from blazing hot sun to a cool evening?
The simplest explanation might be that the Charlotte reigns of Truex in 2016 and Busch this year underscore the importance of being in clean air on an aerodynamic superspeedway.
Crew chiefs Cole Pearn and Adam Stevens can tune the car better with their championship-caliber stars able to provide the best feedback in static conditions. And with teams running high-fidelity simulations nonstop, there is more information on making strong setup calls than ever.
Sunday’s race sadly marked the third time in four years that a fan has climbed a catchfence during a Cup race. While it thankfully didn’t necessitate a race stoppage at Charlotte (unlike an infamous incident at Richmond and similar to one at Dover last year) because it was defused so quickly, it still begs the question: Why is this still happening?
We’ve written this before, but having a fan fall onto a hot track on national TV would be a really bad thing, not just for the event but racing in general. Whatever tracks have to spend to rectify this so that fans stay off the chain link in the future, it’s worth it.