Friday 5: Will fan access to in-car cameras lead to calls for penalties?

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Did NASCAR make the right decision to penalize William Byron 25 points and $50,000 for spinning Denny Hamlin under caution two days after the incident happened?

It’s a question that will be answered in Hendrick Motorsports’ appeal. 

But this reaches a broader issue. With fans having more access to video elements of the sport, how much influence could or should they have in exposing potential penalties moving forward?

Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, admitted after last weekend’s race at Texas that series officials did not see Byron hit Hamlin.

MORE: Alex Bowman to miss Talladega race 

While video from the USA broadcast suggested that Byron spun Hamlin, an official could question if Hamlin brake-checked Byron and initiated the contact as opposed to Byron running into him.

That question was cleared up three minutes after green-flag racing resumed when NASCAR’s Twitter account posted video from Byron’s in-car camera that showed him running into the back of Hamlin’s car. 

After the race, Byron admitted he ran into Hamlin, although Byron said he did not mean to spin Hamlin. Byron was upset with how Hamlin had raced him a few laps earlier, causing Byron to hit the wall.

“I didn’t mean to spin him out,” Byron said after the race. “That definitely wasn’t what I intended to do. I meant to bump him a little bit and show my displeasure and unfortunately, it happened the way it did.”

The in-car camera video from Byron’s car was a view that fans can have as part of a program that began with the start of the playoffs. Fans can watch in-car camera views from every car in the race through the NASCAR Mobile App and on NASCAR Drive on NASCAR.com. 

The TV broadcast did not have access to those in-car views. Miller noted that the officials also did not have access. That likely will change.

In this case, it was NASCAR’s social media account that made people aware of what Byron did. Moving forward, what if it is a fan that spots something that officials don’t catch and TV doesn’t show? What if that fan posts a video clip of an incident from a particular in-car camera? Should that lead to a penalty either during the event or days later?

Golf faced a similar issue within the last decade before stating that effective Jan. 1, 2018, the game’s major professional tours would no longer accept calls or emails from fans who think they had spotted a rules violation. Instead, the PGA Tour, LPGA, PGA of America, among others, stated they would assign at least one official to monitor all tournament telecasts and resolve any rules issues.

“It’s a tricky deal,” Ryan Blaney said. “Especially with the rise of social media and all the accessibility that the internet can give with all these live feeds from every single car, which I think is a good idea, but there could be some controversy in certain situations.”

Those watching last weekend’s Cup race posted video of a violation. NASCAR didn’t penalize Ty Gibbs after door-slammed Ty Dillon on pit road during the race. Video clips of the incident quickly showed up on social media shortly after the incident. 

Series officials typically review the races on Tuesday and that’s an opportunity for them to assess penalties on incidents they’ve gathered more information on.

NASCAR docked Gibbs 25 points and fined him $75,000 for the incident Tuesday. It marked his second penalty this year for contact on pit road. Gibbs was fined $15,000 for hitting Sam Mayer’s car on pit road after the Xfinity race at Martinsville.

Another key is issue with officiating in any sport is if it is better to be right, even if it comes a couple of days after an event, or if is something is missed during the event, then so be it?

Section 4.4.C of the Cup Rule Book states that drivers can be docked 25-50 points (driver and team owner points), fined $50,000 – $100,000 and/or suspended a race, indefinitely or terminated for a series of events, including “Intentional wrecking another vehicle, whether or not that vehicle is removed from competition as a result.”

So, even if NASCAR had penalized Byron during the event, officials could have further penalized him on Tuesday. It’s not a situation where there is either a penalty during the race or after. It can be both. 

Ryan Blaney says he would prefer a decision made in the moment and if not, let it go.

“I don’t want to have to wonder if something is going to happen days later,” he said. “I think you’ve got to take a little bit more time and try to get things right in the moment because a lot of these things can be game-changing outcomes.”

Byron’s penalty is an example. He left Texas third in the playoff standings, 17 points above the cutline. With the penalty, he’s eight points below the cutline. 

2. Race for stage points

One of the questions going into Sunday’s Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC) is what should playoff drivers do. Should they ride at the back to help their chances of making it to the finish to score big points? Or should they run at the front and go for stage points while also being at greater risk of being collected in a crash?

Kyle Larson, who is 23 points above the cutline in third place, said he doesn’t see playoff drivers riding in the back.

“There’s so many stage points on the line, and if you can get those stage points, then even if you do wreck, you’ll have a decent points day out of it,” he said. “I foresee everybody racing pretty hard.”

Should any driver ride in the back early in a stage, they’ll likely need to be in the top 10 with 10 laps in the stage to have a good chance at stage points. 

In the spring Talladega race, 75% of the drivers in a top 10 spot with 10 laps to go in either of the first two stages finished in the top 10 and scored points.

Larson scored 17 stage points at Talladega. Add that to his fourth-place finish and he left there with 50 points. Only three other drivers scored more than 40 points that race: Martin Truex Jr. (45), Chase Elliott (44) and winner Ross Chastain (42).

All four of those drivers also were in the top 10 with 10 laps to go in the race. Chastain ran no lower than fourth in those final laps before taking the lead on the final lap. 

Chastain won that race after overcoming a pit road speeding penalty in the first stage. He did not score points in the first stage.  He got his lap back at the caution for the stage break and steadily worked his way up in the second stage, finishing ninth. 

As for his plan Sunday?

“We’re still talking through them,” Chastain said. “It’s not race day yet … we don’t have to have our plan yet. It would be bad if we already had our marching orders written down and we knew what we we were doing because it needs to be a more fluid experience. We’ll see how the race starts.”

3. RCR Turnaround

In the 14 races since NBC/USA took over broadcasting the Cup season, Hendrick Motorsports and Richard Childress Racing have each won a series-high four races. 

RCR’s wins have been by Tyler Reddick at Road America, Reddick at the Indianapolis road course, Austin Dillon at Daytona and Reddick last weekend at Texas. 

That’s four wins in a 13-race stretch for RCR. It took the organization 192 races to win its last four races before this recent stretch.

“The new car did level playing field,” said Andy Petree, competition director at RCR. “That was one of the things. What happened over the years is that some of these mega-teams have been able to build an advantage into their equipment.”

It’s more than that. The four wins by Reddick and Dillon double what the organization had the previous fours seasons. They’ve combined for 13 top-three finishes, including a 1-2 run at Daytona in the regular-season finale in August. 

In comparison, Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott — the past two Cup champions — have combined for six wins and 12 top-three finishes this season.

Reddick and Dillon also have combined 14 top-five finishes. That equals the number of top fives the organization had the previous four seasons combined. Reddick’s 439 laps led is more than the organization’s combined total (410) the past four seasons. 

“Obviously the drivers are more important now because everything is so close,” Petree said. “The drivers can make a big difference. Our pit crews have stepped it up this year. There are a lot of reasons why we have been as successful as we’ve been.”

4. Number crunching

A few things to ponder:

RFK Racing has led 309 laps in the last two races with Brad Keselowski and Chris Buescher. That’s more than the organization had led in the previous 105 races combined. RFK Racing’s 417 laps led this season is the organization’s most since 2013.

The driver leading at the white flag finished fifth or worse in each of the last four Talladega races that went the full distance. Erik Jones led at the white flag in the spring race. He finished sixth.

The driver winning the Talladega Cup playoff race has never gone on to win the championship that season.

Kyle Busch is the only driver to finish in the top 10 in all three races at Daytona and Talladega this season. He placed sixth in the Daytona 500. He was third at Talladega in the spring. He was 10th at Daytona in August.

A stage winner has not gone on to win the event in the last 11 races.

The 19 different winners this season is tied for the most in a season all-time with 1956, ’58, ’61 and 2001.

5. 600th race

Sunday will mark the 600th career Cup race for Rodney Childers as a Cup crew chief. He becomes the 15th crew chief in series history with at least 600 starts.

He and Kevin Harvick have been together since 2014. Their 313 races together is the longest streak among active driver/crew chief combinations. 

Harvick and Childers have combined to win 37 races, including two this season, and the 2014 championship in that stretch. 

What drivers said at Texas Motor Speedway

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What drivers said during and after Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series playoff race at Texas Motor Speedway, where Tyler Reddick scored his third win of the season, outrunning Joey Logano by 1.19 seconds:

Tyler Reddick — Finished first: “I was extremely worried, I’m not going to lie. Unfortunately, just about every time we’ve had fast cars, we’ve had some tire problems. Yeah, that last run the right sides were vibrating really, really hard there. I was just trying to maximize and use the gap that I built over Joey (Logano) just in case. I mean, every time we’ve had a strong car, we’ve been bit by something. This will make that, the pain of not making it through (the first round), a little bit easier. Even though, yes, it would have locked us into the Round of 8. We’re winning races. That’s what we’ll keep trying to do.”

Joey Logano — Finished second: “Yeah, the tires, if they aren’t blowing out then they are square. They were shaking like crazy. That is what happened there the last run. The last couple of runs really, just shaking the car. We got tight a couple runs and last time I got one that was off in the rear and we got loose. I think (Tyler) Reddick was fighting the same thing from what I heard there. You get that close to the win and you just know that if you just had that it might have been good enough to win the race. At the same time we should be happy that we scored a bunch of points today. It is bittersweet, I guess. It was a successful day for points scored. We got stage points in both stages and we were able to get a bunch by finishing second there. Yeah, it was a sloppy race for everyone on the track. We were just able to position ourselves really good at the end. Paul (Wolfe) did a good job calling the race and putting four tires on when we needed to and putting two tires on when we needed to cycle forward.”

Justin Haley — Finished third: “This was a long, challenging race. We finished third at Darlington earlier in the season and started pretty much last there, as well, so it’s pretty cool to have another really great run for this Kaulig Racing team. Our No. 31 LeafFilter Gutter Protection Camaro ZL1 definitely wasn’t what I liked, but we kept working on it and actually when it turned dark, we got some good track position and made a heck of a run out of it. I’m really proud of everyone at Kaulig Racing. At the end, I was just worried that the right rear is going to go down, so I was just trying to make it to the end. P3 is everything we could want right now.”

Ryan Blaney — Finished fourth: “It was a long night, for sure. It didn’t start out very good at all. We got better and better through the night and throughout the day we were able to win a stage and claw our way back from pretty far back in the pack there that last run to get to fourth. I thought our Mustang was probably the best car at the end. We just couldn’t pass anybody. Overall, not a bad night. A pretty wild night. Luckily, we were able to put together a solid race.”

Chase Briscoe — Finished fifth: “The first 90 percent of the race we were struggling. We couldn’t get the balance of the car right. We would be too loose or too tight and could never find where we needed to be. After that red flag, I think the nighttime coming in kind of helped us a bit. With 80 to go we were hoping to catch more cautions and make it on fuel, and we were able to get our track position that way and it ended up working out. We did what we needed to do for our Rush Truck Centers Ford. We were not a fifth-place car. We weren’t even a 15th-place car. To steal some points like that is huge. Going to Talladega, we are not in a massive hole, and that is the most important thing. We will go there and hopefully have a little luck go our way and see what happens.”

Erik Jones — Finished sixth: “It ended up being a solid day for our FOCUSfactor Chevy team. The day started out a little rough. We were just struggling with the balance and got it better late in the race. We ended up taking tires with about 30 laps to go and were able to come back through the field for a sixth-place finish. I’m proud of that. We struggled at Texas in the All-Star race, and we got a lot better from then to today. It’s good to have a good week. We needed one after the last few weeks. Hopefully, we can carry some  momentum to Talladega next weekend and try to close one out there.”

William Byron — Finished seventh: “Yeah, he (Denny Hamlin) ran me out of room. The toe link. We’re lucky we finished. It was really, really hard contact. It wasn’t like just a light contact or anything like that. Yeah, I didn’t mean to obviously spin him out over there. Obviously, I’m pissed off — just not going to get run like that. We’ve always raced so well together. I don’t know what it was all about. The 19 (Martin Truex Jr.) took his air away, he ran out of racetrack, so he chose to run me out of racetrack completely. Again, look, it’s not like it was just contact. I thought we were going to be done. I went to go show my displeasure. I didn’t mean to hit him and spin him out. There’s a ton of guys that do this and go do something like that. I see it all the time. I’m just not going to get run like that. Yeah, there’s really no reason. We’re running second and third I think. Had a shot to win. Killed our car, for sure. That was a bummer. We’ll probably talk. Look, we’ve never had issues, so I didn’t really get it. … Yeah, it was uncalled for. Feel like we handled it.”

MORE: Texas Cup results

MORE: Texas Cup driver points

Kyle Larson — Finished ninth: “You try to shake it off the best that you can and go out there and put together some good runs. We were able to overcome all the spots that we would lose on pit road. I felt like I drove from the back to the top five or six — almost every run. Really, really good car. Proud of the effort there at the shop, the piece that we brought here to Texas. It’s good we were above the cut, but yeah, we’re plus 16. I feel like we could have been plus 34 or something at least. Bummer there. Potentially could have won the race, I think. We had the best car. The weather delay really hurt, too. I think we were by far the best when the track was hot. When it got cooler out, I got loose, everybody seemed to get faster. It was just harder to pass. I mean, hopefully I would love to get some stage points (next week at Talladega), pat ourselves a little bit, cross our fingers and pray to God that we see a checkered flag.”

Denny Hamlin — Finished 10th: “I guess we can just wreck each other under caution. I tried to wreck him (William Byron) back. I don’t think we touched. I got to look. I don’t think we touched. Obviously, he sent us into the infield under caution. I keep hearing these guys. I’ll just add it to the list of guys when I get a chance. They’re going to get it. It all just works itself out. We’ll be racing each other at some point. He’ll lose a lot of spots because he’s racing me. This is hard racing, obviously. I’m fine with hard racing. But wrecking me under caution is obviously not what we were bargaining for.”

Daniel Suarez — Finished 12th: “It was a tough day. We got decent points, but the car wasn’t what we were hoping for. The entire weekend, we were kind of off. The car had good speed, but the balance of the car wasn’t good. We just have to continue to work. I think we had a decent points day. We just have to continue to work and get better.”

Ross Chastain — Finished 13th: “There were just a lot of ups and downs today. We cycled up to get stage points. The balance was neutral all day, but we got loose when we wanted it to be our last pit stop. We pitted and then we were back there in the very back for the second-to-last restart and got involved with the No. 10 (Aric Almirola) there. We just struggled with the balance the last 80 laps or so, but other than that, it was a good day for our No. 1 Renu Camaro ZL1 team.”

Austin Cindric — Finished 15th: “I felt like we had a really fast Discount Tire Ford Mustang. We made the right changes throughout the day. I would say we didn’t execute very well at the beginning of the race but passed a lot of cars throughout the day and then got caught up in somebody else’s mistake that took us out of a top five or top three or even a shot at the win. I am very upset about it. Getting stage points has been our weakness as a race team. We were able to get that in both stages today and really grind one out and show a lot of poise but have nothing to show for it so I am pretty upset about it. We are still on offense. We will put our heart and soul into it just like everyone else does. I have a great team behind me and I believe in myself and believe we can make the Round of 8, whether that is with a race win or on points. But it was a missed opportunity tonight, for sure.”

Ty Dillon — Finished 16th: “Today was a back-and-forth day with strategy. Our Black Rifle Camaro had good speed. We brought a good piece, and I thought it raced well, just the strategy was kind of back and forth. I think we made the perfect call there at the end of when to pit, and it was looking like we were going to get a top 10. I just caught a little bit of the slime in turn one and had a big moment and lost spots, unfortunately. I’m proud of our effort, proud of the speed in our Camaro. It’s been a lot of fun to drive these fast cars the last couple of weeks.”

Austin Dillon — Finished 17th: “We had a really fast True Velocity Chevrolet tonight at Texas Motor Speedway, so thanks to everyone at RCR and ECR for working hard to give us great equipment. We led the field in practice on Saturday, had a decent starting spot and were strong for a lot of the race. It was nice to lead some laps and earn some stage points. Strategy just didn’t play our way. We lost some track position at the end of the race, and it was really hard to make it up.”

Noah Gragson — Finished 21st: “Solid run by our No. 16 Freedom by Ed Morse team. We had a lot of fun out there and ran up in the top 10 for a lot of the race. I’m really thankful and grateful for the opportunity with Kaulig Racing, Freedom by Ed Morse, and the entire Morse family. I had a lot of fun out there. It was a long, long race. We had some strong runs there throughout the race and got sent by the 11 late in the race when we were running like 10th or 11th. That’s part of it. You’ll have that, but we’ll keep working hard and try and be better in the future.”

Martin Truex Jr. — Finished 31st: “I blew a tire. Simple as that. I guess the same thing as everybody else has been having. Man, I’m ready for this year to be over. Strong Bass Pro Shops Camry. Really strong car. Went to the back and passed a lot of cars today. Spun out in the first stage and I was like, okay, what was that all about. Good car — couldn’t do too much with it. Just kept going to the back and as soon as we got track position the unthinkable happens. It’s a shame. It’s a crazy day for sure – a lot of blown tires.”

Chase Elliott — Finished 32nd: “I’m not sure that Goodyear is at fault. 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. Something came apart. I could hear it flapping in the right rear fenderwell. I don’t know, but if it wasn’t down, it was certainly coming apart. One of the two. It’s not a great position to be in for sure, but it is what it is now. … We were actually decent here for once, so that was nice while it lasted. We’ll go to Talladega and try to get a win and go on down the road.”

Cody Ware — Finished 33rd: Team manager Robby Benton said Ware had discomfort in his ankle and would be checked again by medical personnel in Charlotte. “He has been treated and released. We are thankful to the track crew here. We had a bit of a delay going through the normal protocol of x-rays and reviews and making sure there were no fractures. All of that came back clear. He will be on the team plane with us to return to Charlotte tonight and we are happy he is okay. No broken bones. I feel like we will probably follow up just as a precaution. He will see a specialist with Ortho Carolina once we get home. For as hard of a hit as that was, we are thankful it is as clean as it is and he will be okay to go home tonight.”

Christopher Bell — Finished 34th: “Just the second right rear blown of the day – that was disappointing. I’m in a pretty bad spot now. Talladega – I guess we are going to go roll the dice. Roval, I think we will be all right. Road courses haven’t been our strength, but we have been good at a couple of them. I don’t know if we are going to be able to get out of this points hole, but we will give it our best. To have two right rears go in the first half of the race is very strange. I don’t know. It’s a very disappointing day. We are probably going to be in a deep hole now.”

Kyle Busch — Finished 36th: “I was just getting closer to the 11 (Denny Hamlin), and I knew if I tracked him, followed him in the lower groove, I would lose ground, so I went to the high groove where I was making time in the spray and the sticky stuff, but it is not so sticky, apparently, I crashed. I’m trying to go, trying to race. Banana peels out there for me. Too many conditions that you’ve got to be around or go around or figure out or be smarter about. I guess I wasn’t very smart. I didn’t know as a race car driver you could push too hard, but certainly it was a resin issue. I guess you would think being a hundred-and-something degree track temp it would be activated and ready to go, but I tried to get in it earlier than everybody else. Once these cars snap, they are gone. They are not like the old one where you have a little bit of time to react and catch it, but yeah, just trying hard trying to go and conditions are not ready. Banana peels out there it seems. When that stuff is not activated, it is just ice.”

Dr. Diandra: Surprises in playoff performance

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The first round of playoff performances defied expectations in both good and bad ways.

That is my excuse for why my very first attempt at making predictions was an abject failure. I projected Alex Bowman, William Byron, Chase Briscoe and Austin Dillon would be the first four drivers out of the playoff. Only Dillon failed to move on to the round of 12.

Of course, my algorithm did not account for Kyle Busch having two engine failures in three races. Especially after his not having had a single engine failure in the previous 92 races.

Nor did the algorithm predict Kevin Harvick’s Darlington race being ended by fire.

Or that none of the 16 playoff drivers would win even one of the first three playoff races.

On the positive side, playoff drivers took 11 out of 15 possible top-fives (73%), and 21 of 30 top-10s (70%.) That’s consistent with a season boasting 19 different winners.

Chase Elliott is the only driver to win more than two races this season. Drivers made the playoffs by finishing well rather than winning of lot of races.

Playoff performance by the numbers

In the table at right, I list drivers in order of points after Bristol — but before re-seeding. Red numbers indicate DNFs.A table showing drivers' finishing positions for the first three playoff races

DNFs played a major role in the first round. Each of the four eliminated drivers had at least one DNF. Harvick and Busch had two each. Both of Busch’s DNFs and one of Harvick’s were due to equipment failure.

Only three drivers earned top-10 finishes in all three playoff races: Christopher Bell, Denny Hamlin and Byron. Two of my predicted eliminations over-performed. And the one driver I expected to dominate the playoffs didn’t.

Relative to the regular season

Excluding equipment failures and crashes, one expects most drivers to perform, on average, at about the same level they ran during the regular season. That mostly didn’t happen.

In the first two elimination rounds, top 10s are enough to stay in the game. So that’s the metric I’ll focus on here.

The graph below compares drivers’ top-10 finish percentage in the first three playoff races to the same metric from the regular season.

A graph comparing the regular season top-10 rate to the top-10 rate in the first three playoff races to

Each arrow starts at the driver’s regular-season average and travels to his playoff average. Blue indicates playoff performance better than the regular season and red indicates the opposite.

Six drivers performed better than their regular-season averages would suggest.

Byron entered the playoffs seeded 10th with only five top-10 finishes in the regular season. With three top-10s in the first round of the playoffs, he earned the second-most points of any driver in the round of 16.

Hamlin had the second-largest improvement with two second-place finishes and a ninth. That continues his season-long trend of trying to overcome a slow start.

Bell’s 53.8% top-10 rate for the regular season doesn’t give him much room to improve. But he did. He’s also the only driver with three top-five playoff finishes.

Bowman, whose crew chief, Greg Ives, will retire at the end of this season, increased from 38.5% to 66.6% top-10 finishes.

“I think we are super motivated,” Bowman said, “because its Greg’s last 10 races with me and we want to end on a high note. We know the summer doesn’t matter anymore, our troubles, and it’s a good reset for us going into the playoffs.”

The biggest surprise, perhaps, was Elliott. He has the most top-10 finishes of any driver with 18. But only one came from the first playoff round.

Momentum

Driver finishes rise and fall throughout a season. The ups and downs are even larger this year because of the new Next Gen car. For that reason, it’s worth comparing playoff performance not only to the entire regular-season average, but also to just the last five regular-season races.

The arrows on the next plot start at the top-10 rate for each driver’s last five regular-season races and travel to their playoff rate.

A graph comparing the regular season top-10 rate to the top-10 rate in the first three playoff races to the last five races of the regular season

Seven drivers improved relative to their last five regular-season races — the six from before, plus Daniel Suárez. Suárez rose from 20% to 33.3%. That’s typical of a season that has been fairly consistent, but not at a level that will take him to the final four.

Byron’s turnaround is even more impressive in view of his having zero top-10 finishes in the last five races of the regular season.

“I think we had a lot of really good tracks in the beginning of the year,” Byron said. “As we started to chase some speed and chase some things, we got off a little bit throughout the summer.”

He believes the team has returned to where it needs to be.

“We know what works; we know what doesn’t work,” Byron said. “We definitely know what doesn’t work after the last month or so, so that’s a good thing.”

Joey Logano has the largest downward trend relative to the last five races, going from a 80.0% top-10 rate to 33.3%.

This graph shows Elliott’s playoff decline to be a trend continuing from the end of the regular season. That might be good news for the other drivers struggling to catch up with him.

Scoring and re-seeding

The table below summarizes points and playoff points earned during the three playoff races and each drivers’ final score before re-seeding. The lineup looks quite different than it did going into this round of three races.

A table showing how many points each playoff driver earned in the first round But that’s before re-seeding.

I hadn’t appreciated playoff points until I did the math. Each driver moving on to the round of 12 gets 3000 points, plus their total playoff points.

Because none of these drivers won a race, only five of the 21 playoff points available in the last three races impact the new standings. Bell won two stages; Byron, Bowman and Busch one each.

So we’re mostly back to where we were leaving Daytona.

A table showing the re-seeded rankings entering the second round of playoff racesRyan Blaney fell a spot. Byron’s dramatic turnaround didn’t impact his playoff standing. Most of Bowman’s move up the charts is due to eliminating the drivers originally ranked seventh, ninth and 11th.

The current standings reflect NASCAR’s eternal struggle between winning and consistency. On the one hand, I understand the desire to mimic other sports’ playoffs and not let the results of the last round impact the next. But carrying over regular-season playoff points means that Elliott returns to P1 despite having earned fewer points in the three playoff races than seven of the 16 drivers.

That’s why Bell, who earned almost twice as many points as Elliott and won two stages, ties for sixth place with Hamlin and Blaney. Elliott goes from 40 points behind Bell to 27 points ahead of him.

If Bell or any of the other remaining drivers wants to challenge Elliott, even top-five finishes won’t be enough.

In these playoffs, performance isn’t enough. You have to win.

Drivers to watch in NASCAR Cup Series race at Texas

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The NASCAR Cup Series playoff list is much lighter entering Sunday’s race at Texas Motor Speedway.

The playoffs’ first round eliminated Tyler Reddick, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Austin Dillon.

Entering the Round of 12 Sunday are six Chevrolet drivers, four Ford drivers and two Toyota drivers — a group that includes three former champions (Chase Elliott, Joey Logano and Kyle Larson) and one rookie (Austin Cindric).

MORE: NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

It’s quite a mix, as is the round itself. After Texas, the playoffs move on to Talladega Superspeedway and then to the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval for the next cutoff race.

Sunday’s 500-mile race (3:30 p.m., ET) will be televised by the USA Network.

A look at drivers to watch at TMS:

FRONTRUNNERS

Chase Elliott

  • Points position: 1st
  • Last three races: 2nd at Bristol, 11th at Kansas, 36th at Darlington
  • Past at Texas: Best career finish is 4th

Elliott is back at the top of the points after a second-place run Saturday at Bristol. Texas isn’t one of his better tracks, but he finished seventh in this race a year ago despite starting in the rear because of multiple inspection failures.

Joey Logano

  • Points position: 2nd
  • Last three races: 27th at Bristol, 17th at Kansas, 4th at Darlington
  • Past at Texas: Won in April 2014, three top 10s in past four races

MORE: NASCAR executive fires back at Kevin Harvick’s comment

Logano will be a favorite to reach the Round of 8, but he hasn’t won a race since early June. At Texas, he has nine top 10s in the past 11 races.

Ross Chastain

  • Points position: 3rd
  • Last three races: 6th at Bristol, 7th at Kansas, 20th at Darlington
  • Past at Texas: Best career finish in five career starts is 18th

Chastain sits third in the playoff standings but faces a tall task at Texas, a track where he has never led a lap. He finished 28th at TMS a year ago after being involved in a crash on Lap 31.

QUESTIONS TO ANSWER

Austin Cindric

  • Points position: 12th
  • Last three races: 20th at Bristol, 12th at Kansas, 16th at Darlington
  • Past at Texas: First Cup race at TMS. Had one win and six tops fives in eighth Xfinity starts.

The playoffs’ lone rookie hasn’t won since visiting victory lane in the season-opening Daytona 500. He squeezed into the Round of 12 in the final position and is seven points below the cutline.

Ryan Blaney

  • Points position: 8th
  • Last three races: 30th at Bristol, 9th at Kansas, 13th at Darlington
  • Past at Texas: Best career finish for a points race at Texas is 2nd in 2018. He won the All-Star Race there in May

Can Blaney continue the magic act that involves not winning races but staying in the championship hunt? He’s never won a points Cup race at Texas but has seven finishes of eighth or better in the past eight races.

Denny Hamlin

  • Points position: 6th
  • Last three races: 9th at Bristol, 2nd at Kansas, 2nd at Darlington
  • Past at Texas: 3 wins

Top 10s in all three races in the first round of the playoffs keep Hamlin in contention for another shot at what would be his first Cup championship. He has a good record at TMS.

 

 

Bristol winners and losers

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A look at the winners and losers from Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway:

WINNERS

Non-playoff drivers — Chris Buescher made it a clean sweep of drivers not in the playoffs winning each of the three first-round races. Erik Jones won at Darlington, Bubba Wallace won at Kansas, and Buescher won at Bristol. It is Buescher’s second career Cup victory. He led a race-high 169 of 500 laps.

RFK Racing — Chris Buescher and Brad Keselowski combined to lead 278 laps. Keselowski, who won a stage, finished 13th after a tire went down while leading. Buescher gave the team its first points win since Keselowski became a part owner at the start of the season. 

Christopher BellFinished fourth and won a stage to collect a playoff point for the second round. Had an average finish of 4.0 in the first round. 

William ByronAfter scoring one top-10 finish in the last 18 races of the regular season, Byron scored top 10s in each of the three races in the first round. He was eighth at Darlington, sixth at Kansas and third at Bristol. 

Austin CindricWas four laps down less than 100 laps into the race but kept going. He was helped by trouble to others to secure the final transfer spot to the second round despite finishing 20th, seven laps behind the leaders. 

LOSERS

Next Gen car on a short track — Some durability issues created issues for teams, and drivers said the cars are going too fast to race well at Bristol. Work remains on this car. 

Kevin HarvickA fire ended his race at Darlington. A crash, when two cars in front took the air off his note, ended his race at Kansas. In position to challenge for the lead late at Bristol, his left front wheel came off and forced him to back into his pits to have it put back on. That cost him a chance at a win and ended his title hopes. Fire, crash and wheel coming off — that aptly describes some of the major issues this year with the new car.

Richard Childress Racing — All four playoff drivers with connections to this team, whether past, present or future, all failed to advance. RCR drivers Tyler Reddick and Austin Dillon failed to advance, as did Kevin Harvick, who raced for RCR in Cup from 2001-13, and Kyle Busch, who will join the team in 2023. 

Kyle Busch — Two engine failures in the first round ended his last chance to win a third Cup championship with Joe Gibbs Racing.