After a messy Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway, the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs move on this weekend to another potentially messy spot — Talladega Superspeedway.
Home to the Big One — an almost certain multi-car crash, Talladega also occasionally produces unexpected winners, including Richard Brickhouse, James Hylton, Lennie Pond, Ron Bouchard and Brad Keselowski.
The mix of tight drafting, the Next Gen car and general playoff tension should make Sunday’s 500-mile run quite the adventure.
Daniel Suarez, Chastain’s Trackhouse Racing teammate, is seventh. He’s four points above the cutline.
Two other playoff rookies — Chase Briscoe and Austin Cindric — will start Talladega below the cutline. Briscoe is four points below the cutline. Cindric is 11 points below the cutline.
Looking for wins
Only six of the remaining 12 playoff drivers have won races at the two remaining tracks in the second round (Talladega and Charlotte Roval).
Among the six, Joey Logano has the best win record at Talladega, having finished first there in 2015, 2016 and 2018.
Other Talladega winners in the group: Ryan Blaney (two), Denny Hamlin (two), Chase Elliott (one), Ross Chastain (one).
The Charlotte Roval is relatively new, of course, but Chase Elliott already owns two wins there. Ryan Blaney and Kyle Larson also have won at the Roval.
An opening for Brad?
Few people who watched it will forget the first Cup Series victory scored by Brad Keselowski.
It occurred at this week’s tour stop — Talladega Superspeedway — in April 2009. Keselowski and Carl Edwards made contact approaching the finish line and notched the win, even as Edwards’ car flew into the frontstretch fence, spraying car parts into the grandstands.
Thirteen years later, Keselowski returns to NASCAR’s biggest track having recorded six Talladega wins. No other active drive has more than three.
When Brad Keselowski arrived at RFK Racing after last season, among the early changes he made included repainting the walls and restructuring the team’s shop.
They were meant to infuse an organization that hadn’t won a Cup points race since 2017 with a new look and feel. And help create a new mindset for the 165 employees.
“The first thing (Keselowski) started changing was colors,” Justin Edgell, tire carrier on Chris Buescher’s team, told NBC Sports. “Everything is satin black. My man is a satin black-type guy. I’m talking about trash cars. I’m talking about equipment. I like it. You know, look good, play good.”
It has taken much for the organization to experience a week like this. The season didn’t start well. Both Keselowski and Buescher failed to make the feature in the Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in early February.
Less than two weeks later, they each won their qualifying race at Daytona.
RFK Racing wouldn’t be back to Victory Lane until Bristol. In between were disappointments, close calls and plenty of work.
“We’re in a spot where with our company, we’ve made a lot of changes over the last six to 12 months,” Keselowski told NBC Sports after the team’s celebration on Monday. “And there’s a maturation cycle to those.
“Nobody likes that maturation cycle. There’s still things that we’ve invested that haven’t matured. So there’s a lot of reasons for optimism, but we have a long ways to go.”
Having patience in such a fast-moving sport isn’t easy but it is needed.
“I wish we would have matured earlier,” Keselowski said,” but I ain’t going to look at gift horse in the mouth and scream at him. I will take it and we’re going to build off it. Right now we have two teams that are like 10th-place teams. Our last few weeks have shown that’s where we’re at in speed, that’s where we’re at in finishes. If we ran a whole season like that … we’d be a playoff team.”
When Keselowski spoke to the employees at Monday’s celebration, he told them to enjoy the moment. He also had another message for them.
“Winning at this level is really hard and it’s supposed to be hard,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of fight to get there this year. Certainly some good moments and some really tough moments. I’m really proud of all of us and the work that went in.”
Another key to the organization’s success finding common ground between those who had been at Roush before Keselowski’s arrival and the new hires and their ideas.
After working through those issues, which included how the cars were prepared, Graves saw progress.
“You step back and embrace it and look at it and it’s like, ‘OK, this makes sense,’” Graves said. “You can start to develop and build on some ideas that make progress.”
The results started to show. Buescher finished second at Sonoma in June. He was sixth at Road America in July. He placed third at Richmond ninth at Watkins Glen in back-to-back weekends in August.
“It’s been really nice to go to these race tracks and be in the hunt, be up there at the front,” Buescher told the employees at Monday’s celebration. “We’re learning every week. We’ve made huge progress really through the whole year.”
Buescher and Keselowski combined to lead 278 of the 500 laps at Bristol. Buescher found himself toward the front late in the race. Graves made a two-tire call on the last stop. Buescher went from entering the pits fourth to exiting first when no one else made such a move. Buescher led the final 61 laps to win.
Then he got to do something he hadn’t in years.
“I’ve only been able to do like three in my career,” he told NBC Sports, noting he didn’t do burnouts in ARCA because he often needed those tires for another event. “Xfinity wins, we were able do do some burnouts.
“After the Pocono Cup win, it was rained out so we just had to push it to victory way, so it’s been a really long time since I’ve done any legal burnouts in a race car. So that part was nice.
“It was nice to actually be able celebrate on the frontstretch with the team the real way, in the moment, not hanging around for that that rainout. That’s what made it that much better in my eyes.”
“Now we are in a spot where we are ready to play some offense,” he said. “It is a good feeling. It comes with a pragmatic view and a lot of humility of being able to walk away from some races where you were legitimately 20th or 25th and go to work the next morning and say, ‘Alright, we aren’t going to burn the house down. We are going to repaint the living room and then we are going to go to the next room and work on it piece by piece.’
“The easy thing to do is to lose control over yourself. That is the easy thing to do. The hard thing to do is to work through it and be methodical in that approach.”
It’s an approach that has led RFK Racing back to Victory Lane.
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.
“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.
“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
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.”
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?’
‘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.”
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.
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, whoenters 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.”
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.”