Would it make sense for NASCAR to run a double points race as IndyCar does? How about making NASCAR’s regular season finale — which is at Daytona next year — a double points race to give more teams a final chance to make the playoffs?
Dustin Long: I’m not a fan of this when teams had 25 races to put themselves in a playoff position before the regular season finale. With the regular season finale at Daytona, I don’t think the sport needs any more gimmicks for that race.
Daniel McFadin: In the “win and you’re in” era of NASCAR, I think this would only work if more than one position paid extra points in this scenario. If this applied to the top five positions that might make for a thrilling conclusion to a race at Daytona.
Jerry Bonkowski: Instead of Daytona, I’d like to see double points available in the championship race at Phoenix next year. However, that would require NASCAR to change the playoff format and make points count in the final race, which currently is not the case. The race winner or the highest-finishing driver of the final four contenders is crowned champion. If NASCAR would change the final round format and NOT reset the points entering that race —as well as make it a six- or eight-driver field — I believe it would heighten interest to NASCAR fans who, right now, may not be interested in the season finale if their driver isn’t one of the four finalists. If there are six or eight drivers vying for points to win the championship in the final race, it would only enhance the experience for fans and drivers. We have seen what double points have done to heighten interest in the IndyCar finale. Why not do it for NASCAR?
Which four will fail to advance to the next round of the Cup playoffs this weekend?
Jerry Bonkowski: Erik Jones, Alex Bowman, William Byron and Aric Almirola are eliminated after Charlotte. I expect Kurt Busch and Clint Bowyer – even though they’re both currently below the cut line, but are very good road course racers – to rally at Charlotte, have strong finishes and advance to the second round.
Dustin Long: I’ll take the field. Truex’s two-race winning streak ends this weekend.
Daniel McFadin: Truex and Cole Pearn have unfinished business with the Roval, so I don’t think they’ll be taking a breather with his race. I would not be surprised to the see them complete the hat trick.
Jerry Bonkowski: If Jimmie Johnson doesn’t take him out on the last turn of the race again, yes. That’s obviously a joke, folks. But seriously, Truex is so hot right now that I could easily see him win at Charlotte and continue that streak through his home track at Dover next week. Truex is on a role and will fight for every extra stage and playoff point he can get. Even if he doesn’t win at Charlotte, you know he’ll go for the jugular at Dover to get a win out of the way early and quickly advance to the Round of 8. He’s in the driver’s seat right now.
Friday 5: Kyle Busch’s comments address murky issue with no solution
RICHMOND, Va. — The way to prevent the contact that happened last week between Kyle Busch and Garrett Smithley at Las Vegas Motor Speedway is simple.
Once the playoffs start, only playoff cars can race.
Of course, that will never happen — and should never happen.
But as long as more than half the field features non-playoff competitors, there will be times when those drivers play a role, despite their best intentions, of impacting a playoff driver’s race. It could happen again in Saturday night’s playoff race at Richmond Raceway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).
“People don’t understand the technology gap and the money gap that there is in the Cup series,” Smithley told Mojo Nixon on “Manifold Destiny.”
Smithley understands. His NASCAR career of 11 Cup races and 125 Xfinity starts all have been with underfunded teams.
Such teams have fewer resources and struggle to be competitive, all but forcing their drivers to seemingly spend as much time looking out the rearview mirror to stay out of the way as looking ahead through the windshield.
While NASCAR has a minimum speed for races, only one time this season, according to Cup race reports, has a car been ordered off the track because it was going too slow. That was the Spire Motorsports entry at Dover in May. Two months later, that team — one of 36 chartered teams — won the rain-shortened race at Daytona with a different driver.
Corey LaJoie noted on Twitter after the Las Vegas race how a team’s financial situation can impact its driver choice:
As long as there are “unchartered” teams, the model makes them strapped for cash and they cannot afford to pay an experienced guy what they’re worth. They have to take anyone that can pass NASCAR’s “approval” process and has enough to pay the tire bill for that week.
Justin Allgaier, preparing to compete in Friday’s Xfinity Series playoff opener, understands the plight of drivers with subpar equipment. Allgaier suffered through such circumstances when he raced in Cup.
“Kyle obviously had some pretty harsh words,” Allgaier said Thursday during the Xfinity Series playoff media day at Richmond Raceway. “I do understand sometimes there are times where lapped traffic does make a big difference in how the outcome goes. But on the flip side, I’ve been in that situation. You’re battling, really your livelihood, just to even keep a ride, and you’re doing everything you can and the last thing you want to do is mess somebody up.
“I thought that the situation we were in last week, personally I didn’t think anything could have been done differently as far as what Garrett did or what lane he ran. I thought he did everything right. He went in and picked a lane and stuck with it.”
Busch didn’t see it that way and ran into the back of Smithley. Busch then ignited a debate on social media when he told NBCSN after the race: “We’re at the top echelon of motorsports, and we’ve got guys who have never won Late Model races running on the racetrack. It’s pathetic. They don’t know where to go. What else do you do?”
Busch’s question has no answer that will appease him because nothing will be done. It’s understandable if he’s sensitive to the issue. Last year at Phoenix, a caution with 18 laps to go by a driver making his first start in either Cup, Xfinity or Trucks in four years, bunched the field and took away Busch’s advantage. Busch pulled away on the restart to win.
Nobody does. The incident between Busch and Smithley likely will be soon forgotten. But there will come a day when a non-playoff driver is involved in a situation in the championship race that could determine who wins the title and who doesn’t. As long as NASCAR’s playoff races include non-playoff cars, the risk always will be there. It is up to NASCAR to ensure that those competing in those races are qualified to do so.
2. A new experience
Jimmie Johnson got his first taste as a non-playoff driver in a playoff race last weekend at Las Vegas and it was interesting.
One of the debates before and during the playoffs is how much those not racing for a title should race the playoff contenders. As the level of desperation increases in each round among playoff drivers, their patience with non-playoff drivers decreases.
So what was the seven-time champion’s experience like with the playoff drivers Sunday?
“I saw quite a few situations where drivers in the playoffs took some desperate moves out there,” he said earlier this week at Charlotte Motor Speedway after joining breast cancer survivors in painting pit wall pink. “I saw it happen to other drivers, I had a few make that move on me as well.
“It’s a tricky situation to be in, and I know they’re going after every point they need to but so am I. We certainly plan to not allow myself to be used up as I was in Vegas a couple of times.”
3. Game planning
A fascinating aspect of this year’s rules package is how crew chiefs set their cars, particularly at the big tracks. Stewart-Haas Racing focused on speed for its cars last weekend at Las Vegas and took the top four spots in qualifying. When it came to the race, Kevin Harvick’s car was the only SHR car to excel and finished second.
Joe Gibbs Racing, on the other hand, focused on downforce to make its cars better in the race. The result was that Martin Truex Jr. won after starting 24th.
That’s a trend for Truex. He has started eighth or worse in four of the five races he’s won this year. Truex qualified 13th at Dover but then started at the rear because of inspection failures, he qualified 14th in the Coca-Cola 600, started eighth at Sonoma and 24th at Las Vegas in his wins. The exception was when he started fifth at Richmond in his April victory.
Harvick’s team has taken a different approach. He qualified third at Las Vegas and finished second. He won from the pole at Indianapolis. He won at Michigan in August after starting second.
“That’s their MO, right?” crew chief Cole Pearn said after Truex’s win last weekend at Las Vegas of Harvick’s team. “They’re dragging the pipes, slamming the backs, just going for all that speed. It’s working for them. All the power to them.
“I think for us, we’ve had a couple races where we’ve gone more that way and they haven’t been very good for us. I think everyone has their own take. I think you generally look at JGR as a whole, how well we’ve qualified this year, I think we got one pole, 14 wins. That’s the variance in the strategy.”
4. Reading time
Denny Hamlin and Noah Gragson have spent time on a new endeavor recently. They’re both reading books to help make them better.
Hamlin and others have cited personal growth as contributing to his turnaround this season after going winless last year, the first time he had failed to win while competing full-time in Cup.
“It’s definitely fact that I am calmer and more confident because I have learned to let go of the things that I can’t control,” Hamlin said. “A lot of that has come through self-improvement. I have done a lot of reading, which I wouldn’t consider myself a reader. I didn’t read a book, I guarantee you, from whenever I had to in high school till I turned 38 this year.
“I just started reading over the last three or four months. I started learning and trying to be a better person in general. I have learned to really let go of things I can’t control. It has really allowed me to think about the process more. I think it really has helped with my on-track performances. Thinking through the processes more and not focusing on and worrying about the things that I specifically can’t control.”
Gragson said that he’s reading a book “25 Ways to Win With People” to be a better team leader.
“That’s what I need to be for this race team,” Gragson said. “It’s really easy to be happy and smiling when things are going good, but I feel like your character comes out when maybe things aren’t going as well as you would want. I’m trying to lean on people who I call my mentors … reading that book and just trying to be better and more positive.”
Gragson said he got the book from former driver Josh Wise, who trains drivers with Chip Ganassi Racing, JR Motorsports and GMS Racing.
“I’ve been leaning on him,” Gragson said of Wise. “He helps me with overall thinking. He was the first person I went to when I felt like we were going through maybe a valley that our communication was off as a team, I was kind of struggling with my confidence and where we were. Leaning on him really helped me. The takeaways (from the book) have been very valuable and it helps me with everyday life, too. I’m willing to try it and it’s been helping so far.”
5. Who is next
Richmond marks the fifth short track race of the season. Consider what the first four races have seen:
Four different winners (Brad Keselowski at Martinsville, Kyle Busch at Bristol, Martin Truex Jr. at Richmond and Denny Hamlin at the Bristol night race).
Four different pole winners (Joey Logano at Martinsville, Chase Elliott at Bristol, Kevin Harvick at Richmond and Denny Hamlin at the Bristol night race).
Four different drivers finished second (Chase Elliott at Martinsville, Kurt Busch at Bristol, Joey Logano at Richmond and Matt DiBenedetto at the Bristol night race).
Should a race winner do donuts? Should they do a reverse victory lap? Or a bow? Or climb a fence? Or the latest, offer a hug.
Just as there are different ways to enjoy a NASCAR win, drivers also have distinct opinions on how to celebrate those accomplishments.
“I don’t go too over the top, but we sure do like to hang around the track for a long time and we really don’t ever want to leave that Sunday night after the race,” Martin Truex Jr. told NBC Sports. “We just want to kind of hang out and maybe stay over in the motorhome or something and party in the campground. These races are tough and that’s kind of why you see guys enjoy it so much because you never know when you get another one.”
Brad Keselowski admits he’s a fan of sprint car drivers climbing on the wing of their car and celebrating after a win. Keselowski has created his unique victory celebration by having a pit crew member bring out an American flag to his car. It’s something he began doing in 2010.
“Honestly, in sprint cars, I only do donuts and stuff if it’s a really exciting finish,” Larson told NBC Sports. “I feel like when you win in NASCAR, like you’re obligated to do donuts just because that’s what they expect.”
Rookie Ryan Preece said that there is something better than donuts.
“The donuts are all well and cool, but I think they’re kind of overplayed,” he told NBC Sports. “I think the (reverse) victory lap is something that is pretty special. I would say the (reverse) victory lap is the coolest one of them all. I actually did it at Iowa (in 2017). It’s just not as rough on equipment and is pretty cool seeing all the fans.”
But Ryan Newman likes the donut celebration after a race for a particular reason.
“I still pattern my victory celebrations, which are rusty now at this point, after Alex Zanardi’s donuts,” Newman said. “I always admired him as a race car driver and his ability to celebrate and do it at different parts of the course, and I just thought that was spectacular.
“My dad has always told me if you can’t win, be spectacular. So, I guess if you win, you better be spectacular.”
For others, the celebration can be a moment of thanks. Xfinity driver Chase Briscoe kneels.
“I’m a pretty relaxed guy as it is,” Briscoe said. “I get excited but I don’t get too excited. I feel like my signature thing is just getting down on one knee and praying and just thanking God. I did that at the Roval (last year). I wasn’t in a dark place but really questioning myself and really thankful for the opportunity and just gave Him thanks and it was well received. I’m not going to hide my faith. I’m proud of it. I did it (at Iowa in July) as well.”
Austin Cindric bearhugged Rutledge Wood during his interview after Cindric scored his first career Xfinity win at Watkins Glen. Cindric then hugged Dillon Welch during his interview after winning at Mid-Ohio.
It’s that type of emotion Cindric said he likes seeing from others who win, citing Team Penske driver Will Power’s reaction after winning the 2018 Indianapolis 500.
“I think my favorite are the ones where you can see the emotion of the drivers and how much it means to them,” Cindric said. “I think of when Will Power won the Indy 500. He had been trying to win that race so long and to see him do it and be there in person and see how the emotion, there are so many pictures of him going crazy in victory lane, the crazy eyes and the smile, things that mean that much to drivers because there’s a lot of work that goes into it and there’s a lot of pressure you end up putting on yourself. I think that connects with race fans so well when you see ho much it means.
“What drives me nuts, I’ll take your standard Formula One interview, the guy who just had the greatest race of his career and he’s like ‘This is a good weekend, such a great opportunity, thank you to the guys.’ Just the most bland interview. The biggest moment of your life just happened. Get excited about it. I think that’s what makes our sport fun.”
2. Memorable throwback schemes
With NASCAR heading into to Darlington Raceway for its fifth throwback weekend, here’s a look at my favorite throwback schemes.
A classic look.
STP and the Petty Blue. The two were synonymous in NASCAR for years and it only made sense that for the inaugural throwback weekend in 2015, these two would return to the track with the paint scheme from 1972.
Aric Almirola got into the spirit of the weekend by sporting a Fu Manchu to match what Richard Petty once showcased.
Almirola finished 11th in that race.
Perhaps no car has looked as sharp under Darlington Raceway’s lights since the sport went to a throwback weekend format than this car, driven by Kyle Larson in 2015.
What made this car even better was that it had the paint scheme and proper sponsor to go with it.
This mirrored the car Kyle Petty drove for SABCO Racing from 1991-94 (and also the car Tom Cruise’s character, Cole Trickle, drove in the 1990 film “Days of Thunder”).
Larson finished 10th in this car, placing a spot ahead of Aric Almirola in that No. 43 car.
This car ran in the Xfinity Series race in 2016, as more Xfinity teams began embracing the throwback idea at Darlington. This continues to grow as several Xfinity teams come to Darlington with throwback schemes each year.
Ryan Reed drove this car for Roush Fenway Racing. The paint scheme pays tribute to Bobby Allison and the car he drove in 1975. Allison won three races that season, including a victory at Darlington.
Reed finished 13th in the Xfinity race.
Richard Childress Racing had both its No. 3 and 31 cars with this look for the 2017 Southern 500, but the No. 3 car looked the best to me.
RCR went with this look to honor Dale Earnhardt’s 1987 Southern 500 victory with the Wrangler paint scheme.
While Earnhardt will be remembered for his black cars, I always liked this paint scheme.
Dillon finished fourth with this car.
It was good to see Jeff Gordon’s rainbow paint scheme eventually return for the Southern 500 at Darlington in 2018.
Dylon Lupton drove a rainbow paint scheme car in the 2017 Xfinity race.
While Lupton’s car looked sharp, the paint scheme was meant to be on a Cup car for throwback weekend. Hendrick Motorsports did the right thing in 2018 by putting it on William Byron’s ride.
Newman has an average finish of 12.1 at Darlington, his best of all the active tracks that he’s had more than one start. His 13 top 10s at Darlington also are the most there among active Cup drivers. Suarez has never finished better than 29th in two Cup starts at Darlington. Bowyer has an average finish of 22.8 at Darlington and his only top-10 finish there came in 2007. Johnson is a three-time winner at the track but has not finished better than 12th in the last four races at Darlington.
4. Familiar face
Joe Nemechek, who turns 56 on Sept. 26, will drive the No. 27 Cup car for Premium Motorsports this weekend at Darlington Raceway. This will be Nemechek’s 668th career Cup start but first since March 1, 2015 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. He’s continued to run in the Xfinity and Gander Outdoors Truck Series.
To put it into perspective, when Nemechek last raced in Cup:
# William Byron was in the K&N East Series (and would win the 2015 title)
# Erik Jones was in the Gander Outdoors Truck Series (and would become the youngest series champion that year)
# Daniel Suarez was in the Xfinity Series (and would become the rookie of the year)
# Kyle Busch was out after being injured in a crash during the February Xfinity race at Daytona (he would come back to win the Cup title that year).
Also, Nemechek is entered in both Xfinity and Cup races at Darlington this weekend. That will give him 1,174 career starts in NASCAR’s top series.
Richard Petty holds the record for most starts in NASCAR’s national series with 1,182 — all in the Cup Series.
Mark Martin is third on the all-time starts list with 1,143 across the three national series. Kevin Harvick is next with 1,139 career starts.
Since NBC Sports took over broadcasting the Cup series at Chicagoland Speedway, no driver has scored more points in that time than Denny Hamlin. The top four in points in that time are all from Joe Gibbs Racing.
Here are the drivers who have scored the most points since Chicagoland:
Nate Ryan: The points, playoff points and top 10 tallies point to Busch, but Truex gets this nod because he is improving as the season unfolds while making a largely seamless transition to Joe Gibbs Racing. Busch’s No. 18 Toyota has been more consistently excellent, but Truex’s No. 19 team seems slightly more playoff ready.
Dustin Long: It’s easy to get the sense that Martin Truex Jr. and crew chief Cole Pearn are figuring things out, but I’ll take Kyle Busch for having the better season at this point. Busch has ledmore laps, had more top-three finishes, more top-five finishes and more top-10 finishes than Truex.
Daniel McFadin: Truex has won four of the last eight races, but he struggles in the races following his wins. Meanwhile Kyle Busch has been incredibly consistent through 16 races, failing to finish outside the top 10 just once at Kansas. We’re still waiting to see Busch find his kryptonite.
Jerry Bonkowski: Busch is having a statistically better season than Truex and has been at or near the top of the points for much of the season, but they’re equal where it counts the most. What’s more, they play off each other so well, you’d never know they’re first-year teammates.
Do stages need to be re-evaluated for road-course races, particularly Sonoma?
Nate Ryan: Yes. There has been only one “natural” caution over the past 246 miles of Cup racing at Sonoma Raceway. It seems as if having two scheduled yellows in a race that emphasizes strategy might be adversely disrupting the driver behavior and rhythm of an event in which action can be dependent on the randomness of cautions (and this could apply to any race that features green-flag pit stops without losing a lap). While the Sophie’s Choice of going for the win vs. amassing points adds an interesting wrinkle, it also seems too preordained and rote, eliminating some of the tactical genius and unexpected twists that make road-course racing fun.
Dustin Long: I’m not convinced this needs to be done. I do like seeing which teams will toss aside potential stage points for the chance to go for the win and pit shortly before a stage break. If nothing else, stage breaks do provide two restarts and restarts are often some of the most exciting moments in a race. You really want to eliminate two restarts a race?
Daniel McFadin: I think so. With NASCAR keeping in place that caution laps during stage breaks count towards the lap count, Stage 2 at Sonoma had only 15 competitive laps under green compared to the first stage’s 20. I’d add five laps to the second stage there and have the final stage be 45 laps. It’s still significantly longer than the first two stages.
Jerry Bonkowski: Yes. Personally, I feel stages don’t work well in road course races, especially at a place like Sonoma, which saw a half-mile larger track this year for the first time in more than 20 years (due to adding the Carousel). Road course races should be a constant, moving episode and not interrupted by stages. And if it proves fans like the racing more without stages, it may be something to look at when the major changes come around in 2021.
With the first Cup race of the year on a road course behind us, what’s one road course you’d like added to the Cup schedule?
Nate Ryan: Road America already has proved worthy of the Xfinity Series and also provides a NASCAR-IndyCar doubleheader opportunity. If the category were expanded to street races, Toronto already hosts stock cars with NASCAR’s Canadian series.
Dustin Long: Road America.
Daniel McFadin: Laguna Seca, baby! It was my favorite road course as a kid and I’d love to see a Cup car navigating its variety of turns, especially the Corkscrew. Would three California Cup races, with two on road courses be healthy for the sport? Probably not. But I still want to see it.
Jerry Bonkowski: Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, or Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas. I’d be happy with either — actually I’d be the happiest if both were on the schedule.
What has been the best story in NASCAR this season?
Nate Ryan:Ross Chastain, and if there’s justice in the near future, his story should continue to unfold on a bigger stage than a third-tier series.
Daniel McFadin: Without a doubt Ross Chastain and Niece Motorsports. With its Gateway win, the small team will more than likely compete in the Truck Series playoffs. They could deliver a second consecutive Truck Series title from an underfunded team as the giants of the series – Kyle Busch Motorsports, GMS Racing and ThorSport Racing – struggle to find victory lane with their full-time drivers. If you’re a fan of old school motorsports stories, there’s one playing out with this team.
Jerry Bonkowski: It’s a close call, but I am going to go with Tyler Reddick having a slight edge over Kyle Busch in best overall story of 2019.