NASCAR Playoffs: Now the mistakes are magnified

Joey Logano and his team avoided major mistakes and won the MENCS title in 2018

Every race has its share of mistakes made by drivers and crews and even the officials who govern the event. Sometimes those mistakes can be overcome and sometimes they result in a team scoring a finish that may seem like an underachievement. But over the course of a long season, those mistakes are often times forgotten by the time the next racing weekend rolls around.

However, that cannot be the case at this point in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season. The first round of the NASCAR Playoffs are set to begin on Sunday in the South Point 400 at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway which means drivers and their teams only have three races to perform well enough to advance to the second round of the championship run or else they will suffer elimination.

In the days of yesteryear when NASCAR championships played out over the course of an entire 30+ race season, a mistake made in the pits or a driver error could be recovered from as long as there weren’t too many of them. The same cannot be said from this point to the end of the season for anyone who hopes to leave the Homestead-Miami Speedway in November with the highly prized trophy in hand.

After the next three races there will be four drivers eliminated from the championship hunt and that process will repeat itself two more times over the next nine contests until the field of contenders is narrowed to just four for that final event in south Florida. With such high stakes and such a small margin for error, every mistake among the sixteen teams vying for the MENCS title will be magnified more than was the case during the so-called ‘regular season’.

A lug nut left loose on the final pit stop of the day in one of these three races could mean the difference in finishing with a top-5 and finishing 18th. A driver trying to squeeze his car into a space too small could result in a crash and a 38th place result where a top-10 might have otherwise been very achievable. A crew chief calling for a four-tire change when everyone else opts to gain or maintain track position at a place where passing is difficult could cause a potentially winning ride to finish near the tail end of the lead lap.

Many times in this playoff format a single point or two has been the difference in a driver advancing to the next round or being eliminated. And in almost every case, a team that has failed to move on to the next round can look back to a mistake in one of the three races making up that particular round to see a loose lug nut, an ill advised pit decision, or a driver error that resulted in the loss of just enough points to prevent them from staying in contention.

Of course, winning a race in any of the rounds assures that the driver will advance to the next round no matter what happens in the other events. But having to rely on winning a race to advance can be a dangerous proposition considering the difficulty in doing so.

Twelve drivers will move into the second round of the NASCAR Playoffs following these next three races on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series schedule. A big part of their success will likely be due to the fact that their teams made the fewest mistakes during the preparation for and the course of those races. Indeed, mistakes from now until the completion of the NASCAR season will be magnified for those in contention for a championship. Beginning on Sunday in Las Vegas, just one wrong move could make the difference between glory and failure.

Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association

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Turn 2 Blog: The Playoff Field is Set… But Are We Paying Attention?

*Turn 2 Blog is a regular feature on InsideCircleTrack.com. Here, site operators Michael Moats and Richard Allen take turns offering their thoughts on the NASCAR and pavement short track racing topics of the day.

Richard: After much build up, the 16 driver field for the NASCAR Playoffs is now set. Those competitors for the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship as well as the remainder of the drivers and teams are about to embark on the final ten-race run that will bring the season to a close with the final stretch broken into segments designed to reduce the contenders to the eventual final four.

One thing that strikes me when I look at the first three-race segment is the variety of tracks that will be employed prior to the first set of eliminations. The playoffs will begin in the desert southwest at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway this Sunday. That track is a 1.5-mile D-shaped oval that features high speeds on a layout not unlike that of several other venues on the circuit.

The playoff run will then take to the 3/4 mile Richmond Raceway the following weekend for the second event in the first round of the championship dash. Simply being good on the so-called ‘cookie cutter’ type tracks will not be enough as the short track prowess of drivers and teams will be put to the test on a Saturday night in Virginia.

And the variety continues when the series heads to the heart of NASCAR country for its second run on the road course at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. While not a true road course in the same sense as tracks such Sonoma or Watkins Glen, it will still call for drivers to turn both right and left with shifting not typically required on ovals.

The variation of tracks will really put these championship contenders to the test right off the bat, won’t they?

Michael: I like the mixture of tracks in the first round. To go from a 1.5-mile to a 3/4-mile to a road course built inside of an oval is about the most variety a person could ask for. With the changes this year and more changes next year, NASCAR is finally listening to the fans by mixing things up in the playoffs instead of having most tracks be a similar layout that could favor one or two drivers over the others if they happen to hit on something that works.

My only complaint is Las Vegas being held when it is. Last year, the temperatures were well into the 90’s. This year, it’s anticipated to be near 100. At least NASCAR has decided to run the race at 4 p.m. local time to help with attendance. But I’m not sure it will help. They should have considered making that one a Saturday night race.

Richard: The first round of the playoffs will certainly prove to be a true test for those involved. As you say, it will not simply favor one team or one organization who may have hit on something for the 1.5-mile tracks. These three races will pretty much bring in every skill set there can possibly be in this form of racing for both drivers and crews.

At the end of this first segment, four drivers will be eliminated from the championship hunt while twelve will continue on. So that brings up the question as to whether it is best to be aggressive in terms of race strategy and driving style in hopes of getting a win to guarantee a place in the next round or is it best to play it safe and just hope to out point those who may experience trouble in one form or another.

Those drivers who have amassed a significant number of playoff points going into the first round have a distinct advantage when answering that question as they can perhaps afford a bit of a disaster and still be likely to advance. Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex, Jr., Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski would have to experience a major meltdown to not make the second round. As a result, they can essentially race as if it’s business as usual, especially for the first couple of outings.

However, those currently at the bottom of the standings such as Clint Bowyer, Ryan Newman, Aric Almirola and William Byron have no real margin for error as they are starting the playoff basically already on the outside looking in. So for them, that question of whether or not to gamble or play it safe is all the more important.

How do you expect the sixteen contenders to play it in the first round?

Defending champ Joey Logano(22) and Kyle Busch are certain to be serious playoff contenders

Michael: It seems as if going after points in the first round tends to work for the veteran drivers. Newman gets into the playoffs most years and people expect him to be the first one out. But he usually makes it past the first round. He knows how to do it.

On the flip side, I would think it would benefit a younger driver like William Byron to go after a win. His best shot would be out of the gate at Las Vegas. I would think a track like Richmond would be a good points night for drivers like Newman, Bowyer, and a few others near the bottom of the standings. Charlotte will be the X factor like it was last year.

The drivers at the top will go for points to guarantee a spot in the next round unless a win is there for the taking. But those teams tend to be more aggressive on getting wins in the 2nd and 3rd rounds as more drivers are eliminated. The first round is a good chance for a driver like Ryan Blaney or Chase Elliott to grab a win to get to the next round.

Could Chase Elliott(9) or Kyle Larson possibly earn a title in 2019?

Richard: I agree that the younger guys could really make some waves in the early part of the playoffs. And considering that Byron has never won a race, it would seem that gambling to win would be more beneficial to him at this stage of his career than just playing it safe in terms of accumulating points. And since you brought up Blaney, the one-year anniversary of his last MENCS win is fast approaching while his teammates have won multiple races and a championship within that time span. He too needs to focus more on winning races right now than just playing for points.

Since a win in any of these three races guarantees advancement to the next round, the variation in tracks that we talked about earlier could be a significant factor in determining who could move in and who might move out.

A guy like an Alex Bowman, who does not have a ton of playoff points built up ought to be a factor on the 1.5-mile Las Vegas layout while short-track aces such as Clint Bowyer or Kyle Larson could make hay at Richmond. And the “Roval” in Charlotte could be the fly in the ointment as we saw last year when Jimmie Johnson and Martin Truex, Jr. took each other out on the last lap and opened the door for Blaney to take the checkered flag.

Initially, I wasn’t a fan of the Chase/Playoff format but I now have to admit that it has peaked my interest this year. I still don’t know that I prefer it over simply letting the season play out as it did under the old-old system of many years ago, but it is what the TV networks want so it’s going to stay.

Are you finding yourself paying more or less attention under this format?

Michael: I will say my attention is about the same. I don’t pay any more attention to the first round unless someone unexpected gets a win that transfers them to the next round. I like the tracks in rounds 2 and 3 as the pressure starts to build. That’s when I really get into it. I think this year is pretty wide open as opposed to last year.

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Strategy will determine the winner and final playoff spots in Brickyard 400

Clint Bowyer leads the drivers currently on the playoff bubble

Perhaps like no other the race on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series schedule, the Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard typically boils down to which team and driver make the best strategy play at the end. Kasey Kahne’s win in 2017 and Paul Menard’s triumph in 2011 serve as shinning examples of how making the right late race calls in terms of when to pit or not to pit as well as what to do in the pits can decide who will take the checkered flag.

The areo-sensitive Indianapolis Motor Speedway can make passing quite difficult. As a result, track position is king and those who can best claim that for their cars as the race draws to a close are most often those who come away with the win or top finishes at this historic 2.5-mile facility.

And now, given this race’s position as the last race of the so-called “regular season” will even further add to the complications crew chiefs and drivers will face as the 400-mile event plays out. Those already secure in their positions for the upcoming NASCAR Playoffs do not have to worry about the possible pitfalls of taking risks but can instead concern themselves only with winning at one of auto racing’s most revered venues. And more, those who can only make the playoffs with a win can gamble in going for victory with the hope of strategy not only playing out in their favor in terms of earning a coveted win but also in grabbing one of the two as yet unclaimed playoff places.

The four drivers on the playoff bubble are those who have the most to lose on Sunday afternoon in Indiana.

Clint Bowyer enters the race with a mere eight point cushion over Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Daniel Suarez and Rough Fenway Racing driver Ryan Newman while Hendrick Motorsports campaigner Jimmie Johnson sits 18 markers below the cut line.

So what do these drivers do in the event of a late race decision to stop or not stop? Do they take on two tires, four tires, or gas only on their final stop? Do they run the risk of stretching fuel mileage at the end in the hope of winning the race at the risk of running out of fuel and finishing well down in the order only to miss out on a playoff opportunity?

Drivers such as Paul Menard, who will start his Wood Brother Racing Ford on the front row, Chris Buescher, Matt DiBenedetto or Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. have nothing to lose. There is no way they can “point” themselves into the playoffs so each of these drivers can gamble on late race fuel mileage or take just two tires on the final pit stop where the bubble drivers may have to play it safe.

Kevin Harvick will stat the Brickyard 400 from the pole

Further, playoff secure drivers such as pole sitter Kevin Harvick or multiple-time Indy winner Kyle Busch can also afford to take chances to not only secure a win but also add to their playoff points totals going into the championship stretch run. They can pit just before the end of stages to set themselves up for later in the race where the bubble drivers will have to finish out stages to earn the much needed points.

While IMS may not be known for the best racing on the MENCS circuit, this Brickyard 400 provides plenty of reasons to continue watching right up to the drop of the checkered flag.

The race is set to start just after 2:00pm ET on NBC.

Here is today’s starting lineup:

 

NASCAR should be racing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Brad Keslowski won last year’s Brickyard 400(Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Every year the debate seems to surface regarding whether or not the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series should or should not be racing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The arguments against auto racing’s top division competing on the 2.5-mile track are many. The racing isn’t particularly good, the grandstands look empty, it’s a track meant for IndyCar, and there are other facilities better suited for stock cars are among the complaints against the Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard. And all of these arguments have some degree of merit.

However, there is one thing that cannot be disputed when it comes to this particular track.

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is the premier racing facility in the world. Of course, there are other race tracks with great history, but this one laid the ground work for all the others. The history associated with this track cannot be denied.

If NASCAR is to be considered a top tier form of racing- which it is -it has to conduct races on the biggest stages. And this is the biggest stage in all of motorsports. When asked to list the most famous race tracks in the world any person who follows the sport will mention venues such as Daytona, Monaco, LeMans, Spa, Monza, Talladega, Darlington and Silverstone. But Indianapolis is often the first on the list of many who follow racing even among these other great places.

This track, perhaps more than most others, is susceptible to aerodynamic issues which make it difficult for cars to pass. As a result, stock cars tend to get strung out around the 2.5-mile layout for long stretches at a time which does not make for the most exciting racing.

And more, there is so much grandstand seating that the place can look empty even with a bigger crowd than almost every other track on the NASCAR schedule. Remember, even with 80,000 people on hand at IMS there would be a vast number of unoccupied seats.

And no matter how noteworthy the Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard might become, it will always be the second biggest event held on this venue.

But even with all of that, this is still the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It isn’t Kansas or Chicagoland or Fontana or New Hampshire. It’s the Indianapolis Motor Speedway- the world’s premier racing facility.

With all of its history, it’s mystique, it’s majesty, and it’s place in the motor racing world, this is a place where NASCAR’s top division(and only its top division) should be racing.

Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association

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Was Southern 500 Win Enough to Keep Erik Jones at JGR?

Erik Jones

Joe Gibbs Racing has won 13 of the 25 races contested so far in 2019 on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. But until Sunday night/Monday morning at Darlington Raceway all of the team’s wins had been delivered for the Toyota organization by Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex, Jr. However, it was the turn of Erik Jones in the Bojangles Southern 500 to contribute to the company’s dominance of victory lane as he held off Busch and Kyle Larson to win one of the sport’s crown jewel events.

That was the second MENCS win for Jones in as many seasons with JGR at the top level of the sport. The Michigan native drove a second car for Furniture Row Racing during his rookie campaign back in 2017.

Jones has been the subject of speculation recently in regard to his racing future. His contract with JGR is up for renewal at the same time other drivers in the Toyota camp, particularly NASCAR Xfinity Series standout Christopher Bell, are on the rise. Those two factors have combined to cause some to wonder if Bell might move into the No. 20 Toyota with Jones finding himself somehow shuffled out of the JGR driver lineup.

Those rumors have persisted as the 23-year-old driver struggled in comparison to his veteran teammates. While Busch, Hamlin and Truex had combined for 12 wins and were each placed within the top-5 of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series standings prior to this weekend, Jones had not won this season until the Darlington race and found himself outside the top-10 in the standings.

When it was announced that driver Matt DiBenedetto would not be retained by Leavine Family Racing(a Toyota team with ties to JGR) following the conclusion of this season, many assumed the new pilot of the No. 95 would be one of Toyota’s young stars. And while most rumors have centered on Bell moving into that ride, the folks at JGR, LFR and Toyota have been somewhat evasive when asked to confirm the speculation. That, in turn, has led some to believe that it could be Jones who will move to LFR so that Bell can step into the No. 20 car.

Has Erik Jones done enough to maintain his ride in the No. 20 or might he be shuffled to the No. 95?

As has been proven time and again in racing, performance is not always the determining factor when it comes to the question of whether or not a driver will keep or land a particular ride. Sponsor and manufacturer preferences typically tip the balance in such decisions. And that has been evidenced by the fact that DiBenedetto will be pushed aside from LFR despite having scored the best finishes in that team’s history.

It is likely that a decision has already been made regarding the future of Erik Jones with all parties involved simply waiting on some of the loose ends to be tied up. Most likely, he will remain where he is with Christopher Bell moving into the driver’s seat in the No. 95.

But still, until an official announcement has been made, nothing is certain outside the walls of the JGR complex. With that said then, one has to wonder whether or not Erik Jones saved his place at the JGR table with his win in one of NASCAR’s most historic races.

Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association

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Lessons Learned From a Saturday Spent at Home Watching Sports

This is a rare Saturday for me as I am sitting at home on my couch rather than covering a race of some kind at a dirt or paved track. And I have come to a couple of conclusions as I watch various sporting events on television with my sons here at home with me.

Like many my age(51), I grew up a sports fan and watched everything I could on television in an era when there were not literally dozens of choices at any given moment to tune in to. And more, I anxiously awaited the times when I could go with my dad to Tennessee football and basketball games or NASCAR races when he was able to secure tickets in an era when that was not always an easy thing to do.

Those days of sporting events being guaranteed sellouts and heavily viewed “must-see” happenings on television have obviously passed and a new mindset regarding sports fandom has become the norm.

NASCAR and other sports often see large numbers of empty seats at their events

For years, when I still had the RacingWithRich.com website, I often harped on NASCAR’s dwindling attendance and sinking TV ratings as a sign that the administration in charge of the sanctioning body was guiding the sport in the wrong direction. And I would still say that former NASCAR boss Brian France made some misguided decisions during  his tenure at the helm of the sport. But as I said at the beginning of this piece, this Saturday afternoon has taught me some lessons.

One of the events I watched was the Sport Clips Haircuts VFW 200 Xfinity Series race at Darlington Raceway. That race taught me that the importance of huge personalities in sports matters more than it ever has. Years ago, many fans just enjoyed the game for the sake of the game. However, in this SportsCenter time period that we now live in, younger fans are more enthralled by the stars who play the game rather than the game itself.

Did you hear the reaction when Dale Earnhardt, Jr. climbed from his car on pit road to be interviewed by NBC following the race?

The front stretch grandstand at the venerable old track was packed and no doubt a significant number of those fans came because Earnhardt was in that race. And that crowd erupted when the former most popular driver offered them a wave. Despite semi-retirement from driving, he is still a star in their eyes. And as was mentioned earlier, stars now -pardon the pun- drive sports fandom more the game itself.

Lesson No. 1 from my Saturday- Stars matter.

Both during and following the Xfinity Series race at Darlington I paid attention to several college football games. Among those, sadly, was the contest that saw Georgia State take Tennessee down inside a barely half full Neyland Stadium.

An empty Neyland Stadium(Photo: @Josh_Ward on Twitter)

But it wasn’t just in Knoxville where there were vast empty spaces in the seating areas of football’s well-known palaces. Despite very cheap ticket prices, the suddenly moved from Jacksonville to Tallahassee Florida State vs. Boise State game almost looked like a small college or even a big high school sized crowd. Further, the border battle between North Carolina and South Carolina featured a very depleted upper deck in the Charlotte home of the NFL’s Carolina Panthers.

When I was a kid(in the Dark Ages), even when major college games that featured a power house team against a light weight would fill up a stadium on the opening week of the season. Apparently that isn’t the case anymore.

So when NASCAR’s attendance began to drop off it might not have been entirely a NASCAR problem. It appears to be a sports problem. There are just so many things to do that can get the attention of young people, or even old ones for that matter.

And to further reinforce the point that sports could be in trouble going forward regarding the challenges from other options, my two teenage sons have spent their day only glancing at the racing and football coverage I have on the TV. Instead, they have watched YouTube and Netflix most of the time.

Lesson No. 2 from my Saturday- NASCAR and all other sports as well as their broadcast partners will face major challenges in the not-so-distant future as fans my age continue to get even older and are replaced by smaller numbers of young people.

Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association

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Allowing Sixteen Teams Cheapens the NASCAR Playoff Field

Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Daniel Suarez(41) and Clint Bowyer(14) are among those trying to make the playoff cut

With only two races remaining before the cutoff for the NASCAR Playoffs on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series takes place the time has come for drivers and teams to nail down the yet unclaimed positions in order to make the dash for the title that will begin in Las Vegas and ultimately end in Miami. The current system calls for sixteen drivers to be included in the playoffs with eliminations occurring after the third, sixth and ninth races leading up to the final event in which four drivers will be eligible to claim the 2019 championship.

As it stands now, four drivers are essentially vying for two remaining places providing that someone from even further back in the standings doesn’t pull off an upset victory to gain entry ahead of those four. Ryan Newman and Daniel Suarez hold a slight advantage over Clint Bowyer and Jimmie Johnson with races in Darlington and Indianapolis still to be contested before the cutoff.

But it seems to this writer that an even bigger question than who will claim those remaining spots is whether or not there are too many drivers and teams given entry into the playoffs in the first place. Have any of those four racers really done enough to warrant a chance to win a championship?

A total of 16 competitors make the NASCAR Playoffs. Are there really 16 drivers in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series worthy of having even a slim chance to claim the trophy at the end of the season?

A look at the statistics of those involved in the battle for those two spots might suggest otherwise.

Ryan Newman has scored only one top-5 finish in 2019

Newman currently holds a 14 point advantage ahead of the cut line. The No. 6 Ford has not exactly put together an awe-inspiring campaign up to this point. As a matter of fact, this Roush Fenway Racing effort has only scored one top-5 finish in 24 races. On two different occasions Newman has posted three consecutive top-10 runs but he also has amassed a total of five results outside the top-20 over the course of the season.

Suarez is two points to the good in terms of being ahead of the cut line. Only during one stretch of the schedule has the No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford compiled three consecutive top-10 efforts on their way totals of three top-5 and eight top-10 finishes. And like Newman, he has ended his day outside the top-20 on five separate outings in 2019.

Bowyer has the most top-5 and top-10 finishes among this group with five and ten respectively but inconsistency has been his downfall as he has posted seven results outside the top-20. The No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford did, however, have a stretch of four consecutive top-10s at one point in the season. All of that has left him two points behind his SHR teammate for the sixteenth and final playoff spot.

Johnson has hardly demonstrated the prowess of a seven-time champion in 2019. While the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet does have three top-5 efforts, there have also been six runs to have ended outside the top-20. He must win a race or make up 26 points in order to qualify for the playoffs.

Jimmie Johnson sits outside the playoff cut line with two races remaining before the playoffs begin

NASCAR allows 44% of its chartered teams to make the playoffs. In comparison, the NFL doles out post-season spots to 38% of its teams while Major League Baseball only gives 33% of its organizations a chance to make the World Series.

Based on the stats mentioned above, it seems as if there is a great deal of mediocrity being allowed to compete for a highly coveted trophy. And while one argument might be that those at the tail of the playoff field will likely be eliminated early on anyway, the question of whether or not they should even be included in the group ought to be asked.

To think that a driver who has finished in the top-5 only one time in 24 races is actually in the driver’s seat to claim a playoff spot seems illogical. And while only one of those four drivers mentioned above(Johnson) has been competitive enough to win a stage in 2019, they are all still being counted as contenders.

Yes, the example of Tony Stewart winning five of the final ten races in 2011 to grab the championship after barely making what was then called the ‘Chase for the Sprint Cup’ field could serve to make a case for any of these drivers mentioned in this piece having a chance at glory. But at that time, there were only twelve drivers to make the post-season compared to today’s sixteen.

In this writer’s view, sixteen teams making the NASCAR Playoffs out of only 36 total charters is simply too many. It cheapens the whole deal for those with so few top finishes to be included with the drivers who have run up front, posted consistently solid results, and won races over the course of the entire campaign. Being included in the mix for a title should require more accomplishment than simply beating out barely over half of the field.

Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association

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