NASCAR hosted a their annual playoff media days this week and instead of one very long day with 16 drivers available to interviews in person, 2020 forced this to be conducted over two days via zoom calls. Wednesday had eight drivers available with the other half online to chat on Thursday.
Here’s the main takeaways from the two days of zoom calls with all 16 playoff drivers.
- Sleepers – Jeff Gluck asked each driver who they thought the conscientious sleeper is for the 10 race postseason, the main pick out of them was Aric Almirola. They point to him being so quiet throughout the regular season but right there in the thick of things too. Another sleeper pick was Alex Bowman. Kurt Busch notes that there’s a lot of worn out tracks in the first round and that Bowman is at his best on those types of circuits. Bowman though notes that the hotter slicker tracks for him this summer he struggled on and is looking forward to more grip on some of these tracks. Then, it’s to the Round of 12 where Bowman is good at Vegas and has had past success on superspeedway tracks like Talladega.
- Kyle Busch Sleeper? He doesn’t necessarily classify as a sleeper. He’s made five straight Championship 4’s including being the defending champion. But, Busch has only scored three playoff points and is on the outside looking in when you look at the top 12 to advance to the second round. While Busch is also winless in 2020, he’s been clamoring for practice to help get his No. 18 Toyota steered in the right direction. Despite that, 8 of the 10 playoff tracks are a return trip from earlier this season. That gives him a ton of notes to go off of which could be like a glorified practice session. Does he heat up now? He thinks a playoff run is in them and notes this season feels like 2015 for him heading into the playoffs.
- Speaking of getting to tracks a second time around, that also helps the Penske guys. See, with a crew chief change this offseason for all three teams, the pandemic and lack of practice time hurt them. They jumped out of the gates hot, but that’s because they had practice to get their cars dialed in. Once the practice stopped, it affected their speed. As Joey Logano said on Wednesday, they were like a lost puppy. Now, they’ve got a full notebook of data from eight of these playoff tracks that they can use a practice session data due to having full length races during the regular season on them. That’s why this group is going to be one to find speed as the playoffs start on Sunday. As Logano said, this season reminds them of 2018 when he started off hot, went through a lull, then had a great postseason en route to a championship.
- Notice a theme? Busch and Logano note that these seasons remind them of their first championship winning ones? Do they get to Phoenix this November?
- Pit Selections Surprisingly Key – Joey Logano’s used to having hit pit stall closer to the front of pit road. His former crew chief in Todd Gordon’s philosophy was to pit as close to the front as you can. His new chief chief in Paul Wolfe’s philosophy is vastly the opposite. Wolfe likes to pit in the back. As Logano noted, it’s a change and that they don’t randomly pick pit stalls. There’s a science in this.
- Stage Points Key – We’ve seen in the past how the deciding factor to go into the next round or not in the playoffs can come down to a single point. This year, it’s going to be even more crucial because there’s no qualifying. All 16 playoff drivers in the first round are starting in the top 16 spots. That means they are fighting among each other for the top 10 at the end of the first stage as missing out on a top 10 spot in each stage could be the difference in making the next round or not. As Austin Dillon put it, you have to be able to use the front bumper if needed because every point matters.
- Richmond The Track Circled By Many And Not For Good Reason – The common theme drivers had when asked about strengths and weaknesses in the playoffs, most notably the first round, Richmond was named as the worry track. Toyota has been so dominant there over the last several years with four straight wins as drivers like William Byron, Ryan Blaney, Alex Bowman and others haven’t had much success there. That has them a little more worried as they haven’t raced there yet this season like they normally would have in the spring and are just looking for top 10 night next Saturday.
- Playoff Mindset “1 Race At A Time” – While Richmond is scary to some, no one is really looking past Darlington at the moment. Other than Cole Custer, these drivers in the playoffs are veterans. Just Custer and Matt DiBenedetto are the only first timers in the postseason field. Everyone knows, the playoffs aren’t going to be won in one race and it certainly won’t be lost in it either. You can’t get too high or too low and just need to take it week by week. Blaney, said Richmond is the only track he’s not looking forward to in the playoffs, but despite that being next week, would that put more pressure on Darlington on Sunday? He says “no.” He’s not looking past Darlington yet.
- Bowyer eyeing no mistakes, Tony Stewart type run – Clint Bowyer said that they need to be nearly perfect in the playoffs. They playoff points aren’t there so far, so that puts a greater importance on stage points. To get stage points, you have to minimize the mistakes taken. That means not putting your car in the wrong spots on the race track. It means no problems on pit road. It means being perfect from the drop of the green flag. That also means capitalizing on starting positions. This Sunday, he rolls off ninth in his No. 14 Ford. Bowyer, has been vocal all year that his lack of starting spots have hurt his cause. He struggled to stay in the top 12 of owners points which meant he was starting 13th on back most weeks. That made it harder to get up to the top 10 to get stage points in each race which in turn cost him precious points as a result. Now, the starting positions can improve. Can they maximize that? Bowyer, said that look at his boss Tony Stewart in 2011. They were “shit” in the regular season then dominated a wave of momentum in the playoffs all the way down to Homestead to earn a championship. They have that capability in their team and hoping to do so over the next 10 weeks.
- COVID Awareness Bigger Now – We’ve seen a couple of COVID cases in the NASCAR garage, two of which being drivers. On Tuesday, Steve Phelps said that if a driver is to miss a race due to coming down with the virus, they won’t receive any points for that event. In turn, that likely would end any championship shot for that driver due to missing a full race. They’d have to win in order to move on at that point. So, are the playoff drivers doing anything differently over the next 10 weeks? Do they just live in their own “bubble” and not leave the house other than to race? Do they even go and get a test if they’re exhibiting symptoms knowing the fear could lead to being eliminated from the playoffs? Most said that they’ll keep doing what they’ve been doing throughout the 22 races during the pandemic but will maybe tighten up a little bit more now since it is playoff time and the risk is going to be greater for them to contract it. They said that as places are starting to open back up again, it’s probably best to be even safer than before and just think of the bigger picture for what’s a stake professionally for them. For Bowyer, he’s just going to remain status quo. He notes that you can do everything perfect, but still come down with it. “Hell you can get it by opening your car door,” he joked. He noted that Jimmie Johnson likely missed the playoffs due to a confirmed case and that between Johnson and Austin Dillon, their symptoms were minimal and could have raced through worse hangovers than that but they were forced to sit out. Other than wearing a mask and doing what you normally would just with a little more precautions, you can’t obsess about this.
- Future plans – William Byron talked about how important that it was that he reupped with Hendrick through the 2022 season. Clint Bowyer said that talks are still on going for him to return to SHR in 2021. He’s just going to be happy to be in NASCAR in any role he can. Matt DiBenedetto said talks haven’t begun yet on whether he returns to the Wood Brothers next season. Austin Dillon said he hasn’t talked to his brother Ty Dillon yet but has talked to his grandpa about it.
- Length of races – A big topic that was interesting during the two day media availabilities was the drivers being asked if they would like to see the 500 mile races become more limited. With so many races using the “500” or even “600” title, should most races become shorter? The drivers mostly all agreed. They think only the crown jewels should be those lengths most notably the Coke 600, Daytona 500, Southern 500, etc. Anything else should be between 300-400 miles in length. Kyle Busch noted that he does think some of the 300 mile races that we ran as doubleheaders during the pandemic were a little too short but he’s good with a happy medium. Austin Dillon noted that the RCR cars are known for their long run speed but does like the longer events to be used for crown jewels. Kevin Harvick said that despite winning the last three playoff Texas races, those races are too long and can stand to be shortened.
- 2nd Round the scariest – With Vegas kicking that round off, everyone has that event circled as the one they have to win or at the very least get a top five. See, if you are in a fight to make it to the Round of 8 still, the two races left in the Round of 12 past Vegas are Talladega and the ROVAL. Those are wildcard races where anything can happen. Denny Hamlin noted that how you approach those two races would all depend on how Vegas goes. He said he could win both but also finish 20th or worse in both of those races too.
- Top drivers to beat – Hamlin and Harvick are the consenscous, but the other two spots are wide open. Kyle Busch and Clint Bowyer think they can do what Tony Stewart did in 2011. Martin Truex Jr. is comfortable with his new crew James Small and with how well that they’re running right now. The Penske’s are back on the same page with their crew chiefs and feel like their pace is close to being good enough for Phoenix. Kurt Busch and Aric Almirola are just after consistency. Cole Custer and Matt DiBenedetto are playing with house money while the three Hendrick cars are more than capable of making a run but first need to get out of the first round themselves. Chase Elliott is their best shot to do so.