NASCAR Pre-Race Media: 5 burning questions Playoff edition

Is This Hendrick Motorsports’ Championship To Lose?

Hendrick Motorsports has all four drivers into the postseason. With how this season has gone for them, is this their championship to lose? I mean at one point this year, we legitimally questioned if HMS would sweep the four spots into the Championship 4 at that.

We all know that a feat of that magnitude isn’t likely to happen, but even saying that, is this HMS’ title and everyone else just playing for second?

Well, they enter the playoffs on a hot streak again, but there’s also some areas of weaknesses I can see within them too. Just look at some races this past summer as prime examples as to why I pause to put too much on their plate.

HMS drivers combined to lead just 13 laps all day in Atlanta this past July. That comes after leading nearly all 500 miles of the race at the same track in the spring. They didn’t lead much two weeks prior to that in the second race of the Pocono doubleheader either.

They led 40 of 140 laps at Pocono. They led 13 of 260 in Atlanta. Then, they led 53 of 301 laps in New Hampshire, all coming by Chase Elliott early just as he did the week prior in Atlanta.

We’ve seen seasons ebb and flow? Was this just part of an ebb or is it a flow? Did teams catch up?

New Hampshire was the telling sign as they’d finish 7-9-18-21 that day. They were virtually non factors all race, just as they were the weeks before that.

To me, the factor is that maybe that they’re lacking on the 750 package on short tracks in general. Larson was seventh in Phoenix, fifth in Martinsville, 20th in Richmond, second in Dover and now seventh in Loudon. Elliott was fifth, second, 12th, third 18th and on the same tracks. Byron was eighth, fourth, seventh, fourth and 21st respectively while Bowman actually won twice (Richmond, Dover) and was 13th, 34th and ninth in the other two.

Dover was their obvious best at 1-2-3-4 but they’ve not been as dominant on other short tracks either. Where this could be the most worrisome is they’re not the best on short tracks right now in general. Even more so, Loudon has been an early preview of the Fall Phoenix race too.

Since New Hampshire went down from two races each year to one annually, this race has ended up being a Championship 4 preview. Last year especially since Loudon can translate over to Phoenix. In fact, with Richmond, Martinsville and Phoenix all being in the playoffs, that’s 30% of the postseason being on like tracks to Loudon. That’s why this race is arguably so important.

Plus, the tire used in New Hampshire will be used in November at Phoenix. There’s a lot that can transfer over.

Their best tracks are the 550 package and luckily for them, 2 of the 3 races in the Round of 8 are with that horsepower package. The thing is, how many of the four are still in the postseason at that time of the year and can they capitalize at Texas and Kansas.

We’ve not raced at Texas yet this year for a points paying event, but we have Kansas and Martinsville. Larson led 132 laps but got into the wall while battling for the win in the end in Kansas. He can very much win there again. His other teammates that day led a combined zero laps and finished 5-9-18 with Larson the worst finish in 19th among them. For Martinsville, they did place three cars in the top five but they also led a grand total of nine laps all day. Denny Hamlin led 276. Martin Truex Jr. led 20. They went 1-3.

On playoff tracks in general this season, HMS led no laps at Darlington, 10 laps at Richmond, 150 laps at Vegas, 132 laps at Kansas, nine laps at Martinsville and one lap at Phoenix. Larson accounted for 236 of those laps led.

You can make a strong case for Larson then, but what about the other three?

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA – AUGUST 15: Kyle Larson, driver of the #5 HendrickCars.com Chevrolet, drives during the NASCAR Cup Series Verizon 200 at the Brickyard at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on August 15, 2021 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Elliott’s finishes on these tracks are 7th, 12th, 13th, 5th, 2nd and 5th respectively. Byron’s are 4th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 4th and 9th with Bowman’s 17th, 1st, 27th, 18th, 34th and 13th.

That’s why I pause to say that HMS can continue this all the way to Phoenix. I think getting 2 cars to the final round is more realistic but if they don’t win the title, is this season going to be considered a disappointment?


Did JGR Close The Gap To HMS This Summer?

At one point this season, this was looking like Hendrick Motorsports would run away with this year’s championship. While they still look strong, they just don’t look quite as good as they did before. Part of that is due to Joe Gibbs Racing’s strength again.

Kyle Busch has seven top five finishes in the 12 races since the Coca-Cola 600 and one of those he crashed while leading in the rain in Loudon, he was collected in a crash while running in the top five towards the end of the Verizon 200 in Indianapolis due to a broken curb, a seventh place run in Michigan and another crash while being in the top five at Daytona. He’s championship ready in my opinion.

So is Denny Hamlin. While his top fives have slowed up, he still has shown to have the consistent speed to hang around up front all race long no matter the track or the week.

Martin Truex Jr. has since cooled but he can always turn it on at a drop of a hat while Christopher Bell has four top eight finishes in his last seven starts on the season.

What’s good for them is, they’re arguably the best organization on 750 tracks this year and 2 of the 3 in the first round are on them as well as the final two races of the year.

Hamlin, finished third in Phoenix, third in Martinsville, second in Richmond and seventh at Dover. We’ve not had a short track since until Sunday. We have Richmond, Bristol, Martinsville and Phoenix to make up 40% of the playoffs on short tracks. He led 276 of 500 laps in a third place run at Martinsville. He led 207 of 400 laps a week later in Richmond. He also led 33 laps in a third place effort at Phoenix. He may have been 10th in Loudon but he was already behind the eight ball from an opening lap spin.

Truex Jr. and Busch never got to flex their muscles due to an early race crash not of their doing in Loudon too. But, Truex won at both Phoenix and Martinsville earlier this season. He was also fifth in Richmond after what should have been another top two or three result. Out of the 10 playoff tracks ahead, Truex won earlier this season on 3 of them.

Busch looks like the strongest of them right now and capable of going on a deep run. Bell, has some good tracks in the first couple of rounds for him too.

I would be shocked if we didn’t get at least one JGR car in the Championship 4 this November. They’ve had at least one every year since this formats inception in 2014.


DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA – AUGUST 28: Ryan Blaney, driver of the #12 BodyArmor Ford, celebrates in the Ruoff Mortgage victory lane after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway on August 28, 2021 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)


Can Blaney Get Out Of The 1st Round? How Far Will Penske Drivers Go or Are They On Upset Alert?

Is it time to panic if you’re Team Penske? Are they on upset alert for an early round exit? This isn’t a No. 16 seed upsetting a 1 here, but Penske drivers sits 2,9,10 in the playoff standings and I can make a very strong case that at least one of them could get bounced in the opening round.

It happened last year to Ryan Blaney. Penske, Hendrick Motorsports and Stewart-Haas Racing each had a driver taken out in the 2020 first round along with the Wood Brothers. 2019’s first round exits were SHR, JGR, Ganassi and Roush Fenway Racing. 2018 saw Hendrick again, RCR and a pair of JGR drivers with 2017 seeing both RCR cars, HMS and SHR.

Should Penske be on upset already then?

Blaney is their hottest driver right now and knows that in order to make a serious championship run, he first needs to get out of the opening round of the playoffs. That’s something he didn’t do last year and the prime reason as to why is due to the nature of the tracks in that round. He’s unfortunately not been very good at any of them over the years.

In Darlington, he just earned his first career top 10 back in May with an eighth place run. Prior to that, his best finish in eight races was 13th. At Richmond, he was 11th in April for what was his best career finish on the .75-mile short track. Then it’s to Bristol to where he has just one top five in his last 11 starts there. He was 40th and 13th respectively there last year.

See why this round is his kryptonite? If he can get by, the next two rounds favor him. He’s always good in Vegas, he’s at his best in Talladega and is a past winner on the ROVAL. If he gets by the Round of 12, its to Texas and Kansas where he’s also really good at and then to Martinsville.

“RIchmond is not a place we’ve run spectacular at in the past, but something I really have my mind on is Richmond and Darlington,” Blaney said. “Earlier this year we ran the best we’ve ever run.  We ran top five at Darlington most of the day and ended up eighth and at Richmond we ran top five in the first stage and kind of got away from the handling and ended up running 11th and having just a good solid day there, so the confidence for me is having a couple good races there earlier this year.

“Once you do have a solid race at a track you might not have had good runs at before, it gives you the mindset of, ‘OK, I haven’t run great here in the past, but we had a good race.  Let’s work on that.’  Now I kind of have an idea of what I need to feel in the car, how I need to drive the racetrack, and what I need to work on throughout the race to try to stay up there and be competitive.

“That’s a great notebook we have from earlier this year at both of those racetracks and I’m looking forward to getting back there to build off of that because I think we can run as good there as anywhere else.  It was just a matter of time and you hope to utilize what you learned previously and apply it.”

That’s why I feel if Blaney can get by the first round, watch out. He enters having three top two finishes in the last three races including five top five finishes in his last six tries and seven top six results in his last nine starts overall.

“It’s great.  Momentum and confidence are something that we have right now in the 12 group because obviously, the last couple of weekends it really helps get that rolling,” Blaney said during Media Day on Thursday. “It’s good for everybody, not only for the driver but for the team as well when they have a lot of confidence in themselves and their abilities and you can believe that you can do it and make a strong run at the championship. That’s part of the game.

“You’ve got to believe you can do it and this team does believe in themselves and they have every right to.  They’re a great group of guys.  It’s been a pleasure to work with them, but it’s nice to end the regular season strong and have a good year.  Three wins on the year and you hope to keep that going throughout the playoffs and keep transferring and try to make it to Phoenix and have a shot at a championship.  So, it has been a fun year and it has been nice to end the regular season out this way and start off Darlington here this weekend with a bunch of momentum and our heads held high and we just have to keep doing what we’ve been doing.”

What about his teammates?

Brad Keselowski is leaving at seasons end and is backing his way into the postseason. He’s had one top five in the last seven races run this season and only two top fives in his last 15 overall.

Joey Logano is in a similar boat. He’s had one top 10 over the last seven races and only four top fives in the last 17. Can they turn it on in the playoffs?

“We’ve had a few races that have been pretty tough on the finishing side, but if you look at the race as they’ve gone, they’ve been races where we can run in the top five in every single one of them,” Logano said. “The confidence and what we can bring to the racetrack is up pretty high. I think the speed is there. Our pit crew is there. I feel like I’m firing on all eight as well.

“We’ve just run into everything you can possibly imagine.  It’s just the craziest things have happened and it is what it is and that just happens sometimes.”

I think Logano can due to the tracks in them, but I also feel like something is a miss for Keselowski’s car. I think they’ll bow out in the first or second round in fact. I do think both Logano and Blaney march to the Round of 8.

The thing is, they’ve not been at their best on 550 tracks and that may plague them in the third round. 2 of the 3 races are on 550 tracks. Penske is at their best on 750 packages.

They looked really good in New Hampshire for a second straight year. That translated well over to last year in which Keselowski won the playoff race at Richmond and led the most laps in the Championship 4 at Phoenix. Logano, led the most laps earlier this year in Phoenix and finished second. He was sixth in Martinsville, third in Richmond and if not for an early race penalty would have likely been in the hunt for a win as he made up two laps to finish fourth, one spot behind Keselowski but one spot ahead of Blaney in Loudon.

But, I don’t like the win or go home scenario for them at Martinsville with JGR and HMS cars in that race wanting a spot to Phoenix.

I think they all make it out of the first round with Logano and Blaney making it the farthest.



How Far Can Harvick/Hamlin Go?

Coming into the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series playoffs, we all wondered if the championship was Denny Hamlin or Kevin Harvick’s to lose. They had won literally half of the races in the regular season (13-for-26) and started off the postseason hot.

Harvick won 2 of the 3 races in the opening round with Hamlin winning at Talladega in the Round of 12. They were 3-for-5 in the playoffs at that point totaling 16 wins in 31 races run.

Since?

They’re 0-for-31. What happened?

For Harvick, the competition caught up and they lost downforce due to the way the inspection process changed. Hamlin though has been solid and even at times great, but has just lacked the wins. He started off with eight top five finishes in the first nine races of the season but has only had five in the last 17. None of those five were better than fourth while all but one was fourth or better in the first nine races of the season.

In Harvick’s case, he’s only had six top five finishes all season including only one of those being better than fourth. I mean, just look at how few laps led he had in 2021 on select tracks compared to 2020 and before.

In Phoenix, he led no laps and finished sixth. In Atlanta, he led no laps in each race and was 10th and 37th respectively. In two races at Pocono he was eighth and sixth with no wins. In Michigan he led no laps and finished 14th. At Darlington he led 10 laps and finished sixth.

How did he fare at these tracks before this year?

In Phoenix he had eight top two finishes in his 15 prior starts. He wasn’t even competitive in March.

In Atlanta, he led 151 laps in last year’s win. He led 181 more in the 2018 win. He led 292 laps in 2017. He also led 195, 116 and 131 laps in 2014, 2015 and 2016 there.

At Pocono, he was first and second respectively last year. He had led 209 laps in his previous six Pocono starts before 2021.

For Michigan, he swept both races last year and led 92 laps in one race and 90 in the other. His three race win streak in the Irish Hills came to an end a few weeks ago as he’s had five top two finishes in his previous six starts there including leading at the very least 15 laps in each of his last six starts prior to 2020.

For Darlington, he led 63 laps with RCR but in his time with SHR, he led 719 circuits.

So, to be that far off this year, what makes us think it will magically turn around now despite having won two of the last four races at the Lady in Black?

I think Harvick has a really good case to get eliminated in the first round while I do think Hamlin has a potential to march back to the Championship 4. The No. 16 seeds, as Harvick is, has made it out of the first round just once (2017) as Jamie McMurray was eliminated one round later though.


Should Championship 4’s Be Regarded As High As Championships Now?

Winning a championship in any sport has always been the true measuring stick of greatness. I mean, when we discuss the Mount Rushmore of any league, the first criteria is always, how many championships has he or she won?

Well, NASCAR is the same. But, to what degree is greatness defined now? Championships have always been it, with Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt and Jimmie Johnson’s seven titles always being the measuring stick.

Now, we’re in a different era though. Since 2014, NASCAR’s champion wasn’t crowed based off points. Yes, the first 35 races run during a season saw points being the reason the Championship 4 was formed, but it wasn’t the end all be all in determining a champion.

Whoever finished ahead of the other three Championship 4 drivers in the season finale won the title. It had nothing to do with the first 35 races. It had nothing to do with stage points for that race. It had everything to do with crossing the finish line ahead of the other three participants.

“I think there’s some merit to championship appearances,” Denny Hamlin said as a measuring stick for greatness. “I think one race, winner-take-all, anything can happen. I mean, if you have a mechanical failure on Lap 25, does that mean you’re not good enough? You made the final four.

Making the final four is the culmination of your whole year. That is what deems your year a success. You made it.  Every single driver here will tell you that. No one is going to discount their year based off of the outcome on the final race.”

Kevin Harvick won nine times last year but failed to even make the final round.

“Winning a championship today isn’t how Earnhardt or Petty did it,” said Harvick to me before the playoffs even started last year. “I think it’s a much different style of winning a championship than what it used to be.

“When you look at the point standings from this year, you see why the playoffs were put into effect in trying to make sure that we had an intriguing 10 weeks of racing as we went toward the end of the year.

“It’s very difficult to get yourself to the last race of the season and be one of those four cars and trying to be able to race for let alone win a championship.

“It’s very difficult to put yourself in that position and once you get there be able to put everything together against the other three guys on one particular day, especially when it’s been at the same race track (Homestead-Miami Speedway) every season that we’ve gone about it this way.”

CHARLOTTE MOTOR SPEEDWAY, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA – MAY 17: #11: Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota Camry FedEx Express and Christopher Gabehart during the All-Star at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 17, 2019 in Charlotte Motor Speedway, United States of America. (Photo by Nigel Kinrade / NKP / LAT Images)

Denny Hamlin’s crew chief in Chris Gabehart agreed.

“It’s like Harvick said, it’s a very different world in how we crown our champions today, full of a lot of exciting racing, no doubt about it,” Gabehart said. “You got to tune into the very last lap of the NASCAR season to know how it’s all going to play out.

“The reality is we have to go out and run another race.  It’s really that simple.  It just is that the championship is at the end of this one.”

The playoffs in NASCAR, like they are in stick and ball sports, are nothing like the regular season anymore.

Yes, a race win gets you to the next round, and yes points can still get you by, but like the other sports, you damn near have to be perfect to win this championship.

Since 2004, the year that the playoff format was first added to NASCAR, only three drivers have won a championship more than once — Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch. That’s it. That’s the list.

Also, since this new format was adopted in 2014 though, Busch is the only driver to win the Cup more than once. In fact, in this new era of NASCAR racing, one could say that just getting to a Championship 4 should be as big of a stat like winning a championship.

You should be judged on that and have a similar weight for your merits for a Final Four as you would a championship. I mean, I get it a championship should hold the most weight, but look at the NCAA Tournament, it’s all about a Final Four. We talk about that a lot. How many Final Fours have you been to?

Same for NASCAR. I mean the elite teams in the NCAA have been to Final Fours. Kentucky, UCLA, North Carolina, Duke, Kansas, Indiana, Connecticut, you name it, normally it’s the elite of the elite’s.

Especially more so now than ever before, winning in NASCAR is just so difficult. You have to be damn near perfect in the playoffs to even get a chance of getting to the Championship 4. That means being flawless on pit lane (no bad stops, no penalties), being aggressive on track, having a good starting spot, etc.

Harvick, was +42 entering the final race of the last round and didn’t make it to the final round despite 69 playoff points. Even he had to be perfect.

Same for basketball. In the NCAA tournament, it’s grown to be you can beat anybody on any given night. You have to be flawless. You can’t turn the ball over, miss free throws, lapses on defense, etc. Those that do, they have short lives in the Big Dance.

NASCAR gives you three shots per round, but one bad race can easily slip up your title chances very quickly. With racing being measured in a matter of tenths of a second now, you don’t have the luxury of many mulligans. Harvick, Ryan Blaney, Kyle Busch, William Byron and others found out the hard way. While there will be upsets along the way, the big names like in the NCAA Tournament will still find their ways to the Final Round. The ones that do will do so on perfection.

How many drivers have we seen have a season to where they were outside of the top 10 of the overall points standings but they march deep into the playoffs? The consistency may not have been there but they won enough races at the right time to keep going.

I mean, all you have to do in the 26 race regular season is find victory lane at least once. If you can do that and stay in the top 30 of the points standings, you’re marching to the playoffs. Then, if you win at least one race in each of the first three rounds, you get to the Championship 4.

But, from the Round of 8 on, it’s where drivers say winning a title gets tense.

“It’s stressful, man,” said 2015 series champion Kyle Busch. “It’s not stressful until the round of 8 and the round of 8 is the ultimate pressure.

“Once you get here to Homestead though I feel like it reduces. It’s just about being in the Championship 4 and being eligible there and you know you’re racing against eight of the best of that time right then and there.

“So with this format being the way that it is, it definitely takes time off you probably a little bit, it’s pretty stressful, gives you some more gray hairs than you want — or the loss of hair there for that.”

I mean, look at how stressful it is to make the Championship 4, but the guys that do so are there for a reason. They think just making the Championship 4 should hold almost as much weight now as winning a championship.

The problem becoming of this format is, as Hamlin puts it, you get your Game 7 moment like to what happened to Harvick last weekend, but forget about the first eight innings at that.

His teammate Martin Truex Jr. agrees. While he won a title under this format (2017), he feels like winning a championship now has never been more difficult under this Championship 4 format.

“I would say the odds are a lot worse in this system to win (a championship),” Truex said on the topic. “I don’t know how to view that, to be honest. I don’t know if it’s final four appearances, straight‑up race wins. Championships are huge. I think it’s harder to win now than ever. Maybe one means more than one used to.

“I think if you look at the elimination races and the stress, the amount of decisions that are made, the amount of laps that are raced, how many things in racing can happen to you. If you get to this level and have this much success, you don’t really believe in luck any more, you know?  You can’t because if you do, then you’re relying on luck to get you where you want to go.  It’s probably not going to work out consistently.

“So I think it’s very, very difficult to get here.  I think the argument could be that final four appearances are very important.  They’re looked at in some way that is more than, Well, the guy didn’t win the championship.”

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