NASCAR Pre-Race Media: 5 burning questions for Sunday’s Autotrader EcoPark Automotive 500 (2 p.m. ET, NBC, PRN)

Has NASCAR Hit Playoff Races Perfectly? Is It A Relief To End The Round of 12?

Texas now leads off the Round of 8 Kansas has moved to the middle race. Martinsville stays the same. Did NASCAR land this right too?

See, Kansas has typically been in the second round or at the start of the Round of 8. They keep moving further and further back on the schedule to now it’s the third to last race of the season. For the first time ever, Kansas will host the penultimate race of the third round.

Is his a better spot for them? Next year they move up to the first round, so which is it?

Texas shifts up from the spot that Kansas is now in and will now be the opening race of this round.

Selfishly, it’s great for the track like Kansas in a sense that it even more decides the championship. But, is there more attention on the opening race of the round or even the final race? Does it get lost in the shuffle though as the middle race when you want to start off great and have all the attention in the first round of the final eight or even the last race?

NASCAR has changed up the playoff schedule over the last few years but one things certain, the cutoff races we now know are in perfect positions. Bristol as the last race of the opening round and Martinsville as the final race of the Round of 8 spark enough drama for short tracks to give us what we want to see in elimination races. Now, the ROVAL showed that they deserve to remain as the Round of 12 cut race too.

This race is always unpredictable and for another year, it provided the excitement that it takes to show us that this race should remain for the future.

Most drivers aren’t happy about that as not too many in the garage like the ROVAL. They feel like we’re racing on a parking lot. They’re kind of right. But, by having a road course inside of a 1.5-mile oval makes this track so challenging too and that’s great action and excitement for the fans. There’s no room for error. It’s like a high speed street race with walls all around you and no margin to get off course because a wall is waiting for you if you do.

In turn, that makes setting the car up rather difficult because you have the banking and the oval to deal with high speeds but the infield section is slower. Which do you prefer to be good at and where can you get by on?

I mean, if this race was on just the oval, I don’t think we get the unpredictability of what we saw for 109 laps of action last Sunday. It may have been too straightforward without the drama. We had the same eight advance on as they entered Sunday’s race but it took a lot of wild and tense moments for each to get there too.

That’s a win for NASCAR as well as the ROVAL.

But, it also begs the question, are the playoff tracks in perfect spots. I mean, the Round of 12 is the ultimate wildcard. You get a superspeedway in Talladega followed by the ROVAL. Really, you don’t control your own destiny in this round outside of Vegas.

Next year, Texas moves up to Vegas’ spot to open the Round of 12 which makes an even bigger added importance on that race now. Kansas in turn goes to the opening round sandwiched between Darlington and Bristol. That gets importance as you don’t want to go to Bristol needing a win. Really, between Bristol, Talladega and the ROVAL, those three races in a five week span are mostly out of your control. So, Kansas and Texas have prime real estate again while the cut races mixed with Talladega gives us the drama we’re searching for.

I get the drivers and teams despise the Round of 12. I mean, why wouldn’t you if you were in their shoes. The odds of trouble are greater here than the odds of not getting caught up in something not of your doing. For a driver, you want to control your own destiny and the Round of 12, you really can’t outside of Vegas this year and Texas next.

This round can easily take out championship favorites.

Then for the Round of 8, you get things back in your hands a little more with Vegas, Homestead and Martinsville.

2020 and 2021 have shown great progress with the playoff schedule with 2022 looking at perfection.



Should NASCAR Have Separate Officiating For Playoff Drivers And Non?

This is something that’s been brought up over the past week and that’s due to NASCAR swallowing the whistle per say when Chase Elliott’s rear bumper cover was hanging on by a thin thread last weekend on the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL. In normal circumstances, a black flag would have been thrown for Elliott to come back down pit road and his crew to get the rear of the No. 9 Chevrolet clear of dropping any debris on the race track.

We all knew what was going to happen. It eventually was going to come off and cause NASCAR to throw a yellow flag to retrieve.

That sparked everyone saying NASCAR is purposely ignoring that piece in hopes of a yellow did come out. The only reason Elliott’s bumper was in that condition in the first place was due to the fact that Kevin Harvick purposely crashed him in Turn 8 prior.

Elliott, needed help making it to the Round of 8 and the only way that was going to happen was for a caution to fly and allow Elliott to not only repair the bumper, but to be caught up with the field again.

So I get why some are questioning on why not display the black flag on Elliott because it did look like favoritism. NASCAR’s response was that Elliott wasn’t around anyone and if it flew off, it wasn’t going to ruin anyone else’s day. On short tracks, yes they would have black flagged him. If he was in the midst of traffic, same.

Plus, the rear bumper cover isn’t even a required piece on these types of tracks. He could in theory run without it.

So, they swallowed the whistle and when the part fell off, it was a large piece of debris on the track and causing the caution.

This wasn’t the first scenario where a playoff driver received the benefit of a questionable call by NASCAR which has some wondering if there’s a different book of rules for them vs. the other drivers.

While there’s nothing officially, it makes you wonder. I get NASCAR’s stance of not wanting to be in the way of a championship run and would rather swallow the whistle but at the same time, if you’d call a caution or a black flag in the regular season no matter the driver, you really should in the postseason too.

Why should the venue, the situation or the driver change the fact that the rulebook should be the same for all 36 races and for every driver participating. Unless there’s a standard set at the beginning of each season saying otherwise, it’s really not fair to operate under two different sets of guidelines in the playoffs.

Granted, karma took care of this on Sunday, it still needs addressed. Granted this is what NASCAR helped create when introducing the playoff format in 2004 and have tweaked along the way ever since.

Nothing is guaranteed anymore. Harvick won nine times last year but didn’t even make the Championship 4. Kyle Larson had six wins coming into last weekend’s race and was in danger of not even making it out of the Round of 12.

That’s the new NASCAR and one that while sometimes frustrating, it’s more times than not exhilarating. This is what they want and drama is what we got.

Take the playoff aspect out of this and go for a season based off points, I don’t think Sunday’s race is as important or means as much and the drama between Harvick and Elliott doesn’t likely occur.

The playoffs helped make this time of year interesting.


CONCORD, NORTH CAROLINA – MAY 30: Kyle Larson, driver of the #5 Metro Tech Chevrolet, crosses the finish line to win the NASCAR Cup Series Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 30, 2021 in Concord, North Carolina. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)


Do The 550 Tracks Suit Hendrick Motorsports This Round?

We all felt like once we got to the Round of 8, whomever within the Hendrick Motorsports camp was still playoff eligible would have the leg up when advancing to the Championship 4. We saw what they could do in Martinsville and Phoenix last year and this season we’ve seen what they can accomplish on 550 tracks.

See, they’re at their best on the 550 package in 2021.

Through 10 races, they’ve won four of them but it should really have been six or seven.

William Byron won in Homestead. Kyle Larson then won a week later in Las Vegas. For Atlanta, Larson was well on his way if not for end of the race strategy. In Kansas, Larson dominated that day but didn’t prevail. He would leave no doubt in Charlotte for the Coca-Cola 600. He should have won Pocono but instead his teammate Alex Bowman did.

In Homestead, Byron led 102 of 267 laps including a stage win.

In Vegas, Larson led 103 of 267 laps and won the second stage.

For Atlanta, Larson led 269 of 325 laps and swept both stages. He’d finish runner-up.

For Kansas, Larson led 132 of 267 laps, won the second stage but was caught up in an incident at the end of the race while restarting in the top five.

For the Coke 600, Larson swept all three stages and led an astounding 327 of 400 laps in a dominating win.

For Pocono 1, Larson led 15 times and Bowman 16 laps of the 130 but it was Bowman who won.

For Pocono 2, Bowman led 18 laps and Byron 22 laps of the 140, including winning the second stage, but it was Larson who finished runner-up.

Atlanta was rough for them with Elliott leading the only 13 laps of the 260 for them, but in Michigan, Larson led 70 laps, Elliott 68 and Byron 18, including Elliott getting the first stage won, but it was Ryan Blaney who stole the win in the end.

The only other 550 race this season that’s comparable was Las Vegas last round and before they botched the pit call in Stage 2, they were all four in in or near the top five.

As you can see, that’s 1,285 laps led out of 2,790 laps turned (46%). They’ve won 40% of the races (4-for-10) and 11 of the 21 stages (52%).

They should be favorites for Texas and Kansas, right?

Well, Kansas yes but Texas maybe not.

Larson has three top five finishes in 13 tries but that doesn’t include the All-Star race since that’s with an entirely different package. Six of his finishes were 23rd or worse.

Elliott, hasn’t had a top five in any of his last eight Texas starts with his last four results being 13th, 32nd, 12th and 20th respectively.

Byron, has never had a top five in Texas with just one top 10 in six tries.

Bowman has been the best lately with two top 10’s, both being fifth place runs actually in the last two Fall races.

So, while we may think HMS has the competition covered this round, Texas may say otherwise.



Is Hamlin or Larson The New Championship Favorite?

Coming into the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series playoffs, Kyle Larson took over as the favorite to win this year’s championship. He was on a rather hot streak. Larson, had made up 164 points from Mothers Day weekend until Daytona to close out the regular season.

How?

Well, Larson got hot and Hamlin cooled off and both went in extreme opposite directions which allowed Larson to become the fourth different regular season champion in five years.

Hamlin, kicked off 2021 with eight top five finishes in nine races. He was fifth that day in Darlington. Larson, was runner-up which sparked a hot streak for the Hendrick Motorsports driver that allowed him to close the gap rather quickly.

Larson, would finish in the top two six straight races and seven times in an eight race span including 10 top three finishes over the final 15 races.

Hamlin meanwhile, had five top fives in that same span but none of them were better than fourth.

Then came the playoffs. Hamlin, stormed out of the gates to a Southern 500 win. Larson countered with a win to close out the opening round at Bristol. Hamlin answered again with a victory in the Round of 12 opener in Las Vegas. Larson came back to win last Sunday’s second round finale on the Charlotte ROVAL.

Hamlin, has two wins, five stage wins including eight of his 12 stages seeing him finish in the top four to go along with a top 10 in all six playoff races.

Larson, has two wins, three stage wins including seven of his 12 stages being in the top four to go along with five top 10’s in six tries.

They’re throwing punches back-and-forth on track and each one is answering the others with what they are hoping to be the knockout blow. It’s just the fact that nothing they do is affecting the other.

Now, it’s to the Round of 8. Four races remain to set this year’s champion with three this round to send four drivers off to the Championship 4 with a chance at a title in the first week of November in Phoenix.

Hamlin, is looking for a third straight opening race of each round win. Take out the two wildcard races at Talladega and the ROVAL and you’d see that Hamlin has led 42% (645 of 1,534) laps this postseason.

But, we’re going to 550 tracks to start this round which are places Larson is at his best. In 10 races on intermediate tracks this season, Larson has three wins, three runner-ups, seven top fives and a top 10 in all but two. The only two he didn’t get a top 10 was in Kansas to where he led 132 of 267 laps and restarted in the top five on the final shootout but was incurred some damage on it. Then, it was Atlanta when he had problems on pit road.

That’s it.

He’s led 1,351 out of 2,913 possible laps (46%) in these 10 races which also accounts for 67% (1,351 out of 2,011) laps led on the season for him. Furthermore, he’s won 10 stages and has been in the top two in 13 of the 21 stages run on these tracks.

Hamlin has been dominating the playoffs but Larson has dominated on these tracks. Who wins out?



FORT WORTH, TX – APRIL 08: Kurt Busch, driver of the #41 Haas Automation/Monster Energy Ford, leads the field to start the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on April 8, 2018 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)


What Happened To SHR?

It wasn’t that long ago that Stewart-Haas Racing was a heavyweight in the NASCAR Cup Series. It 2018, they took half of the spots in the Round of 8 as all four drivers were one round away from a championship. Now, here we are in the very same round with none of them still championship eligible.

What happened?

They won 12 times in 2018. Four more times in 2019 and 10 times in 2020. So far through 32 races this year, they have just one win. That came from Aric Almirola in Loudon back in July.

That’s it.

Out of their four drivers, just two of them are even in the top 22 in points. How do you go from all four in the top eight to just two in the top 22 in a span of three seasons?

For starters, the cars are inspected differently now than years past. NASCAR has cracked down on certain areas of the car which clearly is where SHR had an advantage. They’ve lost tons of downforce because of this which in turn has caused a large deficit that has been too tough to overcome.

Plus, with a new car coming out next season, how much resources are you willing to spend to figure it out for just one more year when starting next year, you need to start off on the right footing with a completely different race car.

The other aspect is that they’ve struggled to give Kevin Harvick some help. Out of their last 16 wins, Harvick has won 14 of them.

Since 2014, Harvick has won for SHR 35 times. Everyone else has combined for 12. Among those 12 are six for Kurt Busch, two for Aric Almirola, two for Clint Bowyer and one each for Cole Custer and Tony Stewart.

Busch is now with Chip Ganassi Racing. Bowyer and Stewart are retired. Almirola hasn’t been a consistent winner in Cup while Custer is only in his second year. The only other driver for them now is a rookie in Chase Briscoe.

I said last year that SHR needed to find a way to get younger and so far they’re on the right path. Custer and Briscoe are their future and Harvick is their anchor for a few more seasons. Almirola is a solid driver if given the cars to contend that has good funding from Smithfield.

So, you kind of are what you are and for Harvick, it’s hard to compete with the bigger teams when you don’t have the experience alongside of you in the driver room to help with setups.

Losing Busch, Bowyer and Stewart hurt in that aspect. Custer and Briscoe don’t have enough experience to truly help yet. They’re looking to Harvick for help for them. Almirola is the only other veteran to look for within those walls for help.

That’s why they’ve fallen off and why I feel like they just realized this and punted on 2021 in efforts to start off better in 2022 when this new car is the same for everybody.

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