17 years ago to this day, Hendrick Motorsports had the biggest tragedy the team has ever faced. A plane carrying several members of the team including members of Rick Hendrick’s family crashed on its way to the race at the Martinsville (VA) Speedway. Among those tragically lost in the plane crash?
Hendrick’s son Ricky.
17 years later, in a paint scheme designed based off of Ricky Hendrick’s car, Kyle Larson prevails in the Hollywood Casino 400 at the Kansas Speedway. Larson, didn’t have to win either. He had already done so last weekend in Texas to stamp his name into the Championship 4 as a result. Now, it was all about planning to win the title in two weeks at Phoenix.
In the meantime, Larson won again. It was the ninth win of the season for him, four of which coming in the playoffs as this was his third straight at that. He’s the third driver in the history of the playoffs to pull off the hat trick joining Joey Logano (2015) and Jimmie Johnson who won four straight in 2007.
Also, by leading a race-high 130 laps, he’s now surpassed former HMS driver Jeff Gordon for most laps led in a single season. Gordon, had led 2,320 laps prior but Larson now has accumulated 2,397 laps led for the season with 263 of which coming at Kansas in 2021.
He should have won this past spring in finishing second and first in the two stages as well as leading 132 of 267 laps that day, but a late race caution and a late race restart kept him out of victory lane.
This time around, he didn’t allow that to happen.
Larson, won the first stage, was third in Stage 2 and passed his teammate Chase Elliott for the lead on Lap 229 and never looked back in leading the final 39 laps en route to his 15th career NASCAR Cup Series victory which ties Ernie Irvan for 54th all-time.
He held off a hard charging Elliott for the win and keeps someone else from automatically advancing onto the Championship 4 by himself going 2-for-2 in the semifinal round.
I go back to, he didn’t have to win this race. They could have packed it all in and completely focused on Phoenix. Instead, this team doesn’t want to lose their momentum. They know how important that is for them and they don’t want to let it get away by taking their eyes off the ball.
“I said it last week, I’ll say it again, there is a cadence to how our whole team prepares,” Larson’s crew chief Cliff Daniels said. “Everybody is bought in, everybody believes in it. If I went to them tomorrow and said we’re going to ignore Martinsville and focus on Phoenix, they’re just not going to listen to me.
“We are going to stay focused on our path, what it is going to take to go to Martinsville. Of course, we have our eyes on Phoenix. We’re going to prepare like we should to go there but we’ve just got to keep going.”
Daniels is just so appreciative of being paired with a driver of Larson’s caliber.
“Working with him has been incredible,” Daniels continued. “And we’ve always seen with him that he was going to have the potential to go do what he’s done. And then last year, not being in the Cup Series but running third, he won half the races that he entered last year. I think that tipped off the world to what he could become.
And then getting our team together, so thankful to Mr. H and this guy over here, Jeff Andrews, for getting our team together, bringing Kyle in. And we just started chipping away at the end of the year.
“Having the laps led, you know, category is awesome. I think to be smart, though, I look back at a lot of the races that we led the laps and didn’t win the race because there’s a lot to be learned from that, about keeping us sharp and executing better. Still a really cool stat to have and we’ve got two more races to go. So now I need to look at the races we didn’t win and make sure we do the next two weeks.”
Larson, has the equal respect back.
“It’s pretty crazy. I didn’t know what to expect coming into this season,” he said. “I knew I would have lots of opportunities to get wins. But never did I think I would win as often as we have. Proud of everybody’s hard work all season long
“I think Cliff and his leadership really propels us to be as confident. Our execution has always been good. We continue to make that better throughout the year. And I think that stems from his leadership and as he mentioned the leadership that he learned from Jimmie and Chad.”
He’s the 12th different winner at Kansas in a postseason race and hoping become the third to take a Kansas playoff win to a championship in the same season. He’s also the ninth driver to win the eighth playoff race with also three times that said driver going on to win the title two races later too.
This is the seventh time a pole winner won at Kansas in 32 races with him breaking another tie for a second straight week to give HMS the most wins at a track. They entered Texas with nine wins which was tied with Roush Fenway Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing for most all-time Larson gave them their 10th.
This week, they were tied with JGR for most wins at Kansas at seven a piece. HMS now has eight. Larson has nine for the season, one shy of 10 which would make him the first since Jimmie Johnson in 2007 to do so.
“Even to be mentioned in that conversation is special as it is,” Daniels said. “I’ve been so fortunate to learn a great deal from Jimmie and from Chad being on that team with them for a handful of years.
Just the leaders that they are, guys like Alan Gustafson, Jeff Andrews, Jeff Gordon. We’ve had a lot of guys in our company that have done a great job helping me along the way and helping our team along the way. I know they do that for everybody in the company.
“I think with the leadership Mr. Hendrick to believe in his people with the right people in place and give us a good team and all the right parts and pieces to get the job done just makes for a special environment, special combination. Hopefully we can get that stat. Pretty cool to be a part of.”
Larson though, says that he’s already at 10. The All-Star race, a non points paying one, was their 10th trip to victory lane if you count that.
“I wish NASCAR would count 10 wins because we have it already,” said Larson. “No, as Cliff mentioned, it’s just really cool to be mentioned in the same category. I would love to join them in 10 official wins.”
Elliott, who led the final restart but was swallowed up by Larson and several other drivers steadily moved back up. He passed Kevin Harvick for second with 14 laps-to-go and set his sights on chasing down Larson for the win. He had a faster car, but he got into the Turn 2 wall on three straight laps in his pursuit and ended up not having enough time to regroup.
Elliott, had to do what he needed to get up to Larson for the win but in an area of the track that caught out so many drivers on Sunday, it nearly cost Elliott. With being +34 in points at the time, he couldn’t afford to push any harder and risk cutting down a tire like four other playoff drivers did in that turn earlier.
That allowed Larson to best Elliott by 3.619-seconds.
It was Elliott’s sixth top six in his last seven starts at Kansas and third top five of the postseason. Harvick, finished third in his No. 4 Ford for his fourth straight top four while Kurt Busch and Denny Hamlin rounded out the top five.
Hendrick Motorsports Stout Again on 1.5-mile Tracks, Should Larson Have Let Elliott By In The End?
This one will be debated. After Kyle Larson won last week in Texas, he and his No. 5 Chevrolet team vowed to help Chase Elliott get their team into the Championship 4 to join Larson in making up half of the drivers in the final round in two weeks at Phoenix. Just how far would they go though? To what lengths?
Larson, was first and Elliott now in second with 13 laps remaining in Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400. Elliott, had a faster car than Larson, so could Larson slow enough to allow Elliott by?
Well, he played the ending with integrity and showed to everyone that no matter if you’re a teammate or not, if you want to beat him, you’re going to have to pass him on merit. Larson said he didn’t think he had the best speed but was pushing there in the end and forcing Elliott who arguably had the better car, to have to be perfect to catch him.
Elliott, pushed hard, too hard in Turn 2 and got into the wall several times. That cost him the win. Now, should Larson have maybe slowed more to let Elliott into that exclusive Championship 4 club and keep someone else out?
Yes, Elliott is now +34 as the top wildcard driver, but what happens if someone below the cutline wins in Martinsville and he loses 34 points on Kyle Busch. Then, he’s out.
That’s why it was a risky move either way.
Still, it shows that HMS is as advertised on 550 tracks. They’ve just downright dominated. They went 1-2-3-7 in both stages and 1-2-6-11 in the end.
They combined for 229 of 267 laps led on Sunday as well.
For Larson in particular, in 12 races of them in 2021, he has five wins, three runner-ups, nine top fives and a top 10 in all but two. The only two he didn’t get a top 10 was in Kansas this spring 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.
He’s led 1,737 out of 3,514 possible laps (49%) in these 12 races which also accounts for 76% (1,737 out of 2,297) laps led on the season for him. Furthermore, he’s won 12 stages and has been in the top two in 14 of the 25 stages run on these tracks.
He’s clearly the championship favorite now as all the momentum is on his side.
Do Conditions Flip To JGR/Penske Now?
Hendrick Motorsports is 2-for-2 in the Round of 8. Can they go 3-for-3 next Sunday in Martinsville?
Both wins came via Kyle Larson. That was expected. We knew that Hendrick Motorsports would be the ones to beat in the first two races of this round anyways. But, is this the end of their reign now? Does the pendulum swing back towards Team Penske and Joe Gibbs Racing’s favor? We’re down to two races left of the 2021 season and both are on 750 tracks. Not just any 750 track too, but short tracks.
One could say these have been HMS’ worst tracks this season with JGR and Penske being the best on them. These are the teams looking up at HMS at the moment.
HMS has one car already into the Championship 4 via Kyle Larson and another the top of the wildcard standings at Chase Elliott (+34). Two drivers will make it to Phoenix on points. Elliott is in theory in great shape to give HMS half of the Final Four field.
Can they do anything with it though?
Elliott, hasn’t won on an oval since these very same two races last year. Both of his wins this season are on road courses. Larson, was seventh in Phoenix (1 lap led) this past spring, fifth (0 laps led) in Martinsville, 20th (0 laps led) and third (8 laps led) in the two stops in Richmond, second in Dover, seventh in Loudon (0 laps led) and did win at Bristol (175 laps led).
Elliott was fifth (Phoenix), second (Martinsville), 12th and 4th (Richmond), third (Dover), 18th (Loudon) and 25th (Bristol) on the same tracks.
Denny Hamlin, finished third in Phoenix (33 laps led), third in Martinsville (276 laps led), second in both races at Richmond (207 laps led, 197 laps led), seventh at Dover, 10th in Loudon (1 lap led) and ninth in Bristol. He led 276 of 500 laps in a third place run at Martinsville this spring and in the Fall race last week. He may have been 10th in Loudon but he was already behind the eight ball from an opening lap spin.
Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch never got to flex their muscles due to an early race crash not of their doing in Loudon too. But, Truex won at Phoenix (64 laps led) and Martinsville (20 laps led) in the spring and Richmond (80 laps led) during the playoffs. He was also fifth in Richmond (107 laps led) this spring after what should have been another top two or three result that day.
Busch was eighth and ninth in Richmond, 10th and at Martinsville, 25th in Phoenix this past spring, 27th at Dover, 37th in Loudon and 21st in Bristol.
Christopher Bell has been quietly good with being seventh and in Martinsville, fourth and third in Richmond, ninth at Phoenix and runner-up in Loudon.
JGR has put a car in the Championship 4 in all seven years. They have two cars on the good side of the cutline going to Martinsville.
For Penske, they’ve not been at their best on 550 tracks but are on the 750 package.
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 (143) earlier this year in Phoenix and finished second. He was sixth (6 laps led) in Martinsville, third (49 laps led) and fifth (0 laps led) in Richmond and if not for an early race penalty would have likely been in the hunt for a win in Loudon (0 laps led) as he made up two laps to finish fourth, one spot behind Keselowski but one spot ahead of Blaney in Loudon.
Keselowski, was fourth at Phoenix (19 laps led) this past spring and runner-up last year as well as having 10 top 10’s, nine of which in the top five in his last 11 Martinsville starts. Same for Ryan Blaney who was 10th in Phoenix (35 laps led), 11th in Martinsville (157 laps led), 14th (25 laps led) and 10th in Richmond (0 laps led), 12th at Dover, fifth in Loudon (64 laps led) and fourth at Bristol (45 laps led).
They put 2 drivers in the Championship 4 last year and have had at least one driver in the final round in 4 of the last 5 years now and 5 of the 7 overall.
Phoenix back in March saw Penske go 1-2-3 in Stage 1, 1-4-5 in Stage 2, 1-4-10 in the race and lead 63% (197 of 312) of the laps. JGR went 4-6 (Hamlin, KyBusch) in Stage 1, 2-3 in Stage 2 and 1-3 in the race with leading 31% (97 of 312) of the laps. Combined, that’s 294 of the 312 laps (94%) led with finishing 1-2-3-4 in the race and 1-2-3-6 in Stage 1 and 1-2-3-4-5 in Stage 2.
For Martinsville in the spring, Penske led 163 of 500 (33%) of laps, 157 of which by Blaney but 6-11-33. Blaney did sweep both stages though. JGR actually led 61% (305 of 500) of the laps between Hamlin, Truex and Christopher Bell and went 1-3-7 in the race and 2-3 in both stages behind Blaney. Hendrick may have went 2-4-5 but they had nine total laps led, all by William Byron. Again, Penske and JGR combined to lead 468 of 500 laps (94%) that day.
For Richmond 1, Alex Bowman won, but this day was dominated by JGR and Penske too. JGR led 315 of 400 laps (79%) with Penske taking 19% (74 of 400) of the laps led themselves. They placed 4 cars in the top 5 between them and went 1-2-3 in each stage. That’s 389 of 400 (97%) of laps led that day too. In Richmond 2, JGR led 326 of 400 (82%) laps that night, finished 1-2-3 and swept both stages including being 1-2-3 in the second stage. Penske didn’t lead any laps that race but for 800 laps of action this year there, JGR and Penske led 715 laps (89%) and went 1-2-3 in 3 of the 4 stages too.
In Loudon, SHR won and honestly dominated but HMS led 53 laps, Penske 117 of 293 (40%) and JGR just seven. Still, that’s 124 of 293 (42%) of laps led between Penske and JGR to go with stage sweeps by Penske with being 1-2 in Stage 1 and 1-3 in Stage 2.
Finally four Bristol on concrete, HMS got the win by Larson who led 175 laps that night and 129 more laps led by Elliott. Penske led 55 of 500 laps (11%), with JGR 70 of 500 (14%). That equates out to 125 of 500 laps (25%) in general.
It’s not a fluke I don’t think that on the two concrete tracks, HMS did their best with JGR and Penske tops at the others.
How much will HMS be a factor over the next two weeks?
“Yeah, it’s neat. I just hope we can — I don’t know if. It’s like hard for me to think if people will really remember if you don’t win the championship now at this point,” Larson said.
“Not that it adds pressure but you can read into it adding pressure that I want to win the championship even more to cap off what’s been a great season. I try not to think about it. And I think the more wins you get, hopefully we’re winning the championship in Phoenix, but I feel like the more wins we’ve gotten will make that feeling if I happen to not win, make it easier to swallow I think just because it has been a great year.
“It comes down to one race there in Phoenix. It’s a different style track than we’ve been winning on. But I don’t know. Like I said I try not to think about it. We’ll see how the feeling is. Hopefully we’re celebrating after Phoenix and I don’t have to accept the fact that we didn’t win a championship.
“But either way, yes, it’s been a good season but I want to cap it off with what we all want. So that’s my goal. And I hope we can finish it off with being mentioned in one of the top five greatest seasons ever.”
JGR could need the speed again and these next two tracks are favorable for that to happen. Hamlin, hasn’t been a factor at all this round after being the championship favorite in the first two rounds prior. Truex, has also been non existent this round.
That could easily change over the final two races.
Conditions Cause Mayhem For Playoff Drivers, But Most Still Rebound For Top 10’s
We were fortunate to get Sunday’s race in at the Kansas Speedway. See, all week the weather called for rain most of the day on Sunday making us believe that a night race was going to be in store. Instead, rain let up early morning and allowed the penultimate race of the semifinal round to go off without a hitch.
But, don’t think mother nature wasn’t going to play a race though.
A cold front was sweeping across the state and affected this race greatly. Ahead of these fronts are always high wind gusts and with winds pushing 40 mph, it was pushing cars to the SAFER barrier exiting Turn 2. With the playoff drivers pushing harder than normal due to being in the midst of a championship fight, they were the ones that suffering problems.
5 drivers got into the Turn 2 wall in the opening stage, 4 of which were playoff drivers.
Goodyear admitted the wind was the culprit for these problems which has in turn had a direct result of these playoff standings heading to the Round of 8 cut race next Sunday at the Martinsville (VA) Speedway.
So instantly after we had that delay early on, the wind picked up kind of a out of nowhere. I don’t know how much it picked up, but it was a lot. Canopies were blowing off their pit boxes and stuff. It was a huge crosswind for us.
“Yeah, it caught me off guard at first,” race winner Kyle Larson said of the wind. “I went off turn 2 and somebody shoved my car and pushed me a half a group up. And I made a quick mental note of that and how the balance was into 3. Kind of adjusted.
“I felt like it must have calmed down a little bit towards the end of the race because I didn’t quite have that feel off of 2 that I had for a while.
“So, yeah, I don’t know. Kansas for whatever reason is typically like the only track I feel like that affects the balance of the race car with the wind. A lot of times it will be a tailwind off of 2 into 3 and you’ll be really loose into 3. But the crosswind today was odd.
“And we had the headwind off of 4. So I really felt like that kind of opened up some lanes over there. Had the opposite effect off of 2. But off of 4 I felt like I could run the bottom there before I got into the wall, got damage. I felt like I could run the bottom really well in 3 and 4.
“Still faster up top but I could make ground up on the bottom and catch those guys at the end of the second stage and not be bad down there in the third stage also.”
In turn, half of the playoff field scored no stage points on Sunday. Three of the four drivers entering this weekend below the cutline had no points in either stage. With Kyle Larson winning in Texas and again this Sunday in Kansas, we still have three spots left for the Championship 4 and a playoff field as tight as I can remember with one race remaining in the third round.
Brad Keselowski was among the first drivers to get into the wall at Turn 2’s exit. Kyle Busch did so twice. Martin Truex Jr. and Ryan Blaney both did as well.
Truex and Keselowski would rebound later and gain a lot of points on the cutline still.
Keselowski entered the round -16, he came to this weeks race -15, but after slapping the wall early in the race, he finished 17th with no stage points. He’s now -6 still. The thing is, he put himself to 16th place in the free pass position before hitting pit road on Lap 211. A caution for Ryan Newman, the car Keselowski will be taking over in 2022, came out on Lap 217. If he pit just six laps later, Keselowski would have gotten the free pass and back on the lead lap. The thing is, Keselowski wasn’t kicking himself much after the call to pit due to his engine overheating due to debris on his grille. He said they couldn’t second guess themselves due to that and gained 10 points on the day.
Truex Jr. came into the Round of 8 +6 but after a crash in Texas he fell to -22. He then found the wall in Kansas (0 stage points too) and comes to Martinsville -3 with rebounding for a remarkable top 10 after being two laps down earlier in the day.
“It was a long day,” Truex said. “You never quit fighting in these things and all you can do is the best you can do. Just kept working on it and kept making adjustments and do what we could. We were able to get back on the lead lap there and take the wave around with the quick caution and battle from there. All the guys did a great job on this Bass Pro Shops Toyota Camry and it was pretty fast. Just sixth or seventh, where we finished was about where we were going to be. I would have liked to have done without that damage; it was pretty fast before that. Unfortunate the way that deal worked out, but we’re still in it and we’re still fighting and we look forward to next weekend.”
His teammate Kyle Busch (2 stage points) was -1 coming into the round, +8 leaving Texas but back to +1 going to the Virginia paperclip.
Joey Logano (0 stage points) was -11 coming to the semifinal round, -43 heading to Kansas and now -26 leaving.
Chase Elliott moves from -8 to +34. Denny Hamlin had another ho-hum race but went from +7 to +9 to +32. Busch is +1. You get Blaney (-1), Truex Jr. (-3), Keselowski (-6) and Logano (-26) trying to get back in.
The thing is, all of these drivers are good at Martinsville next week. Truex Jr. has won two of the last three there with the one he didn’t win was this race last year in which he led 129 laps in. Keselowski, was only 33rd this spring there but had 10 straight top 10’s prior and nine of those 10 being in the top five. Logano, has six top eight’s in his last seven starts himself at Martinsville. Blaney, was runner-up in both races last year, was fast in the spring and fourth and fifth in 2019.
Busch, is the one who has to worry a bit with him being 14th, 19th, 9th and 10th in each of his last four Martinsville starts. Hamlin maybe too. He has one top five in his last eight in Martinsville.
Don’t count anyone out though. Last year, Chase Elliott was -25 coming into the cut race and won pushing himself back in. Kevin Harvick was +42 and was bumped out.
So, never say never.
Kyle Busch Not Having A Clean Playoffs Still In Good Position For Championship 4 Bout Due To Ryan Blaney’s Lap 223 Crash
Heading into the playoffs, Kyle Busch was one of my Championship 4 picks. Unfortunately, he’s not had a very clean playoffs thus far. With two races left, he’s remarkably still in position to get by. He’s been 12th or worst in five of the eight races run including four outside of the top 15.
You’d think he’d be facing a must win over the final two weeks, right? Instead, he’s honestly not. He can get by to Phoenix via a wildcard spot even without winning next Sunday in Martinsville. How you may be asking?
That’s due to everyone else’s problems including Ryan Blaney crashing in Turn 2 on Lap 223. Busch went from over 25 points below the cutline prior to that incident to +1 now after.
He too was affected by the wind in Turn 2 on Sunday though. Busch, got into the wall twice there himself. It happened early on in the Hollywood Casino 400, but he was able to rebound to finish ninth in Stage 1. He was essentially back in contention before doing it again in Stage 2. That left him back in 32nd, four laps down and seeing his championship hopes put in peril at that of the race.
The thing is, he’s still alive. Even with a 28th place finish on Sunday. Can he do it in Martinsville next Sunday?
This hasn’t been a championship type postseason for him, which bodes the question, can they turn it on when it matters the most now?
It started with a crash at Darlington (35th). He had a pit problem in Richmond (9th) then a tire problem at the end of Bristol (25th). That’s the first round. Round 2 saw a pair of top fives but 27th in Talladega sandwiched between.
Texas and Kansas now has seen him have issues. Martinsville is next for him which is a place where he was 14th, 19th, 9th and 10th respectively in his last four starts there. If he can improve, it’s to Phoenix where Busch has five top three’s in his last seven starts in the Arizona desert including a pair of wins. In fact, he’s been in the top four in nine of his last 12 Phoenix starts overall.
It won’t take two straight wins but if he wants to really make himself believing for the Championship 4, a win next Sunday would go a long way meaning he’d have to end the season with two straight wins.
The last time he’s won two straight races was early in the 2019 season at Phoenix and Fontana. He won three straight a year prior (2018) at Texas-Bristol-Richmond and two straight in 2017 to show that it can be done.
Despite Keselowski Somehow Making Up 10 More Points, Penske Drivers In Danger Spots Heading To Martinsville
We all knew entering the Round of 8 that Team Penske could be in some trouble. With the first two races being on 550 tracks, could they do just enough to get by with a fighting chance at Martinsville? Texas proved that they could. Ryan Blaney gained 16 points last Sunday to go from +1 to +17. Brad Keselowski also had a top five finish and despite being -15, he had hope. Joey Logano suffered his first blown engine in seven years though and went to the bottom of the playoff grid.
Kansas would be a spot that they welcomed though. Logano won this race last year. Keselowski had four top four’s in his last five starts in the Sunflower State. Blaney had eight top sixes on 550 tracks this season.
The problem is, water found its level. Keselowski, got into the wall on in the race and finished 30th and 27th in the two stages. When he battled his way back to the free pass spot in the final stage, he had to pit for his car overheating. A caution came out six laps later. Still, he finished 16th in the end and despite a rough day, he still gained 10 more points on the cutline.
“That was a heck of a race,” he said. “We are all just fighting to hard. I am bummed I didn’t get more out of it. I had a heck of an opportunity to score a lot of points and make next week easy. We still aren’t in a bad spot but not as good as spot as we could be.
“It’s like four of us are fighting for one spot. Winning would obviously lock our way in but as you saw this week, as crazy as these races get, I am not sure that isn’t what you have to do.”
Logano, battled a vibration early and would also score no stage points. He was 11th in both stages and in the race to go from -43 to -26.
“Yeah, we made decent restarts and our pit crew was good today and got us some spots,” Logano said. “We were able to get the restarts and get up to the top four or so and then from lap two to 10 I just couldn’t stay with them. I went to the bottom they would pass me on the top, if I went to the top they would pass me on the bottom. I just couldn’t hold them off. From lap 10 on, we were as good as the top three or four cars, we just had last the track position at that point. We were too far back to be able to do much and try to strategize ourselves to the lead somehow. We tried the long run there in the first stage. We just didn’t really get the opportunity to do much. On to Martinsville. One more shot to do it. It is crazy watching this thing. They are trying to give it away it seems like. I have never seen so many issues in this round. Yeah, it seems like survival was the key in this round so far.”
Blaney, had a tire go down with nine to go in the first stage to finish 27th. He was 13th in Stage 2 and found himself back in the top 10 before crashing with Austin Dillon on Lap 223.
“We didn’t have a great day but we did a good job of fighting back and getting back into the top-10 but then just got wiped out when we had plenty of room,” he said. “That sucks. It is very unfortunate.”
Now, the trio make up three of the bottom four spots in the standings with one race remaining in the semifinal round. Blaney is -1, Keselowski -6 and Logano -26.
Blaney, has four top fives in his last five starts at Martinsville including a pair of runner-ups last year. Logano, has six top eight’s in his last seven there including a sixth place run in the spring race. Keselowski, saw his 10 race top 10 streak come to an end there this spring too but he had nine top fives in his previous 10 races on that track prior.
If they can get to Martinsville with a shot, then all bets are off. Phoenix has been a good track for them lately too. Logano, led 143 of 312 laps back in March and finished runner-up. Keselowski, led 19 laps himself and finished fourth. Blaney, led 35 laps and was 10th. He actually won the first stage and was fifth in Stage 2. Keselowski, was third and fourth respectively in the two stages while Logano was second and first respectively.
That’s a stage sweep of each, 63% of the laps led (197 of 312) and two top four finishes and all three in the top 10. Both Logano and Keselowski were in the Final Four last year and know what it takes. Plus, Logano has nine top six finishes on 750 tracks this season which includes road courses. On short tracks, he was runner-up in Phoenix, sixth in Martinsville, third in Richmond, fifth at Dover, fourth in Loudon, fifth at Richmond 2 and 11th in Bristol.
They have the speed on the 750 tracks, it’s the 550 ones first that they have to worry about.
The Round of 8 is getting a changeup next year and that’s a very good thing. The first two races of this round has seen dismal crowds. Texas and Kansas didn’t live up to their expectations with people coming through the gates and it was noticeable.
It’s too late in the playoffs to see that. This should be when it’s getting more and more amplified. Phoenix has been sold out for weeks but Texas and Kansas couldn’t even fill half their stands.
That bodes the question I posed coming into the week, should tracks with two dates on the schedule differentiate between the two?
Kansas has two dates and this one is getting moved to the first round next year. Kudos to the crowd that showed up, but shame on the ones that didn’t. We’ll hear the same excuses from the fans that didn’t go. The weather, the Chiefs, hunting, the racing package, etc. But, what they fail to realize is, by not showing up, they’re putting their track on notice.
What more do you want Kansas to do? They’re promoting the race. They have a playoff date. They’re doing things right. The fans just didn’t show. They chose to not be there so NASCAR can choose not to go there twice in the future. Those same fans will bitch and complain when a race gets taken away but point to this day as to why NASCAR had to take evasive action.
They’ll go where they’re wanted and with both of the Round of 8 playoff tracks failing to produce a big crowd, don’t be shocked to see more movement in the future if they can’t put butts in the seats next year either.
Kyle Larson has known for a week now that he will be racing for his first NASCAR Cup Series championship at Phoenix. For him, it’s like that anticipation of a big present you know you’re likely getting on Christmas. It’s just that it’s mid December and you have to wait all the way to Dec. 25 to get your prize.
Does Larson just want Phoenix to be next week instead of Martinsville?
“I mean, yes and no. I mean, knowing that we’re — knowing that I have a shot to race for a championship, like the anticipation definitely rises each day. So in a way, yes, I wish we could go to Phoenix tomorrow and get it done and get racing.
“But I am excited to get to Martinsville. I’m always excited to get to Martinsville until I start turning laps and I realize that I’ve not learned anything from the times before.
“But, yeah, we ran good there earlier this year. Ran fifth. Finished fifth. So now we’ve got the number one pit stall I would imagine and start for the pole and hopefully we can stay up front and try to get a win in my toughest racetrack.”
He likens this anticipation to his Chili Bowl experiences and can take a lot away from what he does in Tulsa each January to how he prepares for this year’s title.
“To me, I haven’t lived it yet. We’re not into the week of Phoenix yet. But I feel like Chili Bowl — I always run early in the week. I’ve won however many prelim nights now and then I sit all week and watch all these other racers go out there. I like psych myself out every year like, Man, they look better than I do. They’re fast. It’s going to be hard to beat them and this and that.
“But I think with Phoenix and how this is like we just show up and — well, we get to practice and stuff, but we get to race and all that. I don’t know. I think there’s less time for me to psych myself out because I’m not sitting in the stands watching these guys race.
“I’m still out there racing in these weeks and winning and gaining confidence and all that. So I don’t know if that answers it but I feel like, yeah, I feel like I psych myself out every year at Chili Bowl and I don’t think I’ll do that in this deal.”