The result of such a long NASCAR Cup Series winner’s list in 2022 – which features so many non-championship eligible race winners – has only increased the suspense and intensity of the Playoff standings, which go into Round 2 now separated by only 34 points from leader Elliott to 12th place Austin Cindric.
And with the list of “new” winners amid a contender list of “consistency” many of the very drivers competing for the big trophy, say they don’t know who the odds-on driver to beat may be just yet.
Perennial championship favorite Hamlin, who struggled this season to stay among the Top-15 in points despite a pair of victories, seems to be upping his game in time for the Playoffs. The driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota had back-to-back runner-up finishes at Darlington, S.C. and Kansas and then a ninth place showing at Bristol last weekend.
“I don’t think that there’s a championship favorite,’’ reigning champion Kyle Larson said. “Chase (Elliott) is getting through the first round, it wasn’t a great first round for his standards, his team’s and what they had for points going in. So, I feel like for him, making through the round and resetting – as long as he can get through this round, I think he’s still probably still the favorite.’’
Obviously as a former champion and the current championship leader Elliott’s name was raised as a favorite, but so was a young driver in only his second Playoff. Joe Gibbs Racing’s Christopher Bell earned the most points among the championship slate in the opening race and while many Playoff drivers insisted there was no overwhelming favorite, Bell’s name came up a lot.
Bell, the driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota had the best first round among the original 16 Playoff drivers. He was the only one to earn all Top-5 finishes in the opening round – fifth place at Darlington, S.C., third place at Kansas before leading a season-high 143 laps for a fourth place at Bristol, Tenn. in last week’s first-round elimination race.
“I think Bell has shown so far in the Playoffs that he’s really strong,’’ Larson said, adding, “But I don’t think you can pick a favorite until you get through this round because whoever the favorite is right now, could easily not make it into the next round just because how wild this round is.
“I think three weeks from now, you’ll be able to pick a better [championship] favorite. But right now, there’s so many unknowns, as far as craziness that’s going to happen.’’
Larson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate Alex Bowman agreed.
“There are a couple of guys that have been really consistent through the Playoffs, but other than that I don’t think there is (an odd-on favorite),’’ Bowman said.
“Anyone can make it happen still and hopefully it’s us at the end of the year, but it’s cool. I think this car has created a lot of parity right now. Different teams have different strengths right now, which is pretty cool to see.’’
BLANEY APPEAL EXPLAINED
The No. 12 Penske Racing team with driver Ryan Blaney was issued a strong penalty after an uncontrolled tire last weekend at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway – the loss of his crew chief Jonathan Hassler for four weeks as well as a pair of key crew members.
So the team has appealed the penalty and until NASCAR hears the Penske team’s argument and makes a final decision, Blaney will have all his regular teammates working in the pits this weekend at Texas.
“I think it’s important to keep those guys for this week, we all know how important pit stops are here and how hard it is to pass, and strategy will come into play,’’ Blaney said, “It’s good to have Jonathan on the box and good to have those guys in the pits. It was good to keep those guys here for this week and we’ll see how the rest of that goes.’’
Blaney will start his No. 12 Ford from the 14th position on the grid. He won at Texas earlier this year in the NASCAR All-Star Race.
Denny Hamlin spoke about the news he will be swapping pit crews with his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch – a move made by the team in advance of Sunday’s race. Hamlin said two of the “new” pit crew members were on his team last year, so there is a bit of familiarity.
“We don’t enter the box that differently, when you think about what could be the variation between me and Kyle the way we enter the box is pretty similar so I think it should be pretty seamless for everyone,’’ Hamlin said.
“It’s certainly tough for those guys (the pit crew he started the season with),’’ he continued. “I hate it because I love their attitude, swagger all that about my 11 -team. Certainly, they are as important to this championship run as anyone.
“But we had to do something different. … this was kind of a JGR decision and they felt like this was the best avenue to getting the quickest results in the shortest amount of time, just replacing an entire team rather than one person or another.’’
Larson has celebrated wins in every form of racing he’s competed in and even hoisted the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series championship trophy. But the 30-year-old Californian’s face lit up when talking about the special call he received from one of his racing heroes, three-time Indy 500 winner and longtime Fort Worth resident, Johnny Rutherford.
Rutherford called Larson this week in hopes of meeting up while the NASCAR Cup Series competed at Texas Motor Speedway. Larson, who has been competing in Christopher Bell’s ”C Bell’s Micro Mania” micro sprint event all week, said he got Rutherford’s voicemail and looks forward to seeing him in person this weekend.
“He left me a voicemail and the first thing I did was I copied the voicemail and sent it to my dad and [public relations representative] Jon Edwards,’’ Larson said, smiling.
“It was super cool that Johnny Rutherford had gotten my number and wanted my autograph. So that was pretty neat and I look forward to meeting up with him here this weekend and getting another photo op.’’
Drivers Hoping For Texas Changes
The opening race of the Round of 12 is upon us. Sunday’s AutoTrader EchoPark 500 (3:30 p.m. ET, USA, PRN) at the Texas Motor Speedway will be one of the more highly scrutinized races of the entire season. It’s no secret, the 1.5-mile track has worn out its welcome on most schedules.
INDYCAR fans have about had enough with it. That’s because when the track applied the PJ1 traction compound for the 2019NASCAR race weekend, it greatly affected the way that the open wheel cars stuck to the surface.
Instead of high speed, wheel-to-wheel action like Texas annually produced, Texas became a one-lane parade. While Texas officials claim that they didn’t add any traction compound between the Nov. 2019 NASCAR weekend and the June 2020 INDYCAR one, it didn’t matter to an INDYCAR. The dark spots that they applied it became a stain and one that caused significantly less grip and if you dared decided to test it out, you were likely going to be just a passenger on a high speed ride at that point forward.
“I don’t think you can go off of Texas because the PJ1 stuff completely ruined that place,” Colton Herta said last month at the World Wide Technology Raceway.
INDYCAR and Firestone saw the 2020 debacle and tried to fix it for 2021. It didn’t really work. This past March, they added a 2nd practice session to just work in the 2nd lane. That seemed to improve the show a bit.
Will NASCAR have an improved show this weekend? This fan base is also irate at how Texas has looked in recent years.
In 2021, NASCAR used resin instead of PJ1 in the 2nd lane. It didn’t work at all. They’ll try it again this week with an application already put down.
“We’re going to do kind of the same thing that has been the mile-and-a-half procedure for the mile-and-a-half’s that we treat,” said Scott Miller, NASCAR’s senior vice president of competition, on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio this week. “It’ll be resin and some tire dragon at the beginning of the weekend, and we’ll leave it.
“We’re also going to probably go a lane or so higher in [Turns] 3 and 4 just to try to give a little bit more racing room over there. It may not turn into racing room, but if they do slip out of the groove, at least there will be something there to grab a hold of.”
Will it work? That remains to be seen which is why fans are cautiously optimistic about the track situation.
Plus, with the temperatures soaring into the mid to upper 90s on both days of action, it almost makes you wonder how that will have an effect on the drivers, the teams, the cars and the fans sweltering in the stands too.
The attendance last year was a lot to be desired. Now with lackluster racing and temperatures nearing the century mark, I cringe at what the grandstands will look like for Sunday’s race.
Another wrinkle to this potential problem is the tire situation as well. Goodyear has had a fair share problems this season including during the All-Star Race at this very track this past May. While Goodyear has updated the tire for this weekend, it’s the same tire they just used at Kansas however and both of those races features plenty of tire problems too. So did Bristol last Saturday night.
“It has been widely documented that the balance of the Next Gen car has shifted towards the rear,” said Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing. “On a weekly basis, optimizing tire performance is a key element in having a successful weekend. Air pressure, suspension geometry and shock settings work in unison to get the most out of the tire package. Being aggressive in any one of those areas is certainly a recipe for short-term speed, but the risk vs. reward of those choices can often come back and bite you.
“We work very closely with teams throughout the week and at the track, providing as much data as we can to help them make the right tire choices. We understand that teams are in a constant search for speed, but finding the edge of that envelope is key to finishing races.”
Much of the dilemmas have stemmed from an increased load on the rear of the Next Gen vehicle while Goodyear and teams continue to learn how the tire deflects with a thinner sidewall than in years past.
This is all why the magnifying glass is on Texas this weekend. That track has become a disaster ever since that repave/reconfiguration. There’s talks now of a complete do over.
“I think they should just put it back to the way it was from my standpoint,” Jimmie Johnson lobbied. “In all my years in Cup, it was the best mile-and-a-half, especially once it aged, from my perspective.
“Based on my previous experience in NASCAR, I think just put it back.”
Kyle Larson, last years winner, agreed.
“I would like them to demolish this place first and then start over from scratch,” Larson said Saturday. “For one, they did a very poor job with the reconfiguration, initial reconfiguration.
“I would like to see them change it from a mile-and-a-half to something shorter. I don’t know if that means bringing the backstretch in or whatever.
“If I could build a track, it’d be probably a three-quarter mile Bristol basically, pavement and progressive banking. But I don’t know if that’s even possible here. I’m not sure what they have in mind, but anything would be better than what they did.”
But will they? Atlanta got a revamp and it’s 2 races were a slam dunk. Does Texas go in the direction that Atlanta did or does it go in a different route?
“Do we need more superspeedways?” Logano asked Saturday. “Is that the type of racing fans want to see? Because when you look at the way that people have finished up front in these superspeedways lately, (they) are the ones that are riding around in the back.
“Do you believe that you should be rewarded for not working? Because that’s what they’re doing. They’re riding around in the back not working, not going up there to put a good race on. They’re riding around in the back and capitalizing on other people’s misfortune for racing up front trying to win. I don’t think it’s right. That’s not racing. I can’t get behind that.”
Denny Hamlin says anything, even another superspeedway is better than what is here now.
“I’d rather have another Atlanta than this, honestly,” Hamlin said. “Anything will be better than kind of what we have here.”
It’s hard to just resurface the turns because that costs money and you’re basically doing what you’re already done without any capital coming back in. While you absolutely can’t put any traction compounds back on those areas, is the configuration really going to be that much better?
That’s part of the issue to why traction compound even had to be put down to begin with. So then you open the door to repaving the entire track and reconfiguring again. While you’re at it, why not do something to stand out because if you haven’t noticed, 1.5-mile tracks are a dying form.
No matter what they do, they have to do something because they’ve already lost 1 points paying race for the All-Star race and that event flopped so badly there, it got taken away after just 2 years.
They’re in jeopardy of becoming the next Chicagoland and Kentucky…
“I want to be at tracks where I can make a difference, where my team can make a difference, and we’re not at the mercy of a wreck that happened in front of us that we couldn’t do anything about,” Logano said.