5 things I’m watching for Sunday’s South Point 400 (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC, PRN)

Tire Problems

Goodyear is bringing the same tire from Texas here this weekend. That Texas tire was the same from both races at Kansas. All 3 races saw a flurry of problems. Do we see a similar occurrence this weekend?

It sounds like it all comes down to air pressures.

With a stock car with stock parts in a series to where there’s no real separation between the top teams and the bottom, any sort of advantage to be gained can be the difference in winning or not. An area that has been explored is with tire pressures.

By playing with tire pressures, you’re not doing anything illegal. It’s allowed. However, it’s not advised either to go outside of the limits that Goodyear places on where to run your air pressures at too.

While a lot of folks blamed Goodyear, Texas and even the Next Gen for the tire fiasco in the opening race of the Round of 12 for the AutoTrader EchoPark Automotive 500, it’s sounding more and more like this was an air pressure problem from the get go.

“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 entering the week of Texas. “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.”

He called his shot and did so days before we witnessed 16 cautions for 91 laps in a sloppy NASCAR Cup Series race at Texas.

The initial indications came back to the tire woes being placed on teams running lower than normal air pressures.

“We’re gaining as much information as we can from the teams, trying to understand where they are with regard to their settings, air pressures, cambers, suspicions,” said Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing Sunday. “For sure I can say without a doubt air pressure is playing into it. We know where a lot of the guys are. Some were more aggressive than others. We know that plays a part.

“I’m not saying that’s the only thing, but it’s certainly a factor, so we’re just trying to understand everything else that is going on with regard to specific teams. We know a lot of guys have not had issues. We’ve had guys put full fuel runs on tires, but, obviously, other guys have had issues. We’ll be working with them to try to sort through that is.”

NASCAR agreed.

“Well, I mean, obviously we saw a lot of tire problems, and we saw a lot of teams that didn’t have tire problems,” Scott Miller said on Sunday night from Texas.

“We’re working through that. Goodyear is working through that with the teams, working through what the setups were, what the air pressures were, to try to get to the bottom of it.

“There was a lot of teams that reported no problems to us post-race, and they did admit to being a little bit on the conservative side air pressure and being closer to the suggested minimums that Goodyear recommended.

“I don’t really know how to comment on how long a tire should last.

“The top four at least ran 64 laps home. If they can go 64 laps, they have plenty of tires to get the job done.

“We’re all learning about the setups, the tires. Goodyear is learning about the construction, the new wheel. It’s part of a learning — it’s an unfortunate part of a learning process.”

Tyler Reddick’s crew chief, Randall Burnett, agreed that they went conservative with their tire setups and it paid off.

“We came into this race a little conservative,” he said. “We got bit at Kansas the other week with one. I think we’ve had four tires go down this year while leading the race.

“R.C. talked to me about it and said, Make sure you keep some air in the tires today. I tried to do that. A little bit more conservative approach this week. It’s a fine line. Everybody knows the speed, pushing the limits of the tires.

“With the low sidewalls, they’re not as forgiving as the 15-inch wheel stuff we had before. It’s a lot finer line, I think.

“I mean, there’s so many things that go into it, right? It’s tire pressure, it’s camber in the tires, it’s where you’re running on the racetrack. More often than not you see a guy that’s leading blow a tire, it’s because he has the cleanest air, the most air, most downforce on his car because he’s out front. Sometimes it overloads the tire.

“That’s kind of where we’re at with them.”

Even Chase Elliott who had a tire end his day on lap 183 that day agreed.

“I’m not sure that Goodyear is at fault,” he said. “Goodyear always takes the black eye, but they’re put in a really tough position by NASCAR to build a tire that can survive these types of racetracks with this car. I wouldn’t blame Goodyear.”

So maybe there is some merit to this after all. Which makes me wonder how many push the limits this week or play it more conservative?

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – SEPTEMBER 26: Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Office Toyota, celebrates in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Cup Series South Point 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on September 26, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)


2 Toyota drivers remain in the hunt to take this year’s championship. This may be the week that 1 of them stamps their names into the Championship 4.

Denny Hamlin won this race last year and was 4th and 2nd respectively in the 2 Kansas races this year at that. Hamlin has 3 top 4 finishes in his last 4 Vegas starts overall and is a prime candidate to advance to his 4th straight final round appearance.

“All of (the tracks in the third round) are P1 for me and I like all of them,” said Hamlin. “All of them are just perfect for what our strength is, especially with the Toyotas and myself. I’m excited. We had a good test at Martinsville and even though we finished bad there in the spring. We’re going to have to qualify well there and track position is going to be huge. We’re going to go to work and really excited about our prospects in this next round.”

Christopher Bell was seventh last year and 10th this past spring. He also was 5th and 3rd in the 2 Kansas races this season as well and now has 4 top 5 finishes in 6 playoff races run this year including a win last week.

“I mean, I feel extremely good about what we have going on here in the next three races,” he said. “Ever since the schedule laid out and we were looking at the Playoffs, the round of 16 all were really good racetracks for us, the Round of 8 were good racetracks for us. The round of 12 with Talladega and this racetrack in there, I was super concerned and nervous. I still felt like we were going to be able to make it through it because we’re really good at Texas and we should be able to get through Texas with a good points day.

“Whenever we left there with a whopping three points, I was just really down, down in the dumps, sad. Then we went to Talladega, and we needed a home run. We needed lot of points, and we didn’t score a lot of points. This whole last two weeks, I had been extremely deflated, just kind of down in the dumps.

“Now I can promise you I’m as excited as ever heading into these next three races.”

Maybe this is also a place Kyle Busch can get his season turned around to end his tenure with Toyota on a positive note. Busch has 7 top 7’s in his last 9 Vegas starts including 4 straight top 6’s. He was 4th here in the spring and 3rd at Kansas’ spring race.

“Vegas is next week and we always look forward to it. We were fast there in the spring so hopefully we can do the same thing,” he said.

Martin Truex Jr. has 9 top eight’s in his last 10 there overall. He was 6th and 5th respectively at Kansas this season as a like track.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – MARCH 06: Ross Chastain, driver of the #1 ACM Awards Chevrolet, and Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 Ethel M Chocolates Toyota, race during the NASCAR Cup Series Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on March 06, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)

Aggressive Strategy?

The drivers that made it to this point are here for a reason and mostly because they weren’t as aggressive as others in some key moments during this postseason. Whether it’s not pushing the car to places it shouldn’t be in, or lifting in sketchy moments or even to a more conservative approach in air pressures, the key to advancing in this year’s playoffs was determined by playing it safe.

Now that we’re down to 8 drivers left, most are saying the aggression has to match the round. It’s time to ramp it up. You absolutely have to go for broke now. Being conservative won’t get you to the final four.

However, in a round to where you have to be perfect, how do you balance the aggression and perfection?

Being too aggressive on tire strategy could have a repeat of Texas and if a playoff driver now has that in this round, forget about making the Championship 4 without a win. However, not being aggressive and too conservative can force an elimination this round too because top 10’s are likely going to cut it.

So where’s the balance?

For a track where tires are going to be a subject line again, I’m curious to see how aggressive these 8 drivers truly are.

In this round, there’s really no margin for error if you want to take at least one of the wildcard spots. In an unpredictable postseason, there could be multiple wildcard spots left and in the event that there are, a bad start to the round Sunday in Vegas could be forcing a must-win at either Homestead or Martinsville.

5 times has the winner of the 7th playoff race gone on to win the title later that season – 2007 Jimmie Johnson (Atlanta), 2011 Tony Stewart (Martinsville), 2016 – Jimmie Johnson (Martinsville), 2018 – Joey Logano (Martinsville), 2021 – Kyle Larson (Texas).

CONCORD, NORTH CAROLINA – OCTOBER 09: Chase Elliott, driver of the #9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet, and crew chief Alan Gustafson talk on the grid after the NASCAR Cup Series Bank of America Roval 400 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on October 09, 2022 in Concord, North Carolina. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Chase Elliott

He was befuddled at how last Sunday’s race ended in Charlotte. He had that race won which most importantly, was going to come with 5 playoff points. He knows that he needs those this round even though he’s already accumulated 46 of them.

“I think it’s going to be a really tough round,” Elliott admitted after a 20th place finish in Charlotte. “Vegas was a struggle for us in the spring. Homestead, we’ve just been really hit-or-miss there. We did have a test there a couple weeks ago, so hopefully we’ve learned from that. Martinsville, it’s just going to be about how you qualify because I don’t see anybody passing there. We’ll see how it goes. Try to bring our A-game. It would have been nice to have some more points from today, but we didn’t and we’ll try again out in Las Vegas.”

Elliott has finished outside the top 10 in 5 of the last 7 races now on the season. If he doesn’t win in any of the next 3 weeks, then he could be in a dire situation in relying on points and those 5 points that got away from him on Sunday could come back to bite him.

5 of the 8 years under this format saw the regular season champion march all the way to the Championship 4 including 4 of the last 5 years. In 2017, Martin Truex Jr. won the regular season title and didn’t win in the Round of 8 to get to the final round. Same for Kyle Busch in 2019. Kevin Harvick won in 2018 (Texas) and Kyle Larson won 2 of the 3 races in this round last year.

Prior to a runner-up in last year’s playoff race in Vegas, Elliott had just two career top fives on this track with his last three finishes being 26th, 22nd,13th and 9th respectively. He has five finishes of 22nd or worse there too and was only 29th and 11th at Kansas. For Homestead, he has 3 top 7’s in his last 5 starts there, but he’s winless overall and also at Darlington too. He was 5th and 36th this past year at Darlington and 21st the last time out at Homestead.

Martinsville is his best shot. Elliott won the pole and dominated the first 2 stages back in the spring before a pit road penalty relegated him to a top 10 instead of a top 5. Elliott won the 2020 Fall race en route to a Championship 4 appearance here. He also has four top fives in his last 7 Martinsville starts, three of them being in the top two.

What makes him nervous is how well others that remain in the postseason could be this round. The Toyota’s may be difficult to beat in the next two weeks and they now have momentum again.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – MARCH 06: Alex Bowman, driver of the #48 Ally Chevrolet, and Kyle Larson, driver of the #5 HendrickCars.com Chevrolet, race during the NASCAR Cup Series Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on March 06, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)

Kyle Larson

I’m curious to how the defending series champion is going to respond this weekend in Las Vegas. For the first time since he’s joined Hendrick Motorsports, Larson has nothing to really race for. Last year was a 10-win season that resulted in a championship at Phoenix. For the first 32 races run this season, it was also with an eye on a title. With 4 races remaining now, how does he react when the championship isn’t the carrot dangling on the line at the end?

The first two tracks in this round are strong tracks for him.

For Vegas, won last spring, was 2nd this spring and had a fast car last Fall too. On like tracks this season he’s finished 2nd (Kansas 1), 8th (Kansas 2) and 9th (Coke 600).

Then it’s to Homestead to where Larson has been so dominant on this 1.5-mile track in the past. He has four top five finishes in his last six starts there including leading 132 laps in a runner-up effort in 2016, 145 more in a third place run in 2017 and 45 laps in 2018. He was fourth last year.

Does he pick up a win at either or do they pack it in and start planning for 2023…

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