Ain’t it funny how the night moves?
When you just don’t seem to have as much to lose,
Ain’t it funny how the night moves?
With autumn closing in….
While it hasn’t quite reached the level of the Memorial Day weekend yet, Labor Day weekend offered race fans a full slate of action again this year. While the Indy 500 will forever be the headliner in late May, the Southern 500 is top dog as the traditional summer comes to a close. At least, it has been since NASCAR reversed a bone-headed error and returned the race to the right track (Darlington) on the right weekend.
But the slate this weekend was full. The Italian Grand Prix at Monza is one of the more prestigious Grands Prix left in Europe. Sadly, that race itself was eminently forgettable and predictable with Lewis Hamilton starting from the pole in his Mercedes and flat out spanking the field.
Sadly, when you see the qualifying results for a Formula One race they most likely will mirror the race results that weekend. This one was most notable in that Hamilton wrested the top spot from Sebastian Vettel in the point standings. The two drivers are currently separated by just three points, with Hamilton having spent the last five or six races chipping away at what once seemed like an insurmountable points lead by Vettel.
Note that Formula One still has seven races left to go and their season goes on even beyond NASCAR’s. The Grand Prix schedule, though features a lengthy summer break and rarely includes more than two races on consecutive weekends, a much more civilized arrangement than the NASCAR bargain basement schedule.
Open-wheel fans were also treated to the penultimate event of the IndyCar season at Watkins Glen. Part of the track’s $54 million improvement campaign involved key safety improvements to let the open-wheelers race again at the track that once hosted the highly competitive and anticipated U.S. Grand Prix for years.
Heading into the event, Team Penske driver Josef Newgarden seemed to have a fairly safe lead in the points, but he lost control leaving the pits with 14 laps to go, thumped the outside wall solidly and got rear-ended, leaving him with a dismal 18th-place finish. Newgarden is now just three points ahead of Scott Dixon and 22 ahead of fan favorite Helio Castroneves.
Given that INDYCAR awards double points in their season finale, five drivers can realistically be considered as title contenders with four of them driving for Team Penske. That race will be run September 17th and, as a reminder concludes their 2017 season. INDYCAR officials have accepted the reality that once the NFL juggernaut starts, auto racing fades to a mere asterisk in the sports world. We’re still waiting for that memo to arrive in Daytona Beach….
Meanwhile, straight-line fans know that Labor Day weekend at Indy (the U.S. Nationals) is the biggest and most prestigious event of the NHRA season. What the series has going for it is that the final rounds in the pro classes are run on Monday, not against a full slate of other events on Sunday. The challenge they must overcome is a presenting network, FOX Sports 1 that treats the sport as its redheaded stepchild while trying to present even more live soccer matches nobody cares about.
By and large, NASCAR’s XFINITY Series held the center ring on Saturday, and their race at Darlington was an affair to remember. Joey Logano made a “no guts, no glory” pass on Denny Hamlin’s dominant car on the final lap. However, he entered the next corner way too fast, allowing Hamlin to out-drag him to the finish line with a nifty crossover move.
Unlike the Cup Series, the NXS playoff field will not be determined until after Chicagoland. But it is notable that to date, only four series regulars have punched their tickets to the playoffs with a win. All the rest of those AAA races have been won by Cup drivers slumming it on Saturday (including one of them in particular winning a lot) or part-timers. Think what you will about that. I’m just the piano player.
This weekend’s schedule took the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series north of the border to the Canadian Tire Motorsport Park. Since the series started competing at this track five years ago, it’s been known for two things: A) Winners who are too young to buy a beer legally and B) Wild and controversial finishes that invite spirited debate.
Austin Cindric (whose dad is a bit busy right now running the Team Penske IndyCar juggernaut) needed a win to make the Truck Series playoffs. He’s also looking for a new ride for next season after Brad Keselowski announced he’s shuttering his two truck teams next year.
Maybe that’s because Cindric was also competing to be the first Ford driver to win a CWTS race this year? See note above about Sunday drivers slumming it on Saturdays. Whatever the reason, Cindric flat out ran over Kaz Grala to take the win on the last lap. Cindric may be in the playoffs now but he’s also off a lot of Christmas card lists. And while he claims to be friends with Kaz, I think if I were him I’d avoid trick or treating at the Grala residence this year. (Or maybe have his mom check any treats he receives there very carefully.)
Did Cindric cross the line? Everyone has an opinion. I’ll simply note that I don’t think that Cindric meant to wreck Grala… he just meant to rattle his cage a little. You guess which side of the argument I’m on accordingly. We’ll likely spend the rest of the season debating as to whether the move was sporting but you can’t argue it wasn’t exciting.
That, of course, leaves the main course… the Southern 500. While there can be some debate as to whether the “throwback” stuff has gone a bit overboard it still appears the fans dig it and as such, I’m OK with it. I do worry, though that this year’s edition officially commemorated the 1985-1989 seasons. It’s hard to get too nostalgic about anything that happened in NASCAR after the year 2000 and I’d really hate to see the “Car of Tomorrow” with its insane rear spoiler brought back out of the attic.
On the other hand, when Richard Petty apparently never got the message he was to return to the pits in his 1967 Plymouth before the pace car started the race I was grinning ear to ear. The King is practically deaf after all these decades from hanging out at racetracks, so maybe that’s what happened, but that trademark Petty grin was clearly in evidence so maybe he was just having some fun. The flagman’s decision to black flag the No. 43 was met with derisive hoots and hollers worthy of Kyle Busch’s driver intros at most tracks.
Meanwhile, I’m still waiting for NASCAR to finish the restoration of sanity process and move the Southern 500 back to a day race. Yeah, it gets hot in Darlington on Labor Day weekend. But that didn’t stop them from running the NXS race on Saturday afternoon, right? There’s actually one step NASCAR needs to make beyond returning the Southern 500 to the daylight hours. The event belongs as the series finale… yes, still on Labor Day weekend.
Martin Truex Jr. seemed to have the dominant car most of the evening but blew a tire with three laps to go even as Denny Hamlin stalked him, drawing ever closer. Trying to run 60-plus laps on a set of tires at the notoriously abrasive Track Too Tough to Tame and the Lady In Black reached out and slapped Truex hard for his impudence. (You can argue which Cup track is the best but there’s no doubt Darlington has the coolest nicknames.) However, the fact Toyotas running under the Joe Gibbs Racing umbrella claimed three of the top-five finishing spots may be a sign of things to come during the playoffs.
One thing Sunday’s race did not do was set up a dramatic finish to the regular season next week at Richmond. The TV folks will try to tell you Richmond will be non-stop drama until the last lap as the playoff contenders are decided. But the fact is, absent a driver winning at Richmond who has not won previously this year the field is set.
Martin Truex Jr.’s Goodyear might have had a bad night but his eighth-place finish was plenty good enough for him to clinch the regular season title after Darlington. He’s also won more races than any other driver to date this year so things are as they should be. This year, the regular season title brings with it a 15-point bonus (yeah, yeah, we’re going to have to talk about those eventually. I also need to get root canal eventually but I’m putting that off too due to a similar level of enthusiasm.) A total of 12 other drivers have punched their ticket to advance with a race win this year. (Joey Logano also took a checkered flag but that win was encumbered and thus doesn’t count.)
Below those thirteen drivers we find Chase Elliott, Matt Kenseth, and Jamie McMurray currently in on points. Just three points separate 14th place Elliott from 16th place McMurray. But even McMurray is 91 points above 17th place Clint Bowyer.
The maximum points swing in a race between two drivers is currently 59 points. That’s if driver A wins stage one and stage two of the race and goes on to win the event as well. (40 points for the win and ten bonus points for the stage victories. Driver B finishes last and gets one point.) Thus, no one outside the current top 16 can earn enough points at Richmond to enter playoff position.
So the only way for someone new to make the cut is for them to win next weekend at Richmond. If that happens, the lowest ranked driver between Elliott, Kenseth, and McMurray will be shoved out of contention and again, those drivers are currently separated by just three points. Expect endless yammering about which of them is “out” at any given point of the race based on the possibility there’s a new winner at Richmond even when no such winless driver is running in the top 10.
You can’t entirely discount the possibility that someone new could win at Richmond. We’ve had three drivers this year who scored not only their first 2017 win but their first ever career in Cup. There’s some talented drivers in good equipment that have yet to take a checkered flag including Bowyer, Elliott, Daniel Suarez (if he can lay off handing out donuts for the weekend) and Erik Jones. Obviously, if Elliott, McMurray or Kenseth wins at Richmond the other two drivers will also advance so the pickings are a bit slimmer for the rest of the field.
There’s one driver extremely unlikely to win at Richmond and make the playoffs and if he does, it would do wonders for the networks and interest in general in the sport. However, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been running like a three-legged lamb much of this season, riding out the string into retirement. While Earnhardt does, in fact, have three Cup wins at Richmond the most recent of those was in 2006. He finished 30th at Richmond earlier this year.
A lot of network and NASCAR types will be pulling for Earnhardt to pull off a miracle but if he somehow makes it, look for the conspiracy theorists to howl. To add to the merriment, the No. 88 team will likely be without its crew chief and rear tire carrier and changer next week due to a lug nut violation at Darlington. I’ll go on record as saying Earnhardt will not win and the top 16 as it sits right now will remain though the lowest three spots on the totem pole could shift around a bit.
I’ll also go on record as being a realist. Next weekend kicks off something special and much anticipated. Unfortunately, it has nothing to do with fast loud cars. The 2017-18 NFL season kicks off (no pun intended) and NASCAR virtually disappears until next February. My guess is that you’ll see football scores on NBCSN’s ticker but you won’t see the running order of a Cup race running beneath a football game. To rub a little salt in the wound, some sports fans will divert their attention for a few weeks to the World Series.
In a perfect world, as I noted above, the NASCAR season would conclude on Labor Day weekend, four days before the first regular season NFL game. But in order to do that, a bunch of tracks are going to have to give up dates and nobody is going to volunteer to be first to leave the sugar-teat of NASCAR even if that old sow ain’t producing like she used to.
For those random fans who still tune into a race during NFL season, trying to explain the points system and how a champion will be crowned is going to be another red flag. It was tough enough under the Chase format but now with “bonus points” it would take Sheldon Cooper a week to explain it to casual fans.
Regular season points get re-set but bonus points last forever (or at least until Homestead). Get a win and you’re in the next round… unless that win is encumbered, of course. Dr. Hofstader would you like to take a crack at explaining “encumbrance” which is, in fact, a word. It’s just one you’ve likely never uttered in your life.
You keep your regular season bonus points and can, in fact, add to them as you advance round to round. But if you don’t make the cut to advance to that next round, all your bonus points become fairy dust and blow away. Or something like that. And what about points penalties? The drivers outside the top 16 will still be earning regular season points so if they run afoul of the rules I’d guess they lose regular season points.
But what if a driver in the playoffs does the same thing. Does he lose bonus points or regular points? Are the two sort of points worth the same or given the implications, is a violation resulting in a 25-point regular season points penalty only worth 2.5 bonus points? (Unencumbered bonus points, of course.) Is there anyone at NASCAR who knows how to use fractions?
I’m being facetious here but NBC will take their first shot at explaining this untidy championship system over the next couple weeks. If you’re watching one of those races with a casual fan or non-fan you’ll probably see their eyes glaze over in the first two minutes of the explanation. They’ll likely be rooting through the couch cushions trying to find the remote to check out the football score soon after. I’ve said it before (numerous times) but it bears repeating. The longer it takes to explain how a system operates, the less likely that system is to operate correctly or be embraced. And this playoff mess is a real doozy.
At least here in the United States, NASCAR stock cars have ruled the roost as the biggest form of auto racing for a few decades now. But the series management has grown bloated and out of touch with its fans. It’s high time that NASCAR start looking at some of the things other racing series do right and incorporate those into stock car racing.
Both INDYCAR and Formula One have better points systems and scheduling than Cup right now. (Well, other than INDYCAR’s double points finale silliness.) I’ve heard arguments that ideas from those other series won’t work because NASCAR events usually feature about twice as many entries as open-wheel racing. That’s a fact right now. But NASCAR is already drawing fewer actual competitive teams than it has in years past and it’s time to start preparing for the very real possibility those fields are trending towards smaller numbers still.
The needed changes may not stop at smaller fields, either. Summer is over in stock car racing. Autumn’s closing in.
About the author
Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.
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