Who… should you be talking about after the race?
Drivers on the playoff bubble breathed a sigh of relief as Chase Elliott took the checkers in the Ally 400, preventing a new winner at least this week. With nine races to go and 12 winners, it’s still possible that making the playoffs on points could be a lost cause, but the chances of a race winner being left out are shrinking.
Elliott found some Nashville magic in the No. 9, coming alive in the final 100 laps. He led twice for 42 laps, all of them in the final 60 of the race. He fought for the lead with Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin during that segment, made the right call when the caution flew for Josh Bilicki with fewer than 10 laps remaining, and managed the final restart perfectly, holding off Kurt Busch for the last four circuits for his second win of 2022.
And don’t forget Kevin Harvick. He has been all but invisible for much of 2022, but he showed up on Sunday.
Harvick didn’t lead laps but laid down the fastest lap of the race. He’s not the Harvick of a couple years ago, who won nine times, but he’s still got the experience to get the most out of a race. He’s barely hanging on in the playoff fight, but he’s also awfully hard to count out before the checkers at Daytona International Speedway.
What… is the buzz about?
It’s the time of year when Silly Season starts to heat up, but if you were expecting any Earth-shattering announcements, it’s not your year so far. Two free agents announced new deals and both are staying exactly where they are.
Both Martin Truex Jr. and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. are staying put at Joe Gibbs Racing and JTG Daugherty Racing, respectively. Stenhouse isn’t really a surprise, but Truex was the source of speculation about retirement. He hasn’t said how long he’ll stick around, but it wouldn’t be shocking if 2023 is his last full-time season.
There are still a few deals to be finalized, but so far, Silly Season looks to be only lightly jovial at best.
Where… did other key players wind up?
Polesitter Hamlin led the first 65 laps with a total of 114, the most of any driver, and had one of the strongest cars throughout the night. He had a chance to capitalize on a couple of late restarts but fell just short of the lead. On a night where the Toyotas shone, Hamlin helped carry the torch, but he fizzled the smallest bit when he pitted on the caution with just a handful of laps left. He came out deep in the field and while he passed car after car, only made it back to sixth, a strong day, just not a victorious one.
Defending race winner Kyle Larson never looked like a threat to repeat. He found some speed late in the race, but he had a top 10 car, not a winning one. A gamble on the final caution saw Larson stay on track as many leaders pitted for tires. It paid off as he gained six spots with the call, finishing a much-needed fourth.
Stage one and two winner Truex hasn’t won yet in 2022, and he looked like that might change Sunday as he battled for dominance with his JGR teammates Hamlin and Kyle Busch. Truex led 82 laps, but pitting on the final caution didn’t pay off for the No. 19. He finished 22nd, just one spot behind Busch as neither could regain their ground.
When… was the moment of truth?
NASCAR was generous with the caution flag at times Sunday but got downright stingy at the end. And so, with the Most Popular Driver winning, NASCAR ignored the damaged car of former champion Brad Keselowski even as the field barreled toward him after he made contact with the wall late.
Nobody hit the No. 6, and Elliott went on to win handily, but NASCAR put the entire field at risk with the non-call. It looked as though the No. 6 was trailing fluid, a dangerous situation in itself.
Did the television powers that be ask NASCAR to hold the flag? Did NASCAR not want to give the field one last crack at Elliott? Had Keselowski been able to keep some semblance of speed with no danger of debris or fluid, sure, hold the flag and let them race, no question. But there’s a point when it becomes about driver safety, and this one crossed into that territory. After more than six hours invested, surely an overtime finish wouldn’t have been the worst thing that could happen.
Why… should you be paying attention this week?
It’s back to the right-handers as the NASCAR Cup Series heads to Road America. Trackhouse Racing Team is two for two on road courses this year, with Ross Chastain taking his first career win at Circuit of the Americas and Daniel Suarez following suit at Sonoma Raceway.
But the road courses have so far been equalizers this year, and it’s no longer easy to point at a single favorite.
Besides Chastain and Suarez, AJ Allmendinger is likely to contend, and a couple of others to watch are Michael McDowell and Erik Jones, both of whom can wheel to the right as well as the left. Chris Buescher was a standout at Sonoma. The playoff field is far from set, and next weekend could prove to be another wild card.
How… many times do we need to say it?
At the risk of that broken record sound, this was yet another race adversely affected by the late start time. This time, it was only lightning, but at least on the East Coast, NBC was bound to lose viewers who have to work early Monday morning and also the fans they need the most long-term: the youngest ones.
There’s a reason races started at noon to 1 p.m. ET for years. Delays were more easily absorbed (though it’s likely that some would be avoided completely, like Sundays, because the race would be over) without bleeding into dinner or bedtime.
The networks keep insisting that the late times are better, but they need to share the data that actually back that up. Very few fans that I’ve ever talked to want these late-afternoon races. It also makes for a very long day (and night) for the teams. And if the fans aren’t watching, or are leaving midway through the broadcast, who benefits?
Certainly not NBC, which ended up shuffling the end of the race to the USA network only to hurry off the air to join an old episode of Law & Order SVU. The network could have had a great kickoff to its portion of the season, taking over the afternoon airwaves and beating the weather. Instead, it moved to USA only to hurry off the air so fast that many wondered if it had a hand in the non-call for Keselowski.
About the author
Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.
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