1. This is the most unfair round of the NASCAR Cup Playoffs ever
Setting aside the not inconsequential debate over whether the NASCAR Cup Series champion should be decided using a playoff system, the NASCAR Playoffs are pretty fine on paper. They reward consistency, since being too crappy for several straight races will get you bounced, and winning, since a victory automatically advances you to the next round.
On top of that, the playoff schedule tends to be nicely balanced, meaning each round requires drivers to perform at a high level across several different types of tracks.
That’s the theory, anyway. But after … whatever it was that just happened at Texas this past weekend, this Round of 12 has turned into a cruel mixture of skill and good fortune, leaning more toward the latter.
By itself, a battle royale-style test of attrition wouldn’t be so bad (though yes, it is bad that one could have the fastest car but oops, there goes a tire, randomly). The problem is that Texas is now followed by Talladega and the ROVAL, two of the top four races of the year in terms of the chances of random bad luck swallowing your chances to advance whole.
This entire round now feels like the NASCAR equivalent of trying to hit a parlay bet in sports. If you manage to avoid tire disaster at Texas, and you avoid the Big One at ‘Dega, and you somehow come through the ROVAL unscathed, then you can proceed to be one of the eight drivers to battle for the championship.
Entertaining? Probably. Fair? Definitely not.
2. Texas can’t just “try anything” to change
Sometimes there’s a difference between honest feedback and a helpful critique. For example, Kyle Larson was speaking from the heart when he said he’d like to see Texas demolished and the powers that be start over from scratch, as was Denny Hamlin when he opined that “Anything would be better at this point.”
That sentiment is all well and good, but reality, as it so often does, rains pretty hard on that parade. Even if Texas Motor Speedway didn’t literally follow Larson’s advice, any kind of major reconfiguration — like, say, turning it into a short track — of the venue would take so long that it would probably mean missing a season. Even smaller changes, like changing the banking, etc., would have to be underway within weeks to be ready for next year.
As Dale Earnhardt Jr. astutely pointed out over the weekend, whatever a “New Texas” would look like, it would need to fit in something approximating the facility’s current footprint. So no superspeedway (not that anyone really wants that), and if it would turn into a short track, management would need to figure out what to do with the rest of the space. That’s no small deal.
Beyond all that, before Texas spends millions of millions of dollars, it needs to have a plan. What kind of track makes the most sense? Is the objective to just not be what everyone just saw this past weekend, or does there need to be a drastic change? Is there any niche the current slate of NASCAR tracks doesn’t fill?
“Just do something” is the kind of suggestion that’s born from (understandable) frustration. It’s not practical, though, as there are a number of questions that must be answered before any pavement gets torn up in Fort Worth.
3. Does NASCAR need to be quicker to penalize drivers when it’s playoff time?
Texas offered not one but two potentially punishable offenses on the track. One was William Byron wrecking Denny Hamlin under caution, which led to some retaliation from the Joe Gibbs Racing driver, also while the yellow was out.
The other was less notable from a playoff perspective, but potentially worse as Ty Gibbs took some anger out on Ty Dillon on pit road, which almost resulted in Dillon’s car running into a NASCAR official. It’s possible discipline could still be coming for either or both of these incidents, and may have been announced already depending on when you’re reading this.
That said, it’s fair to ask if the NASCAR review policy needs to be sped up once the playoffs arrive. With the stakes higher, it might help serve as a more effective deterrent if the governing body rules faster and harsher. Because the last thing needed by this round of the playoffs, in particular, is more randomness in the form of drivers playing their anger out amongst themselves while part of the field is still trying to decide who wins the big season-ending trophy.
4. Does NASCAR have a safety perception problem now?
It would be irresponsible to suggest that NASCAR doesn’t care about the safety of its drivers, or that it has prioritized money over the well-being of its competitors. There are any number of safety advancements one can point to since the turn of the century that have obviously reduced the chances of serious injuries or fatalities during races.
But the perception that NASCAR is cutting corners or hasn’t explored every aspect of safety is damaging in its own right, and it feels like we may have reached that point. It’s not great when veteran drivers like Kevin Harvick are calling NASCAR out for being slow to react to the potential issues with the Next Gen car, or that fans can see vehicles bursting into flame on an almost weekly basis.
The benefit of the doubt goes to the organization for the time being, though that could change if we’re still discussing these same things at Daytona next February. In the meantime, NASCAR needs to come out and make it clear it’s taking safety as seriously as it has for a while now, explaining exactly what’s being done and why any issues can’t be fixed until the offseason.
Because if it doesn’t, it might be facing a PR problem even if it is isn’t facing a safety problem.
5. Is Joey Logano now the championship favorite?
We’ve been here before. Championship favorites are established, contenders start dropping, and one driver is left when the smoke clears: Joey Logano.
There’s a lot of racing still left, but Logano and his team know how to close these things out. As soon as Texas was over, he was already thinking about how he wants to play Talladega. And he has a nice lead over the most dangerous men who might challenge him once things get closer to the Round of 4.
Logano has a double-digit points lead on the field, so things can go south for him the next two weeks and he’ll still probably be fine. Would you trust Ross Chastain or William Byron, currently in second and third in the playoff standings, to outduel Logano in the Championship 4 if it came to that?
Certainly not. Amid plenty of chaos and talking points, Logano has just done what he’s done before. it’s up to the field to catch him now.
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