1. Let’s Not Say RFK Racing Is ‘Back’ Just Yet
In sports in general, discussion and debate about whether a team or player ‘is back’ is something of a staple.
This is extremely relevant to the NASCAR Cup Series right now in the wake of Chris Buescher winning at Richmond Raceway this Sunday (July 30). Combined with vastly improved performance from Brad Keselowski, who will almost certainly make the playoffs barring a crazy string of first-time 2023 winners over the next few weeks, it’s fair to wonder … well, if RFK Racing is back.
The problem with answering that question is defining exactly what “back” means. If you set the bar low enough that just finding victory lane or qualifying both cars for the postseason counts, then sure, RFK is back.
But considering this was once a four-car team that won consecutive Cup Series championships, won a bunch of races and boasted perhaps the greatest non-champion driver ever (Mark Martin), that feels way too easy. I’d suspect Jack Roush would agree.
So yes, it’s good for the Cup Series that this team is improving. Certainly, Buescher winning somewhere like Richmond is worthy of praise, and the organization deserves credit for lifting itself out of its darkest days.
It’s just not back quite yet.
2. Could Less Be More for Richmond Like It Was at Pocono?
One of the more pleasant surprises of the season, at least on a personal level, was seeing Pocono Raceway packed with fans a few weeks ago. It was awesome to be there at the track and experience it pretty much full, with people everywhere from the merchandise haulers to the stands to the infield.
It especially hit home for me as a Pennsylvania resident who remembers all too well when Pocono had two, very non-distinct race weekends each year — strangely close together during the summer, which made them run together even more. Like many fans, I was initially dismayed when Pocono lost a race, but now I’m not so sure it wasn’t a blessing in disguise.
Could the same thing apply to Richmond? It was easy to tell on TV that the stands were far from full this weekend. NASCAR has hosed The Action Track in other ways, particularly by moving the races to the afternoon, so it’s not a perfect apples-to-apples comparison to Pocono. (Short track racing also continues to perplex the Next Gen car, whereas it’s improved the product at Pocono, no question.)
Still, one can’t help but think that a single night race at Richmond would pack the house, creating a sense of urgency among fans in the area to attend instead of waiting for the “other” race weekend.
It’s something NASCAR should absolutely consider for the 2024 schedule and beyond.
3. Richmond Probably Just Made a Lot of Playoff Bubble Scenarios Less Likely
Heading into Richmond, it didn’t look like a race that was going to determine much for the mad dash for the final few Cup Series playoff spots. Now? It looks like it might have been very critical indeed.
The Cup Series has seen 13 different winners so far in 2023, and 12 of them are now locked into the playoffs (thanks to one winner, Shane van Gisbergen, not being eligible for the postseason). Barring a flurry of new winners, Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski are going to be safe on points.
So, too, it seems for Bubba Wallace. Not only did he come home 12th, but he finished in the top five in both of the first two stages. As big points days come, that was about as clutch as it could have been.
Without needing to rehash it here, the decision by AJ Allmendinger to race in the NASCAR Xfinity Series elsewhere and guarantee he would start at the rear of the field for the Cup Series race may prove costly — particularly since he finished 27th, one lap down. He’s certainly not out of it at 22 points behind the cut line, but the problem is there’s Ty Gibbs in-between him and Michael McDowell. Catching and passing more than one person in the standings is nearly as hard as doing it on the track.
From Daniel Suarez on down, it’s pretty much a must-win to make it in situation. That bubble definitely got a lot smaller, and for different reasons, we might look back at Richmond and say it was the place that sealed the fates of both Wallace and Allmendinger.
4. The Hendrick Playoff-pocalypse Is One Week Closer
Back on July 20, my Frontstretch colleague Andrew Stoddard offered a take that touched a lot of nerves: that Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman would both miss the playoffs. Hendrick Motorsports fans didn’t hesitate to sound off on how crazy they thought that opinion was.
Guess what? Nothing has changed a week later except that Elliott and Bowman now have one less chance to win their way in. Neither driver has been mathematically eliminated, but as noted above, it’s not the gap they have to make up so much as having to pass a handful of other drivers to get above the cut line.
At least as he explained at Pocono, Bowman knows he’s lucky to even still be in the discussion. His issues, injury and a penalty to his team, aren’t his fault.
Elliott’s wounds, however, are self-inflicted. His missed races came because of an off-the-track injury while snowboarding and a suspension. Unfortunate? Yes. But the results of his decisions.
There’s really no reason that all four Hendrick cars shouldn’t be competing for the championship, but bad luck and bad choices are awfully close to dooming two of them. And if that happens, Andrew’s take won’t seem all that hot in retrospect.
5. A Compromise Playoff System Idea
Among NASCAR fans who dislike the playoffs, I’m not even in the top 90%. In fact, I don’t even consider myself a hater, and I’ve resolved myself to the idea that it’s probably not going away.
The issue with the playoff system as it currently stands is that it makes points worthless, except for some fringe cases. Winning races used to not be worth enough in determining a Cup Series champion, and now they’re actually too valuable, while points mean almost nothing.
What if there was a way to have it both ways?
Here’s the high concept: Nothing would change about the regular season. Wins still lock drivers into the playoffs, with points deciding the last few spots if needed. This is one of the things that actually works about the current system, and there’s no need to change it.
Drivers would still be seeded according to the current rules to start the playoffs. That would continue rewarding drivers who do the best during the first 26 races. Maybe even boost the reward for the regular season champion, as that feels like it should mean more.
Once the playoffs begin, however, the champion is strictly determined by points. No rounds, no automatic advancement and no elimination. Ten races, ten different tracks, hopefully with as much variety as possible. Whoever has the most points at the end of the final race is the champion.
The idea is that it would be more palatable to longtime NASCAR fans while still providing the same kind of postseason feel from other sports that the governing body craves so much. With only ten races, there would be less time to separate from the pack, and it’s easier to see a handful of drivers entering the final race with a chance to still win it all if things break their way.
Is it perfect? Of course not. And compromise isn’t something we’re really big on as a society these days.
But it’s an idea, at least, to make points matter again.
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