Over the Labor Day weekend, I was hanging out with a group of close friends when the topic of conversation turned to romantic comedies.
Now, I’ll forgive you if you stop reading here.
Really, I will, but bear with me a moment – I’m getting to driving fast and turning left, I promise. One of the movies that got a mention was the 2003 classic, How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days, featuring Matthew McConaughy and Kate Hudson. It got me thinking about NASCAR and all the ways in which you can lose a championship once you make it to the playoffs. Such are the vagaries of the system with the three-race segments that small errors can compound into massive issues really quick.
1 – Speeding on Pit Road:
All year long we’ve talked about how hard it is to pass.
It’s one thing not to have the requisite speed, but it’s another altogether to make an unforced error. If there’s one thing guaranteed to put you at the back of the line or a lap down, it’s speeding on pit road. In data on Reddit from July, across the last 10 years there’s a surprising name atop the list. It’s the affable good guy, Michael McDowell, busted some 56 times with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in second (52 times) and Austin Dillon, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch tied for third with 50.
In the playoffs, such avoidable penalties can really cost you.
2 – Bad Strategy:
So much goes into winning a NASCAR Cup Series race. There’s a reason it’s so hard to finish first, but an almost guaranteed way not to do so is poor strategy. Pitting at the wrong time, running long when you should come in, two tires vs four – there are literally a hundred ways to screw up your race. You might not always come up with great strategy, but you’re never winning a race with bad strategy. It’s as simple as that.
3 – Wrong Place, Wrong Time:
Sometimes, it’s not so much about what you do, rather it’s what the other red-blooded, hyped-up wheelmen around you are getting up to. Case in point, Kevin Harvick this past weekend at Darlington Raceway when he was almost the picture-perfect definition of wrong place, wrong time.
The penalty dropped Harvick to 22nd and, while mired in mid-pack traffic, he could only advance to 19th. What could have been a memorable win was eviscerated really through zero fault of his own.
4 – Red Mist:
In a sport like NASCAR, this is hardly a rare occurrence.
The dictionary definition of red mist is “a feeling of extreme anger that clouds one’s judgment temporarily” and one such example of this from earlier this year was Chase Elliott hooking Hamlin into the fence in the middle of the straightaway during the Coca-Cola 600 for the flimsiest of reasons.
This, of course, is a phenomenon you can’t legislate for, and while drivers tend to perhaps be a smidge more respectful in the playoffs, it only takes a second and one such incident to ruin a driver’s run for the title.
Will we see such a moment in 2023? I wouldn’t bet against it.
5 – Poor Restarts:
As noted above, passing is very much at a premium this year and nowhere can you make up spots like you can on a restart. It’s why they’ve tended to be so wild and crazy in 2023. You’ve got to get it when you can, and there are few better opportunities in any given race.
Sometimes, you’re just in the wrong line, but the simple fact is you want to make up spots and do it in the first couple of green flag laps. The data here is interesting too. On non-drafting ovals in 2023, we have a clear leader in Bubba Wallace whose net restart position is a whopping +91.
Restart well, and things will tend to work out.
6 – Lack of Regular Season Points:
At its most basic level, starting the playoffs with a good crop of bonus points is a definite advantage, especially in the first couple rounds. It doesn’t guarantee you make it all the way to Phoenix Raceway, but it certainly gives you a head start. And it also gives you the chance to have a mulligan race. So, while a good haul in the first 26 races isn’t a guarantee of anything, there’s little doubt it can prove to be seriously advantageous.
7 – Poor Pit Stops:
I’ve already talked about speeding on pit road – an issue all of the driver’s making – but another area that can seriously affect you is a poor pit stop. Just ask Hamlin at Darlington when having to pit a second time for a loose wheel cost him what likely would have been the win given how dominant he was in the first two stages. Every tenth of a second counts, and one sure fire way to ruin a good day is a poor pit stop especially given how close the competition runs in 2023.
8 – Bottling It:
Now, I’ll admit this one is a little more nebulous and certainly much harder to prove. You’ll have to forgive this Brit living in San Francisco for using a phrase from back home, but it seems so apropos. Bottling it means someone has lost their courage at the last moment and have not done something they intended to do. In the playoffs, doing so can be absolutely fatal.
9 – Hail Melon:
I remember watching this live and just standing up and applauding the sheer audacity of it all.
An absolutely remarkable, video game move (since outlawed of course) that took Hamlin out of a final four spot he held coming off turn four of the final lap costing him a run at a title.
10 – Phoenix:
Finally, there’s the track that holds the deciding race. Simply put, if your short track program isn’t stellar and you make it to the last race, you’re not going to win barring an unlikely sequence of events. I think with this in mind, overtime we’ll see much more weight given to final four appearances. Just make it to the final race with a shot, and you never know.
About the author
Danny starts his 12th year with Frontstretch in 2018, writing the Tuesday signature column 5 Points To Ponder. An English transplant living in San Francisco, by way of New York City, he’s had an award-winning marketing career with some of the biggest companies sponsoring sports. Working with racers all over the country, his freelance writing has even reached outside the world of racing to include movie screenplays.
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