Who… should you be talking about after the race?
Denny Hamlin was probably due for a win. He had the best car for much of the Southern 500 but saw that one get away. He finished second to Tyler Reddick the following week at Kansas Speedway. So it should surprise nobody that Hamlin scored the win at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Hamlin started second but gave up stage points in the first stage after a speeding penalty on pit road. He finished fourth in the second stage before dominating the second half of the race to score his 51st career victory in the Bass Pro Shops Night Race, amid a shower of boos (and random produce) from the stands.
Hamlin worked lapped traffic masterfully in the closing laps, holding off a charging Kyle Larson by using those lapped cars to take away the line Larson wanted to run until he’d used up his equipment.
Hamlin is off to a great playoff start, and he’s confident — when asked about the boos, Hamlin shrugged and said he’d just beaten their favorite driver. Which favorite driver?
“All of them.”
But can Hamlin, who has been his own worst enemy in the playoffs (and had to overcome a driver error on Saturday night, no less), close the deal this time? That remains to be seen.
And don’t forget Carson Hocevar. The 20-year-old Michigan native finished a strong 11th in just his fourth Cup start. It’s also the best finish for the Legacy Motor Club No. 42 entry this year. Hocevar is also currently third in Truck Series points in his third full season in that series.
Hocevar ran a clean race, finishing sixth in the second stage and running inside the top 10 for much of the second half before dropping one spot to 11th. Oh, and by the way, he had a loose wheel on his last run.
What… is the big question leaving this race in the rearview?
In the last few years, it’s been rare to see more than one driver claw their way back from a deficit to make the cut in the final race of a playoff round. This week’s race saw two of them do it. It takes a little luck; the drivers ahead have to have a bad night to make it happen. It also takes taking whatever speed you have and making it enough.
Martin Truex Jr. had just seven points to make up, and he didn’t have a great car either. But when both Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick, who are usually very strong at Bristol, floundered, Truex took advantage. He finished 19th, certainly not much to write home about, but it was enough.
Bubba Wallace overcame a 19-point disadvantage, using good pit strategy to score enough stage points to cut that in half. Wallace finished 14th, again not a red-letter night, but enough.
But will enough be enough in the next round? Wallace arguably has more momentum than Truex going into the round of 12. Truex had a terrible first round, but the reset puts him and his bucket of playoff points back near the top of the standings.
Wallace, though, sits 14 points below the line and in 12th place. That means he has to climb past three others as well as at least one driver above the line — or he has to win. And he’s certainly good enough at Talladega to do that.
But how many drivers below the line can realistically change their circumstances? While a win will do it, two drivers, Wallace and Brad Keselowski, don’t have a win this year. The other two, Ross Chastain and Ryan Blaney, have one apiece.
Among the top eight leaving Bristol, only Christopher Bell has fewer than two wins; five of the eight have three or more. Not only does that give them those playoff points, but it’s indicative of their seasons.
Because of the wild cards in this round, it’s certainly possible that two or more drivers will climb up to make the next cut. Just don’t count on it. It’s harder from here on out.
Where… did the other key players wind up?
Pole winner Bell is 3-0 on starts for the playoffs (won stage 1, passed by a flying Larson halfway through stage 2 but bounced back to win it). Bell led a race-high 187 laps but didn’t have quite enough speed in the final stage to compete with Hamlin and Larson.
Truex entered the night seven points below the cut, but a good qualifying effort gave him a fighting chance early, the beginning of an up-and-down night. Truex finished ninth in stage one and ran as high as fifth but did not have the speed or handling of his Joe Gibbs racing teammates, and finished 19th, two laps down. He moves on in the playoffs by a stroke of luck as both Logano and Harvick had worse nights.
Defending race winner Chris Buescher struggled early but raced his way to seventh by the end of stage two. From there, he showed he had top-five speed, finishing fourth and showing why he’s a dark horse threat for a title.
Reigning champion Logano struggled with speed early, hovering just above the cut line for much of the night. His early woes loomed large later as he saw his chances of defending evaporate completely when Corey LaJoie spun out in the final stage. LaJoie shot across the track, collecting Logano and causing massive right rear damage on the No. 22 Ford. Logano missed the cut by four points, something that might have been avoided had he and his team scored stage points in the first half.
When… was the moment of truth?
Despite the playoff elimination drama, the night race at Bristol, once the most sought-after ticket in NASCAR, was decidedly tame. The lowest groove had traction compound added in an attempt to make it a two-groove track, and it was, sort of, but the action was lackluster.
There is a fine balance here, because the more cars that are able to be competitive, the better. But on Saturday night, obviously faster cars struggled too long to pass slower ones. Sometimes they never completed the pass at all.
That’s not how it’s supposed to work. Faster cars should be able to make moves. Sure, the slower cars can try to hang on, but usually that’ll draw a bumper from the faster car.
We didn’t see any of that on Sunday. Occasionally lapped cars held up the leaders, but that didn’t really allow the frontrunners to bunch up and battle each other because they couldn’t get by the lappers fast enough.
With little attrition, the playoff drama was stripped away too.
Yet the Truck and Xfinity Series put on pretty decent shows last weekend. If NASCAR could find a package that allowed the Cup cars to race as well as they have the last couple of years on the intermediate tracks and as well as the Xfinity cars have on the short tracks, the racing would be fantastic. And it begs the question — with the Cup cars now coming almost entirely from single source manufacturers, could there not be two entirely different chassis? If they cost teams the same, teams could choose how many short-track cars and how many intermediate cars to buy and if they had to live with those choices for the year, it would make the racing better and add strategy to the season.
Why… should you be paying attention this week?
The playoff field is down to 12 and the Cup Series heads for its lone date at Texas Motor Speedway. In terms of playoff eliminations, the win at Texas could be the most important to capture outside of the title race at Phoenix.
Talladega Superspeedway is on deck, and given that at least one multi-car crash is all but assured, the only way for the playoff drivers to sleep easy for the next three weeks is to win on Sunday.
The third race in this round is the infield road course at Charlotte Motor Speedway, and that race is also a wild card.
The last three Texas winners are among the 12 playoff survivors: Reddick, Larson and Kyle Busch. Hamlin also has three wins at TMS. Among them, Reddick has been stellar in his four Cup starts with three top 10s and a 6.8 average finish.
On the flip side, some of the top 12 have struggled at TMS in the past; Wallace, Ross Chastain and Buescher all have average finishes below 20th.
With fifth in points currently just 10 above the cut line, Texas looms large. A bad finish there means needing a good one at Talladega, and nobody wants to have to bank on that.
How… come NASCAR threw a caution for Truex?
Granted, the action up front wasn’t spectacular, but NASCAR seemed awfully quick with the yellow flag when Truex got loose on the front straightaway on lap 362. Truex had to wrestle the No. 19 for a second in traffic and made light contact with the wall, but kept going, didn’t hit another car and didn’t cut his right rear tire.
The yellow flag flew instantly. It didn’t really help Truex, because he was the first car a lap down and wasn’t eligible for the free pass as he caused the caution. Truex didn’t even seem to think his bobble was worth the flag; he asked his team on the radio what the caution was for and seemed surprised that it would be for him.
It did give an opportunity for a restart during what was a mediocre race at best. That might be the best explanation of why NASCAR was so quick on the draw. In any case, it wasn’t warranted and may have actually decreased the drama of the night by eliminating the need for a round of green-flag pit stops.
With the playoffs well underway, it’s important to have consistency surrounding caution flags. The calls are not consistent across series as it is, with NASCAR often leaving Truck or Xfinity Series races green for what would be a surefire yellow in Cup.
When there’s debris or fluid on track, the caution is a necessary safety call. But when there isn’t, there’s no need to be so quick on the trigger.
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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