1. Non-Playoff Drivers Winning Playoff Races Is Fun
One of the weirdest things about the NASCAR playoffs compared to the playoffs in pretty much every other sport is that the athletes no longer in contention for the championship are still out there competing. It’s strange, but admittedly not as bizarre as, say, only four cars on the track in Phoenix would be.
Some fans enjoy pointing out the bias toward the playoff drivers that overwhelms the race broadcasts at this time of year. And while that’s an understandable complaint, it’s also a byproduct of the NASCAR playoffs in general rendering the other drivers less important.
In other words, if you don’t like that, complain to NASCAR, not NBC.
That said, the non-playoff drivers can still bring some thrills to the party when they win, which is exactly what AJ Allmendinger did this Sunday (Oct. 8) at Charlotte. Dinger was no beneficiary of circumstance either, as he flexed his speed and feel for the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL as he has more often than not. He and his team deserved this victory.
Afterward, Allmendinger gave us pure, unadulterated emotion, non-playoff status (as well as his series status for 2024) be damned.
That’s as it should be. Winning races at the NASCAR Cup Series level isn’t easy, and perhaps even less so when you’re trying to do it amidst a bunch of drivers who all have higher stakes than you do. This was a playoff elimination race, after all.
While they might not serve up exactly the same joy as Allmendinger did, it’s not hard to imagine other drivers not racing for the championship emote in notable ways if they were to win over the next few weeks. Maybe it will be pride from Kevin Harvick for a victory before he calls it quits, or Chase Elliott (who we’ll discuss more shortly) expressing relief that 2023 wasn’t a complete wash.
Regardless, the ROVAL showed us why it doesn’t always have to be about the drivers still chasing the title, and that’s a good thing.
2. Martin Truex Jr. Is Still Very Much Alive for the Championship … and That’s Ridiculous
To be clear, Martin Truex Jr. absolutely deserved to be the regular season champion and to be seeded highly once the playoffs began. Even him advancing to the Round of 8 is kind of OK. But for him to be second going into the next round, just five points out of the lead, is ludicrous.
As a refresher, here are Truex’s finishes since the postseason began: 18, 36, 19, 17, 18, 20. Zero top-15 finishes, and a 19.5 average in the two cutoff races. For this, he’s 22(!) points above Ryan Blaney, who actually won a race in the Round of 12.
There are lots of silly things about the NASCAR playoffs, but this is absolutely at the top of the list. And the shame of it all is that this is such an easy fix.
Let the playoff points accumulate and matter for seeding when the last 10 races begin. But for goodness sake, it’s time to stop having them follow the drivers from round to round.
No other sport rewards teams for performing sadly once the playoffs begin, and NASCAR shouldn’t either. The boost Truex got for his accomplishments during the regular season shouldn’t keep carrying him through, which is exactly what’s going on right now.
3. Is Chase Elliott Really Going To Go Winless for the Season?
Even amidst a campaign that hasn’t gone the way he or his team probably thought it would for a number of reasons, there was always the feeling that Elliott would still manage to snag a victory at some point. It’s not like he hasn’t had speed; Elliott finished second at Auto Club Speedway right before his snowboarding misfortune, and he turned in five top-five results during the summer.
He’s also been very consistent during the playoff races, with only one finish outside the top 10 — and that was an 11th at Texas Motor Speedway.
But his best chances for a victory may have come and gone. He figured to be in the mix at Talladega Superspeedway and the ROVAL, and he did well but couldn’t find victory lane. Conversely, Elliott hasn’t typically fared well at Las Vegas Motor Speedway or Homestead-Miami Speedway.
That leaves the final two races of 2023 at Martinsville Speedway and Phoenix Raceway. Not only has he won at both tracks, he won there back-to-back at the end of 2020.
That’s starting to feel like a lifetime ago with each passing week, but the point is that Elliott shouldn’t be counted out. He may yet escape 2023 with a trophy to ensure he has something good to think about heading into next year.
4. NASCAR Made the Right Call Keeping the ROVAL
Since the road course racing has been less than scintillating in almost two seasons with the Next Gen car, the outcry to get rid of the ROVAL and return to two oval races at Charlotte each season was understandable.
Here’s the thing: Charlotte’s more famous oval race, the Coca-Cola 600, has a distinct identity. It’s the ultimate test of NASCAR endurance, and fittingly, one of the sport’s crown jewels.
The fall oval race was … just a race.
In an era when it appears that less is more when it comes to NASCAR race weekends (see also Pocono Raceway et al.), there’s really no reason for there to be a race at most tracks just because. Not when there’s an alternative to give the second event its own character, which is what the ROVAL gives Charlotte.
Sure, the relatively lame road course racing is a problem, but as my colleague Dalton Hopkins pointed out this week, it’s one that NASCAR will be working overtime to fix. Emotional overreaction is part of the fun of being sports fans, but it’s better when the governing bodies of sports don’t get caught up in it, and NASCAR managed to go with its head and not heart by keeping the ROVAL for 2024.
5. What Will Ty Gibbs Look Like as a Cup Series Sophomore?
After two sub-30 finishes in a row, Ty Gibbs bounced back nicely by coming home fourth at the ROVAL. The second half of his rookie Cup Series campaign has mostly followed the same pattern, where he has two or three double-digit results in a row and then sporadically throws in a top five.
One thing Gibbs hasn’t done this year is win, though he still has a few more weeks to rectify that. But it’s worth noting that Austin Cindric just re-signed with Team Penske despite winning in his first Cup Series season and then backsliding a bit during his second year.
In other words, when it comes to young drivers, winning isn’t everything, and Gibbs has shown both speed and maturity (except when talking to the media, where he generally wears his disdain on the sleeve of his firesuit) throughout 2023.
Which is to say that while a sophomore slump is possible, Gibbs seems like the type that may avoid it. The guess here is that he’ll keep those good performances and iron out some of the hiccups, and it wouldn’t be shocking at all if he grabs both a win and a playoff spot next year.
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