Who… gets my shoutout of the race?
It wasn’t a win, but it must have felt like one to Dale Earnhardt Jr., whose fourth-place Sylvania 300 finish was just his third top five of the season, his best finish since Daytona, and his only top five on a non-restrictor plate track. Earnhardt looked solid all day, running lap times as good as the race leaders. It was a welcome respite from a season of mediocrity.
What… was THAT?
That was the giant cha-ching of Denny Hamlin cashing in on a points lead he didn’t earn. This is exactly what I hate about the Chase. I’d argue that a driver who was barely in the top 10 in points with 10 races to go, despite five wins, only deserves the championship if he could earn it the old-fashioned way. Before being handed the gift of the top two spots in points, both Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson had a slim-to-none chance for taking home the title, but Kevin Harvick, who earned his points lead, was nowhere to be found until you got to third on the list. Ouch.
Where… did the polesitter wind up?
Brad Keselowski may have set a track record in qualifying, but that was about the last time he found much speed in the No. 12. Keselowski faded from the drop of the green flag, finishing 18th without making any noise on track.
When… will I be loved?
After dumping Hamlin at New Hampshire, Carl Edwards might be wondering where the love went. Edwards was loose when he slid up into Hamlin’s quarterpanel. Hamlin, the points leader entering the race, didn’t get hit despite spinning in front of the field. The chain reaction from the spin also damaged the No. 48 of Johnson, who was running second coming in. The wreck didn’t look intentional, but perhaps avoidable. Sometimes it’s better racing to back off a little when the car is handling that badly.
Why… don’t Chase drivers have a separate points system?
This one has always puzzled me. As much as I hate the Chase, I still have to wonder why, if NASCAR’s intent was to make the “playoffs” exciting, there isn’t a separate points system in place for the 12 drivers. If NASCAR wants to keep it close, they should point these drivers in 1st-12th each week based on their finish only among the other Chasers (while still awarding points by finishing position among the rest of the field). It would also serve to make the Chase drivers race hard every lap, as the only passes that would count for points would be made on other Chasers. I hate the idea of the Chase, but since NASCAR insists it’s what we want to see, how about at least doing what was originally intended and make it closer?
How is the championship picture shaping up after the first race of the Chase?
For the first time in five seasons, Johnson isn’t a part of the title picture at all after a miserable Loudon race which simply lengthened what has been a horrible stretch for Johnson. There is some serious competition at the top, though. Clint Bowyer was the big gainer of the week with his Loudon win, and sits just 35 points behind leader Hamlin. It’s still looking like Hamlin’s title to lose though, and everyone else is just playing catch-up. Seven drivers (Bowyer, Harvick, Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch, Johnson and Edwards) are within 100 of the lead after the first race, and with nine more races, anything can happen.