ONE: Joey Logano Sweeps the Contender Round
Heading into the Chase, it was clear only one driver stood a real chance at stealing a title away from red-hot Joe Gibbs Racing: Joey Logano. The Team Penske driver won two of the final five races during the regular season and slotted in fourth when the Chase Grid was set following Richmond.
Finishes of sixth, third, and 10th easily put him through the first round, but it was this stretch of three races where Logano really made his competition fear him — or hate him, in some cases. A perfect sweep kept every other Chaser from making an automatic entrance into the third round, including who was perhaps Logano’s greatest title threat and new enemy, Matt Kenseth.
During this round, Logano led 289 laps and with his three wins, now has an average finish of 3.67 during the Chase. If Logano can match his spring-time finishes at the three tracks in the next round of third, fourth and eighth, he’ll be averaging a 4.1 finish heading into Homestead.
The other seven contenders have to be shaking in their fireproof boots.
TWO: Where Did the Party Go?
Talladega was supposed to be the big wild card in the Chase, with crashes taking out not only cars capable of winning the race, but Chase contenders too. Yet other than the final two restarts, there were no such crashes. Not even a single-car spin. The fact is, if the race didn’t end with the drama it did, likely we’d be hearing complaints about the lack of crashes.
You can’t complain with the show, however. With no cars going airborne or drivers getting injured, the weekend was a success not only from a safety standpoint, but there was still plenty of action and Chase drama.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. couldn’t seem to slow down without wheel hopping, and a pit penalty sent the No. 88 to the back of the pack. He was able to recover all but one of the spots, and even that wasn’t good enough to move him through.
Martin Truex Jr. started last, lost the draft and went a lap down early, only to make it back on the first caution and eventually finished seventh.
Denny Hamlin’s roof hatch, a safety feature that isn’t run except at the plate tracks, came unlatched midway through the race. Multiple pit stops were needed to tape it in place and Hamlin went laps down. He dropped from second in points to out of the Chase, much like his teammate Kyle Busch did in this race last season.
THREE: NASCAR Redefines the Rules — Mid-Race
Let me ask you this: how many things can be changed once a race has started? Running order. Tires. Wedge. Jimmie Johnson’s pit crew.
Official race rules?
After Talladega, you can officially add that to the list. In one of the most bizarre decisions NASCAR has made — and they’ve made some interesting ones before — the sanctioning body waved off a restart “attempt” with two laps to go, freezing the field after Johnson and Kyle Larson spun while heading to the green flag. Not a big deal normally; just line ‘em back up and start over.
Except when there’s only one attempt at a green-white-checkered scheduled. In that case, NASCAR had to make a split-second decision as to whether or not the race truly went green, since the spin happened before the leader hit the stripe. They decided the race in fact hadn’t restarted and had drivers line up for a second attempt at overtime.
NASCAR got away with a technicality. Since the leader, Logano, hadn’t actually resumed the race, nixing the restart was deemed acceptable. After all, fans paid to see the race end under green, correct?
The bigger issue here is whether a race should end under a green flag no matter what. At most tracks this isn’t an issue, but restrictor-plate racing lends itself to multi-car wrecks nearly every time a GWC is attempted. In the interest of safety, NASCAR made the decision to limit the weekend to one attempt. That isn’t what angered fans so much as the fact that the rule was seemingly disregarded.
NASCAR wanted fans, following a race with no wrecks, a chance for some fireworks at the finish. And boy, were they rewarded.
FOUR: Will the Eliminator Eight Field Even be the Same After Today?
Let me set the stakes for you. NASCAR gifted drivers and fans with a second attempt at ending the race under green, if you will. The final two laps would determine who would and wouldn’t make the final eight spots in the Chase. Only Logano was safe. Earnhardt, in second place, had the car to beat and needed to win to move on.
Kevin Harvick was 10th, barely holding onto a transfer spot. The downside? His engine was on life support. Before the first GWC, Harvick stated that he couldn’t go any faster than pace car speed and moved out of the way when the race went green.
On the second attempt, Harvick waited until after Trevor Bayne passed him before attempting to jettison out of line. What happened next only Harvick knows for certain. Did he spin Bayne intentionally? Did he mistime a block on Kenseth and Bayne ended up being collateral damage? Too tough to call. What is certain is a multi-car wreck ended the race before it even really had a chance to begin again.
Radio traffic before the restart seems to indicate that crew chief Rodney Childers wouldn’t mind a caution ending the race early. Was it done intentionally?
NASCAR saw no wrongdoing on Sunday, with Mike Helton saying that “[W]e haven’t seen anything — so far — on the restart that is suspect. We believe that we have done everything procedurally correct so far and the [No.] 4 did nothing wrong.”
But if something “crawls out of the woodwork,” as Helton later said, in relation to the issue NASCAR would be forced to penalize the No. 4 heavily. Surely any points penalty would knock Harvick back behind the cut line, meaning Ryan Newman would make the Eliminator round.
NASCAR has done it before, knocking the No. 56 out of the 2013 Chase following the Clint Bowyer spin at Richmond, and they’ll do it again if they have to.
FIVE: Can Gordon Actually Get That Fifth Title?
Speaking of Newman, it looks as though one of this year’s final eight is taking a page out of his Chase playbook of super consistency.
Yes, Jeff Gordon, of four top fives and 17 top 10s, is still in the Chase despite not having won a race since Dover in the fall of last year. Gordon, who is going for his elusive fifth title, is only three races away from going into the final race of his career as a championship contender.
Gordon’s best track, Martinsville, is this week, so expect the future Hall of Famer to be stout. But if a victory eludes him, he can still make it to Homestead on consistency, not unlike how Newman did so last season.
Newman had finished of third, 15th and 11th last season during this three-race stretch, and Gordon’s finishes at the spring races at those tracks were ninth, seventh and ninth. Barring disaster and even a win, Gordon should make the final four based on his consistency. Peaking at the right time is an art, and Gordon’s got it down this season.