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(Photo: Chris Jones)

5 Points to Ponder: Chasing Glory

ONE: Chasing the Playoffs

Just three races remain before we begin the 2018 iteration of the playoffs and it’s an excellent trio of tracks to close us out before the serious business of the post-season begins. First up, we head to NASCAR’s coliseum, or Thunder Valley if you prefer, and Bristol Motor Speedway. Then, after the final off-week of the year, it’s the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, always my favorite race of the year, before we finish up the regular season at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. This is a later date than usual for the Brickyard and the first time the fabled track has been the site of the cut off race.

It’s certainly an interesting stretch of racing heading into the playoffs and it gives those on the outside of the playoff picture a few more chances to grab a berth. Let’s not forget, Kasey Kahne’s victory at the Brickyard in 2017 which secured him a spot and Bristol is certainly a track at which an unexpected name could take the victory. Darlington’s a little more of a wild card widely described as a venue where you race the track as much as you do the competition, so it’s hard to look outside the usual suspects here.

All that being said, with three races to go, there’s everything still to play for, even those on the outside looking in. Expect the risky gambles and strategy moves to be at the forefront in the next few weeks. And who knows, maybe there will be another unexpected winner before the playoffs get underway.

TWO: Austin Dillon’s Best Finish Since the 500

There is a body of thinking that suggests winning the Daytona 500 can be something of a harbinger of doom for the rest of your season, and Austin Dillon’s form this year perhaps indicates that there is some validity to this line of thinking. But this past weekend, Dillon had a much better week, finishing fourth and in doing so securing his second-best finish of the season and just his second top five in 23 races.

“Man! We had a fast car, I got to battle there with [Kevin] Harvick, that’s awesome,” said Dillon, “I’m just so proud of the guys for having a car capable of doing that.”

And was it not for a final laps vibration, Dillon could have finished as high as second. Still, given how badly these sorts of issues can end up, fourth place wasn’t a bad run.

“It’s great momentum for the team,” noted Dillon. “Pit crew was amazing all day. It just feels good. We have this capability when we put our best days together. We have a great opportunity this year being in the playoffs.”

The question is how far will that opportunity take Dillon? Making the top eight would represent a solid finish. It will be interesting to see if he can do that and even go one step further. In 2014, Ryan Newman made it all the way to the Championship 4. Could Dillon repeat the efforts of his fellow Richard Childress Racing colleague? We’ll have to wait and see.

THREE: Next Up: Bristol Motor Speedway

Next up we head to the high banked half-mile Bristol Motor Speedway. This will be Cup race number 116 at Thunder Valley, a streak that runs all the way back to 1961. The last time we visited this season, it was Kyle Busch who took the checkered flag just as he did in the fall 2017 race. Amongst active drivers, Kyle has the most wins with seven with older brother Kurt Busch a shade behind with five wins. Veteran Matt Kenseth has four wins while Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson and Joey Logano all have a pair of wins.

Somewhat surprisingly, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has the best average finish (11 races total) of 10.2 ahead of Kevin Harvick in second (13.3 average finish). Matt Kenseth also leads the way with the most top-5’s (15) and also top-10’s (22). Kyle Busch, meanwhile, dominates the laps led category (2233) a whopping 650 more than the next closest in Matt Kenseth (1583 laps led).

One driver worth watching might just be Bubba Wallace who led six laps in the spring race, driving past Keselowski to put the No. 43 car into the lead. Could he be the next driver to pick up a maiden victory just as Chase Elliott did at Watkins Glen International? As always, there’s only one way to find out.

FOUR: Four to go for IndyCar

Just four races remain on the 17-race 2018 IndyCar schedule and we’re back underway this weekend after two weeks off. This will be the sixth straight year of racing at Pocono Raceway. Australian Team Penske driver Will Power has won the past two visits to the lightning face two-and-a-half-mile triangular track with Scott Dixon (2013), Juan Pablo Montoya (2014) and Ryan Hunter-Reay (2015) the other winners.

Dixon holds a fairly healthy 46-point lead in the overall standings from Alexander Rossi with 2017 Champion Josef Newgarden sitting third (-60) and Will Power a distant fourth (-87).

All three of the chasing drivers need a poor week from Dixon who has won three of the past seven races to vault himself into the championship lead chasing what would be a record fifth open wheel title. All told, IndyCar has been great to watch this year. Just four races remain if you’ve not yet got involved.

FIVE: Father to Son

And finally, this week, how cool was it to see Harvick’s son Keelan pick up the checkered flag at Michigan and drive with his dad into Victory Lane?

Apparently, they had been planning this for a while, so what a moment it was for them both. Just for one hot minute, I thought the NASCAR official was going to stop Harvick doing it but in the end, it all worked out just fine and the Harvicks now have a brilliant memory that won’t soon ever be forgotten. And for a sport built on familial values and passing the torch from father to son, this was just another reminder of the importance of family.

Now the only question left is how does Kevin Harvick go one better for Keelan? Should be fun to watch.

About Danny Peters

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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