Brad Keselowski called his Southern 500 win the biggest of his career. Has the Labor Day throwback weekend become the second biggest race of the year?
Bryan Gable: Yes. The Southern 500 has always been a big deal to the drivers. In addition to Keselowski, we have seen veteran racers like Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards and Martin Truex Jr. earn their first Darlington wins in recent years, and it is evident from their celebrations and their post-race remarks how special it is to conquer the Lady in Black. Darlington is such a unique challenge and has played such a crucial role in helping NASCAR grow that it deserves to be honored as the season’s second biggest race.
Amy Henderson: To the drivers, it always was second only to the Daytona 500 on the bucket list. That only changed (temporarily) when NASCAR went to Indy, but 20+ years of NASCAR at Indy has shown that track isn’t a good one for a full-bodied stock car. I’m glad to see the Southern 500 getting back the prestige it has always deserved. It’s a hard race to finish, let alone win, and until NASCAR made one of the biggest mistakes it ever made and took the race away for several years, it was the longest-standing tradition in the sport. Welcome back, Lady in Black.
Vito Pugliese: It has been since the Daytona 500 displaced it in 1959, and was only briefly demoted during the early years of the Brickyard 400. Today, it’s as anticipated as any track on the schedule, with the return to its rightful place on Labor Day weekend and the throwback themes of recent years. Going to Indy after the 2008 tire debacle seems to have become a belabored affair, with the majority of seats left unoccupied, and only the Turn 1 grandstands packed to the gills. Maybe oppressive heat and humidity are tolerated better in South Carolina than Indiana? Last year’s Brickyard 400 was nothing short of Thunderdome with a pagoda and makes it must-see TV for me of course. That said, the Southern 500 has and always will be a crown jewel event.
Kyle Larson‘s dominance in Sunday’s race resulted in a top-five finish but not a victory. Did Larson’s run give Chevrolet the shot in the arm it needed ahead of the playoffs?
Gable: It would have been a bigger shot in the arm if Larson had won the race. The No. 42 team has been the fastest of the Chevys all year, but at some point, that speed needs to translate into wins. The success or failure of Chevrolet in 2018 hinges on playoff performance. Larson and Chase Elliott will continue to lead the way for the Bowtie Brigade, but they both need to show winning speed and the ability to close out races in order to truly compete for the championship.
Henderson: Chevy as a whole? Not even close. It has two cars running consistently in the top 10. Two… and just one win between those. Austin Dillon isn’t a good enough driver to contend for a title, while Jimmie Johnson and Alex Bowman don’t have the speed. That leaves Larson and Elliott, and they’re still a big step behind the Fords and Toyotas most weeks. At this point, I’d be surprised to see a Chevrolet still in it at Homestead.
Pugliese: Perhaps, but Larson has had the only Chevrolet able to drive to the front and lead all season long, outside of restrictor plate races. He had a competitive piece at Fontana this spring, and while it may not have done much besides prove that the Camaro isn’t a complete dog in its current configuration, Larson and the No. 42 team are starting to develop a reputation of not closing out races at tracks not named Michigan or Auto Club Speedway. The No. 9 team held that mantle until Elliott broke through at Watkins Glen. But if Larson and crew chief Chad Johnston are going to be championship contenders, they need to start racking up wins and not losing the race on the last pit stop or restart.
Kevin Harvick and Ross Chastain‘s run-in was the story that emerged from Saturday’s XFINITY race at Darlington. Who — if anyone — was at fault here?
Gable: The accident was just a product of hard racing. Harvick expected Chastain to stay tucked behind the lapped car. Chastain expected Harvick to back off as they exited Turn 2. Of course, neither of them did what the other expected, and tempers flared. I did not like seeing Chastain hook Harvick on the backstretch in front of other cars, and I definitely did not like Harvick bad-mouthing Chastain afterwards. But the accident itself was just that — an accident triggered by two drivers battling hard for the lead. That’s what we want to see, even if it goes wrong sometimes.
Henderson: The incident was just the product of hard racing for the win. Chastain shouldn’t have dumped Harvick. What was most uncalled for were Harvick’s comments on Chastain’s inexperience. They’re racing in a series where drivers are meant to get the experience they need to race in Cup. Chastain ran a great race and proved he can run with the top teams if he has equal equipment. If the Cup guys don’t want to race inexperienced drivers, they should stay out of the XFINITY Series. Pretty simple, really.
Pugliese: Harvick was at fault; what was more egregious was his reaction afterward as a guest in a lower-tier series. That wreck started halfway between Turns 1 and 2 when he aproned it and started to wash up into Chastain. Chastain wasn’t going to get boxed in behind a lap car and pinched him down as he should have. The car on the inside knows what’s going to happen at corner exit with a car laid upon the door, and he had every chance to breathe it and try again next corner. With 35 laps to go, that was not the time for a desperation move by a veteran driver. Chastain’s follow up reaction was measured and appropriate. While Harvick was in the wrong, that was a pretty impressive near-save he made after getting hooked hard on the backstretch.
With this weekend’s race at Indianapolis completing the regular season, who is one driver who most likely will miss the playoffs that you thought would be in by now?
Gable: I was expecting more from Daniel Suarez this year. Between 2015 and 2016, he raised his level of performance in the XFINITY Series significantly, culminating with winning a championship. I thought something similar would happen from his first to second season in the Cup Series. Not that Suarez would compete for the championship, but that he would challenge for more race wins and finish in the top 10 more often. It’s a shame that hasn’t happened, because Truex’s likely arrival at Joe Gibbs Racing next year may cost Suarez his seat in the No. 19 car. His playoff chances look bleak for this year, but Suarez has shown enough flashes to suggest that he could still be competitive at the Cup level. Hopefully, he has the opportunity to take a step forward in 2019.
Henderson: There isn’t anyone in real danger of missing the playoffs who really deserves to be there. There’s nobody outside the top 15 who’s better than those in it. Obviously, the surprise for having the worst performance is Johnson, but Bowman would have to beat him by about 20 spots and a driver not in the top 15 win the race for him to miss. Weirder things have happened, though. I am a bit surprised that Suarez isn’t closer to making it in, but being the fourth guy on a team that doesn’t really care that much about you will put a damper on a season.
Pugliese: Everyone who should be there, is already in. There is nothing about sitting 18th in points with no wins that remotely indicates being a champion of a top-tier series after seven months of competition. The only one that I might budge on is Ricky Stenhouse Jr., and that’s only because I thought he’d have won at Talladega or Daytona again this year as he did in 2017.