Who… gets my shoutout of the race?
If you filled out a playoff bracket, raise your hand if you had Austin Dillon clearing the Round of 16. Yeah, you’re making that up, put your hand down.
While he’s a long way from being a title contender, Dillon did everything he needed to do Saturday night. In nine previous races at Richmond, Dillon had a best finish of 13th. His average finish is a measly 19.3. But Saturday night, Dillon ran a clean, steady race to finish sixth. He didn’t lead a lap, but he scored a couple of stage points, and that follows up an 11th-place run at Las Vegas, his second-best ever finish there. The bonus points from winning Daytona have also contributed.
Dillon is tied with Chase Elliott for ninth, but Elliott has the tiebreaker of second-place finishes. While the cushion is just six points over 13th-place Clint Bowyer, he’s doing far better in the title run than expected, and by all counts in a slower car than a lot of his competition.
He probably won’t still be standing at Homestead, but can he top his career-best 11th-place points finish? If he survives Charlotte, it’s definitely a realistic ambition.
What… is the takeaway from this race?
Looking at the bottom four in points after Richmond, it’s easy to point at any of them with negativity.
Bowyer hasn’t won since June and has been fairly inconsistent since. Jimmie Johnson is having, by his standards, an absolutely abysmal year. Erik Jones has a win but it’s a restrictor-plate win and he hasn’t really contented elsewhere. Denny Hamlin is a head case and digs himself a little deeper hole each week.
And really, there’s some truth there. None would be in that position if they were running better, after all.
After two races, unless one of them pulls a stellar Charlotte race out of a hat, truly, they’re the most deserving of elimination. And maybe that’s not a bad thing. Not from a title standpoint, but actually not a bad thing for them.
No, really, stick with me here.
With the possible exception of Hamlin, elimination from the playoffs might not be as harmful as it looks. Why? It gives these drivers, who are already among the title contenders this year though clearly not able to contend with them, seven races to prepare for next year while the others have to focus on right now.
Bowyer has improved by leaps and bounds over last year. Perhaps the rest of the fall utilizing information from his teammates can make him even stronger out of the gate next year. He can afford to experiment; his teammates can’t. Johnson has been at his strongest in the last couple of weeks, better than he has been in months. If he’s got speed, he’s the favorite at Dover, still in the playoffs or not. A little momentum for Johnson can be a dangerous thing for others, and if he can find it, and carry it into next year, he’s still dangerous. Jones is young and has years to get where he wants to be. He can learn how to work the playoffs without pressure.
Hamlin is the one possible outlier because he’s historically struggled to pick himself up after a difficult stretch, but given the fall to work on his game? Who knows what that could do for him. All in all, while it’s easy to argue that these four should be eliminated barring a Charlotte miracle, it’s also certainly arguable that it’s not the end of the world. And it could be the beginning of a much stronger 2019 season.
Where… did Kyle Busch come from?
Busch may have started last after a penalty, but he’s the best driver on the track at Richmond these days, and he had a good enough car to make quick work of most of the field. Did he have the best car at the end? No. Brad Keselowski had a better car on the short run after the final restart, and Kevin Harvick’s No. 4 had an advantage on the long one. What Busch had was the lead at the right time.
He got past Keselowski’s fading tires with enough laps to run away from Harvick and not have to deal with him at the end. Had he taken longer to get to the lead – and racing Keselowski as hard as he did pose a risk of wearing out his own equipment as well as Keselowski’s – Harvick would almost certainly have gotten to his bumper in the closing laps. Like Busch himself, Harvick has no qualms about using his own bumper to move another car out of the way. He may not have had the fastest car, but Busch certainly had perfect timing.
When… was the moment of truth?
After a year of one day and one night race, Richmond returned both races to the nighttime, citing fan demand. That’s a little puzzling because the racing Saturday night was good, but not great. The 1.5-mile track in Las Vegas produced some racing that was every bit as exciting as some of what we saw Saturday night. Really, when it boils down to it, night racing isn’t better at Richmond (or anywhere).
Sure, Bristol can pull it off, though the comparison is a day race in much colder temperatures that don’t heat up the track the way a summer date does. But get any longer than half a mile, and a hot, slick daytime track has a better chance at the kind of racing that fans claim to want to see.
Is the proliferation of night racing in recent years part of the reason the racing isn’t what it used to be? Probably. Cars look flashy in the shiny lights, but time and again, the racing disappoints. Charlotte held both races at night for more than a decade, but when rain forced the fall race to daytime last year? Presto, one of the best Charlotte races in recent memory. Atlanta has good racing on its old pavement in early spring, so imagine what it might look like two months later. The Southern 500 in the heat of the day? Yes, please.
A couple of times a year, it’s fun to see racing under the lights with its pretty cars, but don’t expect better competition. In general, night racing is a myth that it’s high time to bust.
Why… didn’t Brad Keselowski, who won the last three in a row, pull it off?
Keselowski had a great car again this week, and he’s cemented himself as a legit championship contender. He led five times Saturday night for a total of 67 laps, and he and Kyle Busch put on quite a show racing for the lead as the laps wound down. When Jeffrey Earnhardt’s blown tire caused a caution that set up the field for what would be the final restart, Busch and Keselowski went door to door for the top spot.
The only problem for Keselowski was that Busch had the faster car in the end and trying to keep him in the rear view cost the No. 2 a few finishing positions. Keselowski burned up his tires racing Busch for the lead and didn’t have much left for the rest of the top 10 afterward, falling to ninth by the time the checkers fell. It’s still a great result for a surging team, and Busch and the other season-long title favorites better be keeping an eye on him as the playoffs progress. Even after his Richmond setback, he looks like the most likely driver to take the Big Three to task at Homestead.
How… likely is it that anyone can gain ground in the playoffs at Charlotte?
Normally, the answer would be a resounding “not very,” but this time around there is no clear favorite heading to the home track and there’s no old familiar 1.5-mile oval for teams to settle in on. Instead, there’s Charlotte’s daunting infield road course. Testing at the track produced a lot of carnage and not a lot of comfort. With just 15 points separating eighth place from 13th in points, nobody should feel safe. Even the top drivers should be eyeing Charlotte with a bit of apprehension; a bad finish can be a momentum killer as the playoffs march on.
“I’m terrified of next week,” Kevin Harvick said after finishing second at Richmond.
Harvick has a 57-point cushion over the cut line, and all he has to do is take the green flag this weekend to clinch a spot in the second round. He could slip into a much deeper hole with a bad run in Charlotte after a crash in Las Vegas, however, as we saw this week, it’s hard to dig out.
If Harvick’s worried, the drivers closer to the line should be shaking in their boots. Only the drivers below that line are eyeing the race as an opportunity. For the rest, it’s a gauntlet they have to run to move on. With the exceptions of Kyle Busch, Keselowski and Martin Truex Jr., whose positions in the next round are secured, nobody’s taking the ROVAL for granted.
Is that good for the sport? Good question. While it’s exciting to see teams have to battle it out with nothing guaranteed to anyone, it’s a bit like having Talladega as a cut-off race. There’s too much chance of the race being taken out of a driver’s hands by someone else’s mistake. If a deserving driver, like Harvick, misses the next round, that’s not a great look to a lot of fans who already don’t like a playoff format that can see the best drivers wiped out of contention with no chance to recover.