During NASCAR’s regular season, most teams are on more or less the same strategy of winning races and accumulating points in an attempt to qualify for the playoffs. Those strategies vary from week to week, of course, depending on the track, how good the cars are off the truck or whether they’ve already got the wins to fall back on. Smaller teams are working to improve year to year and winning might not be in the cards.
But with the playoffs underway, most teams will fall into one of several different categories. Some might work two or three of them depending on the week.
Here’s what to look for starting Saturday at Richmond.
1. Take it easy
For playoff teams easily inside the points cutoff, while a win would be nice, taking risks to get one may or may not be worth it. If the car isn’t quite good enough to win, settling for a good points finish is the name of the game.
That doesn’t mean they won’t go out and race for the best finish they can get, but you probably won’t see a lot of banzai moves for position, because without a win or a boatload of playoff points, a crash could end their run — and they know it.
There’s nothing wrong with this strategy. It might not be as exciting to fans as a wild battle for the win, but teams are weighing risk and reward very carefully right now, and moving on is everything.
2. Be a good teammate
Some drivers are in position to help a teammate in the playoffs, even though they’re not in themselves. Jimmie Johnson worked this angle at Las Vegas last weekend, trying setups that favored his three teammates in practice, very possibly at his own expense during the race. It can even extend to giving up a position late in a race to a playoff teammate. That’s certainly happened before (if you want to hear an unhappy driver on the radio, tell him to let a teammate by in the final laps). Others in the same boat are Daniel Suarez, Paul Menard (whose team has a technical alliance with Team Penske) and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
It could even happen for drivers like Martin Truex Jr. over the next couple of races in the round. Now that he is locked into the Round of 12, Truex may be asked to “assist” one of his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates on to the next round as well.
A win in the first or second race of a round does open this door to teams with all of their cars currently in the hunt.
3. Forget 2019
Teams outside the playoffs altogether aren’t really thinking about this year any more. Richard Childress Racing in particular comes to mind. With a driver change on the horizon, RCR is going to try to win races, but they’ll also be looking at the bigger picture and finding what they can build on for 2020 so they can make sure they’re not left out again. JTG Daugherty Racing, Germain Racing, Richard Petty Motorsports, Front Row Motorsports, Leavine Family Racing and the other small teams are in a place where it would be nice to win, but the focus shifts onto working on more than instant gratification.
Giving up a few good finishes now could mean a few more of them next year. Short term loss for long term gain, if you will. It also allows these teams to go as hard as they want to every week. Try a few changes and see what you have. If it works, then try to play the spoiler. If not, try something else. There’s nothing to lose, but so much to gain.
4. Checkers or wreckers
This isn’t a strategy many will employ; there’s just too much on the line. But each round of eliminations, like the final regular season race, will back some teams into a corner. The farther below the cutoff they are, the more they have to count on someone else having a bad day, when the only sure way to control their own destiny is to win. In the first round, Erik Jones, Clint Bowyer and Kurt Busch are in this position. Ryan Newman is close enough and with nobody else outside the cut to leapfrog, he can try to point his way through.
The others will have to do more, because not only is the points gap much bigger, they have to get around Newman and each other as well as someone inside the top 12. These drivers could be the ones creating the excitement in the next two weeks, because they won’t have another shot.
Also look for this one from Kyle Busch, who’s all but assured of moving through the rounds thanks to playoff points but hasn’t won lately and isn’t happy about that. There’s little risk for Busch, but lots of reward if he makes something happen.
5. The spoiler
Then there are the drivers outside the playoffs with a lot to prove. You can bet Johnson is going to go as hard as he can. He’s never been outside the top 16 and he’s not happy about it. He’ll be aggressive if he has a car capable of it, and while he’s not desperate like the drivers trying to escape elimination, he’s on a mission to prove he can still win.
Menard is retiring, but would like nothing more to go out with a top finish. Austin Dillon is winless this year and at a point in his career where racing his way past nepotism accusations is getting questionable. His teammate Daniel Hemric just learned he’s losing his ride to Tyler Reddick.
Matt DiBenedetto came tantalizingly close to winning at Bristol, and a win in the last nine races would certainly be a bit of vindication for the driver who Joe Gibbs Racing has now twice dismissed as not good enough.
Suarez has cars capable of an upset, and with speculation about his future ramping up, has something to prove.
The drawback for most of these drivers, other than Dillon and Hemric, is that while they and their teams want to show everyone what they can really do, they may be forced into the teammate strategy instead. If they’re let loose, though, they won’t care much about being the nice guy.