Who… should you be talking about after the race?
A lot of the talk going into this Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway’s ROVAL was about road course aces Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch. It’s a duo who, with four wins apiece on road courses, certainly have earned their reputation. But with his third career road course win and second of 2019, Chase Elliott entered their top-tier conversation by the end of Sunday (Sept. 29). After suffering damage midway through the 2019 Bank of America ROVAL 400, flat out missing turn 1, Elliott made his way back to the front with strong, aggressive moves. He created passing zones where others simply couldn’t take advantage.
Elliott muscled his way to the front on the final restart and, from there, it was smooth sailing for the Dawsonville, Ga. native. He’ll carry six extra playoff points along with him to the second round and he’s about as good as it gets at Dover International Speedway with a 4.4 average finish. Expect him to be a title contender.
With the playoffs underway and gathering most of the talk these days, let’s focus on the top non-playoff driver in this space. At the ROVAL, that was Jimmie Johnson, who had a solid weekend. He topped the charts in first practice, qualifying fourth and finishing ninth despite suffering damage from a chain-reaction crash early. Johnson said after the race he felt as though he had a top-five car before the incident, entering the final stretch of the season with confidence under new crew chief Cliff Daniels.
What… is the takeaway from this race?
A few things here this week. One, the addition of the infield road course at Charlotte to the schedule and playoffs was one of the best decisions NASCAR has made lately. Credit also goes to the track for making a massive renovation with no guarantee of a major race going forward. Yes, it’s hard, and yes, there were a lot of mistakes. But at this level, it should be hard. Races should be a huge test of driver and machine, and this race was that.
But NASCAR needs to be consistent with its use of the caution flag. On some incidents, it came out quickly and often proved unnecessary. On others, it took a long time for a decision to be made. The late red flag also should have happened a couple of laps sooner. At times, it seemed as though the yellow was waved on a minor incident to create a restart situation. Even if that’s not the case, it shouldn’t be a question on the minds of fans. Races should play out naturally, and while this one did much of the time, there was plenty of room for improvement.
Finally, NASCAR needs more drivers like Corey Lajoie. Lajoie, under cover of darkness, painted a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle on one of the pieces of curbing nicknamed “turtles” on the frontstretch chicane. And then? He signed his work. This behavior is a side of drivers fans need to see more of. It was fun. And racing should be, above all, fun.
Everybody rest easy. There is now a Ninja Turtle. Top secret mission “Kowabunga” is affirmative. pic.twitter.com/729Ek7zgpD
— Corey LaJoie (@CoreyLaJoie) September 29, 2019
Where… were the other key players at the end?
Pole sitter William Byron was flirting with the cutline entering the race, but he sealed his own destiny Sunday, leading 23 laps and winning the first stage before finishing a solid sixth. He moves on in the playoffs, continuing a marked improvement this season under the tutelage of crew chief Chad Knaus.
Defending race winner Ryan Blaney suffered a mechanical problem early, but the No. 12 team was able to make repairs under caution without losing a lap. Blaney rebounded to finish eighth and earned a playoff pass through as well.
Regular-season champion Kyle Busch did not have the best start to his weekend, qualifying 17th. But a flat tire sealed the deal, leaving him three laps down by the end of the day. Ultimately, Busch retired three laps early once he couldn’t gain any positions, getting a jump on postrace traffic.
Truex, who won the two NASCAR playoff races prior to this week, looked like he might have a third win and a first-round playoff sweep in the bag given his road course prowess and eighth-place qualifying effort. Even after missing the backstretch chicane twice early and having to serve a stop-and-go penalty, Truex was able to work his way to the front. He was running second on the final restart, but worn tires and hard-charging drivers whose playoff fate was not yet sealed bumped him back to seventh at the finish.
When… was the moment of truth?
Playoff eliminations came down after the race, and the championship hunt is over for four: Ryan Newman, Aric Almirola, Kurt Busch and Erik Jones. Jones’ day ended early with heavy crash damage to the No. 20. Jones was rock-solid in the summer heading into the playoffs, but finishes of 36th, 38th and 40th saw him score just four points in the first round. A Richmond Raceway disqualification last weekend all but ended his hopes to advance in the postseason.
Busch realistically needed a win but never had the car to contend once he got damaged in a couple of incidents, finishing 20th. Almirola made a late charge to 14th, but it wasn’t enough to gain the points he needed. Newman held the last transfer spot in the final few laps but missed the backstretch chicane trying to ward off Almirola. His penalty from that mistake sealed the deal.
Note that had Almirola passed Newman, the spot would have been lost on a tiebreaker to Alex Bowman anyway. That meant Newman had nothing to lose in trying to make the move. The veteran finished 32nd after serving a pass-through penalty.
Why… should you be paying attention this week?
The playoff reset comes heading into Dover, a one-mile concrete oval. Elliott has posted some impressive numbers there in a short time. Through seven Cup starts, Elliott has one win and six top-five performances to go with a 4.4 average finish. Teammate Johnson may not be in the playoffs, but he’s the all-time wins leader at Dover with 11 victories and an eye-popping 31.4 win percentage. His No. 48 cars have also had speed in recent weeks. Could this weekend be Johnson’s coming home party? Will Elliott make himself a title favorite with a second straight win? Will someone else emerge as a spoiler or championship favorite?
Dover is important to the playoff contenders for another reason: Talladega. The biggest wild card of them all comes the following week, and a win at Dover is the only sure way to make it through to the next round. Wins are always a hot commodity, but this week’s trophy holds extra importance for the 12 would-be champions remaining.
How… come everyone is in such a hurry to rush drivers to the top?
One thing Saturday’s Xfinity Series race made clear is Christopher Bell is ready for his move to NASCAR’s top series. Bell will be 25 years old when he starts his rookie Cup campaign. But that’s a good bit older than many other young drivers entering the series these days. 2018 Rookie of the Year Byron was just 20. Jones won ROTY honors at 22, and Elliott earned them at 20. All have been fairly successful, but there’s a risk involved as well. Many drivers who come up too young don’t make it.
The problem is, drivers are coming into the development series so young they have two or three years of experience at age 20. But is that enough? It used to be commonplace for drivers to move to Cup in their late 20s. Johnson was age 26 his rookie year. It would be easy to say he’d have won more races if he’d come up sooner, but what if he had come up five years ago and hadn’t won early and often? Would he have ever had the chance to rack up 83 series wins? Or would he have been shuffled out, labeled as damaged goods and never raced for a top team?
There are plenty of drivers who might have had a far different story had they been brought along more slowly. Casey Atwood is the classic example but Reed Sorenson has a similar trajectory. It very nearly happened to Joey Logano at Joe Gibbs Racing before he escaped to Team Penske.
The more experience a driver has, the better his chances of success in Cup. It’s certainly easy for drivers, manufacturers and teams to get impatient, but there should be no hurry. 19-year-olds should not be cast aside because they’re not winning against grizzled veterans.