Did You Notice? … The focus on the NASCAR championship has made non-playoff teams more irrelevant than ever? Over 15 years into the concept of a postseason and six years into the current format, drivers failing to make the playoffs are struggling to gain any momentum once the final 10 races begin.
We saw this development in full force this past weekend at ISM Raceway. The 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series semifinal saw its eight remaining playoff drivers running 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8 during much of the race’s first half. Chase Elliott’s wreck eliminated him, shuffling the field a bit, but the remaining contenders stayed near the front. The top six finishers at the finish were playoff drivers with Joey Logano ninth, the most top-10 finishers at ISM under this current format. They combined to lead 305 of 312 laps, with only Kurt Busch and Brad Keselowski briefly breaking through using pit strategy.
In the end, Denny Hamlin’s victory was the 39th for playoff drivers in the last 40 postseason races (The lone exception: Matt Kenseth’s final career win in November 2017 at ISM Raceway). The season finale should be no different: a Championship 4 participant has won both the race and the title every year since 2014.
To some degree, having the cream rise to the top during the playoffs makes sense: there’s a reason these drivers have qualified in the first place. You shouldn’t expect them to run 20th every week. And yet … you can tell how a top-down approach in an era of multi-car teams has affected the sport. The second teams are eliminated, they’re left for dead as the focus turns toward championship-level programs. Teams switch around their best crew members, maximizing advantages while non-playoff teams are forced to defer. You run into situations like last November, when pole sitter Hamlin was forced to give up his pit stall at Homestead-Miami Speedway to teammate Kyle Busch.
This scenario creates a situation where sometimes it feels like the other 30 or so drivers are just obstacles on track for the title contenders. Their success is not to be discussed or celebrated when the championship is where the money is. It’s a business level focus that creates a Formula 1 style stagnancy at the front of the field.
It creates a tough situation for NBC, who some have criticized for limiting coverage to playoff contenders. But when no driver is running toe-to-toe with the postseason field, what do you do? Drivers are fully conscious of racing around them, fearful of one false move that costs someone a title shot. Conservative racing produces less-than-ideal results. Through nine races, 80 percent of top-five finishes (36 of 45) have been earned by drivers currently in the playoffs. Just one (Michael McDowell at Talladega Superspeedway and Daniel Suarez at Texas Motor Speedway) were earned by someone outside the original top 16.
Looking ahead, Homestead is poised to produce plenty of storylines besides the 2019 Cup title. Retirements, while not as high-profile as past years, include Paul Menard and David Ragan. Daniel Hemric and Ryan Preece are separated by 10 points in the battle for Rookie of the Year. No Hendrick Motorsports driver is higher than ninth in the standings; that would be their worst performance since 2000.
Let’s hope everyone takes a moment and recognizes they’re happening. The championship is the new everything in NASCAR these days, but when you keep all competitors on the racetrack, it’s not the only thing.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off….
- So nice to see The Money Team Racing on the entry list, right? You might remember this team cooking up a storm late last month when people discovered boxer Floyd Mayweather had a website and Twitter centered around a new Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series team. There was just one problem: no tweets and a website that switched to “more info coming soon” the second people started reporting on it. Now, they’re not at Homestead-Miami Speedway, no plans have been announced for 2020 and another celebrity who looks like they want to get involved in the sport instead reminds us how difficult it’s been for new ownership to get involved.
- The most competitive title race this weekend may be in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. The Big 3 there of Christopher Bell, Tyler Reddick and Cole Custer have dominated the season but I’m keeping my eye on the fourth driver: Justin Allgaier. Earning his first win of the season last week at ISM Raceway, the No. 7 Chevrolet team is peaking at the right time and enters HMS with nothing to lose. It’s a position similar to Joey Logano last year in the Cup Series, and we know how that one turned out.
- Some nostalgia this weekend as HMS hosts the championship for the final time. We see this track move to a March date in 2020 and … then what? This track has produced some competitive racing in recent years, and 2019 should be no different with the new handling package. But you wonder what the support will be down in the Miami market the second it’s pulled from championship week.
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