1. Does Being Regular Season Champion Mean Anything?
It’s not too shabby when you can nab two trophies for one day’s work.
Kevin Harvick did that Sunday at Dover — albeit after also putting in a full shift on Saturday in the first half of the Cup Series doubleheader — when he took the checkered flag in the second Drydene 311. Harvick got his trophy for the race win, of course, but also secured some additional silverware for clinching the 2020 regular season championship.
The cynical way of looking at that honor is sort of the same way many people view winning stage two of a race: It’s great that you’re in front at the moment, but all that really matters is who is leading at the finish. Despite NASCAR’s efforts to turn it into a thing, no one remembers who the regular season champion is during the playoff era, and in fact I had to look up who won each one despite the history of the award going back just three years.
You actually do get something to help toward the honest to goodness championship for winning its regular season counterpart in the form of 15 playoff points, which is enough to seriously boost your odds of making the Championship 4. The thing is, Harvick was already in fantastic shape on that front anyway thanks to seven wins and seven stage wins, so his bonus was the racing equivalent of the rich getting richer. Under the current format, those aren’t going to help him if his engine blows up on the fourth lap at Phoenix.
But even though math-minded types would laugh hysterically due to the super-small sample size, so far claiming the regular season championship has given the winner about a 67% chance of winning the whole thing. Martin Truex Jr. did it in 2017 and Kyle Busch last season. The 2018 campaign was the outlier, with Rowdy also getting a trophy after 26 races but Joey Logano celebrating after the playoffs.
So while no one is suggesting Harvick has things wrapped up, it’s definitely better to be regular season champion than not. That counts for something.
2. Maybe 5 Races in Less Than 36 Hours Isn’t the Best Idea
Speaking from a fan’s perspective, the schedule that just played out at Dover International Speedway this past weekend would have been amazing in a non-COVID world. Five races over three days with two chances to see the Cup Series drivers do their thing? My son would begging me to buy tickets for that.
Alas, no fans were in the stands at Dover, and there are signs that all that racing packed into one weekend is potentially too much of a good thing. TV ratings for doubleheader weekends have not been strong, possibly because people figure if they miss the first race, they can just tune in the next day. At the Monster Mile, though, something besides attention spans showed signs of weakness, and it was the racing surface itself.
On its own, the delay to patch the asphalt at Dover was not a huge deal. Lightning has messed up schedules a lot more often, for a lot longer, in 2020.
Yet it’s fair to wonder if having stock cars (and trucks) rumble around so often in such a short period of time is more wear and tear than a track should be expected to bear. Materials engineers, here’s your time to shine: Please weigh in and let us know whether double-doubleheaders are tearing things up a bit too literally.
3. Shouldn’t Races End Under Green Whenever Humanly Possible?
The IndyCar drivers handled the way this year’s Indy 500 ended a lot better than many fans did. “The rules are the rules,” seemed to be the most common refrain from the racers, so while disappointed that the 104th running of the most famous open-wheel race in North America effectively finished when the yellow flag flew with five laps to go, they weren’t angry.
For those of accustomed to NASCAR Overtime, it just didn’t sit right. Why deprive everyone from a race to the checkers, especially when short duels for a win are among the most exciting in motorsports? This isn’t a criticism of IndyCar, but simply an acknowledgement of something that seems obvious but needs to be restated in situations like this: If a race can end under green, it should.
Weather or serious injury are mitigating factors that would call for exceptions. Any other time, the worst that happens is some drivers run out of fuel or a few other cars get torn up in incidents during the extra laps. Prices to be paid, sure, but worth it in the overall scheme of things.
The truth is that we stock car fans are spoiled. NASCAR gets so much flak for rules changes people don’t like that it doesn’t get enough credit when it makes a positive change. The overtime rules as they stand now mean a vast majority of races end under green, and as the Indy 500 just reminded us, that’s a good thing.
4. Who’s the Best Bet to Crash the Playoff Party (and Make William Byron and Jimmie Johnson Sad)?
A lot has been made about the exciting battle for the final playoff spot up for grabs at Daytona next week (technically two spots, but only one is right there for the taking) and all the storylines that naturally spin out of it. Will Jimmie Johnson squeak into the playoffs for one last hurrah, or will his younger teammate William Byron hang on? Might Chad Knaus pull off some high IQ call that gets his current driver into the postseason at the expense of the man he helped win so many championships?
It’s juicy alright, the kind of scenario the playoffs promise in theory and have rarely delivered to date.
It also can easily be spoiled, and quite possibly by a rookie.
The worst case scenario for the Hendrick Motorsports gang is a victory by a driver outside the top 16 but inside the top 30, and a quick glance through the candidates suggests Tyler Reddick could be the man to rain on their parade. Why? Well, he’s won at Daytona in the Xfinity Series, and RCR has had some success there in the Cup Series in the not too distant past with Austin Dillon winning the 2018 Daytona 500.
Reddick’s superspeedway results so far this year have not been stellar, with a 28th at Daytona and a 20th at Talladega. He’s also faded a bit in terms of raw speed during the summer, with zero top-five results in his last five races after pulling off four in five events between Indianapolis and New Hampshire.
But even though the numbers don’t back it up, there’s just a feeling about the No. 8 car that makes it appear to be a threat to upset the playoff apple cart. We’ll see if that’s the case in less than a week.
5. It’s Worth Mentioning Again That Daytona is the Playoff Decider
It’s 100% unfair to have a superspeedway race decide the final spots in the playoffs, given everything that’s out of one’s control at Daytona or Talladega. With so much at stake, it’s asking a lot to put the teams through the high stress and undeniable randomness that always lurk on the big banks.
Fairness and entertainment value, however, are two different things. Here’s hoping that everyone stays safe and that there are no shortage of talking points a week from now. Because there definitely should be.