Is it better for the sport if the playoff drivers win the playoff races?
Luken Glover: Yes and no. I look at someone like Jimmie Johnson, who would set the racing world on fire if he were to win one of the last NASCAR Cup Series five races. However, playoff drivers winning playoff races have created great stories. Kurt Busch pulled a rabbit out of his hat at Las Vegas Motor Speedway to advance to the Round of 8 when he entered the race in the last playoff position. Joey Logano‘s win at Martinsville Speedway lined him up to pull off an upset of the Big 3 for the 2018 title. While there are great stories when a non-playoff driver wins a race, the playoff drivers dueling it out for the win creates some great drama.
Frank Velat: Better for the sport? Yes. The focus during the playoff races is almost exclusively on the playoff drivers. A driver who isn’t in championship contention winning definitely should pull some of that focus, but the problem is that they wouldn’t. The talk of the town would still be playoff drivers and points over/under the dreaded cutoff. Plus, it is a lot harder for an outsider to win at the end of the year. The last non-playoff driver to win one of the final 10 races of the season was Matt Kenseth at Phoenix Raceway in 2017. Not to mention, every champion under the current format won the last race of the year. These are the best teams, so it isn’t surprising when they rise up to claim the wins when they matter the most.
Amy Henderson: Absolutely not. There’s already too much emphasis put on the playoffs by the TV networks (winning is pretty much a non-playoff driver’s only hope of airtime), and the deeper we go into the rounds, the more likely that a playoff driver winning means one of the same drivers winning we’ve seen all year. Fans already worry about the sport being too predictable, and the playoff drivers winning all the playoff races just adds fuel to that fire. Plus, people love an underdog, so an outsider stealing the show sits well with fans in general. While a playoff driver on the bubble pulling one out of his hat is compelling (thanks, Busch!), a driver racing to remind us all they’re still here is just as great a storyline and gives fans someone different to cheer for.
Which Cup driver facing a must win situation this weekend is most likely to pull one off?
Mark Kristl: No one below the playoff cut line will win at the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL. But if there is one driver who can pull it off, it is Kyle Busch. He is a two-time Cup champion along with being the winningest Xfinity and Gander RV & Outdoors Truck series driver. He has endured a rough season, but with his talent, he can pull off an upset, which is incredible to believe given he is the reigning Cup champion.
Glover: Clint Bowyer stands out to me. He has a strong road racer with a win and 17 top 10s. In two Charlotte ROVAL starts, he has finished third and fourth, respectively. While Kyle Busch can point his way in still, I still take Bowyer in a must-win situation at the ROVAL. He will have to beat guys like Chase Elliott and Martin Truex Jr. to win, but out of the make-or-break guys, his stats are the most favorable.
Henderson: Definitely Bowyer. Not only is he a good road racer (as is Kyle Busch), but he’s been good at the Charlotte road course (and Kyle Busch has definitely not).
Velat: I’m gonna say Bowyer as well. Kyle Busch isn’t necessarily in a must-win situation. Plus, his luck has been so terrible that I don’t know if he can win at the ROVAL. Even if he were leading, someone would undoubtedly punt him off course or he’d break something bouncing over a curb. That’s just the way his year has gone. The ROVAL is always a bit chaotic, and Bowyer is one of those guys who could be close enough to the front to take advantage if something goes wrong for another competitor.
Where do you think Ty Dillon will be next season?
Glover: Ty Dillon has an interesting deck of cards on the table. The first ride that jumps out to me is Richard Petty Motorsports’ No. 43. This would make sense because RPM shares an alliance with Richard Childress Racing. There are still some drivers who have just as good of a chance to get that ride, though. The other Cup ride that could be an option is a ride at Spire Motorsports, which will field two cars in 2021. Guys like Erik Jones, Corey LaJoie, Justin Haley and Daniel Hemric are still on the market, however. This hinders Dillon’s chances at a good quality ride. He said he is open to a top Xfinity Series ride if he has to go there, and in the end, I think he ends up in the Xfinity Series for a year in a strong ride.
Henderson: Richard Childress does the same for RPM as he did with Germain Racing and offers better stuff in exchange for a seat for his younger grandson. If RPM defects to Toyota, Childress could offer a similar deal to another small team. In that case, it wouldn’t have to be a currently open seat (the last one wasn’t). If that doesn’t pan out, then Kaulig Racing or an RCR car in the Xfinity Series is a likely consolation prize. Dillon will land somewhere because he’s got equipment and support to offer up.
Velat: Dillon has a bit of unfinished business in the Xfinity Series. He only claimed one win and never really proved he belonged in Cup. However, since his last full-time season in the lower-level division, the limits on Cup drivers participation have changed, and he seems like one of those guys who could have a four- or five-win season without having to beat Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski every week. Look for him to land at Kaulig Racing or possibly back at RCR in the Xfinity Series.
Kristl: Dillon goes back to the Xfinity Series. Kaulig team owner Matt Kaulig self-sponsors the No. 11 with LeafFilter Gutter Protection. If Haley leaves the team as possibly rumored, Dillon could slide into the No. 11, an Xfinity playoff car, and contend for victories immediately.
Stewart Friesen is skipping the next Truck race to chase a $50,000-to-win dirt event. What do you make of this? Does it say anything about NASCAR?
Velat: It’s says that NASCAR needs to reconsider how it distributes money. The Cup Series gets the lion’s share of the pot, and rightfully so. But there has got to be a bit more balance. You can’t give Cup 40% while throwing less than 5% to the Truck racers. Very seldom will the prize money at the lower levels even cover the cost of tires for the weekend. That’s ridiculous when you consider the expenses that the teams have to cover; travel, lodging, personnel and tires all cost money, and that’s just two days out of the week. There’s plenty to buy during the other five days as well. Who could blame an owner/driver for chasing a big payday somewhere else?
Kristl: While purses are not public information, it is an insight to the paltry amount of the Truck purse. Stewart Friesen likely will be competing for more money in that dirt event than the Truck race at Kansas Speedway. It has been a rumored issue for the Truck Series, but this is confirmation.
Glover: Because Friesen is a co-owner of his team and is out of the playoffs, he gets a little more slack for this. However, I am sure there are concerns within NASCAR about guys skipping races now to go run dirt. Kyle Larson has shared his opinions about how much fun he has on dirt. Despite his health issues, Kasey Kahne had no problem with settling in the dirt world once again. Many drivers with dirt roots seem to have more fun on dirt, but they earn a lot more money in NASCAR. NASCAR probably has examined these thoughts in the past, and if it continues I would expect it to get more involved in the situation.
Henderson: I wouldn’t make too much of this. Remember, when Friesen made the commitment, there was no Truck race on that date; it’s not like he ditched a playoff race for a dirt race at a time when he didn’t know if he’d make the playoffs. He committed to that race thinking it was an off-week. And you know what? Good for him for sticking to his word. Race payouts aside (and that was likely a big motivator), there’s a certain integrity in keeping a commitment.