Who … should you be talking about after the race?
Kyle Larson can race on any kind of track in any kind of car (anyone else want to see him try his hand in the IndyCar Series?). Sunday (Aug. 8), he reminded everyone of that, making the tricky road course at Watkins Glen International look like nothing more than a Sunday drive in the NASCAR Cup Series. Larson led 27 laps on the way to his fifth win of 2021, which now gives him the edge over Denny Hamlin in points heading to Indianapolis.
And don’t forget: Chase Briscoe. Briscoe posted his third-highest finish (and third top 10) of 2021 on Sunday, coming home ninth. He started 27th on the day but ran a strong race throughout. Briscoe is a solid road racer, and the performance at Stewart-Haas Racing overall seems to be on the uptick.
What … is the buzz about?
Chase Elliott is the reigning road course king, but he had his work cut out for him after a pre-race penalty for multiple inspection failures saw him start shotgun on the field. Adding insult to injury, his team was assessed an L1 penalty for the rear window air deflector not conforming to NASCAR standards, costing Elliott his crew chief on race day as Alan Gustafson was ejected. The consequences also included the loss of 10 driver and owner points as the playoffs loom. Christopher Bell faced the same penalty pre-race.
However, Bell and Elliott both found ways to overcome their infractions, Bell through early pit strategy and Elliott through sheer speed. Elliott had the fastest car late, finishing second and cutting a 10-second deficit by more than half in the closing laps. Bell, despite spinning after a real estate battle with Larson, finished a strong sixth. These inspection woes could have been a momentum killer for either driver, but they overcame them… perseverance they will both need to draw on in the playoffs.
Where … did the other key players wind up?
Pole sitter Brad Keselowski led nine laps on the day, but most of the race was a struggle for the former champion. A late spin (more on that in a minute) was the icing on a cake that Keselowski didn’t want to eat on Sunday, as the driver finished 35th, three laps down. Heading to a new road course next week, Keselowski doesn’t have momentum on his side.
New Hampshire Motor Speedway winner Aric Almirola had a decidedly average performance, finishing 16th. Almirola isn’t going to be a title threat this year, but if Stewart-Haas Racing has just him and Kevin Harvick in contention, he’ll have a bit more resources thrown his way.
The most recent Watkins Glen winner not named Elliott, Martin Truex Jr., may not have had the finish he wanted, but overall, he had the kind of day his team needed. In the 10 races between his last win at Darlington Raceway and this weekend, Truex has been inconsistent and lackluster, with just three top-10 runs and five finishes of 18th or worse, leading just 23 laps in the same span. The ship righted somewhat Sunday, and while Truex finished third, he looked strong and confident on track. He led more laps than in those previous 10 races with 34 and grabbed a playoff point with his stage two win. It’s just the right time of the season to pick up the pace, so keep an eye on the No. 19.
Entering the race, Hamlin was the point leader. When the dust settled, despite finishing fifth, he sat second by virtue of a tiebreaker, which goes to Larson based on wins. That could put Hamlin’s playoff position in jeopardy with three races remaining. The possibility of Hamlin falling out is small – three other winless drivers would have to win the next three races – but it does now exist.
When … was the moment of truth?
Some days it’s just not your day, and Sunday was not Team Penske’s day. Ryan Blaney finished a team-high 14th while Keselowski’s luck went from bad to worse when he spun through the field and right into the side of Joey Logano. Neither driver was able to recover, and Logano finished 22nd to Keselowski’s 35th.
The Penske drivers all have wins and are all playoff bound in three weeks. But the trio of drivers has been plagued by inconsistency this summer. Keselowski has four top 10s in the last five races but hasn’t really been a threat to win. Logano, someone who thrives on consistency, has floundered in the same span, with two top 10s but three finishes of 15th or worse. Blaney has three top-six runs in the last five races but has been snake-bitten when it comes to winning.
Sure, summer slumps can dissolve when the playoffs start. Jimmie Johnson rarely ran well in the summer months en route to his seven titles. But it’s a bit worrisome that no Penske driver has won a race since Talladega Superspeedway in April. They’re running well but don’t look like a threat to win. Should anyone worry? While it’s not time for the panic button by any means, there is cause for concern when it comes to title hopes.
Why … should you be paying attention this week?
NASCAR heads to Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sunday, but it won’t be racing on the famed oval this year. Instead, teams will try their hand at Indy’s tough infield road course.
What’s that mean? Well, while it’s hard to go to any road course and not call Elliott or Truex the odds-on favorites, neither driver has raced on the Grand Prix course. Briscoe and Ross Chastain ran the Xfinity Series race there last year as did Austin Cindric and AJ Allmendinger who have each made Cup starts this year.
That could leave the race wide open. Tyler Reddick is looking for his first win and has been strong on road courses. Briscoe could be a dark horse after his strong showing at the Glen. Matt DiBenedetto and Chastain have been good on this track type and both need a Hail Mary to make the playoffs. A few Cup regulars might dabble in the NASCAR Xfinity Series race Saturday, but the track is an unknown. That could make it a wild card staring down the playoffs.
How … much does a 10-point penalty really mean, anyway?
While it might be a deal breaker for a team teetering on the edge of the playoffs, for those already locked in on wins, it doesn’t mean much at all. Both Elliott and Bell received a 10-point hit Sunday for an L1 penalty in prerace inspection, but both are assured of a playoff spot. That’s little incentive not to try everything they can to gain an edge for the title run. And while teams should be trying to push the envelope, there needs to be more incentive to do it within the rules.
Points taken for L1 or higher penalties should be applied like playoff points, taken at the start of the playoffs and at the start of each subsequent round the team qualifies for. For non-playoff teams, they can be subtracted at the end of the regular season in the same manner as any playoff points those teams earn.
That would be a real incentive for teams to present legal cars before the race. And while we’re at it, how about a Formula One-style penalty for failing inspection, where the team starts the race from pit road instead of just dropping to the back of the line. It’s a more significant hit than starting at the rear with a top-five car generally is.
If NASCAR wants teams to stay in line (and keeping them within the rules is the sort of parity the sport should want), it’s time to stop slapping wrists and get serious.
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