1. Richard Childress Racing didn’t capitalize on NASCAR Cup Series playoff opportunity
RCR didn’t come out of Michigan International Speedway very well. Austin Dillon had arguably the best car he’s had all season and looked to be a contender for the win if he stayed on track. Unfortunately, his day ended right after taking the green-and-white checkered flag to finish stage two.
Dillon beat Brad Keselowski to the line and appeared to come up from the apron just as the No. 2 came down. In that split second, the No. 3 got spun around and nearly flipped over after hitting the outside wall. Thankfully, Dillon appeared to be OK after the scary incident, but it left me wondering a few things. Why were they still racing after they crossed the line, and why did Dillon come up from the bottom when he knew he had a potentially race-winning car? Did his spotter clear him to move up? If you recall, Dillon didn’t listen to his spotter earlier in the race while battling for the lead.
But wondering about these things doesn’t change the fact that Dillon is still 25 points behind the cut line. His teammate, Tyler Reddick, didn’t fare very well either; Reddick needed to finish in the top 15 in order to earn a good amount of points. Instead, Reddick attempted to pass cars but got loose and fell backward. His crew reminded him that points were important here on the following restart. However, something happened on the next green flag; it looked like the No. 8 suffered a flat tire and he slowed down onto the apron. Instead of trying to go again, he spun around. NASCAR decided to keep the race green, as he returned to the apron and down pit road. Reddick ended up 29th, missing an opportunity to secure valuable points in the standings. Now both drivers have to be aggressive at the end of the night and earn as many stage points as they can at the volatile Daytona International Speedway.
2. Who will win the regular season championship?
It all comes down to Daytona. Denny Hamlin is 28 points behind Kyle Larson after leading for much of the season. Hamlin has one thing going for him, though — a better track record. He has three Daytona 500 victories and has earned a top five in each of the past three Daytona races. He has 11 top fives and 12 top 10s in 31 starts, whereas Larson has five top-10 finishes in 14 starts. Larson did earn a 10th place in both the 2020 and 2021 Daytona 500, though, so he hasn’t been terrible.
However, anything can happen at this 2.5-mile track, as we saw at the beginning of this season with Michael McDowell. Last year William Byron nabbed a playoff spot with his Coke Zero Sugar 400 victory, his first Cup win at that. And in 2019, Justin Haley scored a surprise win when those in front of him pitted just before the red flag came out for weather. If these drivers can earn victories at Daytona, so could Larson, leaving Hamlin behind in the playoffs. But all Larson needs is enough points to stay ahead of Hamlin by the end of the night.
But does winning the regular season championship really matter in drivers’ quests for the main title? It certainly helps them get to Phoenix Raceway, but last year Kevin Harvick, who dominated with nine victories, didn’t make it into the Championship 4.
This playoff season will be fun to watch.
3. Who is the Xfinity Series championship favorite?
Austin Cindric looked strong at Michigan last week until a wreck started happening in front of him that he couldn’t avoid. But before that, AJ Allmendinger also looked fast early on. Both drivers appear to be championship favorites this season, as Cindric has five victories and Allmendinger has three. Both are good at road courses, ovals and even superspeedways, so they’re all likely to be in the Championship 4 at Phoenix.
However, as we’ve seen before, it only takes two bad weeks to leave a driver desperate for a victory in the third race of a round. Such was the case in Cup last year when Harvick tried a last-minute move to make the final round. Instead, the regular season champion was on the outside looking in.
Plus there are other drivers who are also hungry for wins and the championship, drivers such as Noah Gragson, Daniel Hemric, Harrison Burton and Justin Allgaier. Allgaier should never be counted out, as his JR Motorsports team can sometimes sneak in a win unexpectedly. In fact, he’s already won twice this season at Atlanta Motor Speedway and Darlington Raceway. He took the checkered flag at Phoenix in 2017 and 2019 and could certainly go back to victory lane again at season’s end.
So who is the favorite? You decide.
4. Randomness of Camping World Truck Series playoffs create a dogfight for championship
Just six races are left in the Truck Series season; teams will head back to Darlington Raceway after the originally scheduled Canadian Tire Motorsports Park event was moved due to COVID-19 restrictions. That leaves only ovals in the playoffs, including three of one mile or less.
Sheldon Creed dominated last week at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway and has momentum on his side. He also won at Darlington earlier in the year, surviving a wreck-filled race for his first victory of the season. As the defending champion, Creed knows what it takes to win in the Truck Series.
But the series is somewhat different from the Xfinity and Cup series, in that other drivers want to sneak in a win over the playoff competitors. Such was the case at Bristol Motor Speedway in 2020; Sam Mayer led 30 laps to earn his first Truck win, besting Brett Moffitt by over four seconds.
Then at Talladega Superspeedway, Raphael Lessard edged out Trevor Bayne to take his first ever victory. Will we see someone do that in these final six races? It’s possible. I mean, look at what happened last week at Gateway. First the power went out, then John Hunter Nemechek had a problem and caused a big accident that took out several drivers in the playoff hunt. It only takes one bad race for most of the playoff drivers to allow someone else to step up and win. Will Nemechek bounce back and win his first Truck championship? Will Creed defend his title? We’ll see.
5: IndyCar championship race heating up
After a crazy race at Gateway, Josef Newgarden moved up to third place with his dominating victory. It was his second win of the year, matching Pato O’Ward and Alex Palou for most victories so far. O’Ward’s second place helped boost him to the top of the standings, while an accident with Rinus VeeKay and Scott Dixon left Alex Palou 10 points behind O’Ward. Dixon is fourth with one victory and 392 points.
Who will come out on top at Portland International Raceway, WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca and on the Streets of Long Beach? All three tracks return after missing last season. Long Beach has the most IndyCar races run (12), with Alexander Rossi winning the past two in 2018-19. However, all of those were run in April, not in the finale. Portland held just two IndyCar events, with Takuma Sato and Will Power the lone victors. Lastly, Laguna Seca has only had one IndyCar race; Colton Herta flat-out dominated in 2019.
O’Ward won two Indy Lights events in 2018 at Portland, so he could extend his points lead in this next race if he stays out of trouble. But Team Penske has really come alive these last few races, as Newgarden won two of the past four and Power won at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. Newgarden is a two-time champion, after all, and knows what it takes to win the IndyCar championship. If Penske continues to perform the way it has been lately, I wouldn’t count out Newgarden for the title.
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