1. Was the end of the COTA Cup race just good, hard racing or nah?
Once upon a time, bumping your way to victory in the NASCAR Cup Series was a time-honored way to capture a checkered flag when absolutely necessary — though in the good old days of the sport, there were also days when the winner was the only car on the lead lap, so not as often as you may recall. Then it wasn’t, until the famous “Have at it, boys” quote by Robin Pemberton in 2010. More recently it wasn’t again … but now maybe it is?
In case you didn’t follow all that, the point is that whether it’s OK to intentionally bump someone out of the way to win a race at the highest level of stock car racing is largely a matter of personal opinion, and the consensus is on a pendulum that has swung back and forth more than once over the decades. It’s relevant again because of the breathtaking finish to the Cup Series race on Sunday (March 27) at Circuit of the Americas.
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) March 27, 2022
Exciting? Unquestionably. But did it cross the line on what one should do to win a race? Depends on who you ask.
It goes beyond just eventual winner Ross Chastain saying he did what he needed to do and AJ Allmendinger feeling it was excessive. That’s to be expected, and would be reversed if the race had ended differently (or maybe both drivers would be upset had Alex Bowman snuck through to win, which he nearly did).
The larger subtext is whether this kind of naked aggression is now accepted, an idea that Denny Hamlin suggested is once again in ascendance.
In 2017 it wasn’t ok. In todays world. “High stakes” “do whatever it takes” “playoffs on the line” blah blah, it’s all fair game. The game has changed and it’s just expected now. Everyone runs over everyone. Doesn’t matter if it’s for 1st or 10th
Congrats to @JustinMarksTH & Ross https://t.co/yqe7waDncw
— Denny Hamlin (@dennyhamlin) March 28, 2022
If Hamlin is right, the question now is how much leeway the garage will have to draw the line on its own. The assumption here is that NASCAR is OK with “everyone runs over everyone” in the context of racing for a win — and maybe the fact that Hamlin dismisses too easily is that this particular situation involved a driver going for his first series victory and another who isn’t racing for Cup points. But the governing body isn’t likely to allow paybacks without serious penalties, meaning whatever happens the rest of the 2022 season, “have at it, boys” isn’t making a full-on return.
2. Did we settle anything about whether COTA is a good venue for stock car racing?
Between the crazy restarts and That Finish, this was the rare week that didn’t require a trip to Jeff Gluck’s “Was it a good race?” poll to take the temperature of NASCAR fandom (though spoiler, it’s at 85% positive at the moment). Does that mean COTA deserves a permanent spot on the schedule?
Not necessarily. Last year’s COTA Cup debut was almost a washout. The nice weather in 2022 allowed us to see what a normal race looks like at the sprawling road course, and one could argue that until the closing laps became must-see TV, there were a number of reasons to remain skeptical.
On long green-flag runs, it’s pretty easy for the field to get very spread out without a ton of passing. The sheer length of the laps make even short cautions unbearably long, and yet you almost find yourself wishing for more yellows just to see those restarts.
One thing that might help but isn’t going to happen: Getting rid of the stages. This isn’t to start a discourse on stage racing in general, but it would be cool if NASCAR considered eliminating them in places where they just make sense. COTA is exhibit A for that thinking, with only 15 laps in the first two stages and the issues raised above.
Eliminate the stages and I’m on board for COTA, no questions asked. Otherwise, I feel like I need one more go-round to be fully convinced.
3. Is Ross Chastain already a championship contender?
On the surface, this seems like a question it is ridiculously early to ask. We’re only six races into the season, after all.
And yet …
Chastain is third in points. He’s tied with points leader Chase Elliott with four top 10s, and alone at the top with four top fives — no one else has more than two. More impressively, he hasn’t come home worse than third in four weeks, over a variety of tracks. He’s led more laps than anyone other than Ryan Blaney, proving he’s been running up front consistently.
So yes, if the regular season ended today, which is one of the sillier but most mesmerizing concepts in sports, Chastain would be a title contender. We’ll have to see if that’s true six months from now. He sure has been impressive so far, though, as has the entire Trackhouse Racing Team organization.
4. OK, we mean it this time — could this be the year where a win doesn’t lock someone into the playoffs?
A common mantra of the playoff era in the Cup Series is “win and you’re in.” Thus far, a regular season victory has been sufficient to earn a playoff spot every year since the current system has been in place. Several times over the past few years, it’s looked like there could be more than 16 regular-season winners, meaning someone with a win would be left out of the postseason, but someone (looking at you, Kyle Larson) always gets hot and spoils the fun.
It would be silly to bet against 2022 being any different, but let’s just say that after six races, if there was ever a year that could change, this is it. For starters, we’ve yet to have a repeat winner, which is important for the chaos scenario to become reality. If a driver rips off three straight to start the season, that’s pretty much the end of this discussion.
We’ve had three first-time winners (Chastain, Austin Cindric and Chase Briscoe), which is another key ingredient. And there are a long list of drivers you’d expect to grab a checkered flag who haven’t, including but not limited to Blaney, Elliott, Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick.
To get to 17 winners, all that’s left would be for a few drivers who have done it before to do it again. For reference, four out of this group doesn’t seem so far-fetched: Brad Keselowski (who would belong in the previous group, but is here because he’s with a new team), Kurt Busch (likewise), Christopher Bell, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Erik Jones, Bubba Wallace and Austin Dillon. Plus, Aric Almirola has looked better than last year in his swan-song season.
But what would really help is if one more unexpected winner entered the fray. Tyler Reddick looks like he’s ready to join the first-timers. Perhaps Daniel Suarez is too. Or someone like a Cole Custer or Michael McDowell can add a second win to their resumes.
Those are a lot of ifs for now. They’re not crazy ones, though, and they don’t all have to happen, just most of them. Check back in about six weeks and see if they’re still alive.
5. Oh yeah, short track racing!
Considering how short track racing has shot back up in the hearts and minds of NASCAR fans over the past few years, it’s easy to forget that it takes a while to get to a legit short track race under the current schedule. That changes this weekend, as the Cup and Xfinity series visit Richmond Raceway.
The Next Gen cars haven’t had their official debut on a track under 1 mile, except for the super short-track exhibition race at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Richmond is a race to avoid missing anyway, but that’s even more true when there could be a whole new set of talking points at this time next week.
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