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In NASCAR’s Chase, Everyone Has A Part to Play

NASCAR is unique among American sports leagues, especially when it comes to the playoffs. Whether it be Major League Baseball, the NFL, the NHL or the NBA, once the end of the regular season comes, it is only those few teams who have clinched a playoff berth that continue. For the rest, they can pack up the gear and unpack the golf clubs as the off-season has begun.

Last weekend in Richmond, the Sprint Cup regular season came to a close, and the sixteen drivers who will compete for a championship were determined. (The XFINITY and Camping World Truck Series Chases will be finalized this weekend at Chicagoland Speedway.) In other sports, those teams would be the only ones to compete for the remainder of the season. Not so in NASCAR.

Through the final races of 2016, every team that can qualify for a race will continue to compete and could still have an impact. While logic might suggest those capable of winning an individual race might have already done so through the course of the regular season or at least been consistent enough to make it into the Chase on points, there will be those in the field ready to play spoiler and could have a huge impact on the Chase.

Take, for example, Ryan Blaney. The driver of the No21 Wood Brothers Ford may not have been able to point his way into the Chase, but it wouldn’t be impossible to envision Blaney becoming another rookie to grab their first Cup win before season’s end. With a win in the playoffs allowing for Chase drivers to advance to the next round, a Blaney win could be a huge barrier for someone struggling in points who needs a win to keep their championship hopes alive.

At the same time, a non-Chase driver could end up having an adverse impact on the Chase. Imagine a scenario in which Matt DiBenedetto blows a tire at Dover and begins a wreck that includes Kyle Busch. Without meaning to, DiBenedetto could end Busch’s championship defense in the first round.

Of course, that’s not to say drivers couldn’t or wouldn’t intentionally derail another’s Chase chances. Last year, Matt Kenseth wrecked Joey Logano at Martinsville, ending Logano’s promising season and his chance at a championship. The incident stemmed from an earlier collision between the two drivers at Kansas, when Logano had spun Kenseth, leading to the latter’s eventual Chase elimination.

Before the first Chase race of 2016, there are already tempers flaring. Kenseth and Logano’s teammate, Brad Keselowski are already at odds, and no one can forget the physical fight between Cole Custer and John Hunter Nemechek in the truck series. There’s little doubt that Custer may have something to say about Nemechek’s chances in the Chase.

Welcome to the Chase 2016, where every driver in the field has a part to play.

EMAIL: john.milner@popularspeed.com

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or staff. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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Commentary

Is NASCAR’s Integrity a Casualty of Off-Track Wars?

In the aftermath of Labor Day Weekend, NASCAR fans were, for sure, talking about Martin Truex Jr.‘s Southern 500 victory. But equal time was being given to the post-race dust-up between John Hunter Nemechek and Cole Custer in the Camping World Truck Series and Cup driver Kevin Harvick‘s declaration he was through being a “cheerleader” for his pit crew.

It’s a “tradition” in NASCAR  dating back to the 1979 Daytona 500 when Richard Petty’s victory played second fiddle to the fight between the Allisons and Cale Yarborough. Historians will tell you the scuffle, played out on live TV to a snowbound audience discovering NASCAR for the first time, was a watershed moment.

Since then, NASCAR fans have been witness to the “Boys, have at it!” era and moments of “Quintessential NASCAR” with feuds erupting on and off the track. There have been heroes and villains, victims and victors, all battling it out under the watchful eye of the media. It seems as if any driver caught up in a race-ending wreck is barely out of the car before he or she has a camera thrust in his or her face and their pent-up frustration is broadcast to the world. The sport and media coverage seems to thrive on conflict and confrontation between drivers, pit crews and even internal strife within teams.

It makes for great soundbites, visuals, and headlines, even marketing tools. If you saw Matt Kenseth wreck Joey Logano at Martinsville once, you saw it a hundred times afterward and look at the commercials feature the Jeff GordonBrad Keselowski scuffle at Texas.

But the question is: What effect is this having on the integrity of the sport? Is NASCAR’s reputation being beaten and banged up like a stock car in “the Big One” at Talladega by all this controversy?

Despite its best efforts to prove otherwise, NASCAR is still considered a redneck sport by outsiders, watched by those just waiting for the next crash. Having a visual of one driver tackling another post-race does little to dissuade non-fans that NASCAR isn’t falling into all the negative stereotypes placed on it. There might be a short-term reaction to those watching it on TV, but that reaction isn’t as likely to be a desire to tune into the next race as it would be scorn, with perhaps an impulse to liken NASCAR to WWE, a comparison that does the former no favors. Meanwhile, Harvick’s outburst about his pit crew will do little for those arguing that NASCAR is at heart a team sport.

While some may argue, like the 1979 Daytona 500, fights and controversy draw new viewers and fans to NASCAR, empty stands, and falling ratings prove otherwise.

NASCAR needs excitement and drama to keep fans tuning in and coming out to races. Would it not be better off to contain the excitement on the track, with races coming down to the wire like Denny Hamlin edging out Truex to win the Daytona 500 or Kevin Harvick’s victory at the Good Sam 500 in Phoenix?

EMAIL: john.milner@popularspeed.com

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or staff. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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NASCAR Cup Series

Buescher Left Frustrated Following Late Race Incident

Racing fortunes can turn from great to not so good in the span of a week – just ask Chris Buescher. After winning last weekend at Pocono Raceway, he found himself with a wrecked racecar on Sunday at Watkin’s Glen.

The driver of the No. 34 CSX Play it Safe Ford Fusion spent the race running outside of the top-20, though poised to cross the finish line solidly to gain some points in the standings. However, with seven laps to go, Paul Menard got off the track a little, kicking dirt up in the air. Behind him, nobody could see which resulted in Buescher being one of the five drivers wrecked out.

“(I) just went through the Bus Stop there, and there was just a wall of dirt as everybody ran off,” he said. “As soon as I cleared through it, there was a car sitting there backwards. Just tried to avoid it. Pretty much cost us a handful of spots and a decent amount of points. It’s a bummer it worked out the way it did.”

Buescher’s Ford Fusion wasn’t severely damage, though the front splitter being stuck in the mud resulted in him requiring a toe back to the garage. Buescher had hoped to just get a push back and be able to get back going, however the clean up crew did not have anything to hook up to the rear to pull from there.

“They’re depending on being able to push the back bumper to get you moving,” he said. “We didn’t have that opportunity. I get it. I mean, I get why they made me get out. I was just really frustrated and tried really hard to stay in it so we could keep rolling without losing any spots.”

Once he was back in the garage, the team quickly made repairs, getting Buescher back out on track for a 30th place finish.

“They assessed the damage during the red flag,” Buescher said. “Got back into the car. As soon as the caution came back out, they hustled, got it back fixed up, rolling, pretty much saved our day. Owe a lot to them today. They made sure we were able to stay in the points hunt. Not the way we want to do it. Really can’t have more days like that if we’re going to try and get in that top 30, but proud of them for their efforts to get it turned around.”

As a result, Buescher remains 31st in points, now three points outside of the top-30 in points to qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

“We’ve got to do a good job these next few,” he said. “Take the off weekend, visit the family in Texas, come back and regroup and be ready to go to Bristol. We were pretty good there last time. Front Row Motorsports brings some good cars to that track. Me and Landon (Cassill) were both pretty happy with the speed of our cars. I feel like that is a place we can gain some points and maybe put a little bit of a cushion on that Chase bubble for us right there.”

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

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The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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NASCAR Cup Series

Battle to End Losing Streaks Provides Pocono’s Most Exciting Moment

Chris Buescher‘s win in the Pennsylvania 400 provided a contender for “Feel Good Moment” of the season but the day’s most exciting moment was the mid-race battle for the lead between Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon.

“He brought me through the short shoot off [Turn] 3, and I got loose under him,” Dillon said during the red flag period. “I knew if I downshifted, I was going to break loose, so I just kept in fourth, and we got loose together.”

“We were racing really hard. I was doing all I could to stay in front of him [Dillon], and he was doing all he could to get by me,” Larson said.

With threatening weather a factor, both drivers raced like it was the last lap because, for all they knew, it was. Instead, Larson finished 6th in the No. 42 Target Chevrolet SS and Dillon finished 13th in the No. 3 American Ethanol Chevrolet SS.

“It was fun racing with the No. 42 [Larson] today. It was a heck of a race,” Dillon said.

Buescher’s win ended Front Row Motorsports’ 118-race winless streak, which had been the longest in Sprint Cup. Ironically, Larson’s Chip Ganassi Racing team now holds that honor with a 96-race streak, just three ahead of Richard Childress Racing, Dillon’s team, which hasn’t been to Victory Lane in 93 races.

Monday’s race wasn’t the first time Larson and Dillon have competed against each other. The two were the leading contenders for Rookie of the Year in 2014, a battle in which Larson edged Dillon. Since then, both drivers have been expected to compete for wins more often than they have.

Both drivers thought perhaps Monday might be their day.

“We had a super-fast car, especially in Turn 3, and could really make up a lot of time on everybody there,” Dillon says. “We had a fast enough car to win today, and I’m proud of that.”

Larson said his Chevrolet was good all day. “It’s been fun running up front. The strategy has been pretty weird. We will somehow cycle to the lead and run around up there and then pit and then be back in traffic, then cycle back to the lead,” he said.

Larson understood the Chase implications of Buescher’s win at Pocono. While Larson is 15th in points, Tony Stewart‘s win at Sonoma put him on the bubble. Buescher’s win, meanwhile, did not immediately make him Chase eligible as he is 31st, a mere six points behind David Ragan. Should Buescher overcome that thin deficit, he would knock Larson down a spot and out of the Chase.

“It just eliminates one more spot for us to try and get in. Right now that would put me back out of the Chase,” Larson said but added “We would just have to work really hard. I have some good tracks coming up for me.”

Even finishing outside the Top 10, Dillon padded his lead and dislodged Chase Elliott (who finished 33rd after a collision with Joey Logano) as the top driver in points without a win. “We’ve proved today that we’ve got the speed to win. We’ve just got to work on all the other aspects,” he said.

 

EMAIL: john.milner@popularspeed.com

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or staff. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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NASCAR Cup Series

Strong Finish Fuels Smith’s Optimism

Regan Smith and his team put it all on the line at Pocono Raceway — and it paid off for single-car team Tommy Baldwin Racing.

Smith netted a third-place finish at Monday afternoon, capturing just the second top-five finish in the history of TBR. After starting 30th, pit strategy played a vital role in the top three result. As pit stops cycled through, Smith’s No. 7 was a few laps from pitting when heavy fog rolled over the Tricky Triangle. As a result, NASCAR was unable to restart the race and for the first time in a long time, Smith found himself in the right place at the right time.

“The cloud kind of came at just the right time for us. We were within five or six laps of having to pit, but it’s a credit to my guys for seeing the opportunity to do that strategy,” Smith said. “When you’re a small team working hard to try and go up against some of the bigger teams that we do, you’ve got to take the opportunities when they present themselves. Today and this weekend in general, just kind of had that feeling to it with the rain on and off all weekend long, and we were able to make the most out of it.”

Pocono marks the second top-10 result of 2016 for Smith, who finished eighth in the season-opening Daytona 500. Smith praised crew chief and team owner Tommy Baldwin, Jr. for the risky strategy call, knowing chances like that typically fall flat.

Smith said, “For every 10 times you try something like this, it works once or twice, and it’s even more rare that it works to the level it did today. Usually, you pick up a spot here or there. I’ll be honest; I’m kind of surprised more guys didn’t stay out that long and stretch it just a little while like we did.”

Making the most out of the situation is crucial to a small organization. Despite a partnership with Richard Childress Racing, TBR has just 24 employees on staff and is unable to afford many of the perks enjoyed by the competition. The weekly battle for a top 20 is a struggle, which makes the third-place result vital to the team’s motivation.

“Just for the shop alone to be able to say, ‘Hey, we had a good day’ [is important]. I know everybody is going to say it was fuel mileage, it was rain, it was this, it was that,” Smith said, adding, “We had a good day, we stayed on the lead lap, did what we had to do.”

The No. 7 crew played the pit strategy game, and it was worth it; a top three is equivalent to a victory for the small organization of Tommy Baldwin Racing. Their driver is optimistic for his team despite the circumstances surrounding the finish. To Smith, runs like this signify progress, even if fuel mileage and rain played a factor.

“We were way more competitive today than we were two months ago, and that’s a gain.”

EMAIL KRISTEN AT kristen.schneider@popularspeed.com

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The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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Rapid Reaction: Don’t Stop Me Now

Total domination. That’s the only way to describe Kyle Busch’s weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The defending Sprint Cup Series champion totally outclassed his competition Saturday and Sunday, leading 211 of a possible 233 laps around the Brickyard, and was never passed during either race.

Busch’s performance on Sunday was one for the record books on a day that will be forever remembered as the final race at Indianapolis for Cup champions Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart.

Record Year

Kyle Busch started Sunday’s Brickyard 400 with an opportunity to do something that hadn’t been done in NASCAR history — sweep both poles and races in a single weekend. After leading all but one lap en route to his 83rd career XFINITY Series win, Busch appeared poised to be the driver to beat for the second straight year.

Busch kept his No. 18 Toyota seemingly an arm’s length away from the field. In fact, the first on-track pass for the lead occurred on Lap 62, when Busch drove around Joey Logano on a restart. From that point on, it was all Kyle, all the time, as he led a record-setting 149 laps and collected the fifth Brickyard victory for Joe Gibbs Racing.

Thanks for the Memories

The biggest story line coming to Indy was knowing it would be Tony Stewart’s final NASCAR start at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. After they qualifyied third, hopes were sky high for the No. 14 team after a runner-up finish last week in New Hampshire.

In the driver’s meeting, Jeff Gordon honored Stewart before both drivers’ final race at Indy.

“I know as we’ve gotten to know one another as friends and competitors over the years what this place means to you,” Gordon said. “I think that it’s not a year about saying goodbye. It’s a year about celebrating what you’ve done on the track and off the track. I think it’s only fitting that all of us in this room, and along with all the millions of fans around the world, recognize what you’ve brought to this sport.”

Smoke made a daring three-wide pass inside Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards to grab second place on the race’s second lap. Unfortunately for Stewart, that would be the high-water mark in Sunday’s event, as tight handling conditions prevented him from racing for the win, and he came home 11th.

After the checkered flag, Stewart and Gordon, substituting for the injured Dale Earnhardt Jr., performed one final lap side-by-side around IMS, a fitting tribute for two NASCAR and Indianapolis Motor Speedway heroes.

Maybe Next Year

Despite being the all-time leader in Indianapolis 500 wins with 16, Roger Penske came to the 23rd Brickyard 400 without a Sprint Cup win at IMS.

Knowing they likely didn’t have the speed to win the race, the teams of Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski deployed an aggressive fuel mileage strategy. Both drivers stretched their first tank of fuel 42 laps, putting them in position to make the race on just three stops.

Sometimes even the best plans don’t come to fruition. That was the case Sunday, as ill-timed yellows put Keselowski in the middle of the pack, and he finished 17th. Logano restarted on the front row for overtime but dropped back to seventh at the checkers.

Penske’s teams are now a combined 0-for-44 in the Brickyard 400 with an average finish of 15.9.

One More Go Round

Five-time Brickyard 400 winner Jeff Gordon made his highly anticipated return to NASCAR in relief for Hendrick Motorsports regular Dale Earnhardt Jr.

The four-time Sprint Cup champion started in 21st and struggled in the early going. By Lap 50, Gordon was mired back in 24th. During a round of green-flag stops, Gordon short-pitted and gained track position and was just outside the top 10. With in-car temperatures exceeding 110 degrees, Gordon’s return came in brutal conditions, and he brought the No. 88 home in 13th.

Next week Gordon will return to Pocono Raceway, where he holds the record for most victories with six.

EMAIL HANK AT editors@popularspeed.com

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The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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NASCAR Cup Series

TBR Jackman Uses Football Expertise on Pit Road

Like many college football players, Ricky Rozier dreamed of going pro and playing in the National Football League. He did well as a fullback at Winston-Salem State University, yet going to the next level wasn’t in the cards. His performance in the NFL combine failed to draw attention.

However, another combine proved fruitful.

“NASCAR has a pit crew combine, and my university hosted it in the summer of 2013. It was put on by the Drive for Diversity program, which is a development program at NASCAR to help minorities into the sport,” Rozier told POPULAR SPEED.

Rozier first worked with Stewart-Haas Racing and the No. 41 Sprint Cup Series team. He started as the second gas man for Kurt Busch, yet he trained for the jackman position as well. He is currently the jackman for Regan Smith at Tommy Baldwin Racing. Although he’s worked in both capacities, Rozier believes jacking up the racecar is more physically demanding.

“As the second gas man, you still have to focus and pay attention to what’s going on,” he said. “Jackman, on the other hand, you have to be fast and light on your feet. You have to react and be prepared to make an adjustment on the car.”

He isn’t limited to the Sprint Cup Series. In addition to working for TBR, Rozier pits Blake Koch’s No. 11 in the XFINITY Series and the No. 33 of Ben Kennedy in the Camping World Truck Series. Spending a weekend pitting for various teams is common in the NASCAR garage, and it requires him to be focused and in peak physical condition. Practices and weight training take care of both.

“We practice three times a week and work out about two to three times a week,” he said. “We come in for a 9 a.m. practice, and then at 11 a.m. I’ll be in the weight room for a workout. Then we might have some other developmental practices later on in the afternoon.”

When it comes to the long-time argument of whether or not NASCAR is a sport, competition and the crew members’ fitness level play a factor in Rozier’s opinion.

“It’s the same kind of argument people have about cheerleading. To me, a sport is when you have competition. You get out there with whatever you’re doing, if it’s archery or ballet or dancing, that’s competition,” he said. “That’s why I call NASCAR a sport. It’s still very different from the stick-and-ball sports that people in our society grow up doing. When you have pit road teams and pit crew coaches who are trying to get athletes who played stick-and-ball sports to pit the cars, there’s no way you can say it’s not a sport.”

Away from the track, Rozier is pursuing another of his passions – massage and bodywork therapy. He juggles school with the demanding NASCAR schedule, but it is all part of the ride. A product of the sport’s Drive for Diversity program, the jackman never planned on going from the football field to pit road, but Rozier wouldn’t have it any other way.

“That’s how I got exposed to the thought of being in NASCAR,” he said. “It wasn’t even an idea before that combine, but now it’s a reality.”

EMAIL KRISTEN AT kristen.schneider@popularspeed.com

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The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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Commentary

What If Dale Earnhardt Jr. Calls It Quits?

First, let’s state there is no reason to believe Dale Earnhardt, Jr. will announce his retirement soon. As of this writing, Earnhardt will miss this weekend’s Brickyard 400, as well as the following event at Pocono Raceway. There has been nothing stated, though, about plans beyond Pocono.

However, with an injury as dangerous as a concussion and his history of suffering similar injuries, there is always a chance that NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver may put his health above everything else and step away from the sport.

With such a decision would come ramifications to be felt across NASCAR.

Could Junior Nation exist without its leader behind the wheel of the #88 every race weekend? Consider the questions raised by legions of Jeff Gordon fans when their hero retired at the end of the 2015 season: Would they root for the #24 with Chase Elliott driving the car? Would they find someone else to cheer for? Would their interest in NASCAR end with Gordon’s final checkered flag? Dale Jr. fans could find themselves asking those same questions, up to and including whether or not they continue to follow NASCAR.

If the answer to that final question is “Yes” among many fans, NASCAR could have a major issue on its hands. With analysts already concerned about falling ratings and attendance, even the most optimistic NASCAR official would worry about the retirement of Dale Earnhardt, Jr, coming so soon after those of Gordon and Tony Stewart. After all, NASCAR would be losing its 13-time Most Popular Driver, with a name that has all but transcended the sport.

What of Hendrick Motorsports? What options does Rick Hendrick have in replacing Dale Jr.? He could take advantage of his ties to JR Motorsports and elevate a young driver such as Justin Allgaier, Cole Custer or Alex Bowman. With all due respect to those drivers, none of them would be able to replace Junior in terms of merchandise, marketing or fan support.

If Dale Earnhardt Jr should find himself in a position, whether today or years down the road, where he must seriously consider retirement, he will most likely consider the effect such a move might have on his fans, his team, and his sport. Nevertheless, the final decision must be what is best for him and his health. Even the most disappointed should not fault him for that.

EMAIL: john.milner@popularspeed.com

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The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or staff. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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NASCAR Cup Series

Rapid Reaction: C’mon Martin, Get a Grip

The New Hampshire 301 proved to be eventful Sunday afternoon. After a hard-fought race with a total of six different leaders, Matt Kenseth grabbed the checkered flag, securing his second victory of the season. But the jubilation was short-lived, as NASCAR found Kenseth’s car in violation of post-race inspection measurements. Fines and penalties are typically issued on Tuesday or Wednesday.

However, amidst the ranks, many other headlines sprung up – from Hendrick Motorsports’ under-performance to broken car parts. Here are five major points from Sunday’s event.

Can JGR Be Stopped?
From early on in the race, the Joe Gibbs Racing organization was up front. Kyle Busch led 133 laps — nearly half the 301-lap event – making him appear the one to beat. However, in the end, Kenseth, who remained in the top 10 consistently, leaped into action at the right time. It resulted in the organization’s eighth trip to victory lane in 2016. Busch placed eighth.

Additionally, teammate Denny Hamlin stayed solidly within the top 10 for the majority of the race, but after a bad restart with less than 25 laps to go, the driver had to make up for lost ground. He salvaged a ninth-place finish. On the other hand, Carl Edwards’ strong performance found trouble after being involved in a wreck on Lap 286, and he placed 20th.

There is no denying the organization is on fire right now. And with the Chase coming in two months, the Toyota-based team could be the championship front-runners. Timing is everything.

It was a Major Blowout
During the second half of the race, tire issues began to plague drivers. Both Alex Bowman, subbing for Dale Earnhardt Jr, and Chase Elliott brought out the caution for blown tires. A few laps later, Kurt Busch suffered the same issue, resulting in an accident involving both Penske Racing drivers, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano.

This was unfortunate for each driver involved, as all of them were within the top 10 when the accidents occurred. The tire failures eliminated major contenders and has begun to change the complexion of the Race to the Chase.

The HMS Blues
The organization has struggled recently – Sunday was no exception. In fact, this event marked the third week in a row that Hendrick Motorsports has failed to post a top 10. Jimmie Johnson and company seemed to be stout heading into the weekend, scoring the pole. However, as soon as the green flag waved, Team 48 started moving backward. By Lap 45 he was outside of the top 10 and struggled to advance past the competition. In the end, Johnson collected a 12th-place finish.

Each of his teammates had a tougher day. Elliott and Bowman suffered aforementioned tire issues, while Kasey Kahne was collected in an accident towards the end of the event. With the playoffs looming, HMS needs a little, well, a lot of luck to get them back on track.

Perturbed on Pit Road
Kevin Harvick continued to suffer from pit road mistakes Sunday, something that has plagued the team this season. The extra time on pit road cost them several spots and placed them as far back as 12th. While Harvick was upset with his crew, his No. 4 Haas Automation Chevy was fast. He steadily climbed his way back into the top 10, scoring a solid fourth-place finish. Still, he proclaimed his feeling as being “disgusted.” And many thought he was holding back in the adjective department.

While the No. 4 team is a strong entry every week, they will need to fix their pit road struggles before the Chase begins. The playoffs are unforgiving, and extra time on pit road could cost them a seat in the Final Four.

Hey Martin, Get a Grip!
Martin Truex Jr. was a strong contender Sunday, leading 123 laps and consistently competing in the top five until the final 50 laps. The No. 78 Toyota Camry suffered a broken shifter just before the team came in for a pit stop. He was given vice grips to counter the hindrance, but it proved to be futile. The clutch broke as well, and the driver was stuck in fourth gear. He would ultimately go home with a 16th-place finish — hence leaving the redemption card on the table as he continued to lick his wounds this weekend, following a pit road penalty not of his making.

“It’s not tough; you’re just a sitting duck,” Truex told NBCSN after the race. “There’s nothing you can do to get going. Unfortunately, we got passed by a lot of cars. We pitted for tires on the last stop so we could get some momentum going … I think we passed 10 cars in the last 10 laps. We had a good car, just nothing to show for it today.”

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The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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Commentary

ADAIR: Should Chase Format Mirror Traditional Sports?

The debate continues…

Many have criticized the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Chase format for several reasons. Some feel it lacks legitimacy while others feel the system just needs tweaking. And with that, comes an array of possibilities.

POPULAR SPEED guest writer Andy Marquis tackled this subject last week and brought up an interesting idea. To award consistency among strong teams, should NASCAR implement a “bye-week” rule, similar to that seen in “stick-and-ball” sports?

I would like to elaborate on this.

In the wake of the new Chase format, consistency is in desperate need of consideration. Joey Logano scored six wins last year and earned the second best average finish of 9.2 – he finished sixth in the Chase. Drivers who perform well in the regular season should be given some kind of reward, and if not in the form of points, the possibility of a bye-week could be considered. After all, the new Chase format was an attempt to fall in line with other “traditional” sports.

But there’s one big problem with that: NASCAR isn’t a traditional sport. NASCAR, and the venues it visits, are sponsor-driven. The absence of major names could hurt the sport in several ways – let’s break it down.

It all starts with the fans. Families wanting to see Dale Earnhardt Jr, Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, or Kevin Harvick race at their home track may be completely disappointed when they find they’re out on a bye-week – and that might have an economic impact.

Drivers with two wins, or more, at the top of the standings, can clinch a Chase berth about six races in advance. This would include tracks like Pocono Raceway, Watkins Glen International, Michigan International Speedway, Darlington Raceway, Bristol Motor Speedway, and of course Richmond International Raceway where the regular season finale takes place. Some of these venues only have one NASCAR Cup event and need to make it count – but instead, they could take a hit if the big names of the sport didn’t show up.

Not to mention the absence of “A-list” drivers at an event would further question the legitimacy of a subsequent win/Chase berth.

And then there are the sponsors, who set up events, displays, meet and greets, and more – typically involving their driver. A bye-week would throw a wrench into those plans and would need to be scheduled weeks in advance.

But there’s a bigger point I’m trying to make. Through the explanation above, one can see that the very fibers of NASCAR are woven in a different pattern than other sports – and it may reveal a problem.

Our sport’s 36-week schedule is a strenuous one, and the venues, teams and drivers are strongly tied to sponsors and multi-million-dollar TV deals. These strings make it difficult for the sport’s officials to make any changes – especially concerning driver availability and events. Perhaps that’s why there haven’t been any changes to the format yet.

No doubt, consistency needs to be rewarded. Many, including Marquis, have given interesting, clever theories on how that factor could be fulfilled. However, NASCAR has a lot to juggle. They need to figure out which ideas are plausible and which ones are unsustainable and come up with a solution.

Furthermore, they may just need to take a look at their latest Chase format and assess the same.

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