By Rich Phillips
It takes no time at all for there to be controversy in NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup. On the heels of NASCAR announcing last week that certain penalties would cause a Chase win to become encumbered (huh?) and the driver would lose the benefit of the win (automatic advancement to the next round) comes a penalty to race winner Martin Truex Jr. Since he was not alone in this rule-breaking it’s led to another change in NASCAR legislation, but it’s probably the right thing to do.
Both Truex and Jimmie Johnson just barely failed post-race laser inspection. The cars were slightly outside the tolerances which should result in likely a 10 point penalty but not take away the Chase advancement for the win. That’s where things got sticky in this situation. A point penalty to Truex is meaningless. He’s already locked into the Round of 12. But a 10 point penalty to Johnson would drop him from 8th into a 12th place tie with Austin Dillon and Kevin Harvick, putting the six-time champ on the brink of elimination.
The penalty would obviously be unfair to one driver, so NASCAR steps in Wednesday and says that for small violations of post-race LIS there is no penalty. If a car fails the test miserably, more than any car has all year, then the points penalty will come into play as will losing the advancement right for the win. Also, all Chase cars will now go through post-race LIS after each playoff race.
The Hard Luck Kid
Chase Elliott is going to win a Sprint Cup race someday, and probably win a lot of them. Sunday should have been it (maybe it should have been his second or third this year), but alas caution flies late and it’s not to be.
Elliott led the second most laps in the Chase opener, and took over the lead when teammate Jimmie Johnson started to fade. He was rolling late, maintaining a one second or more advantage on another driver who’s had some hard luck. But Martin Truex Jr. winds up with the best luck at Chicago after the race goes yellow with four laps to go. Truex wins the battle off pit road, then wins the race in overtime, leaving the rookie to wonder when it’ll ever happen for him.
It will happen for Elliott one day, maybe even this Sunday. He’s that good. He has the pedigree as a second generation racer. And he’s been no slouch up until now, winning 5 XFINITY Series races in two-plus seasons and a championship. His numbers this season including 14 top 10 finishes look like what we’re used to out of the #24 car, but now it’s with a young and upcoming star. Elliott’s day will come any day now.
The Hardest Luck at Chicago
While Elliott was disappointed to come oh so close, Kevin Harvick was anything but Happy Harvick after a 20th place run in the Chase opener. His race starts out on the wrong foot as he has to go to the rear for unapproved adjustments. But his car shows it has the speed as he breezes through the field.
While Harvick was on pit road for his first stop of the day caution comes out. The #4 team completes their stop and he races off pit road. But unlike Jimmie Johnson right ahead of him, Harvick can’t cross the start-finish line before leader Martin Truex Jr., missing it by a couple of feet. That puts Harvick a lap down and he never saw the lead lap again.
Don’t count Harvick out just yet. He’s 14th and below the cut line for the second round, but he has responded each year in this elimination format to the Chase. In 2014 he was last among the Chasers going to the final elimination race at Phoenix and won to advance to the final race and ended up the champ. Last year Harvick was set for a first round exit but came up with his first career win at Dover instead. He’s proven he can step up to the big stage.
The Magic Mile
Week two of the Chase for the Sprint Cup takes the series back to New Hampshire where Matt Kenseth has won the last two races. It’s still way early in the Chase, but the Magic Mile has been a great stop for Chasers in years past.
In nine of the 12 Chase races run at New Hampshire the eventual champ finished in the top 10. Twice the race winner has gone on to claim the Sprint Cup (Kurt Busch 2004, Tony Stewart 2011). Jimmie Johnson is one of four Chase drivers to win three times at the track, yet never in the Chase race. He’s still one of the best on the flat oval with the second best average finish.
Look for Kevin Harvick and Kyle Larson to rebound from their tough starts to the Chase. Jamie McMurray is a guy who could slide as he’s never had success at New Hampshire. And Denny Hamlin has a great shot at a huge win. He has the best average finish on the track and is red hot with nine straight top 10 finishes.
Don’t forget, the Chase for the Sprint Cup runs through No Limits, Texas, on Sunday November 6th. Buy your tickets for the AAA Texas 500 here!
Rich Phillips is the Voice of Texas Motor Speedway and host of the weekly radio show Texas Motor Speedway’s Total Access. Click here to find a station near you.
Chase for the Sprint Cup Braketology
It’s bracket-time in NASCAR once again. That time of the year when we all try to figure out how to narrow down from 16 drivers to one, picking the 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion. Of course there are many unknown factors that can change the outcome and knock a guy out, such as a part failure (see Jimmie Johnson, Dover 2015) or an intentional wreck (see Matt Kenseth vs. Joey Logano, Martinsville 2015). But here is my educated guess as to who wins the title and why:
A quick refresher on how NASCAR’s elimination format works. The Chase is divided into three segments of three races each. At the end of each segment, any race winners automatically advance while the others move on by points, eliminating the bottom four. In the final race at Homestead it’s the best finisher among the four drivers alive who wins the title.
This year’s Chase is a bit refreshing with five qualifiers who weren’t in it last year, four who are first time Chasers (the most in 10 years) and two rookies. None of the new entrants is likely to compete for a championship just yet, but a few could be a factor deeper into the Chase.
First Four Out
The Round of 16 is generally the easiest to pick, that is unless Jimmie Johnson has a $15 part fail at his best track, resulting in his elimination at Dover a year ago. Chris Buescher is a sentimental favorite here at Texas Motor Speedway, but he narrowly made the Chase, sitting 29th in points. That win at Pocono was the qualifier, but he won’t go any further.
Likewise Tony Stewart had no chance to make the Chase on points after missing the first eight races with injury. He’s also hit the Chase in a slump with four straight outside the top 20. His Chase isn’t like to last more than three races.
Jamie McMurray made the Chase for the second straight year, but seems prime for a quick exit. And the surprise may be Jimmie Johnson for the second straight year. Something doesn’t seem right with the 48 Chevy as Johnson is mired in a drought of 21 races without a win, tying his career long. And unless he is top 10 in every Chase race (highly unlikely) he’ll set a career low in that category, too.
Next Four Down
In the Round of 12 it’s a little harder to predict, especially given the wild card race involved. The elimination race of this round is at Talladega, and all bets are off on a restrictor plate track.
Austin Dillon is a driver who’s turned into a pretty solid plate racer, but he’s not solid enough everywhere else and isn’t likely to be around for the final eight. Same goes for rookie Chase Elliott who’s had a phenomenal rookie year and shouldn’t feel bad about a second round elimination.
I think two former champions also exit in the Round of 12. Matt Kenseth hasn’t been the threat we’ve become accustomed to in recent years, especially since his move over to Joe Gibbs Racing. Kenseth is in line for his fewest top five’s and top ten’s in the last six years and doesn’t seem to quite have the same magic as the other Toyotas. And Kurt Busch is much like his boss Tony Stewart, slumping at the wrong time. Busch has only two top 10’s in the last eight races and doesn’t have the look of a title contender.
The Round of Eight
Now we’re down to the nitty gritty, figuring out who will be the four drivers racing for the Sprint Cup Championship in Homestead. At this point in picking a bracket you have to look at what seem like the best odds. In 2016 that’s JGR Toyota’s and Kevin Harvick. Those six drivers have combined to win 15 of the first 26 races. They also held down five of the top eight spots in points before the Chase reset.
One of the Toyota’s should be gone by this point (Kenseth) and Carl Edwards should join him. Edwards has won two races for the fourth straight year, but inconsistency should bite him. He’s already set a career high with 5 DNF’s and those don’t play in the Chase.
Kyle Larson is one of those four first-time Chasers and he should go far, but not quite far enough. He’s a great story as is both Chip Ganassi cars making it into the Chase. But CGR doesn’t appear to have quite enough speed to hang in there to the end.
The team Penske cars are the tough ones to leave out. Joey Logano looked to be on his way to a championship in 2015 before his run-in with Matt Kenseth. That’s left a stain on Logano and no one on the track will cut him any slack. Brad Keselowski has been as strong as anyone, but the Round of 8 doesn’t set up well for him with three tracks where he’s never been to victory lane. He probably should have won at Texas Motor Speedway last year after leading 312 laps, but Jimmie Johnson took him out late.
The Championship Four
So it’s on to Homestead for the Championship Four. No bonus points involved. Nothing hard to figure out. The four drivers alive for the title will decide it on the track. Whoever finishes highest among those four will take home the Sprint Cup.
Look for three JGR Toyotas to be there, reigning champion Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, and satellite team member Martin Truex Jr. Busch was able to win this final race a year ago to claim his first title, but I don’t think he’ll repeat.
Kevin Harvick is the only driver who’s survived the first three rounds of eliminations in each of the last two years. He won the first title in this format in 2014 and was one position away from it last year. If Stewart Haas Racing can straighten out his pit road issues, look for Kevin Harvick to win his second championship in three years.
This weekend's Camping World Truck Series race from Canadian Tire Motorsports Park saw some great racing north of the border, but the finish between John Hunter Nemechek and Cole Custer is what everyone is talking about. Now I know it was Labor Day Weekend so maybe you we're out on the water, had a prior plans or had too many adult beverages to catch the end so here it is.
Nemechek taps Custer's rear bumper in turn 9. Going into turn 10 Nemechek looks like he wants to pull a cross over move but gets caught on Custer back end. Heck of a job by Custer not losing it, but whether Nemechek was trying to dump him or simply got stuck on Custer's rear bumper we'll never know. SO, as these two young guns come out of turn 10 side-by-side, Nemechek comes up the race track and pushes Custer to the grass, then the wall and seemingly pins him there to the checkers.
Amid the chaos everyone is unsure who won except for John Hunter Nemechek, who starts celebrating and heads to the flag stand to claim the checkered flag. Cole Custer is understandably unhappy so he decides to share his displeasure with a Goldberg-esque spear to Nemechek. After the brief WWE Canada moment between Cole Custer and John Hunter Nemechek the Fox Sports 1 team tracks them down and asks them about the incident.
John Hunter Nemechek said in victory lane, "We didn't wreck him for the win. Rubbin's racing...he would have done the same thing to me to get a win." What do you think? Did John Hunter Nemechek race Cole Custer dirty or is rubbin' racin'?