Through the Gears: Balance of power clearly in Team Penske's court
A debris field of Chase contenders at Loudon, with several drivers nursing home wrecked race cars and mulling potential elimination, was caused by none other than … debris itself. That’s right; an exciting end to the second race of NASCAR’s playoffs may never have happened had officials not called a debris caution on Lap 171, “cleaning up” the track while bunching up the field after a long, sprawling green-flag run. It was a nervous bunch, anxious for track position that then unleashed their aggression by beating and banging on each other to turn New Hampshire into New England’s Fall Demolition Derby.
That yellow flag that set up the madness also capped an astounding streak within NASCAR: during a three-week span, from Richmond to New Hampshire, 11 of 13 cautions were called for “competition” reasons — debris, or track security in the case of a drunken Richmond fan. No wrecks or blown engines, true safety hazards, were the cause of these judgment calls which fans will hardly remember Monday in place of the suspenseful racing they got down the stretch.
At this point, calling into question debris cautions is nothing new; the mystery of these slowdowns, along with TV’s inability to show said debris, drives fans crazy (think an NFL referee throwing a yellow flag, then walking away without explaining the penalty or why he moved your favorite team back 10 yards). But at this point it’s hard to argue the end result, and by the looks of the competition on Sunday, teams almost expect this type of situation throughout the first two-thirds of the race. It’s not like they’re going to hold back completely, losing laps in the form of laziness, but there’s a growing expectation within the NASCAR garage that the field’s getting bunched up at some point if a long green-flag run breaks out.
So if I’m NASCAR, and fans aren’t complaining about exciting endings why bother with calling debris in order to hide your true intention? It’s OK now … seriously. Just tell us there are competition cautions coming every 75 laps to make it fair for everyone. Perhaps NASCAR’s fear is that the racing will grow too conservative, drivers waiting to duke it out until the last quarter of the event knowing there’s a chance to change up strategy and track position. But isn’t that what’s happening anyway? In the first 100 laps, no one at New Hampshire gained more than nine spots or lost more than 12. Everyone seemed to run in place, frustrated by an inability to pass once the field spread out. Compare that to the last 48 laps, where Joey Logano was shot out of a cannon, launching all the way from 16th to first in one of the more exciting drives to the front all year. Clearly, the sense of urgency has shifted more than ever to a race’s closing stages.
If that’s the case, what’s stopping NASCAR from going all “official” and dividing the race into quarters? Or thirds? Everyone knows debris is going to pop up anyway, and fans aren’t complaining. It’s only the drivers and teams who lose out from the randomness of when NASCAR chooses to call these yellows, trapping them a lap down in the middle of green-flag pit stops when you can find debris anytime, anyplace on a racetrack. It’s the one part of the equation that still doesn’t sit right. Put the strategy back in their hands by dividing the race officially instead of leaving them at the mercy of NASCAR finding a hot dog wrapper when the mood strikes.
It all makes too much sense to me, with NASCAR’s most important season finale looming dead ahead. Do you really want a Homestead finish coming down to a random debris caution? I didn’t think so. The last thing the sport needs is a call from the tower changing the course of its new “Final Four” championship Chase. All the better reason to turn debris into what it’s rightfully supposed to be: predetermined competition yellows.
“Through the Gears” we go …
FIRST GEAR: Hometrack Hero Logano delivers
Five years ago, a 19-year-old rookie dubbed the heart of “NASCAR’s next generation” made an unlikely visit to victory lane at Loudon. Losing a lap after a spinout, Logano’s first win was one of the luckiest we’ve seen in the sport this century: a perfect combination of Lucky Dogs, fuel mileage and a raging downpour from Mother Nature at the right time. The rookie won with a 25th-place car that day, out of place in the Winner’s Circle the same way he never seemed to fit within the culture of Joe Gibbs Racing. It would be two years before Logano added a second victory, at Pocono, but his JGR tenure was marked by untapped potential.
Fast forward to now, and Logano’s second Loudon trophy and you see a man transformed. Brimming with confidence, this 24-year-old earned his fourth victory of 2014 with the perfect mix of strategy, speed and aggression. Crew chief Todd Gordon made the right move to bring the No. 22 car in for fresh tires, pushing them outside the top 15 but knowing that was their only chance to charge forward for the win. Logano did the rest, jumping 10 spots in four laps and then picking his spots, slicing in front of Kevin Harvick on a lap 274 restart to take control of the race. Logano never gave up the point from that point on, even surviving contact from teammate Brad Keselowski amidst a flurry of late cautions to take the victory.
“High, wide and handsome,” Gordon joked about Logano’s late moves. “That was pretty awesome to watch.”
It was also an awesome boost to Logano’s championship hopes. Last Chase, despite a solid season for Penske Racing, the No. 22 team fell flat at Chicagoland, blowing an engine and never seeming to fully recover. This year, they’ve already won inside the postseason, punching their ticket to the next round under NASCAR’s new format and appear perfectly in sync with Keselowski, who missed the Chase last season. That duo has swept both Chase races, sits 1-2 in the standings and has the typical favorites at Hendrick Motorsports (Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr.) on their heels a bit.
It was the Hometown Boy (Logano is a New England native, from Middletown, Conn.) delivering at his home track, a moment not lost on a driver that’s matured a lot since the last time he took checkers there. And to think, in his post-race presser Logano referred to this place, the only one where he’s won twice in the Cup Series, as his “worst track.”
“It's (still) such a special place for me,” he said. “I watched my first Cup race here when I was five, (where) I started my first one, I won my first one. It was something really special to win here.”
SECOND GEAR: Joe Gibbs Racing’s Great Freefall
It’s amazing to see through the first two races how many Chase contenders have been done in by self-induced mistakes. Nowhere was that more apparent Sunday than within Joe Gibbs Racing’s three-car stable, whose solid postseason start crashed with a thud.
Matt Kenseth, whose left rear was rubbed on virtually all day, made a rare mistake mid-race. Catching his car off Turn2, he kept from spinning but the near-wreck caused teammate Kyle Busch to hit the brakes. Kasey Kahne then hit Busch, sending the No. 18 into a tailspin and ruining both their days. The fact Busch fought back for a top-10 finish (especially considering the disharmony with crew chief Dave Rogers) was incredible.
Kenseth, wrecked by Paul Menard later in the day, wasn’t so lucky. Wrecked within the final 30 laps, it was all the former champ could do to hold onto a 21st-place result. Still winless, last year’s title runner-up sits ninth, eight points above Chase elimination and is nowhere near the impressive performance he had through this point a year ago.
“It’s always frustrating when you get in a wreck, especially if you don’t feel like you had much or anything to do with it and get a bad finish,” he said. “I feel like I did the best I could today. I made that (other) mistake… I’m glad I didn’t cost Kyle too bad.”
However, the worst blow to JGR came in the form of Denny Hamlin’s faulty fuel probe. The broken part, leaving Hamlin several laps down, took the wind out of the sails of a No. 11 team that led 32 laps early on. “We suck,” the driver said on the radio at one point, “We are so bad.” Crew chief Darian Grubb, who angrily responded for the driver to keep quiet, tried to put out the fire of flailing confidence … but it was too late. A wreck a short time later, one where Hamlin oddly piled in, finished off an awful day that left him 13th in points, on the outside looking in on the top 12 with one of his worst tracks, Dover, dead ahead.
“You just can’t have any mistakes in this three-race Chase deal,” Hamlin said. “We went from looking pretty and probably going to coast our way to the next round to a long shot, at best. It’s frustrating, but what can you do?”
Change crew chiefs, that’s what. Gibbs hinted this week that shifts are coming, with a new fourth team driven by Carl Edwards added for 2015, and if Hamlin gets eliminated (along with a second JGR driver) look for them to happen sooner rather than later. The discord within this organization continues to rise during one of their more frustrating seasons.
THIRD GEAR: Lost Opportunities
Rookie Kyle Larson, along with his Chip Ganassi Racing operation, continues to impress during the month of September. A runner-up finish at Loudon, tying a career best, left him with two top-3 results this Chase. That’s a feat none of the 16 drivers actually racing for the title have accomplished.
“Really proud about how we have been running,” he said. “I know other teams that are in the Chase notice that and I’m sure they’re worried about us for next season already.”
They’re also breathing a sigh of relief about this one. If not for a blown tire at Michigan, resulting in a hard hit that led to a last-place finish in August, it would be Larson sitting top 5 in points, not a haggard Greg Biffle sitting 14th, and there’d be one more driver pushing a top-tier contender toward the brink of elimination.
As for drivers who’ve actually made the postseason, Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson are scratching their heads a bit. Harvick led the most laps (104) but was beaten during a series of late restarts again, frustration that boiled over in the form of accusing Logano of jumping them. Harvick’s crew — Tony Stewart transplants — also struggled with slower stops that cost the No. 4 car the lead (nothing new). A winless streak back to Darlington in April continues, and it makes you wonder about this team’s long-term title hopes.
As for Johnson, his 48 bunch tried to gamble on old tires late, knowing they had the fuel mileage to make it if there was a long green-flag run. But crew chief Chad Knaus got snookered on strategy when there was a flurry of late cautions. Johnson was fifth, setting himself up well for Dover next week, yet seemed dissatisfied with overall performance. We’ll know next week if that was just an act.
FOURTH GEAR: Setting Up Chase Eliminations
The chaos at New Hampshire stretched far beyond the Gibbs bunch. Kurt Busch hit the outside wall hard, a victim of a tire gone flat. Ditto Jeff Gordon, while Dale Earnhardt Jr. had an unscheduled green-flag pit stop that at one point cost him a lap. Meanwhile, underdogs Aric Almirola and AJ Allmendinger kept themselves in the Chase fight. Almirola ran sixth, an impressive rebound following a blown engine at Chicagoland, while Allmendinger’s 13th-place, lead lap finish puts the No. 47 team in position to advance.
Who gets dropped when the field shrinks from 16 to 12? You have to think Biffle, who’s been invisible, gets shuffled out along with Almirola, whose Joliet DNF seems tough to overcome. Ryan Newman, sitting on the edge, was terrible at Dover in the spring and is vulnerable. But at this point, the other elimination spot could go to a team that once considered themselves at least “Elite Eight” contenders. My bet is someone within the JGR stable will fall victim. While Hamlin sits 13th now, don’t count out Kyle Busch, who wrecked at Dover in the spring and just hasn’t had any momentum in months. One bad move is all it will take at the Monster Mile to end title hopes of anyone from about fourth-place Jimmie Johnson on down.
Who is Cole Custer? A name you should pay attention to. Custer made history Saturday as the youngest winner within one of NASCAR’s top three divisions, dominating a New Hampshire Truck Series race at the ripe young age of 16 years, seven months. The son of Stewart-Haas EVP Joe Custer, Cole has the right combination of connections and talent to launch him toward a top-tier NASCAR ride someday. … Tony Stewart ran 30th and was never a factor in his first race since learning a grand jury will decide whether he’ll face criminal charges in the Kevin Ward Jr. tragedy. Running behind cars with a smidgen of funding by comparison — like rookies Alex Bowman and Michael Annett — it’s clear Smoke’s focus is failing; he’s run no better than 15th in four races since his return. … Quietly, Martin Truex Jr. and rookie Austin Dillon slotted in solid performances. Rookie Dillon was 11th, his best run since Indianapolis, while Truex ran 12th, his best since Loudon in July as the single-car Furniture Row team looks to rebuild following a disappointing regular season.
Follow Tom Bowles on Twitter: @NASCARBowles
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