A questionable caution flag that left NASCAR’s regular season champion fuming. Major teams announcing they’re closing up shop. A multi-million dollar sponsor jumping ship on a Hall of Fame legend, then accusing him of lying. A 1.2 rating that was the lowest for any NASCAR race in years.
The 10-race playoff for this sport can’t start soon enough.
Heading to Chicagoland Speedway, NASCAR is coming off the worst news cycle of its season, if not the past several. There was the sport’s officiating at Richmond Raceway, where a late caution flag cost Martin Truex Jr.his victory. Truex, who was leading until back marker Derrike Cope hit the wall went from first to fuming after getting wrecked on the ensuing restart by Denny Hamlin. Kyle Larsonwon the race, causing a 10-point playoff swing with Truex that could influence which of the two makes the Homestead Final Four.
But that yellow wasn’t the only head-scratcher. It was combined with a second one thrown when the leader simply smoked his tires. Yes, you too can cause a yellow if you pump the accelerator at your next traffic light! Add in an ambulance parked in front of pit road, an unintentional yellow-flag obstacle that took out pole sitter Matt Kenseth and NASCAR’s playoff primer looked like more of a C-level Barnum & Bailey Circus.
But that paled in comparison to this week. Smithfield announced they were leaving Richard Petty Motorsports next season in favor of Stewart-Haas Racing. Angry over their departure, Petty claimed he had a “handshake deal” for 2018 and expressed displeasure over the way Smithfield handled it. Their response? The company’s CEO claimed Petty had no such assurances, they left due to “lack of performance” and that RPM had no plan to become competitive in future seasons.
Petty, once the sport’s most popular driver, is a Hall of Famer connecting older fans to the height of NASCAR’s growth. He’s the latest name that now could leave the sport after 2017 unless sponsorship materializes to save the legendary No. 43 team. Danica Patrick may join him, ousted from her spot at SHR when sponsorship failed to materialize for her No. 10 ride in 2018. Add in a retiring Dale Earnhardt Jr.and three of the sport’s iconic names may flat out disappear from your TV screen come February.
The wave of terrible news crested Thursday night when Barney Visser, owner of Truex’s team announced his second car, the No. 77 would close following the season. That means the sport’s clear title favorite may win the championship only to watch his team contract once rookie Erik Jonesdeparts for Joe Gibbs Racing.
All of that makes it no surprise the sport endured a 1.2 Nielsen rating for Richmond, easily the lowest level of viewership for any race since 2001 unaffected by rain.
If there’s a silver lining, Media Day Wednesday in Charlotte led to some of the most colorful comments from drivers we’ve seen all year. A Twitter feud Friday between Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch ticked up interest heading into qualifying for the playoff opener. Busch won the pole while his rival wound up fifth; a battle royale is expected Sunday.
NASCAR will need every bit of that and more to stop the bleeding. At some point, their slide needs to hit rock bottom... right?
Tales of the Turtles 400
Time: 3 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Chicagoland Speedway (Joliet, Ill.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Larson & Truex
It was fitting the regular season finale came down to two rivals that traded the points lead earlier this year. Truex led a race-high 198 laps, but it was Larson who got the best of him on Richmond pit road after that final caution. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver has now closed the deal twice in the last month, besting Truex late when all hope seemed lost for the No. 42 Chevrolet.
That’s important considering Larson spent much of the year playing bridesmaid. Seven second-place finishes are a reminder that he, not Truex could easily be entering Chicagoland with the most playoff points.
But Truex, for his part will be a formidable foe. He’s led a career and series high 1,646 laps, led in 20 of 26 races and earned four wins. It’s earned him an edge of up to 50 points on other postseason contenders and a virtual mulligan in every round.
Who’s at the Back: Derrike Cope
Cope, the flashpoint behind that final caution, was more than a dozen laps down at the time of his wreck. Released by his part-time ride, Premium Motorsports, after the event the 1990 Daytona 500 winner has had an abysmal time of it this season. In 13 starts, he never finished inside the top 30 and was at least seven laps or more off the pace in each race. At age 58, a future Cup ride seems unlikely, especially considering how Saturday night wound up.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Drivers making their Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoff debut: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Ryan Blaney.
Lead Martin Truex Jr. starts with in round 1 of the postseason. Truex earned playoff bonus points through his wins, stage victories (one point each) and a 15-point boost for the regular season championship.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Toyota took the top three spots in Friday qualifying and all three could easily reach Victory Lane. My money’s on Denny Hamlin out of the trio as the No. 11 Toyota has an outstanding Chicagoland track record. With runs of sixth, first, and sixth in the last three 400-milers there the No. 11 Toyota has shown consistency. And don’t forget, even though the win was encumbered he dominated on an intermediate (Darlington) two weeks ago.
Kyle Busch isn’t a bad backup pick. He hasn’t won at Chicagoland since 2008 but has earned five straight top-10 finishes at the track. Add in his furor with Brad Keselowski and you’ve got a motivated guy this weekend.
Ryan Newman has to rely on consistency to make it through to the second round of the playoffs. He has that at Chicagoland where the No. 31 Chevrolet has run 15th, 4th, and 19th at the track.
Chase Elliott has struggled through much of the summer months. Hendrick Motorsports as a whole has appeared a step behind and struggled in qualifying compared to other playoff contenders. But let’s not forget last year’s race, one where Jimmie Johnson and Elliott took turns running up front. The sophomore led 75 laps before finishing a strong third and making his presence known in the playoffs. Keep him in mind for a possible sequel.
This one is more of a gut feeling. Danica Patrick hasn’t run well at Chicagoland, earning an average finish of 22.8 while never running better than 19th. But over the summer, the No. 10 team quietly picked up the pace and her pending removal from Stewart-Haas Racing jacks up her sense of urgency. For the first time, sponsorship is not guaranteed for this 35-year-old going forward; she may need a late surge of good finishes to stay in the sport. Chicagoland also has some similarities to Kansas, a track where she contended for a top-10 finish this spring. It all adds up to a potential top-10 effort for a driver who sorely needs one right now.
What Vegas Thinks
Martin Truex Jr.had the edge Friday night with 15/4 odds over Kyle Busch’s6/1. Kyle Larson sits third at 9/2, rounding out the trio considered to be the championship favorites.
What I Think
Denny Hamlin raises eyebrows as the Toyota driver beating Truex, Busch, and Matt Kenseth to the line in a Chicagoland race dominated by Joe Gibbs Racing chassis. Yes, Brad Keselowski will have reason to complain.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Top photo by ASP Inc.)