LEBANON, Tenn. — With no clear front runners nine races before the Cup playoffs begin, every point, every decision and every move can make an impact on the race for the championship.
A day before last weekend’s Cup race at Nashville Superspeedway, Denny Hamlin noted how close the competition will be in the playoffs. What Chase Elliott did in Sunday’s race could have reverberations in the fall.
Elliott’s win gives him 13 playoff points, tied with Ross Chastain and William Byron for most this season. Joey Logano and Hamlin both have 12 playoff points. Seven more drivers are within at least seven playoff points of Elliott, Chastain and Byron.
“I think that this will be without a doubt the most unpredictable playoffs simply because one bad race by a good team, they will not have the playoff points to give them a buffer to get to the next round,” Hamlin said. “There’s liable to be very big teams or even favorites in this championship that will be taken out in the first and second round because they don’t have the big playoff points that our favorites had in the past.
“I’m one one stage win away from being P1 in the playoffs which is crazy considering our season, but it shows when we’re upfront, we get it done, and when we are bad, we’re fully bad. So I think that I’m excited to see where it goes, but I’m also nervous that we better get our (stuff) together at every every racetrack here in the next 10 weeks.”
There were a couple of key moments in Sunday’s race that helped Elliott score his second win of the season.
When the race resumed near halfway, Elliott restarted 15th. He quickly moved to ninth after the restart and finished fourth in the stage.
“I felt like that was kind of the moment in the race I was like, ‘All right, we should win this race,’” crew chief Alan Gustafson said. “Ultimately I didn’t feel like we were going to pass (Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr.) at the time on equal ground, so I wanted to get off sequence with them there, and when I did, not as many people pitted as I had hoped so we were a little bit further back, and he got back to what you’re referencing, fourth or fifth, in no time. I was like, this gives us a huge advantage.”
On the restart to begin the final stage, Elliott was second and started on the front row with Busch, who was on the outside. Elliott quickly got the lead and control of the race.
“I felt like the opportunity was there to do it, if the circumstances go your way, and fortunately they did,” Elliott said. “Once we got the lead there, it was just trying to control my gap to him, run my race, manage my tires the best I could and not lose the lead. Then hope that a caution didn’t come out. I hate that it did, but it did, and fortunately it worked out for us.”
Elliott held the lead and when the caution waved, he stayed out, while the Gibbs cars of Busch, Truex and Hamlin all pitted. With 10 cars staying out, they were trapped behind those cars and saw their chances of winning end.
And it was Elliott scoring the five playoff points that could matter later in the season.
“Look, you just have to keep bringing strong race cars to the racetrack,” he said. “You have to keep putting yourself in position to win.
“When you’re battling up front and you have shots to win, the points thing is going to take care of itself. You might be faced if you can achieve the first part of that, you might be faced with a situation here or there where you have to decide whether or not you want to get stage points or whether or not you want to try to go for the race win, and those things are — that’s just part of the world we live in now with stages.”
Sunday was a step in right direction for Kevin Harvick and his team — even if crew chief Rodney Childers walked out of the garage frustrated.
Childers wasn’t happy with his decision to pit Harvick before the final restart. Harvick was seventh when the caution waved. Had he stayed out, he would have been third before the restart. Instead, he restarted 15th after pitting because 10 cars stayed out. Harvick finished 10th.
“Probably should have finished third, but the 4 car’s M.O. has always been being on the aggressive side; on the going-forward side, not the trying-to-hold-people-off side,” Childers told NBC Sports.
“With this car, that’s really difficult, to be honest with you. I think I’ve got to do a better job of adapting to the new car and realizing that we’re not going to pass 10 cars in five laps like we used to be able to.”
Still, Harvick has scored back-to-back top 10s. His longest streak this season is three top 10s in a row.
“Just to have speed and be able to run with the Gibbs cars all night, that was a big deal,” Childers said.
He told NBC Sports before the weekend that a key goal would be to qualify better and gain points in the opening stage. Harvick qualified 10th, the first time in the last nine races he had started in the top 10.
Harvick scored points in the opening stage for the first time in nine races. He also scored points in the second stage. The result was that he climbed back into the final playoff spot, bumping teammate Aric Almirola.
Another key was pit road. The team changed its front tire changer and jackman last week after Harvick had made critical comments about his pit crew’s performance after two of the last three races.
Childers said all went well on pit road.
“We had the fastest pit crew on pit road,” he said.
Harvick’s crew had six of its seven pits stops in the 10-second range, according to Racing Insights. The team’s fastest stop for a four-tire change was 10.24 seconds on its first stop. It’s slowest stop was 11.98 seconds. Harvick gained three spots on pit road during a stop under caution after the end of the second stage, moving him to fifth.
“It was a really good weekend and something we can build on,” Childers said.
Ross Chastain overcame pitting an extra time early in the race to tighten the rear right wheel and rally back to a fifth-place finish.
It was a matter of being cautious and avoiding a four-week suspension for Chastain’s crew chief and two pit crew members should the wheel come off.
Before Chastain came back to pit on Lap 46 of the 300-lap race, there was some debate if to do so.
“The nut wasn’t quite tight and it looked fine,” Chastain said after the race. “Half of our group said to leave me out there, and half of our group said, ‘No, let’s take it back off and put it back on.’
“I couldn’t see anything. Part of our coaching staff was looking at the video and said we would have left the car out on the track.
“It was better safe than sorry. It was one of those 50-50 (calls). We don’t want (crew chief) Phil Surgen and our crew gone (as part of a four-week suspension for a wheel coming off on track). It’s just such a penalty to lose them if the tire comes off.”
Later in the race, Chris Buescher’s wheel came off on track and his team faces that penalty. That is the 11th time this season a wheel has come off during the race.
Here are the previous 10 times a wheel came off, leading to a penalty to a four-race suspension for the crew chief and two pit crew members:
- Justin Haley (Daytona 500)
- Kaz Grala (Daytona 500)
- Todd Gilliland (Auto Club)
- Corey LaJoie (Phoenix)
- Bubba Wallace (COTA)
- BJ McLeod (Talladega)
- Denny Hamlin (Dover)
- AJ Allmendinger (Dover)
- Justin Haley (Kansas)
- Kyle Larson (Sonoma)
Justin Allgaier’s win Saturday was his second Xfinity victory of the season. It marks the fifth time in the last six years he has won multiple Xfinity races in a season.
It’s a big turnaround from when he was in Cup with a smaller team and struggled in 2014-15. He returned to Xfinity in 2016 and has been with JR Motorsports since. Fifteen of his 18 career series wins have come after he returned from Cup.
“Do I feel like I could still go to (Cup) and get in a good car and be competitive? Absolutely,” Allgaier said. “But the opportunities aren’t necessarily always the right opportunities. I love this series. I love this race team that I’m a part of.”
Allgaier appreciates the situation he is in and sees how not being with the right team can impact a driver’s career.
“There are some overly talented race car drivers on the Cup side that just don’t have the right situation,” Allgaier said. “I’m not saying that it’s even a good car. Especially with the (Next Gen) car and the parity there is with the car, it takes every detail. You’ve got crew chief, the engineers and you’ve got the pit crew and all these things that just gel together and work. That’s where we’re at with this race team.”
The victory also is the sixth in 15 races this year for JR Motorsports. The organization has won five of the last seven races.
Noah Gragson started the run with a victory at Talladega. Josh Berry followed by winning at Dover. Allgaier made it three in a row for the organization with his Darlington triumph. Berry later went on to win at Charlotte. Then came Allgaier’s win at Nashville.