Say what you will about the NASCAR playoffs and its eliminations, but it sure does lead to some interesting twists and turns.
Kyle Larson was having the best season of his young career with four wins and 324 stage points. He was probably having the second-best 2017 behind Martin Truex Jr. But his first blown engine of 2017, and the subsequent 39th-place finish, at Kansas last week leaves him on the outside looking in of the round of eight – his championship hopes dashed.
The 25-year-old California native was measured in his response to the misfortune.
“I’m not stunned because freak things happen in every sport,” said Larson. “If you look at every year in the past … not always does the best team win. Not saying we’re the best team, but we’ve been one of the contenders all season long. It’s a long 10-race playoff season.
“Anything can happen.”
Larson is right. Just look at what happened to Truex last year at Talladega. After a dominant season, a blown engine left him in the same spot as the driver of the No. 42.
The quest for eight continues for Jimmie Johnson. He looked dead in the water after a mid-race spin sent his Chevrolet careening through the grass at Kansas. The dreaded “as they run” had him double-digit points in arears of the cutoff line.
His team rallied back, but even with an eventual 11th-place. He currently sits fifth in the standings heading to Martinsville this week, but he may have remained outside of the top eight had it not been for:
The (expletive-deleted) show that Matt Kenseth’s afternoon turned out to be. Making what would be his last meaningful ride in the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20 Toyota, Kenseth got caught up in the big crash on lap 197 that was just the beginning of his troubles. As the team was working to repair the car, NASCAR threw the park-it-ban-hammer on Kenseth’s day for having seven men over the wall working on the car. In the days of the five-minutes-to-fix-accident-damage-and-get-back-up-to-race-speed, this is a no-no. Kenseth’s day was done and he was none too happy.
“I don’t know what any of the rules are,” the 2003 champion said before the race ended. “Seems like we got a lot of stuff that kind of gets, you know, changed so often I honestly can’t keep up with it.
“My head kind of spins from putting lugnuts out of pit boxes to one too many guys over the wall; you’re not allowed to race anymore. I just don’t get it, to be honest with you. I really don’t have a lot of good to say right now. I’m more than disappointed.”
Understandable, especially considering his circumstances and the uncertainty of his 2018 plans.
My son’s favorite driver, young Ryan Blaney, started shotgun on the field after NASCAR found an issue with the No. 21 Wood Brothers’ Ford’s tray package (the shelf area under the rear window) during post-qualifying tech inspection. He lost his third-place qualifying effort and the pit selection that went along with it.
Blaney came into the race in seventh place in the standings, a perilous position to be sure. Not to be deterred, Blaney raced a fast Ford into the top 10 by the end of the first stage, en route to nine playoff points and a third-place finish. He may not make it out of the third round (he’s currently 60 points behind Truex), but for a guy in his second full season in Cup, it will be a successful season either way.
“We started off in the back and were able to make some good ground early,” Blaney said after the race. “We were able to run up through there and made good adjustments throughout the day which got us in a spot to be up toward the front at the end and advance.”
“It was a solid day for our team. We overcame a lot coming from the back and they should be proud of that.”
To break out the sportswriters’ book of clichés: this is why they play the game, or run the race, as it were. Or, if you prefer, it’s not over until the final buzzer/whistle/out, or checkered flag (the black and white one, not the green and white one). Sure it may be a bit contrived, but I’m pretty sure in any other format, the last four races would be fairly meaningless and everyone would be complaining about that.
Andy Cagle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.