One Lap Of Glory: Austin Dillon’s Daytona Triumph

The Monster Energy Nascar Cup Series drivers could learn a valuable lesson by following the example set first by Kurt Busch in 2017, and second by Austin Dillon a year later. If you’re going to lead only a single lap over the course of the biggest racing spectacle of the year, just be sure to make it the one that counts.

Sounds simple? Think again.

History dictates that Nascar’s superspeedway races are most often crapshoots, where anything can happen, probably will, and any given driver’s “good day” can turn around in a heartbeat, Don’t believe it? Just ask Ryan Blaney, who appeared on the verge of victory after leading 118 laps before finding himself caught in a melee involving last year’s winner, Kurt Busch; rookie polesitter Alex Bowman; and reigning series champion, Martin Truex Jr. And while Blaney would end up trading his potential victory for a nonetheless seventh-place finish, Lady Luck would not be quite so kind to a number of others who appeared in contention, as several high-profile drivers would find themselves on the outside looking in before all was said and done–notable among them rookie polesitter Alex Bowman, whose day ended in the 17th position; Kyle Larson, who finished 19th; Kyle Busch, scored 25th; Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski and Chase Elliott, all of whom finished below the 30th position; and perhaps the ultimate disappointment–Danica Patrick’s career-ending finish of 35th after involvement in the same multi-car crash that ended the day for Elliott and Keselowski.

But for all of those bitten by their unfortunate encounters with Lady B. Luck (the “B” standing for “Bad”), a few surprises of the more pleasant kind awaited some of their fellow competitors, most notable among them being unexpected top 10 finishers Anthony James “A.J” Allmendinger (10th), Michael McDowell (9th), Paul Menard (6th, in his new ride with the legendary Wood Brothers), Chris Buescher (5th), runner-up and series rookie Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. in his Daytona 500 debut; and last but certainly not least, the 2018 Daytona 500 Champion Austin Dillon. And although Dillon’s last lap move which ultimately took would-be-winner Aric Almirola out of contention would be met with a bit of disdain and controversy, nonetheless it served as a reminder that no race is ever over until the drop of the checkered flag–marking the second consecutive season in which the biggest race of the year was won by a driver who led only “the most important lap.”

So the pageantry and hype surrounding Nascar’s version of the Super Bowl are in the books. And no matter how the fans and critics alike view the outcome or feel about how the race was ultimately won, or how they view the overkill of comments concerning the return of the iconic Number 3 to victory lane at Daytona, the time has now come to put the most celebrated event of the year to rest as the teams move on to Atlanta this weekend and focus on the remaining 35 races of the season. Just what lies ahead remains to be seen, but one thing is certain:

We’re ready. Start your engines, and bring it on.

Lisa Ballantyne, Totally Nascar Talk
All views herein are my own. Readers’ comments are always welcome.

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A New Perspective On The “Super Bowl”

Ladies and gentlemen, I come bearing good news: The wait is over, and there’s a Super Bowl on the horizon!

That’s right. I said a Super Bowl; only I’m not speaking of the one involving two teams comprised of full-grown men knocking each other over on a turf-covered field while fighting over possession of an inflated piece of pig skin. Nor am I referring to that same “big game” that climaxes one of the shortest seasons in the world of professional sports, with most of the hype and attention going not to the game itself but rather to the creatively constructed commercial interruptions interspersed into the action on the field. While such a spectacle has undeniably earned its place of honor and prestige among the fans whose loyalty and dedication have elevated it to a status nothing short of royalty, I am speaking instead of the “real” Super Bowl: the one that opens rather than closes its season in front of thousands–even millions–of die-hard fans who’ve waited patiently over three months’ time to hear (and I quote) “the most famous words in motorsports.”

“Drivers, Start Your Engines!”

Race fans, prepare yourselves to once again be witnesses to all the glamour, glitz and glory of a “Super Bowl” all our own:

The 60th running of the Daytona 500.

So just what is it that separates this particular event from the remaining 35 races in the season, and puts it into a class all by itself? Plenty of rich history, for starters. From its inaugural running in 1959, straight into the modern era of restrictor plates and updated body styles on the race cars, “The Great American Race” has managed to continually maintain a certain air of fascination and intrigue for fans all across the board. Whether it’s exciting, edge-of-your-seat finishes such as the 1959 battle between Johnny Beauchamp and Lee Petty (by a margin so close that it took three days to officially declare Petty the winner), or sideline drama such as the now-infamous Yarborough-Allison fist-fest (that managed to steal the thunder from Richard Petty who actually took the checkers), or the emotion-filled first Cup Series victories of Tiny Lund, Mario Andretti, Pete Hamilton, Derrike Cope, Sterling Marlin, Michael Waltrip and Trevor Bayne; or the arguably most popular 500 victory ever–Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s successful 20th attempt to capture the checkers in 1998, there is no denying that a win in the Daytona 500 is a victory unlike any other in the world of Nascar racing, carrying with it the honor of being hailed not simply as the “winner,” but as the Daytona 500 “champion.” What other professional sport opens its season with its biggest event of the year and crowns a “champion”? None that your writer has encountered over the years; that’s for certain.

But the race’s prestigious history is not the only thing that sets it apart. No other event during the course of the season is preceeded by such exciting pageantry as what has come to be known as Daytona Speedweeks, during which time fans are treated to a literal spectacle of actual racing beyond the traditional qualifying format. While the front row starters are determined by a normal qualifying procedure, the remainder of the field is set by the finishing orders of two separate events known as the Duel at Daytona, allowing fans to enjoy a full exhibition of actual racing activity to kick off a new season before settling into a “business as usual” format for the remaining events of the year.

Whatever aspects of the Daytona 500 and its unique intrigue may captivate and hold the attention of the individual fan, whether it be its prestige and history, or simply the thrill and excitement of the action opening a long-awaited season after a three-month hiatus, one thing is undeniable. Beginning with that first official command to fire the engines, and culminating with the drop of the checkered flag and the presentation of the respected Harley J. Earl trophy, excitement will once again fill the air for both drivers and fans alike, and that same excitement is guaranteed to carry over into each event that follows.

What surprises await us in 2018? Hold on to your seats, Nascar fans–the answers are about to unfold.

Bring on the Super Bowl!

Lisa Ballantyne, Totally Nascar Talk
All views herein are my own. Readers’ comments are always welcome.

A Champion Moves On: Saluting The Career Of Matt Kenseth

When the 2018 Monster Energy Nascar Cup Series drivers fire their engines for this weekend’s running of the 60th Daytona 500, fans will find one familiar and much-beloved face missing from the lineup. No, I’m not referring to the 15-time winner of the Most Popular Driver honors, Dale Earnhardt Jr. While Dale’s absence will certainly be felt by all those who’ve comprised “Junior Nation” ever since his rookie season in 2000, I’m speaking of the driver from Cambridge, Wisconsin who burst onto the Cup scene alongside Dale Jr. and captured said season’s Rookie Of The Year honors: Matthew Roy “Matt” Kenseth.

Ever since last season’s official announcement that Matt would not be returning to the Joe Gibbs Racing lineup for the 2018 season, one question remained on the minds of his loyal fan following: Would the end of 2017 mark the last ride of the 2003 Cup Series champion, or would the opportunity for a fresh start with a new organization present itself? And while his fans everywhere were on the edges of their seats in hopes for a new beginning for their beloved favorite, the ending that ultimately unfolded has pointed his future in a different direction.

But all is not lost, as the end of his storied Cup Series career presents the opportunity for Matt, his family and his fans to reflect on all that he accomplished over his years behind the wheel–and those accomplishments are many. They include a 6th place finish at Dover in his limited run series debut in 1998; then-Winston Cup rookie of the year honors in 2000, including posting his first Cup victory in the Coca-Cola 600 (the only rookie driver on record to win the season’s most lengthy event); capturing a single pole position and five victories in 2002–making him the winningest driver in that particular season; taking the International Race Of Champions (IROC) championship in 2004; finishing the 2006 and 2013 seasons as runner-up in the championship standings; and scoring two Daytona 500 championships (2009 and 2012). However, his ultimate career honor came in 2003 when he won the sport’s Premier Series championship title, posting a single victory, 11 top-five finishes and 25 top-tens, spending 35 of the 36 weeks of the season inside the top ten in points. In a total of 650 career starts, he recorded a total of 39 victories, arguably the highlight among them being his final run for the checkers at Phoenix International Raceway (now ISM Raceway) in November of 2017–a very emotional victory after having been previously eliminated from championship contention–and is a very likely future candidate for induction into the Nascar Hall Of Fame. All things considered, not a bad way for a driver to cap off a career.

So what’s next for the 45 year old husband, father and former series champion? While his loyal fans still hold out hope for a fresh start with a new organization at some point in 2018, it appears at this point in time that he will be settling into the less hectic pace of enjoying uninterrupted time with his wife Katie and their three daughters, while quite possibly watching his son Ross carry on the Kenseth racing legacy in the ARCA series. Whatever his future now holds, one thing is certain: His accomplishments have earned him a place of honor in Nascar history, and that is good reason for Matt and his faithful following of  fans alike to celebrate.

Thanks for the memories.

–Lisa Ballantyne, Totally Nascar Talk
All views herein are my own. Readers’ comments are always welcome.

The Gloves Are Off, The Playoffs Are On: Title Caps Off Dream Season For Martin Truex Jr.

The final edition of the 2017 Monster Energy Nascar Cup Series Playoffs is brought to you by the letter “T” for “Truex’s Triumph.”

When the time is at hand for a Nascar driver to cap off a banner season of racing, he might as well do so in grandiose fashion. And Martin Truex Jr.’s fight to the finish in Sunday’s running of the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway would most certainly prove to be the ultimate test of his desire and determination to end the 2017 season as the best of the best. Nevermind his incredible success prior to the finale, including seven wins, 18 top five finishes, 25 top ten runs, three pole positions and an average finishing position of 9.7.* Impressive as those numbers may have appeared as this year’s top four entered Homestead, the final event of the season was going to be a whole new game. With the points for the remaining contenders having been reset to an even 5000, the outcome which would decide the 2017 championship was now any contender’s game, and everything was on the line.

This was a season finale to end all season finales. It had a little bit of it all.  Fans were on the edges of their seats as the drama began to unfold and the picture appeared to keep changing throughout the day. With one eliminated contender (Denny Hamlin) starting from the pole position; Kyle Larson (another eliminee and Truex’s longtime closest rival for the title) finishing the day and his overall-impressive season in third position; Matt Kenseth following up the previous week’s emotional victory (and quite possibly ending his entire career) with a top ten; and a back-and-forth see-saw of charges to the front of the field by all four title-eligible drivers for the duration, it quickly became clear that a successful run for the championship was not going to come easily. For that matter, a guaranteed victory for one of the final four appeared to be in question as Kyle Larson’s dominance at the front of the field ultimately resulted in stage wins and the accompanying points for two of the three phases of the event. However, before the checkers would fall to end the day and the season, each of the four remaining contenders would find themselves leading the charge, leaving everyone in suspense regarding the final outcome, until the picture at last came into focus with a hard-fought battle between Truex and second-place Kyle Busch–a battle which would ultimately seal the deal for the driver whose consistency essentially dominated the entire season.

In the eyes of a great many loyal race fans, the championship title could not have been awarded to a more deserving individual. Prior to his successful 2017 bid, his highest finish in a season was fourth (2015), although he closed out three prior seasons (2007, 2012 and 2015) just outside of the top ten, in eleventh position and knocking on the door. His hopes for a title in the 2013 season, however, came to an abrupt end in the aftermath of a controversial decision on the part of Nascar to disqualify him from further contention thanks to a mid-race spinout by then-teammate Clint Bowyer, which Nascar deemed “on purpose” in order to eliminate Ryan Newman from contention and advance Truex to the next level. And while Nascar saw fit to eliminate Truex (yet at the same time, allow Bowyer to continue his quest), advance Newman and add another contender (Jeff Gordon) into the mix, fans were outraged, many of them feeling that Martin, who ended the season outside of the top ten when all was said and done, was the incident’s completely innocent victim. Talk about the ultimate disappointment. But in the aftermath, Truex’s determination to prove himself worthy only seemed to grow stronger, and reached a turning point when he signed on for a full-time deal with Furniture Row Racing in 2014. While his debut performance with the Denver, Colorado-based organization proved disappointing, little did the team know that things were about to take a complete turnaround from which he would never look back. Yet the road ahead would not always be an easy one.

From a professional standpoint, his racing career was on the verge of great success. However, the 2014 ovarian cancer diagnosis of his longtime girlfriend, Sherry Pollex, would present the couple with a new set of personal challenges, all of which were met with dignity and grace as he was her rock throughout endless treatments and she was his greatest inspiration to keep pressing on toward the ultimate racing achievement: winning a championship at Nascar’s top level of competition. Her presence at the tracks on race day inspired us all, as she excitedly celebrated his victories in spite of her state of physical health; and her absence during scheduled hospital stays and further treatments would only inspire Martin and the team to work harder, knowing that she would be watching (and celebrating) from her hospital room. Theirs was indeed a true sense of “teamwork” extending beyond the momentary glory of a kiss in Victory Lane, the raising of a trophy and the obligatory “thank you” speeches in the aftermath. And it inspired and continues to inspire race fans everywhere.

With Truex’s thrilling victory capping off  the most successsful season of his career to date, 2017’s chapter in Monster Energy Nascar Cup Series history has now drawn to a close. All that remains is the official presentation of the trophy and check, and once more the countdown to Daytona Speedweeks will commence. But in between the awards banquet and the onset of the 2018 season, there will be plenty of time for Nascar’s newest champion to bask in the glory of his amazing accomplishments, while offering much-needed encouragement and support to his life-partner as her courageous fight continues. What lies in store for him next season is yet to be seen, but one thing is certain: his place in Nascar history, long awaited and much deserved, is at last solidified, and this is his moment of glory.

Just call him Champion.

–Lisa Ballantyne, Totally Nascar Talk
All views herein are my own. Readers’ comments are always welcome.
*Statistics prior to entering the season finale

End Of The Ride: A Salute To Dale Earnhardt Jr.

On Sunday, November 19, 2017, emotions will be running high at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Not only will this year’s running of the Ford EcoBoost 400 mark the end of another Nascar season and the crowning of a new Monster Energy Cup Series champion, but it will also signify the end of the career of arguably the most beloved driver in the modern era of the sport–Dale Earnhardt Jr.

For his many loyal fans–known collectively as “Junior Nation”–the day will most certainly be bittersweet, marking the end of a career that began at the age of 17 competing at the Street Stock level before graduating to Late Model racing, and eventually to racing full time in what is now known as the Nascar Xfinity Series where he won back-to-back championships in 1998 and 1999 before making his full-time Cup Series debut in the year 2000. Without question the highlight of his Cup Series debut was scoring two victories (Texas and Richmond) and finishing the season 16th in the standings and runner-up to Matt Kenseth for Rookie Of The Year honors.

Undoubtedly, a major turning point in Dale’s career was the tragic death of his legendary father, Dale Sr., on the final lap of the 2001 running of the Daytona 500. Not only would he be next in line to carry the legacy of the Earnhardt name, but he would be carrying the “Dale” Earnhardt name, with the addition of the “Jr.” suffix. Expectations from his fans and fans of the sport in its entirety ran high, with the greater majority of his father’s fan base jumping on board to form what would later become known as “Junior Nation.” He would subsequently go on to win the sport’s Most Popular Driver award for 14 seasons, with the likelihood of ending his career with a 15th honor before passing the torch to the next group of hopefuls.

While his chances at securing a championship at Nascar’s top level have alluded him, his numerous other accomplishments nonetheless comprise a most impressive career record. These include a total of 26 victories (as of this writing, with one race remaining), notable among them two Daytona 500 victories and  six victories at the legendary “Terrible Talladega,” five short track victories, four seasons finishing top five in the standings, and a rookie season victory in the All-Star race. He is also credited with over 8,000 career laps led, 260 finishes inside the top ten and 149 inside the top five, 15 starts from the pole position and 11 seasons of winning at least one race. When all is said and done, that’s quite a resume to cap off a driver’s career.

So what’s next for the 42 year old driver from Kannapolis, NC, once the checkers fall at Homestead this weekend? His fans will still be able to see him in the broadcast booth in 2018, as the newest member of the NBC commentator team. In addition, he and wife Amy will be launching a show on the DIY television network, focusing on property that the couple own in Key West, Florida. And last but certainly not least, the happy couple recently announced that they are expecting their first child, a daughter, due in May.

As his fans and all of Nascar Nation prepare to bid farewell to the driver whose career they have followed for so many years, may they do so treasuring the memories of his greatest accomplishments while at the same time sharing his excitement for the new chapter that lies ahead. We can’t wait to see what is going to unfold.

Thanks for taking all of us along for the ride, Dale. We salute you.

–Lisa Ballantyne, Totally Nascar Talk
All views herein are my own. Readers’ comments are always welcome.

 

The Gloves Are Off, The Playoffs Are On: Showdown In The Desert

This week’s edition of the Monster Energy Nascar Cup Series Playoffs is brought to you by the letter “L” for “Last Call.” For the eight drivers remaining in contention for the title, Phoenix represented their last opportunity to complete 2017’s final four, while for a former contender, eliminated and facing an uncertain future, “The Desert” ultimately represented one more shot to experience the glitz and glory of Victory Lane.

When the eight remaining contenders left Texas Motor Speedway last weekend, they did so well aware that only one spot remained to complete the 2017 Championship Four picture, and thus, the pressure would be on at Phoenix. Only two options remained: win, or be the highest-finishing contender at the fall of the checkers. And one thing was certain at the drop of the green: With the last shot at securing a championship at stake, the time for pulling out all the stops had come, and fans were going to see a fight to the finish.

In the end, not one, but two drivers would triumph: Brad Keselowski, who began the day with the best statistical opportunity to advance on points, and race winner Matt Kenseth, who would treat his loyal fan following to arguably the most emotion-packed victory of his storied career.

But the success stories of these two individuals were not the only highlights of the day, as the remaining championship hopefuls who ultimately fell short of advancing to next week’s grand finale arrived in Phoenix with agendas of their own to fulfill. For Chase Elliott, it would be yet another hard fight to the finish, staring that elusive first series victory in the face until Kenseth’s pass for the lead in those closing laps ultimately relegated him once again to a runner-up finish. Denny Hamlin’s dominant performance for the better part of the day would come to an abrupt end courtesy of a bumper encounter with Elliott (possible retaliation for the infamous Martinsville incident between the two-?), sending his championship hopes behind the wall and straight to the garage. And although polesitter Ryan Blaney’s day began on a high note, he quickly lost momentum and failed to earn the stage points necessary for further advancement. The ultimate disappointment of the day, however, had to belong (at least from this writer’s perspective) to seven-time series champion Jimmie Johnson, whose hopes for that unprecedented eighth title would come to an end thanks to a blown tire around lap 150.

So it all comes down to this. Four drivers: Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski. One race: Homestead-Miami. One goal: A championship. Who will survive and take home the hardware?

Stay tuned. The final chapter awaits.

–Lisa Ballantyne, Totally Nascar Talk
All views herein are my own. Readers’ comments are always welcome.

The Gloves Are Off, The Playoffs Are On: Hard-Charging Harvick Closes Texas Deal

This week’s edition of the Monster Energy Nascar Cup Series Playoffs is brought to you by the letter “H” for “Hard Charger.”

When Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick captured the checkered flag at Texas Motor Speedway this past Sunday, he not only secured his spot in 2017’s Final Four, but he also checked another “first” off his to-do list, namely, the right to don the Stetson hat and tote the pistols that have become the signature trophies at Ft. Worth’s 1.5 mile oval. And he did so in a manner most definitive of his nickname “The Closer.”

Following the accident on lap 282 that resulted in the third consecutive DNF for former title contender Kyle Larson, points leader Martin Truex Jr. would maintain the lead and appear poised for his eighth victory celebration of 2017 until Hard Charging Harvick surged past Kasey Kahne, Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin by lap 307, and finally passed Truex for the lead on lap 325, never looking back and forcing the points leader to settle for a second-place finish by day’s end.

So how does Harvick’s victory and the Texas outcome affect the playoff picture as the teams head to Phoenix this weekend? With three drivers–Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch and Harvick locked into the final show, that leaves Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott and Jimmie Johnson to battle it out for one last shot to compete for the big trophy at Homestead in two weeks. Of the five remaining contenders, two (Keselowski and Johnson) are former series champions; one (Hamlin) has earned consecutive playoff berths each year since his rookie season (2006) but is yet to win the title; one (Elliott) is making his second appearance in the playoffs in as many seasons racing the series; and one (Blaney) qualified as a contender for the first time in this, his sophomore season. All in all, the diverse levels of age and experience are going to make for an interesting battle to fill the final open spot in the Championship Four and set the stage for a “Winner Take All” scenario at Homestead.

Statistically speaking, although Jimmie Johnson enters Phoenix sitting last among the field of eight, he is also credited with four Phoenix victories and nine finishes inside the top five, along with a determined hunger to capture that unprecedented eighth series title when all is said and done. A rather impressive resume. And while 2012 series champion Brad Keselowski finds himself sitting in the final transfer spot should none of the remaining five post a win this weekend, he will still need to post a solid finish to secure the position, and hope that none of the remaining contenders emerge victorious. For Denny Hamlin, Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott, the bottom line is simple: win, and you’re in. Anything less is unacceptable.

The stage is set. The drivers are focused. The goal is clear. The excitement is building. One spot remains to set the final field for Homestead.

Who will complete the picture?

–Lisa Ballantyne, Totally Nascar Talk
All views herein are my own. Readers’ comments are always welcome.

The Gloves Are Off, The Playoffs Are On: Emerging From Martinsville’s Disappointment, A Fan Favorite Finds His Edge

If there is one thing for which short track racing has become quite infamous over the years, it is the sure-fire guarantee that before the checkered flag falls, drama in some form or another is going to ensue, and this past weekend’s running of the First Data 500 at Martinsville Speedway certainly lived up to said expectations. Entering the weekend with six playoff races in the books and the original field of contenders reduced by half, the remaining championship hopefuls were certain of one thing: the time to find and maintain their focus was at hand. And consistent with the past history and not-so-friendly reputation that has become synonymous with short track racing, all hell was about to break loose at Nascar’s legendary “Paperclip,” and the aftertaste left in the mouths of the drivers involved and their respective fan bases would be most bitter.

This week’s edition of the Monster Energy Nascar Cup Series Playoffs focuses on one contender’s emergence from the aftermath of a great day gone bad, and is brought to you by the letter “D” for “Defining Moment.”

No More Mr. Nice Guy
Looking back on the surprising turn of events that ensued last weekend at Martinsville, perhaps a more appropriate title for this week’s commentary would be “When Nice Guys Finish Last–Or Not At All.” Such was nearly the case for sophomore sensation and fan favorite Chase Elliott, as yet another chance to record that elusive first Cup Series victory slipped away in the final laps of the First Data 500, “courtesy” of fellow title contender Denny Hamlin. And while Elliott did not literally finish “last,” there is no doubt that watching the jaws of defeat swallow up yet another potential win had to have been the ultimate low point in his otherwise impressive career to date.

What fans would find most surprising about Elliott’s most recent near-victory, however, would not so much be the disappointment of the loss but rather his post-wreck display of frustration when confronting Hamlin. While his trackside demeanor to date could very easily be characterized as that of Nascar’s newest Mr. Nice Guy, it should not be forgotten that even the nicest of the nice eventually reach a breaking point, and when said point finally comes to fruition, a door to the unexpected opens and carries the potential to completely shatter an individual’s seemingly flawless image.

This is not to say that young Mr. Elliott’s signature quality is necessarily a bad thing, or that a driver with a squeaky-clean image should be labeled boring or a pushover. But the moment that he stepped out of his wrecked car and confronted Hamlin over the incident–to his credit, still maintaining a certain level of professional demeanor–a new side of his persona would emerge for all to see: a side with “edge,” a characteristic essential to an individual wishing to be taken seriously as a contender. And while the unfortunate aftermath of Sunday’s incident would leave Chase sitting eighth–dead last– among the remaining title hopefuls as the series moves to Texas this coming weekend, your writer (admittedly one of many among his rapidly growing fan base) is firmly holding onto the familiar cliche that states “It ain’t over til it’s over.” Furthermore, it is going to be most interesting to see how well that Nascar’s newest answer to the Hatfields and McCoys (aka Elliott and Hamlin) choose to behave themselves on the schedule’s remaining race tracks. Will they be able, after having a week’s time in which to cool their heels, to conduct themselves like true professionals, considering that both drivers remain in championship contention at this point? Does the new side of Elliott that fans witnessed last weekend signify the end of his easy-demeanor image that we have become familiar with to this point? Will there be a few more surprises of the unpleasant variety in store from these two? And just how closely will Nascar now be monitoring their on-track conduct (or misconduct) considering the strong possibility of retaliation in some form at any given moment?

Legitimate questions–and in search of the answers, fans should find this Sunday’s AAA Texas 500 most interesting.

Bring on the Stetsons and pistols!

–Lisa Ballantyne, Totally Nascar Talk
All views herein are my own. Readers’ comments are always welcome.

The Gloves Are Off, The Playoffs Are On: The Kansas Chronicle

As the 2017 Nascar Playoff segment began, sixteen hopeful contenders entered Chicagoland Speedway in pursuit of the ultimate prize: the honor of hoisting the championship trophy at the end of November. Two three-race segments have now seen their completion, advancing eight drivers to segment three, with the remaining four reaching the end of their journey as the checkers fell at Kansas Speedway.

This week’s edition of the Monster Energy Nascar Cup Series Playoffs is brought to you by the letter “E” for “Elation,” “Elimination” and “Emotion.”

The Elated
Without question, the most elated driver coming from Sunday’s field has to be race winner Martin Truex Jr. This would not be the first time that he and the team would bounce back from a potentially major setback to emerge victorious, proving once again that given the right set of circumstances, plus the skill and teamwork of his pit crew, and not to mention, a little luck besides, the possibilities are endless. With his position in the next round of the playoffs having already been secured by his victory at Charlotte Motor Speedway (another incredible comeback from unfortunate circumstances), he remains this writer’s hands-down favorite to hoist his first premier level championship trophy at Homestead-Miami at the end of November. But while Martin’s undeniable domination throughout the course of the season practically labels him a shoe-in for this year’s title, lest we forget–there are seven other drivers still in contention, who couldn’t and wouldn’t be happier should they accomplish the unthinkable and upset the proverbial applecart. The remaining field includes four previous champions hoping to repeat, (among them the driver shooting for an unprecedented eighth series title), and three talented hopefuls looking to capture a first-time championship and secure their rightful place in the sport’s history books. And with four races now remaining to settle the score, it’s still anybody’s game.

The Eliminated
Of the four contenders whose journey came to an end on Sunday, undeniably the most heartbreaking and shocking would be the driver who gave Martin Truex Jr. a run for the money over the course of the regular season and into the previous stage of the playoffs: Kyle Larson. By all indications it appeared that the Homestead finale would come down to a hard-fought battle between Kyle and Martin–reminiscent of the 2011 Tony Stewart/Carl Edwards scenario under the previous championship format–but early engine issues for Larson would ultimately paint a different picture, resulting in a finish of 39th and sending his hopes for a first series title up in (literal) smoke. A disappointed Kyle would later share via his Twitter account: “Crappy way to end our run at the championship but that’s just part of it sometimes. 25 yrs old, gonna have more opportunities with this team!”

Although most of the attention of the day focused understandably on Larson’s shocking elimination, fellow contenders Matt Kenseth, Jamie McMurray and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. suffered disappointments of their own that ultimately ended their hopes for advancement to the round of eight. For Kenseth, a pit violation involving an extra man over the wall resulted in his being parked after completing only 197 of the 267 scheduled laps–undoubtedly compounding the heartbreak surrounding his uncertain future after the 2017 season.

For Jamie McMurray, this season’s appearance in Nascar’s postseason failed to hold the proverbial third-time charm, as his day and championship hopes would end when he was among those collected in a 14-car incident on lap 198. And a previous incident occurring on lap 175 would eliminate first-time contender Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in spite of his remaining on the race track in hopes of salvaging valuable positions and points.

The Emotions
To say that everyone’s emotions were running high as the day at Kansas drew to a close would certainly be a gross understatement. Whether a contender’s day ended celebrating the opportunity to advance to the next phase, or looking back on what might have been, one thing is certain: racing for a championship is no small matter, and as the field of contenders continues to narrow and the stakes grow higher, it is a sure bet that the intensity of the emotion factor will continue to rise until a champion is crowned at Homestead next month.

What lies ahead for the eight remaining hopefuls is yet to be seen, but as the drivers head to Martinsville this weekend for the opening race of the third playoff round, the fierce reputation of the final short track on the schedule is certain to intensify the focus and determination of the contenders, and the excitement level for the fans. Will patience prevail and rule the day, or will the unique challenges of short track racing bring out the short tempers for which past Martinsville events have become infamous?

The answers await come Sunday afternoon. Bring on the excitement of the track appropriately nicknamed “The Paperclip!”

–Lisa Ballantyne, Totally Nascar Talk
All views herein are my own. Readers’ comments are always welcome.

This post is dedicated to the memory of Furniture Row fabricator James “Jim” Watson, who passed away the day before the running of Hollywood Casino 400, and to the “Hendrick 10” killed in the 2004 plane crash en route to the fall race at Martinsville Speedway.

The Gloves Are Off, The Playoffs Are On: Talladega’s Wild Ride

Talladega. The very word strikes fear in the hearts of drivers and fans alike, while eliciting at the same time eager anticipation among the same. Whenever the drivers take on the 2.66 mile superspeedway, there is never a question of “Will” something happen, but rather one of “When?,” “Caused by whom?,” and “How many cars?” Throughout the track’s history since its opening in the fall of 1969, fans have witnessed every kind of spectacular crash imaginable, oftentimes producing surprise winners whose saving grace was simply surviving the attrition factor to lead the only lap that mattered–the final one. It is a place where, to paraphrase Murphy’s Law, “Anything can happen–and probably will.”

Appropriately, this week’s edition of the Monster Energy Nascar Cup Series Playoffs is brought to you by the letter “W” for “The Winners,” “The Whiners” and “What The *#$%^&*?!?!?”

The Winners: Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano And Team Penske
It is no secret to fans familiar with the the track’s history and reputation that a victory at Talladega Superspeedway is rarely, if ever, earned easily. In most instances, the races are merely tests of driver survival skills, sometimes resulting in an expected favorite capturing the checkered flag, while at other times allowing an unexpected longshot to emerge victorious. Either of these scenarios has always managed to keep fans on the edge of their seats–sometimes cheering a favorable finish for their favorite, sometimes swearing at an unfortunate and unexpected misfortune befalling their driver of choice, but always exciting. And the excitement level of Sunday’s Alabama 500 ran especially high for fans of Penske Racing duo Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano. While only one driver (Keselowski) could and would emerge victorious at the drop of the checkers, Logano is also due major kudos for successfully blocking further advancement of sentimental favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. and helping to secure the win for his teammate while sacrificing his own shot at a victory. Quite the demonstration of the definition of teamwork–and yes, in this writer’s humble opinion, qualifies both drivers as “winners” in the grand scheme of things.

The Whiners: Clint Bowyer and Jimmie Johnson
While it is understandable that every driver has the occasional bad day at the office, there are times when the only thing that he or she can do is shut up, suck it up and learn something from the experience–especially at a track with Talladega’s reputation for unpredictability.  Take for instance, Clint Bowyer’s decision to stop his car on pit road and initiate a confrontation with crew chief Mike Bugarewicz over a pit stop that ultimately led to his involvement in an accident. And then there was Jimmie Johnson’s protest with respect to a red flag violation that left him parked for the remainder of the day. Sorry boys; your frustrations are understandable, but pit road is a dangerous place to air a vent against your crew chief, and a red flag is a red flag, despite claims of miscommunication as was Jimmie’s complaint.While his discontent may have held a certain degree of validity, Nascar cannot be held responsible for any misunderstood communication attempts suffered by the individual teams.

Bottom line: As a song once popularized by The Eagles puts it–“Get Over It.”

What The *#$%^&*?!?!?
As every tried and true Nascar fan is well aware, there is no iron-clad guarantee that consistency throughout the course of a day at ‘Dega will ever guarantee that a top-notch finish is a given. In fact, nothing at Talladega is ever a “given”…..well, except for the fact that “nothing at Talladega is ever a ‘given.'” And even a season-long string of consistent finishes can and often will take a major hit if a top-notch contender (in Sunday’s case, the pre-season champion and points leader, Martin Truex Jr.) finds himself in the wrong place, surrounded by the wrong people, at the wrong time. Much to the credit of a little luck (of the undesirable variety) on the part of several fellow contenders, Truex and the 78 team still ended the day holding onto the top position in points, proof positive that the attrition factor (coupled in this case with guaranteed advancement into the field of eight, based on the previous week’s victory) can be a driver’s best friend in the aftermath of the unfortunate and unthinkable.

For fellow contenders Chase Elliott (who for awhile appeared on the cusp of that milestone first series victory), Ryan Blaney, Kevin Harvick, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Kyle Larson, Kyle Busch and Jamie McMurray (who suffered the first casualty of the day),
dismal finishes ranging from 16th to 37th in position are merely further evidences of the fact that no one is immune to the element of unpleasant surprise that can rear its ugly head out of nowhere, at a track where a driver’s good day can turn into his biggest headache over the course of a single lap. And for Jimmie Johnson, whose day ended in the 24th position after being parked for the aforementioned red flag violation, his hopes of securing that unprecedented eighth series title, while not yet mathematically impossible, still found themselves in serious jeopardy as he now finds himself eighth in the point standings, 46 points behind the leader and sitting just above the cutoff line as the teams prepare for the second elimination race this coming weekend at Kansas Speedway.

To say that Sunday’s ride at Talladega was a wild one would most certainly be putting it mildly, and critics may tend to question whether a venue with the potential to so drastically alter the championship picture actually deserves a spot in the playoffs. But whatever position the sport’s higher powers and the fans alike may maintain with respect to its place on the schedule, there is one inescapable conclusion on which everyone will agree. The excitement of the day will always leave fans on the edge of their seats, whether they be cheering the success of their favorite at the fall of the checkers, or cursing the driver whose not-so-brilliant surprise maneuver left them thanking their Higher Power of choice that the day is finally over, while asking the question on everyone’s mind after each visit to this particular race track:

“WHAT THE *#$%^&*?!?!?”

–Lisa Ballantyne, Totally Nascar Talk
All views herein are my own. Readers’ comments are always welcome.