Every race has its share of mistakes made by drivers and crews and even the officials who govern the event. Sometimes those mistakes can be overcome and sometimes they result in a team scoring a finish that may seem like an underachievement. But over the course of a long season, those mistakes are often times forgotten by the time the next racing weekend rolls around.
However, that cannot be the case at this point in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season. The first round of the NASCAR Playoffs are set to begin on Sunday in the South Point 400 at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway which means drivers and their teams only have three races to perform well enough to advance to the second round of the championship run or else they will suffer elimination.
In the days of yesteryear when NASCAR championships played out over the course of an entire 30+ race season, a mistake made in the pits or a driver error could be recovered from as long as there weren’t too many of them. The same cannot be said from this point to the end of the season for anyone who hopes to leave the Homestead-Miami Speedway in November with the highly prized trophy in hand.
After the next three races there will be four drivers eliminated from the championship hunt and that process will repeat itself two more times over the next nine contests until the field of contenders is narrowed to just four for that final event in south Florida. With such high stakes and such a small margin for error, every mistake among the sixteen teams vying for the MENCS title will be magnified more than was the case during the so-called ‘regular season’.
A lug nut left loose on the final pit stop of the day in one of these three races could mean the difference in finishing with a top-5 and finishing 18th. A driver trying to squeeze his car into a space too small could result in a crash and a 38th place result where a top-10 might have otherwise been very achievable. A crew chief calling for a four-tire change when everyone else opts to gain or maintain track position at a place where passing is difficult could cause a potentially winning ride to finish near the tail end of the lead lap.
Many times in this playoff format a single point or two has been the difference in a driver advancing to the next round or being eliminated. And in almost every case, a team that has failed to move on to the next round can look back to a mistake in one of the three races making up that particular round to see a loose lug nut, an ill advised pit decision, or a driver error that resulted in the loss of just enough points to prevent them from staying in contention.
Of course, winning a race in any of the rounds assures that the driver will advance to the next round no matter what happens in the other events. But having to rely on winning a race to advance can be a dangerous proposition considering the difficulty in doing so.
Twelve drivers will move into the second round of the NASCAR Playoffs following these next three races on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series schedule. A big part of their success will likely be due to the fact that their teams made the fewest mistakes during the preparation for and the course of those races. Indeed, mistakes from now until the completion of the NASCAR season will be magnified for those in contention for a championship. Beginning on Sunday in Las Vegas, just one wrong move could make the difference between glory and failure.
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association
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