Turn 2 Blog: Strategy Races & the Beauty vs Ugly of the Playoff System

*Turn 2 Blog is a regular feature on InsideCircleTrack.com. Here, site operators Michael Moats and Richard Allen take turns offering their thoughts on the NASCAR and pavement short track racing topics of the day.

The Toyota Owners 400 at the Richmond Raceway turned into a strategy race with Denny Hamlin ultimately claiming the win after his crew devised a way for the No. 11 car to have the best tires at the end of the race. Not all races have to come down to a last lap bumper car match to be interesting, do they?

Richard: I generally don’t mind the stage breaks NASCAR has instituted because a planned caution, in my mind, is better than those mysterious debris cautions that used to crop up whenever a race would turn dull. However, my one exception to the use of stage breaks comes on road courses where they have taken away an element of strategy in terms of teams planning the best times to make pit stops so they can best position themselves for the end of the race.

Granted, I think we all like to see those endings in which cars come across the finish line slamming into each other with smoke boiling and sparks flying. But every race can’t conclude that way.

Like those races that end in a long fuel mileage run, there is an element of high drama watching a tire strategy race play out. Will the guy on the older tires be able to hold off the guy with the newer tires? Are there enough laps left for the guy with newer tires to catch the leader with older tires?

I’m not necessarily saying I would want every race to play out that way. Besides, there are not that many tracks in which they can. Still, a few of those kinds of strategy-based races are intriguing.

Michael: The pit strategy during the final stage made a dull race into something interesting. I do like races like this from time to time. It’s a different element to a long season. Like you, I hate stage breaks on road courses for the reasons you mentioned. It has taken away much of the strategy for those races.

I’d much rather see a race like Richmond than a race based on whether some drivers have enough fuel to make it to the end. It’s what makes a long race at Darlington so interesting. It’s also one of the reasons I don’t like the new configuration of Atlanta. I’m not sure pack racing on a worn out track will provide the same strategy when that pavement gets some wear on it.

Denny Hamlin’s Richmond has all but assured him of a spot in the NASCAR Playoffs

Denny Hamlin’s win illustrates either the beauty of the current championship-deciding system which allows a driver buried deep in the standings to rescue a season with a win or it shows the ugliness of the system by allowing a driver who has not done much all season to have a shot at the NASCAR Cup Series title by having just one good race. Granted, the season is still young and Hamlin will likely get much better as the season progresses. But with all that said, is the system beautiful or ugly?

Richard: I hate to take this sort of position but I am going to have to say both on this question. When this current NASCAR Playoffs system was first introduced, I had many reservations about it for the very reason that a guy could have a very mediocre season then suddenly get hot at the right time and find himself in the mix for a championship. However, that aspect of it is beginning to grow on me a bit.

For example, I thought it was great for Michael McDowell to get his lesser known and lesser funded Front Row Motorsports team into the NASCAR Playoffs last year by winning the Daytona 500. At the same time, I still have issues with Kyle Busch winning the 2015 championship after missing eleven races that year. Something about that has always rubbed me the wrong way… and I’m not a Kyle Busch hater.

I guess my ultimate answer to the question, though, is that this system has grown on me enough that I will say Hamlin now being essentially locked into the NASCAR Playoffs despite not getting off to a very good start is a beautiful thing.

Michael: I’m also in the same camp of both liking and disliking the format. One thing that stands out to me is a struggling driver who isn’t going to be a factor once the Playoffs start winning their way in seems unnecessary. The one exception could be Tony Stewart in 2011. At the time, even he admitted he had no business being in the Playoffs. Yet, he won 5 of the 10 races to claim the championship. The cream usually rises to the top come Playoff time.

Ty Gibbs in his No. 54 JGR Toyota

Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series race in Richmond ended with Ty Gibbs bullying his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, John Hunter Nemechek, aside on the last lap to go on and score the win. We also saw an instance of this same type of racing on the last lap at the Circuit of the Americas between Ross Chastain, A.J. Allmendinger and Alex Bowman with Chastain eventually coming out on top. Are the unwritten rules regarding contact between cars different on the last lap than at other points in the race or is that etiquette the same throughout the entire race?

Richard: I have never driven a race car in my life but I have watched racing for many years. With that in mind, I would have to say, whether drivers will admit it or not, that those unwritten rules are different on the last lap. As many have said over this past week, a driver has to be willing to get back what he dishes out. Even Gibbs stated that he knows he has one coming back to him.

But speaking to those incidents in particular, I saw both of them as hard racing between guys who want to win a NASCAR race. For my money, that’s what they are supposed to do. That said, just driving in a plowing a guy into the fence is not appropriate on any lap of the race. But a little contact is just part of it as far as I’m concerned.

As far as the Gibbs-Nemechek deal goes, I have read some on social media making a big deal out of the fact that those are team cars. In theory at least, that should make no difference. Heck, we even saw that in the Daytona 500 when Austin Cindric forced Team Penske teammate Ryan Blaney into the wall coming to the checkered flag. I hope we never see Formula 1 type team orders in NASCAR.

Whatever code of conduct that might exist among drivers in any form of racing can be amended on the last lap as long as, again, it’s not just a blatant takeout move.

Michael: For me, there’s a big difference between leaning on a guy or moving him out of the way versus outright punting a guy. Being at Bristol the last two weekends, there are constant reminders of Dale Earnhardt’s takeout of Terry Labonte in ’99. Even Earnhardt fans thought that was a B.S. move on his part. I don’t have a problem with guys leaning on each other for the win. I expect it and am disappointed if it doesn’t happen.

NASCAR has tried to market their product as close-quarters, thrill-a-minute type racing. But NASCAR is not and should never be purposely taking a guy out, unless there’s some payback involved. Using Bristol as an example, we should get more Kevin Harvick-Chase Elliott moments instead of Earnhardt-Labonte moments. With two more short tracks coming up, we’ll see what we ultimately get.

Richard Allen has been covering NASCAR and other forms of motorsports since 2008.

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