Turn 2 Blog: The Playoff Field is Set… But Are We Paying Attention?

*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.

Richard: After much build up, the 16 driver field for the NASCAR Playoffs is now set. Those competitors for the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship as well as the remainder of the drivers and teams are about to embark on the final ten-race run that will bring the season to a close with the final stretch broken into segments designed to reduce the contenders to the eventual final four.

One thing that strikes me when I look at the first three-race segment is the variety of tracks that will be employed prior to the first set of eliminations. The playoffs will begin in the desert southwest at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway this Sunday. That track is a 1.5-mile D-shaped oval that features high speeds on a layout not unlike that of several other venues on the circuit.

The playoff run will then take to the 3/4 mile Richmond Raceway the following weekend for the second event in the first round of the championship dash. Simply being good on the so-called ‘cookie cutter’ type tracks will not be enough as the short track prowess of drivers and teams will be put to the test on a Saturday night in Virginia.

And the variety continues when the series heads to the heart of NASCAR country for its second run on the road course at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. While not a true road course in the same sense as tracks such Sonoma or Watkins Glen, it will still call for drivers to turn both right and left with shifting not typically required on ovals.

The variation of tracks will really put these championship contenders to the test right off the bat, won’t they?

Michael: I like the mixture of tracks in the first round. To go from a 1.5-mile to a 3/4-mile to a road course built inside of an oval is about the most variety a person could ask for. With the changes this year and more changes next year, NASCAR is finally listening to the fans by mixing things up in the playoffs instead of having most tracks be a similar layout that could favor one or two drivers over the others if they happen to hit on something that works.

My only complaint is Las Vegas being held when it is. Last year, the temperatures were well into the 90’s. This year, it’s anticipated to be near 100. At least NASCAR has decided to run the race at 4 p.m. local time to help with attendance. But I’m not sure it will help. They should have considered making that one a Saturday night race.

Richard: The first round of the playoffs will certainly prove to be a true test for those involved. As you say, it will not simply favor one team or one organization who may have hit on something for the 1.5-mile tracks. These three races will pretty much bring in every skill set there can possibly be in this form of racing for both drivers and crews.

At the end of this first segment, four drivers will be eliminated from the championship hunt while twelve will continue on. So that brings up the question as to whether it is best to be aggressive in terms of race strategy and driving style in hopes of getting a win to guarantee a place in the next round or is it best to play it safe and just hope to out point those who may experience trouble in one form or another.

Those drivers who have amassed a significant number of playoff points going into the first round have a distinct advantage when answering that question as they can perhaps afford a bit of a disaster and still be likely to advance. Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex, Jr., Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski would have to experience a major meltdown to not make the second round. As a result, they can essentially race as if it’s business as usual, especially for the first couple of outings.

However, those currently at the bottom of the standings such as Clint Bowyer, Ryan Newman, Aric Almirola and William Byron have no real margin for error as they are starting the playoff basically already on the outside looking in. So for them, that question of whether or not to gamble or play it safe is all the more important.

How do you expect the sixteen contenders to play it in the first round?

Defending champ Joey Logano(22) and Kyle Busch are certain to be serious playoff contenders

Michael: It seems as if going after points in the first round tends to work for the veteran drivers. Newman gets into the playoffs most years and people expect him to be the first one out. But he usually makes it past the first round. He knows how to do it.

On the flip side, I would think it would benefit a younger driver like William Byron to go after a win. His best shot would be out of the gate at Las Vegas. I would think a track like Richmond would be a good points night for drivers like Newman, Bowyer, and a few others near the bottom of the standings. Charlotte will be the X factor like it was last year.

The drivers at the top will go for points to guarantee a spot in the next round unless a win is there for the taking. But those teams tend to be more aggressive on getting wins in the 2nd and 3rd rounds as more drivers are eliminated. The first round is a good chance for a driver like Ryan Blaney or Chase Elliott to grab a win to get to the next round.

Could Chase Elliott(9) or Kyle Larson possibly earn a title in 2019?

Richard: I agree that the younger guys could really make some waves in the early part of the playoffs. And considering that Byron has never won a race, it would seem that gambling to win would be more beneficial to him at this stage of his career than just playing it safe in terms of accumulating points. And since you brought up Blaney, the one-year anniversary of his last MENCS win is fast approaching while his teammates have won multiple races and a championship within that time span. He too needs to focus more on winning races right now than just playing for points.

Since a win in any of these three races guarantees advancement to the next round, the variation in tracks that we talked about earlier could be a significant factor in determining who could move in and who might move out.

A guy like an Alex Bowman, who does not have a ton of playoff points built up ought to be a factor on the 1.5-mile Las Vegas layout while short-track aces such as Clint Bowyer or Kyle Larson could make hay at Richmond. And the “Roval” in Charlotte could be the fly in the ointment as we saw last year when Jimmie Johnson and Martin Truex, Jr. took each other out on the last lap and opened the door for Blaney to take the checkered flag.

Initially, I wasn’t a fan of the Chase/Playoff format but I now have to admit that it has peaked my interest this year. I still don’t know that I prefer it over simply letting the season play out as it did under the old-old system of many years ago, but it is what the TV networks want so it’s going to stay.

Are you finding yourself paying more or less attention under this format?

Michael: I will say my attention is about the same. I don’t pay any more attention to the first round unless someone unexpected gets a win that transfers them to the next round. I like the tracks in rounds 2 and 3 as the pressure starts to build. That’s when I really get into it. I think this year is pretty wide open as opposed to last year.

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