Sunday’s Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway was the first race of the Round of 12 in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs, and it served as a turning point in the direction of the championship chase.
Martin Truex Jr. won again, which wasn’t much of a surprise, while Chase Elliott remained a contender with yet another second-place finish. Kevin Harvick completed the podium, making a statement that he could race alongside the established contenders this summer.
But once again, we’re mostly talking about NASCAR decisions rather than the racing product itself …
Time lost was penalty enough
The NASCAR community was flummoxed on Sunday when Jimmie Johnson wasn’t penalized for completing a pit stop outside of his pit stall. Granted, he was only barely outside of the box, but he took tires and fuel inside of the box, pulled outside of it before stopping to reverse once it was discovered that he had a loose lug nut.
Johnson backed up, still had part of his car outside of the stall, but had the lug nut tightened before going about his merry way.
At first glance, it was believed that Johnson faced a one-lap penalty over the decision, but a NASCAR official immediately declared that the time needed to correct the safety concern was the penalty in this case since the team was actively trying to avoid a loose tire, something that carries with it an automatic four-race crew chief suspension.
“We’ve allowed that multiple times this year of allowing a team to fix a lug nut,” NASCAR communications chief Kurt Culbert told reporters at Charlotte. “Ultimately when that happens, a penalty is incurred, because they’ve had to fix it, instead of going onto the track and having to deal with a penalty. It’s in the interest of safety.”
On one hand, it easy to throw skepticism toward NASCAR. At face value, it looks like the sanctioning body simply made up a rule on the fly since there is no exact language in the rulebook about correcting a potential safety violation once a pit stop has been completed.
On the other hand, No. 48 crew chief Chad Knaus said he understood the rule as it was ultimately officiated on Sunday. Knaus is as meticulous as they come and surely wouldn’t have left it to chance having his car even a fraction of an inch over the line if he thought it would incur a penalty.
NASCAR needs to add clarity to the rulebook, but it seems, at least to me, that the No. 48 team correctly interpreted a really loose rule that has been discussed in the garage since lug nut penalties came into existence last season.
NASCAR’s consistent inconsistency in defining a caution
Just one month after NASCAR admitted a self-imposed desire to clean up questionable race control decisions during the playoffs, the weekend at Charlotte produced several puzzling scenarios.
First was the above-debated Jimmie Johnson no-call.
Also, during the Xfinity Series event on Saturday night, Michael Annett spun in front of the field. He didn’t make contact with anything so NASCAR chose to keep the caution in its metaphorical back pocket. This was surprising because race control is unusually quick to throw the yellow if for no other reason than apparent entertainment purposes.
However, despite the No. 5 car sliding sideways in front of numerous cars, the race stayed green. That was despite the fact that Annett’s driver side door was exposed to oncoming traffic.
Like I said, puzzling.
That’s even more confusing because Kyle Busch tagged the wall on Sunday and spun in front of virtually no one, but that was enough to elicit a caution during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race. If Saturday set a precedent, Sunday largely ignored it. NASCAR officials often tell us in the media center that no two spins are the same, or that race control will always defer to safety, but this was puzzling to watch on back-to-back days.
Just one year removed from a questionable caution that may have decided the Cup Series championship, Cup drivers are already questioning race control’s ability to call a fair race, and this weekend wasn’t a banner response from NASCAR to address this issue.
PJ1 and done
This weekend should probably mark the final time the VHT chemical traction compound (aka PJ1) will be used at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
It works well at concrete Bristol Motor Speedway but hasn’t produced results at Charlotte or the asphalt-and-granite New Hampshire Motor Speedway. But let’s set the record straight, the substance wasn’t the reason cars were spinning in practice on Friday.
Instead, it was the improper application of the compound in the days leading up to the event.
It was discovered over the weekend that the material wasn’t applied thoroughly to the corners of the racing surface. So when cars went over it on Friday, the spins were caused by having extra grip and then it suddenly went away once the cars crossed over the patches that didn’t receive a full coat of treatment.
With that being said, VHT probably isn’t the answer on asphalt intermediate tracks.
A more reasonable experiment might be Dover, due to the inherent similarities with Bristol Motor Speedway — where, again, the substance has been an overwhelming success.
But wait, there’s more: On the championship front, Ricky Stenhouse is continuing to survive based on his two regular season victories at Talladega and Daytona. He finished a respectable 13th on Sunday, but that was only better than two other “chasers” in Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch. But he’s only 10 points back of a transfer spot, and the next race is the aforementioned Talladega. This sets up perfectly for the two-time Xfinity Series champion.
For the second round in a row, Busch used up his playoff point cushion. He finished 29th but still leaves 12 points ahead of the cutoff. However, anything can happen at Talladega, so he might not advance if he crashes out of ‘Dega and is unable to win in two weeks at Kansas.
Neither Harvick nor Elliott won on Sunday, but both look close. Surviving Talladega is key for both drivers due to a lack of playoff points entering the round, but their conservative success in the playoffs has been remarkable, especially driving for non-Toyota teams. These two are legitimate contenders to advance to Homestead.
Lastly, can we stop looking for Carl Edwards now? The man has said on numerous occasions that he isn’t coming back next year. And now a few of his peers in the garage have confirmed his general lack of interest in returning.
It’s not happening, folks. And if he does before 2019, I like honey mustard with my crow.
Onward to Talladega.