Twenty-six down, 10 to go.
The 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series regular season came to an end on Saturday night from Richmond Raceway, with Kyle Larson earning the Federated Auto Parts 400 trophy. But more importantly, the 16 drivers who will compete for the championship have been settled—and they’re ready to go.
RIGHT ON TARGET
The night will be known as the ambulance that set the sport on fire and the final race of the 2017 regular season, but Kyle Larson is okay with all of that—because he left with the trophy.
Larson took advantage of a late-race yellow flag to inherit the lead from Martin Truex Jr. before overtime ensued. The No. 42 pit crew got Larson out ahead of the No. 78 off pit road ahead of the overtime restart. And when the green flag flew, Larson was waving bye-bye to the field behind him and the regular season that has been the best one of his career.
“I’ve got the greatest team out here and definitely the best pit crew,” Larson said post-race to NBCSN. “They were money all night long to gain spots. This win is a huge congrats to them. The Target Chevy was pretty good all night. The No. 78 (Truex Jr.) was definitely the best, but I thought I was second best for most of the runs.”
The win was Larson’s fourth of the 2017 season and fifth of his career. Despite only leading 53 laps on the evening, he led the final one, which we all know means the most.
“It came down to the last restart there, and I got a good start,” Larson went on to say. “I spun my tires pretty bad, and I was a little nervous, but we cleared him (Truex Jr.) into (turn) 1, and I was pretty excited about that. I’m really pumped for the playoffs. We’ve got a great shot at the championship, I feel like, this year. So I’m looking forward to it.”
Joey Logano, Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch and Denny Hamlin rounded out the top five when the checkered flag flew on the regular season from Richmond, with Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez, Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch and Chase Elliott rounding out the top 10.
Some other notable finishers included Brad Keselowski in 11th, Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 13th, Kevin Harvick in 15th, Ryan Blaney in 18th, Martin Truex Jr. in 20th and Clint Bowyer in 24th.
ANOTHER BITTERSWEET NIGHT FOR MTJ
With three laps to go, Martin Truex Jr. thought he had another victory locked up. But as they often do to the Mayetta, N.J. native, they weren’t on his side. And he wound up pissed.
Truex Jr. was beaten off pit road by eventual winner Kyle Larson after the lap 397 caution came and went. As the field took the white flag, MTJ was second and content to run there. But Denny Hamlin had other plans, as his No. 11 made contact with the No. 78, sending Truex Jr. hard into the wall. He would go on to finish the race in 20th-place.
Although they wanted a win, they earned one more playoff point thanks to their stage two win, putting their enormous total at 52 for the season. They also were presented with the trophy for officially winning the regular season championship title, but neither Truex Jr. crew chief Cole Pearn nor team owner Barney Visser were happy with how their race ended.
“I think it’s ridiculous that, again, there’s a guy out there that shouldn’t even be out there, 20 some laps down, riding around,” Truex Jr. told NBCSN of Cope. “As slow as he is, he can’t even hold his damn line. It’s ridiculous. He scrapes the wall, they throw a caution with (three) to go. That’s not what racing should be […] I’m mad about that. But I have to go back and watch the tape, see how it exactly played out. I’m madder about all that than I am about losing. Just a hard way to lose ’em.”
HELLO FROM THE OUTSIIIIIIIIDE
In terms of the playoffs, Joey Logano, Erik Jones, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and everybody else on the outside looking in stayed there when the checkered flag flew.
Logano and the No. 22 team have been running sub-par–to put it lightly–these past few weeks. But they came up one spot short on Saturday evening from punching their ticket to the playoffs as the final buzzer sounded. For the Middletown, Conn. native, being so close doesn’t help.
“Yeah, it stings a little bit,” Logano said to NBCSN. “Last time we were sitting here after a race, it was after a win, and this time it’s after a second, which overall if you look at our Richmond (record) for a season with the two races, you’d say, that’s pretty good, a first and a second […] it is what it is. It’s a reality, and we will move on.”
Jones was running inside the top five all evening long, and lined up in the second row with a shot at the victory to vault him and the No. 77 into the playoffs. Ultimately, it didn’t pan out.
“We were going to have to bully our way to the front and unfortunately we just didn’t get the chance,” Jones told NBCSN post-race of the final overtime restart. “I missed third gear and messed up. I don’t know that I’ve ever missed a shift before. It’s just really disappointing. I really hate it for my guys. I just hate that we didn’t at least get a shot at it.”
Earnhardt Jr. led a handful of laps towards the back half of the event by way of strategy. Interim crew chief Travis Mack kept the No. 88 out to try and catch a caution and be back on sequence with the leaders. Unfortunately for them, it never came. And neither did their victory.
“It’s on us,” Earnhardt Jr. said to NBCSN of missing the playoffs in his final full-time season. “We can’t really put it on anybody else. We just didn’t do the job. We’ll try these next 10 to keep running well. I’d love to win a race but damn, if we can just run as well as we did tonight in the next several races that would be great for all of these guys.”
ROUGH NIGHT FOR OFFICIATING
When the main storyline coming out of a race weekend is how an ambulance blocked the entrance to pit road and not the playoffs beginning, you know something’s up.
Well, that’s exactly what went down in the Federated Auto Parts 400. Yeah, not even kidding.
There were a handful of questionable calls from NASCAR officiating, with the first of them coming on lap 88. The caution flag flew for what the official race report deemed “smoke” from Matt Kenseth’s No. 20 Toyota. While leading, Kenseth locked up his tires, causing smoke to arise from his vehicle. The smoke was more than a usual tire rub, making the control tower think an engine was blowing. However, there was no on-track “incident” besides the smoke appearing, and the yellow flag was flown. That was the first eyebrow-raising move.
Then came the infamous ambulance incident. On lap 255, the field dove to pit road for service under caution. But there was one problem: an ambulance was blocking pit road entry. So, while everybody took evasive action to avoid the ambulance, it caused a huge log jam in the pack.
Unfortunately for Matt Kenseth (yup, him again), it resulted in his car being damaged beyond repair. While jamming on the brakes, he slammed into the rear of Clint Bowyer’s No. 14 Ford, causing extensive damage to his rear bumper. Kenseth wouldn’t complete another lap and finished 38th. But what if a new driver won, kicking Kenseth out of the final playoff spot? Could you imagine what would have happened? Yup, a 17th playoff driver. But thankfully for NASCAR (and everyone else involved, pretty much), it didn’t come to that.
The third and final questionable call came on lap 397 of the 400 scheduled circuits around the 0.75-mile D-shaped oval. Derrike Cope brushed the wall but continued on. That brought out the caution, which set up a final round of pit stops and an overtime restart.
Martin Truex Jr. was on cruise control and was ready to hoist another trophy to close the regular season, but that caution threw his plan into the garbage. Kyle Larson beat him off pit road on the restart, and the No. 78 wound up getting wrecked by Denny Hamlin.
I’m not going to yell, scream and whine about the officiating like many of the NASCAR fans have this week. David Hoots (race director) and everyone else in race control are human beings. They make mistakes, and life happens. Everybody has those days. But if this were to happen in the season finale, or a big race like the Daytona 500—that would be a baaaaad look.
NO CHANGE; GO TIME
As I’ve been saying for about two months now, if nobody new wins a race, nobody currently in the playoffs will be booted out. And now, we can confirm that is the case.
These 16 drivers will battle for the Monster Energy Cup at Homestead-Miami Speedway, with 13 of them having earned wins this season. Chase Elliott, Matt Kenseth and Jamie McMurray were the three drivers who clinched playoff spots based on points.
All three national series will be in action this upcoming weekend from Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill. The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series event kicking off the postseason will take place on Sunday afternoon, with the final races of the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and XFINITY regular seasons taking place on Friday night and Saturday afternoon, respectively.