Photo: Stephen A Arce/ASP, Inc.

Battle of Playoff vs. Non-Playoff Drivers Reaches Tipping Point in Texas

By David Morgan, Associate Editor

This time of the year, there is a clear division between the drivers still alive in the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs and those on the outside looking in.

Add in the current high downforce/low horsepower package that is run on intermediate tracks and the situation is exacerbated, leading to what we saw in Sunday’s Autotrader EchoPark Automotive 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.

On a number of occasions throughout the opening race in the Round of 8 in the Playoffs, the drivers fighting for a chance to advance into the championship finale didn’t get any breaks from those no longer in the championship picture.

The close quarters racing and what followed would have consequences for some of those Playoff drivers – namely Martin Truex Jr., who saw his day take a turn for the worst thanks to a nudge from a non-Playoff driver.

Truex’s trouble came on Lap 321 when Daniel Suarez made contact with him in Turn 3, sending Truex’s No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota hard into the outside wall. Though his crew made an effort to try and fix the car, the damage was just too much as he climbed from his battered machine and took the mandatory ride to the Infield Care Center.

“I was definitely running tight trying to get all we could and maybe I squeezed him (Daniel Suarez), maybe he came up, I’m not sure,” said Truex. “I don’t even know if we touched. I got loose and when I gathered it up (shown replay). Yeah, we touched for sure. It’s really fast right there and yeah, hit the splitter and went straight to the fence. Tough spot to have contact like that. I don’t know. It is what it is.”

For his part in the wreck, Suarez was unapologetic about the contact, saying: “I don’t know what the f*** he was trying to do, man. I was right there all the time. I feel bad for him. I’m sorry, but I was there, man. I just can’t lift anymore. We’ve got to go.”

Suarez wasn’t the only non-Playoff driver giving the Playoff drivers a headache throughout the race, with the likes of William Byron and Tyler Reddick also challenging for the win, not giving an inch to any of their fellow competitors – even if they were a Playoff driver.

Some of the Playoff drivers chalked the intense racing up to the current package that is in place at tracks like Texas, where there is limited off-throttle time, leading to wide-open, no holds barred racing throughout the field.

“It’s just a bunching them up and these cars not having any power, it’s all about bump drafting,” Denny Hamlin said of the package.

“It’s like ‘Can you get clear? Can you dive into the corner and clear yourself and slide up in front of them?’ Sometimes you’re clear. Sometimes you’re not, like the situation with Joey (Logano). It’s just part of this type of racing. I was riding around there wide open there for awhile and I was like, ‘Wow, this is the new NASCAR.’”

Ryan Blaney, who could be considered a part of the new NASCAR, having started his Cup career a little more than a handful of years ago, added that the intense racing is a combination of the package and the current mentality among the drivers.

“You always want to be playing offense, not defense,” said Blaney. “That’s how you get ate up. Throwing someone three-wide, things like that, it’s just what happens…You put a whole hard day together and you don’t want to wreck and ruin your day, but at the same time you don’t want to lift and give up a bunch of spots. It’s just weighing risks, I guess.

“It’s different. I think from watching Dad race back in the day, if we’re talking like the early 2000s, ’90s, whatever. Before then, there was no stages. There’s no spoiler this big on the race cars and 550 horsepower to where you all run in a pack.

“You have to be an asshole now. I mean, that’s just what it is. I mean, whether it’s on restarts, on the racetrack, you have to be that because if you’re not – to an extent, I mean, you just can’t go run into everybody – but if you’re not on the aggressive side, as far as calculated aggressiveness, you’re just going to get taken advantage of. That’s just how you got to do it. You’re not going to go out there and you know, just absolutely drive through somebody, but you’re going to try to put them in bad spots to make it lift.”

Kyle Busch, who found himself in the middle of the hornet’s nest on a number of occasions Sunday, took those thoughts a step further, noting a growing lack of respect has only fueled the chaos in recent years.

“There’s a complete lack of respect everywhere all over the place,” said Busch. “So, it doesn’t matter if it’s a Playoff driver or a non-Playoff driver. The way all this has gone on the last four or five years, with a newer generation coming in, has completely ruined it from what it used to be. Now it might be exciting for the fans, but all you get is more torn-up stuff. And next year, these car owners are not going to enjoy paying the bills on that new car. I guarantee it.”

Hamlin added that he agreed with the sentiment from his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, but didn’t lay the blame at anyone’s feet for what transpired on the track.

“Everyone’s got their own agenda; nobody really gives a s*** about who’s doing what. They just care about themselves. It’s just different now than it used to be,” he said.

“I don’t like it, but it doesn’t mean it’s right or wrong. Everyone’s got their own, you know, some of the guys that I thought kind of raced interestingly, maybe they’re in their seat next year, maybe they’re not. They’re all racing for something. So I don’t fault anyone really.”

Next weekend at Kansas Speedway – the halfway mark of the Round of 8 – will bring another intermediate track and the 550 horsepower package that comes with it. Will we see more intense racing when the green flag drops next Sunday? Only time will tell.

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David Morgan is the Associate Editor for Motorsports Tribune. A 2008 graduate from the University of Mississippi, David has followed NASCAR since the early 90’s and became hooked at an early age after attending his first race at Talladega Superspeedway in 1993. He has traveled across the country since 2012 to cover some of the most prestigious events both IndyCar and NASCAR have to offer, with an aim to only expand on that in the near future.