Thursday, May 30, 2024

NASCAR Playoffs media day notebook: Major storylines for the drivers competing for a Cup championship

Even after 26 of 36 races, the story of 16 NASCAR Cup Series drivers’ seasons is only beginning to be written. With the regular season now over, this weekend’s Southern 500 at Darlington marks the start of the NASCAR Playoffs and the pursuit of the NASCAR Cup Series championship.

For the 16 drivers who qualified for the playoffs, the first order of business before heading to Darlington was playoff media day Thursday at the Charlotte Convention Center in Charlotte, N.C. There, all playoff drivers were made available to discuss a number of topics with reporters, ranging from the immediate topic — the start of the playoffs — to broader, bigger picture topics.

Here are some of the notable storylines to emerge from driver media availabilities.

First-Time Playoff Drivers

Thanks to the abundance of first-time Cup Series winners in 2022, this year’s cast of playoff characters is quite fresh. Four drivers — Ross Chastain, Chase Briscoe, Daniel Suarez and rookie Austin Cindric — will all be competing in the playoffs for the first time.

For each first-timer, the dynamics of NASCAR’s playoff format are far from complete unknowns: Suarez and Cindric both won championships in the Xfinity Series, while Chastain and Briscoe made the Championship 4 at least once between Trucks and Xfinity. But the highest level of stock car racing, and the depth of the field that Cup provides, raises the stakes of postseason racing to a level that none have experienced before.

Generally, the playoffs don’t immediately reward first-timers, as each Cup champion since 2014 has had at least some level of experience with the format before winning the title. Naturally, that led to questions on how much experience matters for each driver in the playoff hunt.

“Certainly, the experiences of failing last year, I learned a lot from that. But the experience of being in these pressure-filled moments on the Xfinity level, and getting it done two years in a row, also has its benefits, too,” said Tyler Reddick, who won two Xfinity titles and made the Cup playoffs for the first time last year. “So, certainly I don’t have the experience of a Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, and guys like that have; but every race is one of those pressure-filled moments. Every point in every race has that Game 7 moment in every single race and it’s really important not to misstep when that moment happens.”

If there has ever been an instant playoff success story, it was probably Denny Hamlin. He made the 2006 Chase for the Cup as a rookie, and he proceeded to finish third in points with a chance to win the championship in the final race. Hamlin has since made the playoffs all but once, giving him a full spectrum of experience to draw from at this stage in his career.

“I know the anticipation and excitement that I had the first couple times is a lot different than what I have now 17 years later or whatever it is,” Hamlin said. “I do think (experience) matters, I think managing races matters, managing points and playoffs standings, knowing what competition you’re racing against in a given day. It all matters in how you advance in these playoffs.”

As for first-time playoff contenders, Ross Chastain seemingly conceded there was a gap in how prepared he was to race in the playoffs compared to his competition.

“I definitely wish I had done this last year or for five years, selfishly,” Chastain said. “… Come back to me in 10 weeks and I’m going to be better for what has happened, no matter what happens. When we’re sitting here next year, I’m going to have 10 weeks of playoff knowledge for better or worse.”

Kyle Busch nearing decision on his future

Kyle Busch has qualified for the playoffs in 15 out of his 18 Cup seasons so far, and he’s done so again this year — perhaps for the final time as a member of Joe Gibbs Racing. Busch’s contract situation is unresolved entering the playoff opener in Darlington, but a resolution may be coming soon: Busch suggested that a decision on his future would likely come in the next seven to 10 days, and he also shared that there is more than one team interested in hiring him “that has paper in front of me”.

As he has before, Busch acknowledged the difficulty of having to go through contract negotiations and entertain other suitors — Particularly when it comes to the delicate nature of the ripple effects any decision he makes will create.

“Trust me, my gut doesn’t feel good. And that’s not just for decisions being made, but more so of decisions being weighed, and the perception and how you come across to all of those that you’re gonna disappoint,” Busch said. “There’s gonna be one winner and the rest are not winners, if you look at it in that regard. Good for me, but I definitely don’t want to come across as a lead-on or a liar or anything like that. So that’s why it’s just been touch-and-go and trying to tread lightly.”

Next Gen safety

Even before Kurt Busch suffered a concussion at Pocono that has kept him out of the driver’s seat ever since, the safety of the Next Gen car had been under a microscope due to outcry from drivers that the car was too rigid, thus causing the driver to absorb more force in an impact. This week, those concerns and criticism of the Next Gen car’s rigid body have been renewed in light of several hard impacts at Daytona.

After taking several major hits in The Big One at Daytona, Denny Hamlin announced that he would not race in Saturday’s Xfinity Series event because he was still nursing soreness in his neck, back and hips. In-car audio from Hamlin’s car revealed that in the moments after the crash, Hamlin groaned in considerable pain.

Days after the fact, Hamlin shared that he took a harder hit than any other wreck he’s had in the past, comparing it to the feeling of being beat up at a bar and getting kicked in the ribs — a consequence of the Next Gen car’s build, as more force sustained to drivers has become an unintended consequence of stronger, more durable parts and pieces.

“Anytime you build something that’s more rigid and built to last longer, the softest part, which is your body, is going to take the brunt of it,” Hamlin said. “Right now, that’s where we’re getting beat up.”

To date, there has been a disconnect between how NASCAR crash data suggests the Next Gen car performs in a crash and what the drivers have felt physically, with even minor contact leaving drivers feeling jolted and banged up. Kevin Harvick spoke strongly about that disconnect, criticizing NASCAR’s response time towards the issue.

“They’ll say ‘well, it was only a 15G hit’. Well, I’m telling you, some of those 15G hits feel like 50 compared to what they have been in old cars,” Harvick said. “… They don’t feel the same. They are just blunt, violent wrecks every time you hit something. They do not feel like they did in the old car.

“It’s like we’ve taken the soft walls down. Every time we hit a car it feels like hitting a concrete wall. Every time we hit a soft wall it feels like hitting a concrete wall. They’re violent. There’s no other way around it.”

The Owner’s Championship

The injury to Kurt Busch and his continued absence — Denny Hamlin shared that Busch’s recovery has “plateaued” at approximately 80% — has created an unusual scenario in the subtext of the playoffs. As he continues to miss time, Busch withdrew his medical waiver for the playoffs and will not participate despite winning earlier this year at Kansas.

However, Busch’s No. 45 team for 23XI Racing is still qualified for the Cup Series Owner’s Championship, which entails considerable financial bonuses for race teams throughout the field. As such, 23XI Racing has swapped its two teams, with Bubba Wallace and his crew being re-numbered to the No. 45 for the rest of the season, while the usual No. 45 team now becomes the No. 23 team.

While that arrangement allows 23XI to pursue an owner’s title with a more experienced driver in Wallace as opposed to 19-year-old substitute driver Ty Gibbs, it also affects Team Penske’s No. 12 team. Despite Ryan Blaney taking the last spot in the playoffs on points, his No. 12 was below the cutoff line for the owner’s title playoffs, meaning that they cannot win the owner’s championship even if Blaney wins the driver’s championship.

In that scenario, Team Penske will lose out on a couple of million dollars it could otherwise have had. However, Blaney did not seem particularly concerned with greater glory at hand.

“I personally don’t care about it. I care about that thing sitting right behind you,” Blaney told Bob Pockrass of Fox Sports, stressing his focus on the Bill France Cup. “… For me, the money side, I don’t care. I want the hardware.”

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