The field for the Round of Eight in the 2016 NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship is set, and all four Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas are included. A lot of fans are upset with the way it went down at Talladega, as three of the JGR cars circulated around at the back, well clear of the main pack. Those three knew if they finished the race they would advance, and the strategy was to avoid the “big one.” As it turned out, there was no “big one.” and Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth, and Kyle Busch are all in the penultimate round. Cries of “That’s not racing” were heard throughout NASCAR fandom, but the best counter to that sentiment I saw was a football analogy. If you’re winning by two points with 30 seconds to go, you don’t throw a “Hail Mary” pass and risk an interception. You take a knee and let the clock run out. Team owner Joe Gibbs, former Washington Redskins coach, understands that principle and dictated the Talladega strategy. Denny Hamlin, the fourth JGR car, needed a good finish to advance, so he raced hard, coming home third to win a tie-breaker with Austin Dillon. Hamlin’s chances improved when contenders Brad Keselowski and Martin Truex Jr. both had engine failures early in the race and didn’t transfer to the next round. Dillon and rookie Chase Elliot also failed to advance.
This weekend, the Sprint Cup drivers transition from 2.66 mile Talladega oval to one of the shortest tracks on the schedule — Martinsville at only .526 mile. Teams will face a whole different set of challenges, with lower speeds but a much more crowded track. Where drivers wanted to avoid contact that could trigger a huge wreck a Talladega, contact at a short track is inevitable and sometimes the only way to pass. With 40 cars on the Martinsville “paperclip,” a continuous traffic jam is guaranteed. Jimmie Johnson has the most wins of any active driver at Martinsville with eight victories. Denny Hamlin has won five times, the second-best record. But Jeff Gordon will be in the field, wheeling the No. 88 Chevy for Dale Earnhardt Jr., and he has nine Martinsville victories, the last one just a year ago. Kurt Busch is the only other active driver with multiple wins with two, most recently in March, 2014. His brother Kyle has one win, this past April. Kevin Harvick is the only other Chase driver to have won at Martinsville, in April, 2011. Edwards, Kenseth, and Talladega winner Joey Logano have never won there, although Logano has three Martinsville poles to his credit.
Big news came down last week from NASCAR, finally addressing the issue of Cup drivers dominating the Xfinity and Camping Word Truck races. Since the days of the Busch series, when the Cup guys were called “Buschwhacker” and the Nationwide Insurance series sponsorship, when “Claimjumpers” was the epithet applied, it has been a problem. For 2017, Cup drivers with more than five full years in the top series will be limited to running 10 races maximum in each of the lower tier series. Chase races are excluded, as are the Xfinity Dash for Cash races. Some have dubbed this the Kyle Busch Rule, since he has won more Xfinity races the past few years than just about anyone. The rationale is to give the rising stars in the two feeder series’ more opportunities to win and to shine in their own series. I think it’s an idea whose time has come.