Roger Diez: NASCAR playoff field to be set Saturday
Tonight’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup race at Richmond will set the playoff field for the 2017 championship. Thirteen of the 16 playoff slots are locked in by drivers who have won at least one race. And the three drivers currently in the playoffs on points are safe unless a driver who hasn’t yet won this season takes the checker tonight. Chase Elliott, Matt Kenseth, and Jamie McMurray are only three points apart, sitting in seventh, eighth, and ninth in points. They will each be racing to beat the other two and protect their playoff status. Of course, if one of those three wins tonight’s race, then all are in the playoffs. Drivers who desperately need to win tonight are Clint Bowyer, Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez, Joey Logano, Trevor Bayne, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. It should be an interesting race.
Joey Logano’s encumbered win earlier in the season puts him into that “must win” group. And now there’s a second driver with an “encumbered” win, as NASCAR has placed Denny Hamlin’s victory last Sunday at Darlington in that category. It seems his Joe Gibbs Racing team tried out some new rear suspension pieces that turned out to not be NASCAR-approved. So crew chief Mike Wheeler drew a two-race suspension and a $50,000 fine, and the team was docked 25 owner and driver points. And Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 88 Chevy will be without crew chief Greg Ives for one race, and Ives will be short $20,000 in fines due to a lug nut violation at Darlington.
So who’s likely to win his way into the playoffs at Richmond? Logano’s encumbered win came here this past spring, but he also won the spring race in 2014, so he knows his way around the three-quarter mile oval. Kenseth posted a Richmond win in the 2015 fall race, and he’s highly motivated to make the playoffs in what could be his last season. Bowyer took spring race victories in 2012 and 2008, and wants to put another Stewart-Haas Ford into the post-season action. And Junior went to Richmond’s victory lane in the spring of 2000, 2004, and 2006. That’s a long time ago, but Junior has the same motivation as Kenseth, wanting to end his driving career with a shot at the title. All other Richmond winners for the past 25 years have either retired or are already qualified for this year’s playoffs.
There’s a close championship battle in the Verizon IndyCar series as well. After a less than satisfactory day at Watkins Glen on Sunday for points leader Josef Newgarden of Team Penske, the championship gap is a mere three points to Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon, 560 to 557. With next Sunday’s Sonoma season finale a double points affair, Penske drivers Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud are in the mix as well, with 538 and 527 points respectively. Penske’s Will Power is a long shot with 492 points and Glen winner Alexander Rossi of Andretti Autosport still has a mathematical, if unrealistic, shot with 476 points. I’ve been invited by one of the Pirelli World Challenge teams, GAINSCO Bob Stallings Racing, to attend the Sonoma event, so I’ll be able to provide a firsthand account here after the race.
The four-week summer hiatus for the Formula One teams seems to have had a salutary effect on the Mercedes team overall and Lewis Hamilton in particular. Racing the last two weekends at the two fastest tracks on the circuit, Spa and Monza, Hamilton showed his heels to the field and re-took the championship lead from Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel. Hamilton now has 238 points to Vettel’s 235 and teammate Valtteri Bottas is third with 197. Hamilton’s win at Monza was his sixth of the season, while Vettel has four victories and Bottas two. The next three races are in the Far East, with Singapore next week and Malaysia and Japan after that. The United States Grand Prix at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, takes place on Oct. 22.