Roger Diez: And then there were eight …
It took two tries at overtime, but the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup race at Kansas last Sunday finally determined who will advance to the Round of Eight in the 2019 championship playoffs. Denny Hamlin’s win secured him a berth in the next round and extended his season win count to five, second only to Martin Truex Jr.’s six victories. But Kyle Busch’s third place finish in Kansas, combined with his chart-topping stage point tally, puts him at the top of the standings for the Round of Eight with 4,046. His Joe Gibbs Racing teammates occupy the next two spots with Truex at 4,042 points and Hamlin at 4,037. Two of the three Penske Racing cars are also in the mix. Joey Logano is fourth with 4,030, and Ryan Blaney sits in eighth with 4,009 points. Kevin Harvick in fifth with 4,028 is the sole Stewart-Haas representative in the round, while Chase Elliott at 4,024 is in sixth as the only Hendrick Racing entry to make it this far. And Kyle Larson, driving for Chip Ganassi Racing, is seventh with 4,011 points. Larson and Blaney are far enough behind that their sole hope of making the final four at Homestead is to win Sunday at Martinsville, or at Texas or Phoenix in the coming two weeks.
These eight drivers, while the cream of the crop, still have to compete with 32 other teams at each race. Many of those other competitors are very good drivers with very good cars and something to prove. And Martinsville is a place where proving your point often includes body damage and a close encounter with the wall. Looking at the stats for Martinsville, there are six former winners in the field, with five of the eight playoff drivers in that group. Jimmie Johnson tops all active drivers with nine Martinsville wins, while Hamlin tops the playoff contenders with five victories. Points leader Kyle Busch has two Martinsville wins, and Logano has made one trip to victory lane there. Oddsmakers’ starting odds have Busch favored to win tomorrow at 13-4, while Hamlin is listed at 4-1. Truex Jr. starts at 5-1 odds, Logano is 7-1, Elliot 8-1, and Harvick 10-1. Martinsville has not been kind to Larson, and this is reflected in his 30-1 starting odds. But all those odds are out the window as soon as the green flag flies and the banging, beating, and bumping begins. The only sure outcome from Martinsville is that more than a few drivers will come away with bent-up bodywork and a grudge.
Formula One is back in action this weekend at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodrigues in Mexico City. Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton can clinch his sixth World Driving Championship tomorrow if he can outscore teammate Valtteri Bottas by 14 points or more. Mercedes has already clinched the Constructors Championship for the sixth consecutive year. Hamilton set the pace in the first practice session on Friday, topping both Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc and Red Bull driver Max Verstappen by 0.1 second. However, Hamilton has only won once in Mexico since F1 resumed racing there in 2015 after a 23-year hiatus. His win came in 2016, but the 2017 and 2018 races went to Red Bull’s Verstappen.
Hamilton will be operating under a handicap both in Mexico and in next week’s U.S. Grand Prix. His race engineer, Pete Bonnington or “Bono” as Hamilton calls him, will be out of action due to a medical procedure. Another issue in Mexico is the altitude. At almost 7,400 feet, air density is reduced by 25% from sea level, which has a serious effect on downforce. So, look for high downforce settings to improve grip, and high straightaway speeds as the low air density also reduces drag. Just one more challenge to the already overburdened race engineers.