Who… should you be talking about after the race?
He finished second two weeks ago at Phoenix Raceway. Last week at Atlanta Motor Speedway? Second again. But in Sunday’s EchoPark Automotive Grand Prix, Ross Chastain wouldn’t be denied again. After a last-lap duel with road course ace AJ Allmendinger, Chastain emerged victorious at Circuit of the Americas.
Allmendinger gave Chastain a shove, taking the top spot and, possibly, Chastain’s hopes. Chastain came right back, sending Allmendinger into a sideways slide as Alex Bowman moved to pass them both as the checkers loomed. Allmendinger slid into Bowman, and Chastain retook the lead and the win. Allmendinger wasn’t happy after finishing 33rd, but he fired the first shot.
Aggressive? Definitely. Badly executed bump and run? Yup. Over the line? Almost, but not quite. Moving Allmendinger was absolutely intentional, but dumping him less so. The move itself almost cost Chastain the win as he got distracted by Allmendinger and Bowman pounced. He’ll get raced harder in the future, at least by those two. But it falls short of a dirty move.
And don’t forget Erik Jones. He finished ninth in his Petty GMS Motorsports Chevrolet, his second top 10 of 2022. He’s led more laps already this season than he did all of last year (21 this year; nine last season). And while his average finish is a tick lower than last year, that’s skewed right now by a pair of crashes, not his doing. At just 25, Jones is hardly washed up. He’s making the most of his improved team this year and some more top finishes could be in the cards.
What… is the buzz about?
NASCAR handed down a major penalty to Brad Keselowski and RFK Racing this past week, suspending crew chief Matt McCall for four races and fining him $100,000. Additionally, Keselowski was docked 100 driver and owner points as well as 10 playoff points for “modification of a single-source part.” To the rest of us, that means the team modified the body (reportedly the rear panels) of the car.
What that means, in a nutshell, is that when parts come from one source mandated by NASCAR, teams can’t change them to gain an advantage or for any other reason, if there was another reason. With the new racecar, that’s a lot of the car, including some areas where the teams could work in the past.
The heavy penalty sends a strong message that NASCAR won’t tolerate anything when it comes to the spec areas of the racecar. That’s good under the circumstances, because those parts go a long way towards the parity we’ve seen this season so far.
But is there room left in the sport for innovation by race teams? Teams don’t have much control over the cars anymore, and while that does allow races to be in the drivers’ hands, it changes the team aspect of the sport irrevocably. The racing has been good this year, and different drivers have shone when given the opportunity in equal equipment. But are the days of building a better mousetrap gone?
Where… did the other key players wind up?
Polesitter Ryan Blaney may not see himself as a road-course specialist, but he’s certainly strong making the right turns. He may not have had a winning car, but he had a good one, finishing second and fourth in the two stages before bringing the No. 12 home in sixth. His team played solid strategy, and while old tires on the stage three restart cost him a couple of spots, it didn’t cost him the race. Still, Blaney’s making an early bid at a more consistent season.
Defending winner Chase Elliott has the reputation as NASCAR’s road-course king these days, but he didn’t take home the crown Sunday. He worked his way to a top five, finishing fourth, but the win would have taken Chastain taking out the top three instead of just Allmendinger. It read more like a “clawed all day” kind of race for Elliott than the smooth run that might be expected of him.
When… was the moment of truth?
Chastain’s win is an important one. Sure, it’s his first Cup victory, but it’s also the first for Trackhouse Racing, a second-year team that showed flashes of potential in 2021 but has come out swinging this year. Chastain’s teammate Daniel Suarez won stage one, and if not for a flat tire on the restart, might have been in the conversation all day as well. Suarez raced his way back just outside the top 10 before falling to 24th on the last run.
Bigger still is the strength Richard Childress Racing and ECR engines have shown this year. RCR driver Tyler Reddick finished fifth on Sunday and teammate Austin Dillon finished 10th. But both Trackhouse and Petty GMS are RCR affiliates who also run ECR engines. So does Kaulig Racing. Four ECR-powered cars finished in the top 10 in Austin, and Allmendinger was poised to make it five. Justin Haley and Ty Dillon also had top-20 runs with RCR power. It’s been a long time since RCR got equal time in the conversation about the top teams in NASCAR. They’re getting it now.
Why… should you be paying attention this week?
This week, NASCAR goes short-track racing at Richmond Raceway. With six different winners so far (three of them first-timers), will that trend continue? The track favors experience, and a couple of drivers who need a strong run are among the best at the three-quarter-mile track: Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. Busch hasn’t been terrible this year, but he hasn’t been great, either. Truex has three top-10 finishes but no top fives. The Toyota camp has been behind the eight ball this year, but this could be the week when they turn it around.
How… much attention should you be paying to the playoff picture right now?
OK, it’s week six, so absolutely nobody should be hitting any panic buttons under any circumstances. Things are going to change for a lot of teams.
However, the picture is going to be different this year. We’ve already seen three new winners in Chastain, Austin Cindric and Chase Briscoe, one-time Xfinity rivals now turned Cup winners.
But it’s more than that so far. Winners and their punched tickets aside, we’re seeing drivers making their presence known. Chastain is hot. Suarez is hot. Reddick just needs a little luck and he’ll be a top commodity. Veteran Aric Almirola has almost topped his 2021 season stats already. Kurt Busch looks rejuvenated.
Meanwhile, Denny Hamlin is struggling. So’s his teammate Christopher Bell. Keselowski wasn’t setting the world on fire even before his penalty.
The picture is far from set but it’s changing from previous years. Are we seeing the beginning of a changing of the guard?
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