BRISTOL, Tenn. — Five thoughts after Saturday night’s Round 1 elimination race of the NASCAR playoffs at Bristol Motor Speedway …
1. Taking Stock
As they looked down at the purple-suited figure on the floor of the massive arena, tens of thousands of people yelled as loud as they could.
Did victorious gladiators troll the crowd in ancient Rome? We’re guessing not, but the modern-day version at the “Last Great Colosseum” gleefully did so on Saturday night.
“Hey,” Hamlin said into a microphone over the din of jeers. “I beat your favorite driver.”
At 42, Hamlin has fully and unapologetically embraced his villain role, in which he gets booed louder than any driver. At this point, it’s almost hard to tell if all the boos stem from genuine dislike or because he’s become a black hat who plays to the crowd like a WWE heel.
A bit later, sitting in the quiet media center, Hamlin said he feeds off moments like that. After 18 years, Hamlin cracked, he has realized, “I’m probably not going to win the Most Popular Driver award.”
He then paraphrased one of the most viral news conference moments in Deion Sanders’ Colorado tenure so far: What about me would make you think that I care about your opinion of me? Your opinion of me is not the opinion I have of myself.
“I know who I am,” Hamlin added. “I know how I treat people. But to have that electricity … it’s really fun in NASCAR to have that many fans passionate one way or another.”
It’s appropriate Hamlin quoted Coach Prime, because crew chief Chris Gabehart is like a mild-mannered college professor version of Sanders. Gabehart, a former driver himself, often comes up with motivational sayings and finds unique ways to inspire his team — in addition to giving Hamlin lightning-fast race cars.
The pre-Bristol talk from Gabehart, for example, went like this:
No race owes you a thing. This sport owes you nothing. In fact, it will take from you far more than it gives to you. So you just have to do it for the love of the game. Show up every week as prepared as you can show up. Be thankful that you get to play a game for a living at the sport’s top level. Even on your worst days, things won’t be that bad.
You could tell that resonated with Hamlin, who echoed Gabehart’s mantra and said he still loves racing as much as he ever has.
But he quickly added: “A lot of it is because I show up every week knowing I can win.”
The No. 11 team had race-winning speed at Darlington, was going to win at Kansas before Chris Buescher’s flat tire in the final laps and then won Bristol. If Hamlin isn’t the championship favorite at this point, he’s at least a “final-round favorite,” as Gabehart put it.
“We’re executing at a super high level,” Gabehart said. “We have all the pieces put together to do it. Why not us?”
2. What If?
Here are some alternate storylines we’d be talking about today had a few things unfolded differently.
• If Joey Logano doesn’t get caught in Corey LaJoie’s wreck: Even after crashing and finishing 34th, Logano only missed advancing to the next round by four points. His team wasn’t running great before the crash, but he certainly wasn’t going to finish 30th; even Kevin Harvick, who was a miserable five laps down with no speed in his car, ended up in 29th place. Had Logano remained in the race, the final spot would have come down to either Martin Truex Jr. or Bubba Wallace, who ended up separated by one point.
• If Harvick drives through the pits at Darlington during the Tyler Reddick incident: Despite suffering through Bristol with a slow car, Harvick still only missed the next round by four points. Even finishing three laps down instead of five would have been enough to advance. But the real missed points haul came in the Darlington incident, when Reddick tried to counter Harvick’s pit call and caused a caution. Harvick was on pit road but then took service (and got a penalty) instead of driving through. That cost him perhaps 10 points, which would have covered him on a disastrous night at Bristol.
• If Ricky Stenhouse Jr. or Michael McDowell have clean races at Darlington and Kansas: As it turns out, all it would have taken is top-15 finishes in the first two races for either of these two drivers to advance. Stenhouse ended up missing the cut by seven points and will likely regret speeding on pit road at Darlington (finished 16th) and hitting the wall at Kansas (23rd); McDowell missed by 16 points and will rue his wreck at Darlington (32nd) and splitter damage at Kansas (26th).
NASCAR playoffs: Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick out; Bubba Wallace moves on
3. Oddities and Ends
The three-year experiment known as the Bristol Dirt Race is now officially over, and no one seems to be particularly sad about it.
“Hallelujah,” LaJoie said.
“Fantastic,” Harvick said.
“Awesome,” William Byron said. “Greatest thing ever.”
Drivers weren’t particularly shy about expressing their feelings about Bristol Dirt while it existed, but they seemed emboldened after the track announced its demise on Friday. Bristol will have its traditional two concrete races in 2024 instead of one dirt and one concrete.
“It’s just something you try, and we probably tried it a couple of years too long,” said Harvick, who will broadcast the spring Bristol race from the Fox Sports booth next season. “I’m always gonna vote for something that’s not dirt.”
As Kyle Busch noted, drivers repeatedly expressed that Cup Series cars were simply not made for dirt. It wasn’t a good combination, and not just because of Bristol. Asked which other dirt track NASCAR should try, dirt racing master Kyle Larson responded flatly: “None.”
That said, LaJoie was doing a stage appearance outside of the track when he heard the official news and had a response to the fans who cheered at the announcement.
“You have to come to the race (next spring) or else they’ll put ice or gravel or some sort of funky substance to make it a flash in the pan,” LaJoie said. “You better be here in the spring with your butt in a seat so the race doesn’t move somewhere else or they don’t figure out some other substance to put (on the track).”
4. Championship 4cast
In this space throughout the playoffs, we’re taking a look at the current power rankings for the Championship 4 and comparing them to our pre-playoff picks (Hamlin, Byron, Truex, Larson).
1. Hamlin (pre-playoffs: 1; last week: 1). We might eventually be wrong on the pre-playoff championship pick, but certainly not yet. Hamlin could have swept the entire first round and settled for winning one of the three races. The team looks like the absolute title favorite at the moment, but there’s a long way to go.
2. Larson (pre-playoffs: 4; last week: 2). At this point, Hamlin’s friend and occasional rival is the No. 11’s most consistent threat for the championship. It just seems like these two are going to go head-to-head and perhaps clash again at some point as they race for crucial wins in the later rounds.
3. Truex (pre-playoffs: 3; last week: honorable mention). Truex’s season looked seriously threatened after Kansas and for much of the Bristol race, and it seemed very real he could be the first regular-season champion to have a Round 1 exit. But this quirky format means Truex barely escaping elimination means he’s suddenly tied with Byron atop the standings again heading into the second round. The No. 19 team can’t possibly go a fifth straight race without a top-15 finish … can it?
4. Byron (pre-playoffs: 2; last week: 3). Byron was solid in Round 1 and collected three top-15 finishes, including a ninth-place run at Bristol. But he also led zero laps in the first round, which is a bit concerning. He should still make the final four and enters Round 2 as the No. 1 seed, but he’s going to need to win at some point.
Honorable mention: Tyler Reddick, Christopher Bell, Chris Buescher
5. Best of the Rest
• Ty Gibbs: The 20-year-old tied his best finish with a fifth-place result and led 102 laps — the first time he had led more than four laps in a race and 8.5 times his career total before Saturday. It seemed like a breakout moment for Gibbs in Cup; he looked smooth and in control of the race while leading, which came while he was holding off teammate Hamlin. “I just need a bit more experience and to keep learning,” Gibbs said.
• Carson Hocevar: Oh my. Like Gibbs, Hocevar is also 20 and seems to have a boatload of talent. We’re mentioning him every week in this space lately, but with good reason. Hocevar was up to a legit top-five spot in the No. 42 car for Legacy Motor Club, which still has not had a top-10 all season, but ultimately fell short of that mark and finished 11th after what he said on X was a loose wheel during the final run (“Everyone I talked to said they’re shocked it (lasted) so maybe I got lucky,” he posted). Still, Hocevar has now impressed in all four of his career Cup Series starts and is widely expected to move from Trucks into Cup next season. The future seems bright based on what we’ve seen so far.
• Chase Elliott: With a seventh-place finish, Elliott easily put his No. 9 team into the second round of the owner point playoffs. That gives Elliott something to keep racing for after missing the playoffs as a driver, and his solid performance in Round 1 (top-10s in all three races) left him tied for seventh in points. The No. 9 team starts Round 2 in a 13-point hole to the cutoff line (Elliott only has one stage win this season), but that’s doable with places like Talladega and the Roval on the schedule in coming weeks.
(Photo: Jared C. Tilton / Getty Images)