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NASCAR mailbag: Is luck the determining factor in avoiding Chase elimination?

How important is luck in winning the championship, plus Kyle Larson’s early playoff exit, and Martin Truex Jr.’s lack of a victory burnout at Dover.

Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images

Each week SB Nation's NASCAR reporter Jordan Bianchi answers your questions about the latest news and happenings within the sport. If you have a mailbag question email

Now that we're in the third year of this Chase format, it seems as if luck is the biggest factor in which drivers are eliminated and which drivers aren't. Yeah, Austin Dillon finished eighth on Sunday, but he only advanced because Kyle Larson had problems. If Larson doesn't stumble, Dillon never moves on. From how I see it, is it really a good thing to have a playoff format decided by bad luck more than anything else?


As in any sport, luck can play a role in deciding who prevails and who falls short. NASCAR's Chase is no exception. This is especially true since the implementation of the knockout, multi-round format where one bad finish is magnified and can easily result in playoff elimination.

What separates NASCAR from other sports is the obvious: Mechanical parts fail, tires lose pressure, and other drivers make mistakes, all of which can negatively impact one's championship aspirations. Is it fair? Sometimes yes, sometimes no, as each instance is different.

There wasn't much Jimmie Johnson could do about having a $5 rear axle seal go bad, which is what led to his Round 1 downfall a year ago. Conversely, Denny Hamlin having a roof hatch continually open during the Talladega elimination race was more than mere happenstance. That was due to an oversight by Joe Gibbs Racing, where the mechanism to securely fasten it wasn't properly installed.

But to say luck is the predominant factor isn't entirely accurate either. Never before has winning carried more importance than it does now, where a playoff victory provides automatic advancement to the subsequent round regardless of what happened in a previous race. That's something Kevin Harvick has demonstrated on numerous occasions.

Most recently, an untimely caution trapped him a lap down in this year's Chase opener at Chicagoland Speedway, resulting in a 20th-place finish. Harvick responded by winning the following week, which became all the more important when a broken track bar mount sent him to the garage early in the elimination race at Dover International Speedway.

It's also important to recognize that while drivers can advance deep in the Chase by remaining mistake-free and scoring consistent finishes, ultimately luck will only get you so far. Each of the two champions in this format, Kyle Busch (2015) and Harvick (2014), were among the very best throughout the regular and postseason and they needed to win the championship race to claim the title. The same scenario will likely unfold again this season.

Why was everyone shocked Kyle Larson got eliminated so early? It seemed premature to think he was actually going to do anything considering this was his first Chase and he's only won one race in his career. I think everyone was hyping him because he's one of the media's favorites and they need a new driver to latch onto with Dale Jr. not around.


Despite owning just a single Sprint Cup victory, Larson was touted as a dark horse contender for a multitude of legitimate reasons. It had nothing to do with him being a "media favorite."

One, he came into the Chase for the Sprint Cup having recorded three straight top-three finishes to close out the regular season. Although momentum can often be overvalued and doesn't have any tangible effect on performance from week-to-week, that streak indicates the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing team was proficient enough to run with and beat the upper-echelon organizations.

And when you take into account how the Chase is set up, it played to Larson's strengths. He's a driver who likes ovals where there is a top groove and he can carry speed through the corners, and he especially excels on mile-and-a-half tracks, of which there are five in the playoffs.

The expectations were fair and deserving. However, his failure to advance does relate to the initial mailbag question, with Larson victimized at Chicagoland and Dover by bad luck in the form of a flat tire (Chicagoland) and an electrical problem (Dover). Without either issue he's likely moving on, as both of those tracks are among the 24-year-old's best.

But whereas Harvick was able to overcome his sour luck, Larson couldn't because the No. 42 team still didn't execute accordingly. Expected to be among the contenders in the middle first-round Chase race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, he only mustered a 10th-place finish. And a penalty for too many men over the wall cost Larson two additional laps at Dover, negating any chance of a comeback once the battery issue was fixed.

Chalk it up to a learning experience, and don't be shocked if Larson wins another race or two before the season ends. He's fully capable of playing Chase spoiler and ruining someone else's playoff early.

When Martin Truex Jr. won at Chicagoland I know he did a burnout, but he didn't at Dover. The only difference I see is he didn't want to damage his car because NASCAR increased penalties for when a car fails tech, and Truex failed inspection after Chicagoland. Am I thinking too much into this? And do you think NASCAR will eventually eliminate burnouts altogether?


Based off what Truex said in victory lane, he wanted to perform a burnout but thought his engine had blown. Once he realized it could be re-fired, he opted to do a backwards victory lap instead. Is there more to it than that? It's possible, but the only way to definitively know is if the next time Truex wins he again skips what has become the customary way to celebrate.

As for drivers being more mindful of doing anything postrace that could later hinder inspection and incur a penalty, it's not unimaginable at all. It's completely plausible. Consequences are too great now to risk an infraction just because a driver wants to burn the rear tires off the car.

What's more important: Passing tech and keeping a win, or executing a memorable burnout?

Prohibiting such celebrations is not something NASCAR would like to see, though. NASCAR executive vice president Steve O'Donnell has frequently stated publicly he doesn't want NASCAR to earn a reputation like the NFL has of being the No Fun League, and just wants drivers not to be excessive to the point their tires are exploding and ripping the quarter-paneling apart.

However, it's no secret there are occasions when drivers have purposely damaged their cars in an attempt to thwart postrace inspection. Hamlin accused Harvick of such treachery after Harvick came through last year in a must-win Chase race at Dover, and Chad Knaus was recorded instructing Johnson prerace to "crack the back of the car" while celebrating if they were to win a playoff race at Talladega in 2011.

Like anything, it's a balance. If drivers and teams continue to overstep the boundaries of what's acceptable, then NASCAR will react. Otherwise officials will continue to allow drivers to largely celebrate however they see fit.