Who… gets my shoutout of the race?
Starting from the back after an engine change, Austin Dillon and his No. 3 team knew they had to try something to gain track position, so they went with a pit strategy that put Dillon off-sequence from the rest of the field but gained him the track position to be a contender. As the race wore on, Dillon was able to stay in solid contention despite his unconventional pit stop schedule, and at the end of the day, he finished fourth, right where he’d qualified, and his career best in the Sprint Cup Series. Dillon also led 19 laps, a career high.
What… beyond the drivers’ control affected the action?
The high-drag package was back and it wasn’t any prettier than it was at Indy. While some drivers were able to use side drafting to get a run, there were signs right from the start that the package, created to tighten up the field in a Daytona and Talladega-esque style of pack racing, wasn’t going to make the racing any better. Kyle Busch, who started in back after going to his backup car due to a practice crash, had trouble getting by the No. 7 of Alex Bowman, an underfunded machine with far less speed than Busch’s No. 18, taking the better part of a lap to complete the pass.
The package produced a high closing rate but not a lot of passing. Drivers criticized it on the radio for a variety of reasons. Casey Mears told his team that the driver in front of you dictates too much of what you can do because he can use air to his advantage. Bowman said his car would get loose anytime he got out of line, though it would handle well if he didn’t venture out. It appeared to be easy to lose a lot of positions, though to be fair, some gained a lot as well. After the race, drivers who were vocal after Indianapolis were tight-lipped about the package; perhaps NASCAR issued a reminder that they don’t like dissenters in the ranks?
The big positive of the week was that once again, NASCAR didn’t call for a caution for suspect debris in the closing laps, even as Matt Kenseth was running away and hiding. Jimmie Johnson did create a yellow, but there was no blatantly obvious attempt to tighten up the field. Let’s hope NASCAR is finally making the phantom debris caution a thing of the past.
Where… did the polesitter and the defending race winner wind up?
Kenseth started first and led almost three-quarters of the laps in the race, so anything less than a win would have been a disappointment. And Kenseth did not disappoint, winning handily by 1.7 seconds.
Jeff Gordon‘s win in this race one year ago was his third of four that season, but Gordon hasn’t visited Victory Lane since Dover last fall, and he was never a contender this week, finishing 17th. His Chase hopes dwindling, Gordon needs to find the magic that makes him the winningest driver in NASCAR’s Modern Era one more time.
When… did it all go sideways?
The race was a relatively tame one, but for Johnson it was anything but uneventful. First, the six-time champion had a flat right-rear tire. He managed to limp onto pit road but lost a couple of laps in the process. He got one back but never quite got into position to get the second back. At one point, Johnson expressed frustration with teammate Gordon as the two were racing on different laps and Gordon was holding him up from racing for free pass. Johnson later compounded his problems when he missed his pit box on a subsequent stop, taking a long time to back up into his stall for service.
And just in case he didn’t suffer a big enough headache for the day, Johnson spun with 17 laps to go, enduring major right front damage to the No. 48 from plowing into grass. Johnson looked to be on top of the world this spring, reeling off four wins in quick succession, but he’s fallen hard since. There’s a glimmer of hope for Johnson: NASCAR will run the 2015 rules package in the Chase, and that’s the one he won all four races with this season. Still, the No. 48 team looks so far out of sync that those four wins might be all they see this season.
Also of note, NASCAR confiscated the splitters from both the Nos. 2 and 22 before the race, forcing the Team Penske drivers to need new ones put on the cars. Both Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski downplayed anything out of sorts, explaining that the splitters sometimes get ground thinner from hitting the track in practice and qualifying, but that the pieces were confiscated (as opposed to just making the teams fix the issue) and that no other teams had similar issues means that it’s something to watch on Wednesday, when NASCAR usually hands out any penalties.
Why… did Kenseth win the race?
Kenseth had a great car from the get-go. He won the pole and the race, and he should have. While the fastest car doesn’t always win, it has a better-than-average chance at contending, and Kenseth was riding a rocket on Sunday. A few sharp-eyed viewers questioned whether a flared-out side skirt, which bent when the car slipped off the jack and was not an intentional adjustment, gave Kenseth an unfair advantage, and if he had had a top-five car that suddenly went to the front, that might be a fair question. But Kenseth had a winning car before that pit stop, so it’s hard to say there was anything hinky there. It was just good, old fashioned dominance.
How… did the little guys do?
The Three Best
Martin Truex Jr. and Furniture Row Racing: The Little Team That Could just keeps on rolling. After a 22nd-place qualifying effort, Truex was on the move, climbing as high as second and at times having the fastest car on the track. Truex gained a spot in points this week and now sits fourth. He’ll drop well below that with the Chase reset, but he’s still a threat to be hoisting that big trophy at Homestead. The odds are stacked against him, but Truex is staring down the barrel at the first title for a single-car team in more than 20 years.
Ryan Blaney and Wood Brothers Racing: Putting Blaney in the driver’s seat has been nothing but a positive for this team. Sure, Trevor Bayne won the Daytona 500 for them, but Blaney brings the ability to consistently drive this car in the top 20 when they’re at the track. The finishes haven’t quite showcased the consistent talent and improvement this team has shown this season. The not-quite-even-a-rookie driver raced as high as 10th on Sunday and settled for a smart and solid 24th place at the end.
Cole Whitt and Front Row Motorsports: Whitt has quietly become his team’s top driver this season, edging veteran teammate David Gilliland in average finish by about half a position. He has improved his average by a couple of spots this year as well, and the team has quietly made gains, finishing inside the top 30 a bit more than a year ago. Running three cars does seem to stretch FRM a bit thin at times, but the team is still making gains.
All the Rest
|78||Martin Truex Jr.||Furniture Row Racing||Furniture Row Chevy||22nd||3rd
Fastest car on the track early
|21||Ryan Blaney||Wood Brothers Racing||Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford||19th||24th
Another decent race; Blaney has been a great addition
|35||Cole Whitt||Front Row Motorsports||Dockside Logistics Ford||35th||27th
Concerns about overheating late but had a good finish
|47||AJ Allmendinger||JTG Daugherty Racing||Kroger/Scott Products Chevy||26th||28th
Fell to 35th by competition caution and made several adjustments, got much better late in the race
|51||Justin Allgaier||HScott Motorsports||Brandt Chevy||28th||29th
Worst finish since Indy… related to rules package?
|83||Matt DiBenedetto||BK Racing||Burger King Toyota||32nd||30th
DiBenedetto continues to be a huge asset to this race team… he’s the real deal
|7||Alex Bowman||Tommy Baldwin Racing||Advanced Patient Care Chevy||33rd||31st
Said car got loose whenever he got out of line
|38||David Gilliland||Front Row Motorsports||MDS Transport Ford||36th||32nd
33.7 average the last three races
|26||Jeb Burton||BK Racing||Maxim/Estes Toyota||29th||33rd
Best finish since Sonoma
|46||Michael Annett||HScott Motorsports||Pilot Flying J Chevy||39th||34th
Car was very loose early; penalty for men over the wall too early on green flag stop
|34||Brett Moffitt||Front Row Motorsports||CSX Play It Safe Ford||38th||35th
Last few races slightly below season average of 28.9
|40||Landon Cassill||Hillman-Smith Motorsports||Snap Fitness Chevy||31st||36th
No power steering; multiple penalties for pitting too soon
|32||Josh Wise||GO FAS Racing||Skuttle Tight Ford||41st||37th
Drivers are getting the most out of these cars each week but perhaps team needs the consistency of one driver to improve
|23||JJ Yeley||BK Racing||Dr. Pepper Toyota||37th||38th
Struggles continue… one car too many for BK?
|33||Travis Kvapil||Circle Sport||Chevy||42nd||40th
Late-race loose tire violation on pit road; Kvapil brings experience but I’d like to see the team develop Alex Kennedy and see what he can do
|13||Casey Mears||Germain Racing||GEICO Chevy||40th||42nd
Broken radiator hose caused engine failure; was running strong in 21st; really hurt in points
|98||Timmy Hill||Premium Motorsports||Chevy||43rd||43rd
Engine trouble on parade laps; was black flagged multiple times when he got on track for dropping oil; also dropped a drain pan on track
|62||Reed Sorenson||Premium Motorsports||Chevy||DNQ||Looks like a case of an owner in way over his head||—||41st|