NASCAR’s annual Mother’s Day Eve race gave us a mixed bag Saturday night. The low downforce package seemed to help the overall action at Kansas but as Kyle Busch and Martin Truex, Jr. proved throughout the night at this 1.5-mile oval the leader was hard to catch and even more difficult to pass.
Kyle Busch returned to the top of the NASCAR world this weekend. First, one of the trucks he owns took the checkered flag in Friday night’s Truck Series event thanks to a bit of good fortune. The two leaders wrecked each other on the final lap, allowing William Byron to inherit his first Truck Series win. Then, on Saturday night, Busch didn’t appear to have quite the speed to match Martin Truex, Jr., but a mistake by the Truex pit crew gave Busch the lead late in the race and he never gave it up. Busch is the first driver with three wins this season and also has nine top-5 finishes in 11 races. That’s tough to beat.
Yes, it was Truex who absolutely had the fastest car Saturday night, but as any race fan knows, the fastest car doesn’t always win. Truex and his team appeared to have a good final scheduled pit stop… only it turned out it wasn’t their final stop. That’s because a loose lug nut forced Truex to come back in and that left him a lap down instead. A win has to come sooner rather than later for Truex. He’s been too close (see the Daytona 500 as exhibit A) and too fast (see Saturday night as exhibit B). But Truex’s bad fortune is also a statement about how difficult it is to win one of these races. Victories just don’t come easily.
Austin Dillon hasn’t earned the title of The Closer yet (that still goes to Kevin Harvick) but he may well be the Comeback Kid. Last week at Talladega, Dillon’s No. 3 car needed 17 pit stops to make repairs and adjustments before ending up with a top 10. Then Saturday night in Kansas, for much of the night Dillon was just trying to stay on the lead lap. But the work by Dillon and his crew paid off again late and this time he ended up with a sixth-place finish. While he doesn’t have a win, Dillon now sits eighth in the standings with a 52-point cushion over 16th-place Ryan Blaney. If there is an award for most improved team for the first third (well, almost one third) of the season it would have to go to the No. 3 team.
It can be (and has already been) debated which category this should go under. When Denny Hamlin tried to make a third lane on a track that doesn’t have room to go three-wide in the corners, the move ended up causing a multiple-car accident that took out Hamlin, Joey Logano and Kyle Larson (though he did return to get a few laps in at the end of the race). Hamlin deserves some credit for admitting he was going for it, trying to position for a win; there’s nothing wrong with that given that’s what drivers are supposed to do. But when you’re making that choice and putting other drivers in danger (especially on a high-speed track) then you’re crossing the line.
Another driver and team that have shown improvement this season are the No. 47 and driver AJ Allmendinger. The team managed an eighth-place finish Saturday night and now has three top-10 finishes this season. That puts Allmendinger 15th in points and while that’s not earth-shatteringly good, maybe it will take some pressure of Allmendinger to be in a win-or-else situation to make the Chase when the Sprint Cup Series runs its two road course races this season. Allmendinger should still be the favorite at Sonoma and Watkins Glen but now he’s making his mark on oval tracks.
Kyle Larson had seemingly put together a much-needed solid race going into the last 50 laps of Saturday night. While not a serious threat to win a top-5 finish for Larson was a near certainty. But when Hamlin made his go-for-broke move, that put another dent in Larson’s Chase chances (and a lot of big dents in his car as well). Instead of a guaranteed finish of say, sixth or seventh, Larson limped home with a 35th-place result in his damaged car. And now, instead of being 22 or 23 points behind the final Chase spot (not the best place to be, but there’s still some hope) he’s now 52 behind 16th. That means Larson will need a streak of top-10 finishes in the coming races or that ever-elusive first career Sprint Cup win to make the playoffs.
Prediction: When picking at Dover it’s just impossible to not go with Jimmie Johnson here. Even though bad luck at the 1-mile concrete oval eliminated him from the Chase last year, he has had much more good fortune there than bad; I’m going with the No. 48 this week. The deep sleeper, super underdog, someone you might not think of pick this week is Aric Almirola. The three initials in his name are A.A.A. and since this is the AAA 400, how can you not pick him? Also, Almirola has two top 10s in his last four races at Dover for an average finish of 12.5.
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