Who, What, When, Where, How, And Why… NASCAR’s 2017 Camping World 500
Who… gets my shoutout of the race?
Erik Jones, one of the bright young stars in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, had one of his best races Sunday at Phoenix in his short Cup career to date.
Jones started eighth, running in the top 10 for the majority of the day, at times as high as fifth. The Michigan driver did drop back to eighth at the finish, the victim of late-race pit strategy that jumbled up the final running order. But it was fun to see him slicing and dicing through the field after getting four tires on the final pit stop with less than 10 laps to go.
It’s Jones’ first top-10 performance in seven starts in the Cup Series. After finishing 39th in the Daytona 500, three consecutive top-15 results have propelled the rookie to 18th in the championship standings.
What… is the takeaway from this race?
In 2015 at Dover International Speedway, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick finished 1-2 without pitting on the final caution. Some in the media, myself included, were not happy about the bricks Goodyear had brought to the racetrack that day – or most of that season. Those, combined with an over reliance on clean air, resulted in situations when nobody even got close to getting by either driver despite running much fresher tires.
A duo who doesn’t pit in that situation should never be able to hold their ground on the rest of the field. It leads to less strategy and less intrigue for each Cup Series race. At the same time, tires that fall off too much can lead to the opposite. Instead of having anybody roll the dice and stay out, everybody pits.
It’s a sweet spot that’s difficult to land.
Sunday’s race at Phoenix International Raceway was a great example of that sweet spot. It led to a great finish and was all because of tire wear, but not as dramatically as, say, the Atlanta Motor Speedway race a couple of weeks ago. Kyle Larson, sporting fresh rubber was definitely faster than Ryan Newman at the end of the race, but ran out of time to get around him.
It wasn’t a perfect day for Goodyear; they took some heat for overheating that caused several tire failures. But they should definitely be applauded for making the finish possible by bringing a tire compound that was just right for Phoenix.
Where… did the pole-sitter and the defending race winner end up?
Joey Logano won Stage 1 pretty handily, leading all but one lap. But after being passed by Chase Elliott near the start of Stage 2, Logano sped on pit road and failed to be a contender for the lead for the rest of the race. Then, near the end of the race, Logano had a right-front tire go down and smacked the Turn 1 wall, leading to the final caution of the race, setting up the dramatic finish. Logano finished 31st.
Kevin Harvick has won six of the last 10 races at Phoenix, but seems to be losing his stranglehold on the speedway. He didn’t lead in either last year’s fall race or Sunday’s race, and never really seemed to get going in either race. Still, though, Harvick finished sixth after running top 10 for the vast majority of the day.
When… did it all get sideways?
I mentioned above that there were a lot of tire failures due to heat. The ambient temperature at the track was in the mid-90s, and it’s never a good sign when Goodyear basically says right before the race that there were going to be some problems.
Perhaps the hardest hit was to Matt Kenseth on Lap 192, when his No. 20 Toyota had a right front go down out of Turn Four and hit the wall at a rough angle. Kenseth was able to walk away from the wreck unscathed, thankfully.
Another hard hit happened when David Ragan’s left-rear tire went down, collecting Gray Gaulding. It has been a very rough start to the season for BK Racing. Gaulding has two DNFs in three starts and Corey Lajoie has been the cause of the first caution in three of the four races this season.
Why… did Ryan Newman win?
Luck and a gutsy call. If Larson hadn’t almost spun himself out trying to clear Ricky Stenhouse Jr. on that final restart, it’s hard to believe he can’t get around Newman in a lap and a half. It has become a theme of the season at this point: it doesn’t matter if you lead one lap or 300 laps, the winner of the race is whoever leads the last lap. Winning a stage is nice, but winning a race is a ticket into the playoffs, and is huge for a driver like Newman who is always on the bubble every year.
I’m sure it’s nice to have stage wins. Logano, Harvick, and Kyle Busch are all in great positions right now because of it. But at the end of the day, winning is still key in today’s NASCAR. Dominating a race is a cool thing, and regular season points have shown that, but winning gets a driver into the playoffs, advances a driver in the playoffs, and wins championships. It shouldn’t be as underplayed as it has been in some circles this season.
How… about Ricky Stenhouse Jr.?
Fought all day long. Raced his way into the top ten. Made a big strategy call at the end of the race that netted the young driver a fourth. Roush Fenway Racing seems to be showing signs of life this season between Stenhouse today and Trevor Bayne being 12th in points. If RFR can keep up this momentum, expect them to be a team to watch in the years ahead between Stenhouse, Bayne, and the away-on-loan Chris Buescher.