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(Photo: John K Harrelson / NKP)

The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2017 AAA Texas 500

Who… gets my shoutout of the race?

In the very first corner of the race, Brad Keselowski’s day looked to be about done.

The 2012 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion started in 10th, but got into a slow Kyle Busch and cut a left rear tire. A green-flag pit stop put him one lap down in 39th before the second lap was even complete.

500 miles later, Keselowski had battled all the way up to fifth at the finish. Though Keselowski’s comeback didn’t clinch a spot in the Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, he will enter Phoenix Raceway with a 19-point cushion on Denny Hamlin for the final transfer spot. He’ll be in great shape to make it in as long as none of the four drivers under him on the playoff grid squeeze out a win next weekend.

What… is the takeaway from this race?

Martin Truex Jr. seemed to have finally gotten rid of his biggest flaw this season. Before this year, it wasn’t unusual to see the New Jersey veteran either dominate a race or lead in the late stages before choking the win away. This season has been different for the No. 78 team. However, seven clutch race wins have made many forget his skill at losing races.

That “skill” reared its ugly head with just two races to go in a season Truex has absolutely dominated. Kevin Harvick caught Truex with 20laps  to go, but just couldn’t get around the Toyota to win until 10 laps to go, when Truex got loose in Turn 2. The No. 4 machine sped by on the outside. Truex clinched a spot at Homestead anyway by virtue of his playoff points. That race winning pass allowed a very dangerous competitor, the former Cup Series champion of Harvick, to potentially do the exact same thing at Homestead in two weeks.

Driving racecars is about 60 percent a mental game. A loss like this one today can’t be understated when discussing Truex’s chances to win his first championship at Homestead. In the 13 nights before the Ford 400, how many times will Truex replay this Texas loss in his head? We’ve seen a driver mentally break at Homestead before; just go back and re-watch Hamlin’s Homestead race in 2010. Or Jimmie Johnson in 2005, before he started doing Johnson-like things the five years after the fact. This wasn’t a bad restart or bad strategy, this was Truex making a mistake at the worst possible moment of a race. We’ll have to wait and see if this will effect the No. 78 team at Homestead.

Which… beaches are open this late in the year?

Here’s an honest question: if a driver clinches a spot in the final round of the playoffs before cars roll off the truck at Phoenix, why don’t they just take a vacation for the weekend?

Think about it. These drivers have been racing almost non-stop for the past nine months. Why not just escape from the burn out of a long season and just go get some R&R before the big race? Next Thursday when haulers drive into Homestead, there are going to be some miserable people getting off those jets for the final time this year. Why not show up tanned and relaxed instead of pale and tired? I’m half joking, but really, there’s no reason to race at Phoenix for Truex, Harvick or Kyle Busch.

They can’t possibly learn something at the flat 1-mile oval and transfer it to the 1.5 mile high banked Homestead, unlike at Texas this weekend. Even then, Busch did next to nothing today at Texas and has no incentive to start really racing until Homestead.

Maybe NASCAR could add a bit of a buzz so that these drivers have something to fight for at Phoenix. The easiest way would be to stipulate that, of the final four at Homestead, finishing order at Phoenix determines pit road choice. What does that mean? Let’s say Denny Hamlin wins next week, Busch third, Truex fourth and Harvick eighth. At Homestead, those four drivers would pick pit stalls before the other 36 in the field, with Hamlin picking first and Harvick picking fourth. Nobody should be allowed to just take a race off like they can do now, never mind three.

Where… did the pole-sitter and defending race winner end up?

Kurt Busch did not lead a single lap of the race, after he was passed by Hamlin on the very first lap. Outside of this very rare, umm, “feat,” Busch had an uneventful race and finished ninth.

What will probably end up being Carl Edwards’ final win came last year at this race. This year, Edwards probably wasn’t even watching the race on his farm in Missouri.

How… bad of a day did Ray Black Jr. have?

Ray Black Jr.’s second start of both the season and his career was… something.

That bad start of the day didn’t lead to a good result. Two wrecks in a 30-lap window practically ended his day. The young racer from Florida pulled his machine into the garage. Eventually, he pulled back onto the track for the finish, but ended up 29 laps down in 34th.

It should be pretty obvious by know that Black shouldn’t have been out there for as long as he was allowed to be. NASCAR really needs to look at raising the minimum speed at races next season, with how often the No. 51 car gets lapped regardless of who the driver is, they shouldn’t be able to race and get in the way of everybody else on the racetrack. Are they trying to build a program? Yes, but that doesn’t stop them from just starting and parking instead.

Where… is Chevrolet in the championship picture?

After Chase Elliott got wrecked last week at Martinsville Speedway, and Johnson’s awful race at Texas, one of these two Chevrolet drivers will probably need to win at Phoenix in order to make it to the playoffs. If they cannot, this year will mark the first time since 2003 that a Chevrolet driver doesn’t at least compete for a championship at Homestead. Kyle Larson, at one point a championship favorite, has four straight races where he either blew a motor or got into a wreck after a pretty bad accident on lap 284 at Texas caused a brief red flag period.

“It was a very frustrating afternoon,” Elliott said to Chevrolet PR following the race. “But you’ll have that I guess, we’ll just go on to Phoenix. We are going to try our best. Try to get a victory and go on to Homestead.”

“[Phoenix has] been a good track for us,” Johnson said. “But this last half of the year has been really weird. In places where we expect to run well and traditionally do, we haven’t.

“But I know we’re building a better race car and taking a few new ideas to Phoenix and we’ll go there and fight as hard as we can. And that’s one thing this team will never do it give up.”

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About Michael Finley

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Michael has watched NASCAR for 15 years and began covering the sport five years ago. He is a graduate of Salisbury University and a proud member of the National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA).

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7 comments

  1. Avatar

    Amy, you miss the point, as usual. It’s not just the HMS drivers who need a win at Phoenix. ALL five of the Playoff drivers who are not locked in need to look at Phoenix as a must-win. Just like the finale at Homestead has always come down to winner-takes-all during the 3 seasons of the current championship format, NO ONE can count on pointing their way in to the finals this season. And that’s the way it should be. Points racing sucks now just as it always has. A lot of the rest of the field is experimenting or has a mindset of phoning it in to get the season over with. I’m hoping and predicting one of the Fab Five wins his way in!

  2. Avatar

    jimmy johnson will not be allowed to win another championship. nascrap won’t allow it in order not to surpass petty or the “GREAT” dale earnhardt. never gonna happen!!!!

  3. Avatar

    In the unlikely event JJ wins at Phoenix the other three drivers in the Playoffs will need a diaper change. The ghost of Jimmie past is sure to freeze them into submission. However, I am still of the thought that Kes wins at Homestead making any conjecture about Johnson pure fantasy

  4. Avatar

    Great to see all Hendrick’s cars lose. He has a way of buying things so don’t be surprised if Jimmy “all of a sudden finds something” next week at Phoenix.

    • Avatar

      If Rick has a way of buying things he should invest in a Toyota or Ford before Phoenix.If he does I hope he gives it to Chase Elliot