Who… gets my shoutout of the race?
It’s hard not to be impressed by Aric Almirola in the short time he’s been in the Stewart-Haas Racing No. 10 ride so far. He hasn’t finished lower than 13th this season, and this week at ISM Raceway scored his best finish of 2018 and second top 10 of the season, doubling the No. 10’s 2017 mark. Almirola has long been the subject of speculation about what he could do in a top ride, and he’s wasted no time in proving SHR right for adding him to its lineup. Currently 10th in points, Almirola worked traffic masterfully in Phoenix, methodically making his way from a 22nd-place start to his seventh-place finish. The SHR group as a whole has shown great improvement so far in 2018, and Almirola is certainly part of that resurgence.
What… is the takeaway from this race?
Overall, Hendrick Motorsports showed across-the-board improvement at ISM Raceway, a track where mechanical grip, drivers and smart adjustments mean as much if not more than aerodynamic grip. Chase Elliott’s third-place run cements his 6.8 average finish as tops among all active drivers with five or more starts at the track. William Byron, Alex Bowman and Jimmie Johnson finished 12th, 13th and 14th, respectively. Certainly solid if not spectacular enough to ward off the panic button for at least this week.
Perhaps what prompts the closest look here is Johnson’s 14th-place run, last among the Hendrick crowd. He has four wins and a 10th-place average at ISM Raceway, second all-time on the win sheet. So what gives? There are a couple things to consider. HMS has always been rumored to have one team that spends much of the season as R&D for the other three teams and has often given its top team in points the first choice of engines and new chassis. If the latter is true in 2018, then Johnson is getting last dibs on everything right now. It’s a policy that makes sense in the championship scheme but makes it a little harder to dig out of a hole.
Hendrick has soundly denied the R&D notion for years, though sources have said all four teams are not always equal. Suppose there was a little truth in it and maybe it makes sense for that car to be the No. 48. Johnson has seven titles, is well-positioned to wind up fourth if not third on the all-time wins list and really doesn’t have much to prove at this point. Elliott, Byron and Bowman, on the other hand, are the future of the team. Johnson is in the twilight of a stellar career while theirs are in the opening chapters. At what point is there more to gain from the youngsters?
Where… did Kevin Harvick come from?
Harvick started 10th, his worst start of the year, but it didn’t take long for him to start picking off the competition one by one. He struggled a little to get the front, leading just 38 laps, but Harvick reminded fans this week why they call him “The Closer” because he was there at the end. Harvick is a relentless competitor, and nowhere is that more apparent than at Phoenix, where he now has nine wins including four in a row in 2013-2015. No driver has more Cup wins at ISM Raceway than Harvick. In fact, it takes the next three drivers on the track’s all-time wins list to tie Harvick’s mark. Even if he hadn’t been red-hot coming into this week, he’s the odds-on favorite at this track, and if the competition thought a penalty delivered by NASCAR last week might kill Harvick’s mojo, they were sorely disappointed.
When… was the moment of truth?
This week, it was all about the racing, and fans got quite a show as the laps wound down. Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch battled it out up front while trying to hold off Harvick, all while Elliott lurked in the mix. It was a study of drivers and their styles. Busch used lapped traffic to his advantage as he led the most laps of the race, aggressively holding off Harvick’s challenge until he couldn’t. It was an approach that perhaps cost his own race by waiting too long to make his final trip to the pits.
Hamlin overdid it, using up his tires and brakes and falling to fifth trying to hold the lead and then the second spot. Elliott got everything he could without risking his car. Harvick closed the deal, not able to dominate this week like he did in Atlanta and Las Vegas, biding his time and saving his car until he could take advantage of his faster machine. He’s just a couple of months shy of being the oldest driver in the field but Harvick has shown that the wisdom of his age and the fire that still burns in his core are more than enough to challenge the younger set and come out on top. But what fans were treated to Sunday was a mix of drivers and personalities doing it their way and making for a good race.
Why… didn’t polesitter Martin Truex Jr. pull it off?
Truex, who led just three laps Sunday after winning the pole, just never had the speed to run with Harvick and Kyle Busch. But ISM Raceway hasn’t really been a great track for him either. He finished third last fall in the midst of his title run, but his numbers don’t compare to the top drivers at ISM. He’s not in the top 10 in average finish, even if you take out the drivers with fewer than five starts. Plus, his nine top 10s in 25 starts are fairly average in comparison to drivers in similar equipment, especially looking at all the drivers with a similar number of races at the track. A top five was a solid run for Truex, all things considered, and he’s certainly got plenty of time to get on a roll.
How… much of a difference will swapping the straightaways at ISM Raceway make?
Sort of swapping, anyway. As of this fall’s race, the start/finish line will be in Turn 2, near the dogleg, instead of the current location, which more or less flips the front and back straights. That’s the only real difference, so the lap-to-lap racing likely won’t change. What will look different are the green flag and subsequent restarts. Between the dogleg and the current Turn 3 with its wide apron, there will be plenty of room for drivers to make moves… and still plenty of room to run out of if someone makes a mistake. Overall, the races won’t change a huge amount, but when the field’s bunched up it could be interesting.
Harvick took a moment after the race to post one final memory of the track that’s treated him so well before the change.
— ISM Raceway (@ISMRaceway) March 12, 2018