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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions After the 2018 O’Reilly Auto Parts 500

Who… gets my shoutout of the race?

With finishes of 16th, 19th, 36th, 26th, 17th and 26th to open the season ahead of last weekend’s Easter break, Jamie McMurray was looking rough nearly a quarter of the way through NASCAR’s regular season. Sitting 26th in Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series points with little sign of improvement coming, the year had begun to take the wrong shape.

But the off weekend breathed some life into the No. 1 team. After starting 24th, McMurray managed to avoid multiple wrecks and quietly brought home a third-place finish. That may not seem all that significant, especially since he was never a threat for the victory. But to find a better result than the third-place performance he posted at Texas, you’d have to go all the way back to Talladega early last season where he ended up second.

“The off weekend couldn’t have come at a better time for us,” McMurray said during his post-race availability. “We had such a horrible season going. We needed a little bit of a break, so hopefully, we can get on a roll here.”

It was a particular boost for him on intermediates. McMurray’s last top five at a mile-and-a-half oval came at Charlotte last fall. And his average finish at the two 1.5-mile races prior to Texas? 27.5.

“We really struggled this year and especially on the 1.5 miles,” he explained. “It’s awesome to run as good as we did today at a 1.5-miler. We have so many of these and I feel like we have been a little bit behind on the 1.5-milers but had a really good run today.

“I’m really proud of everybody for the car we had and to be able to put the whole race together.”

The third-place result boosted McMurray to 23rd in the standings, just a single marker behind a three-way tie between AJ Allmendinger, Jimmie Johnson and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

GABLE: UP-AND-DOWN DAY FOR CHIP GANASSI RACING

Honorable mention goes to Kevin Harvick for how he recovered through the adversity he faced Sunday. At this point in the season, it’s expected that the No. 4 team will perform well, but one issue after another plagued them on pit road. Harvick suffered two loose wheels, a lug nut that got caught in the jack and a pit road penalty for a loose tire. Despite all that, he had a shot at the win but came up less than a half-second short when the checkered flag flew.

What… is the takeaway from this race?

You could point at the tire issues the teams faced Sunday afternoon that resulted in some pretty nasty wrecks. But instead, it’s NASCAR-mandated pit guns that need to be looked at more closely. This weekend wasn’t the first time teams struggled with problems with the air wrenches either. From failures to outright breaking, the pit guns have built an awful reputation in a very short time period.

Texas was no different. Multiple drivers were forced to make extra pit stops to remedy loose wheels that one can only assume are attributed to the pit guns. After the race, Harvick was one of those who was outspoken about the issues.

“We had a pathetic day on pit road, two days on pit road because of pit guns,” he said, clearly frustrated that the problems likely cost him a win. “When you have a pit gun problem like we have multiple times and been able to overcome it and then today, we couldn’t overcome it. Time after time, you can’t get the lug nuts tight because the pit guns don’t work.”

https://twitter.com/colepearn/status/983116931585605632

Even race-winning owner Joe Gibbs had something to say about it.

It’s an issue the sanctioning body is well aware of. But when these frustrations plague multiple teams weekly, it’s time to take a serious look at it. If that means backing off of the decision to mandate these pit guns until the bugs can be worked out, then that’s the solution that needs to be considered. When pit guns are one of the big stories of the race weekend, it’s a real problem that needs to be fixed sooner rather than later.

NEFF: NASCAR VP RESPONDS TO PIT GUN ISSUES

Where… does Jimmie Johnson go from here?

A couple races ago, after posting a ninth-place finish at Auto Club Speedway, it looked like Johnson and the No. 48 team might be ready to turn a corner following the sour luck they’ve faced all season. Another mediocre finish at Martinsville brought the seven-time Texas winner to a track where he’s scored 21 top 10s in 30 starts.

As the weekend began, it looked like the No. 48 team was turning a corner. He ran 12th, fourth and first in the trio of practice sessions. Then, the team qualified ninth in a weather-shortened single round of Friday qualifying.

Fast forward to race day and things were going relatively well for Johnson, despite a loose right front wheel that forced an extra pit stop. But then, their problems went from bad to worse. A Lap 179 incident where Denny Hamlin got loose, slid up the track and collected multiple cars sent the No. 48 to the garage in a crumpled heap.

The 35th-place finish marked Johnson’s second DNF of the season. It’s also the fifth time he’s failed to finish on the lead lap in seven events. Clearly, something is amiss in the No. 48 camp but it’s still not time to panic… yet.

“A lot to build on from this weekend,” Johnson said after being evaluated and released from the infield care center. “A strong Friday, a fantastic Saturday and then not the best Sunday. We had a lot of different things work against us today, but we are getting closer each and every week. I’m really proud of everybody at Hendrick Motorsports. We will get back to our winning ways soon.”

I agree with Johnson. Come Charlotte next month, if the No. 48 team is still in a hole, then it might be time to start panicking. But right now, it’s time to wait patiently and let Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus do what they do best: recover from adversity.

When… will Erik Jones find Victory Lane?

Now that he’s in his sophomore MENCS season, many expect it’s only a matter of time before Erik Jones scores his first career win.

Some pointed to Texas as the place where Jones might be able to break through to Victory Lane. After all, he has four wins – one in the Camping World Truck Series and three in the XFINITY Series – at the mile-and-a-half oval.

On race day, Jones showed the No. 20 Toyota was plenty strong enough to compete for the win. He led twice for 64 laps and went on to finish fourth, his first top five of the year. Scoring points in all three stages, Jones moved within nine markers outside the top 10 in the championship standings.

“We’ve been kind of inching there each week, getting closer and closer,” Jones said post-race. “Martinsville’s kind of its own animal. But each week and the 1.5-mile and two miles, we’ve been getting better. To get the Reser’s Camry up front and just in the top five is a big moment for us. It’s something I’ve been wanting to do here with this group and you know we did a good job of it this weekend. Texas is a place I like.

“I’ve got to say thanks to the pit crew. They worked really hard. We’ve had a rough start to the year on pit road, but they knocked them out [of the park]. We picked up a lot of spots on pit road today and that was huge for us. Just a good day overall and a lot to build on for Bristol.”

Why… is a 10th-place finish something to celebrate?

Simple. Before his 10th-place run at Texas, William Byron’s best finish this season was 12th at ISM Raceway in Phoenix after he led 15 laps.

But it’s more than just that for the MENCS rookie. On Friday, the team found a problem with the motor that necessitated an engine change, relegating Byron to starting in the back of the field before qualifying had even completed. His first laps on the new motor didn’t come until a limited qualifying session Friday afternoon. That’s where the driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet posted just the 33rd-quickest lap.

“It was really good for us to get a top 10,” Byron explained. “We had a good car. Once the sun came out, we weren’t quite as good, I don’t think, but starting in the back this was definitely a good day for us. We had a lot of adversity and kept having to go to the back. So it’s good to come back from that and get a top 10.

“We didn’t quite have the speed we wanted to. We had a ton of things happen, but I thought that we ended up about where we should have.”

A 10th-place finish is hardly the absolute solution to what has been a struggle to start the season. However, it’s certainly a step in the right direction for this Hendrick Motorsports group. That’s especially considering how much the Chevrolet teams have struggled as a whole so far this year.

Clearly, Byron is working through some growing pains moving to the MENCS. But Sunday’s run should serve as a shot in the arm for the young driver as he finds his way through his rookie season.

How… did the pole-sitter and defending race winner wind up?

Pole sitter Kurt Busch was never really a factor in the race itself. On the initial start, he stayed side-by-side with teammate Kevin Harvick for about half a lap before getting loose, sliding up the track and dropping a handful of spots.

From there, Busch remained inside the top 10 for much of the race, scoring 21 stage points. But the driver of the No. 41 Ford was never a factor where it counted: up front. When the checkered flag flew, he was a respectable yet disappointing seventh.

“I’m really proud of these guys and the effort that we made today. We had really good speed,” Busch said. “We didn’t have the whole package. We’d lose the front on restarts or lose the rear. We’re just trying to find that happy medium.”

Defending race winner Johnson, as explained above had a miserable day after a promising start to the weekend. Despite running decently throughout all three practice sessions and qualifying ninth, he got caught up in that mid-race multi-car melee which ended his day in a dismal 35th-place finish.

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Phil

Maybe the teams should use 4 way lug wrenches on pit stops! That would be a hoot!

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