Who’s in the headline
After three seconds and a third in the last four Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races, Kyle Busch finally put it all together Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway. Holding off a hard-charging Kevin Harvick down the stretch, Busch became the fifth MENCS winner of 2018 in the O’Reilly Auto Parts 500. Busch led the most laps during the race and also won the second stage.
Harvick led the second-most laps, scored a playoff point for a first-stage win and had the fastest car most of the day. A combination of pit road miscues led to poor track position that kept the No. 4 from a fourth win in seven races.
Thanks to Busch’s victory, three of last year’s Championship 4 drivers from Homestead-Miami have won in 2018 (add Harvick and Martin Truex Jr.)
Racing was full of fits and starts at Texas, where tire problems created eight caution flags (tying a season high). Just three laps into the race, Alex Bowman lost control out of turn 4 with his No. 88 Chevrolet. The wreck collected Daniel Suarez and Paul Menard, beginning what was a long day for all three of them.
Their crumpled sheet metal set the tone. The next two cautions, the first of which included the end of stage one, involved blown right fronts for Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Larson. Both race cars were completely destroyed in the incidents.
But the biggest wreck came at the start of the final stage. Denny Hamlin got loose under Aric Almirola in turn 3, losing control of his No. 11 Toyota. The ensuing carnage included six other cars and resulted in an 11-minute red flag. Among those included in the disastrous melee were Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson and Austin Dillon.
Three more caution flags before the end of the race dwindled down the top contenders. But through it all, Kyle Busch and Harvick remained in a class by themselves in terms of speed. Early on, it was Harvick out front until pit road problems reared their ugly head. Lagging stops led to tire troubles as crew chief Rodney Childers blamed NASCAR’s pit guns for causing problems.
Yellows falling at the right time finally got the No. 4 car back on the lead lap after an unscheduled green-flag stop for a loose wheel. Harvick charged through traffic and it looked like he’d take his second straight Texas trophy.
But on the final restart of the race, it’s the No. 18 who scooted ahead. Busch then held off Harvick for 30 laps on even tires to grab the victory.
Why you should care
As much as the Ford camp has been the toast of the MENCS this season, Toyotas have been right on their back bumper. On the last two tracks over a mile in length, the Camrys of Truex and Kyle Busch have led the most laps and both grabbed victories.
It’s clear Chevrolet still has a lot of catching up to do. But the Ford and Toyota camps should feel good, positioning their top teams to have multiple victories and contend for the championship later in 2018.
What your friends are talking about
Harvick and his team were tremendously vocal during post-race interviews about NASCAR’s pit gun failures. The noise over the guns had died down recently but pit miscues made things very difficult for Harvick on Sunday. This race isn’t the first time the guns have made things hard for him, either with a pit crew struggling over the change. Fortunately, the first couple of incidents for Harvick didn’t cost him victories. This one did, angering crew chief Rodney Childers to the point he called out NASCAR on national television demanding the pit guns get fixed.
"At some point, we have to get our air guns better," said crew chief Rodney Childers. "I'm tired of biting my lip about it."
Straight shot at #NASCAR to improve pit equipment.
— Tom Bowles From Frontstretch.com (@NASCARBowles) April 8, 2018
The irony of the noise from Harvick’s camp is Stewart-Haas Racing was one of the teams quite vocal about the rising expenses of these guns. They were looking for NASCAR to rein in costs; now, they’re paying a different price.
But Harvick had a couple of other issues Sunday that cost him on pit road. In a fluke incident, he had a lug nut fly into the jack which resulted in the mechanism not being able to fully lower. The end result was the car having to be raised a second time in order to remove the nut, which ended up costing Harvick somewhere around seven spots on pit road. In all honesty, the team could also have been called for a tire penalty on their final pit stop, a mistake NASCAR Vice President of Competition Scott Miller admitted to after the race. One of their tires escaped beyond an arm’s reach from a crew member, violating the letter of the rule on controlled tires.
NEWS –> NASCAR says it should have called an uncontrolled tire penalty on Kevin Harvick. Scott Miller: "It was a judgement call, and after conducting a post-race review of the incident an uncontrolled tire penalty for the 4 car would have been correct. We missed that call.”
— Jeff Gluck (@jeff_gluck) April 9, 2018
In GIF form
This was not an uncontrolled tire penalty for Kevin Harvick: pic.twitter.com/AQYp6TV3B1
— Nick Bromberg (@NickBromberg) April 8, 2018
But Harvick wasn’t alone in his disgust over the pit guns. Coach Joe Gibbs also chimed in. “I don’t like things not in our hands,” he stated, referring to NASCAR’s control over the equipment. “To be quite truthful, I’ve taken a stand on that. That’s something I hope we continue to really evaluate.” There is no official documentation of Gibbs’ stand. However, it is a safe bet he is all about returning the guns to team control since his organization developed the fastest ones. “We’ll continue gathering information on the pit gun’s performance like we do after every race,” Miller said after the Texas event. “It is too early to make assumptions without all the facts. It’s also important to remember that this [gun switch] is a collaborative initiative with the race teams.”
This week, NASCAR released the 2019 Cup Series schedule. In a truly expected development, not a single race was changed from 2018. While fans would like to see different venues and dates for some tracks, the simple fact is the five-year deals the sport made with track owners prevents them from significant change. Until the next television contract, there is little to no chance of a major adjustment to the schedule.
Tony Stewart and Kevin Ward’s family have settled the wrongful death civil suit that was scheduled for court on May 7th. On April 12th, there will be a court date to enter terms of the settlement into the public record. A jury has now been prevented from having to decide which experts to believe on whether Stewart intentionally swerved into Ward and killed him. It’s a sad situation, one where a trial would have resulted in renewed grief and scrutiny on all sides. After years of struggle surrounding the tragedy, hopefully this development will bring closure to everyone involved.
Who is mad
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has multiple reasons to be a bitter man these days. Roush Fenway Racing has been horrible this year, leaving the No. 17 team without a top-10 finish through six races. But for most of the race at Texas, a decent result looked to be within his grasp. In fact, both of RFR’s cars were running inside the top 15 at one point. Unfortunately for Stenhouse, he had a vibration after his final pit stop of the race and wound up hitting the outside wall. Suspension issues, likely from extensive wall contact officially knocked him out with 19 laps to go. It’s going to be a very long 2018 season for RFR unless this team can find a way to scrape out a victory in the restrictor plate races.
Ryan Newman‘s crew chief Luke Lambert made a strategy call late in Sunday’s race to keep the No. 31 out for a long run as the laps were winding down. Newman was running in the top three when his right front tire came apart and he pounded the wall on the frontstretch. Newman came on the radio and sarcastically said, “That strategy didn’t work.” The team meeting should be tense this week after the decision backfired during a race where multiple cars experienced right front tire issues.
Who is happy
Texas marked the easiest choice in some time for this category. Jamie McMurray has been struggling for awhile to get back inside the top three at a non-plate track. His last podium finish on one was Martinsville in the fall of 2015. But the No. 1 car came close to pulling a stunning upset Sunday, running third behind the Busch/Harvick duo while holding up the banner for Chevrolet. There’s no question McMurray is feeling the pressure with teammate Kyle Larson running so well over the last few years. Perhaps this performance could jumpstart his 2018 season?
Also grinning widely after Sunday was the pilot of the No. 43, Darrell Wallace Jr. Wallace has struggled since his runner-up finish at Daytona that raised eyebrows. Ever since, he’s posted a string of finishes outside the top 20. But Sunday, thanks to pit strategy, Wallace ended up with a lead-lap, eighth-place performance. It’s the best career result for the rookie outside of a restrictor plate track.
When the checkered flag flew
- Kyle Busch scored his first victory of 2018 Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway. It’s Busch’s 44th career win in his 469th career start.
- Busch has three career MENCS triumphs at Texas.
- On NASCAR’s All-Time win list, Busch is now tied for 16th with Bill Elliott.
- The runner-up at Texas was Kevin Harvick. It’s his fourth top-two run of 2018.
- Harvick has four career top-two finishes at this track.
- This run marked Harvick’s 51st second-place finish of his career. That ranks him tenth on NASCAR’s All-Time list.
- Rounding out the podium was Jamie McMurray. McMurray’s third-place performance was his first top three of the season.
- At Texas, McMurray has three career top-three runs.
- Thanks to his 30th career podium finish, McMurray is tied with Dave Marcis for 65th on NASCAR’s All-Time list.
- Darrell Wallace Jr. finished eighth to claim the Rookie of the Race award.
- For the year, Wallace has won Rookie of the Race three times to William Byron‘s four.
Austin Dillon, Harvick, Truex, Clint Bowyer and Kyle Busch have won MENCS races thus far in 2018. Assuming there are 16 or fewer unique winners in the regular season, they will be locked into the playoffs based on winning a race. Harvick is locked into the playoffs thanks to two victories assuming he attempts the remaining events in the regular season. (His third doesn’t count for the playoffs due to a post-race penalty).
Here are the remaining drivers who would qualify for the MENCS playoffs after Texas and their associated playoff points.
2) Joey Logano – 0
3) Ryan Blaney – 2
7) Brad Keselowski – 1
8) Kurt Busch – 2
9) Denny Hamlin – 1
10) Kyle Larson – 0
11) Erik Jones – 0
12) Aric Almirola – 0
14) Alex Bowman – 0
15) Chase Elliott – 0
16) Paul Menard – 0
What is in the cooler (one to six beers where one is a stinker and six is an instant classic)
Depending on what you look for in a race, you might have been thrilled with Texas. Eight cautions for 48 laps, tying a season high were paired with an 11-minute red flag. If you were looking for a single-groove racetrack with minimal passing for the lead then you were probably ecstatic.
But for most of the fans of the sport, it was far from enthralling. The race barely moved the needle for me, earning two lukewarm Hands Up Pale Ales from Chimera Brewing Company.
Where you point your DVR for next week
The series heads to the Last Great Coliseum, Bristol Motor Speedway on Sunday, April 15th. It’s the second short track event in three races with coverage on FOX starting at 2:00 p.m. ET. It can also be streamed on the Fox Sports Go app.
If you’d like to listen to the race, you can hear it on your local PRN affiliate. You can also listen on www.goprn.com or SiriusXM NASCAR Channel 90.