Who… gets my shoutout of the race?
It became apparent Sunday night reports of Jimmie Johnson’s decline may have been a bit exaggerated. For the first time this season, Johnson had a top-five car, and the seven-time champion responded with his best effort on an intermediate track since last October.
It was a vintage performance for Johnson, who started 23rd and raced his way inside the top five, only to get spun by Denny Hamlin on lap 121. But Johnson kept the car off the wall and on the lead lap. Sure, he had to come back through the field again… and he did, climbing as high as third before settling for fifth. The performance was vintage Johnson, aggressive and smooth. He didn’t have a winning car, but the overall improvement for the Chevrolets this week suggests that he could soon. Now 12th in points, it’s unlikely the seven-time champ will miss the playoffs. There’s signs of life here.
What… is the takeaway from this race?
Charlotte highlighted both Kyle Busch’s dominance and the struggles NASCAR is facing with the current rules package. Behind Busch, the cars supplied some solid racing, often two and three-wide for positions inside the top 10. The problem is, it doesn’t matter to many fans how good the race is if it’s not for the win.
And while fans were treated to some of the best racing a 1.5-mile speedway has offered this year, they were also treated to a runaway victory. The outcome was organic and unmanipulated, but few fans are satisfied with that kind of win, regardless of how well the winning team performed all night. And it was a flawless performance.
It’s clear that the current package doesn’t do much to eliminate the clean air issue. The higher-downforce package we saw in the All-Star Race reduced it considerably. Of course, that wasn’t under normal race conditions, so it’s hard to say how it would react over 500 miles of drivers playing regular race strategy. That’s not to say NASCAR shouldn’t try it, because it did produce some good competition. Sunday night’s race did so too, behind the dominance up front. Which package is in better position to be tweaked for long-term success?
Where… did Kyle Busch come from?
Busch didn’t have to pass a lot of cars en route to the win. He started the race on the pole, and while Joey Logano led a handful of laps early, the lead only changed hands during pit stops after that. Busch was able to open a lead of over seven seconds in the final hundred laps; at one point, third place on back was 13 seconds behind. Runner-up Martin Truex Jr. cut Busch’s advantage drastically in the final 35 laps to just under four seconds. But in the end, he was no match for the No. 18 Toyota machine.
Busch did everything right in the race and so did his crew. Having the first pit stall helped, and again, that was all on the Joe Gibbs Racing team to earn it. It was a complete package, and nobody had anything for it.
When… was the moment of truth?
There was one driver in the field who looked as though he might have had something for Busch: Kevin Harvick. Harvick started 39th after his No. 4 car didn’t clear technical inspection in time to make a qualifying run, but he was inside the top five before the first stage was on the books. Before Harvick had a chance to challenge the leaders, a cut tire sent the No. 4 into the Turn 3 wall. The team was unable to repair the damage, and Harvick finished one spot lower than he started the day.
Harvick’s biggest Achilles’ heel this season could well prove to be inconsistency. It’s not a terrible problem, but it does lurk in the background. In 13 races, he has five wins and 10 top 10s. But he also has three finishes of 30th or worse. He’s is actually third in points, partly due to a penalty, despite the five wins to second-place Logano’s one and Busch’s four.
But when Harvick has an off-day, it’s really off, and a couple of finishes in the 30s in the playoffs could spell the difference between competing for a title or not.
Why… don’t we have true weekend doubles?
The Sunday before Memorial Day has long been dubbed the Greatest Day in Racing, and though it’s been a few years since a driver attempted the Indianapolis 500 / Coca-Cola 600 double, both IndyCar’s biggest race and one of NASCAR’s crown jewels cap off the day that starts with Formula 1 in Monaco with plenty to watch.
So…why not have a NASCAR / IndyCar weekend at a track that hosts both series, like Las Vegas Motor Speedway? If they were to run an IndyCar race Saturday and Cup Series on Sunday, it has the potential for fans to be exposed to two different types of racing in one weekend. Perhaps the track could offer some kind of incentive to drivers who attempt both races, letting fans get to know drivers from both series. It seems like there is a lot of opportunity for both struggling divisions these days that’s not being explored.
How… does the playoff picture look halfway through the regular season?
With nine of 13 wins secured by Harvick or Busch, they’re obviously the current favorites to battle it out at Homestead. It’s a long season, though, and it’s certainly possible for someone else to go on a tear and rival them, or for a bad race at the wrong time to derail them.
Behind Harvick and Busch, though, there’s a lot that’s not clear-cut. Logano is currently second in points, with the win that all but guarantees him admission to the playoffs. He’s been consistent enough to be near the top of the charts, and despite a disappointing run this week, his 10 top-10 finishes are matched only by Harvick. His teammate, Keselowski, is fourth in points, the highest of any driver without a win.
The wild cards right now are the Chevrolet teams. The Camaro brigade has yet to win a race that doesn’t involve restrictor plates. Kyle Larson is Chevy’s best driver, ninth in points to date. But his luck has been terrible, and sometimes that’s enough to keep even a driver of this caliber off his game. Sunday’s race saw four Chevrolets in the top 10, two from Chip Ganassi Racing and two from Hendrick Motorsports, a big step for the manufacturer but clearly not where they need to be. Will they come alive this summer as the Toyotas did a year ago? The talent is there to contend, but so far the speed hasn’t been.
Usually, by this point in the season, the picture is coming into focus, but 2018 is still very muddy.
About the author
Amy is an 18-year veteran NASCAR writer and a five-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found filling in from time to time on The Frontstretch 5 (Wednesdays) and her monthly commentary Holding A Pretty Wheel (Thursdays). A New Hampshire native living in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.
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