Who… gets my shoutout of the race?
Even on a team, it’s easy to point fingers and let a setback outweigh performance. Sometimes the setback is even the team’s own fault, or as in Clint Bowyer’s case, purely driver error. A pit road speeding penalty mushroomed for Bowyer as he drew a second penalty while serving the first, leaving him two laps down after having powered his way to the lead before the round of stops.
Bowyer could have panicked. His team could have let frustration cloud its mission. It’s happened before to plenty of teams and drivers. But the No. 14 team showed its mettle Sunday, with Bowyer racing his way back into position for a free pass and making up the other lap with sound pit strategy. Had things fallen apart and Bowyer stayed two laps in arrears, the best he might have finished was 25th. Instead, he scored a top five. Overcoming what could easily have become a disaster is what sets a team up to capitalize when things go right.
What… is the takeaway from this race?
Chicagoland Speedway isn’t exactly high on anyone’s list of tracks expected to produce a great race, but Sunday it did. There weren’t a lot of cautions, but even during long green-flag runs, there was action, not just at the back of the pack, but up front as well. 10 drivers combined for a total of 24 lead changes, a solid number for an intermediate track on a day without a ton of yellow flags. But why Chicago of all places?
The race actually had the perfect recipe for the best racing possible: older asphalt on a multi-groove track, a daytime race and sweltering temperatures. The hotter it gets, the slicker the old pavement is, the more drivers and adjustments come into play. Night races and cooler temperatures don’t take away enough from aerodynamics, but races like Sunday’s do. There need to be fewer night races on the schedule, not more. A great starting point would be Darlington, a track that has suffered for the popularity of night racing. The fall race at Charlotte last year was run during the day due to a weather delay and was one of the better races at that track in recent years. Night racing looks cool and NASCAR did a great job of selling the hype of tempers flaring under the lights, but that hype just doesn’t hold up when comparing races side by side.
Where… did Kyle Busch come from?
Anyone surprised to see Busch at the front as the laps ticked down probably hasn’t paid much attention to the racing this season, because Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. have been so dominant one or another of them is pretty likely to be leading in the closing laps. With just six different winners this year, these three have made the Cup Series their personal playground this year. If you’re looking for a safe pick in the office pool, just pick one of them.
Sunday, Busch started 16th and didn’t lead a lap until he passed Harvick with 59 to go. He only led once but made it count. Kyle Larson had the best car in the closing laps, running down Busch not once, but twice, nearly catching Busch’s Toyota before scraping the wall and losing momentum. He caught Busch again in the final six laps as both drivers had to navigate several lapped cars. Larson took the lead from Busch on the final lap, and in the process got loose enough to contact Busch’s left rear quarter panel. Busch returned the favor off Turn 3, spinning Larson to take the checkers in one of the most closely contested finishes of the year.
When… was the moment of truth?
While Kyle Busch was driving away with the race and the entire Stewart-Haas organization was having a banner day, Busch’s teammate and Joe Gibbs Racing’s senior driver Denny Hamlin wasn’t a contender. Even before he spun on his own with 90 laps to go, Hamlin wasn’t really around.
And that’s kind of summed up Hamlin’s season. He’s led laps (239 of them this year, eighth among all drivers) and he had six top fives and 10 top 10s and sits eighth in points. It’s hardly a bad season, but given that Hamlin enjoys the same equipment as Busch, why isn’t he winning more?
A lot of that is on Hamlin. Often his own worst enemy, Hamlin’s aggressive approach to pit road too often results in speeding penalties. Hamlin has, in the past, also been prone to others getting inside his head. But it’s still a bit puzzling that he, and really, his JGR teammates Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez as well, isn’t performing a notch better. Jones and Suarez have inexperience against them, but Hamlin knows how to race and win. So, how come Busch is the only JGR driver to see Victory Lane this season?
Why… didn’t early favorites Stewart-Haas Racing pull it off?
Early on, it looked like SHR was going to have a dominant day. Bowyer started fifth and was knocking on the door for the lead by lap 15, taking it on lap 17 and leading twice for 21 laps. Aric Almirola led a race-high 70 laps, winning the first stage. Harvick won the second and Kurt Busch led twice for 20 laps as the teammates combined for 150 circuits led on the day. The only other multi-car organization to have both its cars lead laps Sunday was Richard Childress Racing.
But it didn’t last. Bowyer had a speeding penalty on pit road during a green-flag stop. On its own, that’s good for losing a lap, but it got worse as Bowyer incurred a second penalty while serving the first one, costing him another lap. Bowyer was able to make up both lost laps but the damage was done in that he wouldn’t get to the front again, though he finished fifth, joining Harvick (third) in the top five.
Almirola was leading when a loose wheel forced him to pit road… twice. It was the right call, because the issue had to be fixed, but ended up costly for Almirola, who dominated the first stage and looked like he had a shot at his first win since joining SHR this year. Kurt Busch also struggled late, leaving only Harvick to contend, and he was passed for the lead by Busch with 59 laps remaining and could never recover. On one hand, it was a great day for SHR, but on the other, it has to sting to not have the trophy after all was said and done.
How… fine is the line between racing and wrecking, and did Kyle Busch cross it?
It’s not terribly broad on the best day, and Busch’s move was compounded by a failed slide job by Larson. Larson got loose on his first attempt at passing Busch and slid into his left rear quarter panel. By doing so, his aggression widened the line a bit for Busch.
But Busch toed that line heavily Sunday if he didn’t cross it. A bump and run for a race win is an age-old tactic and it’s hard to argue that it’s wrong. When properly executed, it does not spin the other car, but simply moves it up the track. When the hit comes to the right rear of the leader, there is no intent to move him. The intent is to spin him out. Intentionally wrecking another car, even for a win, is a different matter than a bump and run, and Busch’s comments afterward were pretty clear that he meant to turn Larson and was surprised that Larson was able to save the car and finish second.
Had Larson raced him absolutely cleanly, it would have been a dirty move without question, but Larson did fire the first shot. However, Larson did not get into Busch intentionally, while Busch’s hit was anything but unintentional. The retaliation was bigger than the initial offense, but a win was on the line. It was as close as a driver can get to a dirty move and still have it be questionable.
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