Who…gets my shoutout of the race?
Getting your best finish of the year? Good. Getting it at your home track? Bonus. Trevor Bayne put together a solid late-race effort, running inside the top 10 for many of the closing laps before finishing 11th, his best result of 2018.
After giving up the seat of his No. 6 Ford for several races to veteran Matt Kenseth in an effort to diagnose the team’s struggles this year, Bayne has faced speculation about his future. He’s signed through 2019, but taking him out of the car this year doesn’t exactly seem like a vote of confidence.
On the other hand, Kenseth hasn’t exactly set the world on fire in the No. 6 either. In the eight races he’s run, his best finish is 13th at the first Pocono race. Roush Fenway Racing hasn’t been among the sport’s elite teams for several years, so perhaps its unfair to pile it on Bayne. Either way, he had a strong and largely unnoticed run on Saturday night. It should have been given plenty more attention.
What…is the takeaway from this race?
All three races at Bristol produced fantastic competition: fighting for position, aggression, patience. They had a little of it all and the looming NASCAR playoffs (it was the cutoff race for the trucks) heightened the urgency. There have been some good races this summer, but for many fans, Bristol was what it’s supposed to be about. Short tracks, once the bread and butter of NASCAR before track owners opted to build big tracks to host multiple types of racing, still put on the best show in the game. The fans who want more short tracks are right… but it’s not so simple.
Many moves would have to happen for NASCAR to add multiple short tracks to the schedule. (Remember, the current tracks are locked in for three more years). Track owners would have to either build short tracks, buy them…or give up a date. They aren’t going to just give a date to another track owner.
NASCAR, because of the France family ties to International Speedway Corporation, is in a precarious position. Taking a date from an ISC track isn’t exactly profitable. NASCAR, not ISC, owns Iowa Speedway, making it even murkier. And taking a date from another entity would almost certainly result in a lawsuit. Adding more races to the schedule isn’t a good idea; 36 is already a packed season. Plus, with attendance dwindling, it’s not really appealing to track owners to build new tracks if the seats won’t be filled.
Even if NASCAR were to move dates, the question of where is an issue. Most short tracks don’t have the infrastructure to host a Cup race, even with reduced attendance. It isn’t just seats, but parking for fans, teams and other personnel. There’s also garage or infield space for teams to consider, space for the midway, concessions, restrooms… the list is extensive.
If fans were flocking to the short tracks already on the schedule, it would be a bit easier to ask for more. But that’s not reality. Bristol has a zillion seats, so the crowd looks sparser than it is. However, it’s far from full, maybe not even half. Martinsville has a smaller capacity by far (in the 60,000 range) and still doesn’t fill the stands.
Long story short, it’s hard for track owners to want to do something if they don’t feel support. So as great as it would be to have more races like this one, a lot would have to happen to make that a reality.
Where…did Kurt Busch come from?
Busch was never far from the front Saturday night. He started ninth and finished in the top 10 in both for the first two stages. While his brother Kyle has more wins at Bristol, no other driver in the field does. The victory was Busch’s sixth at Thunder Valley.
There have been a couple different ways to win at Bristol historically. One of them has been showcased by a number of drivers, perhaps most notoriously by Dale Earnhardt in the “rattle his cage” move. The other is the way Kurt Busch won Sunday: he ran his own race and raced the track as much as he raced his opponents. Busch was patient, knowing he had a good car, and let the race come to him. In the end, it did.
It’s a contrast from earlier in Busch’s career as well as to the way brother Kyle raced Saturday… but it certainly paid off. Busch already had a playoff spot on points and now he’s got the advantage of a win when the points reset comes into play in two weeks. It’s also a nice feather in his cap when it comes to a new ride for next year.
When…was the moment of truth?
Fans were treated to some fantastic racing Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. Then, Sunday came, and the racing world was reminded of the immense cost the sport can have. The IndyCar race at Pocono was barely underway when Robert Wickens, a young driver with immense talent, slammed into the retaining wall after contact with Ryan Hunter-Reay. The crash was so violent that a section of the fence was all but obliterated.
Hunter-Reay and the other three drivers involved were able to climb from their cars (though Wickens’ airborne machine came close enough to Hunter-Reay to take the camera pod off his car just above his head). But for Wickens, all anyone could do was wait. Wait for him to be taken out of the car, wait for him to go to the infield care center, wait to see if the medical helicopter took off and wait for word on the driver’s condition. The news that Wickens was awake and alert prior to his transport to a local hospital was a long time coming… and so very welcome.
As safe as different racing series have become, the reality is that risk remains. These wrecks are a sobering reminder that the drivers do what they love, by extension, because we all love it too. If we didn’t, there would be no racing as we know it in any national series. At some point, it doesn’t matter what form it takes — you don’t have to be an IndyCar fan to be affected by the crash.
Still, for all the warts NASCAR may have, it’s been a long time since the national divisions have had the kind of agonizing wait for news, and for hope, race fans had Sunday. Whatever else is wrong with the sport today, thank your lucky stars for that.
Why…didn’t active Bristol win leader Kyle Busch pull it off?
The younger Busch took an opposite tack from his brother, taking the aggressive route. It’s a strategy he had to adopt after an early crash left him two laps down. Still, Busch was able to make those laps up and looked like he had a shot to win before a cut tire after a late-race incident sent him for a spin. Busch was officially involved in two separate incidents: a multi-car crash at lap 3 and the lap 487 tussle, as well as a third one where he didn’t sustain damage but played a role.
All three were avoidable. Busch has a tendency to drive as though he expects others to simply get out of his way. Sometimes they do, particularly if they’re in lesser cars or lower series, but Saturday night, they didn’t. Ryan Blaney was equally aggressive on the lap 3 crash, not giving Busch much room, and the result was damage to the No. 18 that would cause pit stop issues with fueling all night. Busch also angered reigning champion Martin Truex Jr. after a lap 444 wreck that ended the race for Truex and J.J. Yeley. Truex had a right to be upset.
The late crash that took Busch out of contention was also one he could have avoided. He took things three wide with Jimmie Johnson and Chris Buescher on a restart with just shy of 20 laps to go. Denny Hamlin had just completed a similar pass, creating an opening. But as Busch went to the outside, Johnson held his line in the center of the track, leaving room for just one car above him. When Busch tried to make it two, he made contact with Buescher, cutting his left rear tire and ultimately spinning.
Busch had enough time, if he made the move quickly, to back out and set up a better run. In the end, he cost his team the finish they could have had. There’s nothing wrong with aggression at Bristol — it can pay huge dividends. But the flip side is that sometimes the other guy isn’t going to back out either. Busch understands that, and his post-race comments were on point.
Perhaps it takes the sting away somewhat knowing he went down swinging.
How…is the playoff picture shaping up with two races to go?
A dozen drivers are now locked into the show, regardless of whether or not they, or someone else, wins a race. Austin Dillon is the lowest-pointed in, 19th in the standings. With two races remaining to decide the field, there probably won’t be a lot of movement, barring a win by someone currently outside the top 16 at either Darlington or Indianapolis.
Assuming someone currently in the top 16 (or Dillon) wins at Darlington and they don’t have an abysmal race, Aric Almirola and Jimmie Johnson should lock in over the next two weeks. Johnson was the most competitive at Bristol he’s been all year, so if the No. 48 team is pulling it together, it’s certainly coming at exactly the right time.
That would leave only Alex Bowman to sweat it out in Indianapolis. He’s currently got well over a race worth of points on Ricky Stenhouse Jr., but if he’s 15th leaving Darlington, he can’t lock in until Indy is done because another winner outside the top 15 would bring it all to a screeching halt.
There are a couple of drivers who could do it. While it’s unlikely to happen twice, that’ll add a bit of intrigue to a race that sorely needs it in Indy.