Who… gets my shoutout of the race?
On paper, it doesn’t look like much of a race, starting and finishing in seventh spot. In terms of the playoffs, it wasn’t. But for Kurt Busch, Sunday (Nov. 4) at Texas was a good day.
While Busch didn’t lead a lap (he nosed ahead of Kevin Harvick briefly at one point but didn’t hang on for the tally), he was solid. Unfortunately, seventh wasn’t enough to cut his deficit in the championship standings. 25 points back, he’ll need to win at Phoenix (he has a win there in 2005, a lifetime ago in terms of racing) to advance to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Championship 4.
But what Busch has done this year is prove his value in Cup. A free agent, reports have him likely to sign with Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 1 team next season, although no official deal has been announced. Potential employers know Busch has a couple of black marks on him: his notoriously volatile temperament and, more recently, his age (Busch turned 40 in August). His lone Cup title came in 2004, the first year NASCAR went to a postseason format.
But Busch has grown up drastically in recent years, and 2018 in general has been a good season for him. He has 21 top 10s, matching his career best, with two races left to improve on it. He also no longer lets frustration take him out of a handful of races a year. If Busch can somehow beat the odds to win next week at Phoenix, he’s absolutely a threat for the title.
What… is the takeaway from this race?
It’s never a good look for NASCAR when a bad call costs a team. But this weekend’s flubbed penalty was completely avoidable and because of that, completely unacceptable for the sanctioning body of a major sport.
What happened? Jimmie Johnson, who qualified 23rd, was told he’d have to start at the rear of the field for failing inspection twice. The problem was that the rule for this weekend’s race procedure is that starting at the rear is the penalty for failing three times, not twice.
A couple of issues stem from this call. First off, it’s bad enough to make a mistake on something mid-race when there’s nothing that can be done about it. But this mistake happened before the race even rolled off. How on earth is that not caught and corrected long before the green flag? NASCAR mistakenly penalized a team when nobody had turned a lap and didn’t catch it until deep into the race when it was too late to make a correction. NASCAR blames miscommunication for the error, but realistically, there is no scenario where a mistake made that early and not corrected is acceptable.
The other issue here is the NASCAR playoff angle, and it’s actually two-pronged. The first part is, of course, if Johnson was still in the playoffs and didn’t make the cut at Phoenix. The end result would have thrown a major black cloud over NASCAR, a sport that’s actively searching for backers to replace Monster Energy’s bankroll. Under a system where the legitimacy of the champion is already called into question by many, the possibility of a completely fixable mistaken penalty costing a driver a title is stunning in its mere possibility.
Unfortunately, many people seemed to gloss over the call because Johnson was eliminated from title contention at Charlotte. After all, they said, this mistake can’t affect the championship. It’s not that bad. But why should that make a difference? It’s not as though the drivers not in championship contention aren’t working as hard for wins. It serves to illustrate the over-emphasis on the title in the current era, which is detrimental to the sport as well. Was Johnson going to win Sunday without the incorrect penalty? Probably not. But that’s not the point.
It’s that the call was before the race and therefore NASCAR had plenty of time to discover a problem and correct it. They did neither. It could have taken a win from a driver who desperately needed one and that makes the sport seem poorly run, especially to outsiders. NASCAR needs those outsiders to notice the sport these days… just not for its mistakes.
Where… did Kevin Harvick come from?
While Harvick has been decent throughout the playoffs, finishing second at Richmond, his early-season momentum had long since worn off. His last win came at Michigan 10 weeks ago and his No. 4 team had developed a playoff habit of beating themselves.
Harvick was convincing in the last half of the race, driving clearly the fastest car. He’d never been far off the pace this weekend, qualifying third in a session which saw three Stewart-Haas Racing cars in the top four. The win is his eighth of 2018, adding to what is already a career season for the 42-year-old driver.
It wasn’t until a year ago that Harvick found Victory Lane at Texas, but his last nine races in Fort Worth have been outstanding. He’s earned two wins and nine straight top 10s, including Sunday. His average finish in that span is an impressive 3.4.
Now, Harvick has stamped his ticket to Homestead. He also carries regained momentum into Phoenix, easily his best track, where he has a track record nine wins. If Harvick had slipped slightly behind Kyle Busch as a title favorite this fall, he made a statement Sunday counting him out would be a mistake.
When… was the moment of truth?
Trouble came early and often in Texas. It didn’t come in the form of multi-car crashes or on-track rivalries, but rather as issues and mistakes for top teams. It began with the drop of the green flag as Clint Bowyer slid up the track into Denny Hamlin on cold tires. Both developed tire rubs within a dozen laps and were forced to pit road.
Teammates William Byron and Jimmie Johnson then tangled in stage two. Both men struggled to recover although they ended the race on the lead lap.
Kyle Busch had a speeding penalty which cost him track position early, and later, wheel problems that forced an unscheduled stop. That left Busch trapped a lap down to the leaders, fighting through the closing laps just to get it back. He succeeded only when the final caution flew with five laps to go.
Martin Truex Jr. was also forced to pit with under 100 laps to go for… you guessed it: a loose wheel. Harvick reported a vibration at the same time as Truex, but his appeared to go away as he raced Joey Logano for the race lead. From there, Harvick was able to go on to win. Truex came back to finish ninth thanks to some lucky late cautions. However, the race was a second momentum killer in a row for him.
It was the kind of race that probably didn’t decide the final cut for the title. But it was also one that showed fallibility for even the top championship contenders. Either way, it’s clear little issues at Homestead will absolutely make a difference in who hoists the big trophy in a couple of weeks. We’ll see if Busch, Truex and others have their mistakes all cleaned up by then.
Why… didn’t polesitter Ryan Blaney pull it off?
Blaney had a great car in qualifying, and he had a great car for the race Sunday. Running with nothing to lose in terms of the playoffs, Blaney was never out of contention all day. He led a total of 40 laps, including grabbing the point on a late restart and having one more shot at Harvick after the day’s final caution. Harvick got the best restart of the day, and that left Blaney to race Logano for second.
Blaney’s had a solid first season in a ride Team Penske added to the stable just for him. His biggest struggle has been with consistency running the No. 12 car, particularly in the playoffs. He only went two rounds and had three finishes of 19th or worse. That’s not enough to gain a foothold against more experienced competition but this driver is building for the future.
How… has the title picture changed in the final round of eliminations?
At first glance, there weren’t a lot of changes in the NASCAR playoff outlook Sunday. Harvick was in the top four on points before winning at Texas to clinch a spot. Behind him, nobody who started the day below the cutline ended the race above it. The 25-point gap to fifth means that, barring disaster for either Kyle Busch or Truex at Phoenix, it will take a win to change the group who will be racing for the championship in two weeks.
However, there have been a couple of shifts worth noting. One is that Logano has made a convincing case for himself as a very real title contender. Logano has flown under the radar in general with a win total lagging behind Harvick, Kyle Busch and Truex. But his 10.2 average finish as been on par with the Big Three all year. With a worst playoff finish of 10th, Logano has suddenly inserted himself into the championship conversation. Harvick excluded, he’s also the only playoff driver within the last 10 years to earn a Phoenix win.
The other is that, without a win, SHR is likely to have just one representative –Harvick – at Homestead. Barring a win by Kurt Busch, Aric Almirola or Bowyer, the team that made up 50 percent of the Round of 8 will make up 75 percent of teams eliminated from the championship hunt next week. That could actually bode well for Harvick in that there will be no division of assets at Homestead. Instead, he’ll have three teammates in his corner instead of some in the headliner with him. But it could also be a bit of a letdown for a team that had a shot at guaranteeing its owner a title this year.