The Headline(s): After a protracted green flag run, Kyle Busch’s four tires proved better over a long run than Ryan Blaney’s two, allowing the No. 18 to take the lead for good on lap 296 and drive off into the Arizona sunset at ISM Raceway.
Busch is the fourth different winner in four Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races thus far in 2019. All four Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas finished in the top five.
How It Happened: NASCAR’s first 2019 race with the 750 horsepower package started with immediate fireworks, as Chase Elliott was penalized on the first lap for a start violation that saw him cross the start-finish line a bumper ahead of polesitter Blaney, who spun his tires. The penalty put Blaney in the lead, which he held until the first yellow of the day on lap 39 when Erik Jones blew a tire and spun after reporting a vibration seven laps earlier.
Using a two-tire strategy, Denny Hamlin took the lead briefly but was immediately passed under green by Busch, who led until a lap 64 yellow saw Brad Keselowski hit the Turn 1 wall with a sway bar failure. Eleven laps short of the stage one break, Busch headed for pit road, while Blaney and the rest of the top 10 stayed on track; Blaney held the lead to win stage one.
Following stage break pit stops, stage two was all Busch. Then came the yellows.
In a span of the first 74 laps of the final stage, Sunday’s race was slowed for five yellow flags that saw Michael McDowell, Ryan Preece and Alex Bowman all endure race-ending damage, while Elliott also spun unassisted on lap 219 after reporting a vibration several laps before.
Lap 238 saw the final restart of the race, during which Aric Almirola sped away from Austin Dillon on newer tires. Almirola held the lead until lap 251, where Blaney retook the lead. From there, Blaney managed to balance fuel conservation…
— Dustin Albino (el-bee-no) (@DustinAlbino) March 10, 2019
…near-shaves with lapped traffic…
Blaney has stretched his lead back out to a second… but just lost a half thanks to near contact with Matt Tifft! #NASCAR
— Frontstretch (@Frontstretch) March 10, 2019
…and a hard-charging Busch for 46 laps, until Busch’s No. 18 finally caught Blaney’s Mustang and made the pass for the lead after a side-by-side exchange.
After getting passed, Busch drove away to the win, while Blaney went into immediate fuel-saving mode and finished third after yielding late to Martin Truex Jr., who had the fastest car on track in the final 20 laps.
Almirola finished fourth, while Hamlin rounded out the top five. Kyle Larson was the top finishing Chevrolet in sixth.
Should You Care?: Sunday’s race was not a classic, and Busch in dominant form (177 of 312 laps led) will always leave Rowdy Nation foaming at the mouth and legions of other race fans lamenting where their afternoon went. But despite a snore-inducing second stage, the final 75 laps or so of Sunday’s race included varying pit strategies, two green-flag passes for the lead and a side-by-side battle between Blaney and Busch that had even Twitter applauding.
— Andrew Barca (@HurricaneBarca) March 10, 2019
For the third week in a row, this was not a bad race. From a bigger picture perspective, though, the results of Sunday are mixed. After two weekends of intermediate oval racing with NASCAR’s vaunted new aero package, the return to a package that’s largely similar to what the Cup Series ran for most of 2018 put on arguably the worst race of 2019 to date. The increased throttle response that the drivers had thanks to the 750 horsepower engines were overshadowed by the extreme sensitivity the cars showed to being mired in dirty air.
Case in point: Phoenix master Kevin Harvick only managed to climb back to ninth in the running order after pitting with 77 laps to go. Meanwhile, Jimmie Johnson fell only from fourth to eighth during the final run despite a disparity in rubber and a left-front tire rub early in the run. Dillon saw a top-five finish disappear not because of tires that were older than every car in the field but because of fuel shortage. Clean air (still) matters, even on a short track (for the record, I don’t give a damn what the definition says; a 1-mile track is NOT a short track).
Now that race fans can truly compare the 2019 cars in all of NASCAR’s respective packages, it does seem that the air ducts that NASCAR added on the intermediate ovals were a step in the right direction in dealing with dirty air. The problem being, have those air ducts maximized the gains that can be made in making dirty air less of an issue?
— Sensible NASCAR Fan (@SmartNASCAR) March 10, 2019
If Phoenix was any indication, NASCAR’s still in a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation with any packages it throws at these cars as long as the front air dams stay on the cars.
Drivers Who Accomplished Something
Busch deserves all the credit in the world for performing the way he did at Phoenix a week after throwing away a Cup win at his hometown track a week ago. Leading 177 laps, winning the second stage and methodically wearing down a motivated Blaney to win while under pressure to perform is not something unexpected for Busch but is still an effort to commend. The rest of the field should also be sweating that the No. 18 team ran this well at a track that hosts the penultimate race of the season.
Having said that, had this race been another 10-12 laps longer, Busch’s new teammate Truex would have been a factor in the finish. Though aided by Blaney saving fuel, Truex erased a nearly 10-second gap in the final 20 laps of the event to score a runner-up finish. It a career best for Truex at the diamond in the desert and the third straight top-10 finish for the new-look No. 19 team. Clearly, Truex’s winless streak is numbered.
Though he was unable to complete the trifecta for Team Penske, Blaney still carried the banner for the camp this weekend, winning the pole, a stage and leading 94 laps. And though unable to stop Busch, that Blaney managed to hold off the No. 18 for more than 40 laps while saving fuel was no small feat. Of note, Blaney was the only driver to finish in the top five not driving a Toyota.
Finishing sixth, Larson scored his first top-10 finish since the Daytona 500. Kurt Busch scored his third consecutive top-10 finish, the first time the No. 1 team has done that since spring 2017. Johnson capitalized on tire strategy to finish eighth.
Lastly, though derailed by late electrical issues, Matt DiBenedetto was challenging for a top-10 finish prior to his car’s battery going sour. DiBenedetto has raised the stature of Leavine Family Racing more than any other driver with any other team, even if the stat sheet has nothing to show for it so far.
Changing the battery… pic.twitter.com/m1mxaToUVM
— LeavineFamilyRacing (@LFR95) March 10, 2019
Drivers Who Accomplished Nothing
Despite running a similar setup to the one Blaney did, Keselowski’s race proved to be one issue after another. The No. 2 car dropped like a rock following the first cycle of pit stops around lap 40, culminating in a lap 64 slap of the wall after a sway bar issue derailed Keselowski’s Mustang. Despite managing to limp around to the end of the stage with the issue, he ended up losing a lap in the pits anyhow as the team worked to repair the car. From there, Keselowski spent much of the middle of the race battling with lapped traffic and made even more contact with the wall on lap 225 trying to avoid Preece’s issues on the backstretch. Keselowski’s 19th-place result was his worst of the season.
Speaking of Preece, despite earning even more praise for being a wizard in avoiding wrecks, he was unable to avoid disaster when on lap 225, contact from Daniel Suarez sent the No. 47 into the backstretch wall. Damaged, it was only seven laps later before No. 47 brought out another yellow and ended up behind the wall, finishing 34th.
— Steve Luvender (@steveluvender) March 10, 2019
While Preece was about as far away from home in Phoenix as any driver in the Cup field, the reconfigured Arizona track was nothing but kind to the hometown drivers. Bowman was by far the worst finishing of the Hendrick Motorsports cars on Sunday, enduring two hard clashes with the wall that resulted in a 35th-place finish that was Bowman’s worst since Kentucky Speedway last summer. The same could be said for McDowell, who saw his day come to a close on lap 160 when his car endured mechanical woes of some kind coming down the backstretch, ending with contact with the Turn 3 wall that saw McDowell finish last. There was a tiny silver lining for McDowell’s incident, though, as teammate David Ragan narrowly missed being involved in the same incident.
Insights, Opinions and Fake News
Let’s stay on McDowell for a second, as he headlined in the latest example of NASCAR’s group qualifying that Ricky Stenhouse Jr. dubbed in Las Vegas “comedic.” Following the conclusion of first round qualifying Friday, McDowell and Suarez became the most unlikely pairing of fighters NASCAR has seen in recent memory. Suarez, upset that McDowell pulled up in front of his Ford while they were on their money lap, followed the directions of his spotter to obstruct McDowell’s lap as they were exiting the track. McDowell was incensed that Suarez attempted to wreck his machine, and when Suarez came over the pit wall, it was on.
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) March 8, 2019
This speaks for itself as to how ridiculous this insistence on group qualifying has become. And while for now it involved two drivers who are nowhere near title contention, imagine if this happens at ISM come November. It’s also concerning to hear spotters egging their drivers on during a qualifying session to throw blocks on the track. It’s one thing for the drivers sitting in cockpit-shaped ovens with limited sightlines and adrenaline pumping to get out of a car upset and irrational. It’s another for the guys on the roof to be pouring gas on the fire, especially 48 hours before the green flag drops.
On a McDowell-specific note, this scuffle is now the second time in four weeks that the Front Row Motorsports driver has incurred the wrath of a corporate teammate at Ford. After irritating Joey Logano at Daytona International Speedway for not working with him in the closing laps of the Daytona 500, now McDowell was literally yanking at Suarez, a prospect driver in a ride at Stewart-Haas Racing that far outclasses what McDowell is driving at Front Row. I don’t for a second believe McDowell was attempting to obstruct Suarez on Friday, but there was more to this fight than miscommunication on the track.
Sadly, the lead replay that FOX used to demonstrate what triggered this fight was not a camera angle but instead the latest video game clip from its revolutionary ghost cam gimmick that has all the visual sophistication of a PlayStation 2 game. The gimmicks that were on display all afternoon Sunday, from the ghost cam to the joke of a grid walk to the inexplicable use of in-car cameras and bumper cameras on restarts, when a wide-angle view of the field is needed to convey the best racing of the day, begs the question of where’s FOX’s focus is. Social media was asking the same questions all afternoon, queries that even Keselowski himself posed to the media in Las Vegas last week.
I really wish @NASCARONFOX would stop using in car cameras especially on restarts. They are 4 wide and Fox cuts to an in car that barely shows anything. I don't understand it. #TicketGuardian500 #nascar
— Scott McCann (@ScottMcCann21) March 10, 2019
— Jordan Dodson (@Jordan_Dodson) March 10, 2019
Meanwhile, viewers got multiple camera angles of the old press box being torn down, heard three times over the course of Saturday about Chase Briscoe’s wedding plans having to be readjusted and were left waiting for more than 10 laps to hear about how polesitter and contender Blaney fell out of the top 10 around lap 200 when he had to pit a second time to tighten a loose lugnut. Maybe NASCAR’s trying to mitigate the comfort of the living room to get more fans to the track?
If that’s the case, it didn’t work at ISM. Despite spending more than $150 million re-configuring nearly every element of the complex, one of the smaller grandstands in Cup racing still had plenty of room to spare when the green flag flew:
I tell it like it is. Sunday #TicketGuardian500 crowd disappointing. Just second event weekend after $178mil modernization. More in my Monday Arizona Republic notebook. #NASCAR pic.twitter.com/41uudzpafX
— Michael Knight (@SpinDoctor500) March 10, 2019
Another shiny new toy that showed some room for improvement this Sunday was Ford’s new Mustang, which after being the car to beat three weekends in a row proved to be mortal, as Blaney was the only driver to finish top five amid a sea of Toyotas. As this was the first race of the season to run something close to the 2018 package, the question to be asked is whether Ford prepared the Mustang with NASCAR’s new aero package in mind. Let’s not forget last year that Chevrolet’s Camaro body proved well off the pace out of the box running packages similar to what was on track at ISM Sunday.
The takeaway? Martinsville Speedway may be a pivotal race for Ford. Team Penske’s duo of Logano and Keselowski have been the class of the field on the paper clip in recent years, but if they prove as much of a non-factor in Virginia in a few weeks as Harvick did this weekend, the Mustang’s Achilles heel for 2019 will be very obvious.
First, it was pit road speed. Then it was hands on the pit box. Now, the latest penalty to go under the microscope this weekend was Elliott’s penalty for reaching the start/finish line a bumper ahead of Blaney on the initial start. Part of the uproar from this penalty undoubtedly stems from Elliott being NASCAR’s most popular driver. But there’s also something to be said about penalizing a driver for an otherwise clean start just because the leader visibly spins their tires. Changing the penalty for this type of an infraction from a pass-through to a give-the-spot-back type of officiating is a simple fix that’d make sense.
Upon winning his 52nd career Cup race Sunday, FOX’s graphics package went through numerous different ways of stating that Kyle Busch scored his 199th NASCAR national series victory. Name me one other driver that has EVER had that said about a win they scored. Last Sunday’s Vegas win was not commemorated as Logano’s 53rd national series win. Last month’s Atlanta win was not commemorated as Keselowski’s 68th national series win. And Hamlin’s Daytona 500 win to start the 2019 season was not commemorated as his 51st national series win.
Running around referring to Busch’s latest trophy as the 199th national series win is as selective history as referring to the Trump travel ban as targeting Muslim-majority countries. Nobody ever refers to Israel as a Jewish-majority country or to the United States as a Christian-majority country. (Note: this is a semantic observation, not a political one.) The same way nobody refers to any other NASCAR driver at any level of stock car racing’s career as a total sum of national series wins.
It’s a manufactured storyline. Drop it.
Best Paint Scheme: Suarez Clint Bowyer’s Savvy scheme had Twitter ablaze, but Suarez’s first run of the Ruckus scheme in 2019 was a marked improvement over the orange blaze it was featured on at JGR. Plus, Suarez took causing a ruckus so literally.
— Daniel Suárez (@Daniel_SuarezG) March 9, 2019
Pit Road Scuffle Championship Belt: Suarez. In the grand scheme of NASCAR fights, there wasn’t much to the one seen Friday. And the fact that McDowell was seen pulling at Suarez’s shoes as he was restrained was borderline laughable. But having said that, kudos to Suarez for fighting like a man. He didn’t play-act like Harvick or Juan Pablo Montoya, talking tough but entering every fray with a helmet on. He didn’t attack his opponent like a mugger, such as when Matt Kenseth jumped Keselowski from behind in a dark alley at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Suarez faced off eye-to-eye with his opponent and kept his shoves and blows to the guy he was fighting. Respect where it’s earned.
The Chris Rock $5,000 Bullet Control Award: Kyle Busch’s carpenter. Prior to the green flag Sunday, Busch was heard during the broadcast wondering/half complaining about how much it would cost to build another trophy case. To all the carpenters in Charlotte/Las Vegas, tell Busch that it’ll cost an obscene amount of money. Maybe that’ll finally get him to stop ruining, er, running minor league races.
Thanks for Coming Trophy: Jim France. All sarcasm in this section aside, seeing the CEO of NASCAR in the pits on race weekend is a VERY welcome change. This is a trophy I’d give with all sincerity given the opportunity.
Where It Rated: Having spent a grand total of 12 hours of my life in the Phoenix area, I don’t have anything clever to use as a rating tool. We’ll borrow from my colleague Mike Neff for this one. This race lagged in the middle, and clean air was almost as dominant as Busch was, but in the end, this still wasn’t a bad race. On a one-six scale, we’ll give this one four Biltmore Blondes from the Phoenix Ale Company — three that were sweating a bit and a fourth that was surprisingly cold at the bottom of the cooler.
Dust Off the VCR: The final leg of NASCAR’s westward swing comes this Sunday at the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. Coverage of the Auto Club 400 will begin at 3:30 p.m. ET on FOX.