This isn’t really the place for an extensive debate about the presence of Cup Series regulars in the lower NASCAR series, because there are pros and cons on both sides. Let’s just say that afternoons like the one Kyle Busch had on Saturday at ISM Raceway are the reasons that debate exists.
There was a glimmer of hope after Christopher Bell and Tyler Reddick both qualified better than Rowdy for the iK9 Service Dog 200. But a glimmer was all it was, because it was by the slimmest of margins (as in Busch started the race in third), and it wasn’t long before it became apparent that for either of them to have a chance to win, something bad was going to have to happen to the No. 18 Toyota.
It never did, and even though Bell looked like maybe he could outduel his teammate straight up, misfortune found him for the second straight week, so a Bell-Busch Supra battle that has been teased already several times this season eluded us again. Reddick had a fine afternoon but wasn’t quite in their class, and that, as they say, was that.
Before the anti-Busch crowd gets too bent out of shape, it’s worth remembering that he’s not unbeatable. He made the maximum number of Xfinity Series starts allowed him in 2018 as well and won just once. There’s a little bit of recency bias in suggesting we just hand him a trophy every time he enters a lower series race.
To a man, the Xfinity regulars say they like testing themselves against stock car racing’s finest when given the chance, too. It just can’t be all that enjoyable when the only time you are within a few car lengths of those superstars is on restarts.
Despite the widely varying opinions on the merits of stage racing, it does at least raise some interesting strategy questions. The problem is that too often those turn into zero-sum decisions, where a team decides to throw away the chance of a top-5 finish in order to try to bank more stage points or vice versa.
That looked like it might be the case on Saturday for Austin Cindric. With 12 laps to go in Stage 1, Bayley Currey brought out the first caution of the race for a single-car incident. Most of the lead lap cars went to the pits, but Cindric and six other drivers did not.
The gamble paid off as well as it could have in the short term, because Cindric was able to (barely) hold off a hard-charging Bell and his fresher tires and claim the stage. It was apparently something the team discussed prior, and it resulted in a bonus that could pay off well down the road.
“I told you before the race, execution and playoff points,” Cindric said to the FOX Sports crew after the race. “We got a playoff point, and I think we executed the race.”
Except that move didn’t jeopardize their finish, either, with Cindric coming home fifth. In the words of the great John ‘Hannibal’ Smith, I love it when a plan comes together.
We’ll skip the most obvious bad, which is that Busch more or less set sail on the field for the entire final stage. At least the Phoenix race is short, so it wasn’t hours of everyone staring at his back bumper or Rowdy ending up the only car on the lead lap.
The true bummer was fate intervening and preventing the Bell vs. Busch battle for the win that has been tantalizingly close for consecutive races but never materialized. The point of having the likes of Busch in an Xfinity Series race is to see how the best of the next wave of talent stacks up against him, and it would be nice if it happened in the closing stages of an event instead of early on.
That didn’t happen at Las Vegas and we were robbed of it again at Phoenix, as Bell got caught up in a caution weird enough to qualify as the focus of our next section. What made this worse than last week is that Bell looked like he might actually have the faster Supra. He won Stage No. 2 and certainly looked like he had a slight edge during the middle portion of the race.
Since Rowdy is running the maximum number of Xfinity races again, there will be five more potential showdowns to come. It just stinks that racing fans are 0-for-2 so far.
Maybe this section of the breakdown can temporarily be renamed “The Bizarre,” because the wreck that took Bell out of the race was a strange one.
It seemed straightforward in real time. The No. 01 of Stephen Leicht blew up in spectacular fashion coming off a turn, releasing a Spy Hunter-esque smokescreen behind it. Justin Allgaier and Bell, running 2-3 at the time, had it happen right in front of them, and between the lack of visibility and oil laid down on the racing surface, it was no surprise that they both ended up hitting the wall.
— NASCAR Xfinity (@NASCAR_Xfinity) March 9, 2019
Or so we thought.
The announce team of Adam Alexander, Kevin Harvick, and Erik Jones were quick to point out that the track crew wasn’t putting anything down to soak up oil, a necessity for any spill. There was also some amusing radio chatter from the Reddick camp wondering why the drivers spun out hitting water.
The ugly part is that both could have figured into the end of the race and possibly pushed Busch. Bell we’ve already covered, but Allgaier was also having a sneaky good day at the time he wrecked. His team deserves a shout out for taping up the rear of his battered No. 7 Chevrolet so he could salvage something, meaning a 14th-place finish, but considering we haven’t seen him quite hit his groove yet in 2019, it would have been nice to see what he had coming down the stretch.
Underdog Performance(s) of the Race
It’s certainly fair to say you aren’t a true underdog if you’re running for one of the top Xfinity Series teams, so if you want to give Ryan Truex an asterisk for that, it’s your prerogative. The fact remains that Saturday was his first start of a season where he’ll only be running a part-time schedule, and he brought his JR Motorsports Chevy home in 2nd, tied for his career-best finish in any of NASCAR’s top national series. As Ross Chastain showed in 2018 and Jeffrey Earnhardt already did this year, you still have to make the most of those opportunities when they come your way, and Truex did exactly that at Phoenix.
We’re not done yet either. Ryan Sieg looks like he might be an even more feel-good story than ever before, recording his third top 10 finish in the season’s first four starts. For context, he had just nine prior to 2019, and never more than three in a full Xfinity Season series. Sieg is currently 10th in points and only four out of eighth place. He has the look of a legitimate playoff contender unless he hits the skids later or a bunch of drivers end up winning races.
Double Duty Interlopers
In a case of one versus all, it was just Kyle Busch dropping down this week. Spoiler: A Cup Series driver still won. Moving on …
“Christopher was certainly going to give me a run for my money today. … I hate that he got caught up in that mess, but obviously it was going to be a really fun run to the end there.” – Kyle Busch
“I guess it’s good when you lose to Kyle Busch. I just got us behind at the start there. We were just too free, and I couldn’t run anywhere on the track, so I lost a lot of track position early. … Our car was just so good on the long runs that I was able to hold Reddick off and finish P2.” – Ryan Truex
If you have strong feels about Kyle Busch, you probably felt some type of way about the iK9 Service Dog 200. Otherwise, it was kind of a mixed bag, with some fun battles for positions inside the top 10 balanced out by a lack of racing for the lead once Bell went out. The underdog stories were nice, and Reddick continues to impress.
The other thing Saturday’s race did is reinforce how comically short Xfinity Series stages can be at places like ISM. Not sure what the solution is, but they sure go by in a hurry.
The Xfinity Series stays out west for the Production Alliance Group 300 at Auto Club Speedway in California. It’s the latest start of the season that isn’t a night race, with coverage kicking off at 5:00 p.m. ET on FS1. Cup Series regulars have won this race every year for more than a decade, so … yeah. Joey Logano is the defending race winner.