Who…should you be talking about after the race?
Some days it’s your day, and Sunday (March 31) was Denny Hamlin’s afternoon. Hamlin didn’t look like he had a car to compete with teammate Kyle Busch early on, and a pair of pit road issues might have ended his bid early. But Hamlin kept his head (something he’s not always done so successfully when the chips are down), played his cards right and claimed his second win of 2019.
Hamlin’s 33rd career victory moves him past Dale Jarrett on the all-time list and ties him with Fireball Roberts for 23rd all-time. Only three active drivers have more wins (Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick). That puts Hamlin in the future Hall of Fame conversation, though he lacks a title. He’s the senior driver at Joe Gibbs Racing, but he’s often overlooked in the talk about his era’s best. The 38-year-old is doing his best to change that; races like he ran Sunday are the best way to do it.
After a change of team in the offseason to Stewart-Haas Racing, Daniel Suarez has been under some extra scrutiny this year, taking over a ride that made the playoffs a year ago with Kurt Busch. On Sunday, he rose to the occasion, leading nine laps en route to his first top-five finish of 2019. Suarez finished a strong third behind teammate Clint Bowyer and led the race at one point.
Stewart-Haas Racing has yet to win in 2019 but all four teams finished in the top eight on Sunday. For Suarez, that’s great news. Can he turn that SHR power into a trip to Victory Lane? A few more races like this one and he has to be in the conversation.
What…is the takeaway from this race?
All things considered, Sunday’s race wasn’t terrible, especially for 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway. It featured 26 lead changes among 13 different drivers. The low-horsepower, high-downforce package seemed to have a visible impact on the action. There was jostling throughout the field and enough cautions to keep things interesting. It was a decent event.
What it wasn’t was particularly memorable. The margin of victory was almost three seconds, with no battle for the win in the closing laps. But more than that, while there were a few notable storylines on the weekend, none of them really played into the end.
That may be NASCAR’s biggest problem. The racing has been largely middle-of-the-road this year. It means that while you aren’t seeing the best races you ever saw, you aren’t seeing the worst, either. But so far, there haven’t really been any surprises, at least not in Victory Lane. And if there have been any during the races? Fans aren’t seeing them on the broadcast. The same organizations are winning (just two through seven events) and the same drivers are getting the majority of the airtime. Not enough is happening on track to offset that problem.
Now, a big margin of victory in itself isn’t any reason to complain about a race. But the accompanying predictability is.
Where…were the other key players at the end?
Pole sitter Jimmie Johnson is the all-time win leader at Texas, but it’s been a while since Johnson has looked close to winning form. He changed that this weekend, showing up with a fast car, winning the pole, and leading more laps on Sunday than he did all of last season. Johnson looked a lot more like the driver of old, taking a racecar that was top 10 on speed and putting it in the top five at the end. If his team can put a top-five car under Johnson, he can take the next step to win race No. 84.
Last week’s winner Brad Keselowski suffered a rear end failure that sent him to the garage for more than 50 laps. That relegated him to 36th place, last among those still running at the end. Keselowski said that the issue took the team by surprise.
“Something broke out of nowhere,” Keselowski said. “We weren’t going very fast or anything and something in the back of the car broke and it won’t go. It’s one of those really important parts, as Kenny Schrader would say.”
Defending race winner and current point leader Kyle Busch was in position for a weekend sweep after winning both the Truck and Xfinity series races at Texas. He led six times for 66 total laps, but strategy didn’t play into his hands. Busch was forced to settle for 10th when all was said and done, his worst finish of 2019. Busch was vocally critical of his team’s effort on the radio during the race but was still able to salvage a top 10.
Defending champion Joey Logano’s day looked OK on paper: winning stage one and the playoff point that comes with it. He also led three times for eight laps. But at the checkers, Logano was a lap down in 17th, struggling for the second week in a row. This time, he wasn’t alone as he had Keselowski and Ryan Blaney to commiserate with after both suffered failures on the day (Blaney’s was terminal.)
There’s no reason to panic, but momentum is a funny thing in this sport. Logano will be looking to turn things around a bit in Bristol and get it back on his side along with the rest of Team Penske.
When…was the moment of truth?
Another week, another qualifying session that didn’t work as advertised. That’s not really a mantra NASCAR should be looking to adopt, but here we are. Two weeks after nobody in the final round completed an official lap, issues continued. That’s even after a rules change adopted this week aimed at stopping teams from playing games on pit road when on the clock.
Right away, those rules were challenged, with Ryan Newman blocking Clint Bowyer from getting a clean run off pit road. It was a violation of the new rule, but one NASCAR chose not to enforce at that time, stating that Newman was following a directive to move up in line. If that was the case, NASCAR should have stopped the clock and corrected the lineup.
Bowyer didn’t hesitate to let his frustration with the rule be known.
The Clint Bowyer qualifying interview everyone's talking about … pic.twitter.com/6FPOVEPVS9
— FOX: NASCAR (@NASCARONFOX) March 30, 2019
Whether it was the format or not, a lot of top drivers started deep in the field. If that’s the result of the format or they simply all missed the mark is unclear. But the qualifying circus is getting to be more ridiculous every week. The point of qualifying is to set the field fairly with the fastest cars up front. The current format coupled with the current package fails to do that. It should be a simple matter to fix, but NASCAR is unwilling to do that so far.
Why…should you be paying attention this week?
NASCAR has been very consistent in enforcing the rules this season, Friday’s qualifying session aside. That’s not something that could often be said in the past. But recently, NASCAR has improved greatly on that front.
That does bring into the limelight some of the rules, though. Sunday’s spotlight was on Hamlin’s uncontrolled tire. The rule used to be that if a tire rolled outside of a team’s pit box, that was an uncontrolled tire and subject to penalty. Now, if a crew member who can carry the tire is more than an arm’s length away, regardless of where the tire is, a team gets docked for it. In Hamlin’s case, the tire was, for a split second, out of reach of the tire carrier. But it wasn’t moving, and it was inside the pit box.
NASCAR should be applauded for safety measures; let’s get that straight. And a loose tire is a safety hazard. If a car hits one and launches it into the pits, that would be very dangerous. But in this case, the old rule was enough. Couple that with a stiffer penalty for a violation and there you have this week’s controversy.
There are some places where NASCAR might take a step forward with relaxing the rules somewhat but, in turn, coming down harder on those who violate them. It could be a slippery slope, but it doesn’t have to be.
How…are the rookies doing so far in 2019?
Most Cup Series veterans will tell you that the jump to that series from Xfinity or Trucks is the biggest learning curve they have ever had to deal with in racing. Even for the best drivers in those series, the Cup level is something else entirely.
Just look at some recent Xfinity Series champions and how tough Cup has proven to be. The last NXS driver to later win a Cup championship was Brad Keselowski in 2010 (he also ran a full Cup schedule that year). Since then, the likes of Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (a two-time champion), Austin Dillon, Chase Elliott, Chris Buescher, Daniel Suarez and William Byron have made the leap to Cup after winning the title. While all but Suarez and Byron are Cup winners to date, they haven’t set the world on fire.
This year, it’s Daniel Hemric and Matt Tifft making the leap, and they’ve found just how hard it is to compete in the series on a weekly basis. Hemric is 29th in driver points with an average finish of 26.9. He has led five laps and failed to finish once. Tifft is 31st in points with a 28.1 average finish and one DNF.
Hemric competes for Richard Childress Racing, a team with more resources than Tifft’s Front Row Motorsports outfit. But Tifft raced for RCR in the Xfinity Series, along with Hemric. Hemric comes out on top by the numbers there, finishing ahead of Tifft in 48 of 66 mutual starts, so it’s no surprise that Hemric was able to land a better deal. In the long run, he’s got more potential for success because of that.
At least for now, both are doing what they need to do the most: log laps and learn to race against a whole new level of competition. If they can do that, expect improvement in the second half of 2019. But this transition is almost always difficult.