The Headline(s): Denny Hamlin overcame a characteristic pair of pit road penalties and missing a pit road approach under green with a stellar late-race pit stop. That got him out front, where he beat Clint Bowyer by more than two seconds. Hamlin scored his second win of 2019 and the 52nd NASCAR national series win of his career in the 2019 O’Reilly Auto Parts 500.
How It Happened: From the drop of the green, pole sitter Johnson rocketed to the lead, capitalizing on side-by-side racing in the rest of the top five to pull ahead. He led roughly the first 60 laps of the race before pitting and surrendering the lead to Joey Logano. Johnson would weather a green flag pit cycle late to score the stage one victory.
Pit strategy would see the Joe Gibbs Racing teammates of Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch hold the lead until lap 108. That’s when a hard-charging Chase Elliott made the first green flag pass for the lead of the race (not counting changes under pit cycles) past Kyle Busch. Elliott pulled away as Busch and Logano waged their own battle for second, with Elliott pitting from the lead on lap 144 and handing the point back to Logano. Logano would soon fall from contention, though under a lap 159 yellow flag with a pit road penalty. His disappearance allowed Hamlin to stay out on old tires and win stage two.
Ryan Blaney would use a similar strategy to take the lead heading into the final stage, leading until a pit stop on lap 220. Busch would retake the lead shortly thereafter until a stop of his own put Suarez back at the point. After a lap 254 caution for Daniel Hemric’s spin from a flat right rear tire, Jones and Busch waged a pitched battle for the lead that culminated on lap 276. That’s when Busch had a major moment; his car veered out of control in Turns 1 and 2, costing him positions to both Jones and Hamlin.
A few laps later, Busch slapped the Turn 2 wall while battling with Aric Almirola for position. That pretty much ended his chances and left Jones and Hamlin to hold the lead.
As the laps wound down, Hamlin would hold the top spot as Bowyer stormed through the top five into a runner-up position. However, Hamlin would hold the lead for good on the back of a faster final pit stop for fuel on lap 319. The No. 11 driver made up ground on Bowyer both in the pits and on pit road entry. The resulting gap proved insurmountable, with Hamlin comfortably scoring the race win.
Should You Care: I’ll stick with what I’ve written up until this weekend. 2019 has not been a bad season for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. But given what transpired over the past 72 hours in Fort Worth, the honeymoon is over. NASCAR’s 2019 has serious issues to grapple with. And that’s a shame, as this week’s earlier announcement of a major schedule realignment was about as aggressive and proactive a change as NASCAR has made in recent memory.
It all started Friday (March 29), when NASCAR’s ballyhooed “fix” for its defiant insistence on using group qualifying blew up in its face. The lion’s share of the made-for-TV qualifying session again saw the entire field parked on pit road until the closing seconds, playing chicken with each other before actually making laps. And in classic NASCAR fashion, when Ryan Newman clearly broke the sport’s new rule on keeping pit road exit accessible, they issued no penalty. That’s even when it cost Bowyer a shot at making the second round (more on his frustration later).
In terms of officiating, it got no better Sunday. A rash of “uncontrolled tire” penalties that involved stationary tires sitting in the proper pit box left everyone from Twitter trolls to Jamie McMurray questioning this newfound officiating trend and what, if any, value it has for the sport. Is NASCAR adding ball and strike calls just to give it a stick-and-ball vibe?
Then, there’s Sunday’s race itself. Despite its seeming popularity on Twitter, I’d argue it was the worst race of the 2019 season, much less the worst with NASCAR’s new aero package. Though the booth and many fans alike were gushing over the early resurgence of Hendrick Motorsports, the reality was that green flag passes for the lead (again, real passes, not pit cycling) were all but nonexistent over the course of 500 miles.
The field felt… stagnant. Texas Motor Speedway’s smooth new asphalt may have been coated in sticky stuff and was raced on with rock hard tires. But the comers and goers that made early season intermediate races at Atlanta, Las Vegas and Fontana watchable were nowhere to be found. Instead, fuel-only pit stops ended up deciding all three stages of Sunday’s 500-miler.
Meanwhile, if you listened to the booth, Jeff Gordon summarized why many seemed to think Sunday was the shiniest example yet of what this new aero package can do. I’ll let my tweet speak for itself.
Despite that tweet, I’m not going to concede this race made the package work. Texas Motor Speedway was 500 miles of track position, with a brief 20-lap stretch in the second stage that saw the lead legitimately change under green. On the surface, it seemed a closer race but the on-track action was anything but.
At day’s end, again, there seemed to be more fans happy with this race than with the other intermediates run in 2019. And for readers that fall into that camp, we’ll see you at Bristol.
But for the rest of us, as positive a start to 2019 as I’ve seen the series have, this Sunday showed major cracks in the foundation. Hopefully, a few weekends away from the aero package will cure those ills.
Drivers Who Accomplished Something
Each of the drivers who finished in the top five this Sunday could lay claim to the title “comeback kid” for their efforts. Perhaps most notable was race winner Hamlin. He overcame missing pit road under green in the first stage, then being busted not once but twice on pit road (once for speeding, once for a highly controversial uncontrolled tire call) to win the race’s second stage. Finally, he capitalized on Busch’s late-race accident to join his teammate and Brad Keselowski as a multi-race winner in 2019.
Runner-up Bowyer‘s best finish since Talladega last fall came after a horrendous qualifying session on Friday that saw him start 25th on the speed chart. That’s courtesy of being obstructed on pit road in a scenario that NASCAR told the sporting world just days earlier it had fixed.
Bowyer’s teammate, Suarez, scored his best finish with Stewart-Haas Racing and his first top five in a Cup car since Watkins Glen last August. SHR’s newcomer wound up third despite dropping to 13th after a final stage pit stop with a car that developed such a tight condition the team feared they had a tire issue.
.@BradGillie reports that Daniel Suarez is unhappy. "It just wants to go straight in the turns," Daniel tells the 41 crew. The team thinks it's just new tires but Daniel is afraid it could be something serious. He's back to 13th #OReilly500
— PRN (@PRNlive) March 31, 2019
Jones finished fourth in his first top-10 run since the Daytona 500, recovering from a lap 14 spin. And rounding out the top five was Johnson, who capped his first pole-winning weekend since 2016 with a top-five finish that seemed unlikely after the No. 48 team lost track position and was mired in traffic after suffering a broken jack during a pit stop.
Lastly, given how hard the two were battling after Busch made a literal “pass in the grass” on his brother early in the second stage, it’s got to be satisfying for Kurt Busch to win the war Sunday. His ninth-place finish bested his brother’s recovery to 10th after heavy contact with the wall late. For the elder Busch, he’s scored five top 10s in seven races. Last year, it took McMurray 26 events to hit that mark for the No. 1 team.
Lastly, though he fell outside the top 10 late, Sunday’s 11th-place finish was Newman‘s best yet with Roush Fenway Racing.
Drivers Who Accomplished Nothing
Pretty much anyone who got anywhere a Team Penske Ford. Keselowski‘s dominance at Martinsville last week was nowhere to be seen, as the No. 2 team dropped in the running order right from the green flag. Then came lap 10 and the death knell for the No. 2’s chance at Texas. The car slowed on track, then was forced behind the wall with an apparent driveshaft issue. Keselowski would return to the track and post a 36th-place finish, his worst since a wreck at Pocono last summer.
Despite winning the first stage, Logano would again fade into obscurity after a strong start this Sunday. After strong work on pit road allowed Logano to best Johnson for the stage one win, the No. 22 crew was penalized on the next pit stop. That, when coupled with an apparently damaged hood in the second stage, left him mired in traffic the rest of Sunday’s race. He finished 17th.
Blaney also succumbed to mechanical woes, finishing 37th with a blown engine despite leading 45 laps in the second half of Sunday’s race. The bad luck even trickled to Penske’s corporate teammates at Wood Brothers Racing. Paul Menard saw what would have been his first top-10 finish of the season disappear early in the final stage when he was forced to pit from fifth position with a loose wheel.
Larson‘s disappointing start to 2019 caught fire… literally. He saw a top-15 run end early around lap 149.
Larson finished dead last in 39th, his first DNF of the 2019 season.
If it wasn’t for bad luck, Hemric would have none at all in 2019. Hemric finished outside the top 30 for the third time in seven races after suffering damage from a flat tire in a lap 254 spin.
Insights, Opinions and Fake News
Another “Fast Friday,” another laughable qualifying session that made the Cup Series look bad. More on that below.
As many issues as I had with the racing at the front of the pack Sunday, the reality is many fans were happy with what they saw. And that includes some of my colleagues at Frontstretch that were fortunate enough to be at the track this Sunday.
— Beth Lunkenheimer (@NASCARBeth) March 31, 2019
I fully believe Ms. Lunkenheimer when she says this race had something going for it. But I also fully believe that the race FOX broadcast Sunday had nothing going for it. For one, every single issue that this column has been citing with the telecasts in 2019 reared their ugly head again this Sunday. There was no coverage at the back of the field of any kind. Not when Timmy Hill retired with mechanical woes, not when Corey LaJoie made early contact with the wall, nor was any mention given of the exploits of Ross Chastain, Bayley Currey, Hill or Garrett Smithley despite devoting broadcast time during the qualifying show to pulling triple duty. Get the impression that triple duty was only given time Friday because of Busch’s participation? (For the record, the answer to most of these questions were easily found on Twitter in real time).
More noticeably, whether the result of bad timing or the time constraints needed to fit 500 hours of advertising into a 500-mile race, most of Sunday’s major race events happened while FOX was in a commercial break. Larson’s lap 149 wreck, Blaney’s blown engine around lap 231, Busch’s lap 246 pass of Suarez for the race lead (moments after threatening to wreck Logano over an alleged brake check)… all of these race-changing events happened during commercial breaks (though Larson’s incident did occur during a side-by-side). But FOX still found time during the broadcast to show the commentary booth eating ice cream….
I’m to a point where I’m ready for 500 miles of side-by-side advertising as opposed to the 10 laps of green, five laps of ads fans are seemingly getting on Sundays.
Speaking of 500 miles, there were no shortage of fans online Sunday moaning the 500-mile race distance at Texas was 100 miles too long. I will accept that argument from the perspective that, in this week of schedule changes dominating the headlines, any oval track with two race dates should take a strong look at hosting races at two different lengths over the course of a season. For example, just look at how much different the experience of the Daytona 500 and Firecracker 400 is.
But the 500-mile race distance was not at fault for what felt like a marathon Sunday. Not even the aero package was, though it didn’t help. No, that can be attributed to rock hard tires that didn’t wear. So here’s another bold schedule change to consider: racetracks that are repaved and require tires that literally don’t wear to be competed safely on should be cycled off the Cup schedule until they weather in. After all, there’s no shortage of tracks in the country that could hold the crowd that was on hand in Fort Worth this weekend.
On that note, it doesn’t help the visuals that Texas Motor Speedway has, at least to the naked eye, one of the largest grandstands in Cup racing. But the crowd at Fort Worth Sunday was bordering Atlanta bad.
— Darth Hendrick (@DarthHendrick) March 31, 2019
Now granted, the weather in Fort Worth was poor all weekend and unseasonably cold. But visuals matter, and Texas Motor Speedway didn’t look good. With NASCAR throwing down the gauntlet this weekend that major schedule changes actually could happen in 2021, SMI’s super promoters better get down to business in selling tickets to November’s race, now. The crowd they drew wasn’t all that much better than what Rockingham drew for its last Cup race… and Rockingham lost that date to Texas. Let’s also not forget that come November, TMS will have football season to compete with instead of, well, other sports.
Lot of empty seats in Texas. Surely it’s because of the Women’s NIT tilt between TCU and Cincinnati in Dallas today #nascar
— BrakeHard (@BrakeHard_) March 31, 2019
At least the sport’s stars are trying. From an attitude and ambassadorial perspective, Bubba Wallace seems to fit like a glove with the Richard Petty Motorsports organization whose team does the following every weekend….
— Dawn (@Dawn9469) March 31, 2019
But after another race that saw the No. 43 way down the finishing order as a complete non-factor, and Wallace heard frustrated on the radio not just with what’s going on in the car, but also the resources and surroundings he’s racing in, I’m ready to raise a red flag as to whether he’s the answer for the Petty team. Wallace’s decision to take the keys to the No. 43 Cup car is understandable. It was the only real full-time ride he had, and it doesn’t help that his best friend Blaney has been tearing up the Cup ranks with a superteam at Penske.
But Wallace’s ongoing frustration, as well as lack of on-track results, are not what the No. 43 team needs to improve its competitiveness. Granted, Chevrolet is by far the low manufacturer on the totem pole in Cup right now, and money is tight in the Petty camp. But it takes a certain driver and mindset to make a single-car operation like this one go faster. And Wallace, who has only succeeded in top-tier trucks and proved unable to keep Roush Fenway Racing’s Xfinity team afloat for even half a season, may have hit a ceiling with what he can do in this camp.
The numbers speak for themselves. Since an eighth-place finish in this race one year ago, Wallace has finished inside the top 10 only once.
Speaking of ceilings in the Chevrolet camp, Larson may be finding one himself with Ganassi’s No. 42 car. While Kurt Busch has the No. 1 team on a tear it hasn’t seen in recent memory, Larson’s latest wreck on the intermediates that he’s enjoyed the lion’s share of his career success on has the No. 42 team reeling.
It’s not entirely surprising to see Larson regressing. NASCAR’s new aero package has robbed the Cup cars of the throttle response and horsepower that allow Larson to thrive in dirt cars.
But the current gulf in performance between the No. 1 and No. 42 teams begs the question whether the new team composition at CGR is workable for Larson. Across the garage is no longer the level-headed team veteran in McMurray. Instead, it’s a fierce competitor in Busch, who was forced out at Stewart-Haas Racing despite scoring 22 top 10s in 2018. Despite being a Cup and Daytona 500 champion, he’s operating on a one-year deal. It means Busch (and this isn’t a knock at him) isn’t playing team games right now. He’s driving like a man possessed to keep his career alive. With Bristol on the horizon, Larson could suddenly use one of those runner-up positions he’s stockpiled over the past few seasons.
My single biggest regret in coming back to Frontstretch full-time is that now I have to watch Truck and Xfinity series races again. Sweeping the minor league events again this weekend, Kyle Busch closed the month of March winning all but one minor league trophy.
Spare me the “I hate Kyle Busch” tirade. I’ve been railing against Cup drivers making the minors their playgrounds for the last decade, regardless of their last name. And spare me this nonsense about minor league regulars wanting to beat Cup drivers as justification for this asinine practice. It’s like little league players who want to strike out Mike Trout. Sure, that’s nice for them to dream about. But it doesn’t mean Trout needs to start taking batting practice at the Little League World Series.
This month has taken the problem to a whole new level in the sense that it’s rendered an entire month of an already-neutered regular season irrelevant. In winning all the races and dominating as he did, Busch and his race teams claimed 73% of the available playoff points in March, the equivalent of 12% of the regular season playoff points available. Those points have now gone into a literal black hole and will have no impact on the playoffs NASCAR insisted were needed to keep the sport relevant. Ironically, it’s all thanks to a Cup driver running the quota of races NASCAR insists they need to help keep the minors relevant.
NASCAR blew up decades of history because Matt Kenseth dominated the 2003 regular season with 25 top-10 finishes. For once, I’d like to see them as reactionary in dealing with what’s become an all-too-relevant problem.
Best Paint Scheme – Aric Almirola. The dark green racing stripe makes this scheme pop.
Starting 21st at @TXMotorSpeedway. The No. 10 @SmithfieldBrand Prime Fresh team has brought another fast Ford Mustang to the track. Tomorrow's gonna be fun. 🤙#SmithfieldRacing pic.twitter.com/3jaMn2SQHz
— Aric Almirola (@Aric_Almirola) March 31, 2019
Tom Morello “Testify” Riff of the Week – Clint Bowyer. No need to write about NASCAR’s latest refusal to admit that group qualifying is an “epic fail.” Watch the tape.
"An epic failure."- Clint Bowyer vents after Round 1 of qualifying in Texas.
Do you think Ryan Newman's time should have been disallowed? pic.twitter.com/XxfSh0vTFG
— FOX: NASCAR (@NASCARONFOX) March 30, 2019
Opposed to Racing “Cover Your Ears” Award – The Lafayette County (Mo.) Planning Commission. I will admit that without having meeting minutes or other reports, I’m not 100% informed as to the county’s stance against the rehabilitation of the former I-70 Speedway. But it’s hard for me to take anyone seriously that demands sound barriers for a track that’s built on the frontage road of an interstate highway.
Where It Rated: Imagine going to Texas seeking brisket and ending up at Famous Dave’s. Not a knock at chain barbecue, but I don’t eat at Red Lobster when I’m at the beach.
What’s the Point(s): Kyle Busch, Logano, Keselowski and Hamlin have all locked themselves into the playoffs with their early season race wins. If the postseason started today, Kevin Harvick, Almirola, Truex, Blaney, Elliott, Kurt Busch, Bowyer, Larson, Stenhouse, Suarez, Johnson and Jones would point their way in. Austin Dillon currently sits 13 points behind Jones for the cutoff spot.
Dust Off the VCR: NASCAR heads back east to tackle the high banks of Bristol Motor Speedway. Coverage from the Last Great Coliseum goes green at 2 p.m. ET on FOX Sports 1.