The Headline(s): Though far from a dominant performance, Kyle Busch stayed out on old tires, capitalized on a cluster of a restart and drove away from brother Kurt Busch to score the 2019 Food City 500 win. It was Busch’s third Cup victory of 2019, 54th of his career and 204th NASCAR national series win. The elder Busch, who finished second, elicited a cheer from the few fans that showed up by exclaiming, “I should have wrecked him.”
How It Happened: Pole-sitter Chase Elliott led an eventful first 38 laps. He was interrupted early by a lap two incident that saw outside pole sitter William Byron have a terrible start, lose control and slam Aric Almirola into the Turn 2 wall (Almirola finished last). Kyle Busch also spun after accordion contact with Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
A smooth start for Elliott then went crazy on lap 39. That’s when Ryan Preece spun from a cut tire and in the ensuing chaos, Corey LaJoie sent Elliott spinning on the frontstretch. Elliott managed to keep his car off the wall, though the incident triggered an apparent power steering issue that would plague the No. 9 for the duration of the race.
The ensuing pit cycle handed the lead to Blaney. After trading the lead with Hamlin and Erik Jones, Blaney would take it back on lap 59 and hold it until lap 117. That’s when the yellow would again fly when Ross Chastain spun Daniel Hemric. Pit strategy would hand the lead to Clint Bowyer, who stayed out along with a handful of others. But he was unable to hold off a hard-charging Ty Dillon, who surprised with his first career stage win.
Team Penske then proceeded to lead the entirety of stage two. Brad Keselowski held the point from laps 130 to 144 and Logano took the field all the way to lap 250. That’s despite a yellow flag which flew on lap 214 when Elliott spun Matt Tifft on the frontstretch.
Blaney would win the race off pit road into the final stage and held the lead until lap 354. Teammate Logano would then take it back after a ferocious battle, allowing Bowyer to catch the Penske duo. It culminated with the No. 14 car taking the lead on lap 375 with a daring dive-bomb move on the No. 22.
Bowyer’s lead was short-lived, though as NASCAR threw the yellow on lap 376 for debris in Turn 2. From there, between a lap 383 restart and a lap 433 caution that would see Bowyer hit the wall with a cut tire, the lead was traded between Kyle Busch, Bowyer and Logano.
Bowyer’s incident took him out of contention. Busch led on the ensuing restart on lap 439, but was quickly passed by Keselowski for the lead on lap 444. Logano took the lead from Keselowski on lap 469, and they would stage a back-and-forth battle up front until the final (and questionable) yellow flag flew on lap 479 for Kyle Larson hitting the wall.
The ensuing pit cycle resulted in differing strategies. The leading Penske cars up front hit pit road while the Busch brothers, Ryan Newman and several others stayed out on old tires. Due to a blend line issue on pit road exit, a dispute in the lineup broke out between Keselowski and Newman. It resulted in a three-wide restart two rows back when the race went to green on lap 487. When all was said and done, Keselowski was black-flagged, leaving the Busch brothers driving off into the sunset to decide the race.
The younger Busch held off the older one, building a cushion of nearly two seconds over Logano. The remaining fast Fords finished behind the Busch brothers, taking six of the top nine finishing positions.
Should You Care? It looked like an entirely bleak affair for much of the afternoon, thanks to gray skies and cavernous swathes of empty grandstands (more on that later). But the on-track action at Bristol was the best racing NASCAR has seen since Daytona. Beating, banging, comers, goers, two defined grooves to race on, it was exactly what everyone hoped to see from a Bristol race. Kyle Busch scored his third win, continuing the dominance of Joe Gibbs Racing and Penske, but there was something in Sunday’s action for everyone.
This race is going to leave a sour taste in many mouths, though. That’s because of how thoroughly absurd NASCAR’s officiating proved to be over 500 laps on Sunday.
Lap 76 saw Larson burned by another penalty for an “uncontrolled tire” that traveled nowhere and impeded nobody on pit road (and appeared to many in the stands well within arm’s reach of a pit crewman).
The uncontrollable tire rule has to have some more meat to it.(as many other rules) Never made it out of box. No danger. @NASCAR , you just keep digging holes for your sport. You think @BMSupdates #FoodCity500 is low on attendance today, keep doing stupid stuff. @couchcrewchiefs
— Moe 🎣 (@moe_1971) April 7, 2019
Fast forward to lap 214, where Elliott clearly spun Tifft to bring out the yellow flag. But he was given the lucky dog pass anyway. Does the reigning Most Popular Driver have a special clause in that rulebook nobody sees?
NASCAR Rule Book:
“A vehicle is not eligible to receive the ‘Free Pass’ until the vehicle has started the Race or in the judgement of NASCAR, the vehicle was involved in, or the reason for the caution.”
Elliott was involved in the caution. He should still be a lap down. https://t.co/V821WsNL6F
— Nick Bromberg (@NickBromberg) April 7, 2019
Lap 376 saw the caution fly for debris in Turn 2, yet neither clean-up truck that went on track picked up any debris. Instead, the only track work done under the yellow involved the street sweeper. The sweeper spent more time in Turn 1 than in Turn 2.
On the ensuing lap 383 restart, Ty Dillon didn’t actually make it to the rear of the field despite incurring a speeding penalty. However, no black flag ever flew.
Then came the made-for-TV caution wet dream NASCAR prays for. On lap 478, the yellow flew after Larson hit the backstretch wall. Never mind that Larson was still running and out of the groove when the caution came out. Never mind that, on lap 309, LaJoie made similar contact with the wall in a similar spot on track. The race stayed green in that case as the underdog limped back to pit road.
The decision led to the most embarrassing NASCAR restart in recent memory. Confusion reigned as to the blend line in Turn 2 once pit stops were completed. Keselowski, disputing where he was supposed to start in relation to Newman, who had stayed out, pulled out of line. It left him running three-wide in Turn 4 as the pace truck pulled off for the green.
Rather than keeping the yellow flag out to settle a scoring dispute laps in the making, NASCAR black flagged the No. 2 instead. It cost Keselowski a top 10 while the resulting chaos in the pack allowed the Busch brothers to drive away from everyone else that had taken tires. The incident neutered any impact pit strategy would have on the finish.
#NASCAR … Brad Keselowski after the race on the team's radio about the penalty he as given for not following directions on restart order:
"That's just freaking absurd."
He tells Paul Wolfe: "I'll meet you at the NASCAR trailer. They're going to get my ear on this s—"
— Dustin Long (@dustinlong) April 7, 2019
Keselowski broke a firm NASCAR rule, which is to obey all directives from race control. That’s apparently the only firm NASCAR rule left. If fans are going to pay big league prices for short track racing and get officiating similar to Bowman Gray Stadium, save some money and pay the 10 bucks it costs to watch a race there. The crowd will be comparable.
Will go live tonight when we get back home.
Teaser- I met with Nascar and understand what happened on the last restart now. Bummer to throw away a great race we had a shot at winning but, in the end after hearing all the information; they made the right call.
— Brad Keselowski (@keselowski) April 7, 2019
Brad, I disagree. When the field is that disheveled, throwing the green flag is absolutely absurd. It arguably cost numerous drivers in the pack that pitted for tires a shot at the win. If Keselowski or any driver is obstructing a start, penalize them before throwing the green. Everyone else got dealt the consequences.
Drivers Who Accomplished Something
This win was arguably more concerning for the field than Kyle running roughshod at intermediate ovals. In this case, the team faced adversity much of the afternoon but still came out on top. In winning today, Busch overcame damage on lap two after being spun by Stenhouse and clipped by Preece. He was left with a car that had nothing for the Penske Fords on the long run. But somehow, he made old tires work in the closing laps to hold off his brother, a six-time Bristol winner to become an eight-time Bristol victor himself. It was a composed performance that should be of concern to all title contenders in the Cup garage.
Brother Kurt’s second-place finish was his best of the season. It was also his best in Cup competition since winning at Bristol last summer.
Team Penske should also be pretty proud of itself. Though Keselowski finished 18th in what was a heated dispute with NASCAR over the final restart, Logano and Blaney finished third and fourth. In all, the trio combined to lead 304 laps. Blaney breaking into the winner’s column is a question of when, not if, while Logano shook off a pedestrian short track showing at Martinsville.
The “other” Fords both broke through on Sunday, too. Paul Menard and Newman both posted their first top-10 finishes of the 2019 season. Menard scored his finish quietly while Newman overcame significant damage after hard racing with both Blaney and Elliott to rally for ninth.
Despite all the praise Elliott earned for battling to an 11th-place finish with limited power steering, it was Jimmie Johnson that proved to be the highest-finishing Hendrick car for the second week in a row. Johnson has now scored consecutive top-10 finishes for the first time since the MENCS Round of 16 last fall. With another short track next on the docket, the No. 48 team appears to be on the cusp of sustainable momentum for the first time in recent memory.
As previously mentioned, Ty Dillon scored his first career stage win and the first at the Cup level for Germain Racing.
“That was fun. We got a long way to go, but proud of that,” Ty Dillon tells his team #NASCAR
— Kelly Crandall (@KellyCrandall) April 7, 2019
Dillon’s 15th-place finish equaled his career best at Bristol.
Drivers Who Accomplished Nothing
Almirola, but that wasn’t his fault. Almirola’s race ended after three laps when he was slammed into the Turn 2 wall after Byron lost control of his car. The 37th-place finish was his worst since the 2017 night race at Bristol.
JTG Daugherty Racing had Bristol circled on their calendars, but the bullring wasn’t kind to them. Any chances Preece had of showing his short track chops on the high banks were gone after a lap 38 spin with a cut tire (Preece would finish four laps down in 25th). Teammate Chris Buescher, however, was a fixture in the top 10 before having to pit under green around lap 460 with a loose wheel. Buescher would finish 22nd, no way representative of how the No. 37 ran.
Kevin Harvick’s 13th-place finish isn’t terrible on paper. But it came after Harvick’s team failed inspection three times on Sunday morning. The fiasco saw the team’s engineer booted from Bristol and the team relegated to starting at the rear, forced to take a pass-through penalty at the start. Given that Harvick has not won in 2019 and that the No. 4 was the fastest car in 10-lap average through practice yesterday, Bristol was a wasted opportunity.
After a dismal showing the past two weeks with a nondescript Martinsville and a wreck at Texas, the return to the Bristol track that Larson has run so well at was more of the same for the No. 42 team. Larson ended up with damage after a lap 415 incident that saw him get loose trying to pass the lapped car of Bayley Currey. Shortly thereafter, he again brought out the yellow on lap 479 with additional wall contact. Larson’s 19th-place finish was his fourth straight outside the top 10 and broke a streak of four consecutive top 10s at Bristol.
Insights, Opinions and Fake News
As bad as Texas’ grandstands looked on TV last week, one look at Bristol and my God, how the mighty have fallen. Only the straightaway grandstands were even open for Sunday’s 500-lap race. Although NASCAR does not post attendance data anymore, this estimate sure looked accurate.
Two thoughts on this figure. For one, if there’s a track anywhere in NASCAR where general admission would be a worthwhile experiment, Bristol is the one. There isn’t a bad seat to be had anywhere and 120,000 empty seats makes no money. Go to general admission, make it cost what a Saturday night short track special costs and get butts in the door.
Second, read this reply to the same estimate Tweet.
#NASCAR has made it hard for families to attend races to include lodging. If you don’t understand the business please don’t say they have nothing to do with hotel prices. Families will attend races in areas where they can do other things during the weekend. Bristol is EXPENSIVE!
— Gurl Machinez (@GurlMachinez) April 7, 2019
I drove back home in between Friday and Sunday, so I have no personal story or data to verify this information. But I spoke to at least two folks in the media center Sunday who said hotels in Bristol were still charging hundreds of dollars for rooms, even if they weren’t full. Bristol, fair or not, has a reputation among fans and writers alike for price gouging that is alive and well. The sparse crowd speaks to it.
Moving forward, if there’s one track in NASCAR that needs to get aggressive in rebuilding an image, say hello to the Last Great Colosseum. After all, Rome did fall.
Speaking of that, there are some drivers in the field who need to be careful with how they handle the crowd issue as well. In his post-race remarks after a disappointing seventh-place finish, Bowyer sounded exasperated not just about missing out on the win. He also seemed antsy a crowd didn’t show up for a race that was, for the most part, great.
Bowyer may well just have been exhausted and disappointed. But taking an exasperated tone in discussing the fans isn’t going to win anyone over. Keep in mind this happened on the same weekend Hamlin was quoted discussing he’d get a fat check even if not racing next year.
That’s not going to win the blue-collar fans of southern Virginia and Tennessee over.
Moving on, I firmly disagree with Ryan McGee’s analogy this week comparing Allen Iverson’s pampered athlete tirade about being too good to practice to NASCAR drivers and their current methodologies with regard to qualifying (leave it to ESPN to insert the NBA into even their NASCAR coverage). But the title of McGee’s article, and much of the analysis, is spot on with the potential damage that the ongoing group qualifying debacle can and is having on the Cup Series.
Friday at Bristol was the latest boondoggle, as the few fans actually in the stands were audibly booing for the opening minutes of round two before sarcastically applauding Larson for making the first lap of that round. McGee is sadly correct that qualifying really doesn’t matter anymore. That’s both because of low car counts and “to the rear” penalties which have proven no hindrance to powerful cars winning races.
If NASCAR is going to be so damn stubborn as to refuse to admit group qualifying, especially with this new package(s), does not work, then do us all a favor and stop holding qualifying whenever there’s a short field. Go off the practice speeds and be done with it. And in Bristol’s case, if you still need a justification to open the track Friday, move the K&N East race to Friday night.
A positive note to end on. The mix of PJ1 traction compound that was used at Bristol Sunday took a while to get in gear. But by race’s end, two grooves of racing were firmly established. The low line is viable at Bristol again, and that was the goal.
My only complaint seeing how Sunday’s race played out (and I’ve advocated for it already in this column)…the cone rule of most bullrings needs to be put in play here that allows drivers to select their restart line in order of their running position. Between the snafu between Keselowski and Newman at the final restart and Logano’s team counting cars on pit road a la Martinsville, put the orange cone out there. I mean, come on, it already has a Twitter handle.
Best Paint Scheme: Corey LaJoie. Time to show some love for a backmarker team.
Grab a DUDE product – available in over 12,000 stores, including Kroger, Meijer, Jewel, Target, Safeway, Albertsons, & Walmart! pic.twitter.com/XFVNhPgI4F
— Go Fas Racing (@GoFasRacing32) April 2, 2019
Remember what I said at Martinsville; I’m a sucker for a black Mustang.
Turn Your Damn Mic Off Button – Hannah Newhouse. The pit reporter in Saturday’s K&N East race had a hot mic moment that was about as unprofessional as they come. Yet for some odd reason, Twitter loved it (you go girl is alive and well in NASCAR, results be damned).
Let’s be clear on two points. For one, blunt profanity is not synonymous with “honest journalism.” And two, it’s the K&N East Series. It’s literally a teenage development division, filled with teenage drivers and young adults. Teenagers and young adults are, by definition, immature. Expecting them not to react with some edge when wrecked out on lap one is like expecting babies not to cry.
Leave it to another teenager to set the record straight on this laughable “journalistic” display.
— Harrison Burton (@HBurtonRacing) April 7, 2019
How It Rated: For 480-some laps:
The finale? Well, if only the rain everyone talked about all weekend could have showed up.
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, Harvick, Blaney, Martin Truex Jr., Kurt Busch, Almirola, Elliott, Bowyer, Daniel Suarez, Johnson, Larson, Newman and Stenhouse would point their way in. Erik Jones currently sits one point behind Stenhouse for the cutoff spot.
Dust Off the VCR: NASCAR’s short track swing continues next Saturday night with a trip to the capital of the South: 400 laps at Richmond Raceway. Coverage starts at 7:30 p.m. ET Saturday, April 13 on FOX.