The Headline(s): After getting passed by Kyle Larson on lap 256 and appearing destined for another crushing runner-up finish, Alex Bowman regrouped clear of lapped traffic, built a killer run and got around Larson in turn 4 on lap 262, driving away to his first career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victory after a three-plus hour weather delay at Chicagoland Speedway. Here’s the pass that won the race:
— NASCAR on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) July 1, 2019
How It Happened: NASCAR expedited the start of Sunday’s race and got 11 laps of green flag racing in, with pole sitter Austin Dillon and Jimmie Johnson trading the lead until a severe weather delay that brought heavy winds and blinding rain across the speedway (more on that later):
— 🚘⚾️Ian🏒🏈 (@ian_race_media) June 30, 2019
More than three hours later, the race restarted on a green track, and it was on hot and heavy, with Dillon, Johnson and Kevin Harvick swapping the lead from the restart around lap 16. Eventually, Harvick took control out front and led the majority of the first stage. The team, however, had to alter its original strategy of doing a late splash and go stop when Harvick rushed down pit road on lap 72 with a right rear tire flat. Six drivers led the next six laps until chaos broke out on lap 79; the caution flag flew when Clint Bowyer blew a right rear tire and spun in turn 3 with damage to his quarterpanel, but as that happened, Kyle Busch also pitted after cutting a tire and slapping the wall. With that melee unfolding, Denny Hamlin scored the stage one win.
Harvick’s much-maligned pit crew won his No. 4 the race off pit road, a lead they would hold until lap 99, when a surging William Byron took the point after starting at the rear of the field for an engine change. Byron’s run up front would be short-lived however; despite holding the lead off pit road after a lap 102 caution for Quin Houff dropping fluid after breaking a track bar mount, Harvick would retake the lead on lap 109 thanks to a push from Johnson. Out front, Harvick proved impossible to pass despite both Johnson and Chase Elliott making pitched charges for the race lead. Harvick led the rest of the way to the stage 2 break on lap 160.
Winning another battle off pit road, Harvick’s grip on the race went out the window after losing the lead soon after the restart to Larson and Bowman. On lap 172, Harvick would bring out the yellow after scraping the turn 2 wall. With Harvick out of contention, Bowman would hold the lead from a lap 176 restart until green flag pit stops approximately 45 laps later. Once stops cycled, Bowman reassumed the lead on lap 225, driving off to a nearly three second lead.
It was smooth sailing until lap 242. Bowman, trying to put Paul Menard a lap down, misjudged an attempt to pass in turn 1 and lost three quarters of a second with lost momentum. Then did it again, and again, until Larson cut the lead to 1.1 seconds by lap 251. With Larson in clear track and Bowman struggling with more lapped traffic (this time Daniel Hemric), Larson took the lead from Bowman on lap 260.
Clear of the lappers though, Bowman was able to take back his preferred low line, and proved all the better for it. Regrouped, Bowman surged back forward, taking the lead for good from Larson on lap 262 and driving away to the win. Larson, Joey Logano, Johnson and Brad Keselowski rounded out the top five.
Why You Should Care: The rain delay was probably a blessing in disguise for Chicagoland Speedway, as it cooled the ambient temperatures considerably, and the track surface temperature by more than 50 degrees. The “package” has proven at its best on abrasive surfaces at cool temperatures, and as a result, Chicagoland looked a lot like Kansas did in May, with the final battle for the lead between Bowman and Larson a worthy follow-up to last year’s instant classic finish between Larson and Kyle Busch for the race win.
Away from the package, however, this race will go down as significant in 2019 because it appears a true break from the Team Penske/Joe Gibbs Racing hegemony up front. Though Bowman certainly benefitted from Penske’s struggles on pit road all race long and Kyle Busch’s repeated issues with cut tires, Hendrick Motorsports enjoyed its best run of 2019 as an organization this Sunday, leading a strong charge for Chevrolet. Between Bowman’s breakthrough win, Larson returning to form, Byron scoring a top 10 after starting in the rear and Johnson being as close to contender in a points race as he has in recent memory, the Bowtie brigade delivered a comprehensive performance that it’s needed to score away from Talladega.
Hendrick Motorsports has won two races in 2019, but they’ve done it at Talladega and Kansas’ sister track. That translates into strength come the Chase, and that means title contention. It’s no longer a two-party system up front in NASCAR. If only the rest of the country was so lucky…
Drivers Who Accomplished Something
This was a major milestone win for Bowman, and it couldn’t come at a better time. By winning at Chicagoland, Bowman exorcised his demons from losing to Keselowski late at Kansas Speedway. But more importantly, Bowman delivered a race win immediately after primary sponsor Nationwide Insurance announced they’d be departing after the 2019 season. With the recognition of being Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s replacement having worn off, Bowman has to deliver results to sell the No. 88 car for 2020. And while this wasn’t a textbook effort (Bowman’s struggles passing lappers Menard and Hemric were visible and apparent, and the No. 88 got erratic on several occasions trying to navigate them), beating Larson the way he did will go a long way towards accomplishing that.
Another driver who has reason to be looking over his shoulders with the announcement that Christopher Bell has been resigned for 2020, Erik Jones ended up carrying the flag for Joe Gibbs Racing on Sunday, finishing seventh. Jones ran up front to capitalize on a day that saw teammate Martin Truex, Jr. uncharacteristically absent up front, Hamlin besieged by pit road penalties and Kyle Busch hitting every other car and wall in Illinois. Plenty of momentum heading into Firecracker weekend, where Jones scored career Cup win No. 1 last season.
Just like at Sonoma last week, Byron scored points in both stages. Unlike Sonoma, that progress stuck for the entirety of the race. Byron finished eighth, his best result since Dover. With Bowman breaking through and the No. 24 team starting to find chemistry, Hendrick may have another first time winner before long.
Team Penske put all three cars in the top 10 on Sunday despite Ryan Blaney suffering a tire failure and Keselowski’s pit crew having their worst performance of the season. Leading that pack was third-place finisher Logano, who actually caught Larson on lap 242 before the No. 42 went on a tear for the race lead.
Pole sitter Dillon finished 10th, a career-best result at Chicagoland.
Drivers Who Accomplished Nothing
Kyle Busch was certainly fast on Sunday, but this was one of the more ragged performances in Rowdy’s recent history. It started on lap 25, when Busch’s Camry slapped the turn 3 wall after hitting a bump on the track, dropping the No. 18 to 20th by lap 44. Busch cut down another tire before the end of the first stage. Despite constant whining and profanities about “being done,” Busch climbed back into the top 10 by lap 169, only to cut down another tire after hard racing down the backstretch with Logano resulted in fender contact. Any chance at a decent finish disappeared on lap 237, when Busch was forced to pit road with a cockpit full of smoke after rubber build up in the rear of the car caught fire:
— NASCAR on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) July 1, 2019
Busch finished 22nd, his worst finish since Kansas.
Bowyer’s spin on lap 79 for a flat tire led to a cycle of cut tire, limp to pit road, repeat that lasted until lap 183, when the team mercifully went behind the wall. The 37th-place finish was Bowyer’s worst since Fontana.
Finishing 14th isn’t terrible, but for Harvick, it marked a tremendous wasted opportunity. Dominating the first two stages, Harvick’s pit crew finally showed the form that saw the No. 4 team a contender all the way to Homestead a year ago, winning the battle off pit road after both stage breaks. However, this time it was a pure driver error that saw Harvick slap the wall on lap 172.
After Harvick’s digs at his crew post-race at Michigan, it would have been entertaining to see Harvick’s crew guys interviewed after this race.
Bubba Wallace’s 25th place finish wasn’t helped by his pit crew leaving a wedge wrench in the car while pitting under green during the first stage. It also wasn’t helped by the two pit road speeding penalties he incurred. Wallace has not finished in the top 20 on a track longer than a mile in 2019.
Matt DiBenedetto came crashing back to earth after a career-best finish at Sonoma last week, finishing 27th after the team never recovered from pitting under green in stage 2 with a loose wheel.
Insights, Opinions and Fake News
It’s not often that I come to NASCAR’s defense, but I’m going to do just that with regard to their decision to run 11 laps under green with severe weather approaching the Chicagoland Speedway. Speaking as both a fan and a writer, I’ve seen more than my share of severe weather at NASCAR races, be it battling through three days of thunderstorms in the stands with my dad at the 2009 Coca-Cola 600 or feeling the press box shake during the lightning tragedy at Pocono in August of 2012. This Sunday, NASCAR did nothing wrong. For one, Steve O’Donnell’s response as to NASCAR’s decision is about as reasonable a statement as a NASCAR executive will make:
Weather was out of range. We have had many situations where it stayed that way. Made the call when we needed to. https://t.co/BfHyj4U3va
— Steve O'Donnell (@odsteve) June 30, 2019
But going further, having been in that situation on more than one occasion, my dad and I never were waiting for Charlotte Motor Speedway, or Chicagoland Speedway for that matter, to tell us when to take shelter. When it got bad, we left the stands. When it stopped, we went back.
Personal safety is a judgement call that each individual has to make, whether watching a race on a tablet in their backyard or in the stands at the track. Besides, any individual spending time outside in the Midwest on a warm June afternoon that’s not paying attention to the weather on their own accord probably doesn’t look both ways before crossing the street either.
Having defended NASCAR, I will not defend the 3 p.m. ET start time for this race. If races started at noon, as they always should on Sundays, at least two stages would have been done. Of course, NASCAR Twitter’s meteorological corps would probably fault the sanctioning body then for sending a crowd for the exits with weather approaching.
So when faced with a race that’s going to go long beyond the scheduled TV slot, NASCAR chose not to throw a competition caution during the first stage. 65 laps into the first run on the green surface, four cars blow tires in a span of two laps. I hate the practice of competition cautions, but if there was ever a scenario calling for one this was it. The consistent inconsistency here gives some real credence to the belief that competition cautions are as much made for TV as stage breaks.
Kyle Busch slaps the turn 3 wall and visibly damages his racecar on lap 25, the race stays green. Harvick scrapes the turn 2 wall on lap 172, and there’s a caution. Every stage does matter, because that’s how fast the rulebook evolves: #consistentinconsistency.
Frontstretch alumnus Matt Weaver penned a concerning piece earlier this week indicating that NASCAR doesn’t anticipate making wholesale changes to the Cup schedule for 2021. It’s bad enough that NASCAR President Steve Phelps can say “no wholesale changes” and “we’re going to listen to what the fans say” in the same bleeping interview, but to hear such explicit backtracking already relating to 2021 is a cold hard slap in the face. Never mind that with a 36-race schedule, all existing venues could keep race dates and there’d still be at least a dozen spots for new venues. The last such slap in the face I can remember with regards to the schedule was moving the Southern 500 to Fontana. Do fans really need to remind NASCAR how well that worked out?
Social media response to Weaver’s article immediately pivoted to the struggles the SMI effort to renovate the Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville have reportedly run into, with the fairgrounds campus already set for a massive facelift with a Major League Soccer stadium coming in the immediate future. While those developments are unfortunate, given the history of that racetrack and the demand for motorsports in Nashville (the Fairgrounds Speedway sold out when the World of Outlaws contested the venue last month), if NASCAR’s 2021 schedule strategy was Fairgrounds or bust, that’s an embarrassing shortcoming.
Give Iowa a Cup date, spend a few million dollars pulling the mothballs out of the Nashville Superspeedway and take the Cup cars dirt tracking at Knoxville. No assembly required. It’s not that hard, Mr. Phelps.
Sticking with Weaver, his post-race tweet said it all:
Abrasive tracks and worn out tires will always produce regardless of package.
— Matt Weaver (@MattWeaverAW) July 1, 2019
Menard and Hemric did nothing wrong racing Bowman the way they did to stay on the lead lap in the closing laps. If only the cars had more horsepower, the leaders would have more throttle control to clear lapped cars. Of course, that also means that driving would take more than matting it.
Chicagoland is one of those rare weekends where fans get the top four stock car racing series each on their own day, so a few notes from the minor leagues. From Thursday’s ARCA race, Harrison Burton contested the event in a Camry sporting the same sponsor and paint scheme on Bell’s Xfinity Series car (of note; Burton has carried Ruud colors in the past, but never outside of New England).
Quench that thirst @HBurtonRacing.
— VenturiniMotorsports (@VenturiniMotor) June 28, 2019
Meanwhile, Bell re-signed with Joe Gibbs Racing for 2020, not specifically with JGR’s No. 20 Xfinity Series team. If Bell’s promoted to Cup as has been speculated for 2020, I wonder who his successor will be.
Stage breaks take too damn long across all three series, but Friday night’s Truck Series race took it to a level of absurdity, with 12 of 150 laps lost to stage breaks. If we’re going to lose eight percent of the scheduled distance to TV timeouts, one of two things needs to happen; ticket prices need to be reduced eight percent, or pace car speed needs to be slowed to allow for more ads to be shown over the course of fewer laps.
Of note; NBC’s coverage of Saturday’s Xfinity Series race resulted in only five percent of the scheduled distance being lost to stage breaks. I’d say I’m already not missing FOX’s NASCAR coverage.
But was NBC that big an improvement? The data junkie in me hated to see NBC go back to an old overhead ticker instead of the vertical bar that allows viewers to see 20 cars and intervals at once instead of five. For as good as he can be calling the action, NBC better be careful before Dale Jr. becomes a caricature in the manner that led to Darrell Waltrip being forced out of the booth, with “slide job” the NBC equivalent of “boogity boogity boogity.” And the fact that NBC is still trying to sell NASCAR as cool by having Rutledge Wood playing Portlandia at the race track rivals Digger in the just plain stupid department (fortunately Sunday’s rain delay spared us that display). TNN, know that you are missed…
While you wait for today’s green flag, check out this awesome giveaway from #LouisKempCrabDelights 👇🏼
— Matt Tifft (@matt_tifft) June 30, 2019
Live PD “You’ve Got Warrants” Citation – Hamlin. Because NASCAR’s most prolific pit road speeder didn’t speed all weekend, and still got busted twice.
Dorothy, I Don’t Have to Be from Kansas Eye-Roll. Bowyer. Bowyer’s attempt at humor by clarifying for those of us from North Carolina that Sunday’s winds at Chicagoland were winds, not a tornado was a little, well, off. Clint, speaking as a former North Carolina coast resident that’s been through eight hurricane landfalls, I can assure you we can tell a gust from a tornado just fine, thank you.
Where It Rated: I’m torn. Sunday’s race had a great finish for the second consecutive year, and just like Kansas the package put on a show that was better than the history at Chicagoland has typically produced. However, while in rain delay NBC showed the final 22 laps of last year’s race, where the cars put on a show just as good with shorter spoilers and more horsepower. Sunday was good… but it could have been better.
What’s the Points: Bowman, Busch, Elliott, Hamlin Keselowski, Logano and Truex have locked into the playoffs by winning races in 2019. If the playoffs started today, Harvick, Blaney, Almirola, Byron, Larson, Johnson, Daniel Suarez and Bowyer would point their way in. Bowyer currently holds a 15 point lead over Jones for the final playoff spot.
Up Next: The Cup Series heads to Daytona for the (last) Firecracker 400 weekend before next season’s move to the end of the Chase in September. Coverage from the World’s Center of Racing is slated to start at 7:30 p,m. ET on NBC. Unless of course, a tropical depression has formed around the Cape Verde Islands and NASCAR Twitter’s meteorological corps decides it’s unsafe and orders the state of Florida evacuated.