Who… should you be talking about after the race?
Kurt Busch flat outdrove his brother to take the win in the Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Motor Speedway on Saturday night. Kyle Busch ran up on him to stop his momentum and gave the No. 1 a wicked tire rub, but the 2004 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion never backed off. The elder Busch is a smarter driver throughout recent years, and while what would have been a sound strategy call bit him last week, this time, the No. 1 team did everything right at the end. He took it from there, driving into victory lane for the first time in 2019, sealing a playoff spot come September.
Busch said at Bristol, after finishing second to Kyle, that he’d have wrecked his brother to win if he could have gotten close enough. This time, he didn’t have to wreck anyone to get the result. No longer the brash youngster (Kyle has taken over that role though no longer all that young either), Kurt Busch drove perhaps the best race of his career Saturday night.
Sometimes, it’s small gains. For a team that’s struggled in the last couple of years, JTG-Daugherty Racing’s Chris Buescher scored a quiet top 10 on Saturday night at Kentucky. It’s his fourth top 10 of the year, tying a career-best with nearly half the season to go to improve his numbers. His season average finish of 17.9 so far is three positions better than his best season in that category (2018). He’s 21st in points, and should he finish there, it would be the best season for the No. 37 team.
It’s easy to forget that Buescher is a NASCAR national champion, as he’s struggled in his Cup career, but he’s a talented young driver and he’s starting to help his team grow as well. There’s a lot for his team to be happy about so far in 2019.
What… is the takeaway from this race?
Even when the racing has been good in 2019—and yes, there have been some very good races—fans have complained that races weren’t in the drivers’ hands enough. While there is certainly more that needs to be done in that area for the next-generation cars, you can’t say that Saturday’s race wasn’t in the winning driver’s hands. In fact, as this package has shown in night races on 1.5-mile ovals, drivers could make moves. Joey Logano was able to power by Kyle Busch in the closing laps, and the two waged a good battle for the top spot. Logano had the faster car at that point, and the faster car passed the slower one as it should be.
While it might have been a runaway for Logano had Bubba Wallace’s tire not let go inside 10 laps to go, the race was won because one driver simply outdrove another. Busch wanted the win more than brother Kyle, and he went and took it. Kyle might have had a stronger car; he did get past the No. 1 once on the two overtime laps. It might have been over then, but Kurt drove his car as hard as he could, and it was enough to pass Kyle for the win.
And yes, sometimes it does come down to who wants it more. This race certainly did. You can’t ask for more than that.
Where… were the other key players at the end?
Pole sitter Daniel Suarez seems to be on an upswing. Three of his seven top 10s this season have come in the last six races. He led a career-high 52 laps Saturday night, and while a pit road mistake hurt his chances for a win, the lap-109 speeding penalty did not ruin the third-year driver’s night by a long shot. Suarez and the No. 41 team regrouped and played the last stage of the race just right, driving back to a strong eighth-place finish.
On the flip side, defending race winner Martin Truex Jr. incurred his own speeding penalty late in the game, on lap 233 under green, and without enough time to recover, Truex tied a career-worst at Kentucky, matching his car number with a 19th-place finish, a lap down. It’s the first time Truex has failed to finish on the lead lap in nine races at Kentucky. It’s hard to say that the penalty cost Truex a third straight Kentucky win because he never led a lap, the first time since 2015 that he hasn’t led in the Bluegrass State.
Kentucky win leader Brad Keselowski has three wins at the track, but Saturday night was atypical for the Team Penske driver, who finished 20th, a lap off the pace, without incurring any penalties as Truex did. He led three laps early, but Keselowski wasn’t a factor in the race, scoring no stage points. It was not a great night for Team Penske overall, though Logano might well have taken the victory had the late caution not flown. Logano wound up seventh after an atypically poor restart, while Ryan Blaney finished a non-factor 13th and auxiliary teammate Paul Menard finished 11th, just missing a top 10 for the Wood Brothers.
Pre-race favorite Kyle Busch got a second chance to win after Logano passed him late in the race but got outraced by his brother and wound up a bitter second. Still, it’s the younger Busch’s 16th top 10 in 19 races, keeping him on pace to match Jeff Gordon’s 2007 mark of 30 in a season.
Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson has been gaining on things recently. Another driver who comes to mind when it comes down to wanting it more, Johnson struggled early but made his way up to seventh. Then, a lap-180 spin left the No. 48 with enough damage that he limped home in 30th, three laps down. His playoff hopes are still in tact, but Johnson can’t afford any more mistakes like he made Saturday.
When… was the moment of truth?
What set up one of the most memorable finishes in recent memory? Pit strategy. Power plays with 100 to go set up varying strategy for the final round of stops. Clint Bowyer, and Kurt Busch were among those who chose to make their final stops earlier than some others (and Busch recovered while Bowyer did not), while Kyle Busch and Logano waited longer, a move which almost certainly would have paid off had the final caution not have flown. The final yellow set up yet another round of strategy calls. It was yet another way in which this race, at least, was in the teams’ hands.
Another question mark is whether pit work is the weak link at Stewart-Haas Racing this year. Bowyer lost the lead in the pits late on Saturday; teammate Kevin Harvick has had issues this year as well, and none of the four SHR teams has won to date. While overall the stops have not been bad, they aren’t gaining the drivers much, either. With the team having yet to win in 2019, after a 2018 season where all four SHR teams took home trophies, something isn’t right. If it’s on pit road, how long will it be allowed to go on before wholesale changes take place?
Why… should you be paying attention this week?
There are no more 1.5-mile tracks before the playoffs, though fans still have to endure Michigan, Pocono and Indianapolis. Will we see someone outside the top 16 win their way into the playoffs at the different venues of New Hampshire, Watkins Glen, Bristol or Darlington?
Not likely, but not an impossibility, either.
Ryan Newman is strong at Loudon. He’s got seven poles, three wins and 19 top 10s at the Magic Mile. He finished sixth there a year ago, but most of that success came early in his career, with the most recent win in 2011. He’s the best of the rest at New Hampshire, but it’s hard to call him a favorite. Still, Newman at Loudon may be the best shot at someone racing in.
A few youngsters have had good runs at Watkins Glen International in recent years, including Suarez, who has two top fives in two races, for a 3.5 average. If he can be consistent going in, he’s the best bet for a new winner outside the top 16 there.
At Bristol, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has the best numbers in the group outside the cutoff. His 13th-place average is second among all active drivers, with four top fives in 13 starts. So, maybe.
Finally, the Lady in Black poses a challenge to everyone. Erik Jones, who currently holds the 16th spot by two points over Newman, has only raced at Darlington twice in the Cup Series. He’s posted impressive results along the way, though: a top five, two top 10s and a 6.5 average. Jones has had fast cars though he’s lacked consistency. Newman is consistent at Darlington with a strong 12.1 average over 20 races, but no wins.
The numbers certainly suggest that a win from someone outside the top 16 is unlikely, but with nine races left to secure a playoff spot, it won’t be due to a lack of trying.
How… much of these races aren’t fans seeing on TV?
That’s a really good question and one fans deserve an explanation for.
Of course, fans should see the race leaders fighting for position; that’s not in question at all. But what about when there is no battle at the front? What if there’s one for 10th instead, or 15th or 20th? Fans at the track are treated to all of these, and some are every bit as hard-fought as the ones at the front. Yet time and again, while they’re going on, the cameras are trained on a few cars at the front, and if they’re strung out, well, no wonder fans think the racing is boring if that’s all they’re allowed to see.
While the ability of television to get tight angles and show more than the smaller number of wider-angle cameras from days gone by has increased, there’s no reason to scrap the way races were broadcast back then completely.
Fans in the stands see a complete race. They can follow their favorite driver lap after lap no matter where he runs. Meanwhile, fans at home have no such luxury. While the cameras obviously can’t follow one or two cars all day, they often do just that with the leaders, at the expense of better racing and leaving out the fans of other drivers. How can that be good for ratings?
While the racing has not been the best ever in the last few years, many races have been better than fans saw on TV. That’s a problem for the whole sport. Sponsors pay for airtime, and if there’s no return for them, why stay in the sport? While a lot of sponsor value is now a business-to-business rather than an exposure model, if nobody sees them all day, they’re losing a significant piece of the value of sponsorship. Teams need sponsors to be competitive. Competitive teams are good for NASCAR and for the fans.
It’s time for a return to basics in the sport in general, and that certainly includes the broadcasts. It’s the action on track fans want to see, not cool graphics or the leader’s crew chief. It’s past time to bring that back.