Who…should you be talking about after the race?
Some days it’s your day. Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway was Kevin Harvick’s day. Harvick led 118 of 160 laps en route to his second Indianapolis win, his third victory of 2019 and the 48th of his career. In case you’re keeping track, only two active drivers, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch, have more wins than Harvick does.
Sunday was a study in domination for Harvick. Starting from the pole, car No. 4 led a total of five times and won by a commanding six seconds. As the laps wound down, it was clear that unless Harvick made a mistake or mechanical disaster struck, nobody was going to catch the No. 4 on this day. While that might not make for compelling competition from the standpoint of other drivers’ fans, it was the type of performance that absolutely earns the trophy.
Bubba Wallace didn’t quite match his career-best second-place finish Sunday, but his third-place run is his best of 2019 and the best non-superspeedway finish for Richard Petty Motorsports since Watkins Glen in 2014. And this run was no fluke; Wallace didn’t back into a strong finish. He and the No. 43 team made their strategy pay off, with Wallace holding off challenges from frontrunners like he does it every weekend. His run serves as a reminder that lack of money and lack of talent are far from the same thing.
What…is the takeaway from this race?
Is the sun setting on NASCAR at Indy? The storied oval has not been a great venue for stock cars, by and large, and attendance has been sparse for a race that once packed in fans in crowds that rivaled the Indianapolis 500.
In general, the finishes have been less than stellar, with many of the closer contests happening because of late restarts. There were some good races early on, and car counts soared 20 years ago. In 1999, with a 43-car field, a dozen cars went home without making the field.
Sure, its history makes a win at Indy something special, but most of that history is open-wheel history, not NASCAR history. It’s meaningful to the drivers because they likely won’t get to run the track in the month of May, and because their open-wheel heroes raced there, but it’s really not Darlington or Daytona, tracks whose history was written by stock cars.
Another take on Indy for NASCAR is that while the races haven’t been spectacular, the crashes often have been.
Sunday, Landon Cassill hit the SAFER barrier so hard the roof of his car was bent. An incident between Brad Keselowski and Erik Jones was frightening to watch, with Keselowski’s car plowing into a tire barrier protecting a portion if the track’s road course, coming to rest with two wheels on top of the tires and a tarp wrapped around the No. 2 car. Keselowski walked away, as did Jones and Cassill. Several years ago, Jimmie Johnson had a mechanical failure and hit the wall so hard he still doesn’t remember driving to his pit stall afterwards. The crashes might not be the big ones of Daytona or Talladega, but they can be every bit as frightening.
Perhaps it’s time to close this chapter in NASCAR and take the race to a track that favors stock cars and produces exciting racing with less-scary wrecks.
Where…were the other key players at the end?
Defending race winner Keselowski looked like he’d be a factor in the outcome as he raced for a repeat win. The Team Penske cars were all fast and Keselowski was battling the leaders when he and Jones were swept up in a hard crash. The damage was irreparable, and Keselowski had to settle for 38th place.
All-time active track winner Johnson had a fast car on Sunday. A pit road incident where Austin Dillon got into Chase Elliott and where Elliott and Wallace nearly hit Johnson’s crew, which led to a tire not being secure, sent him to the back of the leaders. Johnson charged through the field, eventually scoring points in each of the first two stages and leading a handful of laps. He made a bold move to gain position late in stage two, but his day would end when teammate William Byron was unintentionally squeezed into Johnson by Kurt Busch as the three raced three-wide for position, triggering an eight-car incident that ended Johnson’s day and playoff hopes.
Regular season champion Kyle Busch won the Xfinity Series race at IMS on Saturday, but Sunday would not be a repeat performance. Busch qualified well, starting seventh, and finished the first stage in seventh as well. His car wasn’t where he wanted it to start the day, but the No. 18 team made some gains. It was for naught, though, as Busch’s engine detonated after just 87 laps, a rare failure for the Joe Gibbs Racing driver. Regardless, Busch enters the playoffs with a substantial lead, and with the regular season already sewn up, he could afford the mulligan.
Indiana native Ryan Newman entered the weekend just outside the playoff picture, tied with Daniel Suarez for 16th in points but out on the best finish tiebreaker. Newman drove a solid, relatively drama-free race, avoiding trouble, and that led to an eight-place finish. That was good enough to knock Suarez out of the top 16 and put Newman into the playoffs for the eighth time.
When…was the moment of truth?
It’s not a good look for NASCAR when the outcome of the race is affected by a bunch of crashes. It happens frequently at superspeedways, where the cars frequently run close enough together that one spin results in a dozen or more cars in a smoking heap in the infield.
At a track like IMS, cars frequently get strung out quickly and while that doesn’t mean there won’t be crashes (see above), it often does mean they don’t collect more than a car or two. Sunday’s eight-car mess was a big one by Indy standards.
It’s hard to say whether anybody could have had anything for Harvick, whose performance was dominant and deserving of the win. But the carnage did leave something on the table. Keselowski was strong early, and his teammate finished second. Jones was fast, too, and coming off the win last week had momentum. Johnson had both speed and motivation, maybe more of the latter than any other driver. Kurt Busch had speed, as did his teammate Kyle Larson, who might have had the best chance of ousting Harvick from the top spot late.
It’s not uncommon to be able to point to an incident after a race and wonder if someone had not made a mistake whether the outcome would be different, but in the race that determines both who’s in the playoffs and who enters with momentum, even if that in itself is a bit of an illusion, it’s not the outcome anyone wants to see.
Why…should you be paying attention this week?
In a nutshell: playoffs. Whether you think the system injects excitement or cheapens the champ, it’s that time of year, and it all kicks off at Las Vegas Sunday night (whether or not a Sunday night race on a non-holiday weekend and against Sunday Night Football is a horrible idea or merely a bad one is a debate in itself). The first round features Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Richmond Raceway, and the Charlotte Motor Speedway road course, after which just 12 drivers will be left. Drivers won’t win the title in the first round, but they sure can lose it. Look for the contenders to play a different game than the rest, and the rest to delight in trying to take a win away from them.
How…big a deal is Johnson missing the playoffs, really?
Would we be having this conversation if Cliff Daniels had been the pick to lead the No. 48 team last winter? Since Daniels became crew chief, the finishes have been far from indicative of the team’s speed, something which was sorely lacking early in the season, along with communication. Since Daniels took over, the team’s luck has been absolutely terrible, but the speed has been there, and Johnson has shown that rumors of him losing a step or two have been greatly exaggerated, as he’s raced as aggressively as ever in the last few weeks.
Is it a big deal, though?
In the context of this season, no. The reality of the situation is Johnson was fighting for 16th place. There’s a reason for that, whether the team has shown improvement or not. It’s not likely that Newman, who ultimately did take the last spot, will advance past the first round. If he or Johnson had been that good, they wouldn’t have been fighting for 16th after 26 races.
But in the context of the sport’s history, it is. Johnson was the last man standing who could boast of making the cut every year since 2004. In the playoff era, only Johnson has more than one title. He’s the best of his era, and while that era is coming to its end (the sun sets on every career in its time), his accomplishments are legendary, with a win total that stands the test of any era of the sport, even with the titles coming in the playoff era. Johnson has represented the sport throughout with class, and he’s one of only a handful of connections to NASCAR’s boom time, when we all thought the ride would last forever and now, a reminder that it never could have.