The Headline(s): A series of hard wrecks and hair-raising restarts made Sunday (Sept. 8) one of the wilder Brickyard 400s in recent memory. One of them involved Jimmie Johnson, whose spin in front of nearly the whole field ended his 15-year streak of NASCAR postseason appearances. Clint Bowyer and Ryan Newman were then able to edge Daniel Suarez for the final two playoff spots.
In between, there were pit road wrecks, Brad Keselowski went nearly upside down into a tire barrier and there was generally more action back in the pack than we see for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
That’s because while all that mischief was going on behind him, Kevin Harvick cakewalked to his second career IMS victory. All day, the outcome was almost never in doubt for a pole sitter who led 118 of 160 laps. Could you imagine what perception might have been like if the race wasn’t the regular season finale with playoff implications?
How It Happened:
Harvick won the pole. He earned the track position. And he never gave it away. Aside from one restart when Ryan Blaney got the best of him, the No. 4 Ford was in control up front from the opening bell. The first stage was all Harvick at the start, leading 41 of the first 42 laps and only giving up the ghost for green-flag pit stops.
Some of his contenders found themselves wiped out early. The day’s first caution, on lap 12, caused a flurry of action as the entire field dove down pit road. Chase Elliott got spun out in the chaos, causing a pileup which wounded Martin Truex Jr., Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and others. The yellow flag itself was controversial after Suarez scraped the wall and kept going. NASCAR claimed there was fluid on the racetrack, but his No. 41 remained competitive the rest of the day.
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) September 8, 2019
The second caution, for a hard wreck involving Landon Cassill, gave crew chiefs a chance to use pit strategy. Joey Logano and Newman chose to stay out, hoping track position and the laps winding down would pay off with playoff and stage points, respectively. That’s what happened for Logano when a hard wreck involving teammate Brad Keselowski and Erik Jones put a premature end to stage one.
— NASCAR on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) September 8, 2019
Harvick reassumed the lead, though once Logano pit and made stage two his personal playground. He held a consistent lead in clean air, fending off a hard-charging Kyle Larson and Blaney to cruise to a stage two victory. Late yellow flags, first for Kyle Busch’s blown engine and then debris on the racetrack, cut out any chance others had to catch Harvick.
The stage two cautions also put a damper in Johnson’s hopes to close the gap in the playoff race. The quartet of himself, Bowyer, Suarez and Newman scored roughly the same amount of bonus points the first 100 laps meaning it was win-or-bust for Johnson entering the final stage. That pressure likely caused some aggression on the restart, his car making contact with William Byron to incite a multi-car wreck. That ended his day, along with Daniel Hemric and Parker Kligerman, cutting the playoff bubble down to three for two spots.
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) September 8, 2019
Harvick then got bit by Blaney on the restart, losing the lead and clean air. Blaney built about a one-second advantage until a wreck by Larson bunched the field once again. Harvick, Logano and others would have another chance to inch ahead.
They wouldn’t waste it. Harvick burst in front, taking the lead on the restart and holding it the final 30 laps. He survived two other cautions for one-car crashes (Alex Bowman, Matt Tifft) and flexed his muscle as the laps wound down. In just nine green-flag laps at the finish, he built a 6.118-second margin of victory over Logano, earning his first Brickyard trophy since driving for Richard Childress Racing in 2003.
Why You Should Care: Johnson’s playoff streak, love him or hate him, is one of the sport’s most impressive achievements.
– 15 years
– 7 championships
– Won title in each version of the format
– 29 of 83 wins in the postseason
— Tom Bowles From Frontstretch.com (@NASCARBowles) September 8, 2019
We’ll likely never see a driver pull off that type of postseason consistency and championship total again in our lifetimes. Sure, Johnson entered the race an underdog, and NBC’s coverage bordered on overkill. But if you buy into the playoff system, in any way, it’s a big deal.
The new package seemed to help the racing at Indy… back in the pack. Up front, it was the same old story as clean air and track position trumped all. Whenever every driver uses the words “tough,” “difficult” or “hard” in modern-day NASCAR when describing how to pass that’s never a good thing for the fan base.
It’s important considering this package was supposed to be a perfect remedy for places like Indy. This track needed a historic, photo finish with A-plus action in order to stop the bleeding. Instead, while the competition was better the chances of NASCAR returning here beyond 2020 appear somewhat reduced.
Drivers Who Accomplished Something
Harvick. The Athletic’s Jeff Gluck said it best and succinctly when looking at what’s happened for Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers the past two months.
Kevin Harvick went 0-for-19 to start the season. Since then, with Brickyard win, he’s 3-for-7.
— Jeff Gluck (@jeff_gluck) September 8, 2019
The rest of SHR appears a bit of a mess; two teammates squeaked in the postseason while a third wound up the first man out. But Harvick has risen above the fray during a down year at that organization and appears the only one capable of challenging both the Joe Gibbs Racing group and Team Penske’s top twosome for a spot in the Championship 4.
Bubba Wallace. Let’s be blunt: this year’s been a nightmare for Wallace and Richard Petty Motorsports. 25 races brought not a single top-10 finish; a 14th at Bristol Motor Speedway in August was his season-best heading into Indy. RCR chassis, in general, have been a debacle and one of the biggest disappointments of 2019. Not a single driver running them made the playoffs or even finished the regular season inside the top 20 in points.
That made Sunday’s race all the more impressive. At a track where aerodynamics, horsepower and experience are paramount Wallace had arguably the best drive of his NASCAR career. As a bevy of contenders wiped themselves out in the final stage, he sensed an opportunity and maximized track position on restarts. Wallace got aggressive and mixed it up with best friend Blaney, Logano and other drivers he’s been laps behind for most of the year. Sunday’s third-place result was his best outside of the 2018 Daytona 500, just his sixth lead-lap finish of the year and gave a sliver of hope to RPM they can turn things around.
Bet The King is pretty happy rn 🤩 pic.twitter.com/Iry7sHMyXf
— Darlington Raceway (@TooToughToTame) September 8, 2019
Bowyer. More should be expected of this veteran than a fifth-place finish that squeaked him into the playoffs. But give him credit; this 40-year-old had his back against the wall and responded with a seventh, sixth and fifth to close out the regular season. Who knows what would have happened had Bowyer crashed and burned? Cole Custer has certainly made it tough to leave him buried down in the NASCAR Xfinity Series for much longer.
Now, the No. 14 team gets a new lease on life and they enter the postseason with momentum. Simply making the round of 12 would be an achievement for someone whose future seemed murky little more than a month ago.
Newman. I just don’t think you can give enough credit to this guy for what he’s done at Roush Fenway Racing. Keep in mind he took over a No. 6 team that hadn’t even sniffed the postseason under Trevor Bayne. The focus and energy at RFR appeared to surround Stenhouse as the year began. Newman, coming off two postseason misses the past three years, seemed a longshot to do much of anything.
Instead? He earned nine top-10 finishes in 26 races, connected well with crew chief Scott Graves and gave his team a chance to do something special. The speed might not be there yet for that type of run, but remember, this guy pointed his way to a second-place finish in 2014. Anything’s possible.
Byron. Did you see who finished fourth? Completely overlooked Sunday was the best run of this sophomore’s Cup career outside of a bizarre second-place finish at Daytona this summer. Sure, Johnson might be mad over the final stage contact but it’s not Byron’s job to move over. Crew chief Chad Knaus gets an honorable mention, officially winning year one post-divorce as his 21-year-old protégé continues to climb the ranks of the Cup Series.
Drivers Who Accomplished Nothing
Johnson. He says he’s focused on momentum now and getting back to victory lane. A win over the final 10 races would heal some wounds. But the No. 48 has clearly had a spark since the crew chief change to Cliff Daniels in August. You could even make a case, bad luck aside it’s the fastest Hendrick Motorsports car right now. I’m not saying he was destined for Homestead-Miami Speedway but once you make it? All bets are off when you’re talking a seven-time series champion.
Now, there may only be one chance left to get championship number eight after this debacle. Johnson made a point to talk about how important the team around him is this weekend; he said it’s one of the biggest lessons he’s learned the last couple of years. You wonder if he, Hendrick and others are privately kicking themselves for not making the switch to Daniel sooner.
Blaney. Sure, it was a seventh-place finish in the end. But one of the year’s big disappointments squandered a prime opportunity to win one of NASCAR’s crown jewel events. Keep in mind since his June 2017 Pocono victory, Blaney’s won just once, at the Charlotte ROVAL last fall, when Johnson and Truex parted the seas in front of him.
Now, Blaney enters the playoffs with the most laps led this season of any driver yet to visit victory lane (384). Teammates Keselowski and Logano are running circles around him; neither one had this type of protracted slump after joining Penske. When will Blaney start producing?
Suarez. Three straight years, Suarez has ended the regular season between 17th and 20th in the standings. It’s just a notch better than mediocre, just nowhere near good enough considering he was the 2016 Xfinity Series champion. A down year overall at SHR should buy him more time but he’s not a rookie anymore. The job needs to get done.
Some bad luck near the end (a caution hit just after Suarez made a green-flag stop during the final stage) didn’t help matters much at Indy. Yet you got the sense this team was off balance all day, reeling from the early wall contact and collecting the fewest stage points (five) of the bubble contenders. Fifth, eighth, 11th and 11th opened the door just enough in the final four races for Newman to claw back by him.
Insights, Opinions and Fake News
It’s impossible to judge crowd size by the naked eye. More than 250,000 seats makes it tough to produce an accurate number of race fans at Indy; even 70,000 tickets sold would look empty as it’s 28% of overall capacity. That said, the perception some of the crowd shots gave was simply awful.
Nice crowd Indy. Yikes. pic.twitter.com/KWniIIGXrB
— Billy Howell (@CoachBilly1) September 8, 2019
— Anthony Kernich (@AntJKernich) August 31, 2019
As I explained earlier in the week, you can’t blame the weather and you can’t fault the storylines. Indy needed to change the narrative surrounding its stock car event and I don’t think Sunday moved the needle enough to do that. Add in an Independence Day date next year, thrown in between two races in the same region (Chicagoland, Kentucky) and I fear the writing is on the wall.
Race fans sick of the poor racing at Indy can’t see the forest through the trees anymore. There’s still a type of national respect for NASCAR that gets lost the second Indy gets dropped from the schedule. You don’t stop the negative buzz about a dying sport by disconnecting yourself from the most recognized racetrack in America. But at this point, the writing is on the wall….
Track safety was front and center at Indy after that hard wreck between Jones and Keselowski left the No. 2 Ford sitting sideways on a tire barrier. Keselowski was none too happy, claiming “There’s this spot on the wall with just an atrocious angle. I don’t know what that spot is but it doesn’t need to be there.” Reports had Keselowski chatting with track president Tony George about improvements with potential movement on changes happening as early as next week.
Tony Stewart was asked on SiriusXM Radio whether Harvick made any mistakes all weekend. “Everything but pick the right lane on one restart,” was Stewart’s answer. I’d agree with that. What a dominant performance across the board.
Best Paint Scheme: Harvick. The Mobil 1 scheme was sleek, silvery and stylish, blowing away the competition both on and off the racetrack.
— NASCAR on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) September 8, 2019
Indy’s Good Samaritan Award: Austin Dillon. Did anyone else see Dillon randomly pull over to let Suarez pass in the closing laps? What??? That’s like a baseball team up five runs in the World Series gifting the other team two more just to make it interesting. It made no sense.
How It Rated: For Indy? Easily an 8.5 out of 10. But in the grand scheme of things, it was more like a 7.5.
What’s the Point(s): The 16-driver postseason field is now set in stone. Regular season champion Kyle Busch opens as the top seed with a series-high 45 bonus points.
Denny Hamlin sits second, 15 points behind. The rest of the drivers (with points behind Busch) are listed below.
Martin Truex Jr. -16
Kevin Harvick -17
Joey Logano -17
Brad Keselowski -21
Chase Elliott -27
Kurt Busch -34
Alex Bowman -40
Erik Jones -40
Kyle Larson -40
Ryan Blaney -41
William Byron -44
Aric Almirola -44
Clint Bowyer -45
Ryan Newman -45
Suarez wound up missing by four points over Newman.
Up Next: The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads out to Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the first race of their 2019 postseason. Keselowski is the defending champ of a South Point 400 race that can be seen on NBCSN Sunday, Sept. 15 at 7 p.m. ET.
Bryan Keith was off this week. He’ll return to the column next Monday.