Who… should you be talking about after the race?
A week ago, Kevin Harvick wasn’t a big factor in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship conversation. He was below the cutline after Martinsville and hadn’t shown the strength of a year ago very often in the 2019 playoffs.
But that all changed Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway. Harvick led 119 laps on his way to his fourth win of the year, earning an automatic spot in the Championship 4. It was also perhaps the strongest day Stewart-Haas Racing has enjoyed this year, with Harvick, Aric Almirola and Daniel Suarez securing the top three finishing spots. All four SHR drivers, including Clint Bowyer, who finished 11th, led double-digit laps. Have they come into their own at just the right time?
The top non-playoff finisher this week was Almirola, who also ran an outstanding race, winning the second stage and leading four times for a total of 62 laps. Harvick had the faster car when it really mattered, but Almirola led the most laps he has all year long and posted his best finish of 2019 as well.
What… is the takeaway from this race?
There was a lot to be learned from Texas. Traction compound doesn’t always provide traction as advertised. When the track isn’t prepared right, it doesn’t matter how good you are or how expensive your equipment is. Most of the cars involved in incidents involving the compound were top-funded cars with some of the best drivers in the sport in them. More on that in a minute.
A good driver in a fast car is a threat, at least until he isn’t. Jimmie Johnson put together his best run of the season Sunday before a crash ended his day, using both speed and strategy to get to the front after starting 23rd—vintage Johnson. That might be worth keeping an eye on over the next couple of weeks and into 2020.
Meanwhile, the race was fairly predictable. That continues to be the heart of NASCAR’s struggle. Fans love racing, but if they feel like they know the outcome, or at least one of only a few outcomes every week, they might start looking to other forms of racing for entertainment. By comparison, many local tracks are thriving. In NASCAR, there needs to be the feeling that anything can happen on any given Sunday, and that’s not where we are right now.
Where… were the other key players at the end?
Spring Texas winner Denny Hamlin was just one driver who struggled with the PJ1 compound this week, spinning on lap 82. Hamlin didn’t hit the wall, but tore through the infield grass, damaging his car’s splitter and relegating him to 28th place. That leaves him on the outside looking in on the Championship 4 with just one race to go to set that field for 2019.
All-time Texas win leader Johnson had a car that he could race with, leading laps, but for the second week in a row, he left with nothing to show for it. This week, Johnson was running a strong third when the No. 48 stepped out on him, and the team was unable to make repairs to get the car to minimum speed. That left Johnson with a 34th-place finish. He’s been short on speed most of the year, but recently it’s been luck the seven-time champion needs to find.
Last week’s winner Martin Truex Jr. has never been as strong at Texas as he has at the other 1.5-mile tracks, which have been his bread and butter in recent years. By that standard, Sunday was an average day for Truex, who finished sixth, but was never a factor for a win. He entered the day with no pressure, though, because a win last week at Martinsville Speedway already sealed the deal for a title run at Homestead. Expect him to still be a major factor in the finale.
When… was the moment of truth?
Does the use of traction compound need to be addressed? It’s been used several times this year to help dial in a second groove at various tracks, with mixed results. Sunday, it was in the spotlight for a rash of early spins.
The compound holds onto tire debris and other trash, and until the upper groove wore in, it was not a good place to run. It claimed several drivers, among them Brad Keselowski and title contenders Chase Elliott and Hamlin.
While ultimately it’s on the drivers to keep their cars out of the tire marbles, here’s the thing: it’s not the use of the traction compound that’s the problem so much as the need for it. More grip should be coming from the cars, period. Drivers have got to be able to race side by side without having to back out or spin from aerodynamic forces, and they should be able to do it without anything on the track. The goal with the Gen-7 car we’re going to be seeing in just over a year should be to make this conversation completely obsolete.
Why… should you be paying attention this week?
Yes, we talk about this every week lately, but this race put a bit of a twist on the playoffs. With Harvick winning, it created a shakeup at the top of the point chart, with Harvick the big winner and Hamlin on the losing side as he slipped below the cutline. It also put Elliott in a corner that will be hard to fight his way out of and put a little more punctuation on Kyle Busch’s struggles. He had a solid day but extended his win drought to 20 races with a seventh-place run.
If the top four remains the same after Phoenix next week, it will also set up the exact same title race as a year ago. That’s not a bad thing if it’s putting the four best candidates in the ring, but whether a repeat is compelling for fans is another question.
Lost in the playoff shuffle is that the title fight would be plenty compelling without it. The top four (the same top four, incidentally), without a postseason scenario, would be separated by 21 points. While it’s likely that everyone would run differently without the current format, it does point out that the playoffs, at least this year, put the best four drivers on the table.
But it does also make you wonder if it’s all necessary.
How… much more Silly Season will we see?
For a while, it looked like this year’s Silly Season might be a wild one, but things have settled down lately. Kurt Busch erased any doubt about his future and the No. 1 car when he announced a multi-year extension this weekend. Bowyer also chose to stay put at SHR.
Most of the top Xfinity Series drivers either have new Cup rides next year or have committed to running for a title in that division. So there’s limited movement there.
In the back end of the Cup garage, Go FAS Racing inked a technical deal with Stewart-Haas Racing, but has not said whether or not Corey LaJoie will return. Front Row Motorsports has said they will hold Matt Tifft’s seat for him if he’s able to race next year.
SHR says they are working on a contract with Suarez. That means the only seat that’s for sure open with no driver announced is the No. 38 for FRM. It could be a landing spot for Daniel Hemric, but nothing is concrete.
In general, it looks like NASCAR Silly Season is about over and will be quiet once that driver is signed.