The Headline(s): Capitalizing on a “trimmed out” car that Stewart-Haas Racing has been storing since the spring, Kevin Harvick turned a pole-winning run into a race-winning performance at Texas Motor Speedway. He led 119 laps en route to scoring his fourth win of 2019, 49th career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series triumph and 110th career NASCAR national series victory.
— Stewart-Haas Racing (@StewartHaasRcng) November 4, 2019
Sunday’s race was a calamity for a number of playoff drivers. Both Chase Elliott and Denny Hamlin limped through much of the event with crash damage, while Kyle Larson never recovered from being trapped by a caution that flew in the midst of a green flag pit cycle.
How It Happened: Though Erik Jones led the first lap on the high side, pole sitter Harvick held the point until the first caution flew only nine laps into the event. Ironically, it was for the No. 9 car, as Elliott made a self-induced mistake trying to race on the high side of turns 1 and 2, losing control and backing into the wall. The race went back to green on lap 13, only to fall back under yellow on lap 15 when a track sign on the catchfence entering turn 3 fell and disintegrated on the racing surface.
Opting for the high side on the lap 20 restart, Harvick got a jump and drove away with the race lead. By lap 30, Logano narrowly averted disaster with a big save in turn 4 as SHR ran 1-2-3 up front. That running order held until lap 43, when Corey LaJoie brought out the yellow in turn 4 for an incident similar to Elliott’s. Harvick and most of the leaders pit under this yellow, handing the race lead for the lap 48 restart to Jones and Clint Bowyer. Their battle for the lead was short-lived, as the caution flew again on lap 54 for an ugly synchronized spin involving Brad Keselowski and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr..
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) November 3, 2019
The stage would be further marred by two more incidents on track. LaJoie killed what was left of his damaged car on lap 72 with a spin in turn 3, while lap 81 saw disaster strike Hamlin and the No. 11 team. Hamlin, who was racing hard for position with Bowman, had a moment in turn 3 that saw his car veer into the slippery PJ1 strip in turn 4, which triggered a spin across the infield grass that damaged the front splitter on his Toyota. By the time that cleanup was finished, a one-lap sprint to the end of the stage saw Harvick best teammate Bowyer for the stage win.
After an extended stage break for fluid cleanup on the backstretch, Bowman held the lead from lap 96 to 100, when out of nowhere Jimmie Johnson took the top spot. Johnson held the point for the next 39 laps until Almirola utilized lap traffic on the backstretch to take the lead on lap 139. The leaders would hit pit road for green flag stops over the following 10 laps. When Kyle Busch finally pit on lap 164 for fuel, the lead cycled back to Almirola, who won a caution-free second stage.
The final stage opened like the first, with shades of yellow. Johnson’s resurgence ended up being short-lived, as the No. 48 spun and hit the wall while running fourth on lap 187.
Jimmie Johnson came SO CLOSE to saving this thing!
— NASCAR on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) November 3, 2019
Immediately after the restart on lap 191, the caution flew again when Garrett Smithley got loose in turn 2 and corrected right into David Ragan, putting both cars into the turn 2 wall. The lap 197 restart would finally yield a green flag run, with Almirola taking the lead from Suarez on lap 202 and pulling away. Green flag pit stops began on lap 239 when Larson pit from the top 10, but a caution flag threw that cycle into chaos on lap 243 when Bubba Wallace spun (twice) in turn 2 with a flat tire (more on that later).
Almirola, who narrowly avoided being trapped a lap down under that yellow, led the field back to green on lap 249, but yielded the point to Harvick on lap 255. Surviving a final cycle of green flag pit stops that went caution free, Harvick cruised to the win over Almirola.
Drivers Who Accomplished Something
Stewart-Haas Racing has taken a page out of Richard Childress Racing’s early-season playbook by relying on “trimmed-out” race cars through the playoff stretch. The only difference is the speed they’re finding is lasting an entire race. Harvick, Almirola and Suarez were all top five fixtures in all three stages Sunday, and the worst finishing car in the stable was Bowyer in 11th. Combined, the SHR stable led 242 of the 334 laps run, and moved their one playoff car from below the cutline into the Championship 4 at Homestead. Mission accomplished on a weekend that also saw the team’s namesake owner inducted into the Texas Motorsports Hall of Fame.
Team Penske’s playoff drivers were not in the same league with their Mustangs as SHR’s were, but their drivers got results nonetheless. Logano’s fourth-place finish avoided any incidents on track and marked the first top-five result for the No. 22 team since the Brickyard. Ryan Blaney’s was even more notable, as he spent the first half of the event profanely frustrated over everything from his car’s handling to lapped traffic (yes, including Ryan Newman). Despite all those handling woes, Blaney exhaustively battled with Bowman and the rest of the top 10 to finish eighth.
Speaking of Bowman, his fifth-place finish was notable both for its consistency and that it was the first top five for the No. 88 team on a mile-and-a-half since their win at Chicagoland in June.
Lastly, John Hunter Nemechek had a quiet 21st-place finish in his Cup debut with Front Row Motorsports, tops among the three FRM cars and the best finish for the No. 36 team on a mile-and-a-half since the 600 in May. Most importantly for Nemechek, whose future is in doubt with the GMS Racing Xfinity Series program likely folding after this season, he did well to establish himself as a capable Cup sub.
Drivers Who Accomplished Nothing
The slippery PJ1 strip proved a hazard to some of NASCAR’s top talents, be they in the playoffs or not. Both Keselowski and Johnson were running in or around the top 10 when they got out of the groove and went spinning, in both instances doing enough damage to their cars to be forced to park for the rest of the event. Johnson’s 34th-place finish was his third result outside the top 30 in the last four races, while Keselowski’s 39th-place finish was a career-worst at Texas.
The same goes for both Elliott and Hamlin. Elliott, who immediately apologized to his team for trying something outside the racing groove that took the No. 9 out of contention less than 10 laps into the race, ruined any chance the Hendrick Motorsports flagship had of winning at Texas and now finds himself in a must-win heading to Phoenix, a track HMS hasn’t won at since 2015. As for Hamlin, his completely self-induced spin on lap 81 all but erased any chance the No. 11 had at points racing in the desert. The 20-point gap in the standings between fourth and fifth means that Hamlin will be racing three other playoff contenders that also must win next weekend.
The lap 191 wreck between Smithley and Ragan marked the third playoff race of 2019 in which Smithley has been the epicenter of a major incident (he incurred the wrath of Rowdy for impeding lead-lap cars at Las Vegas and merged into oncoming traffic in the Xfinity race at Kansas, causing a wreck that collected playoff drivers Christopher Bell and Chase Briscoe). Though this wreck didn’t involve playoff drivers, Smithley has certainly been more of a “dart without feathers” than Ragan was as a rookie in 2006, and NASCAR revoked Ragan’s license for a one-race issue at Martinsville. Smithley’s sample size is much larger.
Ryan Preece was running 12th in the latter stages of the event before being forced to pit with a flat tire inside of 70 laps to go. Preece’s eventual 23rd-place finish snapped a four-race top-20 streak for JTG’s No. 47 car.
Larson’s 11th-place finish was not representative of how well the No. 42 car ran Sunday, but he was never able to make it through lapped traffic after being caught a lap down when Wallace intentionally brought out the yellow flag for a flat tire on lap 243. A victim, yes, but Larson still didn’t get what the No. 42 team needed Sunday.
Now, as for Wallace. Yes, Logano did the same thing last weekend, but there’s several factors here that make this incident worse. For one, Wallace pulled his stunt in the middle of green flag pit stops, ultimately changing the course of the event for a playoff driver in Larson. Second, the man spun out, failed to draw a yellow… and then chose to do it a second time:
I am belly laughing. I love that Bubba Wallace spun himself out to get NASCAR to throw a caution. pic.twitter.com/2YoIEL0oyS
— Nick Bromberg (@NickBromberg) November 3, 2019
Frontstretch alum Nick Bromberg said it all.
Insights, Opinions and Fake News – Inside the Playoffs
Thankfully, unlike with the ROVAL, Kansas or Martinsville, officiating did not get in the way of Sunday’s race, which was decided with a long green flag run. Having said that, Sunday was more of the same when it comes to NASCAR officiating inconsistencies and stupidities, and they impacted playoff drivers in no small way.
Carrying on from the Wallace caution that cost Larson a top-10 finish.
Took a page from Logano's playbook. https://t.co/gQHKUKr74B
— JJ (@TomcatNASCAR_2) November 3, 2019
This marks consecutive races being stopped by drivers that deliberately created obstructive situations on track instead of taking their medicine when faced with flat tires. And NASCAR and their trigger-happy yellow flags are entirely responsible. When you create an expectation that a spin or anything minor is a yellow, drivers are going to exploit it. Funny how a Chevrolet backmarker’s tantrum may well cost the Bowtie Brigade a spot in the final four.
Let’s also take a look at the latest in asinine tire penalties that could have derailed Harvick’s bid for victory.
Let’s add “having a tire in the pit stall" to the list of penalties NASCAR should get rid of going into 2020. pic.twitter.com/fBmqChCjc6
— Nick Bromberg (@NickBromberg) November 3, 2019
Though some very thorough reporting by the ever-knowledgeable Bob Pockrass sorted out NASCAR’s rationale for this penalty, file this one under the latest in “why do we have this rule?” The tires that led to this penalty were never out of control and never impeded anyone on pit road. Not only did calling this penalty do nothing to improve pit road safety, but it removes yet another strategy tool from the pit box, with no more deceiving teams on pit road as to what a car will be doing. The way they’re officiating pit road, might as well just get rid of pit stops in Cup racing, too.
The storyline coming out of Hamlin’s spin on lap 81 was just as much about the track layout at Texas Motor Speedway as it was a contender making a self-induced mistake at a track he won the spring race at. Namely, questioning why the infield still had grass instead of astroturf.
— Chase Briscoe (@ChaseBriscoe_14) November 3, 2019
I’ve already tackled this subject in Thinkin’ earlier this season, so read the archives if you need a refresher. What bothered me even more this Sunday was that NBC commentator Jeff Burton was leading the charge for turf, proclaiming there was no reason not to fix this issue in the immediate aftermath of Hamlin’s wreck. That’s problematic, considering the company that put the artificial turf down on the infield at Charlotte Motor Speedway also happens to be a sponsor of Jeff’s son, Harrison Burton.
— Sports Fields Inc. (@Sports_Fields) October 9, 2019
NBC’s commentary is flawed enough without blatant conflicts of interest surfacing. Rather than having a meaningful discussion about getting rid of splitters and valence, fans instead get to hear a father pitching products as a magic bullet within two weeks of his son announcing a full-time Xfinity Series ride for 2020. This appears as brazen a conflict of interest in the booth since Phil Parsons was running a start-and-park fleet across NASCAR’s top two series.
Insights, Opinions and Fake News – Outside the Playoffs
NBC’s focus on Suarez this weekend was understandable. His future in Cup is the subject of rampant speculation, be it staying at SHR or moving to FRM. His third place finish in the spring race at Texas was his best of 2019. And Texas is as close to a home race as the Mexican native has on the Cup slate. Suarez did that focus justice with a strong top-five showing this Sunday.
Having said that, there was NO justification for NBC airing what was essentially an infomercial for Suarez’s fan club during green flag competition… especially when there four yellow flags in the first 70 laps of the race before it was aired… and a stage break 15 laps later. Coupled with the fact that Suarez’s “amigos” were a crowd dwarfed in size in the stands by a bunch of Baylor University students Rutledge Wood found for Saturday’s Xfinity race, this reeked of a puff piece being shoved down viewers’ throats. The viewers and Suarez deserve better.
Mr. Pockrass had an interesting note about the ongoing owner point battle in Cup racing.
The Buescher team entered today 27 points ahead of Stenhouse for 20th in owner points. Organizations that finish in top-20 in owner points are put in the Goodyear tire test rotation the next year. So this could be big for JTG (Preece/Stenhouse next yr) to get those tire tests.
— Bob Pockrass (@bobpockrass) November 3, 2019
To the best of my knowledge, this isn’t a recent development, but there’s something very wrong about limiting tire tests, which already provide a non-objective advantage to their participants, to cars in the top of the standings. While there’s no doubt that testing Goodyears on Rick Ware Racing entries may not be the soundest approach to building a Cup tire, there are plenty of cars outside the top 20 that run competitively enough to test the Goodyears the series races on. This is an arcane practice that sorely needs an update.
The Lone Star State isn’t typically considered Southern (it’s considered Texas), but that didn’t stop pearl-clutching from coming to Fort Worth. During driver intros, the “Big Hoss” jumbotron had some roast-worthy remarks for a number of the Cup drivers. Most notable came for Hemric, with the screen stating “wishes last name was Dillon.” That led NASCAR’s most popular driver (yes, he did race in 2019) to take a stand:
What can you compare it to? It’s pretty damn silly to roast the drivers right before they are going out to race/put on a show/risk their lives. Awful. Ignorant. All those things.
— Dale Earnhardt Jr. (@DaleJr) November 3, 2019
The faux outrage here is laughable on two fronts. One, it was less than a decade ago when Dale Jr.’s protege Keselowski called Kyle Busch “an ass” during driver intros at Bristol, and was lauded for it. And second, why fault anyone, be it a driver or a scoreboard, for stating the truth? Because if Hemric’s last name was Dillon, he’d still be racing an RCR Cup car next season.
The world’s center of motorsport was truly in Texas this Sunday, with the Cup cars on track at the same time Formula 1 tackled the Circuit of the Americas in Austin. And, as expected, the crowd at COTA dwarfed what was present at Texas Motor Speedway. That’s hardly surprising; NASCAR fans have 38 weekends of Cup racing to pick to attend while F1 fans have one (not to mention that, as expected, Lewis Hamilton clinched yet another world championship in Austin). Besides, the two are hardly comparable. F1 is an international sport; NASCAR isn’t. If there’s anything to be taken as a lesson learned from this latest weekend, it’s that less is more. F1 races 21 weekends in 21 different places, and the result? Events that are of greater significance. Either get the Cup schedule to 36 different venues, or time to thin the herd. I hear Texas has two dates….
Best Paint Scheme: Bowman. Ben Rhodes’ Havoline scheme that he’s run the last part of the Truck Series’ calendar is arguably the best paint scheme of the season. Bowman’s Valvoline scheme struck all the same chords:
The No. 88 Valvoline Chevrolet in all her glory. Follow along with us in Texas this weekend and be sure to check out @alexbowman88 taking over our Instagram Stories. 👊 pic.twitter.com/nOZ7s2BK7n
— Valvoline (@Valvoline) November 1, 2019
The Heavyweight Title Belt for Hypocrisy: Tony Stewart. Listening to him commentate on the Hamlin/Logano scuffle was laughable because a) he’s done the same thing at countless sprint car tracks across the country and b) going to the video replay, he’s used the same slapping motion Logano was chastised for himself:
Robby Gordon: “Hold my Beer” pic.twitter.com/NRLbuihmLP
— 𝘚𝘵𝘦𝘷𝘦 𝘊𝘢𝘳𝘯𝘦𝘴 🇺🇸🏁 (@racechaser1one) November 2, 2019
Freudian Slip of the Race: She. Is. Retired.
— Rodney Rodriguez (@therodneyr) November 3, 2019
Where it Rated: This trip to Texas featured six-shooters, but loaded with .38 specials instead of .357 magnums. There was some good racing in the second half of the event and we finally got a clean finish that didn’t involve a made-for-TV officiating decision, a wreck-filled first stage and Wallace’s antics robbed a lot from this 500-miler.
What’s the Point(s): By winning the AAA Texas 500, Harvick has locked himself into the Championship 4 at Homestead. Leaving Fort Worth, Harvick, Martin Truex, Jr., Kyle Busch and Logano would be racing for the Cup. Logano currently holds a 20-point lead over Hamlin for the final spot in the top four.
Dust Off the VCR: The Round of 8 concludes this Sunday at ISM Raceway. Coverage from the Arizona desert begins at 2:30 p.m. ET on NBC.