The Headline(s): Denny Hamlin shook off years of shortcomings in playoff races, dominating Sunday’s (Nov. 10) Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series event and capitalizing on a two-tire stop to maintain track position after a late-race yellow to win the 500-kilometer parade in Avondale, Ariz.
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) November 10, 2019
Hamlin’s victory was his sixth of 2019, 37th career Cup win and 56th career national series triumph. His latest trophy helped Joe Gibbs Racing secure three of the final four berths at Homestead, with Hamlin joining teammates Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch in the field. Kevin Harvick is the lone Ford that will race for a title next weekend while Chevrolet got shut out for a third straight year.
How It Happened
Busch had no trouble pulling out to the lead from the pole. By lap 7, both Hamlin and Chase Elliott had made up positions near the front, but the ensuing 25 laps saw the top 10 remain all but stagnant. Passing proved difficult throughout the field, perhaps best encapsulated by a battle between Kyle Larson and Harvick. Highlighted on NBC’s telecast between laps 64 and 67, eight-time Phoenix winner Harvick proved unable to complete a pass on the No. 42.
That left Busch in control for much of this first stage. But his time up front was interrupted just short of the finish on lap 67 when Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. tagged the turn 4 wall after cutting down a tire.
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) November 10, 2019
Though Hamlin won the race off pit road, it was William Byron and Brad Keselowski who led the field to green on the lap 73 restart after staying out on old tires. The lead was short-lived, however, as Hamlin used the high side of the track to pass Keselowski in the dogleg on lap 74 to secure a stage one win. Joey Logano finished fourth in the stage, maintaining his points lead over Busch.
Hamlin’s car failed to get going on the lap 83 restart, allowing Logano to seize the point. Hamlin dropped back to fourth, but passed Busch on lap 95 before settling into another stagnant single-file running order. It took until lap 146 for Hamlin to catch second-place Elliott. After the two swapped positions a couple times and even made contact, Hamlin finished the pass (partially thanks to a lapped car pick from JJ Yeley) on lap 150. It was just in time but far behind Logano, who won stage two with ease.
The race went back green on lap 160, with Logano holding the lead as Hamlin spun his tires. However, it only took until lap 167 for the race complexion to change. Elliott cut a tire in turn 2, destroying his Chevrolet… and playoff chances in the process.
CAUTION: @chaseelliott goes around and into the wall!
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) November 10, 2019
Though Logano held the lead on the lap 174 restart, Hamlin retook the top spot on lap 177, triggering a catastrophic downward slide for the No. 22. Logano faded to fifth by lap 206 and was later lapped during a long green-flag run. Though a number of drivers cut tires throughout this stretch (including Joe Nemechek, who visibly slowed on the backstretch around lap 239 and limped nearly a full lap to get to pit road), the yellow flag didn’t fly with green flag stops commencing around lap 245. Hamlin reassumed the point after Kurt Busch finally came down pit road, and pulled out to a more than 10-second race lead until lap 303 when the yellow flag flew for John Hunter Nemechek hitting the wall.
With only seven cars left on the lead lap, all the leaders pit. Hamlin’s crew chief Chris Gabehart rolled the dice and changed just two tires to maintain track position. The call paid off, with Hamlin able to use the high side in turn 2 to stay ahead of both Kyle Busch and Ryan Blaney as the pair battled for second down the apron on the lap 310 restart. Busch eventually bested Blaney and rode the rest of the way behind his teammate.
Drivers Who Accomplished Something
Hamlin put a lot of ghosts to bed with Sunday’s win in the desert. He shook off a self-induced mistake at Texas Motor Speedway a week ago, preventing that mistake from destroying a title campaign. Put to bed were the ghosts of 2010, when crew chief Mike Ford called out Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson only to implode down the stretch. Both he and his crew shook off a poor showing at Martinsville Speedway only two weeks ago, avoiding pit road penalties, lost positions on pit road, and even securing the win on a pit strategy call that previously bit the team in a title chase in 2014. Most tellingly, Hamlin obliterated the field during the final stage. Package or not, driving to a 12-second lead at Phoenix while lapping more than three-quarters of the field was impressive. Whether that dominance on a flat track will translate on the 1.5-mile Homestead-Miami Speedway high banks remains to be seen, but Hamlin certainly has reason to be confident next week.
The rest of JGR was no slouch, with Rowdy scoring his best finish since Richmond Raceway and both Truex and Erik Jones scoring top-10 result. Coupled with Matt DiBenedetto finishing 13th in the No. 95 (a recovery given that he was forced to pit road on lap 235 with a flat tire), the inflatable Toyota atop Rattlesnake Hill was almost gloating as it towered above ISM Raceway.
Both Larson and Harvick finished in the top five Sunday and did it within arm’s reach of each other. The Nos. 42 and 4 were all but attached at the hip all afternoon, and while neither proved a factor for the win, the consistency the two cars had over the course of the afternoon (especially given how Logano came and went) was an achievement for both. On a playoff note, Harvick will be an extreme underdog heading into Homestead, but consecutive top-five finishes mean the No. 4 will be in position to capitalize if something goes south in the JGR stables.
Paul Menard finished 12th, his best run at Phoenix since the fall race in 2016. Despite both reportedly losing a cylinder during the final stage, Keselowski still managed to finish in the top 10, and Chris Buescher ran a credible 16th. Of course, with tapered spacers, who can tell anymore?
Drivers Who Accomplished Nothing
Doing perhaps the best impression of his teammate Keselowski that he could, Logano’s plunge from the race lead to a lap down in the span of 50 laps saw the No. 22 team’s title defense go up in smoke much like the No. 2 crashed out of the Round of 12 at Kansas. Logano’s Round of 8 campaign was notable for the bullets the 2018 champion has dodged. But with any shot at the Cup gone, it’s time for some hard questions to be asked at Team Penske. The dominance that the team showed in the early stages of 2019 and the “package” era is now a very distant memory.
Unlike last week at Texas, Elliott’s wreck on lap 167 was not the result of driver error. The results, however, were the same that have plagued the No. 9 team in the Round of 8; a damaged or destroyed race car, a finish outside the top 30 and the end of Chevrolet’s chances of representation in the Championship 4. If there’s a silver lining to this one, maybe Elliott’s struggles at Phoenix, coupled with a woeful race (more on that soon) will get NASCAR to move the series’ finale to the Charlotte ROVAL for 2021?
The youngest Nemechek in the field for the second week in a row was the top finisher in the Front Row Motorsports stable. However, despite bringing out a yellow flag on lap 303 that very nearly altered the NASCAR Cup Series semifinal, the No. 36 car still wasn’t worth a video replay. To borrow a few lyrics from Eminem, “how the f*** can I be a Cup driver? I don’t even exist.”
Insights, Opinions and Fake News
Let’s get this one out of the way. NASCAR’s inconsistency in what constitutes a yellow flag culminated in a literal travesty on lap 303, with the caution flag flying for John Hunter Nemechek hitting the wall, yet still making it to pit road under power. Even within the sample size of Sunday’s race, there was no consistency here. Stenhouse hitting the wall brought out a yellow on lap 67, while Ross Chastain hitting it around lap 183 didn’t. Stenhouse limping around brought out the yellow, while Joe Nemechek cutting a tire and limping more than twice as far around the track on around lap 235 didn’t. I’m sure the fact that both the Stenhouse and John Hunter Nemechek incidents happened with inside of 10 laps to go to a scheduled checkered flag was purely coincidental.
My vitriol toward this situation was compounded by the fact NBC initially failed to show any video replay of Nemechek’s wall contact on lap 303, despite the fact that the caution period lasted six laps and that the network had video cued and ready to go of Hamlin reacting in his car to the yellow flag coming out.
Catchfence’s Chris Knight did Tweet post-race that from his spot in the press box, Nemechek had made sufficient contact with the wall to justify the yellow flag flying (as well telling me to stop Tweeting about my frustration with the lack of video evidence).
— Chris Knight (@Knighter01) November 10, 2019
NBC followed up with some iPhone video that showed Nemechek smacking the wall briefly while the network apologized for their cameras not catching the incident. But I touched on this two weeks ago in Thinkin’ after Martinsville. There very well may have been reason for the yellow to fly on lap 303 that was readily evident to the 100 people in the press box, and the 50,000 in the stands at ISM (I’m being generous, where’s Monte Dutton’s crowd estimate when we need one?).
Assuming the same 2.2 million viewers that tuned into the Cup race at Texas last weekend were watching again this Sunday, that means that 97.73% of the NASCAR audience was left without immediate video replay of an incident that literally could have changed the Cup semifinal race. 97.73% of the audience had no means to gauge whether or not the yellow was a “bullshit call” until many had already moved on as the network shifted to post-race coverage.
Imagine the outrage if 97.73% of the viewers that watched last year’s NFC championship game didn’t get to see replays of Nickell Robey-Coleman laying Tommylee Lewis out. It’s not asking too much to see replays of incidents deemed significant enough to stop a race in its tracks, triggering pit stops and strategy that literally determined the course of the four drivers that will contest the series’ championship next week. That needed to be shown before the race was over.
Despite being the shining face of NASCAR’s diversity movement and the famed No. 43 car, Bubba Wallace was slapped with a penalty for admitting he intentionally spun out last weekend that dwarfed the one Dale Earnhardt Jr. incurred for a similar offense in 2004 (five times the money and twice the points). While it would seem that such a penalty is in the best interest of the sport given that Wallace’s exploits were brazen and hamstrung Larson’s pursuit of the Cup title, NASCAR’s decision to penalize Wallace solely based on his admission creates a double standard that allowed defending champ Logano to get away with a similar stunt at Martinsville, also in a playoff race, simply because he kept his mouth shut. And given that this Sunday saw the actual officiating of the race unchanged, and at least during the broadcast, undocumented, it seems that this penalty was nothing more than window dressing trying to conceal the ongoing shortcomings of NASCAR as a sanctioning body.
Side note, the fact that NASCAR went out of its way to say the penalty was a result of Wallace’s admission, and not in-car data, is likely to dampen what drivers have to say to the media, at least in the short term. Check out Wallace’s interview after his penalty for video evidence.
— Dustin Long (@dustinlong) November 9, 2019
Given that Wallace’s subpar job performance in 2019 means all he’s being sold on his personality, NASCAR seems to be shooting itself in the foot with this new frontier of officiating.
Let’s put the whole Wallace/intentional yellow issue to bed. Big picture aside, Wallace copped an attitude and got bit for it. But, he also copped an attitude about something that’s been a dirty little secret on the track for decades. It’s similar to the practice of diving and feigning injury on the soccer field. If FIFA was serious about fixing the game of soccer, it would implement a mandatory two minutes off the field for any player that forced a stoppage in play by going down. NASCAR can do the same thing here by automatically penalizing any driver that stops on the track two laps unless they were obviously wrecked by another competitor. Enforce rules during competition with teeth and behavior will change real quick.
Separate from the lap 303 disaster, NBC’s broadcast was utterly abhorrent in how narrow a slice of the field it covered. Buescher reportedly dropped a cylinder around lap 205 without mention. Corey LaJoie’s issues with his fuel pump went unmentioned. Landon Cassill’s power steering issues went unmentioned. DiBenedetto’s flat tire around lap 235 went unmentioned. Ryan Preece being forced down pit road after contact on track went unmentioned. Aric Almirola cutting a tire around lap 286 went unmentioned. Given that all of these incidents occurred during a final stage that featured a whopping zero lead changes outside of pit cycling between lap 177 and the checkered flag, the fact that NBC was unwilling or unable to deviate from the Hamlin silencing his demons storyline, even for a few seconds, was inexplicable. Do everyone that’s not a JGR fan a favor next time and report on, I dunno, the Cup field at large? After all, viewers lulled to sleep aren’t responding to advertising….
The 2020 Cup schedule is slated to host a semifinal race at Martinsville, with the championship being decided in Avondale. The way these two tracks have raced the past few weeks, the title will likely be decided at Texas because that’ll be the last chance anyone has to make a meaningful pass on track. If the 2020 season ends with a repeat of Truex stomping the field and then Hamlin driving away from everyone, even the mighty Kyle Busch, all the efforts to make 2021 a special season are going to be muted long before Speedweeks.
It doesn’t need to be tested, it doesn’t need to be developed, just knock a couple inches off the freaking spoilers on all the tracks shorter than 1.5 miles and let the teams figure it out race weekend. After all, the spring Talladega race was arguably the best of the season, and that came courtesy of a knee-jerk reaction to put untested wickers on the cars. Fortunately, between our own editor-in-chief Tom Bowles and the all-knowing Bob Pockrass, there does seem to be a healthy optimism among industry experts that a change will be coming for next season.
NASCAR has said no changes to the package next year. I wouldn't be surprised if at least some talk/reconsideration for a change for short tracks. The ? is there also is a ban on new team parts/pieces for 2020. So if they cut the spoiler, does that impact other parts of the car? https://t.co/3l93JkYvHu
— Bob Pockrass (@bobpockrass) November 10, 2019
Frontstretch alum Matt Weaver was on literal fire with his Twitter game on Sunday and was dead on with his response to fans as to why ISM Raceway will be the new home of the Cup championship next year.
— Matt Weaver (@MattWeaverAW) November 10, 2019
While that $178 million is a big number, I’d argue there’s 42,000 reasons that ISM Raceway got the title nod. Namely, between utilizing the checkered colored seats that have effectively hidden empty seats at Talladega, and being among the smaller grandstands in Cup racing, the ability of ISM Raceway to sell out and look full trumps that same aesthetic at Homestead-Miami Speedway. That’s certainly consistent with ISC thinking: just look at Daytona Rising.
Best Paint Scheme: Tyler Reddick. Wasn’t impressed with any of the new schemes at the Cup level this weekend, so I’m going with a racecar that ran with the equivalent of a surgeon general’s warning on the quarterpanels.
— RCR Museum & Team Store (@RCR_Museum) November 9, 2019
If this option is legally compliant, let’s end the pearl-clutching ban on tobacco advertising at sporting events. Can’t decide if that’s a political statement or my subconscious longing for the return of Winston Cup racing.
The Key to Long Pond, Arizona: This comparison of ISM to Pocono was spot-on:
Phoenix is just desert Pocono. Half the field is lapped by Kyle Busch and we are only 40 laps in lmaoooo #NASCAR
— Thomas Zack Hamblen 💊 (@TZHamblen) November 10, 2019
I’d also add that just like Pocono, ISM’s dogleg allows the cars to do the visually impressive act of racing five-wide on a restart in a way that changes nothing on track. Just look at the lap 310 battle between Kyle Busch and Blaney to realize just how insignificant ISM’s apron battles are.
Where It Rated: Earlier this week, I agreed in principle to my 2020 contract with Frontstretch to continue writing Thinkin’ Out Loud. In the words of Job Bluth, “I’ve made a terrible mistake.”
Watching the 2019 Cup season unravel after a strong start that saw intense superspeedway battles and some of the strongest intermediate races that Kansas and Charlotte have seen this decade, a never-ending torrent of questionable officiating, poor telecasting and boring on-track racing culminated with one of the worst races I can remember watching green-to-checkers since the 2008 Brickyard. Want to know where this race rated? Grab a shovel.
What’s the Point(s): Heading to Homestead it’s Truex, Harvick, Hamlin and Kyle Busch who will run for the title.
Dust Off the VCR: The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship will be decided at Homestead-Miami Speedway this coming Sunday. Coverage from South Florida begins at 3 p.m. ET on NBC.