The Headline(s): The Cup Series may as well have never left Florida. After sweeping the podium in the Daytona 500, a dominant Joe Gibbs Racing pulled the same feat in Homestead, with Kyle Busch proving the best of the Toyotas to win the Ford EcoBoost 400 and the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship. It is Busch’s second Cup title, fifth Cup win of 2019, 56th career Cup win and 208th career NASCAR national series victory.
— NASCAR on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) November 17, 2019
Martin Truex, Jr., Erik Jones, Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano rounded out the top five. Both Truex and Denny Hamlin had speed to contend with Busch’s No. 18 Toyota, but both saw their races derailed by issues on pit road.
How It Happened: Though Hamlin started from the pole, both Harvick and Busch used the high side to take the lead on the opening lap, and by lap 5 the final four were running 1-2-3-4. The lead changed on lap 21, when Truex got around Harvick on Turn 2 exit. Though Hamlin would clear Harvick for second and Busch was concerned that he had run over debris, the race was uneventful until green flag pit stops started on lap 34. The pit stops cycled the lead back to Truex, who proceeded to run away with a seven-plus second lead to win stage one, lapping 27 of the 40 cars in the field.
Truex stayed ahead on pit road and led the field to green on lap 87, taking the lead back on lap 89 after Busch was able to take the point at start/finish. Outside the final 4, Kyle Larson was making his presence known as he cleared Busch for second on lap 89, but the racing finally took off a few laps later, with Busch and Harvick putting on a 10-lap battle that saw the two changing positions in a way Cup cars haven’t been able to since the opening laps at Kansas last month, with Busch eventually prevailing for third on lap 108. Green flag pit stops saw Hamlin hit pit road on lap 118 trying to undercut the playoff drivers up front, but the story broke on lap 121, when Truex was forced to pit for a second time under green after his team discovered they had put their tires on the wrong side of their car. Truex’s troubles, as the second stop put him a lap down, were short-lived, as the caution flew on lap 137 when John Hunter Nemechek spun in turn 2.
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) November 17, 2019
Busch won the race off pit road, but lost the lead to a surging Harvick on lap 144, who’s car showed the best short run speed in the opening two stages. That surge wore off by lap 157, when Busch retook the lead as Truex moved back into the top 10. Rowdy went on to win stage 2, and won the race off pit road, with the playoff drivers exiting the pits 1-2-3-4.
The final restart of the race came on lap 167, with Kyle pulling away as Harvick spun his tires and got hit from behind by Truex, sending both to the back of the top five as Hamlin challenged Busch for the race lead. Hamlin would actually take the lead on lap 168, but by lap 170 the No. 18 got back to the front. With Harvick fading and a caution averted despite Bubba Wallace hitting the wall with a cut tire around lap 193, green flag pit stops would hit for the final time on lap 201 when Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott came down pit road. Hamlin was the first playoff driver to pit on lap 210, with Busch coming the following lap. Lap 212 saw Larson forced down pit road for good with a blown engine, while Truex and Harvick opted to stay on track on old tires. Truex would come down for tires on lap 215.
The ensuing seven laps changed the course of the event. Though caution was again avoided when William Byron coasted to pit road with engine trouble, Hamlin reported trouble of his own, with engine overheating that forced the No. 11 to pit road on lap 222 to remove tape from the grill.
Heartbreak for @dennyhamlin!
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) November 17, 2019
Harvick, still leading on old tires, was forced to pit on lap 224, which handed the lead to Busch for good. Truex, still recovering from his mid-race pit woes, proved unable to cut through traffic fast enough to seriously challenge the No. 18.
Drivers Who Accomplished Something
Looking at the top 10 this Sunday, it really is looking a lot like Daytona in Homestead. Despite the pit road miscues that cost the Nos. 11 and 19 a shot at a championship, Joe Gibbs Racing was again light years ahead of the rest of the Cup field. Busch led a race-high 120 laps and had a pit crew that was impeccable on every stop. Truex led 103 laps and, had this race not had stage breaks, may well have lapped the field with the pace he had while the sun was shining on the track. Hamlin showed poise and performance as a driver that he’s not delivered in previous championship races, and this failure truly was on his crew. And out of nowhere, Erik Jones went all but unmentioned over the course of a three-hour race and still finished third, his first top five since winning the Southern 500. Leave it to Toyota to stomp the Mustang and Camaro with a Camry.
Just like Daytona (and all the plate races for that matter), it was Joey Logano carrying the banner for the Penske camp this Sunday, finishing in the top five while Blaney finished outside the top 10 with an alternate pit strategy that didn’t work out, and Brad Keselowski was nowhere to be found in finishing off the lead lap in 18th.
Speaking of Keselowski, his performance in the final four back in 2017 is probably the best comparison to give to Harvick’s effort Sunday. Harvick’s crew was efficient on pit road and played the strategy card as long as possible to stay in the fight, the driver did work behind the wheel, but when it came down to it the fourth fastest car in the playoff field just couldn’t keep up. Harvick’s second half of the season did right the ship at Stewart-Haas Racing, however, giving them a viable flagship heading into 2020.
Despite having to pit under green right after the lap 87 restart with a loose wheel, Ryan Newman rebounded to finish seventh. Newman’s 14 top 10s in his debut season with Roush Fenway Racing is the most he’s had in a Cup season since 2015.
Richard Childress Racing followed up their Xfinity Series championship on Saturday with a strong effort in the Cup race, as Austin Dillon marched from the front early and finished eighth, a career-best at Homestead. Daniel Hemric finished 12th in his final race with RCR.
Drivers Who Accomplished Nothing
Though Jimmie Johnson was slicing and dicing in the early stages of the race, even passing Hamlin for a spot in the top five early in the second stage, by race’s end the No. 48 was back in 13th, a non-factor. Moments are all the seven-time champ had in 2019.
While Rowdy was doing his thing up front all day long, Kurt Busch was never able to recover from a mid-race pit road speeding penalty and finished two laps down in 21st, his worst finish since Talladega.
Kyle Larson’s was the fastest car not in the playoff four, showed plenty of speed rim-riding the high line that Tyler Reddick rode to an Xfinity title on Saturday, and then saw the race derailed by engine failure. Story of 2019 for the No. 42. Larson finished 40th, his worst result since Talladega last spring.
Only a few laps before parking the No. 77 car with brake issues in the closing laps, Reed Sorenson drew the ire of Truex for running in a preferred lane. Truex is historically whiny about such matters, but Sorenson has received more than his share of criticism for this in 2019. Whether at fault or not, considering what happened to Bayley Currey back in the 600, this isn’t the kind of attention Sorenson or his team will want.
Insights, Opinions and Fake News
Rewind back to 2007, Kyle Busch won the first Car of Tomorrow race at Bristol, and proceeded to trash the car and racing in victory lane. In 2019, despite hating the package for pretty much the entire season, Rowdy shook off a 21-race winless streak and dominated in a finale race with the package on full display. Those who are not fans of Kyle Busch better hope he loves the Gen-7 car.
The playoff four combined to win the race, both stages, and lead 266 of the 267 laps run on Sunday. Can’t help but wonder if Monte Dutton’s onto something with this one:
#NASCAR In the past, one of the 4 finalists has won at Homestead each year since it was implemented. One would think the law of averages would catch up a bit, but I guess others are at a little of a greater disadvantage than usual. There's pressure to just get out of the way.
— Monte Dutton (@MonteDutton) November 17, 2019
Credit where it is due. NBC deserves some for giving longtime Cup veterans David Ragan and Paul Menard both recognition around lap 49 of Sunday’s telecast. Enough to ignore the fact that the booth referred to Daniel Suarez as Daniel Jones during the grid intros and for Rick Allen referring to Truex’s No. 19 team as the No. 78 crew on lap 135. Not enough to ignore the fact that Sunday’s telecast really did spend 99% of the time on 10% of the field:
Penalty box for you. There are only 4 cars in the race today. #nascar
— 71Pantera (@71Pantera) November 17, 2019
Credit where it is due. Despite both Truex and Harvick bellowing on the radio about debris on the track in the closing 10 laps, race control mustered enough self-restraint to let a 100-lap green flag run play out, even as Rowdy ran away with the championship. That does not excuse the yellow flag flying on lap 137 for a spin that Nemechek caught, recovered from on the apron and hit nothing doing so.
— Tommy Joe Martins (@TommyJoeMartins) November 17, 2019
Though Bob Pockrass did report that several drivers noticed grass on the apron from where Nemechek caught his car, it wasn’t significant enough for NBC to show on-screen. A caution that literally bailed out Truex and his crew for one of the most-boneheaded pit road screw-ups seen in major league stock car racing certainly demands video evidence that again was lacking. The 2019 playoffs have turned this writer and column into a broken record.
Those that have been reading Frontstretch for a while will remember that during my first stint with the company, I was on the Xfinity Series beat. Watching Saturday’s finale race, I wished I had that gig back. Christopher Bell, Cole Custer and Reddick put on a mesmerizing display of driving prowess that confirmed for any holdouts (were there any?) that these three are ready to race on Sundays. Shame that the cars they’ll be running will not allow any of these three to demonstrate the throttle control that made Saturday’s race so enthralling to watch.
Matt Crafton is no Austin Dillon, but that doesn’t change the fact that his being the 2019 Truck Series champion despite failing to win a race is a farce. I burst out laughing when Crafton made reference to their performance Friday night as a rebuke to Todd Bodine’s questioning of the No. 88 team’s speed. If the entire point of the playoffs is to emphasize winning, how hard would it be to set a rule that any driver in the final four that comes in without a race win has to win the finale, or doesn’t win the series’ crown?
Let’s stick with revamping the playoff format for a minute. Anyone with an IQ over 50 knows that stage breaks are code name for TV timeouts, but that can’t be admitted to publicly. To be consistent with the emphasis on winning and racing hard over the full 400 miles, keep the point standings in place heading into the final race of the season. Make it so that in the event a playoff driver doesn’t win the finale race, that the title is decided by points. Sunday’s race would have been better for it.
Hamlin managed to swear twice during NBC’s telecast on Sunday; once during the pace laps interview with the championship drivers and again when recapping his 2019 season on pit road post-race. I seem to remember Dale Earnhardt, Jr. getting penalized for something similar. And seeing as how Wallace was penalized twice what Earnhardt was for spinning intentionally a couple weeks ago, what discipline would Hamlin have faced had he come out on top Sunday?
Credit to our own Matt McLaughlin for noting that during NASCAR president Steve Phelps’ State of the Sport remarks on Sunday, he affirmed the fans’ wishes for more short tracks while referring to Dover, Loudoun and Phoenix as short tracks. Nice try.
On that note, a number of writers and fans have responded with optimism to news this week that the powers that be have terminated the current promoter’s contract to operate the Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville, thinking this move will open the door for Bruton Smith’s SMI to come in and reinvigorate the stalwart short track to bring back major league NASCAR. I do not share in this optimism for a number of reasons. First, and (literally) largest, the Fairgrounds complex has been selected for the construction of Nashville’s Major League Soccer stadium, which is slated to include housing developments. Gentrified apartment complexes and noisy race tracks don’t mix. No amount of renovation by SMI (or anyone) will change that fact. Second, as I explored last year, the political support enjoyed by the current promoters largely evaporated after the city’s former mayor was ousted in an extramarital scandal. Since the change in city leadership, the future of racing at the Fairgrounds has not been cemented in any way.
Lastly, and perhaps most pointed, even if this leads to SMI getting a shot at running the Fairgrounds Speedway, is that really going to fix anything? Looking at SMI’s portfolio of tracks, Atlanta, Bristol, Texas and even Sonoma have appeared cavernously empty for Cup races in 2019. How that will translate into successfully promoting what’s currently a super late model track isn’t a certain success. Also, how motivated will the owners of Bristol Motor Speedway really be to sink time and money into a bullring that’s within driving distance of their own coliseum that’s already struggling to draw?
To put a close on the year of the package, where to start with the irony? For all the time and effort spent to develop a package to keep the racing close on the intermediate ovals, Sunday’s finale saw Truex threatening to lap cars in the top 10 over the course of the first stage, and saw the same dominant Truex unable to cut through traffic in the closing laps to mount any challenge to the No. 18 for the race win.
For all the time and effort spent to improve the on-track product in 2019, the race for the Cup title was actually decided in the pits. Truex’s pit crew had to make an extra pit stop under green when they screwed up a tire change. Hamlin’s pit crew grenaded their own engine by putting a massive slab of tap over most of their grill opening. Kyle Busch’s crew did neither, and won the race. Pit road rendered the package all but irrelevant in deciding the title race.
And, as he has done so well this year, leave it to Frontstretch alum Nick Bromberg to point out one final irony:
The year of the restart not getting the pivotal late-race restart in the championship race would certainly be something.
— Nick Bromberg (@NickBromberg) November 17, 2019
Best Paint Scheme: Chris Buescher. A fitting end to what can only be considered a sweet (and much-improved) 2019 for the No. 37 team.
— JTG Daugherty Racing (@JTGRacing) November 13, 2019
Tweet of the Race: Matt Tifft.
Dammit!! I’m in section 318 just fixing this race https://t.co/LTsSOtKyg0
— Matt Tifft (@matt_tifft) November 17, 2019
Revisionist History Trophy – Truex Nation. While the passionate support from Truex nation was admirable this Sunday…
He doesn’t MF his team. Ever. They win and lose as a team. These guys bust their asses for him all year long. Everyone makes mistakes. Gotta get back up there. Still lots of time. https://t.co/IFb2W82l4r
— Sherry Pollex (@SherryPollex) November 17, 2019
Where It Rated: Considering the thriller that started the season in the 500 and the show fans got during Saturday’s Xfinity Series race, this wasn’t the finish anyone wanted. But given how the 2019 season has unfolded, it’s the underwhelming finish it deserved.
What’s the Point(s): Kyle Busch is your 2019 Cup Series champion. Busch becomes the 16th driver to win multiple Cup Series titles in his career, and the first to accomplish the feat since Johnson won his second title in 2007.
Up Next: Deer hunting season is open in Virginia, meaning unless I run into Elliott Sadler in the woods it’s time for a break from racing. Frontstretch has signed me to continue writing this column in 2020, so see y’all at Speedweeks in February. A special thank you to our readers, and especially our commentariat, for keeping our growing racing community vibrant and our writers, myself included, honest. It has been and continues to be a pleasure.