Who… should you be talking about after the race?
Sometimes it’s all about being in the right position. Austin Dillon took two tires on his final pit stop, setting him up in second on the first of three late restarts. The two tires were enough to get the jump on teammate Tyler Reddick, who had inherited the lead by taking no tires, on each restart, including the final one, and from there, Dillon held off a charging Reddick and Kyle Busch for his third career win, and the playoff berth that comes with it.
A string of late shake-ups hurt a lot of drivers including one incident leading Brad Keselowski to call for a change in how Cup drivers are allowed to compete. But one driver who was able to avoid trouble and get the job done was Corey LaJoie, who finished a very respectable 16th in the very underfunded No. 32. That’s a big deal for a team that small because it not only means a bit of extra publicity but also a bigger than usual paycheck. It also showcases LaJoie a bit and could lead to an opportunity to move to the next level. Good finishes did just that for Matt DiBenedetto, as he has moved to bigger, better-funded teams after getting strong results in the No. 32. Could lightning strike twice?
What… was the hidden gem in the race?
It’s been a long time since RCR was that competitive. And the biggest change within the organization this year has been the addition of rookie Reddick. Sometimes a driver can elevate an organization. Whether it’s leadership, pure talent, information or something intangible, sometimes a change in chemistry produces a surprising result. Not only has Reddick consistently been the strongest rookie despite his rivals being in top cars, but teammate Dillon is also performing better this year, too. So has satellite driver Bubba Wallace.
Whether it’s Reddick or something else, RCR has shown real improvement this year, almost across the board. Is Dillon a serious title contender? Probably not this year. But this win, along with Reddick’s success, gives the team something to build on.
Where… were the other key players at the end?
Polesitter Aric Almirola blew past Harvick for the lead midway through stage one but was penalized for a blend-line violation following a green-flag pit stop, dropping him to the back of the pack. He drove back into the top 10, finishing the second stage in eighth, and from there, he pinned down his 10th top 10 of 2020. In the last seven races, this 10th-place finish was actually Almirola’s worst. The last time he finished outside the top 10 was Martinsville, where he ended up 33rd after a battery failure. His start to 2020 was inconsistent, but he’s been rock solid this summer.
Point leader and fall Texas race winner Kevin Harvick led three times for a total of 40 laps. He just didn’t quite have the car to compete with the frontrunners on the final restarts, coming in fifth for his efforts. Harvick has a commanding lead over Ryan Blaney in points, and only Denny Hamlin matches his four wins. Harvick certainly hasn’t shown any signs of his performance dropping off as he ages, and he’s certainly positioning himself for a second title run this year.
All-Star race winner Chase Elliott had an OK day, especially compared to his Hendrick Motorsports teammates, all of whom found trouble. He was never a threat to win, not leading any laps Sunday and finishing 12th, but he finished in one piece, and in this race that was no mean feat.
All-time Texas win leader Jimmie Johnson also had to come back from a pit road violation on the competition caution. He was able to climb back into the top 10 by the end of the first stage, only to have a tire go down in stage two, causing the No. 48 to tag the wall. NASCAR added insult to injury with a two-lap penalty for too many men over the wall during repairs, and just like every time it has looked like Johnson could end his drought with a statement win, it ended in 26th place. That’s worse on paper than reality, though, because after hitting the wall, Johnson was 40th. By finishing the race when so many others did not, Johnson hangs onto 16th in points and, for now, at least the final playoff spot.
Stage one and two winner Blaney had the car to beat early on, as all of the Team Penske cars were competitive, including satellite driver DiBenedetto. As the final stage turned into a mishmash of strategies and incidents, Blaney couldn’t make inroads back to the lead and had to settle for seventh. Still, he is a strong second in points, just ahead of his teammates, and in a season that’s been more or less wide open, he’s got to be considered a title contender if he can just shake some of the bad luck that’s plagued him.
When… was the moment of truth?
It wasn’t so much one big moment of truth, but a lot of smaller ones. On a long, hot afternoon, there were quite a few incidents late in the race, and it was the subsequent restarts that made the race memorable, including the battle for the win. It was a nail-biter, but it was only that way because of the incidents.
Which begs the question of whether it was a good race. There was a great finish. There was some excitement, and there were also long stretches of not much going on. Overall, though, it was organic. The race was allowed to play out and in the end, it came down to smart strategy and a great restart for Dillon. It was a good race, maybe not a great one, but a good one. There was attrition, there was strategy at play, and the cautions fell naturally. Overall, maybe not one most fans will remember in five years, but definitely not the worst one they’ll see, either.
And that’s okay. There is an expectation that every race will be a barn-burner, and never in the history of the sport has that been realistic. For sure NASCAR needs to make improvements to the cars and Goodyear to the tires, but that’s in the works. The schedule needs an overhaul, and that’s harder because of track owners being unwilling to give up a race to make the sport better overall. But Sunday was the kind of day fans should hope for, no matter what: a decent race without manipulation or intentionally dirty driving, just a race.
Why… should you be paying attention this week?
This week could prove a turning point of sorts. After two straight races with fans allowed in the stands, eyes should be on NASCAR in the time of COVID-19. It will still be a week or two before much is known, but if outbreaks are traced to the All-Star race or Sunday’s race in Texas, it could very well mean the end to fans at races this year.
NASCAR has done a decent job of keeping fans separated from drivers and crews, but have the tracks done enough to keep them from each other, and have fans done their part? Those are questions that need to be thoroughly analyzed in the coming weeks, and decisions moving forward must be made sensibly based on that research.
How… necessary is traction compound?
NASCAR raced for years without the help of PJ1 in the corners, so why is everyone using it now? While in theory, giving drivers another groove to work with should improve the racing, in practice, it hasn’t really worked that way most of the time.
At some tracks, it has had the opposite effect. Tire marbles and debris can build up in the compound, making it a goopy mess that’s difficult to navigate at best and dangerous at worst. Not to mention, many fans view it as a gimmick. Mark Martin spoke up during Sunday’s race, adding that it actually takes away the very top groove.
I’m struggling to be a fan of PJ1. It works good under optimum conditions but it is so temperamental to heat, dirt and marbles. I love watching guys run up by the wall too and that doesn’t seem to happen much when it’s used.
— Mark Martin (@markmartin) July 19, 2020
Is there a solution? Maybe. What if teams had a tire choice? What if they could pick between a faster, less durable tire and a longer-lasting, but slower Goodyear? What if they had to either choose one tire before the race and run it all weekend or use each compound at least once during a race weekend? Either could have its merits. A slower car could make moves on faster tires, but without careful management, that advantage could evaporate in a hurry. A car choosing the more durable tire could show up at the end to battle for the win.
It’s tires and setups that should be allowing for multiple grooves, and it’s time for NASCAR to explore those instead of applying the quick fix because it doesn’t really fix anything at all.