JOLIET, Ill. – It truly was a sight to behold at Chicagoland Speedway.
An indomitable exhibition of grit and human spirit. A triumph over long odds and impossible circumstances. A sublime example of a superstar skillset.
Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. and Clint Bowyer put on a superb display of the finest driving NASCAR has to offer.
Wait, you thought we were talking about Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson?
Yes, the two principals in one of the most thrilling last-lap battles in recent memory were quite the show Sunday, particularly at a 1.5-mile speedway – the maligned track length most common in Cup and also constantly derided for delivering an aero-dependent sameness in NASCAR’s premier series.
The past 12 wins on 1.5-mile tracks – every race since Austin Dillon’s fuel-mileage miracle in the 2017 Coca-Cola 600 – belong to either Truex, Busch or Harvick. That’s been criticized in some corners as indicative of a dearth in the parity necessary to make NASCAR enticing.
The trio’s supremacy even has earned a ubiquitous nickname (the last time we heard so much of “The Big Three,” Chrysler was still selling K-Cars) that often is muttered with a resigned undercurrent of resentment.
But dominance still can be highly watchable, particularly when the performances are as brilliant and gutty as Sunday. The top five finishers at Chicagoland also have been the best five teams in 2018 – and each showed why in overcoming significant adversity.
All of the focus was on the two Kyles after the race, but you could make a case that Harvick, Truex and Bowyer actually drove better overall races (particularly given that the winner, Kyle Busch, earned no stage points and was a nonfactor for the first half).
- In a No. 4 Ford that he said “was just off all weekend,” Harvick still managed to win a playoff point with the race’s most eye-popping pass that didn’t involve contact (though he nearly kissed the wall with his breathtaking move to the outside of teammate Kurt Busch to win Stage 2). Highly overlooked but nearly as impressive was how Harvick snatched the lead during a green-flag cycle on Lap 123 – picking up nearly 2 seconds on teammate Aric Almirola mostly through his smooth and swift entry and exit from the pits.
- Truex finished fourth after starting 36th with an unfortunate pit stall that left him wedged between Larson and Ryan Blaney for 400 miles. The defending series champion still needed only 22 laps to crack the top 10, and his team kept him there despite a 14-hour Saturday in the garage (when the No. 78 Toyota was the last to clear technical inspection).
- Though it was of his own making because of multiple pit penalties, Bowyer stayed focused to rally from briefly being two laps down to finish fifth.
“Add a fast car and a bit of a pissed-off attitude, and it is amazing what you can do,” Bowyer said.
Of course, it helps to have a good driver, too. The Cup Series has many of them.
Chicagoland provided many reasons for celebrating their greatness — a nice change of pace from the usual darts that regularly get thrown at NASCAR’s best teams simply for being … too good.
The slam-bang battle between Busch and Larson evoked memories of the best last-lap duels in which drivers still finished 1-2 despite turning their cars into smoking hulks of twisted sheet metal.
When solicited for comparisons, many Twitter users singled out the closest finish in NASCAR history – the fender-banging classic of Kurt Busch and Ricky Craven at Darlington Raceway on March 16, 2003 – as the best example of this genre.
But Busch vs. Larson felt more of a kindred spirit to the 1976 Daytona 500 when David Pearson and Richard Petty wrecked off the final turn (Pearson won because his battered Mercury was able to limp across the finish line).
The parallel was magnified by Busch’s postrace reaction to watching the final lap on NBCSN’s postrace show (1:50 of the video below). “What’s most impressive about this whole thing,” Busch said with a rising voice and widening smile. “is Larson saves it! Did he finish second? That’s awesome!”
Hey, even “The King” didn’t officially cross the finish line in ’76 (Petty finished second because there were no other cars on the lead lap).
Sunday was undoubtedly the best Cup race in Chicagoland Speedway’s 17-year history.
Was it the best race of the 2018 season?
There haven’t been many moments from the first 16 races that were as good as Chicagoland, but the Daytona 500 also had a last-lap crash for the lead and an outcome that seemed even more in doubt.
It partly resulted from several contenders crashing earlier, but there were five cars that had good chances to win in the final 10 laps at Daytona four months ago.
That should whet everyone’s appetite for Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway.
The hours might have been insanely long, but kudos to NASCAR: The debut of sandwiching inspection between qualifying and the race (with no practices in between) was a success, at least in terms of avoiding the distraction of negative storylines.
Because they needed to pass only basic checks on engine, fuel cell, safety and splitters, every car made a lap in qualifying unlike many sessions at 1.5-mile tracks in recent seasons.
By the time inspection was completed at 9:51 p.m. CT (more than 14 hours after the garage opened), the disallowed times of Martin Truex Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Chris Buescher were barely a blip in newsworthiness (aside from the handful of reporters still waiting at the inspection bay) – and certainly less of a storyline than if they hadn’t made a lap.
Fans saw every car take a qualifying lap, even if it turned out that four didn’t count.
“The storyline was about the race, which is what it should be,” NASCAR Chief Racing Development Officer and senior vice president Steve O’Donnell told SiriusXM Satellite Radio’s NASCAR channel, indicating the policy could be tweaked but likely would be used more often in 2019. “We’re always looking at how you can continue to focus the story just on the race. Anything to take us out of the inspection story, that’s a win.”
The schedule (which had been intended to be used in March at Martinsville Speedway before weather intervened) will be used five more times this season: Pocono, Watkins Glen, Indianapolis, Talladega and Martinsville.
The only drawback seemingly would be the extraordinarily long day for teams and officials, but that might be something the garage has to live with because of mitigating factors. Teams need three hours to prepare for qualifying, and NASCAR needs roughly at least two hours to complete inspection after qualifying ends.
Throw in the hour for qualifying, and that’s a six-hour window that gets trickier because NASCAR can’t inspect Cup cars while also managing an Xfinity race (which took place before qualifying last Saturday).
That schedule also could be credited with helping improve the action because teams had only two hours to get acclimated to a race held in summer heat for the first time in eight years. As often is the case during race weekends affected by inclement weather, the lack of practice seemed to have little adverse effects (Chase Elliott said he’d be fine with no practice on a weekly basis).
Other reasons the race was so good?
Some speculation centered on whether moving from the playoffs helped, but that seemed mostly circumstantial (though the cars raced Sunday assuredly won’t be as developed as in the Sept. 16 race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway’s 1.5-mile layout).
A more likely factor was the mid-90s temperatures that were tough on drivers but afforded the slick conditions amenable to producing the difficult handling that rewards first-class talent.
And then there’s the magically abrasive asphalt at Chicagoland, which has plenty of tire wear but somehow still has avoided a repave despite the beating from nearly two decades of Midwestern winters.
Consider that Kansas Speedway, which opened the same year as Chicagoland in 2001, already underwent a repave six years ago.
Why does Kyle Larson’s No. 42 seem so much better than every other Chevrolet in Cup?
“I don’t know,” the Chip Ganassi Racing driver said after his second at Chicagoland – his sixth top five this season — was eight spots better than the next bow-tie driver. “I don’t know if we did extra planning or what. Last year we outran the other Chevys a lot, too, even with the old style body. I think our team is just ahead of the other Chevy teams.
“I feel like typically at Chicago I’m an eighth-place car, and today I felt like I had winning speed.”
Unfortunately for Chevy, none of the other Camaros did, and Daytona now looms as a critical stop for drivers such as Chase Elliott (who plummeted from eighth to 19th during the 55-lap green-flag run that ended the race).
As good as Elliott’s No. 9 Chevy was in Speedweeks, Daytona might be his best shot at a playoff-clinching win over the final nine races of the regular season.
Noah Gragson is the NASCAR driver who tweets that he likes to tell it like it is.
So does his team owner Kyle Busch, who didn’t mince words when asked about the recent performance of his truck teams. Kyle Busch Motorsports hasn’t won in five races and placed fourth (Gragson), fifth (Brandon Jones) and 16th (Todd Gilliland) at Chicagoland.
“Truck stuff, man, it’s been frustrating lately,” Busch said after his win Sunday. “I don’t know why. It’s like they’re allergic to victory lane right now. Every week they seem to figure out a way to throw it away. Certainly got to get a lot better at being able to close out some of these races.
“Noah was good first stage, second stage. Third stage he wasn’t there. Todd passed him. Todd was horrible for the first and second stage, then had a flat there at the end.
“We got to get some wins. That’s what it’s all about. Those guys got to show what they’re made of.”
Busch’s blunt comments were a reminder that for all the hype surrounding the next generation of stars, there also is an accompanying demand to produce results.
Gragson, Brett Moffitt, John Hunter Nemechek and Justin Haley have given the Camping World Truck Series four winners under the age of 26 this season.
But are they on the same trajectory that sent recent heralded truck graduates Erik Jones and William Byron to Cup?
The most likely would seem to be Gragson, but there doesn’t seem to be buzz yet around a driver whose omission from a top-20 prospect list caused a minor stir earlier this year. There still are 12 races remaining this season for him to change that narrative, though.