Sunday showed that the gap between NASCAR’s Big 3 and the rest of the field remains.
This time it was Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Aric Almirola and Kurt Busch who were among the key challengers at New Hampshire Motor Speedway but mistakes left both watching their teammate, Harvick, score another win and continue the dominance of the Big 3.
“Everybody talks about the Big 3,” Almirola said. “I felt like we were stomping them today. That’s why they are so good. They execute. They execute all race long. Unfortunately, we didn’t do it today. We had the best car. We had the speed to beat them and we didn’t do it. That’s frustrating.”
Almirola led 42 laps. He was leading when Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Clint Bowyer brought out the final caution of the race after hitting the wall. Almirola lost the lead when the field pitted under caution. He exited third.
Almirola fell to seventh on the first lap of the restart when he spun his tires. His chances of winning were dashed. He finished third.
“Everybody has put so much into believing in me and giving me this opportunity to come here and I feel like I owe it to them to win and to prove them right that they made the right choice,” Almirola said. “I’m frustrated that I didn’t get to Victory Lane today.”
Busch led a race-high 94 laps but had to settle for an eighth-place finish.
His race was undone during a green-flag pit stop on Lap 226 of the 301-lap race. Busch entered pit road in second place. As the pole-sitter, he had the No. 1 pit stall, the stall at the end of pit road. Ryan Blaney had the pit stall behind Busch’s pit box.
Blaney was in his pit stall as Busch approached. Busch stopped beside Blaney to allow Blaney to exit but a slow pit stop left Blaney’s car motionless. For a brief moment, the two cars were parked beside each other as the race went on without them. Busch eventually drove into his box.
The lost time proved to be too much for Busch, who could not get higher than fifth the rest of the race. He was fifth on the final restart, on the inside line behind Almirola, when Almirola spun his tires. Busch lost several positions.
“We ended up on the same lap as Blaney,” Busch said of his pit road issue. “That’s just bad luck or bad communication between two crew chiefs. And then the crew chief is like, ‘he’ll be gone by the time you get there.’ And I initially thought that, and then they were still hanging left-side tires and I was like, ‘Oh no, oh no. He’s gonna be there.’
“If I would have come around him, I would have blocked him huge. I would have been at a bad angle and that was just one of those we’re two guys walking down the hallway and we bumped into each other and had to hold each other up. That just kind of pushed us back too far on the final restart and I didn’t get a good last restart. If we could have come off pit road in fourth, it might have been a whole different race.”
It’s not just been at New Hampshire where teams had to be perfect to beat Busch, Harvick or Truex.
Those three drivers have combined to win eight of the last 10 points races and 15 of the 20 races this season.
They’ve been more difficult to beat lately. Harvick, Busch and Truex have all finished in the top five in four of the last five races.
“There are other cars that can lead laps, but it doesn’t seem like the right ones,” Joey Logano said before last weekend’s New Hampshire race. “It seems like (Busch, Harvick and Truex) always find a way to prevail at the end, whether it’s the speed in their car or their pit stops or restarts, whatever it may be they find themselves up front when it matters the most.
“Obviously, they can recover from mistakes pretty well because of their speed, so they’re just able to be there at the right times.”