BRISTOL, Tenn. – So maybe eight races into the season is a little early to start looking ahead to the championship finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
But don’t fault Kyle Busch for looking ahead – and simultaneously looking back – after his series-high third victory of the Cup season in Sunday’s Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway.
With eight consecutive top-10 finishes (the first driver to do that since Terry Labonte in 1992), the 2015 champion is off to one of the greatest starts in the history of NASCAR’s premier series.
So is Busch the championship favorite after outdueling Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, whose Team Penske Fords have combined with Joe Gibbs Racing’s Toyota to account for every victory this year (Keselowski has two, Logano one and Busch’s teammate Denny Hamlin has the other two)?
“No, I don’t think we’re the championship favorite,” Busch told NBC Sports in victory lane Sunday. “I think any of the two Penske guys (Keselowski and Logano) are the championship favorites. They certainly have the speed, and they showed us what short-run speed looked like last year at Homestead, so that’s what I see right now. We’ve got some work to do.”
The 2018 regular season remains a major cautionary tale for declaring a two- or three-team championship battle months before the playoffs begin. The so-called “Big Three” of Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. were the consensus championship favorites entering the final 10 races, and the trio still managed to reach championship finale intact despite a mostly lackluster playoffs (which was a warning sign for Logano winning the finale as a wild card-style champion).
That was largely on the strength of playoff points, which Busch is accumulating at an even greater rate than the Big Three last year. With 19 through eight races (Keselowski is next closest with 12), Busch is well on the way to carrying a full race of points cushion into the playoffs, which would help blaze a clear path toward his fifth consecutive championship round appearance.
But yet … it doesn’t feel as if Busch is the clear-cut favorite. He led 71 laps at Bristol while Logano (146) and Keselowski (40) more than doubled his total (and Penske’s third driver, Ryan Blaney, led a race-high 156 laps).
“That was an honest interview from Kyle in victory lane talking about the Penske cars,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said Monday on NASCAR America’s Bristol recap. “He knows when they go to Homestead, short-run speed is going to be important. He knows that’s something you have to work on all year long. He also knows that he was not the dominant car at Bristol. I feel I have to agree with them that Penske cars are the favorites right now.”
Lest we forget (and Busch and his team certainly haven’t), it was short-run speed that eliminated the No. 18 Camry from the 2018 championship. When the green flag fell on the final restart of last season, Busch was in the lead (thanks to a swift pit stop and the No. 1 pit stall) but faded to fourth behind Logano, Truex and Harvick over the last 15 laps at Miami.
Though he turned the tables on Logano at Bristol with crew chief Adam Stevens’ clever strategy call, the short-run equation still feels the same five months later.
“I would hesitate to pick who’s best right now,” Stevens said when asked about whether Gibbs or Penske was the favorite. “I mean, they’ve had us covered today. We weren’t very good, like I’ve said a dozen times already. I don’t think being fast in the first seven or eight races of the year really means that you’re going to go to Homestead and wear everybody out. Certainly, their program is in a good spot. I think we’re in a good spot.
“I think if we do our jobs, hit it right, we can run with anybody. I don’t expect that will be different when we get down to the playoffs.”
That’s in the long run. In the meantime, keep an eye on the short-run speed.
Here are other items that caught our eye at Bristol:
The NASCAR conspiracy theorists wanted to draw a line between Harvick’s three prerace inspection failures at Bristol Motor Speedway and the shot he took at NASCAR officials on his “Happy Hours” show on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio last week.
Actually, there’s a much stronger case for cause and effect with what Harvick said after placing eighth the race at Texas Motor Speedway, where he called out the lack of performance by his No. 4 Ford.
It would seem that running afoul of the Optical Scanning Station is a much likelier byproduct of the pressure that Harvick was putting on his team instead of the pressure he put on NASCAR.
Throughout the course of the weekend, and especially during Saturday’s final practice, Harvick had the fastest car at Bristol, and Sunday’s woes in tech underscored how much the team was pushing the limits of legality to find speed. As crew chief Rodney Childers told AutoWeek, an adjustment to camber to achieve compliance would throw the toe settings out of bounds and fixing that in turn would affect camber again.
Regardless, even though the inspections were undoubtedly a stressful distraction, they probably were worth it for a driver who has implored his team to reassert the dominant speed it had in 2014, ’15, ’16 and ‘18.
The penalty (a pass-through at the start that dropped Harvick a lap down) was stiff, but a Lap 3 caution kept Harvick from falling two laps down and might have given him a shot at contending for a win if not for a loose wheel on his first stop.
He still rebounded from being four laps down to finish 13th and on the lead lap.
Harvick didn’t offer any comments after this race, but he clearly was happy with the speed of his Stewart-Haas Racing team even though Sunday was only his second finish outside the top 10 in 2019.
Bristol has become one of the best tracks for Clint Bowyer (who has six top 10s in the past eight races there), but how much better could the 0.533-mile oval be if the No. 14 Ford driver improved on restarts?
The case can be made that Bowyer has left 11 playoff points on the table over the past two races at Bristol. In the Aug. 18, 2018 race, he lost the lead to winner Kurt Busch on a restart with 23 laps remaining, failing to launch well despite having the preferred outside lane.
Sunday, he paid for choosing the inside line as the leader on a restart with two laps to go in the first stage, losing the playoff point by inches to Ty Dillon at the line.
Bowyer also lost the lead Sunday to race leader Kyle Busch on a Lap 383 restart despite having the outside line, and he fell from second to fourth from inside on a Lap 423 restart, which resulted in the battle with Joey Logano nine laps later that put Bowyer’s car in the wall.
The Stewart-Haas Racing driver rebounded for a seventh by staying on track through the final caution but called it “just horribly disappointing. You get that close. Long runs were my strong suit. I couldn’t take off all day long.”
If Bowyer’s team can figure out a way to keep more air pressure in his tires for the restarts and short runs, the win will come, but in the meantime, it likely will mean much more frustration at Bristol, which has become one of the most line-sensitive tracks in NASCAR for restarts.
How important is lane assignment on restarts at Bristol?
As David Smith of the excellent Motorsports Analytics site notes, having the outside vs. the inside groove is the largest disparity in NASCAR’s premier series. According to statistics provided by Smith on his Positive Regression podcast with Alan Cavanna, cars lining up on the outside retained positions 93% of the time while those on the inside kept their spots at a rate of only 9%.
This is worth keeping in mind if another situation arises like the scoring confusion involving Keselowski’s car on the final restart – and why it’s incumbent upon NASCAR to get cars accurately lined up as quickly as possible. The stark difference between outside and inside could mean that there could be undue resistance from cars that don’t want to be ordered in the correct spot, making the process even more difficult.
For example, Ryan Newman thought he was restarting sixth (and on the outside) before Keselowski obeyed NASCAR’s orders. Though Newman “improved” to fifth on the restart as Keselowski awkwardly dropped into a three-wide formation in the fourth row on the way to serving black flag, the No. 6 Ford would finish ninth – which was likely worse than he might have if he’d restarted sixth.
Such is the era of double-file restarts on tracks with an overwhelmingly preferred restart groove.
Jimmie Johnson’s resurgence continued with his No. 48 Chevrolet starting and finishing 10th, building on a fifth at Texas Motor Speedway. But it might have started with what the team did wrong in his stunning 24th (two laps down) at Martinsville Speedway. The seven-time champion provided insight into what happened at one of his best tracks, noting the No. 48 team learned from the No. 9’s runner-up finish with a Chevrolet that featured fewer new widgets.
“At times you need to be aggressive and put new stuff on the car,” Johnson said after final practice at Bristol. “Then there are other times when you know there is a proven component or proven product that you just need to stay the course with. I don’t envy the crew chief position, or others, when you have drivers saying, ‘We need more, we need more…we need something new. What we have is not working’. So we put in all new sometimes. That is what we did at Martinsville. New wasn’t the thing to do. There are proven things that that we should have stayed the course. When to be aggressive and when not to…it sucks.”
And it’s compounded by two factors: 1) the Nevada-Arizona-California swing that precludes making major changes to the cars between races and ratchets up the pressure to improve when the opportunity arrives; and 2) the lack of real-world test to validate aerodynamics.
“Things that look good in sim, and we are ‘Oh, well, OK, We are putting that in!’ We still have to go prove it in race conditions,” Johnson said. “That is one thing simulation can not do. What the track is going to do when it rubbers up. And honestly in a lot of cases what it is like in traffic. That is all speculation. We don’t have any simulation that replicate what goes on in dirty air.”
After this column posted, a considerate and faithful reader noted that it neglected to touch on the spate of loose wheels Sunday at Bristol. Among the most notable and costly:
—Erik Jones made two green-flag pit stops (from second on Lap 65 and from 14th on Lap 320), costing him a good finish.
–Martin Truex Jr. was forced to pit from the top five under green before the end of the second stage and was stuck a lap down for the rest of the race.
–Brad Keselowski pitted for a loose wheel under yellow after the end of the second stage.
—Chris Buescher was headed toward a top five before slamming the Turn 2 wall because of a loose wheel with less than 50 laps remaining.
–Harvick also went four laps down after pitting under green on Lap 65 for a loose right front.
The root cause of all the problems?
Denny Hamlin theorized it’s the pit guns.
Typically loose wheels tend to be a byproduct of mistakes from pit crews rushing to gain track position (which did prove critical at Bristol based on the final round of pit strategy) or malfunctioning equipment.
Bristol’s high banking does put a heavy load on lug nuts, so getting them secure is essential. Some teams expressed concern to NBCSports.com that the NASCAR-mandated pit guns (which were introduced last year) don’t apply enough torque to keep the lug nuts secure even when they are fastened perfectly.
But a rash of loose wheels also have happened in past races at Bristol prior to the new pit guns (namely an Aug. 22, 2015 race in which Jeff Gordon had two loose wheels among several notables affected by the problem and the April 17, 2016 race that drew a memorable rant from Tony Stewart).
The pitting outside the box penalty on Daniel Suarez’s team was a ticky-tack call that NASCAR hopefully will be revisiting for next season.
Shortly after the race, Suarez hadn’t seen the video of the stop in which a crew member removed tape from the nose while the No. 41 Ford was a few inches over the line. And once Suarez had seen it, it probably wouldn’t have changed his opinion. And that reveals something important about the Stewart-Haas Racing driver: In his third full season, Suarez doesn’t have time for excuses, whether it’s about being thrust into Cup too soon (he was) or challenging whether a whistle from the tower was questionable (it was).
“We know the rules,” he said after finishing eighth. “We cannot work on the car when the car is out of the box. I stopped moving, and then he went back to get. I thought he had it already. I shouldn’t move if he didn’t have it, and he shouldn’t touch the car if it’s out of the box, no matter what.
“So it’s something we have to work on. It’s good these things happen right now. We don’t want these things to happen later in the season. These mistakes have to happen right now so we can clean everything up for when the important part of the season is here.”
There’s no putting a happy face on the crowd estimated at 38,000 at Bristol, which drew nearly 160,000 to its Cup race on March 22, 2009.
There’s also no magic bullet for what will bring fans back. Lowering ticket prices, as a sister track in the Speedway Motorsports Inc. portfolio is doing, might help.
But trying to cap hotel prices isn’t the answer (nor is it feasible or even necessarily advisable given that the small market’s tax base likely counts on that revenue).
There aren’t enough hotel rooms within a 60-mile radius of Bristol Motor Speedway for a complete lodging of the twice annual sellout crowds of 160,000 that regularly filled Bristol 10 to 15 years ago.
And even if there were enough hotel rooms within an hour’s drive, and if they were all affordable, the infrastructure of the Tri-Cities isn’t constructed to handle that many people driving into the race.
The reason that Bristol worked when it sold out twice annually was because most of its fans camped. The vast campgrounds surrounding the track suffered a mass exodus during the Great Recession, shortly after the track underwent a controversial reconfiguration in 2007 and subsequent reversion in 2012. The economy recovered, but the fans didn’t return en masse.
Yes, hotel rates can be obscenely expensive in the area around Bristol, but that’s mostly because demand easily can outstrip supply.
Sky-high prices also are part and parcel to big-league sporting events (or maybe you missed what it cost to park in downtown Minneapolis last weekend), and market forces also work as those events lose their luster. Last weekend, rates at hotels within a 20-minute drive to the Bristol track plummeted to a third of what they likely would have been for the same race weekend 10 to 15 years ago.
If NASCAR officials are serious about ejecting hauler drivers from teams for inspection failures, it would create some interesting logistical challenges … and not just because of the need for a CDL-A license to move an 18-wheeler from the infield and up the high banks of Bristol.
With the long-haul requirement of all the ancillary companies that transport the support equipment for NASCAR’s traveling circus, there are enough prospective truck drivers hanging around the infield for a Cup team caught in a pinch.
The real costs to teams of tossing hauler drivers would be the institutional knowledge that all of them have about packing up their trucks and the support duties (many are master grillers).
NASCAR has tried many methods of deterrence over the years (points penalties, crew chief suspensions, practice time deductions) to force teams into bringing “cleaner” cars through inspection.
This type of punishment would be less about hurting teams competitively than about inconveniencing them. With teams required to submit full designated team rosters since last season, that makes it easier for NASCAR to be more selective in making them feel the hurt of a penalty. It could be a clever approach.
It’s worth reinforcing that while NASCAR warned drivers about penalties for failing to meet the new media availability obligations this season, the policy has been a resounding success aside from a few blips.
Friday at Bristol Motor Speedway yielded countless nuggets from several drivers whose stories often go overlooked or untold. Whether Bubba Wallace’s love of photography, Michael McDowell’s work habits or Tyler Reddick’s Twitter persona, all the interviews were worthwhile.
There is resistance to the new requirements from the establishment, and that’s understandable because 1) they are unaccustomed to the asks after years of handling media another way; and 2) the demands on their time – between increased sponsor rosters (and resultant appearances) and weekly data downloads from engineers – are greater than ever while their stature ensures they are requested heavily.
But for the next generation of drivers – such as Reddick, Chase Briscoe and Christopher Bell, all of whom patiently took questions at Bristol (some tough, in Bell’s case) – this arrangement will become the norm, and as it does, NASCAR, its sponsors and (most importantly) its fans will be better for it.