Bristol dirt takeaways: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. impressive in second-place run

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Coming off a season of highs and lows, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and JTG Daugherty Racing focused on consistency entering the 2021 season.

Going into Monday’s dirt race at Bristol Motor Speedway, that focus had paid off for Stenhouse with four consecutive top-15 finishes.

But on Monday, Stenhouse – one of the drivers in the field with more extensive dirt experience – had his best performance of the season.

Improving as the race went on, he claimed a second-place finish in overtime after capitalizing on both Martin Truex Jr.‘s tire failure and Denny Hamlin’s ill-fated attempt to pass eventual winner Joey Logano on the outside.

“Coming into the Bristol dirt event, I felt like I was going to be comfortable on the racetrack,” Stenhouse said afterwards. “But I felt like these are the best drivers out there. They were going to adapt, their teams were going to adapt, bring good race cars, as well. I didn’t want to put too much emphasis on ‘Hey, we have to go win.’

“We methodically worked our way throughout this race of getting our race car better, not freaking out early in the race, knowing that the track conditions were going to change, and probably come around to the balance of our race car. We did that. Got our first top five, top 10 of the year. Trying to keep that momentum going into an off-weekend and start back fresh when we get going again.”

Stenhouse’s first top-five finish since a runner-up last June at Talladega moved him from 17th to 14th in the playoff standings (12 points above 17th-place Chris Buescher).

Even bigger, Stenhouse banked his first stage points of the season on Monday. Finishes of ninth in the first stage and sixth in the second stage earned him seven additional points.

If he is unable to win in the regular season, those points could be critical in a “bubble battle” during the final weeks.

But at the season’s first break, Stenhouse and his No. 47 team can feel good about what they’ve been able to do.

“We’re just trying to even things out, take the speed of our race cars, make sure we execute when we’re at the racetrack, when we’re in the shop, just being prepared,” he said. “That’s starting with me, the things I do behind the wheel, the things I do off the racetrack preparing, going into the weekend, just getting that mindset going into each race that it’s one race at a time.

“We didn’t get off to the hottest start. We struggled a little bit at the (Daytona) 500. Had a couple mistakes that cost us at the road courses. Really, other than that, we’ve stuck to our game plan and done everything that we’ve wanted to do and accomplish every week.”

How much did dirt experience matter?

NASCAR Cup Series Food City Dirt Race
Kyle Larson (5) and Christopher Bell (20) were among several drivers with major dirt experience in trouble Monday at Bristol. (Photo: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images.)

Many Cup drivers entered Monday with some sort of dirt experience, either gained very recently or in the distant or not-too-distant past.

There was a group of drivers with a deeper dirt background – drivers like Kyle Larson, Christopher Bell, Austin Dillon, Tyler Reddick, Chase Briscoe and the aforementioned Stenhouse.

Naturally, the pre-race favorites came from here.

But at day’s end, it was those with lesser experience who stood tall.

Joey Logano, Monday’s winner, ran the previous week’s Bristol Dirt Nationals in a modified. He made his modified debut only back in February. Prior to then, his dirt experience consisted of two starts in the former Prelude to the Dream late model race at Eldora Speedway.

Third-place finisher Denny Hamlin had only run dirt in karts as a child and then in a few late model races over a decade ago.

Fourth-place finisher Daniel Suarez turned his first proper laps on dirt just days before the Bristol weekend.

Two spots behind him in sixth was William Byron, who famously cut his teeth in the virtual world – not dirt or pavement.

Contrast that to the mixed results of those with deeper dirt experience.

Stenhouse was steady in his run to second place, while Reddick came on late to finish seventh. But others in the group weren’t as fortunate.

Briscoe finished 20th after enduring two separate incidents. One of them came on Lap 48, when he was run into the wall by teammate Kevin Harvick as Harvick tried to dodge a spinning Ryan Newman.

Austin Dillon, who won three races in a 604 Late Model during the Bristol Dirt Nationals, was never a factor on Monday and finished 21st. “Just didn’t have what we needed,” he said afterwards on social media.

Then there was Larson and Bell, whose days went south on Lap 53 after Bell spun high off Turn 2 and collected Larson and Ross Chastain. Bell and Chastain were eliminated, while Larson finished 28th in a heavily damaged car.

Having a lot of dirt experience to draw upon certainly wasn’t going to hurt these drivers’ chances of winning on Monday.

But considering Bristol’s treacherous nature no matter the surface, as well as the uniqueness of handling a 3,400-pound Cup car on dirt, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that their fortunes varied so much.

Dirt double dashed for MTJ

Another driver who unexpectedly ran strong on the dirt at Bristol was Martin Truex Jr.

With no wins and only two top-five finishes there in his Cup career, Truex has never really solved “The World’s Fastest Half-Mile” in its normal, concrete form.

But the 2017 Cup champion excelled on the Bluff City Red Tennessee Clay that was put down this weekend. Driving a Kyle Busch Motorsports entry, Truex rolled to his first career Camping World Truck Series win in Monday’s undercard.

He continued that performance in his No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota during the Cup main event. He won the opening stage and led a race-high 126 laps during the first half of the 250-lap race.

Suarez bumped him out of the top spot at Lap 135, but Truex stayed in the hunt for the win all the way up to overtime.

He lined up third for the single-file restart that settled the race. But as the field entered Turn 1, he suffered a tire failure and went up the track. He would finish 19th.

After the race, Truex’s crew chief, James Small, tweeted a picture of the tire with a short message that summed it up.

As for Truex himself, he looked at the big picture in his own tweet: “It was going good until those last two laps. Just bad luck. Awesome job by our whole team though.

“We had a great shot and that’s definitely more than we expected coming into this.”

Already in the playoffs with his Phoenix win, Truex is up to six playoff points after Monday – equal with Miami winner Byron and Atlanta winner Ryan Blaney.

Larson, the winner at Las Vegas, leads all drivers with eight playoff points, followed by Logano’s seven.

First top five since 2019 for Newman

Newman appeared to be in trouble during the aforementioned incident at Lap 48, where contact from behind by Byron sent him spinning on the backstretch.

But while the incident hurt several other drivers, Newman escaped with little damage. He recovered to score a combined nine stage points, then went from seventh at the overtime restart to finish fifth.

It was Newman’s first top-five finish since losing to Ryan Blaney by .007 of a second in the 2019 playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway.

“That was fun, no doubt,” Newman said after the race. “It was a good run for our Oscar Mayer Ford Mustang and a great team effort the entire week. I am really proud of the effort and a lot of guys got to see a lot more and experience a lot more.

“We got turned around there from a racing accident in Turn 2 with (Byron) and had to fight back and did. We just didn’t make it all the way back to the front. We had a pretty good car.

“I would have liked to see what we would have done with some track position, but I am sure everyone else would say the same thing.”

Long: NASCAR needs to quickly correct officiating issue from Texas

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NASCAR’s admission that it did not see William Byron spin Denny Hamlin under caution during Sunday’s Cup playoff race is troubling.

With video evidence of impropriety and Hamlin’s team vigorously arguing for relief, there were enough reasons for series officials to take a closer look at putting Hamlin back to second before the race returned to green-flag conditions. Or some other remedy even after the race resumed. 

Add the lack of access series officials had to Byron’s in-car camera— something fans could readily see at NASCAR.com and the NASCAR Mobile App — and changes need to be made before this weekend’s playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway.

While NASCAR should make every effort to judge matters between drivers regardless of their playoff status, that it was two playoff drivers involved in an incident demanded greater attention. With three races per round, one misstep can mean the difference between advancing or being eliminated. 

Just as more is expected from drivers and teams in the playoffs, the same should be expected of officials.

“If we had seen that (contact) good enough to react to it in real time, which we should have, like no excuse there, there would probably have been two courses of action,” said Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition Sunday night. “One would have been to put Hamlin back where he was, or the other would be to have made William start in the back.”

Here is how the incident played out:

The caution waved at Lap 269 for Martin Truex Jr.’s crash at 8:19 p.m. ET.

As Hamlin slowed, Byron closed and hit him in the rear. 

Byron admitted after the race the contact was intentional, although he didn’t mean to wreck Hamlin. Byron was upset with how Hamlin raced him on Lap 262. Byron felt Hamlin forced him into the wall as they exited Turn 2 side-by-side. Byron expressed his displeasure during the caution.

About 90 seconds after the caution lights illuminated, the USA broadcast showed a replay from a low angle of Byron directly behind Hamlin’s car and apparent contact. 

Contact can happen in multiple ways. It can come from the lead car hitting the brakes and forcing the car behind to hit them, or it can come from the trailing car ramming into the car ahead. The first video replay did not make it clear what caused the contact, making it difficult for any official to rule one way or the other based solely on that.

This also is a time when NASCAR officials were monitoring safety vehicles on track, checking the lineup and making sure pit road was ready to be open. It’s something NASCAR does effortlessly much of the time. Just not this time. 

A different replay aired on USA 11 minutes, 16 seconds after the caution that showed Byron and Hamlin’s car together. That replay aired about a minute before the green flag waved at 8:31 p.m. ET. Throughout the caution, Hamlin’s crew chief, Chris Gabehart argued that Hamlin should have restarted second.

But once the race resumed, the matter was over for NASCAR. Or so it seemed.

Three minutes after the green flag waved, the NASCAR Twitter account posted in-car video that showed Byron running into the back of Hamlin’s car while the caution was out. Such action is typically a penalty — often parking a driver for the rest of the race. Instead, Byron was allowed to continue and nothing was done during the rest of the event. 

After the race, Miller told reporters that series officials didn’t see the contact from Byron. 

“The cameras and the monitors that we’ve got, we dedicate them mostly to officiating and seeing our safety vehicles and how to dispatch them,” Miller said. “By the time we put all those cameras up (on the monitor in the control tower), we don’t have room for all of the in-car cameras to be monitored.

“If we would have had immediate access to (Byron)’s in-car camera, that would have helped us a lot, being able to find that quickly. That’s definitely one of the things we’re looking at.”

But it didn’t happen that way.

”By the time we got a replay that showed the incident well enough to do anything to it, we had gone back to green,” Miller said.

NASCAR didn’t act. By that time maybe it was too late to do so. But that’s also an issue. Shouldn’t the infraction be addressed immediately if it is clear what happened instead of days later? Shouldn’t officials have been provided with access to the in-car cameras so they could have seen Byron’s actions earlier and meted the proper punishment? Instead, Miller hinted at a possible penalty to Byron this week.

Miller didn’t reveal details but it wouldn’t be surprising to drop Byron in the field, costing him points. He’s 24 points from the cutline, so a penalty that drops him from seventh to 30th (the position ahead of Truex) could be logical and that would cost Byron 23 points, putting him near the cutline. 

Texas winner Tyler Reddick said something should have been done. He knows. He was parked in a 2014 Truck race at Pocono for wrecking German Quiroga in retaliation for an earlier incident.

“In William’s situation, whether he ran him over on accident or on purpose, there should be some sort of penalty for him on that side because he’s completely screwed someone’s race up, whether it was on purpose or not,” Reddick said. “I feel like there should be something done there.

“I’m sure (NASCAR will) make some sort of a decision. I’m sure there will be something they’ll address this week, updates, on NASCAR’s side. I’ll be curious to see what that is. We can’t really have this where you dump someone under caution, they go to the back and you don’t. That could potentially be an interesting situation in the future.”

Texas shuffles NASCAR Cup playoff standings

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Texas marked the fourth consecutive playoff race that the winner didn’t advance to the next round.

All three races in the first round were won by drivers not in the playoffs. Tyler Reddick won Sunday at Texas, a week after he failed to advance from the Round of 16 and was eliminated from title contention.

Texas did shake up the playoff standings. Chase Elliott entered as the points leader but a blown tire while leading sent his car into the wall, ending his race. He falls to the No. 8 spot, the final transfer position with two races left in this round. He’s tied with Daniel Suarez, but Suarez has the tiebreaker with a better finish this round.

Chase Briscoe, who scored only his second top 10 in the last 22 races, is the first driver outside a transfer spot. He’s four points behind Elliott and Suarez. Austin Cindric is 11 points out of the transfer spot. Christopher Bell is 29 points out of a transfer position. Alex Bowman is 30 points from the transfer line.

The series races Sunday at Talladega (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

 

XFINITY SERIES

Noah Gragson’s win at Texas moved him on to the next round. The win was his fourth in a row.

Ryan Sieg and Sam Mayer are tied for the final two transfer spots to the next round. Riley Herbst is one point behind them. Daniel Hemric is eight points from the final transfer spot. Brandon Jones is 13 points from the last transfer spot. Jeremy Clements is 29 points shy of the final transfer position.

The series races Saturday at Talladega (4 p.m. ET on USA Network).

 

 

CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES

The series was off this past weekend but returns to the track Saturday at Talladega. Ty Majeski has advanced to the championship race at Phoenix with his Bristol win.

 

Winners and losers at Texas Motor Speedway

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A look at the winners and losers from Sunday’s marathon race at Texas Motor Speedway:

WINNERS

Tyler Reddick – Reddick isn’t acting like a lame duck. Headed for 23XI Racing in 2024 (if not sooner), Reddick now owns three wins with Richard Childress Racing, the team he’ll be leaving.

Justin Haley – Haley, who has shown flashes of excellence this season for Kaulig Racing, matched his season-high with a third-place run.

Chase Briscoe — Briscoe wrestled with major problems in the early part of the race but rebounded to finish fifth. It’s his second top-10 finish in the last 22 races.

LOSERS

NASCAR Officials – Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, admitted that series officials missed William Byron spinning Denny Hamlin under caution after Martin Truex Jr.‘s crash. Such a situation could have major playoff implications, although Miller hinted that series officials may still act this week.

Christopher Bell – Bell met the wall twice after blown tires and finished a sour 34th, damaging his playoff run in a race that he said was critical in the playoffs.

Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. – Harvick (finished 19th) and Truex (31st) were late-race victims of the day’s tire dilemma. Both crashed while leading.

Track workers  Somebody had to clean up all that tire debris.

Chase Elliott – Elliott remains a power in the playoffs, but he left Sunday’s race in a fiery exit after a blown tire while leading and finished 32nd. He holds the final transfer spot to the next round heading into Talladega.

 

 

Blown tires end race early for several Texas contenders

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FORT WORTH, Texas — A Goodyear official said that air pressures that teams were using contributed to some drivers blowing tires in Sunday’s Cup playoff race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Chase Elliott, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. all crashed while leading after blowing a tire. Among the others who had tire issues were Alex Bowman, Chris Buescher Cole Custer and Christopher Bell twice. 

“We’re gaining as much information as we can from the teams, trying to understand where they are with regard to their settings, air pressures, cambers, suspicions,” said Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing Sunday. “For sure I can say without a doubt air pressure is playing into it. We know where a lot of the guys are. Some were more aggressive than others. We know that plays a part.

MORE: NASCAR says it missed William Byron spinning Denny Hamlin under caution 

“I’m not saying that’s the only thing, but it’s certainly a factor, so we’re just trying to understand everything else that is going on with regard to specific teams. We know a lot of guys have not had issues. We’ve had guys put full fuel runs on tires, but, obviously, other guys have had issues. We’ll be working with them to try to sort through that is.”

Eight of the 16 cautions were related to tire failures that caused drivers to spin or crash.

“It’s not a good look, that’s for sure,” Ryan Blaney said of the tire issues others had. “How many leaders blew tires tonight? Three or four?

“You just don’t understand what is making these things do that. From last week to this week, it’s really unfortunate. It’s just luck now.

“You never know if you’re going to blow one. You go into (Turn) 3 almost every lap with 40 laps on your stuff and I don’t know if one is going to blow out or not. That’s not safe. That’s for sure. Running (180) into (Turn) 3 and the thing blows out and you have no time to react to it. It’s unfortunate. I hope we can figure that out.”

Blaney said he was confused that the tires were blowing partly into a run instead of much earlier.

“It was weird because those tires didn’t blow right away,” he said. “Like the pressures were low. They blew like after a cycle or two on them, which is the weird thing.”

Asked how he handles that uncertainty, Blaney said: “Nothing I can do about it. Just hope and pray.”

After his crash, Elliott was diplomatic toward Goodyear’s situation:

“I’m not sure that Goodyear is at fault,” he said. “Goodyear always takes the black eye, but they’re put in a really tough position by NASCAR to build a tire that can survive these types of racetracks with this car. I wouldn’t blame Goodyear.”

Tyler Reddick, who won Sunday’s race at Texas, said his team made adjustments to the air pressure settings after Saturday’s practice.

“We ran enough laps, were able to see that we had been too aggressive on our right front tire,” he said. “So we made some adjustments going into the race, thankfully.”

This same time was used at Kansas and will be used again at Las Vegas next month in the playoffs. 

Reddick is hopeful of a change but also knows it might take time.

“I just think to a degree, potentially, as these cars have gotten faster and we’re getting more speed out of them, maybe, hypothetically speaking, we’re putting the cars through more load and more stress on the tire than they ever really thought we would be,” he said. 

“I know Goodyear will fix it. That’s what they do. It’s going to be a process. I know they’re going to be on top of it. Hey, they don’t want to see those failures. We don’t want to see them either. They’re going to be working on looking through and trying to find out exactly what is going on. We’ll all learn from it.

“It’s a brand-new car. It’s the first time in the history of our sport we’ve gone to an 18-inch wheel and independent rear suspension. All these things are way different, diffuser. All these things, way different. We’re all learning together. Unfortunately, just the nature of it, we’re having tire failures.”