Martin Truex Jr.‘s 20th NASCAR Cup career win in Saturday’s Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway was unlike any other he’s ever experienced.
After 80 prior winless starts and finishes at Bristol, Martinsville and Richmond, Truex finally earned his first career Cup win on a short-track (tracks less than one-mile in length).
It also is Truex’s first win since joining Joe Gibbs Racing this season.
Truex led 186 of the race’s 400 laps, holding off late-race charges by runner-up Joey Logano and third-place finisher Clint Bowyer to take the checkered flag.
In doing so, Truex also became part of history: never in the sport’s modern era (1972-present) has only two organizations – Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske – won each of the first nine races of the season. JGR has won six races (three by Kyle Busch, two by Denny Hamlin and one by Truex), and Team Penske has won three (two by Brad Keselowski and one by Joey Logano).
“The car wasn’t doing anything I wanted it to do,” Truex told Fox Sports. “We got real tight on that last run. So being out front was really the key and just trying all I could do not to screw up and hold those guys off. It was definitely really, really difficult.
“It’s been an up-and-down start to the year but I feel like we’ve got a great team and hopefully we can continue to do this.”
“We ran out of time there,” Logano told Fox Sports. “I thought maybe I could get to the outside and roll momentum. My only move was to go up, started to get there and he slid up and I got tight and couldn’t turn underneath him.
“It was a fun race. Gosh, three weeks in a row I felt we had a car that could win the race and we haven’t won. That’s a little frustrating, but when you’re frustrated with second, that’s a good sign about where your team’s at. A couple little things kept us from winning, but overall, I felt like we had a great car.”
Bowyer slightly skimmed the wall late, which allowed Logano to ultimately pass him and keep Bowyer from catching Truex.
WHO ELSE HAD A GOOD RACE: Clint Bowyer gave Truex all he could handle late, but couldn’t keep Logano from passing him for second-place. … Kyle Busch finished eighth, his ninth straight top-10 finish of the season. … Austin Dillon earned his best finish of the season.
WHO HAD A BAD RACE:Kyle Larson’s tough season continued. He hit the wall on Lap 128, ending his night. “I hate the start to the season I’ve had,” Larson told Fox Sports. “Hopefully this break (Easter off-weekend) comes at a good time and we come back with some better luck.” … Michael McDowell made an early exit after being involved in a single-car crash on Lap 240.
NOTABLE:Erik Jones, who originally qualified on the outside of the front row, was among eight drivers that failed pre-race inspections and had to start at the back of the field. He finished 14th. … Only one Chevrolet finished in the top 10 (Austin Dillon). Six Fords and three Toyotas also finished in the top 10.
WHAT’S NEXT: All three of NASCAR’s major series are off for the Easter weekend. The next Cup race is the Geico 500 on Sunday, April 28, at Talladega, the first superspeedway race in more than 30 years where cars will not have restrictor plates on them.
“We did a great job today, I didn’t think it was a perfect lap from my standpoint, but I was able to get in the throttle on the exit of the corner and put down a decent lap,” Harvick told Fox Sports 1.
While Kyle Larson was second fastest in the first round, he’ll start 14th after he didn’t advance out of the second round.
“Each lap of that first round I was getting tighter in the center and was slowing down,” Larson told Fox Sports 1. “There in the second round I was just too tight in the middle.”
Elliott Sadler doesn’t look back on his decision to step away from full-time racing with regret.
“It is 100 percent the best decision I made,” he told NBC Sports this week.
But he’s also looking forward to his return to the Xfinity Series tonight for Kaulig Racing at Richmond Raceway. This is one of two races Sadler is scheduled to drive this season (the other is Sept. 14 at Las Vegas).
Sadler, 43, said it became clear last year that it was time for him to step back.
“A few things helped in my decision,” said Sadler, who has 13 Xfinity and three Cup victories. “I know what it takes to race at this level. I understand the homework you have to do, the videos you have to watch, the notes you have to take, the simulation you have to study, the working out that you have to do, the whole mental and physical part of it.
“I was at the point last year where I did not and just could not do all the things that I wanted to do. I lost that drive to do it 100 percent. I couldn’t make myself go to the gym, every day, every night. I couldn’t make myself watch videos … all the time. So I lost a little bit of that drive. I didn’t want to half-ass it. I’m not that kind of person.
“I knew that if I was not going to do everything that I knew I needed to do to compete at a 100 percent level like some of these other guys, like Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch, some of these guys that I know work their butts off to stay in the shape they’re in and live on the edge, there was no need for me to do it.”
Sadler said another key factor was being more involved with his family and children, 9-year-old Wyatt and 7-year-old Austyn.
“I think that is why I lost some of my drive to do this every weekend,” Sadler said of racing. “It’s hard to race 33 weekends a year when you’ve got kids at home. I’m not singing the blues by no means. I was in a good point in my life where if I had to make a decision or wanted to make the decision to stay at home more and be a part of my kids’ life I could and that’s the decision I ended up making.”
Sadler is coaching his kids in sports and noted that earlier this week their team won a baseball tournament championship in extra innings in Richmond.
“I told my wife, after the game we were driving home, I said, I wouldn’t have missed this for the world,” Sadler told NBC Sports. “This is one of the happiest days of my life, watching all these kids fight through what they did to win the championship. That’s what it is all about.”
Sadler admits he is excited to get back into the car this weekend. Although he’s missed the first seven races, he isn’t worried. He looks to friend Dale Earnhardt Jr., who ran in Richmond’s Xfinity race in September in his only start of the year and finished fourth, leading 96 of 250 laps. Sadler seeks his first career Xfinity win at Richmond.
“I’m not putting a uniform on to go ride around and be fan,” Sadler said. “I could just buy a ticket if I wanted to be a fan. I want to be a part of the race and a part of the action.”
Such penalties are not new to Hamlin. His 23 pit road speeding penalties since 2016 rank third in the series. He’s recorded a pit road speeding penalty in 19.8% of the 116 Cup races run since 2016, according to Racing Insights.
The drivers with the most pit road speeding penalties (and how many they’ve had) since 2016 are:
NASCAR stated that this is not the new qualifying format moving forward. The change was made after all 24 cars did not go on to the track in the first five minutes of the second round last weekend at Bristol.
NASCAR has made it clear it doesn’t want to go back to single-car qualifying. Officials still have to figure out what to do about qualifying at bigger tracks where drafting plays a role.
But changing the rules time after time and spending so much time discussing qualifying — instead of the race — makes it seem as if the sport has fallen into a rabbit hole on this matter.
If the sport is against single-car qualifying and officials need to keep tweaking the format time after time, the question becomes is qualifying necessary?
Want to make setting the lineup simple? Fine. Make the starting lineup based on how drivers finished in the previous race.
Finishing order from the previous race also determines the pit stall picks. If the car didn’t race the week before, it starts behind all those that ran that race. If there are more cars than spots, then have single-car qualifying among the cars that did not compete the race before.
Problem solved. Now the sport can move on to something else.
4. Working together (finally)
It took a while but Michael McDowell got Drew Blickensderfer to be his crew chief. Blickensderfer was someone McDowell had targeted previously.
“When I was at (Leavine Family Racing), I tried really hard to get Drew, and the biggest reason is watching himfrom the garage and two, I became good friends with Carl (Edwards),” said McDowell, now with Front Row Motorsports. “And Carl and I would have fun conversations, and Carl is an intense guy, and I said, ‘Hey if you were going to go to battle, who would you go with?’ He’s like, ‘I’d take Drew with me.’
“So that was always ingrained a little bit in my mind, and then just seeing Drew, and I see him from afar, and I felt he’s always overachieved and always had that leadership and that intensity. Yeah, it’s just like one of those things where you just know when you know, and so I fought hard for years to try to get him, and it just never really worked out, and opportunity became available kind of late in the game and late in the (off)season and really thankful to get him over there.”
McDowell saw firsthand how Blickensderfer battled when he stepped in after McDowell went to the ground in his confrontation with Daniel Suarez at ISM Raceway in March. Blickensderfer pinned Suarez against the hood of McDowell’s car on pit road.
“The battle part wasn’t a reference to Suarez, but you know, you can tell if you look at Drew and look at his ears, they’re closed up for a reason,” McDowell said. “He’s been on the mat and on the floor a lot. And him and I kind of joked about that because he obviously stepped in there, and you could just see it was instincts. He’s got that fire about him. I didn’t want him because he can take care of all the drivers for me … but that intensity is what you’re looking for.”
McDowell enters this weekend 28th in points. He finished fifth in the Daytona 500 but has had one top 20 since, placing 15th at Texas.
5. Bounty award for fans
NASCAR on NBC analyst Parker Kligerman noted on Thursday’s NASCAR America that he’d like to see a bounty paid to any driver that can beat Kyle Busch, who has won three of the first eight races this season. Kligerman noted it’s an old short-track promotion done when someone dominates.
It’s a good idea, but why not include the fans? If someone beats Kyle Busch – or better yet, if any team can win other than Joe Gibbs Racing or Team Penske – then maybe that track takes the number of the winning car and deducts that much from the ticket (with a ceiling as to how much those tickets can be reduced). Make the fans a part of something like that.
And tracks could still win by offering some sort of special ticket price if Busch wins or a JGR car or Team Penske car does.
No, this isn’t going to suddenly pack every track’s grandstands. That’s not the intent. It would be a way to have a little fun and maybe help fans with the cost of tickets and encourage a few others to purchase them.
Ryan: Kyle Busch has been the best, but is his Cup sword the sharpest?
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.”
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.”
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:
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%.
Positive Regression Episode 11 – …But Was It a Good Race?
In which our heroes debate the necessity of entertaining qualifying sessions and dissect NASCAR's greatest races in search of commonalities. https://t.co/IjikdEbr0T
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.
Somewhere around 10-12 loose wheels.. where’s @TonyStewart when you need him to talk about safety.. Guns just aren’t up to standards
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.
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.
Daniel Suarez's one lap penalty was for removing tape as he left the pit stall. Rule says no work can be done "if any part of the vehicle is visibly on top of or over the front line of the pit box." pic.twitter.com/QktcfhFPLK
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.”
We are making the NASCAR experience more affordable for our 60th anniversary! We have adjusted our 2020 grandstand pricing to make going to our races more accessible for fans everywhere! 🏁 #RacetoAMS2020
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.
Had some curiosity after I came back from race today. Made some calls, this is what I got. Johnson City Courtyard =$319, but are now taking walk-ins at $105. Hampton Inn= $308. But will be back down to $133 on Monday. Reason he gave was “it’s race weekend.” Pisses me off!!!
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.
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.
Jimmie Johnson won the pole for Sunday’s Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway, posting a top speed of 188.890 mph in the final round of qualifying Friday night.
It is his 36th career pole and his first since the July 2016 race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (95 starts between poles).
Johnson will be joined on the front row by fellow Hendrick Motorsports driver William Byron (188.416 mph).
Johnson swept all three rounds of qualifying. It’s the 12th time a driver has swept all three rounds and the second time in 2019.
“It’s been a long couple of years and we still have a long ways to go,” Johnson told Fox Sports 1. “Certainly race day is much more important than Friday. But we’re working so hard. I think we’re a bit guilty of trying too hard and maybe stepping outside of our comfort zone at times and putting setups in the car that just aren’t quite proven yet.”
Clint Bowyer qualified 25th, failing to advance to the second round. He was the lead car in a group that went out for a late second run. Afterward Bowyer expressed frustration over being impeded on pit road by Ryan Newman.
“Learn from your mistakes,” Bowyer said when asked how qualifying can be improved. “That’s how you get better. Learn from your mistakes. We already had this failure and here we are doing it again. Come on.”
In Round 1, Alex Bowman got loose and smacked the outside wall in Turn 2. He will go to a backup car.
Erik Jones‘ car failed pre-qualifying inspection twice. His car chief, Blake Harris, was ejected for the rest of the weekend. Jones will be docked 15 minutes Saturday in the final practice session.