NASCAR America: Turning Point in Phoenix Cup race

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On Monday’s NASCAR America, analysts Jeff Burton, Steve Letarte and Kyle Petty discussed what was the turning point in Sunday’s TicketGuardian 500 at ISM Raceway.

To all three, restarts – particularly two of the last three – were the turning point that allowed Kyle Busch to win and Ryan Blaney to still finish third despite running low on both fuel and tire tread in the closing laps.

This is it, the third to last restart,” Burton said, looking at the video. “Ryan Blaney and Kyle Busch line up and in front of them is Kevin Harvick, on two tires. On this restart, Kevin Harvick gets put in the middle and now he’s in no-man’s land and is just going backwards.”

Letarte, meanwhile, pointed to the second-to-last restart following a single-car incident where Ryan Preece hit the wall, where Harvick fell back even further. On the surface, it was just two spots, but in reality, it likely cost Harvick any remaining chance to win.

“It’s just two spots, how bad can two spots be?” Letarte asked. “They come out on the backstretch, an accident comes out with Preece, the caution comes out and that’s an entire row. (Losing) two spots on a restart makes a huge difference because that sets them up for the next restart and now he’s (Harvick) behind Ryan Blaney and Kyle Busch.”

Added Kyle Petty, “Yes, (Harvick is) behind them, and on that restart, watch where that row goes, watch where Blaney and where Kyle Busch goes, and then watch the 4 car of Kevin Harvick. He’s not so much in no-man’s land, they just split him on both sides, which just totally takes him out.”

Burton chimed back in, adding:

(Harvick) said his car just didn’t go on two tires,” Burton said. “Blaney on the outside makes the move, then Harvick on the bottom gets into (Jimmie) Johnson and that slows his momentum. Then watch both sides of him, inside and outside, they split him and now his momentum is dead and you’re now in the middle driving into Turn 3 at Phoenix and that’s trouble. In those two restarts … Kevin Harvick, because of his two tires, his car not driving well, didn’t like the way it drove, got put in a bad spot. Boom, right there, his chance to win the race is gone.”

Letarte wrapped up the analysis by putting everything in perspective and why Harvick fell short and finished ninth: “Every driver said track position (was key during the race). Two restarts, eight positions (lost), game over. You’re not going to make that back.”

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Phoenix winners and losers

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WINNERS

Kyle Busch: Sweeps the weekend at ISM Raceway to climb to 199 career NASCAR victories.

Joe Gibbs Racing & Team Penske: They are the only organizations to win the last six Cup races, dating back to November’s playoff race at ISM Raceway.

Cup qualifying: It has been must-see viewing the past two weeks. The drafting and gamesmanship on pit road made qualifying fascinating at Las Vegas. The Daniel Suarez-Michael McDowell fight highlighted the session at ISM Raceway.

Ryan TruexFinished second to Kyle Busch in the Xfinity race. Truex is running a limited schedule with JR Motorsports.

 

LOSERS

Austin Dillon: Had to give up fifth place late to pit for fuel. He finished 21st and has finished no better than 16th this season.

Ryan Newman: Yes, he finished a season-best 12th despite two pit road penalties (speeding and a crew member behind the wall touching pit road) but imagine what he could have done without those issues?

Ryan Preece: Since his eighth-place finish in the Daytona 500, he has placed 35th, 25th and 34th.

Almirola: Season-best fourth place finish ‘just not quite good enough’

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Aric Almirola continues to be off to one of the best season starts of his NASCAR Cup career.

The Tampa, Florida, native has been giving teammate Kevin Harvick a run for his money as the top driver at Stewart Haas Racing thus far in 2019.

After being involved in a crash that relegated him to a 32nd-place finish in the Daytona 500, Almirola has steadily climbed the ladder of success since then, finishing eighth at Atlanta, seventh last week at Las Vegas and a season-best showing of fourth Sunday at Phoenix.

Harvick, meanwhile, racked up a 26th place showing at Daytona (crash), fourth-place finishes at Atlanta and Las Vegas and a ninth-place outing Sunday at Phoenix, meaning Almirola was the highest-finishing SHR driver in the TicketGuardian 500.

You’d think Almirola would be happy to have the spotlight on himself for what he did at ISM Raceway as SHR’s top-finishing driver.

On the contrary, Almirola wanted more – a lot more. You might even say he borrowed a page from Kyle Busch’s playbook when the younger Busch brother broods after he has a strong race but doesn’t win.

“We had a good car, but we’re just not quite as good as we need to be,” Almirola said. “We still have work to do, but I’m really proud of everybody at Stewart-Haas Racing. We keep chipping away.

“That’s three top 10s in a row, our first top five of the year, so we’re getting there. Our cars are getting a little better, but we just have to keep working and keep finding more speed.

“We have a great race team and we’ll continue to improve on what we’ve got, so we’ll just keep working. Our Smithfield Ford Mustang was decent, but just not quite good enough.”

If he hadn’t been passed late in the race by Busch, runner-up Martin Truex Jr. and third-place finisher Ryan Blaney, Almirola potentially may have wound up in the top-three.

But lapped cars and the new aero package limited his forward progress late in the 312-lap race.

It’s always really tough to pass at Phoenix,” Almirola said. “But then when you put more downforce in the cars, we’re going across the middle of the corner faster and cars are punching a bigger hole in the air with a bigger spoiler, it just inherently makes the cars a lot harder to drive when you’re behind and in traffic.

“That’s nothing new. I think we all kind of knew that going in and expected it and it’s really just a product of what we have going on right now.”

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Chip Ganassi Racing resurgence continues with dual top 10s in Phoenix

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After four races, the move to shake up Chip Ganassi Racing’s driver lineup appears to have been the right one.

The team placed both its drivers in the top 10 for the first time Sunday at ISM Raceway, with Kyle Larson placing a season-best sixth and Kurt Busch following right behind in seventh

Last year, that feat wasn’t accomplished until the Coca-Cola 600 in May and achieved only a total of four times, with the last coming at IMS Raceway in last fall’s playoffs.

Busch, who replaced Jamie McMurray in the No. 1 Chevrolet this season, earned his third straight top 10 following top fives at Atlanta and Las Vegas.

“I’m glad we got a top 10,” Busch said. “We had to battle hard for this one. We didn’t do really good on pit road and we didn’t really do good on restarts, but overall with the Global Poker Chevy it was nice to have a read on some looseness and tightness at a short track and get more notes under our belt. That is key for me and (crew chief) Matt McCall.”

With his three top 10s, Busch needs five more to match McMurray’s total from 2018. He’s already tied McMurray’s total for top fives. Busch also led 23 laps at Las Vegas, which bettered the nine McMurray led in all of 2018.

Last year, Busch didn’t earn the third of his 22 top 10s until race No. 7 at Texas Motor Speedway. He had to wait until race No. 11 at Talladega to earn his first of six top fives.

Busch said it was “awesome” to race head-to-head with Larson in the closing laps around the one-mile track.

They were the top finishing Chevrolet drivers after Busch was at Atlanta and Las Vegas.

“The two of us got a pretty good read on each other on when we are holding each other up or if we are helping each other and then at the end they told me I was about a lap shy on fuel, so I had to save and I just let Larson go and it worked out,” Busch said.

Larson’s finish was much-needed for the No. 42 team after it placed 12th in the last two races in part due to pit road issues.

“It was a clean day for us, so I was happy about that,” Larson said. “Had some really good restarts that kept us in the game. We worked on our balance throughout the race, tried to free it up and got too free and then had to go back on changes to tighten us back up.

“So, yeah to come away with a sixth is nice after the last couple of weeks we’ve had of just making mistakes and even this week we made a big mistake in qualifying, but thankfully, we were able to work through it.”

The two-car team now heads to Auto Club Speedway, where Larson will be seen as a favorite.

Four of his five Cup wins have come on 2-mile speedways, including a win at ACS in 2017. He placed second last year for his second top five there.

Busch will be aiming for his second win there in 26 starts. The first came in 2003.

He’s failed to finish better than 14th at ACS in his last three starts.

Results, points after TicketGuardian 500 at ISM Raceway in Phoenix

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Kyle Busch snapped Team Penske’s two-race winning streak, passing Ryan Blaney with 17 laps to go to win Sunday’s TicketGuardian 500 at ISM Raceway.

It was Busch’s 52nd career Cup win and the 199th win of his NASCAR career (94 in Xfinity, including Saturday’s iK9 Service Dog 200, and 53 in the Gander Outdoors Truck Series). It was Busch’s third Cup win at Phoenix and marked the 12th time he’s won both a Cup and Xfinity race on the same weekend.

It also was the second win of the season for Joe Gibbs Racing, following up on Denny Hamlin’s Daytona 500 victory.

Busch beat Martin Truex Jr. by 1.259 seconds. Blaney, who started from the pole, finished third, followed by Aric Almirola and Hamlin.

Sixth through 10th were Kyle Larson, Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano.

Click here for the full race results.

Points

With his win Sunday, Kyle Busch joins teammate Denny Hamlin and Team Penske teammates Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski as qualifying for the playoffs.

Logano led the NASCAR Cup points after last week’s win at Las Vegas, but Busch’s win Sunday puts him back atop the standings (177 points). Busch holds a six-point lead over Logano.

Click here for the point standings.