TicketGuardian 500

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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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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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.

Ryan Blaney has best run of season, but comes up short

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Ryan Blaney was 17 laps away in Sunday’s TicketGuardian 500 from making it three consecutive wins by Team Penske.

But with tires and fuel supply both wearing thin, there was little Blaney could do to keep from being passed by eventual race winner Kyle Busch.

Honestly, we hung on better there on two tires than I thought we would,” Blaney said on Fox Sports afterward. “(We) fired off real good, got by Aric (Almirola) and we got Kyle a little bit.

“I was kind of riding, trying to save tires, save gas. They were telling me we were real close on gas. And I think (Kyle) was kind of riding back there, too. I think he knew what situation I was in.

“Then I started to get real tight and got the lapped cars and I was done. Then when we got passed for the lead, it was just full-on fuel save mode.”

Blaney was able to hang on for a third place finish, his best finish in the first four races of the season. His previous best finish was 22nd at both Atlanta and Las Vegas.

Blaney started from the pole, but ran into trouble on Lap 197 when he had to make an unscheduled pit stop for a loose wheel. However, he was able to make up some of the ground he lost by going for two tires in a regular pit stop on Lap 221.

He rode those tires for the final 89 laps, but he just didn’t have enough to hold off Busch, who made it a weekend sweep, having also won Saturday’s iK9 Service Dogs 200 Xfinity Series race.

“It was a good recovery,” Blaney said. “Two tires (on Lap 221) was the right call. I don’t think we would have run third if it weren’t for that.”

Now that he’s finally broken through with a strong showing, Blaney is hoping to continue that upward trend next Sunday at Fontana, California, and beyond.

Definitely a good weekend after the start to the year we’ve had,” Blaney said. “This is where this team deserves to run. So hopefully we can just keep moving forward.”

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What drivers said after Phoenix Cup race

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Kyle Busch, winner: “We knew the 12 (Ryan Blaney) was really, really fast. He was probably the best car here this weekend. I don’t know if he just got too tight in that long run. That’s what it looked like all of us were doing. Just seemed like I could get through there a little bit better. I tried to search around and find something that could help me to get me going a little bit better and get around to his outside and get the lead. Just an awesome day for us here at ISM Raceway. To come out here and celebrate with another win – back-to-back races here — I’d love to be able to come back and do it again next time.”

Martin Truex Jr., finished second: “We did save quite a bit (of fuel) there. The car was really fast there at the end. Just a good day overall for our Bass Pro Camry. Everybody at JGR and TRD and everybody back at the shop are really doing a good job. Our boys in the pits did a good job today as well, so thanks to Cole (Pearn, crew chief). James (Small, engineer) and all the guys, we’re starting to click. We’re a little bit off on Fridays and that’s getting us behind, but I feel like each weekend as the weekend goes, we’re getting a little strong and a little stronger. Two second places is pretty decent. We’ll just keep chipping away at it. Had a fun day today and congrats to Kyle (Busch) and those guys.”

Ryan Blaney, finished 3rd: “Honestly, we hung on better there on two tires than I thought we would.  Fired off really good.  Got Kyle (Busch) a little bit.  I was kind of riding trying to save tires, save gas.  They were telling me we were really close on gas just doing two.  I think he was kind of riding back there, too.  I think they knew what situation I was in.  Started to get real tight. I got to the lap cars, and I was done. Then when we got past the lead, just full‑on fuel save mode.  A good recovery.”

Aric Almirola, finished 4th: “We had a good car, but we’re just not quite as good as we need to be.  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.”

Denny Hamlin, finished 5th: Frustrating. Trying to get track position when you have a fast car. You just can’t drive through the field. You have to be patient and wait on everyone to kind of mess up or you’ve got try to run a different line, but when you do it’s just too much distance. Just the frustration of having a faster car and you can’t pass.”

Kyle Larson, finished 6th: “It was a clean day for us, so I was happy about that. 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. Even this week we made a big mistake in qualifying, but thankfully, we were able to work through it.”

Kurt Busch, finished 7th: “I’m glad we got a top 10. 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 Matt McCall (crew chief). Awesome, fun, running with (Kyle) Larson. 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. 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. To have two Ganassi cars sixth and seventh, top Chevy’s that is good stuff.”

Jimmie Johnson, finished 8th: “It’s not a victory, but it’s definitely a solid day for the Ally Chevrolet. These guys have been working so hard at Hendrick Motorsports to get us more and more and we took a good step in the right direction. I even think at Vegas we were better than where we finished. Once we lost track position, we struggled the second half of the race. Atlanta was terrible, can’t say anything different there.  We are learning each week and I still think we have some catching up to do, but certainly a solid performance. Kevin (Meendering, crew chief) called a great race, it was really tricky with strategy, two tires, four tires, our pit crew had to adjust mid-pit stop one time and go from four to two and everybody responded really well.”

Kevin Harvick, finished 9th: “It took us I don’t even know how long to get past cars that were six, seven, eight-tenths slower than us at the end of the race, so just extremely difficult to pass.  We got shuffled there on the restarts and just decided to come down and get tires and see if we could do something better than being in the middle on two tires, and it took us a long time to get back going.”

Joey Logano, finished 10th:  “It was really, really, really, really, really hard to pass. You start to catch a car and you just stop. That big spoiler on the back just makes it really, really challenging to even get to the car in front of you to make something happen, so restarts became everything. If you can get through the first couple laps and settle out, you were fine. It’s just very challenging behind a car to even keep up to speed and then what happens is you get behind him and that makes the tires mad and you go slower. You’re better off just getting there and riding and hopefully that car falls off enough to where you can maybe get close enough to make a move or wait until there’s a lapped car and try to make a pass or something like that. That was tough. That was hard.”

Ryan Newman, finished 12th: “We definitely showed improvement from last week, which is a good sign for the weeks to come. Our No. 6 Oscar Mayer team worked hard after practice yesterday to make some changes, which showed once we took the green. Although we wanted a top 10, we’ll take the result, improve and move on to Fontana next week looking to capitalize on the momentum.”

Ty Dillon, finished 15th: “Today was a great day for our GEICO Racing team. We consistently ran inside the top 20, kept making adjustments to fine tune the handling, and then got ourselves in a position to run inside the top 15. I know this is what our Germain Racing team can do every single week and I’m proud of all the hard work that is going into building faster race cars. We will keep building on top-15 finishes like this and I know good things will continue to happen for our team.”

Alex Bowman, finished 35th: “We have just been too tight since we unloaded and couldn’t figure out how to fix it. We were pretty good as long as there was air on the nose, but get buried in traffic and we were just way too tight. It’s unfortunate, obviously, finishing that first stage fourth we had a good race car just had to have clean air and without that we were way too tight.”

Michael McDowell, finished 36th: “I just came off the corner and I noticed that the throttle pedal was gone. I knew I was in trouble at that point because it was still wide-open, so I tried hitting the ignition and jumping on the brakes and did everything I could to keep it up against the wall and try not to make a big mess. I was trying not to run into the car in front of me, which I think was Menard. I was just jamming on the brakes as hard as I could to try to get it to slow down and not take a bunch of people with me.”

Check back for more.