MARTINSVILLE, Va. — Chase Elliott paced the final Cup practice Saturday at Martinsville Speedway, turning a 97.542 mph lap on the 0.526-mile oval.
Teammate Alex Bowman was second fastest, and Jimmie Johnson made it a sweep of the top three speeds for Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets, which have been winless since Elliott’s win last October at Kansas Speedway..
For the third time in the last four weeks Kyle Busch is the unanimous No. 1 pick in the NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings.
Busch made history last weekend at Auto Club Speedway, earning the 200th win of his NASCAR career across all three major series. With the three-race West Coast swing now in its rearview mirror, NASCAR heads to the series’ shortest track, the .526-mile Martinsville Speedway.
Making the biggest jump in this week’s rankings were Team Penske teammates Brad Keselowski (seventh to fourth) and Ryan Blaney (ninth to sixth). The biggest drop was Martin Truex Jr., who fell to seventh from second.
Here’s how this week’s Power Rankings look:
1. Kyle Busch (40 points): The King of the sport at this point. In 10 national series starts this year, he has six wins and two runner-up finishes and has not finished lower than sixth in any race. Last week: 1st.
2. Joey Logano (35 points): Two top-two finishes during West Coast swing plus a 10th at Phoenix. Only Kyle Busch scored more points than Logano during the three-race swing. Last week: 3rd.
3. Kevin Harvick (30 points): Hasn’t led any laps since Las Vegas, but has finished fourth three times since Daytona. Last week: 5th.
4. Brad Keselowski (29 points): Rebounded from a dismal Phoenix race to lead 42 laps and place third at Fontana. His four races since Daytona have included three finishes in top three. Last week: 7th.
5. Kurt Busch (22 points): Four consecutive top 10s but has failed to make the final round of qualifying in the last three races. That’s contributed to him having only four stage points in that time. Last week: 4th.
6. Ryan Blaney (17 points): He is nipping at the heels of his powerhouse Penske teammates. Could he join Logano and Keselowski with a playoff berth with a win at Martinsville? Last week: 9th.
7. Martin Truex Jr. (16 points): Talk about consistency: Truex has finished second, eighth, second and eighth in his last four starts. Last week: 2nd.
8. Denny Hamlin (12 points): Still has not finished worse than 11th this season. Last week: 6th.
9. Aric Almirola (10 points): Just keeps clicking off top 10s. That’s four in a row for him. Now has nine top 10s (including a win last fall at Talladega) in his last 11 starts. Last week: 8th.
10. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (5 points):Even though he finished 14th at Fontana, his second-worst showing of the season, again receives major points for displaying grit and sheer will. Climbs back into the top 10 after dropping out last week.
As NASCAR leaves the land of Hollywood, hopefully it also will be shaking its “Being John Malkovich”-esque meta feedback loop that has been on repeat for two race weekends with a dizzying relentlessness.
Maybe there are other things happening in NASCAR that are worthy of further examination with the completion of the fourth annual Nevada-Arizona-California hopscotch?
Running through a few of them:
–This is the first time in 19 years that Hendrick Motorsports has yet to record a top five through the first five races (and that 2000 team had one fewer car).
After a mediocre start to 2018 in the Camaro’s debut, the team somehow seems in the same straits with the model this season while adapting to the 2019 configuration of lower horsepower and higher downforce.
Because of the hurdles in running three consecutive races more than 2,000 miles from the industry’s Charlotte hub, it was expected that course-correcting any car deficiencies would be more difficult than it already is.
Never mind the expense of changing on the fly, it’s logistically impossible to make significant updates to cars while trying to ship them to the other side of the country amid a carefully coordinated and highly regimented plan of hauler swaps and highway gymnastics.
The March 31 race at Texas Motor Speedway will be the first 1.5-mile race in which teams have been able to digest everything learned in real-world conditions and apply them to their cars.
If Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman, William Byron and Jimmie Johnson leave Texas without a top five, it won’t be the end of the world for Rick Hendrick’s squad. Last year, it took until August for Elliott to earn the first of three victories for the team, and Hendrick has an Optical Scanning Station in house (it didn’t a year ago), along with a better grasp on its personnel restructuring that occurred before the 2018 season.
All four drivers have run well at times this season, too, and Phoenix was a major rebound in qualifying.
But a collective one top 10 across 12 starts at Atlanta, Las Vegas and Fontana is troubling and indicative that much work remains to be done for a storied organization that takes great pride in its 12 Cup championships.
–Stewart-Haas Racing didn’t miss the boat as much with its new Mustangs, but its lead driver also was chalking some of his recent success up to being a veteran.
“I don’t think as a group we feel like our cars are where they need to be but that experience has led to decent finishes so we can change the things we want to when we get home,” Kevin Harvick said two days before his third top five and fourth consecutive top 10 this year. “Experience is always going to matter.”
So is money and sponsorship, which is why Stewart-Haas, Hendrick and other high-budget teams will be well positioned to retrofit their cars (or perhaps rebuild them entirely). Harvick estimated there could as many as a half-dozen combination of car styles that will need to be developed and require “an extreme amount of work” for the armies of engineers employed by teams.
“I think we are seeing some of the unintended consequences of this package,” he said. “It isn’t what everybody expected from the testing with the drafting and low drag and things you are prepared for. I feel like we have had top five, top three cars (at Atlanta, Vegas and ISM Raceway). They are just not quite winning cars.
“It is really just a survival game at this point trying to keep up with the schedule. We are learning at such a rapid pace right now that the changes to the car will be extreme by the time you get to Texas. … One of the things that caught a lot of people off guard are the differences you will have to have from race track to race track with the things you do to the car and how they work. The workload is going to be absolutely extreme on the race teams this year.”
–According to one crew chief whose team has figured out the 2019 package as well as anyone, body construction and rear ride heights are the keys to hitting the right combination of downforce and balance.
Paul Wolfe, whose No. 2 Ford posted a first, second and third with driver Brad Keselowski on the big ovals since Daytona, said his team still is finding the handle on this season’s setup, but those areas have been the most impact.
“There is a window there where you can change your rear ride height to change your drag, but that also changes the overall balance of your car,” Wolfe said after Saturday practice at Auto Club Speedway. “So then, your mechanical balance to go with the aero balance could be different. Some guys may have gone down the path of really trimming their cars out with their body build and then when you get (to Fontana), you just can’t put downforce back in it enough to be good at the tracks where you need to start to lift (off the throttle) because of tire fall off.
“There are a lot of options and lots of different things to do. It is about trying to understand not only being fast by yourself but how these cars seem to get extremely tight or they could get loose in the dirty air.”
“It didn’t work in trucks, it didn’t work in Xfinity, and I don’t know why anybody thought it was going to work in the Cup Series,” analyst Jeff Burton said Monday on NASCAR America.
If the strategy for having it work this time was “let’s hope that drivers and teams will do the right thing and choose the path that will benefit the greater good of fan entertainment instead of stubbornly sticking to their selfish performance interests,” well … that’s hopeless.
OK, we give in: here’s ONE note on Kyle Busch (for Rowdy Nation and all its lovers/haters).
For the second consecutive week, Busch joked about the possibility of driving for a Formula One team as the last undiscovered country of his racing career (well, aside from if he ever gets around to the Indianapolis 500).
It seems an unlikely prospect because “nobody from F1 is calling.
“They’re going to have to spend a lot of money to buy me out of Joe Gibbs Racing, that’s for sure,” said Busch, who recently signed a multi-year extension that probably takes him through at least 2022 in the No. 18 Toyota. “I don’t know if it’s worth their investment. … I’d love to be able to give it a shot and kind of see. I don’t foresee the opportunity really blossoming.”
“It’s definitely something I wouldn’t shoot down,” Busch said in 2009. “If I could win a championship (in NASCAR) in the next two or three years then I wouldn’t mind going doing (F1) for a few years and coming back. I think I’d still be young enough that if I could win a championship by 25, go run Formula 1 for a few years and be back (in NASCAR) by 28.”
That window has closed for Busch, who turns 34 in May.
But he doesn’t sound as if someone who has completely closed the door on considering the possibility again. So in the unlikely event an F1 team wanted to take a chance on a NASCAR champion in his late 30s …
Typically, such arrangements don’t happen with drivers crossing manufacturer lines. But the time and travel constraints of the Fontana race made Custer (a native of nearby Orange County who had lingered after his Ford won Saturday’s Xfinity race) the easiest choice.
In the “corporate teammates” era in which automaker hardball on brand loyalty often is a barrier to drivers moonlighting as often as yesteryear, it was refreshing to confirm it doesn’t preclude a common-sense decision such as this.
Fontana again stirred some passionate debate about the efficacy of the 2019 rules package, which virtually has guaranteed wild restarts but also has produced a surprising amount of green-flag racing (there’s been one crash that could be considered “multicar” – and even that was a stretch – over 1,300 miles at Atlanta, Las Vegas and Fontana).
Two more points seem relevant:
–Kyle Busch’s 2.354-second margin of victory was a fraction of Martin Truex Jr.’s 11.685-second thumping at the same 2-mile oval last year.
–If you are advocating dumping the tapered spacers that limit horsepower to 550 at tracks such as Fontana, here’s your friendly reminder that restoring last year’s horsepower numbers would take a herculean effort by engine manufacturers who have already mapped out months of inventory at the current parameters. Reverting to 2018 probably would require months of hardware and logistical challenges.