The Top Five: Breaking down the Southern 500 at Darlington

Five thoughts after Sunday night’s Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway…

1. Denny’s Drive

Denny Hamlin sometimes seems like the forgotten Joe Gibbs Racing driver when compared to teammate Kyle Busch, who is constantly in the spotlight.

But Hamlin’s impressive weekend at Darlington might have been the best of his NASCAR career, and it reminded everyone how good he can be.

It looked like Hamlin had choked away a chance to win the Southern 500 when he missed pit road under the green flag late in the race — a mistake that cost him more than 10 seconds (he was 23 seconds behind the leaders when he came out of the pits).

From that point, though, the rally was on. Hamlin charged through the field and retook the lead with three laps to go when Martin Truex Jr. blew a tire.

The win will go down as one of Hamlin’s signature moments, and deservedly so. As good as he is at Darlington — his average finish here was the best among active drivers entering the race — Hamlin still had to execute an incredible comeback after his mistake.

“Denny is obviously a wheel man here,” crew chief Mike Wheeler said. “If you don’t win here with Denny, you probably didn’t have a good enough car.  Seeing him coming from 10 seconds back in one stint, I was really happy with that effort, and I knew we probably had the fastest car.”

2. Asphalt’s fault

Goodyear did a great job with the Darlington tire and deserves praise, but the tire wear that allowed Hamlin to tear his way up through the field — as others fell off the pace — was due to the track surface more than anything.

That’s really what it comes down to: Does the track surface wear and get abrasive after a repave, or does it act like Charlotte?

Darlington, despite being the closest track in proximity to Charlotte, has certainly aged much differently since being repaved. As such, tires make a massive difference — which truly makes it a throwback race to the times there were comers and goers throughout the course of a run.

Hamlin’s charge was the shining example, but don’t forget the end of Stage 1, either.

Truex tracked down Kyle Larson and caught him from several seconds back — something that never happens on 1.5-mile tracks where the tires don’t wear as quickly (if anything, clean air just allows the leader to drive away at those places).

But with tires making a difference, Truex made the pass at the line.

Great stuff. And it’s because of the surface — yet another reminder these tracks should hold off on repaves as long as possible.

3. Hot take?

I don’t share in the belief regular season champion Martin Truex Jr. is a lock for Homestead, even though he obviously has a great chance to get there after going into the playoffs with at least 52 points for each round.

Here’s the thing: Sure, he has a massive advantage over a driver like Jamie McMurray, who has zero playoff points. But the top contenders for the title — Truex’s primary competition like Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson — will enter the playoffs with well over 20 points.

So by the time Round 3 rolls around, Truex might have a 30-something point advantage on Busch and Larson — half a race — but not a full-race lead.

In that case, he’s a virtual guarantee to make Round 3. But after that, anything can happen, like if three different winners left only one spot on points, which could be a battle if Truex has problems.

Truex will be in my final four picks, of course. But let’s just pump the brakes on acting like he’s unstoppable or can’t get caught up in someone else’s wreck at Martinsville.

4. Come back, throwback!

Prior to the green flag, Motor Racing Network announcer Mike Bagley said I really should check out the view from the Earnhardt Towers suites in Turn 3 if I’d never seen that perspective before.

So I stood alongside Bagley as the field rode around behind a pace car and Richard Petty’s old No. 43 car — driven by Petty himself — on the parade laps. The pace car turned off its lights (the signal the race was about to go green), but then a funny thing happened: Petty didn’t get off the track.

I’m not sure if Petty just forgot when he was supposed to come to pit road or just chose to stay out for fun, but the result was NASCAR trying to communicate with The King — and methods included a black flag (how hilarious is that?) followed by pace car driver Brett Bodine emphatically waving Petty by, with his hand outside the window.

Finally, Petty got the hint.

On the team radios, drivers sounded tickled as spotters relayed why the race would be delayed one lap. NASCAR’s original seven-time champion wouldn’t get off the track to start Darlington’s throwback race. Ha!

I absolutely loved it and am still smiling about that as I type this. What else could sum up the throwback weekend so well than a Hall of Famer taking an extra moment in the spotlight after he and his colleagues were celebrated?

The “reunion” part of the throwback concept continues to build. It’s really turned into a Homecoming for old drivers — not just Hall of Famers, but anyone who used to be involved with NASCAR — and that’s a beautiful thing.

Although the throwback concept is planned out for upcoming years, the theme will change each time (the next two years are open to all years of NASCAR history). That should do enough to keep the weekend fresh, and I hope it becomes a permanent fixture that people won’t tire of.

5. Delusional Dale Jr. fans

Crew chief Greg Ives will be likely suspended for one race after the No. 88 team left two lug nuts loose on the right rear wheel during the final pit stop.

NASCAR pulled Earnhardt out of line at the end of pit road after spotting the loose lugs (Earnhardt was initially told there were four, not two) and the driver spent some time peering at the wheel with his crew.

“There was a real bad vibration on the last run, and there was a bunch of them loose on the right rear,” he told me. “They must have just had a screw-up. It’s nothing intentional. You wouldn’t want to leave four loose like that. I mean, they’re not even up on the wheel.”

Either way, two or more lug nuts means at least a one-race suspension (three or more is a three-race suspension), which means Ives won’t be at Richmond next week unless Hendrick Motorsports appeals the upcoming penalty.

Here’s the thing: Earnhardt fans on Twitter responded to this with not disappointment, but much rejoicing because they don’t like Ives. I don’t want to call out individuals and embed their tweets here, but more than a few fans seemed to think this would give Earnhardt a chance to turn things around next week.

Damn! Are you people serious?

Ives isn’t the problem — at least not the sole problem. It’s all of Hendrick Motorsports right now. Look at Darlington: After a glimmer of hope in practice, none of the team’s drivers ran very well all night or finished in the top 10 (Chase Elliott was 11th).

So you really think just because an engineer gets to be crew chief for a week that Earnhardt will suddenly find speed that the rest of the team doesn’t have?

C’mon. There will be no Richmond miracle, with or without Ives. It’s not the crew chief, it’s the cars in general.

Economics could push veteran drivers out of sport early, Denny Hamlin says

While there’s definitely a lot of merit to the young driver movement in NASCAR, there’s a flip side to the trend that has a big dollar sign attached.

Denny Hamlin, while acknowledging the influx of young talent into the sport, said hiring young drivers may not be what teams would prefer to do.

“It’s a shame the teams are not in a position to just put in who they want — put in the best guy available,” Hamlin said Friday during an appearance at the Indianapolis FedEx hub. “You wish the teams could operate and say, ‘You know what? We want this guy. We don’t care how old he is. We don’t care whether the sponsor likes him, because we have enough money in our company to field the car.'”

Hamlin said that because current teammate and free-agent-to-be Matt Kenseth is currently looking for a job despite still being at the top of his game.

“Without a doubt, Kenseth would be in a top-notch ride with a top-notch team if the business of NASCAR was run like that,” Hamlin said. “But it’s just not anymore. It’s tough to make money (for) these teams, and they need those sponsors to be OK with the drivers. … Kenseth, on talent, deserves to be in the sport for a fair amount of time.”

Veteran drivers, of course, demand a much higher salary than young drivers who are just happy to have the opportunity at the NASCAR Cup Series level.

Hendrick Motorsports hired unheralded Alex Bowman to replace Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the No. 88 car, Erik Jones will replace Matt Kenseth at Joe Gibbs Racing and Daniel Suarez replaced Carl Edwards this season.

So is Hamlin, 36, worried his driving days might end prematurely after seeing Kenseth and Greg Biffle pushed out of rides while in their mid-40s?

“Not as long as I have this company behind me — I don’t think so,” Hamlin said with a smile, motioning to a FedEx jumbo jet over his shoulder. He added: “I know my years are probably numbered and I probably know as far as I want to go.”

Denny Hamlin walks by a FedEx plane during a visit to the company’s Indianapolis hub on Friday. (Photo: Jeff Gluck)

 

The Top Five: Breaking down the New Hampshire race

Five thoughts after Sunday’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway…

1. Mixed bag for Gibbs

So Joe Gibbs Racing is back in victory lane for the first time since Texas last fall, which was Carl Edwards’ final career win.

While that’s great for Denny Hamlin, you’ll have to forgive teammates Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch if they didn’t leave the track with a smile on their faces.

Busch sped twice on pit road to take him out of contention and now hasn’t won in a year (his last win was Indianapolis, which is next on the schedule). That seems crazy, because Busch is third in the standings and “he’s had a chance to win maybe eight times” (as Gibbs put it); yet he’s winless.

All the Xfinity wins in the world don’t make up for something that you just know has to be eating away at the ultra-competitive Busch.

Then there’s Kenseth. After official word of him getting the boot from JGR was released earlier in the week, his chance to win for the first time in a year went away thanks to bad strategy. Kenseth had passed Martin Truex Jr. with fresher tires, but then only took two tires on the final pit stop — while everyone else behind him took four, costing him the race.

Kenseth said the move had worked in the past, which may have led crew chief Jason Ratcliff down the wrong path.

“I just couldn’t hang on with two tires,” Kenseth said. “Typically here you can get away with that — we won in the spring doing that (last year). Four tires just made big charges today all day long. When we were the only one without lefts, I knew we were probably in big trouble.”

Gibbs made a beeline for Kenseth’s car to pat him on the back after the race, but that probably wasn’t much consolation after what would have been a sweet victory for a 45-year-old free agent.

Alas, it was Hamlin celebrating instead.

2. Joe Low

After the race, I asked Joey Logano if he knew what went wrong. I was referring to the part that broke — the one that took 33 laps to repair in the garage and resulted in a 37th-place finish — but he had to ask for clarification.

“Which part?” he said. “The (being) slow part or the car that broke?”

Yeah, it seems Logano has a lot of problems right now.

With another disappointing result, Logano is 52 points behind Kenseth for the final playoff spot with seven races remaining.

His hopes of contending for a title are not looking so good, which is fairly shocking considering how strong the No. 22 has been in recent years. I doubt many people picked Logano to miss the playoffs, but it’s trending that direction.

“We might have to win now,” he said. “It’s a pretty big hit. We’re in trouble. We’ve got to get going.”

Logano reminded reporters the team has been on the outside before and executed to advance. But that was in the playoffs — and during a time when the team was running much better.

Right now, Logano just isn’t getting very good cars.

“We’ve got to stick together and keep faith in each other — and we’ve got to make our cars faster, because we’re just slow,” he said. “It’s plain and simple and blunt as can be: We’re slow, and we’ve got to get faster.”

To make matters worse, NASCAR confiscated a part from Logano’s car after he went to the garage. A decision will be made on that during further inspection this week, although the team certainly can’t afford any more of a points penalty if it hopes to make the playoffs without a victory.

3. Hail Dale

Dale Earnhardt Jr. stayed out on old tires while the entire field pitted, which put him in the lead on a restart with 35 laps to go.

As you might guess, it didn’t work. He plummeted through the running order and ended up 18th.

But given his points position (21st), Earnhardt and his team had to try something. They have to win, not go for top-10s.

So I asked Earnhardt: Was that strategy call pretty much a Hail Mary?

“It was like a Hail Mary when you’re down 14,” he said with a chuckle.

Earnhardt said he and crew chief Greg Ives were hoping some others would stay out behind them and provide a buffer, but even that probably would have been a longshot call.

If they didn’t try it, though?

“We’d have finished 10th at best,” Earnhardt said. “Tenth to 18th is no big deal. We’ve got to try to win. That wasn’t an opportune risk to take, but we’re going to have to take them every week — no matter how (much of) a longshot it is.”

4. TrackBite leaves a mark

I’ll acknowledge the VHT/PJ1 TrackBite/sticky goo storyline was overhyped this weekend, and that made some fans cranky on Twitter.

Nobody likes hearing about the same thing over and over, after all. Any angle being hammered by the media seems to annoy people, no matter what the topic is.

But the TrackBite really was worthy of discussion, because it changed the race. So even though it wore off after awhile, NASCAR should keep pushing forward with experimenting again at future tracks.

“It hasn’t been one of my favorite racetracks because it is so one lane, but today I thought there was a lot of different lanes you could run, and it was all because of the PJ1 that they put on the track,” Kyle Larson said. “So for sure, I think NASCAR should look at doing it at other racetracks.”

What kind of tracks? While Larson said it should be done at places where slower speeds are run in the corners, Hamlin said he could envision it working on repaved tracks like Kentucky and Texas — provided it’s placed on the high line, not the normal groove.

“NASCAR is easing into it,” Hamlin said. “I think it created a multi-lane racetrack we hadn’t seen here in awhile.”

The bottom line (excuse the pun) is this: Drivers are in favor of the experiment, so expect to see it used again in future races.

5. Meme-able Moment

One thing about racing at New Hampshire is there are rarely any classic races. And I’m thinking Sunday’s probably isn’t going to qualify as a memorable one years from now, either.

But Hamlin’s last two wins have produced a couple moments that will be talked about for awhile.

In 2012, you’ll recall Hamlin made his guarantee before the Chase race — and came through, complete with a Babe Ruth swing during the celebration.

And now: Lobster Phobia.

Who knew Hamlin was so sketched out about lobsters? I guess anyone who has eaten a seafood dinner with him is aware, because he said he can’t sit next to someone who is chowing down on lobster.

But seeing him scamper away from the giant lobster when crew chief Mike Wheeler approached? Pretty funny.

Dan Gelston of the Associated Press asked Hamlin what he would do with the lobster now (since it’s a reward for the winner).

“I’m not going to do anything with it,” he said. “I’ve seen it and touched it for the last time. As far as I’m concerned, they need to put it back in the water and let it live.”

Sometimes when the races aren’t great, at least we have these kind of meme-able moments that make NASCAR fun.

12 Questions with Denny Hamlin

The series of 12 Questions interviews continues this week with Denny Hamlin of Joe Gibbs Racing. Hamlin is currently seventh in the point standings. This interview was conducted at Daytona and is available both in podcast and written form.

1. How much of your success is based on natural ability and how much has come from working at it?

It’s probably 75 percent natural ability. I think 25 of it you can refine by just doing it and studying at it.

2. Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and now Dale Earnhardt Jr. have all either retired in the last couple years or will retire soon. What’s your pitch for fans of theirs to become fans of yours?

I really don’t have a pitch. You like me if you like me; if you don’t, then you don’t. I’m a true, old-school short-track racer. Got here the old fashioned way, just like all those guys did. So why not me?

3. What is the hardest part of your job away from the racetrack?

I don’t really consider my job hard on the racetrack or off the racetrack. It’s everything that I’ve really hoped it would be. The hardest part is just the time away from home.

4. Let’s say a fan spots you eating dinner in a nice restaurant. Should they come over for an autograph or no?

They can. I don’t think I’ve really turned anyone down that’s approached me about an autograph. Doesn’t mean necessarily it’s OK or I like it or I encourage it, but I definitely never would turn anyone away.

5. What’s a story in NASCAR that doesn’t get enough coverage?

I think the pit crews and how much of athletes they are gets a little bit of coverage, but we see within the race teams how all the pit crews rank, even individual positions. I think the TV or the media hasn’t seen before who has the fastest jack man on pit road, who has the fastest tire carrier, who has the faster tire changer. All those stats are available, but you never see them.

Are those stats kept by the teams? How would I get those?

I don’t know. Someone high up probably has them. But I’ve seen them.

6. Who is the last driver you texted?

Dale Jr.

Can you tell us what it was about?

We were actually talking about the refs. He thinks that things are getting pretty physical in his basketball league, so he’s asking whether he thinks my refs (in Hamlin’s “Hoop Group” league) could possibly control that or not.

7. Do you consider race car drivers to be entertainers?

Yeah, absolutely. I think that we’re entertainers — we’re more than just race car drivers. I mean, we go to autograph sessions and fan fests and do Q&A’s and things like that, so absolutely I would say we’re in the entertainment business.

8. What is your middle finger policy on the racetrack?

I used to give it a lot, but I don’t necessarily anymore because it bothers me when I get it. I stick my hand out when I’m frustrated, but I try to keep it at five fingers instead of one now.

That’s very gentlemanly of you.

I’ve never been called that before.

9. Some drivers keep a payback list in their minds. Do you also have a list for drivers who have done you a favor on the track?

I do. There’s handfuls of drivers that have cut me breaks more than once. Yeah, absolutely. You know who those guys are and you repay them.

10. Who is the most famous person you’ve had dinner with?

Are you talking about one-on-one or with a group?

It can be in a group. The great thing about this question is that so many people this year have never really had dinner with that famous of a person, but you, on the other hand, have had so many famous dinners you actually have to go through and think about who’s the most famous one.

You have to put it in a category. I would say in a very small group, probably eight people or so, with the Kardashians and Lord Disick (Scott Disick).

What!? When was this?

This was at the grand opening of Butter (Hamlin’s former nightclub), probably six years ago.

So Kim herself came? Did anyone else come?

Kourtney, Khloe and the Lord.

What were they like?

Pretty quiet for the most part, but I don’t know. You could just tell they were a little uncomfortable in the beginning, but they kinda got into their groove by the end of the night.

11. What’s something about yourself you’d like to improve?

Geez, there’s so many things. What I’d like to improve: my eating habits.

What’s wrong with those?

I’ve got a bad sugar tooth. I could eat until I’m about to explode. Like I eat a lot, and then I’ll still want something sweet at the end of the night. I have a bad problem with that.

12. The last question was from Ryan Blaney. Now, Denny, I am under strict instructions not to give you any context with this. I doubled back with him just this morning and said, “Are you sure you want me to ask it like this?” And he said, “Yes.” So I’m sorry.

Did he know it’s to me?

No, he just wanted me to ask this very awkward question to a driver. I figured you could deal with it. So are you ready?

OK, I’m ready.

Who shot first?

(Long silence) This is coming from Blaney, right? Who shot first? (Pause) He did.

I don’t know if that’s the correct answer, but —

I’ll change it, I’ll change it: I did.

You did? OK, that’s definitely the wrong answer. You should just go with “He did.” But it’s a Star Wars reference.

Oh, he’s such a dork. You know what? They can’t sell to the public how awesome Blaney is if he keeps coming up with this Star Wars dork stuff. Like seriously, he’s gotta, you know… Ugh. I need to have a talk with Blaney because this is just not the road he needs to go down.

You may have to do that after this. It was apparently a reference to, have you seen the original Star Wars?

No, I’ve never seen it. I’m not a sci-fi guy. I’ve seen a couple of episodes of Star Trek when I was a kid. That was when my dad was watching it.

I don’t know who the next interview is going to be with. Do you have a question that I might be able to ask the next driver? Please don’t make it as awkward as the Blaney one was.

I have one. (Laughs) What I ask is that you interview someone who has at least six to seven years of Cup experience. And what I want know is: Of the teammates they have worked with, I wanna know who their favorite was. And the other side of that, and they have to be honest: Who is the worst that they’ve ever worked with?

Someone at FOX Sports has big balls

Television broadcasting is hard. REALLY hard.

The professionals make it look easy, but it takes true talent to be able to think of something, make that something come out of your mouth without tripping over your words and then actually provide insight — all while some producer is giving instructions in your earpiece.

So when FOX Sports turns over its entire Xfinity Series broadcast at Pocono to a bunch of amateurs, it’s going to be must-see TV.

Now, these aren’t just any amateurs — they’re experts in their field — but FOX’s concept is a fascinating experiment. From the booth to pit road to the Hollywood Hotel, all of the “talent” will be active Cup drivers.

These drivers all have experience in front of the camera, which definitely makes a difference. It’s not like they’re going to be blankly staring into your TV.

But still, they’re going to struggle with all the things required of a professional. Getting to a commercial without leaving too much dead air? Throwing from one reporter to another on pit road? Setting up a replay?

It could be a total mess. Or it could be one of the best and most enjoyable broadcasts in years.

Either way, you sort of have to tune in, right?

It’s fun to picture Kevin Harvick as a play-by-play guy, trying to wrangle Clint Bowyer and Joey Logano as analysts. Then there will be Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ryan Blaney and Erik Jones trying to describe pit stops and interview wrecked drivers. And Danica Patrick and Denny Hamlin will make small talk in the Hollywood Hotel while keeping the show moving.

That’s the plan, anyway. How exactly is this all going to work? I’m as curious as anyone — and I can’t wait to see what happens. My guess is a lot of viewers feel the same way.

So nice move, FOX. We’ll be watching.

Richmond News Roundup: Day 1

Here’s a quick roundup of what drivers were talking about Friday at Richmond International Raceway:

Dale Earnhardt Jr. gave a couple more hints about what he might want to do in the future (coughTVcough).

“Obviously I enjoyed my fun in the booth (as a guest analyst),” he said. “If that’s an opportunity for me, I’m certainly going to have those conversations to find out.”

He added: “One of the people that I really respected a lot was Benny Parsons (who was also a well-known TV analyst in addition to his driving career). I thought that he left as important of a mark outside the car as he did inside the car. Whatever mark I can leave, I would love to be able to be as big an asset to the sport as I can be beyond driving.”

— The speculation about a possible Carl Edwards return still won’t go away, so I asked his former Denny Hamlin — who is very good at predictions — to estimate the odds of a Carl comeback.

“I would just be guessing, but I would say 50 percent,” Hamlin said. “Carl is a competitor. At his age (37), I’d find it hard to believe that he would just step away and not do it ever again. I think him leaving the window open in his press conference to say he’s not retiring, he’s just stepping away, I think it depends.”

Hamlin then cracked a smile.

“Has anyone found out whether he’s having a good time right now or not?” he said. “I think that would tell the story about whether he’s interested in coming back or not. From what I hear from all the retired drivers, it’s awesome for like a few months — then you kind of get bored a little bit.”

Kyle Larson and Brad Keselowski both were noncommittal when answering questions about the status of their contracts and whether they would be interested in replacing Earnhardt in the No. 88 car.

Larson, who is believed to have a contract with Chip Ganassi Racing beyond this year, would not say there was zero possibility of him leaving the team when asked.

“Oh, I’d have to talk to Chip before I came out in public about anything that serious,” he said. “So I won’t talk about anything like that because I don’t even know if I’m allowed to or not. I know Jamie (McMurray) is very secret about all his stuff. But I don’t know.”

Keselowski, speaking to a small group of reporters later in the day, wouldn’t say whether he is working on a contract extension with Team Penske (“There’s some stuff going on, but I’m not (able) to mention it in detail”).

And of any interest of returning to Hendrick Motorsports, where he began his Cup career on a partial schedule, to drive the 88?

“Do I have to have a yes or a no?” he said with a laugh. “It’s a Hendrick car, which by nature means it’s going to be one of the best cars available for a long period of time. But I would also say the car I’m in is one of the best available, and the team I’m with, I have a lot of equity in. So I’m pretty darn happy where I’m at. But I’ve learned in this world to never say no (definitively).”

Matt Kenseth won the pole for Richmond, followed by Ryan Blaney, Martin Truex Jr., Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Joey Logano.

It’s Kenseth’s first No. 1 starting spot since Kansas last fall and his seventh consecutive season with at least one pole — this after failing to get a pole in eight of his first 11 seasons.

Austin Dillon crew chief Slugger Labbe was kept back in North Carolina by Richard Childress Racing after the team failed the laser inspection station five times at Bristol last week. Operations director Sammy Johns is crew-chiefing for Dillon this weekend instead.

Dillon lost his pit selection for this week and had to start in the back as part of the inspection penalty.

There were also a host of teams that lost practice time due to Texas and Bristol infractions, including a 30-minute penalty for both Kenseth and Logano for swerving after the race.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Texas Motor Speedway race

Five thoughts from Sunday’s race at Texas Motor Speedway:

1. Stop questioning the 48 team for any reason

One of the dumbest NASCAR storylines — which I’ve probably been guilty of buying into several times over the years — is questioning Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus. Seriously, it’s really, REALLY dumb.

Incredibly, the Johnson/Knaus questions were doubled at Texas, which is extra ridiculous — especially after he got win No. 7 here.

— With only one top-10 heading into the race, had the defending champion lost a step? (OBVIOUSLY NOT, NO. HE NEVER DOES.)

— After spinning out in qualifying and being forced to start in the rear of the field, would Johnson be able to come from the back and win? (DUH, OF COURSE. HAVE YOU EVER WATCHED NASCAR?)

Johnson loves to rub it in his doubters’ faces when he wins, and he should.

“I guess I remembered how to drive, and I guess this team remembered how to do it,” he said in victory lane.

Remember, Johnson was asked at Fontana about his lack of performance so far this season and sounded annoyed.

“Sixteen years, 80 wins and seven championships and people want to question us?” he said then. “I mean, come on.”

Make that 81 wins.

Anyway, I’ve decided to never doubt Johnson and the No. 48 team until A) Johnson retires, B) Knaus retires or C) Johnson goes three years without winning.

Other than that, let’s just all make a pact not to bring up such a silly question again.

2. Short-term vs. long-term gain

Is it better go to for a stage win or get track position for the real win?

That was the dilemma facing the field at the end of Stage 2, when a debris caution presented the opportunity for a strategy play.

Ryan Blaney — who was dominating the race with 148 laps led — decided to stay out and go for the stage win (and a playoff point). He won the stage, but restarted 20th for the final stage as a result. After getting bottled up on the restart and later sliding through his pit, Blaney finished 12th. Obviously, that was a bummer.

On the other hand, Johnson and Kyle Larson used the same strategy as Blaney — and ended up finishing first and second. So it’s not like there was necessarily a right or wrong answer. It’s up to teams what is more important and what the priorities are.

“It’s easy to look back on it and say, ‘Oh, we should have done this, should have done that,’” Blaney said. “But you can’t really change any of that now.

“We thought we had enough time after (Stage) 2 to work our way back up through there. … I thought we made the right call to stay out there and try to win that segment. I’m for that.”

Knaus made a similar argument afterward, saying he was “very confident our car was going to be able to drive back through traffic” but added “you get a big pit in your stomach” after losing the track position.

“All you can do is make a decision and then adjust to the decision you make,” Knaus said.

I’m honestly not sure what the correct play is for future situations, especially since the results were a mixed bag. Either way, I enjoyed the added strategy element, which is just another plus for the stages.

3. Woe is Gibbs

Nearly 20 minutes after the race had ended, pit road had been emptied of the cars and most drivers were probably at the airport already.

But as a cloud of confetti drifted by, Denny Hamlin stood with his hands on his hips, talking to team owner Joe Gibbs, crew chief Mike Wheeler and a couple other team members.

It’s obvious why Hamlin wanted to linger on pit road: Joe Gibbs Racing is struggling so far this year.

“We were a 20th-place car at best most of the day,” Hamlin told me afterward. “I didn’t think any of us were very good.”

Texas was another bad race for JGR. The top finisher was 15th-place Kyle Busch, followed by Matt Kenseth (16th), Daniel Suarez (19th) and Hamlin (25th).

The performance can no longer be brushed off as an early-season fluke; JGR is not meeting its own high standards. And with Hendrick Motorsports finally getting a win, the “What’s wrong with JGR?” questions will only getting louder.

So what now?

“We just work harder,” Hamlin said. “We’re already working hard, but it takes time to get things figured out. We’ve got a new Camry and a lot of new things, and we’re just trying to adjust to it at this point. There’s a lot of different rules we’re trying to adjust to as well.”

4. Finally, a positive for Dale Jr.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. hadn’t scored a top-10 finish since June 6 at Pocono. That was 10 straight races without a good result.

You could tell it had started to wear on him, even though he was trying to be as optimistic as possible — for both himself and his team.

So a fifth-place finish at Texas was a welcome development for both his points position (he moved from 25th to 20th) and his psyche (he moved from “upside down face” emoji to “grinning face with sweat drop” emoji).

“I was trying not to get frustrated, but you can only take so much,” Earnhardt said afterward.

Texas was both a physical and mental challenge for a driver who had only completed one 500-mile event since returning from his concussion.

His air conditioning blower didn’t work all day, so he had to run with his visor up for the entire race. Afterward, he was more gassed than I’ve seen him in a long time; he chugged portions of two water bottles and cradled the cold, wet towel around his neck like a kid with a blankie.

Earnhardt said it was on “the backside of the top 10” most uncomfortable races he’s had in the car, which is saying a lot considering he’s made 602 Cup starts.

And it was a challenge to stay in the game mentally as well.

“When you don’t do (500-mile races on a regular basis), your mind is not as mentally tough,” he said. “I felt it. This was a tough race for us — physically and mentally. It was good exercise. Hopefully it will help make us stronger.”

5. That’s four twos for the 42

Another day, another top-two finish for Kyle Larson. Larson has finished in the top two in five of the last six races; that’s a win and four second-place results.

“We thought we’d start the year off good,” Larson said. “I don’t think we thought we’d start the year off this good.”

It looks like Larson is going to be a fixture toward the top of the series point standings this season, because he certainly isn’t showing any signs of losing speed.

At this point, it’s clear Chip Ganassi Racing isn’t just having a cute little stretch of good races, where everyone gets excited and then it turns out to be a blip in a long season. No, Ganassi is definitely for real — and so is Larson.

That’s exciting for NASCAR, because there’s a new face contending every week; even more exciting that he’s only 24 years old.