The Top Five: Breaking down the Phoenix race

Each week, I’ll give some race analysis through a post called the Top Five — notable storylines from the just-completed event. This week: Phoenix Raceway.

Newman!

Well, how about THAT? Luke Lambert’s strategy call — which seemed like a total Hail Mary to most of us — actually worked, and Ryan Newman ended up with his first victory since Indianapolis in 2013. That’s 127 races ago! Heck, Richard Childress Racing hadn’t won a race since Kevin Harvick left the team for Stewart-Haas Racing.

Did anyone see this coming? Certainly not me.

So was Lambert making an educated guess or just taking a total gamble? Well, Lambert had looked at the data — and Newman was the best car on long runs throughout the race. That gave him faith the tires would hold up enough to give Newman a shot.

“I figured our best opportunity to win the race was to put the car out front and see if Ryan could make it wide enough,” Lambert said. “I can’t say I felt confident we would win the race, but I felt confident we’d at least have a shot. And I felt we wouldn’t be able to do anything else to give ourselves that opportunity.”

Inside the car, Newman recalled the sketchy restart last fall here — and realized there was a chance he could get taken out if he wasn’t careful. So his first priority was to just get a good enough start to have some clearance going into Turn 1 — and deal with whoever was behind him after that.

But with Kyle Larson in his mirror on fresh tires, Newman thought he might be toast. The No. 31 car, though, was stronger than expected (after all, it had been running top 10 prior to the strategy call).

“We had a good car, and it was the first time all day we put some clean air on it,” Newman said. “It was just a matter of putting those things together and showing y’all what we had.”

Larson the amazing

Kyle Larson is the latest example of the 2.5-year rule for new Cup drivers. Basically, young drivers either figure out how to find speed within the first 2.5 years of their career — or perhaps never get any better.

Everything seemed to click for Larson midway through last year, and he’s been a much more reliable contender ever since. These days, he’s one of the best drivers in the series — and the points leader!

Larson has now finished second in four straight non-plate races. That’s Homestead, Atlanta, Las Vegas and Phoenix.

And despite getting close to wins, Larson said the runner-up results aren’t getting tiresome — yet.

“I’m sure if I ran second for the next eight weeks, yeah, it’s probably going to grow old,” Larson said. “But it’s so cool to be one of the fastest cars every week. … I just hope we can continue to work hard, be consistent, be mistake‑free on pit road and on the racetrack. If we can just keep doing that, the wins are going to come.”

Everything isn’t great

When Kyle Busch’s team informed him Joey Logano’s tire had blown with five laps to go, Busch said, “Trust me — I know.”

Afterward, Busch was asked by KickinTheTires.net why he said that.

“I knew there was a going to be a tire blown because we haven’t made it past 44 laps in any run today without one being blown, right?” Busch said, practically biting his lip to stop himself from saying more.

It had to be a bitter pill for Busch to swallow — his recent nemeses Joey Logano and Goodyear essentially combined to cost him a race (although it wasn’t either of their faults directly; Logano melted a bead with excessive brake heat).

But just when it looked like Busch would go from puncher to victor in a week, it was he who ended up getting socked in the gut once again.

That’s the brakes for Logano, Dale Jr.

Two of the recent Phoenix race winners — Logano and Dale Earnhardt Jr. — were expected to be contenders on Sunday. But that never materialized.

Logano couldn’t recover from a speeding penalty after he developed brake problems, eventually blowing a tire that caused the final caution. And Earnhardt had similar issues with his brakes, meaning he had to tiptoe around the track.

“The car just got to where I couldn’t get into the corner the way I needed it to,” Earnhardt said. “The last half of the race, the brake pedal was just almost to the floor. A couple of times it was on the floor going into the corner — pretty scary.

“The whole last 50 to 60 laps, I was pumping the brakes on all the straightaways to keep the pedal up so I would have some brakes for the corner and lifting really early. We just couldn’t run it hard enough to get up there and do anything with it.”

Toyota young guns shine

Despite seeing Busch’s win chances vanish, it wasn’t all bad for Toyota. The manufacturer’s two rookies — Daniel Suarez and Erik Jones — both got their first career top-10 finishes after different strategy calls on the last pit stop.

Suarez finished seventh after taking two tires and Jones finished eighth after taking four. Regardless of how they got there,  the results were much-needed confidence for Suarez and validation for Jones’ consistently speed to start the year.

“We didn’t have the speed, and the communication wasn’t great,” Suarez said of the first couple weeks. “We’ve been working hard trying to build chemistry, communication, and we have for sure been getting better.”

That communication was key to improving the car while also gaining track position on Sunday.

And Jones had to power through feeling sick, as he received two bags of IV fluids Saturday night after the Xfinity race.

“We’re going to have ups and downs, good weeks and bad weeks from here on out, but this is definitely a good week and one we can soak up for a minute,” he said.

 

And now for Kyle Busch’s side of the Las Vegas fight

Joey Logano twice presented his side of the Las Vegas fight story on Friday.

After getting back on track at Phoenix Raceway and qualifying ninth, it was Kyle Busch’s turn.

Busch spoke to a pair of reporters (including me) on pit road after his qualifying lap, telling us why he punched Logano last week and adding he still didn’t buy Logano’s explanation.

When Busch tried to make a move down the backstretch and avoid a slowing Brad Keselowski on the last lap, he made contact with Logano. He felt Logano then took revenge right away.

“It was instantaneous,” Busch said. “I made a move down the backstretch that cut Joey off — and I had to; I wasn’t just going to roll out of the gas and fall in behind Brad and probably lose spots to more guys behind me. So I made a bold move — I was two-thirds of my way past Logano, and I figured I can wedge my way through there a little bit.

“And I did, and it was instantaneous retaliation. That’s what I thought and that’s kind of what I still think.”

Logano presented Busch with data during their meeting with NASCAR that he felt proved the incident was unintentional, but Busch didn’t believe it.

“No,” Busch said after being asked whether the data changed his mind. “Nope.”

Busch said he’s raced Logano well over the years and “didn’t expect that move from Joey.” He thought the two would be able to showcase their talent in a good, side-by-side finish and then say something like, “Ah, he got me this time. Damn.”

But Logano “chose a different route,” Busch said.

“And if it was Brad, I would have expected that route to be chosen, you know what I mean?” he added. “So that’s how I interpret that.”

Busch also expressed frustration over “continuing to get wrecked by the Penske guys.” You’ll recall Logano has also been in recent high-profile wrecks with Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth.

As for the lack of NASCAR penalty for punching Logano on pit road?

“There could have been different circumstances that played out that wouldn’t have allowed me to be here, and that’s why I said what I said earlier — that everything is great,” Busch said. “Life is good.”

Oh, and one more thing: Did Busch’s punch connect or not?

Busch’s public relations representative cut off the question, and the driver didn’t answer — but Busch grinned and shook his hand like it hurt.

More from Joey Logano on the Las Vegas fight

In case you can’t get enough of this topic, Joey Logano came into the Phoenix Raceway media center Friday afternoon for a scheduled session. Naturally, most of the questions were about the fight.

Here are some of the highlights:

— On what he and Busch discussed during their Friday morning meeting with NASCAR: “I told him that we obviously made contact on the back straightaway. I had a not-very-good entry and had to slow down the car a lot to stay on the bottom and tried to make up some of that speed at the bottom of the racetrack and then I got loose. Once you get loose once, then I was on his door. You get loose again and at that point that was it. That is my mistake.

“The fact of the matter is I tried to stay on the bottom, I made a mistake and got up into him. I hate that it happened. I would take it back in a heartbeat. He asked for data when we talked on the phone (during the week) and I was able to bring that with me and present that and try to explain what was going on inside my race car.”

— On whether he got through to Busch: “Time will tell. I guess your actions on the racetrack are what speaks the loudest a lot of times. I believe so. I tried to be as open and honest and be an open book. There are no secrets. Hopefully that helped.”

— On whether it was intentional: “We were racing to the checkered flag and I have no reason to do anything on purpose for fourth place. That makes no sense. We were racing hard for position and the car got loose.”

— On whether he’s OK with Busch not being penalized “Of course. I don’t see where there should have been a fine for anything. I didn’t see anything wrong.”

— On his insistence he didn’t get punched in the face: “I have ninja moves man! I slipped. … I can say that I didn’t feel anything (if Busch did connect). It sure didn’t hurt.”

As for Busch’s side of all this? Well, so far all we’ve gotten is “Everything is great!”

Things we learned from NASCAR meeting with Kyle Busch, Joey Logano

Kyle Busch and Joey Logano met briefly in the NASCAR hauler prior to practice Friday at Phoenix International Raceway. Each driver emerged separately — followed by NASCAR executive vice president Steve O’Donnell.

Here’s one thing we learned from each participant:

O’DONNELL

Drivers can get physical on pit road, but they’d better not use their cars to settle any beefs.

“We’re very clear that we’re not going to allow a car to be used as a weapon,” O’Donnell said. “We didn’t see that in this case. We looked at this as good, hard racing. That’s when we will react — if there’s an intentional something that happens on the racetrack, we’ll have to react.”

LOGANO

The Team Penske driver brought data from the car with him — something he said Busch asked for — as evidence he didn’t do it on purpose (data could include steering inputs, for example).

“I was able to show him that and it was pretty clear, in my opinion, what happened,” Logano said. ” I hope he was able to see that and know I was sincere about it.

“The only thing I can do at this point was to plead my case and say, ‘Hey, it was an honest mistake, it was hard racing at the end.'”

Logano said it “always helps to talk face-to-face” — something he didn’t do in the past, notably with Matt Kenseth prior to the veteran taking revenge on him at Martinsville.

BUSCH

Everything is great.

“Everything is great,” Busch said. “Everything is great. … Everything is great. … Everything is great.”

News Analysis: Kyle Busch not penalized for Las Vegas fight

What happened: NASCAR’s penalty report from Las Vegas Motor Speedway contained no penalties of any kind for Kyle Busch, Joey Logano or any of their crew members following Sunday’s pit road fight.

What it means: Angry drivers are allowed to punch someone after a race, and NASCAR is going to embrace that emotion. If that seems like a change from recent years, welcome to the Monster Energy Era. Mixing it up on and off the track is exactly what the series sponsor wants, and apparently even fights are fair game. It’s nice to see NASCAR didn’t act in a hypocritical fashion and fine Busch while profiting from the publicity and using it to promote upcoming races.

News value (scale of 1-10): Six. It’s above average news for the reason it might set a new precedent for how NASCAR will react to such altercations.

Questions: How far can a driver go before getting penalized now? If Busch had injured Logano, would the situation be different? Should Busch get a gift card or something for all the attention he got for NASCAR this week?

Here’s a slo-mo version of the video if you want to break it down frame-by-frame:

The Top Five: Breaking down the Las Vegas race

Each week, I’ll give some race analysis through a post called the Top Five — notable storylines from the just-completed event. Typically, this will be posted as soon as possible after the race — but my site has been crashing for the past couple days, so I was unable to post anything new! My apologies for the delay.

Get ready for the mixed messages

It will be fascinating to see how NASCAR reacts to the Kyle Busch/Joey Logano incident.

In one respect, NASCAR probably has to give Busch a slap on the wrist (probation or small fine) to say, “Hey dude, you can’t go up to someone and just punch them.”

But on the other hand, this is exactly what NASCAR wants! You know NASCAR is going to use it in all sorts of promotional aspects heading into Phoenix and beyond, so it’s hypocritical to penalize Busch while also profiting from it.

That’s been how NASCAR has operated for years, of course, dating back to the 1979 Daytona 500 (the drivers were fined for that famous fight, even though it put NASCAR on the map).

With the addition of Monster Energy, though — which has openly advocated for drivers to mix it up — can NASCAR really fine Busch with a straight face?

If so, he shouldn’t pay it.

Finish saves a ho-hum race

The sun was pouring into the press box during the first stage, and — combined with a food coma from lunch and the expiration of my morning coffee buzz — I almost started to nod off.

You can yell at FOX all you want (There’s great racing through the field, they’re just not showing it!), but the truth is the entire field was running single file for a long stretch in both of the early stages.

At one point, a reporter (who shall remain nameless) shouted, “Whoa!” We scanned the track for trouble, didn’t see anything, then turned to the reporter with puzzled expressions.

What happened?

“A pass in the top 12!” he said.

Though the crazy finish with Brad Keselowski’s problems and the post-race fight salvaged the day, there are now legitimate concerns about the racing following the first two 1.5-mile tracks of the season. Both Atlanta and Vegas weren’t as exciting as their 2016 editions — especially Atlanta — and it makes you wonder what’s up with the much-anticipated lower downforce package.

Phoenix probably isn’t going to be an amazing race — it’s just not the most action-packed track after restarts — but Fontana should be, since it’s become one of the best circuits. If not, there will be much head-scratching going on within the industry.

Martin Truex Jr. closes it out

Every time I thought about the new points system heading into the season, I thought of Martin Truex Jr. He was so dominant at times last year, and then he got into the Chase and — well, you know what happened. But if he had the playoff points under the current system, he might have made it to Homestead.

So with that in mind, it was interesting to see Truex get the maximum seven playoff points (which, remember, are bonus points that carry over all the way through Phoenix). Prior to this system, a win was only worth three bonus points — and those could only be used in the first round.

“That really would have helped us last year,” Truex said. “We ran so good and led so many races, and always didn’t get the finish we probably deserved or thought we should have gotten, and so it’s cool to get rewarded for running good and pushing hard and being up at the front of the pack more consistently than other guys.”

With one great race, Truex now has more bonus/playoff points than he’d have for two wins last year. That’s really going to add up for some of the top drivers, and it’s going to make the chances of some fluke elimination in the early rounds much less likely.

Kyle Larson is having a fantastic start

Don’t sleep on Larson this year — and I’m not just talking wins, but the championship.

Dating back to the Phoenix race last fall, Larson has finished third, second at Homestead, 12th at Daytona, second at Atlanta and now second at Las Vegas.

“Super happy with how our season has gotten started,” he said. “Way better than where I’ve ever started a season.”

It seems like things are really clicking for Larson, who isn’t taking himself out of races with some of the mistakes he made in the first couple seasons.

When you combine Larson’s results with consecutive top-10s for Jamie McMurray, there’s a lot to like about Chip Ganassi Racing right now. Both cars appear to have the speed to be contenders in many weeks this season.

Keselowski the early title favorite

I just said not to sleep on Larson (see above) for the championship, but the favorite at the moment has to be Keselowski.

He won Atlanta despite having to make an untimely pit stop with a loose wheel, then won the pole for Las Vegas and was certainly either the best car (he was about to win, after all) or the second-best all day.

Keselowski said he didn’t know what happened to his car in the last couple laps, when he suddenly lost power (and if he did know, he was keeping it close to the vest). But either way, the overall speed is there and Team Penske seems to be extremely strong (Keselowski’s teammate Logano is the only driver with top-10 finishes in all three races).

It’s still very early, of course, and many things can and will change in the coming weeks. But if you’re looking for the NASCAR equivalent of a 25-day weather forecast, it’s looking bright for Keselowski.