The Top Five: Breaking down the NASCAR All-Star Race

Five thoughts on Saturday night’s NASCAR All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway…

1. Sigh

So I’m sitting here in the Charlotte Motor Speedway press box, staring out at the track after a blahtacular All-Star Race and, well, it’s sort of deflating.

Whatever NASCAR and the track come up with for this race, it just doesn’t seem to work. That’s because it’s always the same winner: Clean Air.

So after another All-Star event that failed to deliver on the hype, it’s surely back to the drawing board — again.

It’s probably a tribute to the NASCAR and Charlotte marketing machine that we buy into the possibility of a good All-Star Race every year, only to be reminded that’s not the case. There’s only so much that can be done on a 1.5-mile track like this one.

“We all run the same speed,” Jimmie Johnson said. “The rule book is so thick, and the cars are so equal, we run the same speed. You can’t pass running the same speed. It’s just the bottom line.”

That’s why the emphasis for the All-Star Race each year is to force some sort of passing in the final stage, typically by some strategy play or gimmick. And that’s fine, because it’s an exhibition race that exists solely for entertainment.

But when the entertainment doesn’t materialize? It seems to generate more outrage than your average NASCAR-related controversy.

Ultimately, the 2017 All-Star Race was familiar in a bad way: A clean-air affair that literally required a spreadsheet to keep track of who was doing well, combined with no real action (the only cautions were for the stage breaks).

Bummer.

2. Tire storyline goes flat

As it turned out, everyone was wayyyy too optimistic about the option tire’s impact on this race. But it doesn’t mean the idea wouldn’t work for future events.

Let’s start with Saturday night, though. Remember when the big tire twist was first announced? The original theory was lots of teams would take the option tire for the final round.

It’s going to be crazy! How will the strategy play out? You have to watch!

Except a funny thing happened (well, actually not funny at all): Not a single team chose to use the option tires in the final round.

The problem was the tire was a little faster, but not fast enough to make up the track position a team would lose by taking them in the final round. And it didn’t fall off as much as anticipated, so it worked better on the 20-lap runs earlier in the race.

So the tires weren’t able to deliver on their promise in the All-Star Race.

“We could probably go a little bit softer, utilize a little bit more grip in order to be faster, have more (speed) split between the two tires,” Kyle Busch said. “The tires equalized more than maybe some would have hoped for. But it was just a guess. They didn’t necessarily pull a tire test here. I thought they did a good job testing.”

But that doesn’t mean the option tire was a bad experiment for races when it really counts. It’s a strategy wrinkle that could add something to Cup races in the future. And it wouldn’t feel overly gimmicky, either.

“I think the garage area … has a favorable opinion of how this went tonight,” Johnson said. “Personally I don’t have a problem with trying it. … It’s better than having a button that gives you more horsepower. I think it’s a good way, a competitive way to create different-paced cars in the field.”

3. If Kyles ruled the world

Kyle Busch is one of the all-time great talents. He didn’t need an All-Star win to prove that — though it’s certainly nice for his resume — nor did he need to beat Jimmie Johnson in a head-to-head showdown.

He’s only going to accomplish more and more before he’s all done, probably racing until son Brexton is in a car (Kyle is only 32; Brexton is 2). So as your favorite drivers continue to retire, it’s not a guarantee the young guns will take over — because veterans like Busch might just continue to dominate.

However, there’s certainly hope for the young guns — and that’s really led by Kyle Larson. The dude continues to be a one-man show, and his attitude is just so different than anyone I’ve covered.

Take this quote about clean air, for example: “I enjoy it. It adds an element. It’s something you have to work through and become the better driver, find clean air, do a good job with it.”

What?! All we’ve heard for years are driver quotes like, “Well, he got out in clean air and there was nothing I could do.” There’s a lot of complaining about aero.

Larson doesn’t seem to complain, though. He tries to use it as a challenge. That seems refreshing (although he might eventually get frustrated like the rest of them, because the whole dirty air phenomenon really sucks).

4. Open and shut

The battle between Chase Elliott, Daniel Suarez — and eventually Erik Jones — during Stage 3 of the Open wasn’t just the best moment of the night. It might have been the best racing moment of the season so far.

Elliott was doing everything he could to get around Suarez, and they put on quite a show for a lap before Jones caught both of them and tried Pass in the Grass II. Unfortunately, Pass in the Grass I was aided by the cars not being sealed to the ground with splitters in the front, and it can’t be replicated today. So instead, Jones dug his splitter into the grass and destroyed his car, bringing out a caution with three laps to go.

You may recall last year’s Open was also quite dramatic, when Elliott and Larson banged doors en route to the finish line and both sustained damage.

The takeaway? Well, the Open is a kick-ass race, for one thing. It’s so fun and refreshing to see drivers other than the usual suspects going hard and fighting for a win at the front of the field. I love that race, and it’s one of my favorites each year just because of different faces getting the spotlight.

But it’s also another reason why heats and last-chance races would be very entertaining on a weekly basis during the NASCAR Cup Series schedule. Remember, a “Norm Benning Moment” can be almost as good as a “Game 7 Moment.”

5. Come early, folks!

The pre-race experience might be on the way back after taking a big hit over the last couple years.

NASCAR fans used to have the souvenir haulers, the huge Sprint Experience and the SPEED Stage to occupy themselves before the race.

But by the end of last year, the stupid Fanatics tent had replaced the haulers, the Sprint Experience was phased out and TV stage was apparently a victim of FOX cuts.

There seems to be some movement in the right direction now though.

This weekend marked the return of the souvenir haulers, which drew a nice crowd (from what I could see during a short walk-through Saturday afternoon). Then there were Bellator MMA fights at the Monster Energy display, where people sat on the hillside as sort of an amphitheater and watched dudes beat the crap out of each other on a hot day.

Even a form of the old SPEED stage has returned, but not for TV purposes. They’re calling it the “Trackside Live” stage — with the old familiar TV show name — but it’s primarily for fans at the track. Speedway Motorsports Inc. realized people missed that element, so SMI recreated the stage for fan entertainment purposes. It’s a good move, because now there’s an additional place for driver appearances or concerts or things like that. Hopefully, the International Speedway Corp. tracks will hop on board with the stage as well.

The bottom line is NASCAR fans expect more than just a race when it comes to attending in person. They want to make a day out of it and have things to do for hours before the green flag. So all these things were positives in that regard.

Social Spotlight with Samantha Busch

Each week, I ask a different member of the NASCAR community about their social media usage. This week: Samantha Busch — the wife of Kyle Busch and the owner of Murph Boutique.

You have incredible restraint on social media. You must get a lot of hateful tweets, but yet I’ve never seen you lose your cool. What’s your secret?

Well, usually I type it all out just to get it out there and vent, and then I delete it. But I just figure they’re looking for that negative reaction, that’s why they’re sending the mean tweets, so if you just ignore them, they’ll go away.

You’ve been on Twitter for a long time now. Over the years have you had any incident where you did lose your cool and then you regretted it later?

Wait, do you actually remember how we started Twitter?

No, how did it start?

I started Twitter because you were telling me about it and then I got engaged (in Feb. 2010). And then you came to interview me that day, and that’s how it got started.

That’s right. I forgot that you weren’t on it until you got engaged.

You were like, “You need to be on Twitter,” and then I learned about it and you did the interview and that’s how it started.

At the time you got engaged, you had no way of  telling everybody. You had nothing to tweet, no picture of your ring or anything. Now you can just do that yourself, of course.

Yeah now it’s like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Instagram stories, Snapchat — there’s so much, it kind of stresses me out. But with the haters, I really do just try to ignore them. There’s sometimes when they’ll say things about Kyle or Brexton where I really just want to go off, but I just gotta focus on the 100 positives, not the one negative.

That’s a really hard thing to do. Sometimes, I’ll lose my cool on my own social media. I just don’t know how you have so much restraint. Even with the media, I feel like you have restraint — like when Kyle is criticized by me or anyone else in the media, you don’t say anything.

Well, I just look at it as that everyone’s entitled to their own opinion, and a lot of times I just try to think that people aren’t picking on my Kyle — they’re picking on the driver, the persona of that or what happened in the race — so I try to separate the two and not let it get to me.

I think I just focus on Kyle and Brexton and all the crazy stuff that we already have going on and try and ignore (the critics). I try to really focus on the people that are positive and supportive and uplifting to us, because if they’re going to take the time to tweet or do something nice, I’d rather use my energy to respond back to them and build those relationships than focus on the people that just really want you to react.

At this point you’ve sort of built a social media empire. You really have all the bases covered on all the different platforms. Which is your favorite one to be on?

I like Instagram a lot. I like it because you can do videos, you can do pictures, you can do Instagram stories, and I like really good quality photographs and I feel like you can really get that on Instagram. I actually just, well, thanks to people responding on Twitter, got the big phone, you know the iPhone…

The 7 Plus? That’s what I have. I like it.

Yes, the 7 Plus, and I love it. So it’s got great pictures and I feel like it’s upped the quality of my social media by being able to take good pictures with it.

So when it comes to putting out your content, do you have to choose between platforms? Do you say, “This is more of a Snapchat thing, this is more of an Instagram thing?”

So especially for my store I try to put it across all three in case people like one thing more than another. But yeah, when it comes to personal stuff and my own stuff, I look at timing — that’s a big thing, days and hours and what gets the best response — and how I word things.

Obviously, I think Instagram and Snapchat are a little bit younger, and Facebook is a little bit older. So just try to tailor my message to my audience. Yes, it’s a lot of work with hashtags and everything else, so it takes a lot of time.

Basically what I try to do is get most of my stuff done and then at night when Kyle and Brex are asleep, I’ll just spend two hours — I’m such a night owl — I’ll be up until 1 in the morning getting everything laid out and ready and filtered and edited and posted and then I just save it in drafts and go from there.

So on your Murph Boutique stuff, the boutique you now own, you’re doing most of the social media for that yourself?

I’m doing all the social media for that because I’m really OCD about how things look, and when you’re an online store, your social media and your website — that’s your entire image. Obviously, I have a guy who builds websites and keeps that up — I know nothing about things like that — but when it comes to social media and the pictures we post and the photo shoots and all that, I’m all in.

What are some of the differences in the Murph Boutique voice and your personal account voice?

So with the boutique platform, that’s obviously about selling things because you’re a store, so those things are specifically tailored to focusing on the clothes and showing them different ways you can wear them and different styles and how to mix and match things and how to make the most of your wardrobe.

My personal platform is about showing a different side of us. It’s about showing myself as a wife and a mom and a friend and our foundation, and so that’s a little bit different in how you tell your story and how you present your photos. So yeah, there’s a lot of thought that goes into it, into building a social platform.

I feel like if there’s a Kyle Busch fan out there, they are sort of looking to you as sort of like the “in” for the community. You interact with a lot of people, whereas Kyle is obviously focused on racing. He’s not really going back and forth with people. So do you sort of view yourself as like the leader or the mayor of the 18 community, in some ways?

I love it, I think that’s a good way to think about it. Yeah, I just want people to see the side of Kyle that I get to see, the kind of fun, the loving, the caring, the daddy side. I think people see him for a split second whether it’s during the anthem or after the race with an interview and that’s not exactly who he really is. That’s him in race mode and that’s his job, but what I like to show is the softer side. You know, him teaching Brex how to drive or them playing at the park and things like that that people might not get to see. Obviously, I like social media a whole lot more than he does so I think it’s nice to be able to give fans that access.

How do you decide how much of your lives to show to the public?

We’re pretty open, there’s not much that we don’t put out there. I mean, I think we’ve seen a lot of good come from it. My biggest struggle was if we were going to talk about IVF, because that was something that was really hard. We prayed about it, we talked about it, and I think it’s the greatest thing we’ve ever shared because of the Bundle of Joy Fund. We had 10 babies through it, with three more on the way. We’re going to do another big grant. If we weren’t open and accessible, that would have never started.

When we first released that blog, we probably got thousands of emails and then obviously they tapered off, but I still get at least five to 10 emails a week with people asking questions or saying, “Hey, thanks, we’re going through that, now we’re not as nervous,” or, “Hey, it’s cool that somebody else went through that.” I feel that when you put things out there, it kind of helps people sometimes.

You have a blog and especially when you were going through that, you got extremely personal and detailed, maybe to the level that I don’t think I’ve seen a lot of public figures share. You really opened yourself up and now it seems like you’re responsible for 10 lives that have been created. That has to be one of the most incredible feelings.

It’s wild. Obviously Kyle and I couldn’t have done it without the support of his fans, because they donate and they’re behind it and the NASCAR community is behind it too, which is awesome, and it’s just amazing. It’s wild when you get to see these couples again and meet their babies. They’re like, “Hey, thanks for the funds because now, look!” Wow, that’s just kind of mind-blowing and really isn’t something I can put into words. Just to hold someone else’s baby because of your fund? It’s just crazy.

What was the feeling like before you pressed send on those tweets and everything you put out with the blog post link in it?

That was big. I remember Kyle and I was sitting on the couch and it was in December and I literally had to talk myself into it. I was like, “OK, I’m going to post it at 5 o’clock. OK, 6. OK, 7.” And I just kept backing up and Kyle was like, “Just do it.”

And I put it out there and then we went and watched a movie — because I was afraid to see what would happen. And it took a little bit of time, but I think you actually retweeted it. Then it kind of grew some legs and people started reading it and then within a week, I had fertility clinics calling from all over the state saying, “Hey, can share this with our patients?” And I was like, “Yeah, of course.” So I think it did a lot of good.

Do you feel like what you are putting out on social media in general works for you because this is your natural personality? Because we’re talking about strategy and things like that, but it seems like this is sort of who you are.

Yeah, you sort of have to be authentic or else people can see right through it. I’m that person at the grocery store that’s probably like TMI — if someone’s in an aisle getting (medicine), I’m like, “I had that before. This is what I did.” And that’s kind of who I am. I think that’s very much how I grew up. With a big extended family, everybody knew everybody’s business and we were just very open. And so I think that comes across on social media.

Honestly, yeah, there were some people who were negative about it, but you know what, as long as you believe in it and you feel like it’s doing good, I just say go for it.

And that’s one thing, too: When I have young girls that may be asking questions about how do you handle this or that, I think if you could go back, you’d tell your high school or college self that it doesn’t really matter. In the grand scheme of things, you feel like it’s the end of the world right now, but not letting it get you down and focusing on stuff that’s more important, that’s the kind of message I try to tell them.

You show Brexton a lot as part of your daily life. Does he seem to be aware of the camera? Sometimes with my nephew, as soon as I turn on Snapchat or I’m trying to get a cool video of him, I can’t get it. He’s too aware of it.

Yes, that’s how Brexton’s getting now. The other day we were up in his playroom and he is fascinated by how Lucy, our dog, drinks out of a bowl, so he will take things from his sippy cup and pour it into other things and try to lick it like Lucy does. And I’m trying to video it and the second he sees me bring out the camera he stops. He’s like, “Mom, no way. No way.” I’m like, “Come on, be a baby again where you don’t know what I’m doing.”

Oh my gosh, his first year pictures were disastrous. I had this whole setup — I went on Etsy, I had it all planned out, I got a photographer — and he would not take one single photo without screaming. And so finally, after an hour, Kyle and I were like, “Forget it, we’re just not doing them.” He had cake and stuff on his diaper, so I took off his diaper that was covered in cake, let him run free and we got the best shot. He started peeing on his car, and it’s my favorite shot to date. I guess when you don’t force him to do stuff, that’s how it’s more natural.

You end up posting a lot of pictures on your accounts where you’re in them, so you’re obviously not taking them. How in the world do you have somebody that is taking these great shots? Do you have a system where you hand people the camera and they know what to do and they’re getting these great shots?

It’s a lot of people. I’m that girl that’s like, “Hey, sorry to bother you, but can you take a picture for us?” So I’m always that person. Our PR guy does it a lot for us. Sometimes our assistant comes to the track and she’ll do it. My mom will do it a lot. I’m telling you what, my mom is a pro on the camera right now. Last Easter, I started teaching her Snapchat and photos for Instagram, because you can’t get too close because it turns into squares. She was all confused. Now she’s like, “Hang on, the lighting, move this way, do that.” So it’s really just whoever is around.

You post your workouts a lot, and you seem to want to be encouraging to people in a motivational way. On one hand you have a business where you’re selling to people, you want them to buy clothes. On the other hand you’re trying to encourage people in a lifestyle manner. So, how are those different from each other? Or can you use the same strategy essentially?

I think in both areas, my biggest goal is to make people feel good and comfortable about themselves. I think there’s so much of the world that’s so ready to put you down — “You don’t look the right way” and “You don’t dress the right way” and this and that — and everybody is ready to be so negative.

So I think with my blog and store, my whole thing was to make women feel good about themselves and to raise them up. One thing on my blogs (that’s evident) is that I’m not a really great cook, so if it’s not starting in a can or a box or something that’s ready, I’m not gonna make it. And you know what? That’s OK, because we’re busy and a lot of moms are busy, and so I guess kind of my message is, “That’s OK.” Do whatever you can do and the best that you can do, and if you give it your all, then good for you.

When I post a workout, I always tell people if you can’t do three sets — if you can only do one — hey, you tried, right? And you’re gonna keep getting better at it, so keep practicing and keep doing it. That’s the motto I go with for everything.

What else should people know about your social media philosophy in general, as far as what you’re trying to put out there?

I guess one thing is I wouldn’t really go onto Instagram, say on another fashion blog or something, and be like, “That outfit is hideous” like people will do on mine. I’m like, “Why?” Obviously, if she’s wearing it, she likes it.

So people comment on yours and say, “That’s ugly?”

Yeah, the other day Kyle and I were in L.A. and granted, Kyle hated the jeans I had on, too. I thought that they were cool — they had patches and they were baggy; they’re very L.A., you know? Kyle was like, “Hmm, those are interesting.” Whatever. But you know, people are like, “Oh my God, you look terrible in that, it looks horrible,” or, “Did you really think those were cute?” And I’m like, “Well, if I purchased them and put them on and took a photo, yes I like them.”

So I just try to go on other people’s social sites and be uplifting and say, “Hey, that’s cute,” or, “Good work.” A big thing I try to do is when people comment on my stuff — and I need to get better about it — I try to go back and respond to them by saying, “Thanks for the great comment,” or answer a question. So it’s one thing I’m trying to get better about. But you know how it is — it’s about time and trying to balance 900 things at once.

One of the hardest things to do is to keep up the interaction with people. They expect it, but then you fall behind and then you feel sort of—

Guilty. Yeah, I feel bad because people take the time to follow me and comment. I want to take the time to go back and say, “Hey, thanks. Thanks for the message, thanks for checking out my page, thanks for checking out my store,” and so I try to go back and do that.

You know, it’s funny — sometimes during the race, because I got the ear(buds) in and I got the screen in front of me and I’ve got the times and I can see it, and a lot of times I’ll have my phone, and people are always like, “What are you doing on your phone?” We have somebody who comes on the road with us and watches Brex during the race, so I have three uninterrupted hours where I can multitask at things, and so that’s why I’m usually always on my phone.

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.

 

NASCAR should keep pushing on Xfinity driver limits

Shortly after Justin Allgaier won the Phoenix Xfinity race on Saturday, Motorsport.com’s Jim Utter turned to me in the media center and gave me crap for a tweet implying the race was good because an Xfinity driver won.

Utter observed the race was good either way — and it still would have been a good race even if a Cup driver like Ryan Blaney or Erik Jones had edged Allgaier for the win.

So would I have claimed it was a bad outcome, Utter asked, if a Cup guy won?

It’s a fair argument, but I’ll own my viewpoint: No matter what happens or how exciting the race is, if it’s a Cup guy in Xfinity victory lane, I won’t like it.

In that sense, Saturday was a good race. Allgaier hadn’t won since 2012, and he won on a day when veteran Cup drivers (five years or more of experience) were banned from participating.

And yeah, if a Cup guy won, I wouldn’t have said it was a “good” race.

A true racer would judge the racing off the action — not the participants — so I realize that exposes me a bit. But I’ve just never been able to get pumped about watching Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski or Joey Logano moonlight in a series and suck all the oxygen out of the room. Nothing against them personally, but I just don’t find it interesting when they win a minor-league race.

After the race, I asked Allgaier if the absence of the veteran Cup guys changed the dynamic on Saturday. Yes and no, he said.

On one hand, he said, the typically strong cars driven by those Cup stars — like from Team Penske and Joe Gibbs Racing — were still in the race with excellent drivers. They weren’t easy to beat, and it was a “dogfight,” Allgaier said.

On the other hand…

“Kyle is really good here, so one would have to think he’d be up front battling it out,” Allgaier said.

And he was nowhere to be found. So was that a good thing?

“I think it certainly changes the way the race looks,” winning team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. “When Kyle in particular is in these races, he’s got such a great chance to win. The race from second on back is still probably as exciting, but he usually doesn’t make much of a race out of it. When he’s in the field, he doesn’t hardly get challenged by a lot of the teams.”

Busch fans complain the media just doesn’t like it when Busch wins, as if people are OK with any other Cup driver. Personally, I don’t feel it’s an Anybody But Kyle situation when it comes to who I want to see in victory lane.

But Utter was right to poke holes in my argument that it’s all Cup guys who I have an issue with, because it’s certainly a different feeling when a Suarez or Jones or Blaney wins vs. a Busch or Keselowski or Logano. I admit that.

Still, my thoughts haven’t changed since I used this as the topic for my very first NASCAR column in 2004: Cup drivers should not be allowed to race in the Busch/Nationwide/Xfinity Series.

There’s zero value to anyone but those teams who sell sponsorship around it; everyone else loses.

Invest in Xfinity by allowing the lower series drivers to build their own storylines and rivalries — “Names Are Made Here,” after all — and let the series have a completely unique identity.

NASCAR has been taking baby steps over the years — Cup drivers can’t run for points (2011), Cup drivers can’t race at Homestead (2016), veteran Cup drivers limited to 10 races (2017), etc. — but it can’t stop now.

But my fear is after seeing a positive result like Saturday, officials will say, “OK, we’ve fixed it and we don’t need to go any further.”

It could have easily been a Cup driver in victory lane, though, so it’s still just putting Band-Aids on a wounded series that needs stitches.

Ban Cup drivers from Xfinity races — period — and the series will be much better off.

 

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.”