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.


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 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.


12 Replies to “The Top Five: Breaking down the Phoenix race”

  1. Kyle is a head case. He sworn up and down his last wall hit (of which he has alot) was due to a down tire. Goodyear to their credit, anaylised the heck of his statement, etc. and they have strong disagreement with his statement. (On going battle for years with him and Goodyear). Look it up!

    However, today was legitmate tire issues which caused some heavy favorites not to get the finish they were expected to have..and yet..somehow their misfortune, not of their doing…was a screw to Kyle..Can his ego and false narrative get any bigger?

    Just asking and saying..I see big problems with this guy this year! IMO!

    1. Typical of a Kyle hater. You guys are and have been pretty sad since 2005. He said everything was great in every interview at Pheonix. What did you want him saying? Either way your going to complain.

      1. Josh, this is RedRibbons…are you referring to my post…and if so what is wrong with it? If you are directing your comment at me, and you can compose your obsessed fan self to make BULLET POINTS as to what I am wrong away..and expect a rebuttal. And what is this broad stroke “since 2005″…whoa, whoa , whoa.. O.k. sorry I will try not to laugh about your unhinged absurdity of that statement. Please let me know, I will consider that statement a “moment of passion”. But in fairness to me given this websites growing pains regarding a CLEAR reply..forgive me.

        1. Well RedRibbons, the reply was directed right between your eyeballs which after reading your post may be cross eyed.
          I’m not a huge fan of Kyles but if you go down the list of Champions since 2003, which one other than Johnson hasn’t had his moments with Goodyear or the media or behavioural problems? Name one other than JJ. It’s called being so competitive that you are hired for the top rides with the top sponsors, please, if you know something everyone else doesn’t I urge you to call Joe Gibbs Racing, ask for Coach, and tell him you think Kyle is in for a headscased year.
          I think he ll say thank you, I’ll pray for you and if you know anyone else better to drive my car, don’t hesitate to call back.

    2. Nothing is ever Kyle’s fault…I respect what he did in winning the 2015 Championship, but he never loses a race, someone always screws him over…gimme a break!

    3. What a great rebuttal you gave me! Sheesh, no wonder NASCAR can’t get fans engaged, can’t even get fans to give a rebuttal. What’s a rebuttal?

    1. Still wanting on that lofty goal all have professed since he has been out of diapers Margaret Burke! I think others are before him.

  2. The real reason Newman was able to make that work is because two other drivers stayed out (17 and 78) creating a blockade and there were only two laps left. Had that not been the case or if there would have been a caution on that restart, he would have been toast.

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