Five thoughts after Sunday’s race at Texas Motor Speedway…
1. Busch is back
It had only been nine races since Kyle Busch last won, which isn’t much of a drought by anyone’s standards.
But the “losing streak” (I’m putting it in quotes because it was a pretty weak slump) may have felt longer for Busch because of some frustration along the way.
A second-place finish at Homestead last year (and in the championship) was one of four runner-up results since November. For a guy who is never happy with anything but a win, finishing second that often didn’t sit well.
“Certainly being that close, it gets a little old a little faster, you know?” Busch said. “… Being as close as you are, that kind of hurts a little bit more. Especially that final one — that one that matters, that Homestead one. That’s probably the one that stings the most.”
Much of the focus this season has been on Kevin Harvick — rightfully so, since he’s been a dominant force and has three wins. But don’t overlook Busch when talking about the best team of the season so far.
His last five races (starting with Las Vegas) have resulted in the following finishes: second, second, third, second, first.
And Busch now has seven playoff points — tied for second with Martin Truex Jr. Clearly, his season is off to a much better start than in 2017, when Busch didn’t win until late July.
“We’ll just keep plugging along,” he said. “I still feel like we need to improve more and more. It feels good to be able to run as fast as we are and still have the improvements that we can make.”
2. “Our bad!”
For the most part this season, NASCAR has officiated consistently. That did not appear to be the case on Sunday, when Ryan Blaney received an uncontrolled tire penalty but Kevin Harvick did not (when the situations looked to be at least somewhat similar).
After initially defending the decision, NASCAR released a statement acknowledging the non-call was an error.
“It was a judgment call, and after conducting a post-race review of the incident, an uncontrolled tire penalty for the 4 car would have been correct,” said Scott Miller, NASCAR’s senior vice president of competition. “We missed that call.”
There’s certainly an argument to be made that NASCAR shouldn’t have waited until after the race to determine the call was incorrect. Obviously, it would be preferable to get it right in the moment (and this would have been a MUCH bigger deal if Harvick ended up winning the race).
But honestly, I can’t ever remember NASCAR coming out like this a few hours after a race and saying, “Hey, we screwed up.” So that’s good! Kudos for that. They are human, after all.
Personally, I think it reduces some of the outrage to just admit a mistake when one happens and it makes it easier to move on. In the past, officials would have doubled down on the spin and put forth a “nothing to see here!” messaging strategy.
Fans can live with the occasional error if it is acknowledged.
3. Gunning it
In comments to reporters after the race, Harvick shredded NASCAR’s new common pit guns and called them “embarrassing for the sport,” according to NBC’s Nate Ryan.
He emphasized that point in a media center interview, saying his team has had pit gun problems in four of the seven races this season.
“We had a pathetic day two days on pit road because we can’t get pit guns that work in our pit stalls,” he said. “Today we … got ourselves a lap down because the pit guns work half the time, they don’t work half the time. Yesterday (in the Xfinity race) we had four loose wheels because the pit guns can’t get the tires tight.
“I feel bad for the guys on pit road because they get handed just absolutely inconsistent pieces of equipment. Today it wound up costing us a race.”
As crazy as it sounds, I hadn’t been on board with dumping on the pit guns because it seemed like only one or two teams was having a problem during a race — this out of roughly 200 pit stops.
And after all, it’s the teams who asked for NASCAR to step in and regulate this (it wasn’t even on NASCAR’s radar before the teams requested it).
“We’ll continue gathering information on the pit guns’ performance like we do after every race,” NASCAR’s Miller said. “It is too early to make assumptions without all the facts. It’s also important to remember that this is a collaborative initiative with the race teams.”
But as teams continue to struggle with the guns — and have their races altered by them — it’s looking like this concept should be scrapped if pit gun maker Paoli can’t get the guns to be more reliable.
As Busch crew chief Adam Stevens pointed out, teams can’t change their strategies — they have to take tires. And when the race comes down to something that isn’t in their control, it’s an uncomfortable situation.
“Is it concerning? It is,” he said. “I think it puts a lot of doubt in the (tire) changers’ minds, probably makes them make more mistakes up and down pit road than maybe what they would have if they had more confidence in their equipment.
“You’re definitely on edge, listening for a problem, looking for a problem.”
And despite being a member of the council that worked with NASCAR to implement the common pit guns, team owner Joe Gibbs has seen enough.
“I don’t like things not in our hands,” he said. “So to be quite truthful, I’ve taken a stand on that (with NASCAR). That’s something that I hope we continue to really evaluate.”
The last thing anyone wants is to see this impact the playoffs. If the pit gun issue can’t get resolved by the middle of the summer, NASCAR should give the teams six weeks’ notice and let them use their own guns once the final 10 races begin.
4. New kids
The veteran drivers ruled once again on Sunday, going 1-2-3 (Busch-Harvick-Jamie McMurray). They’ve won all the races since Daytona, although Harvick’s average age observation got reduced slightly with Busch’s win (he turns 33 in May).
But some of the “New Kids On The Track” — who appeared on a large cartoon poster outside the garage this weekend — had pretty respectable days.
Rookies Bubba Wallace and William Byron both had top-10 finishes (Wallace battled Harvick for the free pass spot at times and Byron held off Jimmie Johnson for the same position earlier in the race).
Other names on the banner with good days included Erik Jones (fourth), Ryan Blaney (fifth) and Chase Elliott (11th).
Maybe Eddie Gossage was onto something with his idea.
“We needed that,” Wallace said on pit road after finishing eighth. “Each weekend, something happened after Daytona (when he finished second). The only thing we did was shake it off and look ahead to the next weekend.”
5. What’s next?
We still don’t have a great idea which team is best suited for the long run this season.
Stewart-Haas Racing has four wins (Harvick three, Clint Bowyer one) and the Joe Gibbs Racing/Furniture Row alliance has two (one each for Truex and Busch).
In addition, the drivers from those teams make up eight of the top 12 spots (Team Penske’s three drivers and Kyle Larson are the others).
Harvick had boldly said on Friday he was better than Truex on 1.5-mile tracks, and perhaps that was going to be the case on Sunday (before Truex blew a tire and finished last). But then Harvick got beat straight-up by Busch — they were on the same strategy and restarted on the front row together with 23 laps to go.
Anyway, the point is: We still don’t know! There hasn’t been a decisive race yet where none of the contenders had a problem on a normal track (in other words, not an abrasive surface or a superspeedway or a short track).
And now with Bristol, Richmond, Talladega and Dover coming up, it’s going to be more than a month — until Kansas — when we get another chance to see which team has best figured out the intermediate tracks.