Five thoughts after Sunday’s race in Fontana…
1. We were robbed
Nothing against Martin Truex Jr.’s dominating win, but Sunday sure could have been a lot more interesting had Kevin Harvick not wrecked with Kyle Larson during the first stage.
What would have happened? Would Harvick have won his fourth straight race? Would Truex have thumped the field anyway?
“We’ll never know,” Truex said.
ARGH! That stinks. Even Furniture Row Racing owner Barney Visser sounded a little disappointed about it.
“After the beginning of the season there, watching Harvick run away with everything, I wasn’t sure where we were at,” Visser said. “I wish he would have not had the problems he had today and we could have run him again. I think we had something for him today.”
Now everyone has to wait for three weeks — until Texas Motor Speedway — to find out who will win a head-to-head battle on an intermediate track (Martinsville is next week, followed by an off week).
Still, the lack of evidence didn’t stop drivers from guessing what would have happened.
“Just the little bit I was around Kevin, I felt like he still had the best car,” Larson said. “Who’s to say, though?”
Truex said he left pit road after the first stop and drove away from Harvick — which leads him to believe the No. 78 car might have won anyway. It was pretty damn fast, after all.
But there’s no way to know for sure.
Sigh. Oh well.
“I’m sure we’ll have plenty of chances to race each other throughout the rest of the season,” Truex said.
2. What was that?
So what exactly happened in the Larson/Harvick incident?
Though it initially seemed Harvick was somehow retaliating against Larson for hard racing (a theory floated by the FOX broadcast), that turned out not to be the case.
Harvick said he went down to side-draft Larson when they came off the corner, and he was “trying to get a little too much right there.”
“That’s my fault for coming down the racetrack and trying to side draft,” he said. “… That was just a dumb mistake on my part.”
Larson had a more detailed explanation when asked if he was surprised Harvick was racing him so hard. Harvick had pitted one lap earlier than Larson, so the Chip Ganassi Racing driver was coming with slightly fresher tires.
“I think he knew he was better than I was overall, so he was just trying to hold me off, race me hard to maybe burn my stuff up, and then he could stay in front of me and not have to worry about me 10, 15 laps later when he would be better than me,” Larson said.
Makes sense, right? At that point, Harvick just made a mistake rather than acting out of malice.
“I was actually having a lot of fun racing like that because this place is really cool and you can just kind of go wherever,” Larson said. “I respect Kevin a lot. I think he respects me a lot, too. You never want to see anything like that happen.”
3. Harvick, and…
After five races, it’s not much of a mystery which team is the one to beat. And it’s not the one that ended up in victory lane.
“I don’t think anything changes with the 4 car being the fastest car in the field right now,” Brad Keselowski said.
“He’ll be good every weekend,” Larson said.
If that’s the case, Truex — now the points leader — is probably second-best, with Kyle Busch also right there.
But who else is good?
Larson, for one. Keselowski and Joey Logano, too. The thing is, they’re all a half-step away from being able to run up front regularly like Harvick, Truex or Busch.
“I’ve been happy to see how we’ve started so far,” Larson said. “But we still have a little ways to go to win.”
Keselowski said he’s been about a fifth-to-10th place car most weeks and noted the team hasn’t seriously contended for a win. And Logano, who missed the playoffs last year after his infamous encumbered penalty at Richmond, said his team is “getting closer” but isn’t there yet.
“Today we had some decent speed and it’s progress in the right direction,” Logano said. “We still have a ways to go, but we’re getting closer to where we can have solid runs, score stage points, score good finishes and keep ourselves up there for points.”
There are really no surprises in the top half of the playoff standings. Truex and Busch are 1-2, followed by the Team Penske trio of Logano-Keselowski-Ryan Blaney. Then it’s Denny Hamlin and Larson.
4. Standings surprises
Speaking of the point standings, there are still a few unexpected trends after five races.
— Despite winning three of the first five races, Harvick is only eighth in the standings. That’s because of Daytona and Fontana, where he got only two points.
— All four Stewart-Haas Racing drivers are in the top 11 of the standings. In fact, they are 8-9-10-11 (Harvick-Clint Bowyer-Aric Almirola-Kurt Busch).
— Chase Elliott is the lowest-running Hendrick driver (21st) after Jimmie Johnson moved up to 18th in the last couple weeks. The lead Hendrick driver is Alex Bowman, who is 16th.
— Jamie McMurray, who has pointed his way into the playoffs, is only 26th in the standings — behind Michael McDowell and both JTG Daugherty Racing drivers.
— Daniel Suarez is 23rd in the standings while all of his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates are 13th or higher.
5. The clock says Bubba Time
As Bubba Wallace walked off pit road following a 20th-place finish at Fontana, he was already looking toward next week — his first visit to Martinsville Speedway since winning the Truck Series race there four years ago.
“Man, I’m so pumped up and so excited to get there,” he said. “I want to win this fucker. … We’ll have to be ready there.”
Unlike recent weeks — such as Phoenix, where two loose wheels turned a possible top-15 day into a 28th-place finish — the No. 43 team might be rolling into the next race with some positive mojo.
There wasn’t anything particularly special about Fontana, except nothing went wrong.
“Smooth on pit road all day, didn’t make any dumb moves on the racetrack and came home 20th,” Wallace said. “We can improve from that.”
Wallace and his team are still figuring each other out, and the team is transitioning to Chevrolet and its alliance with Richard Childress Racing at the same time. But in only nine career Cup starts, Wallace now has top-20 finishes in five of them — all with a mid-level team — and has a three-point lead in the Rookie of the Year battle with William Byron.
“We came back here (after the Phoenix disappointment), regrouped, took a deep breath and can use this as a little bit of momentum going into Martinsville,” he said.