The Top Five: Breaking down the Bristol spring race

Five thoughts after Sunday’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway…

1. An off-day for an elite race team

One of the top crew chiefs in the garage faced reporters after the Bristol race and gave a frank assessment of his team’s lack of speed.

“This was probably about the worst car I gave him to go race with this year,” the crew chief said. “We didn’t make a lot of headway in practice. We weren’t as good as we hoped to be.”

The driver echoed that sentiment, saying the team never hit on the right setup for the entire weekend.

“We just didn’t quite have the speed,” he said. “We just didn’t show exactly what we needed there.”

Added the crew chief: “They had us covered today. We weren’t very good, like I’ve said a dozen times already.”

Yikes. Clearly, it sounds like a very tough Sunday at Bristol for…(checks notes)…Kyle Busch and crew chief Adam Stevens?!?!

That’s crazy. In a season where Busch has already been stellar, the field somehow allowed the No. 18 team to score yet another victory and add to its already-impressive playoff point total. Busch now has 19 playoff points, which is by far the most after the first eight races under this system (12 was the previous best).

We all know there are times when Busch loses races on days he had the best car. On Sunday, he won a race where he clearly wasn’t the fastest. This is shaping up to be a long season for Busch haters yet again.

“Hopefully we can get back on our horse and give him something he can race with a little closer next week,” Stevens said.

2. Odd ending

Bristol was a really fun and interesting race from Lap 1, with all sorts of unpredictable twists (from wrecks to loose wheels) that kept the pace moving quickly. Fears of a dreadful race due to the aero effects of the new package didn’t come to fruition and the traction compound appeared to last throughout the day (instead of wearing out halfway through).

All in all, it was the best race of the season so far.

But it sure ended in an anti-climactic way. One of the Team Penske cars was headed toward victory lane — they’d been the class of the field, leading 344 laps.

And then, strangely, the Penske trio just handed the race to Busch by pitting before a restart that ultimately came with 14 laps to go.

Track position won out, with the top two finishers — the Busch Brothers — pulling away on old tires. Joey Logano went from eighth to third, but wasn’t really a threat for the win.

Later, Logano said he thought the pit decision was a no-win situation for the frontrunners.

“The last thing you want is a caution with 15 to 20 to go at Bristol and you’re the leader, because you know everyone is going to make their decision off of what you do,” he said. “If you stay out, you’ve got to expect half the field is going to pit, maybe more. If you come in, five or six stayed (out). So it’s just part of the game.”

But is it? I’m having a hard time visualizing it. If the leaders stayed out — let’s say it was only the three Penske cars and a few others — they would have been in the same situation as the Busch Brothers ended up in.

Perhaps Logano was just trying to avoid throwing his team under the bus for a strategy decision that clearly cost him the race. And for viewers at home, it certainly made for a weird ending.

3. Race recap from a parallel universe

BRISTOL, Tenn. — As continuous cheers rained down from the stands for 15 minutes following the checkered flag, Kurt Busch stood atop the victory lane building in Bristol Motor Speedway’s infield and shrugged his shoulders with a grin.

“I really wanted to beat him,” Busch said of his younger brother, Kyle. “I decided I was going to wreck him, and if I got close enough when we took the white, I was just going to drive straight into Turns 3 and 4 and wreck him.”

Busch did exactly that, sending his brother’s No. 18 car spinning and crashing as the No. 1 car crossed the finish line. Bristol fans, weary of seeing Kyle win yet another race, responded by erupting in joy as Kurt circled the track with a Polish victory lap.

It also may have sparked a rivalry at a time when NASCAR could use some bad blood.

“I’ll get him back,” Kyle said on the track’s public address system as fans showered him with jeers. “I don’t care if it takes me all season and I don’t care what the penalty is. He’ll regret this day ever happened.”

In related news, Bristol reported ticket sales saw an immediate increase for its upcoming Night Race in August.

4. Yes, we see it

The stands looked bad. Attendance has steadily been getting worse over the last decade. It’s not going to get much better anytime soon. Everyone acknowledges this. No one I’ve seen is trying to talk around this fact, nor appearing to hide it or sugarcoat it.

But given it’s 1) Not anything new and 2) Not going to change … can we please just stop talking about it for awhile? The topic is exhausting.

5. You picked a fine time to leave me

This weekend turned into a celebration of Darrell Waltrip’s career, which is probably the first of many tributes he will receive leading up to his retirement from broadcasting in late June.

Drivers gave him hugs and recorded video messages that left him emotional in the booth, and the track gave him one of its signature gladiator swords following a news conference where he shared many reflections on his time in NASCAR.

Waltrip, one of NASCAR’s all-time great drivers and a uniquely special broadcaster, deserves the fond farewells.

But they’re also long overdue. The moment Jeff Gordon stepped into the FOX booth and brought his current knowledge of the cars, teams and drivers — while Ol’ DW preferred to rely on his old-school experiences — it was painfully obvious a change was needed.

Given television’s crucial role in how NASCAR is represented, it’s absolutely fair to question whether the best product is being shown to viewers. In that sense, it’s also perfectly acceptable to look forward to a fresher voice in the booth.

Waltrip passionately defended himself on Friday, though, and it’s clear many people agree with him.

“People say, ‘He’s not relevant any more, hasn’t driven a car,'” Waltrip said. “I’ve been in the cars. I know what they feel like. I know what it feels like to win a race here. You want to listen to some guy that’s never won a race somewhere tell you how to drive a car? I don’t think so.

“I have the knowledge. I have the experience. Look, I don’t sit at home Monday through Thursday twiddling my thumbs.  I talk to crew chiefs.  I talk to drivers. … I know how they do it. I could build the damn car myself if I had to. Tell somebody else, some of these guys, build a car, see how it runs.

“Nobody shook me and said, ‘Man, it’s time to give it up.’ It’s just that time.  72 years old. I could do this til’ I’m 90.

“This is what I know, this is what I do best. I’ve loved every minute of it.  I think I’m pretty damn good at it, to tell you the truth.”

Heading into the weekend, the controversial Jenna Fryer column was a hot topic, and she got a lot of crap for it. But if anything, Fryer may have done him a favor: Rallying DW’s supporters for a celebration tour while drowning out the previously loud voices of his detractors.

Guest Column: Modern drivers closer to legends than you might think

By Jason Higgins (@jayjaydean)

There seems to be a strong opposition to anyone daring to compare Kyle Busch’s soon-to-be 200 NASCAR national series victories to Richard Petty’s 200 Cup wins.

But when you look at NASCAR history, including much of the time Petty raced, there’s no doubt certain Cup races meant something different than they do today.

NASCAR really became the NASCAR of today in 1972, which signified the start of the Modern Era. Before 1972, there were many more races on the Winston Cup schedule, and many of them are simply not comparable to the Cup races of today.

Every Modern Era race has had at least 28 cars in the field and a scheduled distance that took over two and a half hours to complete. It is not that difficult to go back through the records and figure out which pre-1972 races are apples-to-apples comparisons to today’s races.

Many races, like the Southern 500 and Daytona 500, are virtually the same today as they have been from their creation, and should be counted as such.

Others, though? Not so much — including many Cup races that were held on dirt.

Take Richard Petty’s 1971 season. That season, the King ran 46 out of 47 possible races and won 21 times. Let’s go through and look at how many of those wins are comparable to today’s wins:

– Daytona 500. (Obviously, yes,)
– Richmond 500. (Yes.)
– Carolina 500 (At Rockingham. Yes.)
– Hickory 276. (22 cars in the field for a race that took 88 minutes? No.)
– Columbia 200. (Short field, short race. No.)
– Maryville 200. (A 200-lap race on a half-mile that took 70 minutes? No.)
– Gwyn Staley 400. (North Wilkesboro Speedway. Yes.)
– Virginia 500. (Martinsville. Yes.)
– Asheville 300. (17 cars! No.)
– Pickens 200. (Another race barely over 80 minutes. No.)
– Albany-Saratoga 250. (This race was 90 miles long. No.)
– Islip 250. (This race was supposed to be 50 miles long but ended 20 laps short due to a scoring error. I can’t even. No.)
– Northern 300. (40 cars. Earlier versions of this race were three hours, so yes.)
– Nashville 420. (Nashville was on the schedule through 1984. Yes.)
– Dixie 500. (Atlanta…yes.)
– West Virginia 500 (Yes.)
– Sandlapper 200. (Great name, but only a 90-minute race. No.)
– Delaware 500. (The fall race at Dover. Yes.)
– American 500. (The fall race at the Rock. Yes.)
– Capital City 500. (The fall race at Richmond. Yes.)
– Texas 500. (250 laps on a 2-mile track…sound familiar? Yes.)

If I were at NASCAR, I would create a statistic called “Era-Adjusted Career Wins.” That would help fans better compare past drivers with a bit more realism.

In the case of Petty’s 1971 season, his 13 Era-Adjusted wins would still tie the Modern Era record for wins in a season (by Petty in 1975 and Jeff Gordon in 1998). I don’t think that is short-changing the King at all. In fact, since it is easy to dismiss many of the King’s pre-1972 wins with “Well, he was the only car there,” when you adjust for era and he has another one of the winningest seasons ever, doesn’t the added context make the King look even more awesome?

In addition, races that counted toward the championship before 1972 included the Daytona 500 qualifying races. To be fair, the King (amazingly) never won a Daytona qualifying race — though he did win a qualifying race for the World 600 in 1961, which counts as one of his 200 wins.

Here is an excellent example of why the NASCAR record book could stand to be addressed: Junior Johnson is listed as having won 50 races; Tony Stewart won 49.

But Johnson won three Daytona 500 qualifiers — and those races count toward his total of 50 wins. Stewart also won three Daytona 500 qualifiers — but those races do NOT count toward his total of 49 wins.

Anyway, I went through all of the previous races in NASCAR history and applied the criteria to get era-adjusted wins, and this is my current top 10:

1. Richard Petty – 116
2. Jeff Gordon – 93
3. Darrell Waltrip – 84
4. Jimmie Johnson — 83
5. Cale Yarborough – 80
6. Dale Earnhardt – 76
7. Bobby Allison – 73
8. David Pearson – 63
9. Rusty Wallace – 55
10. Kyle Busch — 52

Again, your initial reaction to that list might be “Wow, you hate Richard Petty. You took away 84 of his wins.” But seriously, do you have any idea how many wins 116 is? Jeff Gordon only got to 93. He would have to get back into the car and have Ricky Rudd’s entire career starting today to tie the King. That’s how unquestionable the King’s dominance is.

Which bring us back to Kyle Busch. No, his 200 national series wins aren’t the same as Petty’s 200 Cup wins. But when you adjust Petty’s statistics to account for difference in era, it helps to see where one of the greats of today stack up to the greats of the past.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Phoenix spring race

Five thoughts after Sunday’s race at ISM Raceway…

1. Passing Pain

Kevin Harvick is the all-time leader in wins and laps led at Phoenix, so you’d figure he’s better at passing cars than anyone here.

But after Sunday’s race, Harvick said passing was “extremely difficult” — even for him — and he struggled to get around cars that were “six-, seven-, eight-tenths slower than us at the end of the race.”

What happened? Well, it appears this version of the 2019 rules package — last year’s horsepower level (750) combined with the giant spoiler — created a combination of speed and dirty air that drivers found difficult to overcome.

“It was really, really, really, really, really hard to pass,” Joey Logano said. “You start to catch a car and you just stop. That big spoiler on the back makes it really, really challenging to even get to the car in front of you to make something happen.”

Even race winner Kyle Busch noted he wouldn’t have been able to win unless Ryan Blaney got into lapped traffic toward the end of a long run — because Blaney “had the same problems I had (when) he’s behind other cars in front of him.”

“If it’s a 10-lap run, (the win) is his,” Busch said. “If it’s 20, 30, 40, 50 laps, it’s probably his race.”

But it was a 73-lap run, and that allowed Busch to take advantage of lapped cars. Otherwise…

“You were really stuck and mired behind guys,” he said.

At least one driver aside from Busch didn’t mind the conditions.

“I mean, it’s been really hard for me to pass anyone the last year and a half or two years,” Jimmie Johnson said after finishing eighth. “I know other are guys standing here complaining more, but shit, that’s the best I’ve run in awhile. So I’m good.”

2. Restarts all the rage

But hey, how about those crazy restarts? Those were cool; certainly the highlight of the race, much like Las Vegas.

Logano said restarts “became everything” because drivers knew if they got through the first couple laps of a restart and let the race settle out, they could pretty much stay there.

Kyle Larson started 31st and finished sixth, but credited restarts for most of his gains.

“I don’t think I made many actual green-flag passes — I felt like I just had some really good restarts,” he said. “Restarts were kind of what saved us. Once you got in line, it was hard to pass until the very end of that last run there (when the tires finally wore out).”

The other reason restarts were so wild, Logano said, was because the bigger blade on the back of the car gave more grip — so drivers were “sending it off in there.”

“They were able to be more aggressive on restarts,” Logano said. “But after that, it didn’t matter how aggressive you were — you weren’t going to get there. It was too hard to catch them.”

If the first few races are any indication, eye-popping restarts should become one of the themes of this season.

3. Strategy, strategy, strategy

Another theme of this season could end up being how teams adapt to the track position game by using tire strategy or pit road strategy.

It’s not just restarts, Denny Hamlin said, but pit crews and every part of strategy that matters even more now. Drivers simply can’t afford to lose any positions, because they might not get them back (or take them a very long time to do so, like with Harvick after he pitted and only got back to ninth).

“All of that is so important because you cannot drive around someone if you’re significantly faster,” Hamlin said. “They have to actually move out of the way or you have to somehow catch them in a bad spot.”

Kyle Busch crew chief Adam Stevens said the track position game didn’t surprise him — he thought it was going to be “even harder to pass than it was.”

But he was intrigued by how some of the better cars who played tire strategy (like Johnson taking two) were able to hold onto their positions throughout a run.

“There’s going to be a lot of data for us to dig into so we can plan how we’re going to strategize the next race when we come back,” he said.

One can only imagine how many races will be won by strategic decisions that might push the envelope or seem unorthodox at the time. When the NASCAR garage is tasked with coming up with different ways to approach a race, crew chiefs and engineers usually deliver.

As for Harvick, he said the lesson was pretty simple on how to play the strategy for the next Phoenix race.

“Just restart first,” he said.

4. O, Fontana

I’m not going to lie here — I’m getting a little worried about the various forms of this package after the first three races. We’ve seen three different uses of it — at Atlanta, Vegas and now Phoenix — with ho-hum results. Certainly nothing spectacular yet.

But Fontana really seems to be a place where that could change. I have high hopes of seeing the first great race of the season, because the extreme form of the package (550 horsepower with the aero ducts) combined with a sweeping 2-mile track that happens to have worn-out asphalt…well, all the ingredients are there.

If it’s not a good race? Gulp. Let’s not think about that yet, because it could mean this might be a long season.

Maybe this means there’s a lot riding on Fontana, but if any track is going to work with this rules package, you’d think that would be one.

5. In the (Fan) Zone

After a couple times seeing the new ISM Raceway “INfield” in action, I’m convinced it’s the best fan experience in NASCAR. With apologies to the Neon Garage in Las Vegas, the new Richmond Raceway garages (similar to Phoenix) and the Daytona fan zone, Phoenix just goes above and beyond with the combination of amenities and access.

It’s not cheap — $129 for a three-day pass and $89 on Sunday only, which is on top of your regular race ticket. But damn, I would think it’s worth it.

Take practice sessions, for example. The fans are literally inside the garages, with just a waist-high fence separating them from the cars and drivers. There are no windows or barriers between them and their favorite teams, which is pretty amazing in itself.

Then there’s the race day experience, which goes as far to allow any INfield passholder into victory lane (try to get a spot with at least 50 laps to go) for the celebration.

Plus there’s stuff like a margarita bar and plenty of screens (and it’s right behind pit road, so you can see some of that action).

This probably sounds like an advertisement (sorry), but I wanted to make sure it was on your radar.  In an alternate universe where I wasn’t a journalist and was just at the track for fun, I could easily picture myself spending an enjoyable, sun-drenched afternoon there with my friends.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Daytona 500

Five thoughts after Sunday’s season-opening Daytona 500…

1. Daytona’s lesson

Up until the green flag Sunday, the relentless hand-wringing over how the racing would look in the Daytona 500 was the theme of Speedweeks.

There were serious worries over seeing a single-file line cling to the top for hours in front of the biggest TV audience NASCAR gets all year. Ack! Any potential momentum heading into the season would be squandered. A disaster in the making!

The fears persisted until the start of the race. Even moments before engines were fired, a spotter for one of the top drivers confidently predicted the drivers would spend the first stage looking like the Xfinity drivers did in their awful borefest of a “race.”

I believed it, because it made logical sense. That’s how the Clash looked, how the Duels looked. There was no reason to think otherwise. Even the drivers thought it would be like that. Why would they push it and run double-file?

But…they did.

“I was expecting us all to be up against the wall, and quickly found out pretty early in the race that this was going to go a lot different than what we thought it was going to,” Joey Logano said.

Isn’t that incredible? Even the drivers, despite their group texts and manufacturer teamwork, are just as clueless as the rest of us when it comes to forecasting the rhythm of a race. The crew chiefs don’t know. The engineers don’t know. The media doesn’t know.

And yet we all work ourselves into a huge frenzy (see Twitter from Saturday night) after each little development leading up to the race.

The lesson from all this, once again: NASCAR is completely unpredictable. Just when you think you have a feel for what’s going to happen, you never do.

Let’s remember that for next week at Atlanta (new rules package), Las Vegas (extreme new rules package) and beyond. This is going to be a season of uncertainty, and it cannot be predicted with any degree of confidence.

In the absence of answers, maybe it’s OK to just let things happen, let the races breathe and maybe — MAYBE — even let ourselves enjoy the show along the way.

2. Toyota time

Speaking of nobody knowing anything, how about Toyota going 1-2-3 in the Daytona 500 and leading the most laps when most predictions had Fords dominating the race?

Toyota Racing Development head David Wilson was making rounds through the media center on Sunday morning, so I jokingly asked if he wanted to help with my NASCAR Fantasy Live team.

He inquired who was on my team, so I opened the page — forgetting I’d picked Ford, Ford, Ford, Ford, Ford and Ford. I cringed at his potential reaction, but he seemed understanding.

After all, Ford had the strength in numbers. Ford had dominated the Duels. Ford executed a near-perfect Talladega race last fall. Wilson conceded all those things.

But he gave a sly grin. Toyota had a plan, Wilson said. Hmm…

As it turned out, that creative plan apparently included teaming with Hendrick Motorsports cars to get the numbers that would take on the Fords. And together, the Toyota+Hendrick line actually seemed to work better than the pre-race favorites.

But the plan went out the window — for everyone — after multiple crashes narrowed the field. In the end, there were two Toyotas, two Fords and a Chevrolet lined up for the final restart.

Even then, the Toyotas — Hamlin and Busch — cooperated on the start of overtime while the Fords — Joey Logano and McDowell — didn’t stick together and ended up having words over it on pit road.

After the race, I bumped into Wilson on his way out of the media center. He broke into a wide smile.

“Sorry about your fantasy team,” he said, not actually sorry at all.

3. NASCAR’s Leader

One of the biggest moments of Sunday happened two hours before the race.

Jim France, the new CEO of NASCAR, got up in front of all the drivers and said a few words reminiscent of his late brother, Bill France Jr.

“I hope a few of you drivers will get down on the bottom with Denny and Chase and make a show today,” France said.

Ultimately, that’s exactly what happened. Now, was that because of France’s comment? Maybe not directly, but there was certainly a shift in tone and attitude among the drivers once the race began.

France clearly has the respect of the garage — I’ve heard nothing but universal praise for his consistent presence at the track — and the drivers are willing to trust his vision.

More than anytime in the last two decades, NASCAR seems intent in putting on a show. They use the buzzwords like “entertainment” — and for the most part, the drivers seem to be on board with the push in that direction. Or at least they’ve accepted it, even if they don’t agree.

Either way, France has their ear. His not-so-subtle message likely stuck in their memories as they prepared to take the green flag on Sunday.

That’s leadership, and it couldn’t come at a better time for a sport that has lacked in it from the CEO position for so long.

4. Hamlin HOFer

Last week, I made an innocent Twitter joke that turned into a reminder of how under appreciated Denny Hamlin’s career has been. In suggesting Hamlin was a Hall of Famer — something I thought was a given — I was surprised at the resistance to the idea.

I get that people aren’t necessarily fond of Hamlin (especially Elliott fans) and the Internet loves to poke fun at his “10,000 races.”

But damn. The guy is unquestionably a Hall of Famer. If you didn’t agree before, there’s no disputing it now.

Hamlin is now a two-time Daytona 500 winner and has 32 Cup wins overall — which ties him with Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett for 24th on the all-time list. He hasn’t won a championship, but he’s had 10 seasons of top-10 points finishes — a pretty solid run of consistency in the playoff era.

While Hamlin shied away from comparisons with Jarrett (“He’s so much better than I am. … I shouldn’t even be mentioned in the same breath as Dale Jarrett.”), the guy is only now entering his prime seasons age-wise. According to Motorsports Analytics’ David Smith, a driver’s peak age is 39; Hamlin just turned 38 in November.

And while this chapter of restrictor-plate racing may be over (Talladega will start the tapered spacer era at superspeedways), Hamlin should be noted as one of the best — along with Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and Dale Earnhardt Jr. — of his era on such tracks.

5. The Brain Problem

As mentioned, restrictor plates won’t appear on NASCAR Cup cars anymore. But they sure had one last hurrah in the final laps as a wreckfest broke out and somewhat sullied what had previously been a very good plate race.

With 50 laps to go in the race, only one car was out of the race. But in the end, only 19 finished — less than half the field — and just a handful of cars escaped with no damage.

So what gives? How do drivers who used patience and talent for 400 miles suddenly lose their heads at the end?

“Brains come unglued,” Kyle Busch said. “That’s all it is. Everybody just ‑‑ the brain connection from right up here to the gas pedal foot doesn’t quite work the same anymore.”

Humans are imperfect, and drivers under pressure strapped inside hot race cars for four hours are even more imperfect.

In a way, that’s lucky for us. It gives us something to watch, something to react to, something to talk about.

And in that sense, the chance of highly skilled people making mistakes or bad decisions is the formula that makes these crazy races worth watching.

Championship Media Day podcast from Miami Beach

NASCAR championship contenders Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick met with the media Thursday at a hotel in Miami Beach. This brief recap podcast includes selected comments from each driver.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Phoenix playoff race

Five thoughts after Sunday’s NASCAR playoff race at ISM Raceway…

1.  Big stage is set

After all the crazy twists of these playoffs, NASCAR ended up with the best four drivers of the season going for the championship.

There are no flukes here. Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano and Martin Truex Jr. have the best average finishes of anyone in the Cup Series this season (in that order). In the traditional/non-playoff point standings, which are still kept by racing-reference.info, those four drivers are also tops in season-long points.

It’s a stout group, and you could make a case for any of them winning the title.

“This is the closest four that have been in our sport in a long time,” Busch said.

There are no newcomers among them, either.  Each contender has been in the final four at least twice — even though this is only the fifth year of its existence. Logano is the least experienced of the contenders — and yet this is his 10th season.

“Three of us have won in the format and all four of us have lost in the format,” Busch said. “Overall, it just comes back to a lot of things having to go your way.”

So what’s going to happen at Homestead? Well, it would be a surprise if the drivers didn’t run 1-2-3-4 for much of the race, and maybe even finish that way.

Harvick though, remains the favorite. It’s a 1.5-mile track and he’s consistently been the fastest off the truck all year. Strange things can happen, as we saw at Phoenix, but the Fords are still better than the Toyotas on intermediate tracks.

So that said, my prediction for the finishing order of this year’s final four is: Harvick-Logano-Busch-Truex.

2. Playoff races raise the game

It’s OK to have a love/hate relationship with this playoff format. There are days when it seems far from the best way to decide an auto racing champion.

But Sunday was not one of those days. The playoff pressure absolutely elevated the Phoenix race and made it far more compelling than it may have been otherwise.

Look at how desperately Aric Almirola was driving at the end. Look at the decisions made by Kurt Busch and his team to try to preserve their points position over Harvick. The whole atmosphere and vibe of the race was dramatically enhanced by the playoffs, and it made for a highly entertaining day.

Yeah, it’s still weird to have one race at a given track decide the season-long winner. On the other hand, it gains credibility when the best drivers all advance — and the addition of playoff points have certainly helped.

“I think the format we have now is the absolutely best scenario we could have when you look at it for the entirety of the year,” Busch said.

3. Smoke’s thoughts

Tony Stewart had his hands full on Sunday. He knew it would be challenging for a team owner — that’s what happens when you have four teammates going for one spot. But he had to step into an extra role as well: Counselor.

As Kurt Busch was having a meltdown on the radio after a tough penalty took  the race lead away and cost him a lap, Stewart intervened and told Busch to take a deep breath. After the race, Stewart consoled Busch with an embrace and words of encouragement — something Busch expressed gratitude for later.

It was if the current Stewart was talking to the racer Stewart from 10 years ago as the voice of reason.

Scary, isn’t it?” Stewart told me after the race. “Got some experience in those situations. I think that helps, at least being in that position. (Kurt is) a good guy. He’s come a long way, but he still gets in those positions where the heat of battle takes over. It’s understandable. That’s why we do what we do.

“Can’t blame him for it. You just know everybody is going to hang on every word he says, so you just try to help him out more than anything. After his penalty, he did an awesome job of locking back in. He was running the leaders down from the back. Pretty proud of him.”

Overall, Stewart was unhappy about the race unfolded. He called it “chaotic” and indicated there were too many factors affecting such a big race.

What specifically stuck out?

The scenarios and everything around it, drivers that shouldn’t even be in the Cup Series causing cautions, stupid stuff happening,” he said.

4. Harvick’s comeback

This will probably be lost to history, but let’s take a moment to appreciate Harvick’s remarkable feat at Phoenix.

After dominating the first stage, he had a tire go flat with two laps left in the stage and limped to pit road — which was actually fortunate timing, because the stage break saved him from going more laps down.

Then he fought his way to the free pass position —  and got it — despite a damaged car. Later, his team used strategy to put him in a favorable spot to be in front of the late wreck that would have ended his playoff hopes — but instead helped him sail through on points as his competitors crashed.

Harvick downplayed it all afterward, saying it was “just another day.” He said his only thoughts were trying to get back to the pits instead of worrying about the championship.

But the survival and focus of his team to persevere through a day that could have been a heartbreaker is one to remember — especially if he ends up winning his second title next week.

5. What if?

An intriguing scenario popped up late in the race with Kyle Busch and Almirola restarting side-by-side. If Busch allowed Almirola to beat him on the restart — and potentially for the win — then it would have eliminated Harvick, who is clearly Busch’s biggest competitor for the title.

Busch said it crossed his mind, but never seriously. He wasn’t going to give up a win, even if it means Harvick would beat him next week.

You always want to go up against the best of the best, and the strength of the season has been us three and the 22,” Busch said.

In addition, Busch said it wouldn’t have worked anyway. Had Almirola gotten by on the restart and Busch fallen in line, he predicted Brad Keselowski would have won instead.

“I don’t think the 10 was capable enough of being able to lead the race and not have somebody else pass him, know what I mean?” Busch said. “That would have been dumb.”

Crew chief Adam Stevens,  though, seemed like he wouldn’t have been disappointed had it happened.

“It wouldn’t have upset me if it did happen, but we weren’t going to do anything to make it happen,” Stevens said.

I’m not at all saying Busch should have done it — no real racer would give up a win, and it also would have been a huge scandal for not letting the race play out — but it’s an interesting scenario that only pops up in NASCAR’s unique playoff format.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Texas playoff race

Five thoughts after Sunday’s NASCAR playoffs race at Texas Motor Speedway…

1. Ford goodness’ sake

After yet another Ford-dominated weekend — Ford drivers combined to lead 321 of the 337 laps at Texas — Martin Truex Jr. brought up a solid point.

What if the Toyotas were crushing everyone like the Fords are now?

“If this is last year, they would all be complaining we’re too fast,” Truex said on pit road. “So I don’t know if I should do a (Brad) Keselowski and start whining about it or not. They’re really fast, and if we’re off just a little bit, we can’t run with them.”

That was the case at Texas, as none of the top Toyotas — or Chevrolets, for that matter — could hang with the Fords. And with only two weeks to go in the season, nothing is going to change before Homestead. It’s a Ford world now.

In all likelihood, that means Texas race winner Kevin Harvick is going to head to Miami as the heavy favorite for the championship. I’d even put Joey Logano above Truex and Kyle Busch at this point, since they just don’t have the raw speed the Fords seem to.

It’s not a given Harvick will win it all — Jimmie Johnson won his most recent championship as the fourth-fastest car among the title contenders — but the final four is going to feel more like “Harvick and Friends” than “The Big Three and Joey.”

Who is going to beat the No. 4 team aside from themselves?

“I feel as a team we’ve been strong down there,” crew chief Rodney Childers said. “Last year going into Homestead, I felt we didn’t have the cars to run for a championship, and we almost ran with them. So overall I think we have good cars right now.

“Everybody has done a great job. It’s just going to come down to executing and doing the best we can on pit road.”

I feel like I’ve written this a zillion times in 2018, but it’s still Harvick’s championship to lose.

2. Veteran move

Experience still matters sooooo much in today’s Cup Series, and that’s why drivers like Harvick can make the difference in crunch time situations.

Just look at Texas. Harvick got beaten by Ryan Blaney on a late restart, but he patiently caught back up and stuffed his car underneath Blaney’s in Turns 1 and 2 for what seemed like the winning pass. It was a pretty slick move that appeared easier than it was.

Then, on the overtime restart, Harvick switched up the strategy and started on the top — something no leader had chosen to do all race. If anyone doubted him, though, it worked — he easily cleared Blaney and sailed on to victory.

Blaney, to his credit, anticipated Harvick’s decision.

“I figured he wouldn’t make that move three times,” Blaney said. “We almost cleared him the first restart up top. Then I did on the second one. I figured he’d take the top.

“You get beat in one, you almost get beat the next one, you’re going to take the top, not restart on the bottom.”

Blaney can put that in his memory bank for the future, and that’s valuable. Those kind of scenarios can’t be simulated or pre-planned — only learned through actually being in those environments. But the winning veterans, like Harvick or Keselowski or Kyle Busch, already have those situations in their driver toolkits.

3. NASCAR mistake

Fans are continuing to light up NASCAR officials after Jimmie Johnson was mistakenly sent to the back of the field prior to the race.

For what it’s worth, NASCAR apologized in person to Chad Knaus and Hendrick representative Jeff Gordon, then told the media (through executive vice president Steve O’Donnell) the error was “unacceptable” and “disappointing.” O’Donnell vowed to make sure it wouldn’t happen again.

It was certainly a big mistake, and this isn’t the first time NASCAR has goofed on a call. It seems to happen more often than anyone would like, which is inexcusable.

That said, I remember the not-too-distant past, when NASCAR officials never would have admitted fault on something like this and instead made up some B.S. reason to justify the call. They’d say something like, “Oh, that’s our policy now. You didn’t know that?” Seriously, I feel like that used to be practically commonplace. I hated that about covering this sport; it drove me nuts.

Now NASCAR has a tendency to admit fault and apologize when something like this happens. Yeah, the whole thing isn’t good, and acknowledging an error doesn’t erase the error — but at least it takes some of the sting out of it.

4. Texas needs help

It’s time to stop racing 1,000 miles per year at Texas Motor Speedway.

The repave and reconfiguration hasn’t made for good racing in the Cup Series, this time even drawing the ire of typically mild-mannered Chase Elliott.

Elliott said Texas is “a really frustrating racetrack ever since they ruined it two years ago” and added: “I don’t know what genius decided to pave this place or take the banking out of (Turns) 1 and 2, but not a good move for the entertainment factor, in my opinion.”

Texas wasn’t very entertaining before, and now it’s gotten worse. A controversial new rules package will arrive for Cup next year, which could make the racing better — but it’s also going to make it a lot longer.

With the cars going slower, the 3.5-hour average time of the Texas races could creep closer to four-hour territory. Is that really necessary?

Even Texas president Eddie Gossage, by all accounts a great promoter, can’t do much with the racing product recently. Gossage’s customers have told him they don’t want any races to be shortened — they want more miles for their dollars — but given the sparse attendance on Sunday, is that even a consideration anymore?

A 300-mile race could be a lot more entertaining at Texas, since it could promote urgency and take away the time where drivers can just log laps. Either that, or it could be a chance for NASCAR to try a timed, three-hour race — just as an experiment.

Neither of those ideas could make it any worse, right?

5. Points drying up in the desert

At first glance, it doesn’t look like NASCAR is in store for much drama at Phoenix. The points are blown wide open, with the two remaining spots held by drivers who are at least 25 points ahead of the cutoff.

Kurt Busch isn’t in a must-win situation, but close. He’d need a lot of help. Meanwhile, Chase Elliott, Aric Almirola and Clint Bowyer have to win Phoenix or will miss out on the final four.

But if there is a new winner among that group, things could get interesting very quickly. Kyle Busch and Truex would be in position to battle for the last spot on points, and they’re only separated by three at the moment.

“We might be racing the 78,” Busch crew chief Adam Stevens said. “We’ve got to out-run the 78 to make sure we’re OK, then hope there is a repeat winner or a non-(playoff) winner, I guess.”

If anyone can do it, the pick would be Elliott. He has the second-best average ever at Phoenix (6.8, second only to Alan Kulwicki) in his five career starts. He’s never finished lower than 12th there and has a second- and third-place result in his last two Phoenix races.