The Top Five: Breaking down the New Hampshire race

Five thoughts after Sunday’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway…

1. Beauty in bumping

A well-executed bump-and-run is NASCAR’s most magnificent work of art, full of intricacies and accepted by nearly everyone as a fair way to settle a race.

In one move, it sums up everything people love about stock car racing: Contact, close racing and aggression — but without any wrecked vehicles as a result.

Kevin Harvick’s bump-and-run to win Sunday night at New Hampshire Motor Speedway was absolute perfection, providing a textbook example that can be used for years to come.

Even the driver on the receiving end — Kyle Busch — calmly said the move was just fine with him.

“It was just a bump,” Busch said. “It wasn’t a big deal. He didn’t wreck me or anything like that. He did it early enough, but he did it way harder to push me out of the groove three lanes. It just takes you so long to recover here, there was just no possible way I could get back to him. I was in the way, so no harm, no foul.”

Busch’s only quibble? He wished Harvick would have raced him cleaner first before making contact. Busch said if the roles were reversed, he would have tried using lapped cars for a few more laps before deciding to play bumper cars.

“When you’re slower, you kind of expect it,” Busch said. “But you also think a guy is going to race you fair and pass you clean first. I don’t think he ever tried to pass me clean once he got there.”

But that’s exactly what Harvick anticipated Busch would be thinking, which is why the Stewart-Haas Racing driver decided to make the move at the first available opportunity.

“I needed to do it when he wasn’t expecting it,” Harvick said. “The more opportunities to get in his wheelhouse, his thought process, the less chance you have. He’s that good.

“If you wait until two or three to go, the entries are going to get shallower, he’s going to start grinding on the brakes a little bit harder. He’s going to put himself in a position not to get hit. He’s going to go on defense, start to really get aggressive, too.

“I wanted to do it earlier just to try to catch him off guard.”

There’s a fine line to executing the move — it means moving the other driver up the track enough to make a pass while escaping into the lead — “get away from him far enough because you know they’re going to be mad,” Harvick said — and all without causing a wreck.

Harvick did exactly that. And though it opens the door for Busch to do the same thing in the same situation, Harvick had no regrets about the decision.

“He still finished second, right?” Harvick said.

2. The Huge Three

NASCAR fans hate storylines that are overhyped, so there are likely some out there who can’t stand to hear one more word about the “Big Three.”

But as much as Harvick, Busch and Martin Truex Jr.’s dominance has been discussed, this is the rarely hyped NASCAR story that might actually be underplayed.

Seriously, this is almost surreal at this point in the season. There have been 20 races this season, and three drivers have combined to win 15 of them. Fifteen! WHAT!? There are only 16 races left in the whole year! How many more are they going to get? That’s amazing.

Another crazy stat: The Big Three have 88 playoff points — not counting the points Harvick had taken away with a penalty — while the entire rest of the field only has 45 combined.

How is this even possible? Two of these drivers have teammates (and the Joe Gibbs Racing drivers are basically Truex’s teammates), and yet it’s still only three cars winning all the races. And they just keep doing it, even in races that seemed headed for a different outcome like Sunday.


3. Almost Almirola

Aric Almirola appeared more bummed and upset about failing to win at New Hampshire than he did after being wrecked out of the lead at the Daytona 500 in February.

How’s that possible? Well, Daytona was just the start of Almirola’s rebirth as a driver, the first race with a team that could finally make him a regular winner. There seemed to be much more to come.

But now — in late July, the 20th race of the season — coming close and failing to win stings worse.

“Everybody keeps talking about the Big Three, but I feel like we were stomping them pretty good today,” he said. “That’s why they are so good — they execute all race long. Unfortunately, we didn’t today.”

Almirola had the fastest car in New Hampshire — even Harvick said so — but “lost control of the race” on the final pit stop. His pit crew had a slower stop than Kyle Busch’s team, which put Almirola at Busch’s mercy for the restart. Then Busch went at the soonest possible moment, which caught Almirola off guard and left him spinning the tires as a result.

He ended up finishing third and initially seemed devastated. But Almirola said there’s more to come from his team.

“We’re peaking,” he said. “As the 10 team, we’re peaking at the right time. You’ve seen the speed we had at Chicago (when he almost won) and we’re putting things together. … We’re starting to get what we need out of the race cars.”

4. Teammate blues

Speaking of Almirola, Clint Bowyer was gutted after hesitation to get off the track with a broken car potentially cost his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate a victory.

“It just sucks,” Bowyer said. “I hate that for my teammate (Almirola). He was dominating the race.”

With Almirola leading the race and Harvick running second, Bowyer was called into the pits to serve a one-lap penalty for pitting outside the box. Upon returning to the track, Bowyer radioed to the team and said something broke on his car.

At that point in the race, there was going to be no salvaging the day — Bowyer was already two laps down due to the penalty and broken part. As such, the No. 14 team should have brought Bowyer into the pits immediately.

What was the purpose in staying out? Bowyer is already secured in the playoffs this season with two wins and points mean little for him.

But for whatever reason, Bowyer was kept on the track. By the time the team finally decided to make the call, it was too late.

“I was trying to nurse it around,” Bowyer said. “Something in the left rear was broke and…Brett (Griffin, his spotter) told me, ‘We’re having trouble, let’s just get off the track,’ and I was kind of thinking the same thing. Literally, as he was saying that and I’m thinking it, something broke on the right side and away it went. That sucks. I hate it for him.”

Bowyer has been involved on the wrong end of a team orders situation before, but surely this wouldn’t have been viewed in the same category. Calling a car in for repairs — or to the garage — while a teammate is leading under green would be a perfectly acceptable move in future situations.

5. Points picture

The battle for the non-win playoff spots grew less dramatic this week after the three Hendrick bubble drivers all had top-11 days while Ricky Stenhouse Jr. finished five laps down in 30th place.

Jimmie Johnson (14th in the playoff standings) and Chase Elliott (15th) now have whopping 97- and 95-point leads over Stenhouse for the final playoff spot.

Alex Bowman, who finished 11th, is up by 28 points over Stenhouse.

The next-closest drivers to pointing their way into the playoffs? After Stenhouse, Paul Menard is 29 points behind Bowman and Ryan Newman is way back (-74 points). Everyone else behind Newman (like Daniel Suarez, William Byron and Jamie McMurray) pretty much have to win at this point with only six races until the playoffs.

The most likely wild card possibility could be if AJ Allmendinger (25th in points) wins in two weeks at Watkins Glen and moves the cutoff line up to Elliott’s position.

But that could generate even less drama heading into the final regular season races, because Bowman is 67 points behind Elliott.

12 Questions with Aric Almirola (2018)

Aric Almirola has increased his average finish by more than six positions (18.8 to 12.5) from last year. He has already tied a career-high in top-10 finishes for a season. (Getty Images photo)

The series of 12 Questions driver interviews continues with Aric Almirola, who is currently enjoying the best season of his career during his first year with Stewart-Haas Racing. 

1. How often do you have dreams about racing?

Most of my dreams about racing stem from panic. Panic sets in because I’m late to the race. Like I’m trying to put my firesuit on as fast as I can, I’m trying to find my shoes, the cars are lined up, the national anthem just finished, everybody’s getting in their cars and I’m not dressed yet and I’m like in this massive panic to try and get in the car and hurry up and run to the car and get my belts on while the other cars are out on the track making pace laps.

And then usually I wake up in a cold sweat in the bed because I’m freaking out that I’m going to miss the race. So that’s usually what any racing dreams are about.

2. If you get into someone during a race — intentional or not — does it matter if you apologize?

I think it’s very situational. Most of us know when it’s intentional and unintentional. If it’s unintentional, you can typically take care of it on the track, you give a little wave out the window and it’s all good. Life goes on.

But when it’s flat-out intentional or an accident that takes them out of the race, then I think it’s important to be able to work through that and try to hash that out — or at least make an effort.

When everybody’s mad in the heat of the moment, I think it usually falls on deaf ears. But later on in the week or leading up to the next race, once everybody kind of calms down, it usually works itself out.

3. What is the biggest compliment someone could give you?

I feel like through the years, having people walk up to me and say, “Hey, we really think that you’re a class act.” Lately a lot of people have walked up and said, “Hey, the way you handled post-Daytona 500 media, you’re truly a class act and that was awesome of you and we really think the world of you because of that,” or whatever. That makes me feel good. The racing side is one thing, but character is a whole other thing and I think character is really important.

4. NASCAR comes to you and says they’re bringing a celebrity to the track and they want you to host them. Who is a celebrity you’d be excited to host?

I am totally drawing a blank on that. I don’t know.

Are you not much of a celebrity guy?

I’m not much of a celebrity guy. I prefer kind of my own little world and my own little group of friends. I don’t know. I got nothing for you on that one, Gluck.

That’s fine. That’s an answer in itself because it reveals something about you.

I’m not one who really cares or gets that excited or anything about famous people. I like real people. I like the people that are just normal, everyday people — not that celebrities can’t be real people.

5. In an effort to show this is a health conscious sport, NASCAR decides to offer the No. 1 pit stall for an upcoming race to the first driver willing to go vegan for one month. Would you do it?

Can I put bacon on everything?

I don’t think that counts as vegan.

Can I eat a completely vegan salad and then just top it with lots of Smithfield bacon? Would that be OK?

Let’s reverse this in light of your sponsor. What if they said you could get the No. 1 pit stall you went all-bacon for a month?

Bacon only?


Like breakfast, lunch, and dinner? Well, I already do that, so I think sure, why not?

So all-bacon diet for the No. 1 pit stall?


That’s a deal.

When are we gonna do that? What race?

Which pit stall do you want the race for? Dover’s a pretty good one to have, right?

Yeah. Well this one (Sonoma). Let’s go with this one. This is like moments before qualifying, right? So can you just go talk to NASCAR and tell them?

Yeah, they’re over there. I can see what I can do.

See if you can do that. Then I’d be done for the day. Then I won’t have to qualify.

6. It’s time for the Random Race Challenge. I’ve picked a random race from your career and you have to tell me where you finished. This is the 2013 New Hampshire spring race.

2013 New Hampshire spring race. Did I finish like fourth or fifth?

You finished fifth!

I remember that race. We had a good car, we ran top 12-ish most of the day and late in the race we took two tires and I restarted on the front row with my now-boss Tony Stewart and I lost a couple of spots to a few cars that had four tires and we finished fifth.

Wow. That’s a really good memory. Brian Vickers won that race, you finished right behind Brad Keselowski and ahead of Jimmie Johnson.

Yeah, there you go.

7. Who is the best rapper alive?

(Laughs) I’m not much into rap, so I couldn’t even guess and throw a name out there. But a guy that I listen to who plays country music, or like kind of somewhat of a new age style of country music, is a guy named Corey Smith. And he occasionally breaks off of a chorus and goes into somewhat of what you would call rap, I think. So I’m gonna go with Corey Smith.

8. Who has the most punchable face in NASCAR?

Does it have to be a driver?

No, it could be anyone. It could be me. But give me some warning.

Actually, it would be a toss-up between you and (Bob) Pockrass. I think you would probably get the nod because Bob wears glasses. What movie is that where the guy says, “You would never hit a guy with glasses, would you?” And then he hits him.

I don’t have that luxury. I have sunglasses. I feel like I want to take two steps back now.

No, it’s good.

9. NASCAR enlists three famous Americans to be involved with your team for one race as part of a publicity push: Taylor Swift, LeBron James and Tom Hanks. Choose one to be your crew chief, one to be your spotter and one to be your motorhome driver.

Oh wow. Hmm.

(Note: My recorder died right at this moment. Fortunately, Almirola was willing to resume the interview on the following day. However, he said this secured my position as having the most punchable face.)

I currently have a woman motorhome driver who is amazing. She is an incredible bus driver. She takes care of me like a mom. She cooks awesome. She loves our kids and she’s just great. So I’m going to stick with the woman theme, so Taylor Swift is going to be my bus driver.

I’m going to go with LeBron James as crew chief. He seems pretty methodical and he’s pretty intense, so that’s a guy you would want to lead your team. He does seem like a good leader from time to time. I think his intensity would rub off and motivate the whole team.

And then spotter is Tom Hanks. I think he role plays all the time — that’s what he does for a living. I’m sure if he could just listen to somebody else spot for a few minutes and he could pick right up on it.

10. What is the key to finding the best pre-race bathroom?

Experience. There’s a lot of experience that comes into play with that. Occasionally the racetracks will move where they position the port-o-potties. But usually they’re in the same location at the same track. So after several years of doing this, you get out of the truck you ride around in for pre-race and there’s usually a line of drivers waiting at the same port-o-potties.

11. NASCAR decides they miss the highlight reel value brought by Carl Edwards’ backflips and want a replacement. How much money would they have to offer for you to backflip off your car following your next win?

No amount of money. There would be no monetary figure that would actually help me complete the backflip. If I had a chance, I would throw a big number out there. But I know I have zero chance of completing the backflip. I feel like I would get halfway around and land on my head.

But I’d be willing to give a somersault a whirl.

Maybe they’d give you $1 for that.

That’s where you put your head on the ground and roll ass over teakettle. My 5-year-old son and my 4-year-old daughter can both do it; surely I can do it.

12. Each week, I ask a driver to give me a question for the next interview. Last week was Chase Elliott, and he wanted to know: What’s the biggest thing SHR does that has helped you this year or your favorite part about being there now?

The thing SHR does that helps me the most is they have the ability to pay attention to every single detail. And that’s something that is new for me. But they have the resources, the manpower and the ability to not only make race cars go fast, but deliver a lot of information to me — tons of data, tons of engineers and people willing to go and get data I’m looking for or sit down and talk with me.

The personal aspect is something I think has helped me the most. Being around a group of almost 400 employees who are hardcore racers and all are pulling the rope in the same direction. To have that many people and all of them willing to work together for a common goal, I just seem to fit in. Everybody has welcomed me with open arms, and they’re all willing to help in any way possible.

Not that I haven’t had that in the past — the attention to every detail — but (now) including me as a detail. At other race teams I’ve been at, the driver carries his own weight. You prepare in your own way and you show up and do your job. But at SHR, you’re part of the team and the detail. They put just as much time and energy into me as they do the race cars.

This might increase my face punchability, but I don’t know who the next interview is going to be with. Do you have a question I can ask another driver in general?

Ughhhhh. Are you really that unscheduled? Do you wing it this often?

Pretty much, yes.

How about you come back to me when you know who the next interview is with?

Will you make sure to give a question?

Yes. I could have left you (earlier)! It could have been Eight Questions with Jeff Gluck instead of 12 Questions with Jeff Gluck.

Previous 12 Questions interviews with Aric Almirola:

Oct. 3, 2012

Aug. 20, 2013

July 21, 2015

Aug. 16, 2016

Sept. 6, 2017

The Top Five: Breaking down the Michigan race

Five thoughts following Sunday’s rain-shortened race at Michigan…

1. Ford Sure

From Friday onward, there seemed to be no doubt this would be a Ford-dominated weekend. And…yep! It definitely was. Fords accounted for seven of the top eight finishers — including a Stewart-Haas Racing podium sweep (the first by a single team since 2008, according to ESPN).

We hear all the time about how much this track matters to manufacturers, which is pretty much a cliche at this point. It’s like, “Yeah, OK, we get it. Michigan is important to the OEMs.”

But it really is SO important to those who work in the auto industry, which makes an ass-kicking of this magnitude quite special to Ford.

“Man, it’s just an unbelievable start to the season with the wins and success we’re having,” said Mark Rushbrook, global director of Ford Performance Motorsports. “(We) come here to our home track with our employees here watching with their friends and family — to have this performance and strength across all of our teams, to win the race, it’s just tremendous for all the company.”

Ford has been having a great season (eight wins in 15 races plus the All-Star Race), but Michigan was the most dominant of Ford days.

So why this track? Perhaps the most crucial factor at the sweeping 2-mile oval was the engines.

“It’s a real honor to drive the Roush‑Yates engines when you get to a place like this because you can be a lot easier on your car,” Harvick said. “Doug Yates and those guys, they like to make big horsepower on the big end of the motor and put a lot of effort into this particular race weekend.”

Kurt Busch said Michigan is about bragging rights, and he can see the importance when all the bigwigs from various departments show up. And aside from just the engine, it’s hitting on every facet that truly elevates an organization.

“It’s a team effort to not have any weaknesses,” he said.

2. Boy oh Bowyer

Clint Bowyer’s career renaissance continued with his Michigan win, and there are likely more to come before the season is over.

A year like this one following a long slump makes for some fun stats, including:

— Bowyer went from October 2012 to March 2018 (nearly 5.5 years) between wins. Then it only took less than three months until his next win.

— Bowyer has almost as many wins this year (two) as he had top-10s in 2016 (three).

— Bowyer has now led 308 laps this season, which is more than double the previous four seasons combined (145).

No wonder the guy is so happy lately.

“We’re going to drink a little bit tonight, by the way,” he said. “That’s going to happen. I know you guys are questioning it. It’s going to happen tonight.”

3. No Hail Mary

Another wild-card type race, another lost chance for a driver outside the top 16 in points to steal a playoff bid. There was no Chris Buescher or Aric Almirola stealing a rain-shortened win this time, as a driver who already had a win just got another one.

Kasey Kahne crew chief Travis Mack had his driver stay out initially, but then called him to the pits before the final restart when the rain didn’t come in time.

Aside from that, it seemed surprising no one actually tried to pull some crazy strategy — especially in the win-and-in era. What do some of these teams have to lose?

I asked Bowyer crew chief Mike Bugarewicz about that, but he seemed to think the strategy wouldn’t have worked.

“In one sense, if you do that, yeah, maybe you win the race,” he said. “But I think if you’re that far off — if you’re a 24th-place car — I don’t know you’re going to compete with the top five cars (on a restart), to be honest. Maybe you can hold them off for a lap.

“Look at Harvick on the inside of us. We felt like we were a very competitive car. Him on four tires, it was a battle from that point coming to the start/finish line on the first lap. I think a guy staying out with no tires, already kind of struggling in the race, would have been a real challenge to try to pull that off.”

Maybe so. But based on the success of Kahne and Paul Menard using track position and clean air to run up front earlier in the race, you would have thought somebody would go for it with the rain about to arrive at any second.


4. NASCAR got it right in the rain

A rainy weekend like this one makes for intense scrutiny on NASCAR calls, but officials pretty much nailed it.

OK, there was that mixup at the end of the race where the pace car came down pit road when it wasn’t supposed to. But that didn’t affect anything about the race, since officials were just trying to end it at that point.

Other than that, all the calls were correct — even in tough circumstances.

Let’s start with Xfinity. Officials got past the end of Stage 2 despite a soggy day, then restarted the race after a caution as rain started to fall — a ballsy move, to be honest. It could have ended badly if the field had wrecked in the wet, but instead the fans at least got a battle for the win before the race-ending weather caution.

Then came Sunday. Everyone woke up a bit surprised with a drastically changed overnight forecast (which is why NASCAR hadn’t moved the race up with the 24-hour policy). A Monday race was starting to look like a foregone conclusion.

But officials waited out the rain, dried the track as fast as possible and then got the race started. There was an initial hiccup at the end of Stage 1 — NASCAR said pit road would be open before quickly realizing there weren’t enough laps in the stage to do so, then restarted the race with one lap to go in the stage.

NASCAR’s Richard Buck later said that was in line with policy. First of all, pit road is closed with two laps to go in a stage; second, teams had asked NASCAR to avoid situations under caution that would result in a strategy shakeup. That’s the fairest thing for everyone, which actually makes sense.

And finally, NASCAR called the race at the right time. With rain arriving again, there’s no chance the track could have been dried before darkness fell (Michigan doesn’t have lights).

Sometimes it seems that NASCAR makes questionable decisions, but I agree with all the ones they made this weekend — particularly under pressure.

5. Up Next

With no underdog taking advantage of a rain-shortened race at Michigan, there are seemingly three wild card races remaining of the 11 regular season events on the calendar: Sonoma, Daytona and Watkins Glen.

After an off-week next weekend, it’s time for Sonoma. It’s tempting to think an AJ Allmendinger type could win there, but recent Sonoma winners who are still active have been names like Harvick, Kyle Busch and Truex. So actually, it may be one of the familiar faces in victory lane instead.

That would be another blow to the playoff hopes of drivers mired deep in the standings — Jamie McMurray (19th), Daniel Suarez (21st) and Ryan Newman (22nd) among them — who could really use a road course win to propel them into the final 10 races this fall.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Dover race

Five thoughts after Sunday’s race at Dover International Speedway…

1. You see where this is going, right?

There have been plenty of NASCAR seasons when one driver stomps everyone and shows up as the team to beat every week. For example: Martin Truex Jr. last year.

But this year seems a bit different: There are two drivers on two different teams who seem evenly matched — and are collectively destroying the competition.

Of course, we’re talking about Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch, who have combined to win seven of the 11 races so far. After nearly one third of the season, the duo is on pace to win 23 races! Crazy.

It’s just been a tag-team butt-kicking, and they’re not always on at the same time.

But together, the drivers have accounted for more than half of the playoff points awarded so far — and that’s after Harvick lost some with his encumbered win earlier in the season.

This is a battle that is shaping up to continue all summer. And you know what? While it might not be ideal for fans who don’t like either driver, it’s a hell of a lot better than just one guy dominating week after week.

2. Stewart-Haas is the best team

Sorry, Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row. You’ve been dethroned.

Though the Fords in general have been strong, it’s clear Stewart-Haas Racing in particular is the team to beat so far. SHR has the fastest, most consistent cars among all four of its entries — with three top-five finishes at Dover to emphasize that point.

Harvick has been great, but it’s not just him. Clint Bowyer (second on Sunday) has won a race and shown potential for more. Kurt Busch has become a regular face in the top 10 again and Aric Almirola is making people say, “Damn! Aric Almirola can drive!”

One key to the team’s success, aside from moves like Tony Gibson coming off the road to help guide collaboration in the shop, is the drivers apparently require similar things from the car. Bowyer said the various setups “are all relatively the same, and it shows on the racetrack.”

That’s a pretty important factor, because it means only one driver or crew chief needs to find something for all of them to benefit each week.

“When you can get four cars that are running as well as these four did today, it’s an awesome feeling,” Tony Stewart said.

3. Suarez on the rise

Doesn’t it seem like Daniel Suarez often gets left out of the top young drivers conversation?

Sometimes it feels like it’s all about Chase and Blaney and Bubba (and maybe Larson, if you consider him young enough to be in that group).

But after a horrible start to the season which saw him sitting 26th in the point standings after seven races, Suarez has put together an impressive four-week stretch: 11th, 10th, 10th and now third at Dover.

Suarez’s best career oval finish boosted him to 17th in the standings — suddenly just seven points out of a playoff spot.

“Once you get to this level, it’s always tough for (drivers),” Joe Gibbs said after the race. “We brought him up a year early. I think he’s just now getting confidence as he goes.”

Suarez said it was a combination of both driver and team getting better at the same time. And he’s learning every week, he said.

“If I have confidence and the team doesn’t, it doesn’t work,” he said. “Momentum in this sport is huge. In the last five or six weeks, we’ve had good speed and consistency — and that’s something I’m very proud of for my team and myself.”

It feels like Suarez is starting to emerge as a driver who can consistently run in the top 10 — and on a good day like Sunday, perhaps battle for wins.

4. What about the 48?

Dover is Jimmie Johnson’s best track, so it was a good weekend to watch how his team performed and see if the 48 is any closer to a turnaround.

The verdict? Eh, maybe.

Johnson got to third place for awhile on Sunday before a pit call cost him track position he never fully regained. He finished ninth, which isn’t great by his standards — but it was the best result by a Chevrolet driver.

And maybe that’s the fairest way to judge Johnson right now. He might be the greatest driver in history, but even the best can’t just take a 10th-place car and manhandle it to a win.

If Johnson gets outrun by Chase Elliott or even Kyle Larson every week, then it definitely makes people wonder if he and Chad Knaus have lost their magic. But Johnson is actually the top Hendrick driver in the standings now (12th) and the second-best Chevrolet to Larson. He has four straight top-12 finishes.

That’s not to say his team is in championship form at the moment. But he might not be as far off as it has seemed at times.

5. Stage 1’s odd ending

NASCAR made an unusual call on Sunday at the end of Stage 1 that is worth further examination.

Typically, NASCAR lets TV go to a commercial at the conclusion of a stage and then opens pit road as the commercials end. That has been part of the rhythm of stage racing since it began last year.

But at Dover, with many cars close to running out of fuel thanks to a strategy play, NASCAR opened pit road as soon as it could. That allowed drivers to make it safely to pit road with a little gas left in their tanks.

That was helpful to those teams, to be sure. But should NASCAR factor team strategy into their decisions? There’s no rule that says NASCAR can’t open pit road in that situation; it just hasn’t happened in other races.

NASCAR said it changed course primarily out of concern for the potential shitshow (my words, not theirs) it could cause if a dozen cars suddenly ran out of fuel at the end of the stage. NASCAR wouldn’t have had enough wreckers to get the potentially stalled cars to pit road, and then might have been in an even worse situation if pit road was blocked for a time. Because then other cars then would have run out of gas and created one of those only-in-NASCAR circus moments.

The desire to avoid that makes sense on many levels. On the other hand, if cars were going to run out of fuel, that’s not NASCAR’s fault. That’s part of the race; some drivers and teams would have played it better than others, and those who didn’t would suffer. Fans would understand that.

So if possible, NASCAR should avoid straying from its typical procedure — it looks bad, because some teams will always benefit more than others when that happens.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Texas race

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.

Kevin Harvick reacts to NASCAR penalty

Here are some highlights from Kevin Harvick’s media availability on Friday morning at Phoenix, where he addressed the penalty issued to his team this week.

— On his previous success at Phoenix:

“Nobody wants to talk about that. Let’s just go to the first question. They all have the stats.”

— On whether NASCAR issued a penalty in response to social media posts:

The car passed all the Optical Scanning Station inspections and everything after the race. The car was built to tolerance. The scary part for me is the fact that (NASCAR) went far enough to find something on the car at the NASCAR R&D Center. They could find something wrong with every car if they took it apart for a whole day at the R&D Center.

“The (incorrect) side skirt material is on us. That rule was put into place Feb. 18 and it should have been aluminum, but ours was steel. That is really kind of the meat of what gave them the ability to actually get the fine to where it was meaningful enough to appease everyone on social media.”

— On social media posts leading to NASCAR’s additional scrutiny:

“If you look at Atlanta, the car was there the week before. Same team, same window bracing, same roof, same side skirts, same everything. It was in the R&D Center the week before (for inspection). It has been there 49 times in three years. Technicalities.”

— On photos of other cars (some from races last year) with similarly dented roofs:

“If we want to officiate it with fan pictures, if you want to officiate it with pictures during the race and call people to pit road and do those types of things — from a NASCAR standpoint. I am fine with that. As long as it is consistent. As you can see from a lot of the pictures roaming around on the internet this week, it is not consistent.”

“You could have called the window attached to the brace penalty on 20 cars last week, easy.”

— On why seven playoff points were taken away if the penalty wasn’t big enough to suspend crew chief Rodney Childers:

“That is the other confusing part about the penalty. If it is such a big deal, why is my crew chief still here? I don’t understand that.”

— On the penalty detracting from the conversation about racing:

“As a sport, you don’t want to be talking about penalties. We are right back to where we were with the LIS machine and all the conversations we had about that. The conversations that went away (because of the new Optical Scanning Station) are now right back into play. We have an encumbered win.”

— On how to stop social media from influencing penalties:

“Keep your executives off of it during the race.”

— On the impact of the penalty:

“It just motivates us. I can’t wait to win another race and jump up and down in victory lane on the back of my car.”

Column: Why nothing feels good about Kevin Harvick’s penalty

Nothing feels good about Kevin Harvick’s post-Vegas penalty

Welp, here we go again.

Kevin Harvick’s dominating Las Vegas win was ruled encumbered on Wednesday. Technically it wasn’t “encumbered” because NASCAR got rid of that term in the offseason — but the result is the same.

The No. 4 car’s rear window was not rigid at all times, as the rulebook states it must be, and the rocker arm panel extension was the wrong kind of metal (it is supposed to be aluminum).

So Harvick lost all seven playoff points he earned at Vegas. On top of that, the team also lost car chief Cheddar Smith for two races, Rodney Childers lost $50,000 from his wallet and Harvick lost 20 points in the standings.

That’s a lot of losing, but the team kept the win. NASCAR tradition, right? That’s what they say, anyway. So SHR will cash the check and display the trophy alongside all the others, and Harvick will go down as the winner in the history books.

Normally, this is the part where I would argue Harvick should be stripped of the win. An illegal car should not be able to keep a victory, and it looks bad when NASCAR allows this to happen.

When I asked readers about this last September, most agreed.

But I’m not going down that road this time, for a couple reasons.

First, diving back into the same argument over and over is just…exhausting. Second, this instance seems a little different than some of the others.

Harvick’s car has been so fast over the last couple races, it seems hard to believe a dented rear window could have contributed that much speed. Did it help? Probably. Was it the reason he won? Admittedly I have a lack of technical knowledge here, but I would argue no.

Same goes for the rocker arm panel extension. Was having it made out of steel instead of aluminum why Harvick won? Seems highly unlikely.

Still, for the sake of being consistent with my own stance (illegal cars should not win!), I guess NASCAR should probably have taken the victory away.

But…ugh. I just can’t get fired up about this one. In this case, stripping the win would have felt like sending someone to jail for a broken tail light.

I suppose NASCAR had to do something, and the something is better than nothing, but maybe it should come down to either doing nothing or taking away everything.

Otherwise, it feels half-assed, and I’m not sure how outraged we’re all supposed to be here.

Sigh. I’ve come to really hate weeks like these.