Although Kyle Busch showed flashes of his past dominance in NNS competition early at Texas, Kevin Harvick cruised to a relatively easy win in his final start of the season on Saturday, leading 127 of the 200 laps run. Ryan Blaney trimmed the margin of victory by more than two seconds during the final green-flag run but was unable to catch the No. 33, settling for a career-best runner-up finish. Polesitter Busch, Ricky Stenhouse Jr, and Denny Hamlin rounded out the top 5 in this event dominated by Sprint Cup regulars.
Texas was also defined by comers and goers, natural as the track cooled down over the course of 300 miles. Busch’s strength up front faded down the stretch, one of the more notable roller-coaster runs in a race that was full of them, rare for a 1.5-mile oval this season. JR Motorsports teammates Cole Whitt and Danica Patrick were also late stragglers, both seeing top-5 runs fade to top 15s by night’s end. Denny Hamlin, as well, went from afterthought to contender come the final run of the evening but the most notable dropoff belonged to a title contender; Elliott Sadler saw a top-3 run fade to 12th as Stenhouse’s No. 6 team got the loose out of his machine.
The result? A tie in the points race with two races to go.
It truly is impressive to see the form in which *Stenhouse* and crew have managed to claw their way back to the front of this title chase (tied in points, holding the tiebreaker for most wins). Again, the No. 6 car had problems at the start of the race, a loose condition that made it impossible for the driver to hold a steady line. Again, Stenhouse was audibly agitated on the radio. And again, despite a race that offered few chances under caution to adjust on a car, the driver and team got it better and cashed in when it counted. The defending champions are doing it the hard way and making it work… one can only wonder what will happen if they get it right off the truck at Phoenix or Homestead.
*Ryan Blaney* tried his damnedest to make Harvick’s dominant run at least a bit suspenseful with a furious charge through the field during the final green-flag run. Clawing his way through the top 5, almost at will, Blaney was at one point making up a quarter-second a lap on the leader before Harvick pulled away for good. Nonetheless, Blaney’s career-best finish (second) was a stout showing at that.
*Kevin Swindell* already broke through to Victory Lane on an intermediate oval this season in ARCA competition at Chicagoland. The former Chili Bowl winner continued to build on that success with a strong eighth-place showing that was both a career-best and the highest finish earned by Biagi-Denbeste Racing in their return to Nationwide competition. To put it in perspective, the No. 98 (formerly No. 4 team) last finished in the top 10 back in the season opener of 2006 at Daytona with Mark Green behind the wheel. The last time they finished better than eighth? Richmond in the spring of 2005 with Jeff Green driving.
*Austin Dillon* was the backmarker of RCR’s three entries for much of the evening but rebounded to finish sixth by race’s end, remaining in mathematical contention for the championship.
*Brad Sweet* finished 13th in the No. 38 car, outrunning teammate and Cup regular Ryan Newman with his fourth top 15 in the last five races.
*Johanna Long’s* evening at Texas came to an early end with their second transmission problem of the weekend breaking the shifter off in her race car. The resulting 36th place finish was her worst since Talladega in the spring and her third DNF in her last five starts.
*Hal Martin* brought out the first caution of the afternoon early on lap 14, slapping the wall entering turn 2 with a possible tire failure (the video was inconclusive). Regardless of cause, the damage was done early, leaving the former ARCA driver to limp around the rest of the race (he finished 30th).
*Jason Bowles* finished a distant 33rd, 25 laps off the pace, after bringing out the yellow on lap 84 and a resulting fire on pit road that appeared to stem from a fuel line knocked out of place. The No. 81 team was able to make repairs and was running at the finish, but the resulting disappointment was their sixth consecutive result off the lead lap.
*Michael Annett’s* 17th-place finish was hardly the highlight of his season, though his save late in the event in restart traffic was reel-worthy. Problem is, avoiding that incredible save put Brian Scott in the wall yet again, leaving the No. 11 team with a 22nd-place result, the worst of the three JGR cars in the field.
*Denny Hamlin,* arbitrator of all things etiquette in the Nationwide Series, made an appearance after the end of Saturday’s race, slamming Austin Dillon’s machine into the pit road entrance wall during the cool-down lap after Dillon expressed displeasure with their racing in the closing laps. Hamlin made clear in post-race remarks that he was unhappy with Dillon’s “crowding” him on the track, noting that a guy running for points can’t do something like that to a driver such as himself that’s just going for the race win.
Come again? Hamlin’s pulled this ridiculous stunt before. Rewind back to 2008, when he took a swipe at Brad Keselowski under caution at Charlotte and responded in post-race remarks that Brad just didn’t understand how to race at this level.
Hamlin had no case to make here, and his asinine remarks about Dillon’s family lineage getting him his ride (um, duh?) didn’t help his credibility (family ride or not, Dillon’s won a championship in Trucks and two races in his rookie NNS season… the guy can obviously drive). Let’s face it, Hamlin has long had an entitlement streak since he hit it big in the No. 11 Cup car. He’s the one running in a series he’s not a regular in. He’s in a position for Dillon to overtake in a situation where he’s still a championship contender with a shot at the crown. And he’s the one that wrecked another’s race car. Regardless of circumstance, it’s a Cup regular trying to rough up an NNS title contender, and wrecking his car to boot.
I do think, though Dillon should probably be thanking Hamlin for this one. Ever since getting on the Hamlin “I’m not fit to race against FedEx’s wunderkind” list, Brad Keselowski’s career has gone pretty darn well.
*Underdog Performer of the Race: Jeremy Clements.* A top-15 qualifying run parlayed into a 16th-place finish, completed on an intermediate oval and in a race with one of the larger concentrations of Cup regulars seen in 2012. It’s business as usual for the No. 51 team, which continues to overachieve despite its meager resources.
Start-and-parkers occupied 7 of the 43 starting positions in Saturday’s race, taking home $79,869 in purse money.
Cup regulars won Saturday’s race, scored 4 of the top 10 finishing positions, occupied 10 of the 43 starting positions, and took home $229,858 in purse money.
364 of 1,333 starting spots occupied (27.3%)
$7,425,640 dollars won
16 of 31 trophies collected (51.6%)
The Final Word
– Between the cavernous feel of Texas Motor Speedway on Saturday and the plethora of empty seats seen on Sunday, it appears not even the Great American Speedway is immune to NASCAR’s current lack of interest/economic struggles/general lethargy. Too bad… Saturday’s race actually was worth watching by race’s end.
– Saturday was a rare case of there actually being visible debris on the track for the only debris yellow to slow the field, but that’s not to say the flags were perfect. Between Joey Gase’s spin harmlessly to the apron in Turn 4 and Joe Nemechek’s scrub of the Turn 4 wall that he easily made it to pit road with, there’s a question worth asking: when does safety become yellow-flag happy? Given the current performance of Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.’s No. 6 team (i.e. adjusting over the course of a race), those types of calls could very well determine this championship. A sport at the whim of the officials… hmm. Isn’t stock car racing supposed to be special because it isn’t a stick-and-ball sport?