Sunday was the first race in 2016 with the low downforce package, and it was a pleasant surprise that it was not a wreck-fest, or even a blown tire-fest. There was actually good racing for the lead and strategy ended up playing a huge role in the outcome. With that in mind, here’s a look at this week’s Hots and Nots.
I’m the first to admit I’ve never warmed up to Chad Knaus. Not because the crew chief for Jimmie Johnson doesn’t know what he is doing (he obviously does), it’s that he can come across as a Mr. Know It All at times. Well, it would be hard to blame him if he came across like that after Sunday’s race. It was Knaus who made the call to bring Johnson to pit road earlier than everyone else on what turned out to be the next-to-last pit stop of the day and that played directly into Johnson winning his 76th career race to tie Dale Earnhardt on the all-time list. So, when it comes to crew chief decisions, that’s a pretty good and big one right there.
Once again Matt Kenseth had one of the (if not the) best cars on the track and had little or nothing to show for it. Kenseth was leading at Daytona on the final lap when he got shuffled in the last lap drama and finished 14th. This time Kenseth was in the lead again midway through the race after pit stops when he was informed there was a pit road penalty. And on top of that, while his crew chief, Jason Ratcliff, was trying to argue against the penalty, Kenseth wasn’t told to come in to serve the penalty, and that cost him a lap when NASCAR stopped scoring him for not responding to the black flag. He ended up two laps down in 19th.
This is the Chase Elliott we kind of expected to see in his rookie season after he finished eighth on Sunday. He didn’t make any big mistakes and he seemed to understand how to take care of his tires on the abrasive track. He did nothing spectacular here, just solid all the way around for 325 laps.
Kevin Harvick seems to have a habit of dominating races at Atlanta, but not winning. Harvick led a race high 131 laps and had the best car most of the day. But when Johnson pitted first and used those seven or eight laps on newer tires to gain an advantage, Harvick came out almost 15 seconds behind after his pit stop and while he cut Johnson’s lead to the six-second range, he never did get close to him. And then on the final restart, Harvick was left in the high lane, spun his tires and had to settle for sixth. That’s not bad in terms of having to settle for something, but when you know you can win, it’s tough to see victory slip away.
The rules are there for a reason. Sure, it was a tough break for Kenseth when his gas man put a wedge wrench on the trunk of the car AFTER the fuel can was engaged. And while we can get nit-picky about rules and all, this is actually a very good and important rule. Once that gas can is fully attached, it’s important that the gas man be fully engaged on what’s happening with it. One miscue and with all of sparks that can fly around on pit road, it could be a major safety problem. As tough as a call and break as it was for Kenseth and his team, it is a good and necessary rule.
The low downforce package for these tracks I thought for sure would be good news for a driver like Kyle Larson, who spent much of his young career sliding cars around the dirt, where driver control is paramount. But Larson was nowhere near competitive on Sunday. He finished three laps down and it appeared the car’s setup was simply out of the ballpark.
This race was brought to you by the color green as there were only three caution flags on the day and the first one didn’t come until lap 211 for debris (I call it “DAY-BREE in honor of former Indianapolis Motor Speedway announcer Tom Carnegie). So, yes, I am one who complained about the 20-minute caution clock in the trucks race, so, I am not going to complain about all the green flag laps Sunday.
What I am going to continue to complain about is having so many Sprint Cup regulars run in the XFINITY races. Basically, once you see names like Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski or even Kyle Larson entered in these races, really all you can do is hope for an upset from an XFINITY regular (maybe Erik Jones), but there’s no question it curbs the enthusiasm to watch those races.
On the contrary, the truck race Saturday was much more entertaining. Sure, the driving wasn’t perfect, but they were honest racing mistakes and then when an unsponsored truck wins the race like John Hunter Nemechek did, it makes you think maybe anything is possible. And it was sure was nice to see Joe Nemechek so excited and proud as well. Here’s hoping that No. 8 truck has a sponsor soon.
HOT and NOT
And one more thing when it comes to the trucks in these first two weeks. Christopher Bell had a nasty flip at Daytona and then took another nasty hit almost straight into the wall at Atlanta. So, while Bell may be off to a cold start, kudos to NASCAR for all of its safety measures inside their vehicles and for the soft walls as well, which may have saved Bell from serious injury Saturday at Atlanta.
Las Vegas prediction: The question here is not the last name of the driver to pick, but just which one. So, I’m going to go with Kyle Busch this time to get a win in his home town. And the deep super sleeper pick here is AJ Allmendinger. Sure, it’s a little odd to pick him somewhere other than a road course, but he did finish sixth at Las Vegas last year.
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