Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2018 AAA 400 Drive for Autism

Who… gets my shoutout of the race?

Kyle Busch’s drivetrain failed in dramatic fashion.  Erik Jones never found his mojo.  Denny Hamlin was fast, finishing seventh, but he wasn’t the fastest Joe Gibbs Racing driver Sunday.  That driver was Daniel Suarez, who quietly put together a career-best third-place finish, his first top 5 on an oval.  Suarez, who has shown marked improvement in his sophomore season, spent 399 of 400 laps inside the top 15, the same number as race winner Kevin Harvick.

Following his third-place run, Suarez sits 17th in points, just seven behind 15th-place Chase Elliott for what would be, at this juncture, a playoff spot. He’s led some laps this season and overall has been impressive as he seeks his first Cup win.

What… is the takeaway from this race?

Four of the last five races have been a departure from the aerodynamic woes NASCAR continues to battle, with only Texas to remind fans that aero is still king at far too many tracks.  That reality returned on Sunday, when clean air was once again the name of the game, and the leader could drive away and hide almost all day long.

Dover may look like a big Bristol, and there was a time it raced more like its smaller counterpart as well. But recent races have largely been exercises in frustration as cars have strung out and passing has become increasingly difficult, even if a driver can catch the car in front of him to try, which was rare up front.

NASCAR has a lot of work to do in the coming months, and that should include getting the cars up off the track and forcing them to find mechanical grip rather than aerodynamic grip. That might allow the Cup Series to return to a heavier, higher horsepower car. When a unique track like Dover succumbs to the cookie-cutter aero syndrome, it’s time to do more than token tweaks.

Where… did Kevin Harvick come from?

Harvick inherited the top starting spot after Kyle Larson’s car failed inspection three times on Sunday morning, sending pole winner Larson to the rear. Harvick qualified second and led the field to green… and to the checkers.  In between, it was just a good old-fashioned show of power, as Harvick led six times for a total of 201 laps, just over half the total distance, and he annihilated the competition, beating runner-up Clint Bowyer to the checkers by more than seven seconds.

To say that Harvick won simply because of the afore-mentioned aerodynamic woes would be false, though.  Some weeks one team finds something that nobody can touch, and this wasn’t the first week the No. 4 team has trounced the field this year. Stewart-Hass Racing might just be the hottest overall in the sport right now, placing all four of its cars in the top 11 on Sunday, and Harvick is certainly making the best of it.

When… was the moment of truth?

NASCAR takes a lot of criticism for throwing the yellow flag too quickly when a driver barely brushes the wall or something similarly minor.  There are times when it’s not necessary to the drivers’ safety for sure. That wasn’t the case on Sunday, though.

With about 130 laps to go, Kyle Busch’s drivetrain detonated, leaking fluid onto the track and leaving at least one huge piece of debris.  Yet the race stayed green for nearly another lap before the yellow flag was displayed.

Not throwing the caution immediately was a mistake that should not have happened.  Certain things warrant an immediate caution, such as a blown engine, because of the danger of fluids on track.  They don’t mix too well with racing slicks. This situation was definitely one of those, especially since Harvick hit Busch’s dropped oil and had a hard time hanging on to his car. The piece of Busch’s transmission that sat on the track could have caused issues as well.  The rest of the field got lucky on Sunday, but drivers commented on the radio that NASCAR should have thrown the yellow much sooner.  And they’re right; there’s no reason to endanger drivers like they did.

Why… didn’t 11-time Dover winner Jimmie Johnson pull it off?

It would be easy to blame some bad pit strategy. With 145 to go, Johnson pitted for tires but only two others came with him, leaving him mired deep in the field. That mistake was the only thing you could pin on Johnson or his team, though, and the reality is, it didn’t cost him a better finish.

What did, then?  Johnson’s ninth-place finish was the best for a Chevrolet driver Sunday.  The Camaros are still far off the pace set by the Fords and Toyotas, and there doesn’t look to be an end in sight. While it’s true the Toyotas suffered early last year, they were showing some signs of life by May, and the Chevy camp hasn’t shown that it has cars that can compete for wins.  Johnson hasn’t forgotten how to drive Dover; he drove an outstanding race, running as high as third, despite not having a top-five car under him.  But if things don’t turn around soon, he will be relying on points to make the playoffs, and that isn’t going to parlay into a title.  Should Johnson not win this year, it would be the first time he’s had a winless season in his career.

How… come NASCAR changed the game mid-race?

OK, maybe calling opening pit road early a game changer is an exaggeration.  Then again, maybe not, because by opening the pits almost immediately after the conclusion of the first stage, NASCAR may have saved a few drivers from running out of fuel, but was it the right thing to do?

Well, it might have been if NASCAR had kept it consistent.  But after the second stage, there was time for a full slate of commercials, about three laps, before the pits opened. That’s only a couple laps’ difference, but NASCAR should either have a specific window or open the pits after one lap every time.  It’s not the sanctioning body’s responsibility to help teams overcome strategy errors. The decision sparked some discussion on social media as well.

Is there any reason not to open the pits one lap after the green checkers every time?  No; in fact, NASCAR should think about it, because the cautions between stages are far too long and do nothing to lessen the barrage of commercials later in the broadcast, so that excuse is out the window.  Throw a quickie yellow, pit everyone at once, and then give the one to go.

But NASCAR’s decision on Sunday wasn’t to make the caution shorter for the fans, and it wasn’t the right one to make mid-race.

About the author

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Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

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Bill B

Yes, I agree. Opening the pits early after stage 1 to allow those that gambled on fuel mileage is total bullshit. Teams should live and die by their strategy. If they think taking the risk to win a stupid stage is worth running out of gas, going laps down, and losing the opportunity to win the only stage that matters (the last one) then that should be their fate. NASCAR really f-ed up on that one.


Finally the answer to the question we’ve been asking for a while: When will France try to sell NA$CAR while there is still something to try to sell?


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