Posted: 9:10 am Monday, March 20th, 2017
By Doug "Fireball" Turnbull
Ryan Newman was not anybody’s pre-race pick entering the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Camping World 500 at Phoenix Raceway. In fact, Newman wasn’t in the mix for the lead any of the race, until crew chief Luke Lambert’s call not to pit on the final stop gave the No. 31 car the lead with six laps to go. Newman held back the thundering herd and scored his 18th-career win, his first win in 129 races, and RCR’s first since 2013.
Flag to flag: Joey Logano (finished 31st), co-subject of the fight talk all week, started on the pole and looked like a lock to defend his win at Phoenix last November. He won Stage 1, led 83 laps, and was hanging in the top 5 when a speeding penalty pinned him mid-pack.
Chase Elliott (12th) made a power move around Logano and Kyle Larson (2nd) to take the lead and hold the spot for most of the next 100-plus laps. He ceded the lead to Kyle Busch (5th) during pit stops after first winning Stage 2, Elliott’s first Stage win of his career.
Busch was in the catbird seat seemingly. The leaders in the race had a distinct advantage and cars in traffic really struggled. Elliott even said late in the race that he thought the 2017 racecars were worse in traffic than before.
Logano really struggled in traffic after his speeding penalty, but had briefly re-entered the top 15. Then on lap 308 he cut a right front tire and slammed the wall, ending his day and erasing Busch’s big lead. No one needed to pit for fuel, but most of the leaders did and took two tires. Larson edged Busch exiting the pits, but the bigger story was who stayed out. Newman, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (4th), and Martin Truex Jr. (11th) all gambled for track position, hoping their 50-lap old tires would be enough to last the two-lap NASCAR Overtime.
On the final restart, Larson started on the outside of row 2 and Stenhouse Jr. spun his tires, opening the inside for Larson to dart low. As he did, Stenhouse Jr. recoiled and dove lower. Then he just nudged Larson’s left-rear quarter panel, which kept the No. 42 from catching Newman.
Larson recovered and just couldn’t quite catch up and Newman took the checkered flag ahead of a real gaggle of cars scrapping in the top 10.
The stages and the unique Phoenix layout made for decent battles most of the race and, with the exception of when Busch took the lead, the battles for the top spot often remained close. One issue that hurt is how the cars handle in traffic. The issues keep the passing numbers low. There still were no real passes for the lead under green, except on restarts and cars just simply are not running into each other. This has been a theme the past three races, after a wreck fest at Daytona.
Top 10: Newman (lucked into one, but it still counts); Larson (3rd runner-up in a row, 4th in last five races); Ky. Busch (hey, at least he didn’t wreck coming to the checkered); Stenhouse Jr. (best finish since his 2nd at Bristol last August); Brad Keselowski (ran in top 5 the entire race); Kevin Harvick (struggled all weekend, but got into the top 5 late); Daniel Suarez (first good race in Cup and first-career top 10); Erik Jones (ran in top 10 most of the day, also first-career top 10); Jimmie Johnson (never a lead car, but decent most of the race); Denny Hamlin (rebounded from starting race in the rear and a cut tire after the halfway point).
The points: Larson takes the points lead by six over Keselowski and Elliott is another seven back. 30 points separate 12th-in-points Trevor Bayne and 23rd Dale Earnhardt Jr….FWIW.
RaceTweet: Newman grabs Kyle Busch’s win at Phoenix. Larson is a bride’s maid again. Logano helped the lose the race for Busch #hashnotsettled
Handsome Boy Modeling School Stud of the Race: Kyle Busch – The No. 18 Toyota a race-high 114 laps and the No. 18 pit crew did not give up a spot in the pits until the last stop. They needed this, after a disastrous first three races.
North Korean Missile Dud: Dale Earnhardt Jr. – Much like Busch, the No. 88 team has stumbled out of the blocks in 2017. And this should have been the race that Junior got his mojo back. He’s won at P.R. three times, ran well there last spring, and Alex Bowman dominated the fall race in the No. 88 last fall. Earnhardt Jr. also was very fast in practice, but that did not translate into the race. He did not break the top 10 all day and didn’t even gamble to try and gain track position at the end. He finished 14th.
You Can Comeback, But You Can’t Stay Here: Ryan Newman – Newman had issues in the first two races of the season and faded late in Las Vegas. The No. 31 Chevy wavered between 15th and 8th most of the race, but the gutsy call not to pit at the end got it to the front and kept it there. Newman now is qualified for the Playoffs and may have sparked some momentum for all of Richard Childress Racing.
Ghost Driver: All the other RCR/RCR satellite cars – Besides Newman’s strong run, RCR and affiliated Chevys were in the tank. Ty Dillon ran a respectable 16th (and his Germain Racing team really has run better than the others). His brother, Austin, struggled for the third time in four weeks and rose to 18th at the end. Paul Menard was garbage and 21st. JTG-Daugherty Racing is obviously struggling with the addition of Chris Buescher’s No. 37 team and both teams are well off the mark. No. 37 crew chief Trent Owens told me in the garage in Atlanta that his entire team started work January 2nd and they are behind on building cars. The No. 95 of Michael McDowell had a decent run by his small team’s standards, but they certainly have not improved over last year. RCR may have lucked into a win, but this should not deceive anyone into thinking that RCR is out of the doldrums. 2017 has been tough.
Never Fear, Underdog is Here: None – Maybe we count Dillon’s run in the No. 13 as decent and that team is definitely improved. But the underdogs got trampled in this race. Really, no small teams ran well at all. Sunday’s race did breed enough cautions to keep the number of lead lap cars high deep into the event.
Wheel of Misfortune: Kurt Busch – The No. 41 team had alternator issues for the second-straight week. Busch was a lap down for about half the race, after lengthy yellow flag pit stops to change batteries. He finally got a free pass on lap 206, but could only muster 25th at the finish. Power issues plagued both Menard and Austin Dillon at Atlanta Motor Speedway and then Busch last week. Whatever risk teams are taking to gain some kind of advantage is backfiring. Or this is all some great coincidence.
Jimmie Johnson’s Golden Horseshoe: Clint Bowyer – Bowyer was so close to Matt Kenseth when the No. 20 blew a tire and clobbered the wall on lap 193. Kenseth finished 37th, but very well could have taken Bowyer with him. Bowyer instead hung in the top 15 most of the day, placing 13th.
Head-Scratcher Crown of Thorns: Opinions have whizzed through the cosmos from all angles about the Busch-Logano fracas last week. For those that say this fight is great for the sport, lest we not forget that while it got the Las Vegas race viral, the outside media only talked about the fight and not the race.
For those holding down both extremes of the spectrum on whether NASCAR should have penalized anyone or not, the answer is not so definite. The sport cannot completely scare away confrontation – people love drama on and off the track. But it also cannot turn a blind eye to outright violence. If Busch connects that punch more successfully, he could have hurt Logano pretty badly. If a crew member does so to a driver, it’s even worse.
In a couple of weeks’ time, this all blows over until the next controversy. We shall be at the short tracks soon.
NXS RaceTweet: Holy smokes! A series regular won the race and the Dash 4 Cash. Justin Allgaier mixed it up with the Cup drivers all day and broke a long winless streak.
Georgia On My Mind: Chase Elliott had a whale of a race, running top 5 or 7 early, then top 3, then winning Stage 2. But trouble on restarts plagued him again. He lost about nine spots on the final three restarts, finishing 12th.
David Ragan got a tire rub after Trevor Bayne hit him, then wrecked with Gray Gaulding on lap 204, finishing 35th. Ragan is now 33rd in points. Reed Sorenson actually got a couple of free passes and ran better than his team usually does, finishing two laps down in 30th. Sorenson wrecked Corey Lajoie on lap 29. As you may recall, Lajoie is who got into Sorenson in the Can-Am Duel and caused him to DNQ for the Daytona 500.
Next: Both the MENCS and NXS run at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California. The Cup cars run Sunday at 3:30ET on FOX and the Xfinity cars race at 4 p.m. ET on FS1. Both MRN and Sirius/XM Ch. 90 will also air both races. ACS has put on some decent racing in recent years and each Cup race this season has seen late circumstances crown a new winner. It ought to be good.