Who needs a top-10 when you can get a win?
Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race in Richmond saw the long awaited return of a style of racing I hadn’t seen in stock car racing in a long time: Pit Strategy Racing.
Just like in the early 2000s when I was a kid. You had William Byron out front, tires growing weak to the point that lapped cars were whizzing by him while he tried to hold on.
You had three hungry veterans behind, as Martin Truex Jr., on a similar strategy as Byron tried but failed to catch and pass the leader before his tires gave in. Denny Hamlin, yes the Denny Hamlin that hadn’t been in contention to win anything this year was behind Truex, and behind Hamlin was “The Closer” himself Kevin Harvick.
Hamlin and Harvick were on a different strategy than the front two, and had much fresher tires. With five laps to go, with Hamlin already posting lap times over five tenths faster than Byron, Hamlin drove by him with ease and cruised to a win. Before this race, Hamlin had started his season on a historically bad note, failing to notch even a top-10 finish in the first seven races.
You could feel the emotion and the struggles flying off of Hamlin as he stood atop his #11 Toyota Camry and pumped his fist to the crowd. You could hear it in his voice too. “There was no doubt in my mind,” Hamlin said before pausing, then continuing “maybe just a little, that we had got our car right there at the end. This is unbelievable.”
Hamlin wasn’t the only “old dog” who benefitted from Byron’s strategy. As I mentioned before, Kevin Harvick, in the midst of his longest winless streak of his career, was right there at the end. Harvick admitted that if he had been close enough he would’ve “taken a swipe” to try and get the victory. Overall though, Harvick seemed pleased with his team’s performance. “Still a great day for us and hopefully we’ll have some momentum for next week,” Harvick said with a wry smile.
Byron limped home in third, followed by Truex in fourth and Kyle Larson, who came from deep in the field after making an early pit stop rounded out the top-five. Larson had also been struggling uncharacteristically throughout the last few weeks, but this rebound performance will certainly build more momentum for him moving forward.
As for the regular season points battle, Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott are now BFFs at the top of the board after Elliott’s disappointing 14th place run and Blaney’s seventh place finish. Blaney won the first stage and was strong for the first half, but again his hopes faded late in the race. It seems like this is a problem the 9 team and the 12 team share, as Elliott charged up to the top-five for much of the first half, only to get caught in traffic after a bad adjustment and burnt by the different strategy plays. Both crew chiefs are going to have to figure it out fast, because a regular season points lead won’t mean much without a win.
Sunday wasn’t without controversy though. For yet another week, the #18 Toyota of Kyle Busch was on his way to a good finish when misfortune bit the two-time series champion. During a pit stop nearly 200 laps before it was noticed, the M&Ms crew placed a piece of tape on the grille opening of the car. Supposedly, the piece was meant to cover a brake duct, as with the Next Gen car, it’s illegal to tape the nose off for an aerodynamic advantage. NASCAR didn’t buy that crew chief Ben Beshore’s explanation of an accident and posted the 18. KFB rallied to get a top-10 finish but according to a tweet from my colleague Phil Spain, who was in Richmond, Kyle did not look at all pleased on his golf cart ride through the garage area. If we know anything about Kyle, we know he’ll be motivated big time next weekend at Martinsville.
I’m not sure that the first 300 or so laps of the race were worth the excitement of the final five laps yesterday, but it was really cool to see an old school finish where strategy was king.
Photo credit to the official Twitter account of Denny Hamlin @DennyHamlin