By David Morgan, NASCAR Editor
Each week, NASCAR Editor David Morgan will break down who’s hot and who’s not after the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race weekend. Today, we break down the AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.
Kevin Harvick – Harvick served notice to the rest of the field on Sunday that he wouldn’t be going quietly into the night in this year’s championship battle. Entering Texas with just a three point lead over the elimination cut-off and never having won at the 1.5 mile track, the 2014 series champion set out to kill two birds with one stone by locking himself into Homestead and knocking Texas off his winless list.
When the checkered flag flew, he had done exactly that. There’s a reason Harvick is known as “The Closer” and he showed why on Sunday.
After starting third, Harvick found the lead by lap 70 and held on through the end of the first stage to pick up the stage win. He would go on to take over the lead four more times throughout the rest of the day, but it was his pass on Martin Truex, Jr. with 10 laps to go that would seal the deal.
Truex had been the dominant force on 1.5 mile tracks this year, with six of his seven wins coming on tracks of that length. Another 1.5 mile win seemed imminent in the closing laps at Texas, but Harvick ran him down from more than a second back to pounce when Truex got loose into Turn 1, powering past him and setting sail for the win.
“This feels so good,” said Harvick. “We have been qualifying well here and racing well ever since I have been at Stewart-Haas Racing and just never got it to work out to go to victory lane. Today we had to earn it. To be able to pass the 78 car for the win is something that is huge for our confidence and team knowing we need to go to another 1.5 mile at Homestead to race for the championship. I am really proud of everyone on our Mobil 1 Ford. This thing was a hot rod today.”
Martin Truex, Jr. – The No. 78 team didn’t end the day in victory lane, but they still came away with a pretty nice consolation prize as Truex was able to lock himself into the championship race on points after finishing second to Harvick.
After leading four times for 107 laps (a race-high), Truex looked to be in the catbird seat and headed toward a seventh win on a 1.5 mile track and his first at Texas, but Harvick had other plans after blasting by him with 10 laps to go.
Even though it wasn’t a win, Truex and his team were still elated to have a place locked up in the championship race after the dominant season they have had.
“It’s a dream come true after last year’s disappointment, coming into this year with that as our focus and working so hard all year long,” said Truex. “Just the fight in this team, we never quit and we never give up. To win seven races, it’s been an amazing season. When you get two seconds in a row and you’re disappointed, it says something about your team and your confidence in them. Just can’t thank everyone enough for their support throughout the years. I’m really excited to go to Homestead and I think we’ll have something for them.”
Crew chief Cole Pearn echoed Truex’s sentiments about clinching a place in the Championship Four, saying: “It’s huge, it’s a bittersweet way to do it, but it was a really good run for us and we did what we needed to do. We can for sure focus on Homestead now, which is a relief and kind of just take next weekend off a bit. We can just go and get ready for Homestead.”
Brad Keselowski – At the start of Sunday’s race, it looked like Keselowski’s chances of salvaging a decent finish at Texas was out the window after a flat tire due to contact with Kyle Busch on lap one sent the 2012 series champion to pit road, putting him two laps down to the field and sending the No. 2 team scrambling.
By lap 94, Keselowski had crawled his way back on the lead lap, finding himself just outside the top-10 at the end of the second stage. The final stage was more of the same as he quietly moved his way up the leaderboard before settling into fifth place by the time the checkered flag flew.
“We had a pretty good car,” said Keselowski. “Something happened on lap one and basically we started the race last and a lap-and-a-half down. That cost us a bunch of stage points, but we rallied with a solid effort to get back to fifth. I’m happy for that.”
The rebound from shotgun on the field up to fifth also helped Keselowski out tremendously in the playoff points race as he now holds the fourth and final spot in the Championship Four, sitting 19 points ahead of Denny Hamlin in fifth.
“Nineteen points isn’t terrible for a cushion,” he added. “We’ll need to go and have a solid race at Phoenix next week and hope none of the other guys win. It’s doable, but it’s gonna be a nailbiter next week for sure.”
Jimmie Johnson – The chances for Johnson to be able to compete for an eighth series championship took a major hit at Texas after Johnson was able to only manage a 27th place finish, dropping him to eighth in the playoff standings, 51 points out of the final transfer spot.
Johnson started the day in ninth, but early in the going, a tire rub and vibration forced him to make an unscheduled pit stop, dropping him to 28th, two laps down at the end of Stage 1.
The hits just kept on coming in Stage 2 as Johnson fell another lap down and he was never able to rebound over the course of the remaining laps in the race, finishing outside the top-10 for the fourth straight race.
If Johnson is going to make it to Homestead to try and battle for the championship, he’ll have to win next week at Phoenix to be able to do so.
“We’ve got to figure something out,” said Johnson. “Kansas was a lot like this. It was just extremely difficult to drive the car and carry entry speed. And then we had a loose wheel and then contact on a restart. We started off in a hole and just kept digging a deeper one as we went. I’m definitely disappointed. And, I honestly just feel bad for my team. These guys are working so hard. And to work this hard and not see any speed go back in the car and have bad results as the last three weeks have been is pretty disappointing.”
Kyle Larson – After falling out of the playoffs at Kansas two weeks ago, Kyle Larson has not had an easy road since then and Texas was another example of that.
Larson started 11th and won Stage 2, but after showing signs of life early in the race, everything came crashing down, literally, on lap 284 after he got into the wall and cut a tire, causing him to spin and make hard contact with the Turn 2 wall, handing him his third straight DNF.
Needless to say, Larson is ready for this season to be over with so they can reset for 2018.
“Just can’t really execute,” said Larson. “Whether it’s bad pit stops or bad luck with whatever happened to our right-front we had a loose wheel and then had to pit a couple of times to fix it. We just gave up track position. We took the best car and just whatever, I don’t know, it’s frustrating because I know I had the best car and lose track position and that is what happens. You try and move forward and it’s so hard to pass here you try and find some stuff and get in the wall.
“Can’t wait for the last lap at Homestead.”