Kyle Busch and his Joe Gibbs Racing No. 18 team won their second Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway with seemingly flawless execution by the driver and team.
His three competitors, however, fell short. Even so, each of these drivers had noteworthy seasons and they are undoubtedly looking ahead to next year and the possibility of another title run.
Martin Truex Jr.:
Martin Truex Jr. finished second to Busch as a result of a costly mistake on pit road. He won Stage 1 and was leading during Stage 2 when he took his No. 19 JGR Toyota down pit road for a green-flag stop.
As soon as he left pit road Truex reported that there was something wrong with his car. Crew Chief Cole Pearn informed him that the team has put tires on the wrong side of the car and that he needed to come back down pit road to correct the mistake.
He was the beneficiary of a caution on Lap 136 and was able to get back on the lead lap. He was able to rebound to a second-place finish but it was too little, too late.
Truex said it was the loss of track position that cost him a shot at the win and the championship.
“Yeah, ultimately it was the loss of track position that bit us,” he said.
“I lost a bunch of ground on that run,” he continued, “because of getting tight in traffic and then just was too far back to make anything happen the last run. Ultimately it came down to track position, and I felt like if I could have been up front and controlled the race, I could have drove away from them.
“At the end, we were quite a bit quicker, but it’s just, it was too much of a gap. Yeah, it’s part of the deal. You’ve got to be perfect, you know, and one mistake probably cost us a shot at it.”
The disappointment was obvious for the 2017 Cup Series champion.
“Yeah, these things don’t come around every day,” said Truex. ‘”Second two years in a row definitely stings a little, but the fact that we have one is still really a big deal. It’s hard to win these things. Congrats to Kyle and the 18 guys. It’s a huge accomplishment just to get here I feel like. Yes, sometimes you win, sometimes you don’t. It just wasn’t our day.”
Truex finishes the season with seven wins, 15 top-fives, and 24 top-10s with 1,371 laps led, ranking him second in the year-end standings.
Harvick finished fourth and led 41 laps. He described his biggest obstacle during the race was how much better the other Championship cars were on long runs.
“On the restarts I could do what I wanted to do,” he said, “and I could hold them off for 15 or 20 laps right there, and you know, this race has come down to that every year, so you kind of play towards that, and they were quite a bit better than us on the long run, but we had a really good car for those first 15 or 20 laps on the restarts and had a lot of speed. Just never got to try to race for it there with a caution.”
Harvick’s crew chief Rodney Childers hoped to gain an advantage by leaving his driver out on the track as long as possible before the final round of pit stops to give him the freshest tires and hoping for that elusive caution.
“We just needed to do something different,” Harvick added. “Really our best chance was to have a caution there at the end and never got one. We just did something different hoping for a caution, and that’s what you’re supposed to do in those late situations like that. Just do the opposite of the cars you’re trying to race, and it just didn’t work out.”
While he was racing against three Joe Gibbs Racing cars for the championship, Harvick said he never felt out-numbered.
“You race against these guys and it really turns into individual battles and I would say those guys were all racing for each other and trying to win a championship. I didn’t really look at it quite that way.”
Harvick ends the year with 4 wins, 15 top-fives and 26 top-10s with 953 laps led, finishing third in the year-end rankings.
Hamlin’s championship run hit a major snag toward the end of the race with about 50 laps to go when his car began overheating. On the previous stop, his crew had applied a large piece of tape to the front grille causing water temperatures to rise in his No. 11 JGR Toyota and necessitating an unscheduled pit stop.
This put him a lap down and while he would eventually get back on the lead lap, he had to settle for a 10th place finish.
Hamlin was disappointed but felt like he did all that he could do on the track and that being aggressive had worked for them in the past.
“Like I said, last week”, he said, “I was going to come in here and do the best I could and live with the result either way. I definitely feel like I couldn’t have done anything different. Certainly, we got a little aggressive there, and it cost us, but I mean, he’s (Chris Gabehart, Crew Chief) also been really aggressive and won us races, too. It’s just he’s going for it. He saw an opportunity there to really add some speed to the car, and it just didn’t work out.
Hamlin went as far as to say that it has been a great year that could not be defined by one race.
“it’s just a great year,” he emphasized. “We won 19 races as an organization. That’s the most in this era. That’s a good thing. In the world where we just keep getting more common with everything, right, common pit guns, common this, common that, JGR continues to set itself apart, and that’s the people and the effort that they’re putting in. I think that it really says a lot about the organization, no doubt.
“I’m excited about next year. I really am. It’s not like I’m going to go through the off‑season upset or sad. It’s like, I’m looking forward to having the momentum that we took through this year with a first‑year crew chief, and we’re going to win a lot, like a lot next year. I just think that we’ll have another opportunity. There’s no question.”
Hamlin won six races this season with 19 top-fives, 24 top-10s and led 922 laps. He finished out the year ranked fourth in the standings.
NASCAR will return for the 2020 season with The Clash at Daytona on Sunday, Feb. 9 as the prelude to the 62nd annual Daytona 500 on Feb. 16.
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