Tampa Bay Sports Day

NASCAR Notebook: Did Blaney Sacrifice Texas Race to Win Stage?

FORTH WORTH, Texas –– Ryan Blaney could not have asked for a better start to Sunday’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.

Grabbing the top spot from polesitter Kevin Harvick on two straight restarts within the first 37 laps, Blaney led 148 of the first 172 laps and in the process picked up a pair of stage wins and two playoff points toward the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship.

But Blaney’s race changed dramatically when crew chief Jeremy Bullins opted to keep him on the track when debris from Gray Gaulding’s car in Turn 1 caused the sixth caution of the day on Lap 163. All told, seven cars stayed out, giving Blaney plenty of cushion to win the second stage of the race, which concluded on Lap 170 after a three-lap sprint.

Then came the rub. Blaney had to pit under the caution that ended the stage and dropped from first to 20th behind the cars that had pitted under the previous yellow. Blaney never got back to the front, and after sliding through his pit box on his final stop, he finished 12th. In hindsight, would Blaney have preferred to have come to pit road with the majority of cars before the end of the stage and sacrificed a stage win for better prospects at the end of the race?

“It’s easy to look back on it and say, ‘Oh, we should have done this, should have done that,” Blaney said. “Now I say we should have stayed out the last caution (at the end of the race) and might have had a better shot at it. But you can’t really change any of that now. Yeah, in hindsight, to answer your question, that was kind of a judgment call.

“You give up a stage win and 10 points and a bonus point for the playoffs to try to set yourself for the end of the race. We thought we had enough time after segment 2 to try to work our way back up through there, and a restart actually after segment 2 really went bad for us. We got jumbled up in (Turns) 1 and 2 and let a lot of cars get by.

“That was kind of the deciding factor, I feel like. I let a lot of good cars get by like the 48 (race winner Jimmie Johnson) and 42 (runner-up Kyle Larson and 24 (Chase Elliott). What hurt us more, I think, than anything was that restart after segment 2 when we had to check up big in (Turns) 1 and 2. I thought we made the right call to stay out there and try to win that segment. I’m for that.”

Earnhardt Jr. posts hot-but-solid fifth-place run
Dale Earnhardt Jr. finally had a car he could enjoy — but a balky cooling unit took some of fun out of his fifth-place run in Sunday’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.

The driver of the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet was a fixture in the top-10 for most of the afternoon, with a car that could run with the machines that have dominated the action in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series thus far this season.

“It was warm,” a red-faced Earnhardt said after climbing from his car. “I thought the car was pretty warm all weekend, but our air conditioner wasn’t doing a very good job today. We’ve just got to relocate the outlet or the inlet to give it a better opportunity to get some air. But with the wind, as windy as it is here, you’ve got to put that thing in a more opportune place.

“It’s kind of like a vacuum. It’s pulling air out of the helmet… I just ran with the visor up the whole day. I was happy to see that caution late to get us some Gatorade and cool off a little bit. It was hot.”

At least the result was satisfying for Earnhardt, who posted his first top five — and top 10 — of the 2017 campaign.

“I figured we would get one sooner or later, but it’s nice,” Earnhardt said. “I know our fans are really pulling for us. Could have finished a little better, but we’ll take top five.”

Knaus and Johnson prevail on a clean slate
Chad Knaus, crew chief for race winner Jimmie Johnson, was pleasantly surprised at how racy Texas Motor Speedway became as Sunday’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 progressed.

But NASCAR’s premier driver/crew chief duo had to deal with a new racing surface to pull off their seventh victory at TMS. That meant the notes from the six previous wins no longer applied.

“Coming here, we knew that it was going to be a challenge,” Knaus said. “We didn’t have any data from the race track. We didn’t know how to set up our simulation, so we had to do a lot of it kind of old-school. It really worked out well.

“Was very impressed with the way the race track began to take rubber, very impressed with the way NASCAR and everybody here at Texas Motor Speedway worked throughout the course of the night to get the groove widened out (dragging tires), and the track really got pretty racy there at the end.

“I think we saw some guys on the outside be able to maintain their position or even take the lead on restarts there towards the middle portion of the race and then to the end. It was a good weekend. It was a lot of fun to be able to come out here and race with this new race track.

(By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service)