|Photo Credit: Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images|
The Toyota Camrys prepared by Joe Gibbs Racing were the toast of Texas for much of the Duck Commander 500 on Saturday night. In a race where three of the four Joe Gibbs owned cars and the associated Furniture Row Racing #78 car led for all but 15 of 334 laps, the one who triumphed at the end only truly showed his hand late on the fast Fort Worth, Texas track.
The 500-mile race at the Texas Motor Speedway started after a roughly two-hour delay. Leading the field to green, the Stanley-sponsored Toyota wheeled by Carl Edwards led 57 of the first 57 laps of the race. On lap 59, Edward’s main adversary for the night emerged in the form of the black #78 Toyota Camry. Martin Truex Jr started 3rd in the field and kept his Furniture Row Racing car in the top-5 for almost the entire race. Thanks to a long green flag running from lap 34 to 136 (totalling more than half the race’s scheduled distance), Truex Jr held the lead for an impressive 63 consecutive circuits under that period of the Duck Commander 500. Edwards and Truex Jr battled almost exclusively for three quarters of the race distance as the drivers frequently jockeyed each other for the lead.
The most laps led by a non-Toyota competitor at Texas Motor Speedway was conducted in a single stint by Roush Fenway Racing car Trevor Bayne. Rolling the dice on a daring but unorthodox strategy where the #6 Ford Fusion of Bayne stayed out several laps after a pit cycle for all the frontrunners on lap 260, the car was consistently more than two seconds slower on older tires compared to then second-place Martin Truex Jr. In 12 laps, the #78 Bass Pro Shops Toyota caught and easily passed the #6 car. Truex Jr would lead a race-topping 141 laps at Texas.
|Photo Credit: Sarah Crabill/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway|
While the 1.5-mile surface of Texas Motor Speedway provided more than enough room for passing, much of the Duck Commander 500 was decided on pit road. As almost every Sprint Cup team has dedicated themselves to attaching only four lug nuts instead of five to the wheel bub (remembering last year NASCAR announced they were no longer policing lug nut fastenings during pit stops), pit stop times for changing four tires has dipped around 11 seconds at a huge risk. A loose wheel at high speeds on the tri-oval track quickly endangers a driver if the vehicle cannot return to the pits safely. While no accidents resulted, the 334-lap race saw a slew of drivers and crews suffering the consequences of the time-savings on pit stops including one of night’s biggest contenders.
Two major casualties of a loose wheel during the Duck Commander 500 were Matt Kenseth and most significantly Carl Edwards. Both driving for Joe Gibbs Racing teams, Edwards would lead the second-most laps in the race while Kenseth’s #20 Toyota was also a steady top-5 runner. After starting on the pole for the Saturday night race, Carl Edwards fought back to finish 7th in the #19 Stanley Toyota. Matt Kenseth was involved in a late-race multi-vehicle wreck but still soldiered onto a 11th place result.
Pit road mishaps for the night were not limited to the Joe Gibbs Racing bunch under high pressure circumstances. Costing the Stewart-Haas Racing team #4 Chevrolet SS a potential top-5, two mistakes happened in one pit stop. First driver Kevin Harvick was caught speeding on pit road and second was an error where a tire left the control of the crew. Forced to the rear of the field, Harvick struggled home in 10th place but still gained ground from a 22nd place starting spot. Hendrick Motorsports also encountered moments of unease topped by a brief second the left rear corner of Dale Earnhardt Jr’s #88 Nationwide Chevrolet was on fire. Started when a flying lug nut ignited fuel, the flames died down quickly when Earnhardt Jr was at speed while a small fire in the pit stall was extinguished by the crew.
|Photo Credit: Sarah Crabill/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway|
As the top position of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Duck Commander 500 was now under the control of Martin Truex Jr, a series of cautions in the late stage of the event threw the once-dominating car off balance. Two cautions occurring after just a handful of laps including a major accident started in a fight for position between Austin Dillon, Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson. Dillon’s #3 Chevrolet slid loose out of turn 2 for an incident where 13 cars received varying amounts of damage. When the pits opened, Martin Truex Jr’s fate was decided when he didn’t stop for tires. Saying in post-race he actually received a late call from crew chief Cole Pearn to stop but could not safety enter pit road from the track, the #78 Toyota would fall prey to vultures on fresh tires. On the lap 302 restart, Truex Jr was quickly passed by the #18 Interstate Batteries Toyota of Kyle Busch. While the #78 car was displaced to a sixth-place finishing result, Busch went on to claim has second NASCAR Sprint Cup race win of the season.
The 36th NASCAR Sprint Cup Series win for Kyle Busch saw the #18 Toyota emerge from a 15th place starting spot and some uncertainty up to the midpoint of the race. Leading 34 laps during the night in total, all but one of those circuits was in the final green flag run of the Duck Commander 500. Kyle Busch’s second consecutive Sprint Cup victory, the reigning champion has also taken wins in the Camping World Truck Series and Xfinity Series in the past two weekends. The #18 car’s sponsor Interstate Batteries was also honoured with a win in their company’s home state.
Crossing the line 3.904 seconds after Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr had a roller coaster-like race. Starting the race after qualifying in 16th place, Earnhardt Jr and his Hendrick Motorsports #88 team made their way into the top-3 by the first quarter of the event’s distance. However, a poorly-timed pit stop performed ahead of a lap 212 caution (caused when Josh Wise’s #30 car hit the wall) sent the Nationwide-sponsored Chevrolet SS deep into the field. Recovering to the lead lap, Dale Earnhardt Jr and his team spent the last third of Texas Motor Speedway race coming back through the field. The runner-up position is NASCAR Most Popular Driver’s three top-five of the 2016 season.
Starting on the front row, 3rd place finishing #22 car of Joey Logano is the only Ford that in the top-10 final results after the Duck Commander 500 at Texas Motor Speedway. Along with second place, Hendrick Motorsports cars were also found in the fourth and fifth place spot at the end of the race. Jimmie Johnson overcame front end damage suffered in an early lap pit road collision with Kyle Busch to capture 4th in the final running order. Chase Elliott came across the line at Texas in 5th after a tricky start for the rookie. Detecting a transmission problem before the Duck Commander 500’s start on the #24 Chevrolet SS, Elliott’s Hendrick Motorsports team changed the gearbox accepting a forfeiture of a fourth place starting spot. Starting in the rear, the 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series rookie Chase Elliott surged forward and even led a lap at Texas.
The 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series returns to short track competition next week in their spring visit to the Bristol Motor Speedway. The Food City 500 is scheduled for Sunday afternoon on April 17th.