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NASCAR Cup Series

Momentum for Almirola After Top-10 at Las Vegas

After his third start in a Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, Aric Almirola “The Cuban Missile” finally captured his first top-10 of 2018. In his new No. 10 Smithfield Ford Fusion, Almirola finished 10th in Sunday’s Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

“Finally a top-10 for our Smithfield Ford Fusion,” Almirola said. “We have had a solid string of races, and obviously everybody has been working really hard at Stewart-Haas Racing, and the cars are obviously fast.”

A “solid string of races” it is.

At Daytona, Almirola stayed out of trouble and was the leader with a lap to go until he was wrecked in the backstretch by Austin Dillon, who ended up spraying champagne in victory lane.

The following weekend at Atlanta, Almirola ran in the top-10 most of the day but finished 13th after having a hiccup on pit road.

Almirola began the weekend at Las Vegas struggling with a bad handling race car.

“Our car was not very good on Friday or Saturday morning,” Almirola said. “The guys made a lot of changes for final practice and we finally hit on something that felt good for me.”

Almirola started back in the 29th position and successfully drove his way up into the top-15 by the end of Stage 1. Throughout the race, he ran among the top-20 allowing him to finish in the tenth position.

“I am proud of everybody at Ford Performance and Stewart-Haas Racing,” Almirola said. “We had to battle back from a lot this weekend.”

Thanks to a phenomenal job by his team, Almirola could finally get the car to handle to his liking which led him to finishing the weekend off strong with momentum going into Phoenix.

The 2018 season has begun strong for Almirola and the whole Stewart-Haas Racing organization. Starting off a year, with speed and consistent runs can really guide Almirola to having a successful season.

Heading into Phoenix, Almirola sits 12th in the overall point standings. Furthermore, this is the first season that he goes on to the fourth race with a top-10 at a track other than Daytona.

During the offseason, Stewart-Haas Racing made a few changes, most notably bringing Aric Almirola over to drive Danica Patrick’s former car.

This year started off with a historic Daytona 500 and two dominant performances by Almirola’s teammate Kevin Harvick. During the offseason, many expressed concern about Ford’s performance in 2018 since a Toyota dominated the previous season and Chevy was introducing the new Camaro ZL1.

However, the Ford camp has shown early success and it’ll be interesting to see Aric Almirola evolve throughout the season with Stewart-Haas Racing.

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MrBrandonRivero

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

ASHLEY ASKS…… Tony Eury Jr.

After stepping away from NASCAR for the past four years, Tony Eury Jr. will be back on the pit box for the Daytona 500, calling the shots for Danica Patrick.

Before heading down to Speedweeks, the longtime crew chief talked about working with her, as well as his involvement in the short track racing scene.

POPULAR SPEED: What are your thoughts going into Daytona?

TONY EURY JR: I’m looking forward to it. It’s good to be back in Daytona and it’s good to be back with Danica (Patrick) and GoDaddy. Just looking forward to the race. We have to really pay attention, and be careful. We have basically one bullet so we have to make sure we get through the Duels and first couple of practices here without any incidents, and then concentrate on Sunday and just trying to be there at the end.

This is kind of a unique situation with the scheduling where it’s a totally different set-up plan where NASCAR used to mandate what rear springs, what rear shocks – now it’s ground zero rules, anything goes, so you have to basically re-do your whole set-up. So you basically only have two hours to make it right for qualifying and you’re impounded to the Duels, so we just want to go into conservative mode and make sure we know where the car is at. Then we have four hours after the Duels to get the car tuned up for the 500.

PS: Having been away from NASCAR for awhile now, what is it about this deal that brought you back?

EURY: Basically, friendship. We mean a lot to each other and had a lot of success together. I’ve been away from the Cup Series and XFINITY Series for four years, but I’ve also during that time started a chassis company with Fury Race Cars, where I’ve been bringing up young kids through the ranks to get them up there. I’ve still been crew chiefing – just a different capacity, keeping up with things going on in the sport all the way down through it. We’ve had some good kids come through our program. William Byron was probably our first one. We’ve got Zane Smith, Christian Eckes who won the Snowball Derby with us two years ago – we’ve had some really extremely good kids come through our program.

When Danica called and asked me to do this deal, I just told her that I’d be glad and honored to, just for GoDaddy and her, just for the appreciation that I had for what we were together when she first came in the shop. For her to be going out and for me to associate with that deal and GoDaddy, it’s a really cool deal and good storyline. I look forward to it, and you can never turn down a chance to come to Daytona.

NIGEL KINRADE | NKP

PS: When you guys started working together when she came into the sport, what were your initial impressions?

EURY: When I first met her, she was very determined. She’s a very good racecar driver. It’s like I told a lot of people – I would put her up against anybody in the garage, as far as one-on-one lap and driver feedback. She can give you the information that you need. The problem was IndyCar is totally 180 degrees different from NASCAR, where the closing rates, the position to pass – everything is totally backwards. So that was our biggest challenge in trying to get her accustom that when you go to pass somebody, you have to four foot off their back bumper, whereas IndyCar it’s five car lengths back. That was probably our biggest obstacle.

She’s gotten better over the years, but compared to a kid coming out of Late Models and that’s all he drove his whole life, that’s an easier transition. She’s done well. She’s had shining points throughout her career to where she’s looked good. She’s just learned more and more, but I think that was the biggest obstacle when she got into the sport.

PS: You mentioned Fury Race Cars and the success you’ve had with that. How did it come about?

EURY: Well, I had a friend that used to work for me and he works for a spring company now and he decided that he wanted to build modifieds. He needed some help building a modified, and we established a company over the last four years. Now we’ve changed it over to Fury because he moved back north. He’s got an LFR brand of modifieds; we still build the modifieds for it. Then I design my own super late models.

We’ve got probably a 140 super late models across the country. Like week, I was in Bakersfield, California for a big race with some customers. It’s something that I’ve always wanted to do because no matter what, I love building cars that go fast. So it’s at the top level or entry level, it’s a lot of fun to me.

PS: Putting Fury on the map, how important was it for you guys to win the Snowball Derby in 2016 with Christian to get the name out there?

EURY: I mean, that was a huge win – there’s no doubt about it. Let’s face it – if you’re going to sell chassis, you need to win races. So that win really turned a corner for us, got some more people involved, wanting to be part of the program. We’ve got Harrison Burton in the program right now. We’ve won four races this year, and won three of them so far. So I think we have some pretty good stats to back-up what our chassis are all about now. It’s a lot of fun to me. I’m just having a blast with that part of the deal, and I told Danica that if she gets bored and wants to run one of these on a weekend, we can do that to.

PS: Now the latest thing with Fury is you guys are going to be expanding up into Canada. What will it be like for you guys getting involved in the APC Auto Parts United Late Models of Ontario Series?

EURY: I’m looking forward to that. That’s car has actually gone to the powder coat, so I’ve got some stuff going in that direction. I’m really excited. I’ve got a couple Canadians with my chassis – Cassius Clark has one. But to get into that series, it’s just going to help expand, give us another marketplace to get into.

We’ve also got a track day road course car that we’re working on right now. There’s a lot of activity around that we’re really pumped up about. I’m just trying to finish up the last little bit so we can get into production. But that day, we’ve taken it to the track several times and it’s an awesome piece.

TYLER BARRICK | NKP

PS:  Jumping back to NASCAR side, you’ve won a bunch of races through the years. What’s been the most memorable?

EURY: I would say down here at the (Daytona) 500 (in 2004 with Dale Earnhardt Jr.), because we were so close so many times. Like the two years prior, we had dominant cars and won everything down here but the 500. So to come down here the next year and win that race was great. Our streak at Talladega (2001-2003) was pretty awesome. The (2001) Pepsi 400 was the most emotional –that and the Wrangler car (XFINITY Series at Daytona, 2010). I think that really got me because it meant so much because one was right after Big E (Dale Earnhardt)’s death, and the other, the No. 3 Wrangler car, was in his memory. So coming down here and winning that race, that was a full blown effort – there was only one thing that was going to happen, and that was winning that race. Anything else would’ve been a failure. I would say the Wrangler car was my most emotional win that I’ve ever had in my career, because it meant so much to me just to do something for Big E.

PS: We saw the stage racing play out last year. What are your thoughts on that adjustment with the rules?

EURY: I liked the stage racing. The only downside is you can take out some strategy that someone could start out at the beginning of the race if they’re not having a good day to start with. The best part about it is you could have the best car all day, and something happen at the end, and you’ve got nothing to show for it – but now with the stage racing and points given out, it actually means something at the end of the year. So it gives you the ability to show that you had a dominant car for most of the year, despite a couple things happening.

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER:@ladybug388

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Danica Patrick Finalizes Daytona 500 Plans

Danica Patrick‘s plans for her final Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series start have been finalized, as she will drive for the No. 7 Chevrolet in the Daytona 500 for Premium Motorsports.

“I’ll be back in GoDaddy green, driving the No. 7 Chevrolet with Tony Jr. in my ear again,” Patrick said. “It all makes my last NASCAR race just that much sweeter.” 

Patrick will have Tony Eury Jr. calling the shots, which brings familiar territory. She worked with him at JR Motorsports from 2010 to 2012 in the NASCAR XFINITY Series, scoring a career-best fourth at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in 2011. 

“It wouldn’t be just any opportunity that could coax me back to the pit box,” Eury said. “Working with Danica and GoDaddy again at Daytona is going to be fun — when you can do what you love and be in your element … well, I can tell you, it doesn’t get any better.

“Danica and I have shared success before in Daytona, and she has a lot more experience under her belt now, so I look forward to seeing what we can achieve during Speedweeks.”

Patrick announced in November at Homestead-Miami Speedway that the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season will be her last full-time campaign. She added at the time that she would complete her career with two more events – the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500. 

The 35-year-old began her career in open-wheel, completing seven full seasons with a best points-standings finish of fifth in 2009. She then began to dabble in NASCAR in 2010, before running the full NASCAR XFINITY Series campaign in 2012. Since then, she has spent the last five seasons competing in the Cup Series, with a career-best sixth-place finish at Atlanta Motor Speedway in 2014.

Rumblings began to circulate regarding Patrick’s future when it was confirmed various sponsors would not return to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2018.

Premium Motorsports will receive technical support from Richard Childress Racing, while using an ECR engine. They will have a charter to use for the event, guaranteeing Patrick in the field.

Her Daytona 500 effort will be sponsored by Go Daddy, as previously announced; Go Daddy will also sponsor her final racing event ever, the Indianapolis 500 in May. She has yet to announce which team she will drive for, though. 

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER:@ladybug388

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement

 

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

5 BIGGEST STORYLINES OF 2017: Retirement

From the Daytona 500 in February to the last checkered flag of the year at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November, the world of left turns – with an occasional right – keeps everybody on the edge of their seats. While the on-track action keeps eyes peeled on the asphalt, the discussion, and headlines generated away from the competition result in plenty of water cooler talk.

The 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season was no exception, as there were lots to talk about right from the beginning. As we close a chapter on another year, POPULAR SPEED is going to reflect upon the five most significant storylines in a series of articles.

The first of those touches upon one filled with emotion – retirement. 

Over the past couple of years, fans have walked many of their favorites walk away from the sport. In 2015, Jeff Gordon hung up the helmet, while Tony Stewart walked away from NASCAR competition in 2016. This past season was no different, with three more big names calling it quits.

After missing most of the second half of the 2016 campaign healing from a concussion, Dale Earnhardt Jr. returned to the track this year. But in April, he announced that the 2017 season would be his last full-time campaign. The announcement was significant, considering the third-generation racer has been considered the leader for the sport, winning the Most Popular Driver Award the past 15 straight years.

The good news for fans in helping the adjustment period is that Earnhardt has stated he will run at least one NASCAR XFINITY Series event next season and will be in the broadcast booth for the second half of 2018 with NBC. At least during a time of trying to see where their loyalty rests in the sport – whether remaining a fan and tuned in, or finding another driver to cheer for, they will still get to connect to their leader of JR Nation. 

In November, Matt Kenseth revealed he would be stepping away from the sport as he was unable to find a ride for 2018 after being let go from Joe Gibbs Racing in replace of Erik Jones. It is sad that a guy who can still get the job done, as evident by his win at Phoenix Raceway, is being forced out of the seat over youth and dollars. It once again brings up the conversation that fans have debated for the past couple years now of how much talent versus money plays into the equation. 

Lastly, Danica Patrick dropped the last domino when she stated at the season finale that the 2017 campaign is her last full-time, and she will run the Daytona 500 and Indianapolis 500 in 2018 before retiring. Arguably, she has not had the best statistics as compared to other drivers. However, her impact on the sport goes beyond that.

Each week, little girls look up to her as a role model to possibly enter the sport themselves one day. How much will that affect these ladies moving forward? Talented female drivers are coming up through the ranks, such as Natalie Decker with a full-time ARCA deal for Venturini Motorsports, but is that enough to continue the diversity movement that Patrick helped build upon? 

With three of the most prominent names stepping away – five in the past three years, some have begged the question – what happens now with the sport? 

This period isn’t the first time drivers of this magnitude have walked away from NASCAR in groups, with each of those retirements sparking a new era. The sport survived when Richard Petty hung up the helmet, and when Dale Earnhardt died. So can it do so once again? Absolutely.

There are plenty of veterans still behind the wheel, continuing to add to their career numbers with personalities to carry us forward. Competitors like Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch, and Martin Truex Jr. are just to name a few. 

Beyond those, we have a young crop of drivers are beginning to establish themselves on-track, while drawing fans to them with their personalities through social media and appearances.

The next biggest storyline discussed in the series touches upon that, with the youth movement of the sport. 

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER:@ladybug388

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement

 

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

A Look Back Through Danica Patrick’s Career

After experiencing success in the Verizon IndyCar Series – including a victory in Japan, Danica Patrick made the decision to switch over to stock car racing full-time in 2011. Since then, she’s been making the highlight reel on a weekly basis.

The driver of the No. 10 Ford has been successful on-track with notable career highs, though also been just as big away from the speedways. She has helped take the sport to new heights through marketing, while inspiring a whole new generation of female drivers and fans.

Patrick announced at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Friday that 2017 will mark her final full-season, as she will rap up her career with the Daytona 500 and Indianapolis 500 in 2018.

Here’s a glance back through her career highlights.

Barry Cantrell | NKP

Patrick’s NASCAR debut came in the NASCAR XFINITY Series at Daytona in 2010. She would crash out of the event on Lap 69, resulting in a 35th-place finish.

Tyler Barrick | NKP

Patrick made her Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series debut in the 2011 Daytona 500, finishing 38th.

Nigel Kinrade | NKP

Patrick’s lone XFINITY Series top-five came at Las Vegas in 2011 with a fourth-place finish.

Matthew Thacker | NKP

In her first full season of NASCAR competition in 2012, she scored four top-10’s en route to placing 10th in the XFINITY Series standings. She capped off the year by taking home the Most Popular Driver Award at the banquet.

Russell Labounty | NKP

Kicking off her first full year of Cup competition in 2013, she opened the year in a big way by winning the pole for the Daytona 500.

Nigel Kinrade | NKP

Although it’s been tough sledding at times, Patrick scored a career-best Cup Series sixth-place finish at Atlanta Motor Speedway in 2014.

Nigel Kinrade | NKP

Patrick’s popularity has shined through, as the fans voted her into the All-Star race on three different occasions, most recently in 2016.

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Danica Patrick Has Bright Future Outside of NASCAR

Danica Patrick wept.

She told herself she wouldn’t but as she sat in the media center at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Friday and announced her retirement as a full-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver, the tears flowed freely.

“My sister said I wasn’t supposed to get emotional,” said Patrick, driver of the No. Stewart-Haas Racing Ford. “I said I wouldn’t. But I’m grateful for all the opportunities.”

Patrick went on to say that she will compete in two races next season, the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500, the latter being a race that she said several times she’d never enter again.

But things change.

One of the big things that changed for Patrick was that SHR didn’t have a sponsor for her in 2018 and beyond, so she’s being replaced by Aric Almirola, who brings Smithfield Foods sponsorship with him.

This coming after Nature’s Bakery bailed on its sponsorship of Patrick before the 2017 season even began.

In racing, money talks and the lack of money means sometimes that otherwise capable drivers walk. Just ask 2003 Cup champion Matt Kenseth or Greg Biffle, both former stars, or Kurt Busch, the 2004 champ who still doesn’t have a deal with SHR for 2018.

In this, Patrick is not alone.

“I just think that sometimes in your life … I’m not feeling like I was pushed into this … I feel like I should be doing this,” said Patrick. “I feel like this is where my life should be headed.

“And sometimes we just get kind of nudged there,” she said. “Sometimes it’s big nudges and sometimes it’s little. But I definitely I was faced with situations at the beginning of the year that I had never faced before. I had never had sponsor issues. It made me think about things and so I’m excited about the next phase.”

As far as that next phase goes, yes, there’s Daytona and Indy to consider.

Longer term, Patrick has demonstrated her savvy as a businessperson and has built a whole cottage industry around being Danica: She has her own clothing line, her own brand of wines, a physical fitness book and has said several times she wants to have a child with boyfriend and fellow racer Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Patrick will continue to do quite well for herself off the track.

On the track, she leaves a complicated legacy that fans will continue to debate.

The good is that Patrick became the first competitive contemporary female racer, brought tons of attention to the sport and inspired millions of young girls to emulate her. Those are all things she can be proud of and be respected for.

The on-track results — just seven t0p 10s in 189 starts — did not come close to matching her popularity, but the numbers are what they are.

Asked how she wanted to be remembered, Patrick said, “What I’ve always wanted is to just be remembered as a great driver, then remembered as a girl. I don’t care if your remember me as a girl. Of course I am. It’s obvious. But to be remembered as a great driver. That’s it.”

Categories
News

Danica Patrick: ‘Not a Ton’ of Talks About 2018 Rides

Danica Patrick doesn’t exactly sound like she’s close to finding a new Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series seat for 2018.

Patrick announced earlier this month that next year she won’t be back at Stewart-Haas Racing, her team since 2013.

Speaking at Dover International Speedway Friday morning, Patrick was asked if she’d had many discussions about possible rides for next season. “Yeah, I’ve had some but not a ton,” said Patrick. “As I’ve said for a good while now I let business people in my business handle that and have those conversations and figure out what options are out there and I’m going to let them do that.”

Patrick also said she didn’t see herself returning to IndyCar racing, but stopped short of ruling it out altogether.

“No. I’m not planning on anything, going back to IndyCar,” she said. “Never say never as I’ve said for many years because I’m getting so old and I know things can change. My life changes in ways that I wouldn’t expect it every couple of years. You just can’t cross off anything on the list completely.”

Patrick was also asked about the whole NFL-National Anthem controversy and what the take on it was at SHR. “As you can imagine I haven’t been at many meetings at Stewart-Haas lately,” she said.

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Kevin Harvick: I Hope Danica Patrick Finds a Ride

Kevin Harvick, the 2014 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion, said he wants his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Danica Patrick to find a new ride for next year.

“I hope that Danica gets a sponsor because she’s an important part of our sport,” said Harvick. “… She’s had a lot of very good moments.”

Patrick announced Tuesday that she won’t be returning to SHR next season, but did not offer specifics on where she could be headed.

“Danica’s been a huge part of this sport and turned a lot of people on to racing,” Harvick said Wednesday morning at NASCAR Playoff Day at the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte. “And the impact and the footprint that she has brought to our sport is big.”

But Harvick also said performance is an issue. Patrick has not had a top-five finish in 180 career Cup starts. “On the other side of that, you have the performance side of things that at some point measures into everybody’s sponsorship.

“I read the statement from Smithfield yesterday, and obviously it sounds like that’s the reason they’re leaving Richard Petty Motorsports is because they feel like the program is working for them off the racetrack, and they want to run better on the track.”

Smithfield Foods announced Tuesday that it’s leaving RPM and moving to SHR, starting in 2018.

Harvick said changing teams might be the best thing for Patrick.

“Look at Joey Logano,” he said. “He went from Joe Gibbs Racing to Penske and became an immediate championship contender. That’s what you hope for.”

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Danica Patrick Leaving Stewart-Haas Racing

Last month, Danica Patrick told me she didn’t have a driving deal in place for 2018. Tuesday she made it official, with a Facebook post confirming that she won’t be back with Stewart-Haas Racing next year.

“It has been my honor to drive for Tony Stewart, Gene Haas and everyone at Stewart-Haas Racing for the past six seasons,” said Patrick on her Facebook page. “Together we earned a Daytona 500 pole, seven top-10 finishes and we also had some exciting racing along the way. My time driving for them, however, has come to an end due to a new sponsorship arrangement in 2018. Sponsorship plays a vital role in our sport, and I have been very fortunate over the course of my career, but this year threw us for a curve. Our amazing partners, such as Aspen Dental and Code 3, stepped up in a big way on short notice this year and I am incredibly grateful.

“I wish SHR the best of luck with their new sponsorship and driver,” Patrick wrote. “Thanks for the memories. Right now, my focus is on the remainder of the 2017 season and finishing the year strong. I have the utmost faith in myself and those around me, and feel confident about my future.”

When we spoke at SHR in mid-August, Patrick told me her plans for next season were up in the air. “At this point in time, my agents are still working on things,” Patrick said. “Working with sponsors and working with teams, trying to figure out what the next step is.”

Earlier today, SHR announced that it had signed longtime Richard Petty Motorsports sponsor Smithfield Foods for 2018. Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer remain under contract with SHR, but current team driver Kurt Busch is a free agent.

For her career in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, Patrick has a Daytona 500 pole, no victories or top fives, and seven top 10s in 180 starts. Her career-best Cup finish was sixth at Atlanta Motor Speedway in 2014.

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Stolen Glory: Ill-timed Caution Flag Costs Truex Richmond Victory

It’s hard to imagine a more awkward finish to a NASCAR race than what happened Saturday night at Richmond Raceway.

Martin Truex Jr. was cruising to an easy victory in the Federated Auto Parts 400, a victory that would have given him even more momentum than he already had as the Monster Energy  NASCAR Cup Series regular-season champion.

Then, with three laps to go, the unthinkable happened.

Derrike Cope, who was logging laps at the back of the field, lightly brushed  — lightly — the Turn 4 wall to bring out a caution on Lap 398 of the scheduled 400-lap race.

Let the record state a couple of facts:

When the yellow came out, Truex had a lead of about 4 seconds over the field.

Cope kept going after the contact with the wall, with only the slightest damage on his car. He went on to finish 36th, 16 laps down. For the year, Cope’s average finish is 34.9.

Once the yellow was out, the field all pitted for fresh tires, Kyle Larson won the race off pit road first and then the race itself, while shortly after the restart, Truex got wrecked by his quasi-teammate Denny Hamlin. Instead of winning his fifth race of the year, Truex finished 20th. He led 198 of 404 laps and walked away with nothing to show for it except a single point for winning Stage 2 of the race.

Afterwards, many people felt the caution should not have been thrown at all because Cope kept going and it didn’t appear that his car shed any shrapnel on the track.

And yet the caution for Cope altered the outcome of the race.

How absurd was that?

It would be like the New England Patriots beating the Dallas Cowboys by three touchdowns in the final minute, only to lose the game in the last seconds because of something stupid the Cleveland Browns did.

To add insult to injury, Truex, crew chief Cole Pearn and team owner Barney Visser had to appear in the post-race celebration to accept the trophy for winning the championship. Furious and uncomfortable, Truex looked like a man who just found out his ex-wife was sleeping with her Pilates instructor. Pearn, meanwhile, simply appeared stunned.

Understandable reactions, both. As were Truex’s post-race comments.

Tonight sucks, plain and simple, just the way it ended up,” said Truex. “You’re out there dominating like this, you know your car is not very good on restarts for a couple laps.  Caution for a guy that shouldn’t even be out there is kind of ridiculous.  I don’t know.  I don’t really know what to say about all that. It’s unfortunate the way the race ended. … I just think that’s ridiculous that a guy could cause a caution with one lap to go as bad as he’s running and just riding around there basically just making laps.  Yeah, it’s pretty dumb.”

The worst part of it?

The caution for Cope, as bad as it was, wasn’t the worst call of the night.

Or even the second worst call of the night.

The second worst came on Lap 88, when NASCAR threw a caution because Matt Kenseth locked up his brakes and gave off tire smoke. Didn’t hit anyone or anything, and didn’t spin. Officially on the race rundown, the cause of that yellow was listed as “smoke.”

But the worst gaffe came on Lap 258, after a caution for Danica Patrick’s spin.

As the lead-lap cars headed toward pit road, an ambulance stopped at the commitment line near the pit-road entrance, causing several cars to have an accordion-like collision trying to avoid hitting it. Matt Kenseth got the worst of it, his Toyota too damaged to be repaired under the 5-minute crash clock.

Luckily for Kenseth, there was no first-time winner of 2017 at Richmond, so he didn’t get knocked out of the playoffs.

“Not really sure why pit road was open with an ambulance parked there, but everybody stopped and I didn’t see it in time and ran into the car in front of me,” said Kenseth.

The biggest issue isn’t what happened in Richmond, though.

The biggest issue is what could happen in the playoffs.

Fans want to see races won and drivers advance through the playoffs because of fast cars, good driving and skillful pit work, not because the guy in 36th-place screws up with three laps to go.

Imagine if what happened at Richmond happens again at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 19, when the championship is decided.

One can only hope the final laps at Homestead come down to the best of the best racing their guts out for a title, instead of a backmarker doing something to alter the course of the championship and therefore of NASCAR history.