OBSERVATIONS: Overtons 225 at Chicagoland Speedway
First came the late race slide job attempt by Noah Gragson at Gateway Motorsports Park. Then came a crazy late-race restart at Iowa Speedway handing a victory over to Justin Haley. So when there was a last lap pass at Chicagoland Speedway, don’t blame us for not being surprised.
John Hunter Nemechek quickly asserted himself as the dominant driver on Friday night, taking the lead early in the third stage and not looking back, despite being challenged by both Gragson and Brett Moffitt. It seemed that he was well on his way to his second victory of 2018, and then his truck sputtered. After his gas man failed to put in enough fuel on the final stop, Nemechek ran out of gas just three-quarters of a lap short of victory. Rather than celebrating a win, he was left to coast to the line in seventh.
The beneficiary of Nemechek’s problem was Moffitt, who made the pass and put his No. 16 Toyota Tundra in victory lane for the third time this year. It seems easy enough, but this win as far from that. The Hattori Racing Enterprises guys weren’t initially set to be there this weekend, looking for sponsorship to make the event that they only received on Tuesday evening. Sometimes when it’s meant to be, the pieces just come to together in a magical way, and that could describe this win.
Seeing the contrast between Moffitt and Nemechek was summed up perfectly by Michael Waltrip in saying, “the thrill of victory, along with the heartbreak of defeat.”
Ben Rhodes was able to score a runner-up finish, which is a welcome rebound considering the bad luck with mechanical gremlins and such his team has endured through the past several weeks. Currently sitting in the coveted eighth spot – last playoff slot, any point that he can get is crucial. A 42-point cushion over Myatt Snider will have him more comfortable entering the off-week now.
The contrast of success and failure can be used to describe more than just the final lap, as other drivers saw their success quickly turned upside down.
Todd Gilliland was looking set for a solid top-five when a flat tire sent him down pit road with seven laps to go. After missing four races due to not being old enough, he has gotten a playoff waiver from NASCAR; though one thing is missing – a win.
Stewart Friesen has shown every ability to win a race through this season, running up front on a weekly basis and contending for wins. However, he has yet to breakthrough. Instead, incidents – whether of his own making or someone else’s – have seen him spin around or crash in each of the last three weeks. With the playoffs growing nearer, finding consistency will be critical.
Consistency and success haven’t been a problem for Moffitt, and now his third win makes him an obvious contender to consider for the championship. You also can’t skip over Johnny Sauter with his victories and the fact he leads the standings, 65 points ahead of Noah Gragson.
Compared to multiple wins by the others, Gragson has only visited victory lane once this season. It hasn’t been for lack of effort though, as his No. 18 Toyota Tundra has been fast on a weekly basis. Though when it comes to the intermediate tracks, it seems he leads laps in the first two stages and then fades for a decent top-five in the last section of the event.
The sophomore expressed his thoughts on the matter post-race, saying that he is the quarterback for the team, and that lies on his shoulders. It’s common for drivers to shoulder more blame than they should, and that should be considered here as the handling on the truck falls on everybody to make the adjustments necessary. However, if Rudy Fugle isn’t getting the feedback he needs from Gragson, how is that possible?
Each year, Kyle Busch Motorsports has seen one of their young drivers be right in the midst of championship contention. Gragson should be no different based on speed alone, but small improvements like feedback will be necessary moving towards the end of the 2018 campaign.
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