As it has every year since 1997, the NASCAR circuit traveled to the Lone Star State for its annual race at Texas Motor Speedway. And while the proceedings were dominated by Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr., another drama unfolded in the garage where the car of the defending Sprint Cup Series champion was caught with parts considered less than legal. Everything combined makes for plenty to talk about in this week's version of winners and losers.
The No. 11 team
With Denny Hamlin sitting on top of the pit box and not in the car, the No. 11 finds itself in unfamiliar position with its championship hopes temporarily put on hold. But give a nod to Darian Grub, who, in two races with two different drivers, has made the most of a difficult situation. At Martinsville, Mark Martin battled back from a lap down to finish 10th followed by Brian Vickers being credited with an eighth-place finish at Texas.
Ironically, this was the first time all season that the No. 11 team had scored top 10s in consecutive races.
Through three races Aric Almirola was feeling good about his season after a solid, though quiet, start to the year. Then reality hit with a DNF at Bristol and a middling run at Martinsville. The good vibes, however, returned at Texas, where the No. 43 car was a fixture near the top of the speed chart throughout the weekend and left with its first top 10 finish (seventh) of the year.
And that momentum should continue in Kansas, where in October Almirola led a bunch of laps and was in contention for his first career win until a blown right-front tire ended his bid.
Martin Truex Jr.
Yeah, a win would have been nice considering that pesky winless streak dating back to 2007 now encompassing 210 races. But if there is a bright side to an otherwise frustrating moment for Martin Truex Jr., it's that finishing second and leading 142 laps isn't a bad thing when you consider that entering Texas he had led zero laps, had a best result of eighth and sat 25th in points through six races.
The chemistry between Brad Keselowski and Paul Wolfe is as good as any driver/crew chief combination in the garage. It's no coincidence that Keselowski's career blossomed when Wolfe took over leading the No. 2 before the 2012 season. And in a short amount of time, Joey Logano and Todd Gordon have seemingly a similar relationship with the No. 22 becoming a consistent presence near the front of the field.
Now, it's all but a certainty that NASCAR will level some sort of sanctions against Penske Racing. This will likely include lengthy suspensions for Wolfe and Gordon. While suspensions always test an organization's depth, it's compounded in this case because both Penske teams are affected. What was going to be an uphill battle will now be doubly so.
For every good race he's had this season, Jeff Gordon has had two mediocre ones. That template was on display again this past weekend, where he followed a third-place run at Martinsville with a 38th-place finish at Texas, the result of a broken hub on his left front wheel. Adding salt to the wound, the 24 car was running third at the time of the mechanical gremlin.
Although he's not in as deep a hole points-wise as he was a year ago at this time, it is looking like it will be wildcard or bust if Gordon is to make Chase for the ninth time in 10 years.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
The two-time Nationwide Series champ was having an efficient start to his rookie campaign and before Martinsville, had surprisingly had completed every lap. However, in the last two weeks Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has come back to earth with a resounding thud. While his issues at Texas were related to a tire failure, the end result was still a 40th-place finish.