Chicago takeaways: The entire race (and Junior's broadcast debut) was good, not just the last lap

Welcome to our weekly post-race column of fire takes. Let’s see what’s in store this week after Sunday’s race at Chicago.

• Sunday’s race at Chicago is in contention for race of the year thanks to Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson’s fantastic last-lap battle. But the race is still one of the better races of 2018 even if Busch and Larson don’t trade the lead and paint throughout the final 1.5 miles.

[Busch sends Larson sideways on last lap to win]

Five drivers led 20 or more laps, including Aric Almirola’s race-high 70 laps led. Almirola finished 25th.

Busch was back in the pack for most of the race and said his car was “plowing” tight, but crew chief Adam Stevens clearly made significant adjustments to give it race-winning speed. There were also 24 lead changes; the second-most in Chicagoland Speedway history.

While Busch said after the race that you shouldn’t be a NASCAR fan if you weren’t entertained by the final lap, you should probably rethink your NASCAR fandom if you didn’t think Sunday’s race was entertaining as a whole, especially for an intermediate track. Tracks like Chicago will never commonly feature bumping and banging like the last lap did. But Sunday’s race had a fruitful combination of strategy, speed and parity, even if it was a familiar face winning the race. The Cup Series would be well-served if Chicago set a precedent for the rest of the season.

• Almirola’s race was incredibly disappointing. He pitted twice for loose wheels, including on the final green-flag run of the race. Almirola brought his car to pit road as Brad Keselowski stayed out on the track while complaining of a similar problem. Keselowski ended up 16 spots higher than Almirola.

“We just have to execute,” Almirola said. “We have to put a whole race together. That is the difference between being good and being great. We are capable of winning. We showed it today. We have speed, we are bringing incredible race cars to the race track and we just have to put a whole day together. We have to be flawless on pit road and I have to do my part too. Today we just had two loose wheels on two separate instances and you can’t have that, especially in races like this that go green forever.”

Almirola has the fastest cars he’s ever had in his NASCAR career. The 70 laps he led on Sunday are more than he led in the last three seasons combined. He’s going to make NASCAR’s playoffs and could be a contender to advance a round or two if things go his way. But unlike Busch, teammate Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr., Almirola needs a lot of things to go right to win.

“We are going to win a race,” Almirola said. “I guarantee you we are going to win a race. We have to be perfect to do it though.”

• Another Stewart-Haas driver that had a fun day on pit road was Clint Bowyer, who somehow finished fifth. It’s probably the hardest-fought fifth Bowyer has had in the last few years.

Bowyer was leading the race in the first stage when he pitted under green. He sped on pit road. Then he sped on pit road while serving a pass-through penalty. Then he didn’t stop on pit road for his stop-and-go penalty for speeding on his pass-through penalty. After coming to pit road four times, Bowyer was multiple laps down.

He made up two of those laps in the second stage as he waited longer to pit than the leaders. Thanks to a debris caution he then got the free pass and got back onto the lead lap with over 130 laps to go.

That set up the stage for Bowyer to slice his way through the field.

“The first time you second guess yourself,” Bowyer said. “You come down the second time and you are cautious and speed again so now you know you’ve got a problem. Then it was just confusion on my part. I wasn’t listening and made a mistake and cost us a third time down. We got good at pitting today, unfortunately. The capabilities there to run with these three guys. Our race team is young and making some mistakes but we have time to gain on those and build on those. You hate to give away those stage points. I think we could have won both those stages and maybe been in contention for a win.”

Bowyer’s team has shown itself to be the fourth-best in the Cup Series so far. But is it a title-contending bunch? We’re not so sure. Title-contending teams make the recovery that Bowyer’s did on Sunday. But title-contending teams don’t compound their initial penalties like Bowyer’s did either.

At the moment, Bowyer’s team is the favorite for the fourth and final spot in the title race at Homestead behind Busch, Harvick and Truex. But he’s no better than the fourth-best favorite in that scenario despite his two wins this season. There’s a difference between competing for a title and being a title contender. Bowyer sure could be doing the former but needs a little bit more to be the latter.

• Let’s go ahead and continue the Stewart-Haas theme before we get to Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s broadcasting debut. Kurt Busch was apparently unhappy that Kevin Harvick raced him hard on the final lap of stage 2. Is this Formula 1?

NBC’s Jeff Burton was rightfully indignant about Busch’s comments on the radio.

And Harvick was wondering what in the world Busch would need to talk to him about when he was indirectly asked about Busch’s radio comments after the race.

“I don’t know why he would have a conversation, maybe you can tell me that,” Harvick asked NBC.

There’s no need for a conversation from our perspective. How can Busch be legitimately frustrated with a teammate racing him hard for a playoff point? Harvick hoarding playoff points is a fantastic strategy. Every playoff point he earns gets him closer to Homestead and the title race and prevents another driver from earning the point. Harvick pinched Busch down in turns 3 and 4 and Busch ran Harvick up the track on corner exit. That’s how racing should be.

• OK, time to talk Junior. He was awesome. You could tell he was nervous at first in his first race as a full-time analyst for NBC. But he was great over the last 75 laps of the race and was correctly anticipating and explaining moves in real-time.

It’s unfair to Junior, but we expect that he’ll end the season as the best analyst in NASCAR. Sunday did nothing but encourage that line of thinking. He was great and brought a level of knowledge and enthusiasm similar to what Tony Romo brought to CBS’ NFL coverage.

NBC was also a welcome respite from Fox’s NASCAR coverage. NBC race director Mike Wells deserves props for his usage of wide shots throughout the race. Fox’s production got addicted to bumper cameras and in-car cameras throughout the 2018 season. While the cut to an in-car camera late in the race as Busch was slicing through lapped-traffic was unfortunate, it gets a pass because of the fantastic use of higher-angle shots throughout the entirety of the race.

It was refreshing to view a race with more than two cars in the camera frame at a time.

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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.

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