Brad Morgan · Tuesday October 8, 2013
Kevin Harvick stepped up and delivered the win at Kansas and proved that this Chase won’t be decided solely by Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson, despite their grasp on the standings.
With a return trip to Charlotte Motor Speedway up next, find out why Kyle Busch is no longer a part of that conversation, and which other Chasers are poised to step up next, in this edition of Who’s Hot and Who’s Not.
The showing that Kevin Harvick put on during the Hollywood Casino 400 made it clear that at least one other Chase driver is prepared to contend for the 2013 Chase crown. His No. 29 Chevrolet started from the pole and played the part, leading 138 laps – including the last 36 circuits. Most importantly, he jumped to a not-so-distant third in the standings, just 25 points off Kenseth’s near-perfect total through four races.
What a time for a breakthrough Sprint Cup victory in the Sunflower State. Sure, it’s not surprising that Harvick was the driver hoisting the trophy late Sunday afternoon, but it was surprising that he went about his business in such a commanding way. He usually relies upon closer instincts as a manner of collecting wins, but that simply wasn’t the scenario that played out.
That’s not good news for Harvick’s competition moving forward, especially considering his record in the series’ next stop. He left Richard Childress congratulatory in victory lane in the May visit to Charlotte, and that one definitely wasn’t a fluke. One additional win and three more top-10 finishes over the past six races speak volumes of his improvement there in recent years.
Jeff Gordon seems to be saving his best for last. After a largely uninspiring regular season, the veteran has shown that he’s still got plenty in the tank for Chase time.
A string of seven races with no finish worse than 15th and six top 10s has Gordon sitting fourth in the standings, his highest placement since September of 2011.
Joey Logano continues to deliver on his remarks following a blown engine in his Chase debut that left him feeling unfulfilled. This time it was a Kansas career-best fourth-place finish that helps to bolster an impressive slate of post-Chicagoland results.
Crew chief Todd Gordon appeared on the same page as his driver, consistently giving Logano the setup he needed to make up ground in between the 15 caution periods. He also settled on a pitting strategy that gave the No. 22 Fusion good track position before the final restart.
That’s two top 5s in a row; only no one saw this one coming, leaving the question: what more can Logano accomplish in his first Chase bid? With Charlotte serving as a statistical goldmine for the Penske racer, watch out.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is also on the comeback trail, with an eighth at Kansas adding to a Hot or Not worthy three-race stretch.
With a season-high number of cautions, restarts were crucial. Earnhardt Jr. wasn’t among the drivers to take advantage when the green flag was waved however, and struggled to get going several times – dropping eight positions after spinning his tires on the final restart – but afterwards, he was usually able to reclaim much of the lost ground.
The No. 88 team’s recent good fortune has been blanketed partially because of an ugly exit in Round 1 of the Chase and because of astonishing starts from two of Junior’s Hendrick Motorsports teammates. But their numbers after going up in smoke at Chicagoland are impressive, and have been enough to stabilize Junior within the second grouping of championship contenders.
Kyle Busch wasn’t able to solve Kansas Speedway when the Gen-6 machines first raced there in April and his problems continued in the return trip. After hitting the wall during practice Saturday, he made a habit of it during Sunday’s event, wrecking on three occasions including a race-ending collision with the wall that relegated him to 34th.
The No. 18 team clearly wasn’t in tune with the level of setups that had Busch looking like a title threat through the first three Chase races. He was 24th in the average running order and recorded his second-worst driver rating of the season (second only to the STP 400 in Kansas City earlier this season).
Maybe this DNF was an isolated incident, or maybe it’s the continuance of a long line of botched races that date back to the beginning of Busch’s playoff history. He isn’t out of the picture by any means – a mere 35 points behind Kenseth – but another mistake of this caliber would do more than just dent championship hopes.
Now Busch returns to the site of another DNF, Charlotte, where the No. 18 lost an engine after leading 65 laps during the Coca-Cola 600. That can’t happen again for obvious reasons. Otherwise, many of his starts there have ended well, especially lately.
Stewart-Haas Racing is missing Tony Stewart right about now.
Ryan Newman was running on par with many of the other Chasers until being on the receiving end of a mistake by Justin Allgaier. The damage sustained by the No. 39 after colliding with Allgaier was severe enough to station the SHR team behind the wall for an extended period of time.
The rookie can’t be happy with the way his second career Sprint Cup race played out, but ultimately Newman paid the heavier price in terms of championship implications. He plummeted five spots to 12th in the standings, 73 points out of the lead.
Worse are his chances of regrouping at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The 1.5-mile track is home to one of Newman’s worst career average finishes (19.6), and he hasn’t won there in 25 starts.
For as bad as Newman’s day at Kansas was, teammate Danica Patrick’s was even more forgettable and far more short lived.
Patrick was caught in the middle of three-wide racing going into Turn 1 on the first lap and got loose, then over corrected and went head on into the outside wall. She officially tallied zero laps Sunday in what could easily be classified as her worst Sprint Cup experience to date.
That’s 20 finishes of 25th or worse this season and her fifth race ending wreck over that time frame.
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