Key Moment – Matt Kenseth slapped on two fresh tires, came out the leader with 49 laps left and became the de facto winner in an event where there were exactly two on-track, green-flag passes for the lead over the course of 400 miles – lap 1 and during a mid-race wreck.
In a Nutshell – Dorothy, Kansas changed since we left. Blown tires. Crash central. Aero crazy. Oh, my.
Dramatic Moment – When the No. 48 hit the wall, self-induced the collective shock from 90% of fans and media who had already anointed him six-time champion was so massive, it could have fended off a lightning strike.
The first few laps after every restart, with driver aggression amped up and the realization Kansas only allowed for 5-10 laps passing on fresh tires was pretty intense.
What They’ll Be Talking About Around The Water Cooler This Week
Ever hear the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears? For the first five races of the Chase, the porridge has been too cold: just 4.6 caution flags per race, most for debris as the cars run in a single-file parade. Sunday was a case of “too hot:” 14 yellow flags, two during cycles of green-flag stops because teams pushed the limits on tires and got burnt. Sure, the racing was better overall at Kansas, variable banking combined with new pavement that means the competition will only improve with time. But when you have only two on-track passes for the lead, under green-flag conditions and even those are a stretch you’ve still got a major aero problem.
I’ve been told the move to shy away from Danica Patrick as the center of GoDaddy’s future advertising campaign has some legs. Publicly, there’s some outright denials but in private there is an acknowledgement that not only is Patrick struggling on-track, the traction she once produced off it is a mere fraction of what it was during her peak years of IndyCar. Of course, intentionally wrecking a competitor, one who is running outside the top 25 no less (Landon Cassill), isn’t exactly the way to button up your image as a potential role model for young women. Sparkle Pony’s magic dust superpowers also appeared to backfire; when she sprinkled the “save” potion on her steering wheel, the car turned dead right and slammed hard into the outside wall. No wonder Greg Zipadelli was making owner Tony Stewart proud with the type of R-rated language that kept their driver/crew chief marriage functional for a decade!
Anyone find Rick Hendrick’s over-enthusiasm, then outright retraction for Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s return from injury a little bizarre? Hendrick came out, pom poms at the ready, just before the start of Sunday’s race and indicated on TV that Earnhardt had already been cleared to race at Martinsville next weekend. Truth is, no one knows that answer until he steps inside a race car for a full test at an undisclosed short track facility this week. Rumor has it that if dipping his toe back in doesn’t go well, Earnhardt might even be willing to sit the rest of the season rather than push it, with a focus on healing for February 2013. It was a comeback trail clearly laid out by Dr. Jerry Petty at Charlotte, where the doctor himself admitted sometimes you just won’t know where a driver stands until you get him back up to race pace; it’s a completely different environment than just functioning like a normal person each day. That reality forced Hendrick to apologize for this mistake on air, hours later, as the owner of the program marked a rare moment of sloppiness for someone who’s consistently praised for “being in touch” with his people. When it comes to your biggest source of income, the Most Popular Driver bringing in the most amount of sponsorship his status is simply something you should know…
Turns out fans aren’t the only one tired with the “cookie-cutter,” fuel mileage mentality on these 1.5-mile ovals. Denny Hamlin came out Friday and expressed his frustration with a system that’s seen the best way to pass shift from side-by-side action to what someone is thinking on top of the pit box. “You’re going to make up more positions with your strategy,” he said, “Than you will ever having a fast race car and a good driver.” Ouch. Hamlin also admitted, like others, his No. 11 team contending for the championship spent 120 laps of 334 at Charlotte–more than one-third of the event–running in fuel conservation mode. That’s nearly three green-flag pit stops’ worth of feathering the throttle in a way that’ll make fans… snooze. One hopes that somewhere, a five-alarm bell is going off, preferably in Brian France’s bedroom at odd hours of the night to alert someone of the urgency of the problem.
Sunday was a race in which the wave around removed chaos from an old equation. Twice, during cycles of green-flag stops, major contenders were caught a lap down after the yellow flag flew. It used to be the luck of the draw, meaning you lost that track position and had to earn it back the hard way: by restarting on the tail end of the lead lap and having to race the leader to stay ahead of him. Instead, this rule just gift-wrapped free laps for major contenders like Jimmie Johnson and Hamlin, minimizing the damage as they simply restarted at the rear of the next double-file restart. Bad luck used to add to Sprint Cup’s unpredictability and on-track aggression; but hey, why face adversity during a race when you can create as many free handouts as possible in the name of parity?
Kenseth did what he had to do, jumping to Joe Gibbs Racing for 2013 to salvage the next five-six years of his career. But after snagging two victories with a team that’s clearly not performing at its best over the final 10 races, at times you wonder if Kenseth’s thinking this move cost him a second Cup title. What if the Roush Fenway No. 17 team knew they were sticking together? It’s not often you get a gift of running through the Talladega carnage unscathed, straight to a trophy during NASCAR’s Chase.
In a major crew chief shakeup this week, the biggest news wasn’t Tony Gibson assigned to Patrick for 2013, but Matt Borland coming over to help out Ryan Newman and the No. 39. (Note: the changes are effective beginning at Martinsville this weekend.) Borland, when at Penske Racing, was the head wrench for Newman from 2002-06, during the driver’s most successful seasons (12 wins, 37 poles). I’ve always felt the plug was pulled prematurely there, Borland’s engineering knowledge ushering in a new era of Cup competition behind the scenes while clicking with the type of Hall of Fame chemistry in a driver you see once in a blue moon. Seeing the duo reconnected makes you wonder whether Newman won’t be the third wheel in 2013 at SHR after all…
The Hindenburg Award for Foul Fortune
Mark Martin had a car that appeared ready to run away and hide until a caution just after a green-flag stop, with 52 laps remaining sealed his fate. Losing a cylinder on the engine over the final 50 miles, shortly after earning that lost lap back (and half the positions dropped) added insult to injury. He finished 24th.
Aric Almirola had the race of his career, leading 69 laps and at times running away with the race in Richard Petty’s No. 43. But Goodyear’s tires, combined with a risky handling setup, bit the team not once, not twice, but three times as it led to spins and wrecks that took enough of a bite out of the car to send it packing inside the garage. 29th place, on a day when victory was possible, is not the finish you need when news items like your current company renewing with Ford don’t mention your name as part of the 2013 program (at least not yet).
AJ Allmendinger “had a phenomenal weekend,”:https://frontstretch.com/tbowles/41855/ qualifying 13th and even cracking the top five on several occasions with James Finch’s No. 51. But a blown tire left his car totaled and sitting in the garage before even 70 laps were complete; he wound up 35th in the final running order.
A transmission from Cassill‘s radio said it best re: Patrick‘s self-destruction of her No. 10. “Rule number one in stock car racing,” someone said. “Is to wreck someone without wrecking yourself.”
”The Seven Come For Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune
Johnson, for all intents and purposes, should have seen his title bid end with a trip into the turn 2 wall at Kansas. How crew chief Chad Knaus kept his cool, then pieced back together the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet under several caution flag periods without losing a lap, was one of the best orchestrated racing performances I’ve seen. Should this team catch Keselowski, they’ll point to this day, and the battered rear end of their race car (that still finished ninth) as where it all came together.
Kasey Kahne, despite being the polesitter, ran into all sorts of problems. His car would drop like a rock during the first ten laps of every green-flag run; the crew again churned out a series of slow stops; then, a call to save fuel under yellow left the engine shut off too long, the driver losing race pace and an overall drop of about four spots. To go through it all and come out fourth shows you how good they could have been up front under the right circumstances.
Regan Smith had an awful qualifying effort, starting 39th, but had the right amount of time and track position strategy to work himself into the top-10 finishers (see below). During the final 100 miles, despite a strong Kenseth restart Smith was as high as third/fourth and seemingly ready to put together a rare checkers-or-wreckers dash for the win.
Kenseth narrowly avoided disaster midrace when Almirola spun beside him on a restart, pushing the No. 17 Ford up into the wall on the backstretch. It was perhaps the most cosmetic damage you could sustain on a race car without having to pit for extended repairs.
- Kenseth (first) has now matched both his wins and top-five finish totals from 2011. Tell me why he’s leaving Roush again?
- Martin Truex Jr. (second) has two runner-up finishes this season – registered at both Kansas races, respectively.
- Paul Menard (third) had his best result (and first top five) since winning Indianapolis in July 2011.
- Kahne (fourth) has an average finish of 5.0 on the three intermediate tracks during the Chase.
- Smith (seventh) scored the best result for the No. 88 team since Atlanta Labor Day weekend.
- Kevin Harvick (11th) has no top-10 results during the Chase. He does, however, have five finishes between 11th and 13th place.
- Cassill (18th) scored his best finish since Michigan in June. Miss Sparkle Pony sure showed him!
- Timmy Hill (22nd) quietly scored a career-high Cup result as a rookie – and on the lead lap, no less.
- Your top-10 finishers drove six Chevys, two Toyotas, a Ford and a Dodge. Josh Wise, the lone full-time rookie contender attempting didn’t even qualify, so give your Rookie of the Race to whoever painted that yellow stripe on your friend’s car in a moment of (drunken) passion.
What’s the Points?
Keselowski, after all that mess, sees his lead stay steady at seven points ahead of Johnson. Hamlin, still third, is now 20 back and will need a victory at Martinsville to reassert himself back in the throes of title contention. Clint Bowyer, 25 markers back in fourth, and Kahne, who closed to within 30 after Kansas, remain your longshot picks at best. Should the three drivers ahead of them be in the same short track wreck Sunday, spending significant time in the garage area that’s the only way you can count either one back in the race.
In the “racing for pride” Chase division, Truex Jr.’s solid performance left him surging to sixth. Tony Stewart sits seventh, Jeff Gordon eighth while Kenseth sits a staggering 55 points behind in ninth. That’s his reward for having more victories in the playoffs (two) than any other Chaser… system flaw? Ya think?
Harvick, whose Chase highlight has been a trip to the doctor’s office to ensure he still had a pulse (report inconclusive) sits 10th. Greg Biffle, after his wreck is 11th, a dramatic fall which could make him the first regular season points champ to not even get a formal invitation to the postseason banquet at Las Vegas. Not Roush Fenway Racing’s finest moment…
Earnhardt Jr., having missed two races now due to post-concussion syndrome sits dead last (12th) in the postseason “tournament.”
Overall Rating (from one to six beers, with one being a total snoozer and a six-pack an A+ effort): Considering at some points during the event, racing consisted of actual side-by-side competition, even some that included a sense of urgency we’ll say this was one of the year’s better intermediate track events. The problem is, with how putrid the 1.5-mile ovals have been, that’s not saying much. Two beers, from the Friday Happy Hour Special menu, where the bar’s just trying to kick the oldest kegs in the back room before they turn skunked.
Next Up: The final short track race of the year, typically one of the most action-packed will be this Sunday at Martinsville, Va. Two words for that stop on the schedule: Thank God.