The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Kansas Speedway was one for the history books, as the track hosted its first-ever night race for the series. After running an eventful Camping World Truck Series race the night before, there were many high expectations for the Saturday night race.
While the race didn’t fail to live up to the hype, it was eventful for reasons both on and off the track. From weather conditions, to equipment failure, to drivers surprising everyone, the first night race at Kansas Speedway had a lot to offer in terms of storylines.
Oh, and the racing didn’t hurt either.
Mother Nature had other plans. Dark clouds and giant thunderheads were surrounding the racetrack from early afternoon until late in the evening, right up until the command was given. Sprinkles turned to raindrops as NASCAR decided to put the race into a holding pattern, with severe weather potentially moving into the area. Fans were asked to leave the grandstands as there was lightning in the area and teams covered their cars, sometimes with the drivers still in them, to keep the cars dry.
Interestingly enough, the severe part of the storm skirted by the racetrack and nothing heavier than a light rain ever fell. Despite that, as NASCAR finally gave the command to start engines and allowed the cars to roll out onto the track, many of the drivers were still reporting drops on the car and spotters were feeling moisture up on the spotter’s stand.
Even then, NASCAR threw the green with light rain still falling, but it eventually went away. Though there was a high chance for severe storms the rest of the evening, any rain chances dissipated as the night went out and the race went off without a hitch weather-wise the rest of the evening.
Lights Go Out
The weather was hardly the biggest issue of the night once the race got started. Considering this was the first night race, the lights were an essential part of the evening. Unfortunately, no one told the lights that, because in the middle of the race, the lights on the backstretch went dark.
The race was under a yellow flag when the lights went out, but the drivers weren’t bothered by it and NASCAR deemed it safe enough to race. For several laps afterwards, the cars were racing on a dark backstretch, with a clearly visible difference between the turns, which were all safely lit, and the backstretch, which was pitch black. Eventually, though, the lights did come back on and there were no further issues.
Hopefully, though, as Kansas continues to host more night races, the lights are a part of the title and not the headlines.
A lot of names were thrown around for Saturday night’s race as to who would be a threat to win — Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards. Even eventual race winner Gordon was expected to be a threat. No real surprises in terms of predictions.
Yet no one predicted the bright neon green Chevrolet of Danica Patrick would be as competitive as it was. Patrick, who was described as “very impressive” and “aggressive” in her driving style by Gordon after the race, ran as high as third at one point. It wasn’t because of fuel mileage or green flag pit stops. She wasn’t there by luck or fluke; Patrick raced her way into the top five with a fast racecar and her own driving ability, and the other drivers took notice.
Patrick eventually finished seventh, her best career finish and only the ninth time inNASCAR history that a female driver has earned a top-10 finish. Patrick’s last top-10 result was in the 2013 Daytona 500, a track much different that Kansas Speedway.
Perhaps Patrick’s most impressive moment was on around lap 172 when she passed both Dale Earnhardt Jr. and team owner Tony Stewart — at the same time — for the third position. It was not only an aggressive move but an admittedly very veteran-like move for the driver who is only in her sophomore year at Stewart-Haas Racing. Impressive, but wholly unexpected.
Let’s be honest; fuel mileage races at intermediate racetracks aren’t exactly unheard of. With harder tires and an aero package that limits passing, it hasn’t been unusual for crew chiefs to gamble and stay out on the track while, more cautious (and perhaps realistic) competitors opt to play it safe — at the expense of track position.
While that wasn’t completely different on Saturday night, the race was unpredictable in that the entire race involved strange pit stops and put dominant drivers way in the back of the field. Around lap 110, Marcos Ambrose’s spin created a scenario in which Harvick was trapped a lap down and, once he got the free pass, the tail end of the lead lap. Even though he was able to slowly but surely work his way back up to the lead, Harvick ran out of gas coming to pit road, which gave Gordon the advantage he needed to pull away from Harvick. Two issues involving pit road likely cost Harvick, who led 119 laps, the race win.
That wasn’t the only strange happening involving pit road, though. As mentioned before, fuel mileage played a role in the ending of the race, which meant that teams were strategizing and gambling in order to have a shot at the win. As the laps wound down, though, it became obvious that a caution was becoming less and less likely. With less than 10 laps to go, drivers like Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski were still on pit road as Harvick and Gordon edged closer and closer to the front. Normally, with 10 laps to go, you are watching a battle for the lead. At Kansas, fans were watching pit road with an eye on the coming leaders.
Kansas, despite the wreckfest of the last fall race at the track, is not known for being an actual wreckfest. Of course there were occasional races with seemingly endless caution flags, but, for the most part. Kansas is a tamer racetrack. It’s known more for its long green flag runs than its tendency for trouble.
Though Saturday night’s race didn’t even come close to the record amount of cautions at the track — 15 — the wrecks were much more jaw-dropping than those at Kansas in recent memory. For instance, while the lights were off on the backstretch, McMurray lit up the night sky as he slid up into the outside wall with a tire issue. The right front of the car was almost instantly engulfed with flames and stayed that way from turn three until McMurray pulled onto the entrance of pit road. Though McMurray was unharmed, it certainly was a spectacle.
While McMurray’s was a single-car accident, a couple of multi-car incidents were cringe-worthy. In only the second caution of the night on lap 61, David Ragan got loose and collected three other cars in the melee with some hard hits by those involved. With all four cars coming from smaller teams, it was one of those incidents that was hard to watch simply because you know how much more those cars mean to those teams.
Perhaps the most vicious hit of the night, though, came from Justin Allgaier. No, scratch that. Definitely the most vicious hit came from Allgaier, who hit the wall after contact from Allmendinger in mid-spin. After sliding back up onto the racing surface from the infield, Gilliland was unable to slow down before smacking into Allgaier on the passenger side so hard that the sound of crushed sheet metal could be heard all around the track. Both Gilliland and Allgaier were out of breath after the impact, but both walked away and were OK after the incident.
Still, the wreck was reminiscent more of a Talladega-type wreck than Kansas. Though the wrecks were just a part of some hard racing throughout the field, the wrecks were definitely an unexpected part of the night.