Who’s in the headline – The new aerodynamic package that debuted at Kentucky will receive much of the press this week. The driver that looked best at adapting to that package this weekend was Kyle Busch. Busch dominated at Kentucky Speedway, leading more than half of the laps and capitalizing on the lesser aero dependence of the cars to make a late race pass for the lead, under green. Busch now has two wins for the season and needs to simply focus on making the top 30 in points in order to qualify for the Chase.
What happened – Brad Keselowski grabbed the lead early and shared the bulk of the lap leading duties with Busch, although he led less than half of the eventual race winner’s total. Denny Hamlin had a brief foray at the front and Joey Logano made a late race push after a restart to snatch the win away from Busch, however the No. 18 was too stout and chased down Logano, reassuming the lead with 20 laps to go and never looking back. NASCAR proved to be overly anxious with the caution flag once again, throwing it three times for drivers simply brushing the wall.
Why you should care – For the first time in a while, a car that was a mere 0.2 seconds faster than the leader was actually able to catch up and then pass the leader. While there were only three legitimate, on-track passes for the lead, the fact that is that a car that wasn’t half of a second faster than the leader was still able to catch and pass a car with track position. After years of screwing up the racing, this package was at least a small step in the direction of fixing it.
What your friends are talking about – In what is typical NASCAR logic, qualifying was “rained out” at Kentucky, yet a practice for the field who was to compete in the event was held one hour prior to that scheduled qualifying time. Three teams were sent home based on their number of qualifying attempts without even having the opportunity that could have been afforded to them if NASCAR had run qualifying instead of that inane practice session. With the amount of resources invested by a team traveling to a racetrack for a Cup event, they should at least be given a chance to try and qualify if it is at all possible. Teams certainly needed some practice time to test the new package, but putting the best field on the track should have taken precedence over giving the 43 chosen some seat time.
Kyle Busch is 87 points out of Chase eligibility. There are eight races until the cut-off. Basic math says 11 points per race gets him in, and Busch made up 41 points Saturday night, so 87 hardly seems like it is going to be difficult for him to overcome. With that said, there will be a portion of the fanbase that will not be able to stomach the thought of a driver missing 11 races and having a shot at the championship. That portion will grow more vocal if Busch is able to advance to the third or fourth round of the playoffs.
Close but no cigar for Jeff Gordon at Kentucky. In Gordon’s long and distinguished career, he has won at every track on the schedule except Kentucky. He also has wins at Rockingham and North Wilkesboro. Unfortunately for Gordon, with his impending retirement, he will not notch wins at every track on the schedule. Gordon had initially stated that he was not retiring, just cutting back from a full-time schedule, but since then he has stated that he does not anticipate racing any more. In the modern world of Cup racing, even if he does come back for some one-off races, like at Kentucky, his possibilities of victory are minute.
Steve O’Donnell, Vice President and Chief Racing Development Officer for NASCAR spelled it out in not so many words this week that NASCAR is all about the money and the fans who come to the track don’t matter. “I don’t think so,” O’Donnell said. “I think the sport is so big now and there are so many partners that are involved. I know it might be easier to look at an 11 a.m. start. It’s our job to look at all factors to grow the sport as much as we can and make it as fan friendly as possible.” That was his response to an inquiry about moving the July Daytona race back to a morning start time. We saw last week that they don’t give two shakes of a rat’s tail about fans when they started the race at 11:42 p.m. ET. Clearly it was about something other than the fans, both at the track and watching on TV, dropping the flag and knowing that there was no way the race could end before 2:00 a.m. Forget that daytime racing is better. Discount that fans actually work normal hours for a living and can’t stay at the track through the all but guaranteed rain delays that come with a night race in the summer at Daytona. NASCAR will cash those fat checks from the advertisers and TV networks and the fans can stay or go, it really doesn’t matter.
Who is mad – Kyle Larson started on pole Saturday night but slipped back to the rear of the top 10 rather early in the event. He wallowed in that region of the field until he bounced his car off of the wall and cut a rear tire on the bent sheetmetal. He ultimately lost two laps after a second cut tire and what started as a promising night turned into a 35th-place run.
Martin Truex Jr. looked poised to go on a run of wins after he finally put the No. 78 into Victory Lane at Pocono. He followed that with a third-place run at Michigan but has now had runs of 42nd, 38th and 17th. Truex is solidly in the Chase even if he doesn’t win again but few people saw the team turning South this badly after finally getting over the winning hump.
Aric Almirola started 12th and drove 400 miles on Saturday night. After all of the passes, strategy calls, pit stops and restarts he came home in 12yj position. It is almost like kissing your sister when you drive your guts out, putting your heart and soul into the effort and don’t finish any better or worse than where you started.
Who is happy – Joe Gibbs has got to be a happy man. The race ended with him in Victory Lane looking out at his four other drivers who finished third, fourth and fifth. There was much discussion early in the year if anyone was going to be able to challenge Hendrick and affiliates or Penske. It absolutely looks like the folks at JGR are going to have their helmets in the ring when the trophy is handed out in Homestead.
Speaking of happy owners, Jack Roush has to be at least happier after Saturday night. The Roush Fenway gang has not been setting the world on fire this year. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. came home in 11th this week, just one spot from a top-10 run. Trevor Bayne was three spots from posting his third top 10 in four races and Greg Biffle went from 27th to 16th. It isn’t contending for a win but it is a solid step in the right direction.
Keselowski was in contention for the win until late in the race. He led the most laps of any race he’s run all season. He scored his second top six since Texas, the seventh race of the season. He knows that it isn’t about where you run now but where you run in the Chase, however you want to be trending in the right direction. This weekend might indicate that he’s heading in the right direction.
When the checkered flag flew:
Busch’s win at Kentucky was his 31st career win in 372 starts. It is his second victory of the season and second career triumph at Kentucky in five races. Busch is 23rd on the all-time wins list. He is one behind Dale Jarrett and Matt Kenseth for 21st.
Logano’s runner-up run was his second top-two finish of the season. This was Logano’s first career top-two at Kentucky. Logano has three career second-place runs.
Hamlin crossed the line in third place for his third podium of the season and his second in two races. Hamlin has two career third-place finishes at Kentucky. This was Hamlin’s 70th career top three, which ranks him 36th all-time.
Kevin Harvick, Logano, Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson, Hamlin, Kenseth, Kurt Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards, Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch all have wins in 2015. Harvick, Johnson, Earnhardt and Kurt Busch are locked into the Chase assuming they attempt the rest of the races or receive an exemption should they miss any events thanks to multiple wins. Kyle Busch will be locked in assuming he can make it into the top 30 in points, which would mean down to 14th in points would make it in.
The drivers who are currently eligible for the Chase after 18 races without wins and their standing in points:
10) Jeff Gordon
12) Kasey Kahne
13) Paul Menard
14) Ryan Newman
15) Clint Bowyer
Takin’ it to the Bank:
Cup winners this year have pocketed $6,534,281, while the last-place finisher has taken home $1,485,607 in 18 races
In the Xfinity Series, after 16 races it has been $1,274,324 for the winners and $230,686 for last place.
After 10 Truck races, the winner has $555,330 and the last loser has banked $101,595.
What is in the cooler
The new rules package made from some tremendously exciting restarts, which is just more of the same that we’ve seen all year long. In the end Busch was able to pass Logano on the track, with an only slightly better car. That is the first time we’ve seen that in quite some time. That made it a slightly better than average race solely on that face. We’ll give it four chilled Hudepohls.
Where do you point your DVR for next week – Next week the series heads to New England to run for the giant lobster. The Cup series hits New Hampshire Motor Speedway at 1:30 p.m. Sunday June 19th. The race can be seen on NBCSN. If you would like to listen along it is on your local PRN affiliate or SiriusXM NASCAR Channel 90