Who… gets my shoutout of the race?
It has to be difficult to know that you’ve run well almost everywhere you’ve raced, despite running for a part-time, underfunded team, and to still not know where you’ll be racing next year. That’s Ryan Blaney‘s reality; unless he’s picked up by an established team like Roush Fenway Racing or his current team goes full-time next year, he could be out in the cold, and despite his stellar racing this year, he doesn’t have funding for a full-time run in Xfinity or Trucks either. Blaney was impressive Sunday, starting and finishing in the top 10, outpacing a handful of championship contenders.
What… beyond the drivers’ control affected the action?
There was a round of green-flag pit stops. Then penalties put two top title contenders a lap down. Then a late-race caution changed things up. And while the rest of the field pitted for tires, Jimmie Johnson stayed on track. That move gave Johnson the race lead, and it also trapped Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. a lap down to the race leaders, who included two of Johnson’s teammates, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon, both of whom were struggling and needed to gain points to make the next cut. The question that then blazed across social media was did Johnson stay out to help his teammates?
A couple of things here. One, on the intermediate tracks, clean air is king, and Johnson had a fast car all day long but couldn’t quite get the track position needed to win the race. His team likely gambled that clean air would be more important than fresh rubber and lost. But two, even if they didn’t, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that type of teamwork. Johnson didn’t bring out the caution, intentionally or otherwise. He didn’t take anyone out so that his teammates would benefit. He didn’t roll over on the track to let them pass him for a point. He made a move that could have benefited them, but also himself. Had the gamble paid off, Johnson could have had his fifth win of the year and a Kansas sweep. It’s pretty hard to call that kind of a move dirty pool. If the Chase has gotten so over-arching that a driver not in contention shouldn’t try to win a race lest it interfere with the championship battle, the sport has a much bigger problem than a driver being a team player in a harmless manner.
Where… did the polesitter and the defending race winner wind up?
Brad Keselowski took the pole on Friday but on Sunday wasn’t quite as strong. Keselowski led the first 28 laps, but was never able to get back to the front afterward, and by mid-race was mired between 11th and 13th for much of the run. He rebounded to finish ninth, but hasn’t looked like a title favorite for some time.
Joey Logano, on the other hand, picked up right where he left off a year ago, winning the race for the second straight time and taking a guaranteed bye into the next round of the Chase away from a competitor in the process. As strong as the Joe Gibbs Racing stable is, it’s Logano who’s starting to have that championship look.
When… did it all go sideways?
There were a lot of drivers with issues this week: Austin Dillon with a single-car, race-ending crash; Earnhardt Jr. with another loose wheel costing him; Harvick and Truex both with costly pit road penalties, and Clint Bowyer with a wicked crash that lifted his wheels clean off the ground. But the driver for whom Kansas mirrored a dismal season was Tony Stewart. Stewart, who hasn’t been the same driver since a devastating leg injury over two years ago, was simply looking for a solid top-15 finish to build from after qualifying 17th, but a lap 64 spin knocked the wind from his sails; Stewart went on to finish six laps down in 35th, and the three-time champion dropped to 27th in points, behind drivers he used to beat handily on a weekly basis.
Why… did Joey Logano win the race?
That depends on your point of view. Logano got into the back of Matt Kenseth‘s dominant racecar in the closing laps, sending Kenseth spinning. While it didn’t look intentional, it did look avoidable, and Logano didn’t appear to do anything to avoid it. But to call Kenseth blameless isn’t accurate either. Logano did have a faster car on that crucial run, and Kenseth forgot an important fact of racing life: you usually have one chance to throw a block. If you try to throw a second one, it often ends in disaster. Kenseth blocked Logano low and then blocked him back all the way to the top groove. Disaster ensued for Kenseth, who was already in an almost certain must-win situation to make the next cut in the Chase. Logano could have backed off and avoided sending Kenseth around, but he’s racing for the title and is smart enough that if Kenseth didn’t win, a major obstacle to the title would be eliminated. Should he have backed out anyway? He likely had time to make another run at Kenseth. Was it a dirty move? It was certainly an aggressive one, but dirty is a bit of a stretch.
How… did the little guys do?
The three best:
Ryan Blaney: Wood Brothers Racing: Blaney has been quietly impressive on a limited schedule; this week he made a real statement. The bitter pill for this team to swallow is that if franchising happens (and it’s almost a certainty that it will), they’ll be forced to either race full-time in 2016 and stretch their limited budget if more sponsorship is not found, or have to race for one of about four spots in what may well also be a reduced field. That’s tough to take for the sport’s oldest still-operating team, and means real uncertainty for Blaney. And even if Team Penske expands, Blaney may be no better off; it’s been rumored that franchises will be awarded by a team’s (not the organization’s) longevity in the sport, which once again would leave Blaney hanging.
Martin Truex Jr.: Furniture Row Racing: (Note: The No. 33, driven by Brian Scott, finshed 12th, but was a full Richard Childress Racing entry with Scott, though Joe Falk is still listed as the owner. They’re included on the chart for continuity but not featured here.) A pit-road penalty for an uncontrolled tire cost Truex a better finish; he’d been running in the top 10 before having to serve a pass-through for the violation, which happened during a green-flag stop. He’s still in the top eight headed to Talladega… but, well, it’s Talladega. Truex doesn’t deserve to be eliminated just yet, and he’s a good plate racer, but he’s not nearly as comfortable as he was just a week ago.
Casey Mears: Germain Racing: Mears and this team have become the cream of the small team crop this year with the exception of the No. 78, who has risen to elite status. Mears pounded the wall during his qualifying run, resulting in a 38th-place time for his warm-up lap, and adding insult to injury, the team was forced to pull out the backup and start dead last. Mears is a smooth, careful driver who rarely makes that kind of mistake. A year or two ago, going to the backup would likely have meant a backmarker finish, but this week, Mears raced back to finish 23rd. He’s ahead of better-funded drivers in points, including Danica Patrick, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Stewart while looking for his best points finish since 2009, when he raced for RCR.
All the rest
|21||Ryan Blaney||Wood Brothers Racing||Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford||8th||7th
Has consistently qualified very well and backed it up Sunday
|33||Brian Scott||Circle Sport||Shore Lodge Chevy||16th||12th
RCR entry when Scott is driving
|78||Martin Truex Jr.||Furniture Row Racing||Furniture Row/Visser Precision Chevy||7th||15th
Issues with a vibration late in the race; uncontrolled tire penalty on stop with 50 to go
|13||Casey Mears||Germain Racing||GEICO Chevy||38th||23rd
Started last in backup car after hard crash in qualifying; led two laps; unhappy with Stenhouse during final caution
|51||Justin Allgaier||HScott Motorsports||Brandt Chevy||30th||26th
Battled a car that was loose, then tight; got into the wall, bringing out caution with under 30 to go
|47||AJ Allmendinger||JTG Daugherty Racing||Dillons/Bush’s Beans Chevy||27th||27th
Got into wall in practice; did not go to backup
|83||Matt DiBenedetto||BK Racing||VooDoo BBQ Toyota||34th||30th
Another young driver who needs experience and seat time… he’s very, very talented
|7||Alex Bowman||Tommy Baldwin Racing||Accell Construction Chevy||32nd||31st
Bowman has shown promise this year for sure; team still needs resources
|34||Brett Moffitt||Front Row Motorsports||Dockside Logistics Ford||35th||32nd
of a loose racecar; was unsure why the adjustments they made caused it
|35||Cole Whitt||Front Row Motorsports||Rich Logistics Ford||39th||33rd
Team worked to correct handling throughout the race
|46||Michael Annett||HScott Motorsports||TMC Transportation Chevy||37th||34th
Fought handling coming out of corners
|38||David Gilliland||Front Row Motorsports||Love’s Travel Stops Ford||33rd||36th
At one point reported that his car was hit with something thrown out the window of the No. 43
|23||Jeb Burton||BK Racing||Dr. Pepper Toyota||40th||37th
Have to feel for Burton; he needs more experience in lower series but is a very talented driver
|98||Reed Sorenson||Premium Motorsports||Chevy||42nd||38th
Owner Jay Robinson needs to reevaluate this program; never consistently good in NXS; not Sorenson’s fault. Pit penalty for removing equipment
|32||Will Kimmel||GO FAS Racing||Loss Prevention Group Ford||43rd||39th
Driver merry-go-round continues; team needs stability. Pit road penalties Sunday for speeding and uncontrolled tire
|26||JJ Yeley||BK Racing||Honey Creek Outfitters/Maxim Toyota||36th||42nd
Swapping cars with Burton hasn’t changed results very much. Spun on lap 30; did get back on track to finish
|40||Landon Cassill||Hillman-Smith Motorsports||Carsforsale.com Chevy||41st||43rd
Disappointing day after engine failure just 127 laps into the race
|62||Timmy Hill||Premium Motorsports||Ford||DNQ||—||—||N/A|