In essence, it was everything NASCAR’s newest Chase for the Sprint Cup format exemplifies, for better or worse.
Running inside of the top 5 all three of the drivers involved in the highlighted crash of Saturday’s race found themselves with an outside shot at victory with 27 laps remaining at Kansas Speedway.
In the past, running inside the top 5 would be enough to qualify as a good day. Many drivers of previous eras would be content to settle for a top-5 run, especially after a day like Hamlin’s where the Virginian was forced to overcome two speeding penalties.
In the modern era of NASCAR, though? Top 5s don’t matter, at least not to drivers that already have wins like Hamlin and Keselowski.
Sail that car into the turn. Don’t lift until you see Jesus. Hope and pray that the car finds grip to make it to the next one.
Such was the mindset of Hamlin as he dueled for a spot inside of the top four, searching to gain crucial track position in the event there was another restart in the race’s final laps.
The result? In this case, a multi-car crash that took out Hamlin and Joey Logano while also damaging others, including Keselowski and Larson.
“I was going for it and I wasn’t letting off,” said Hamlin after the incident. “The No. 42 (Larson) was just too close up there. We were trying to clear each other and I just got loose.”
Damn. It didn't work. Sorry to @KyleLarsonRacin and other guys that got in it. I was going for it and it just didn't pan out.
— Denny Hamlin (@dennyhamlin) May 8, 2016
Five years ago, sailing a car in that deep for anything other than the lead would likely be frowned upon. The unlikeliness that the move would lead to victory and few potential points gained wouldn’t be justifiable when compared to the hemorrhaged points from a crash.
Now, however? The move makes total sense.
Hamlin’s dive-bomb isn’t likely to gain him many fans after the crash, but settling for fourth would gain him virtually nothing on the Chase grid.
With a win in the season-opening Daytona 500, Hamlin’s been essentially locked into the Chase from the beginning of the year. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver’s only mission from now until September’s Chase opener at Chicagoland Speedway is to try to rack up victories, accumulating bonus points and confidence heading into the Chase.
Good points days? They don’t matter anymore. The goal is a victory every week, no matter the cost. If you wreck yourself or someone else in the process, oh, well. On to the next one.When the checkered flag finally fell after 400 miles in Kansas, the ones who suffered most from Hamlin and Keselowski’s accidents were Logano and, on a much worse note, Larson.
While he hasn’t won yet, Logano is still sitting in a good position in the point standings. The Team Penske driver sits seventh on the grid, good enough to make the Chase with ease even without a victory.
Larson, on the other hand, isn’t doing so well.
Now in his third season with Chip Ganassi Racing, Larson’s early promise has given way to nagging inconsistency. The California driver has excelled with top 10s at Daytona International Speedway and Martinsville Speedway; however, six finishes outside of the top 20 have him sitting 21st in the standings after 11 races.
For Larson, a good points day would’ve been huge at Kansas. A top 5 result on the intermediate oval could’ve drawn him within 30 points of the current Chase grid. Instead, Saturday’s crash has him sitting 52 markers behind 16th place Ryan Blaney in the standings.
Considering CGR hasn’t won a race in nearly three years, Larson’s best bet to make his first Chase is to sneak in on points. After Hamlin’s accident on Saturday, accomplishing that feat just got a little bit harder.
For Larson and the other winless drivers in the paddock, trying to race their way into the Chase has become a delicate balance of conservative driving and aggression. Aggression can yield phenomenal results, even a Chase-clinching victory if the stars align just right. However, a conservative approach can be just as effective at reaching the playoff, as proven by drivers such as Paul Menard and Jamie McMurray.
With the right level of aggression and a little luck, Larson could have been the one in Victory Lane on Saturday. Knowing that, the CGR driver gave Kansas everything he had. Unfortunately for him, it didn’t work out. Now he’s sitting more than a full race out on points, leaving himself little margin for error going forward. Of course, if trying to make the Chase on points ultimately proves impossible, Larson can always crank up the aggression and try to steal a win along the way.
Such is the world of NASCAR we live in today. Points racing still has a place for those with supreme consistency and a dash of luck; however, a win is the ultimate trump card, holding more value than it ever has.
Fans who clamored for wins to have more importance have gotten exactly what they wanted, often at the expense of those that prefer consistency. Both groups do have one thing in common, though. If their driver doesn’t win, there’s only one thing to say.
Oh, well. On to the next one.