Who…gets my shoutout of the race?
Are you among those who think that Tony Stewart’s win at Sonoma was a little too convenient? Well, maybe not so fast. Stewart showed top-5 prowess again this week, moving steadily up through the field all night to finish fifth. Stewart showed patience and good strategy en route to his second top 5 in three races (and he was headed in that direction at Daytona as well before a crash took him out of contention). Summer is Stewart’s best time of the year, and he’s showing that he’s still got chops. Perhaps he’s not the driver he was in his three-title prime, but he’s looking the best he has in recent memory in the last month or so.
What…is the takeaway from this race?
Kentucky wasn’t the best place to test changes to the cars and tires. After Saturday night, it’s safe to say that new rules + new tires + new pavement = maybe not a great idea. There were a lot of incidents (at least it wasn’t Daytona, where there would have been a lot of big incidents), and the racing wasn’t improved enough to justify the triple experiment. Yes, Kentucky is the only cookie-cutter left before the Chase, but we’ve seen time and again that repaving tracks makes for racing that highlights aerodynamic dependency and track position are still too important if teams can’t really race each other. The repave, combined with a tied track record for cautions, just wasn’t a good proving ground for a racing package that showed promise earlier this season.
Where…did the pole sitter and the defending race winner wind up?
Kevin Harvick had the dominant car Saturday night, leading five times for 128 total laps, but when he pitted from the lead and rolled through his pit box during a green-flag stop, Harvick lost precious seconds backing up into his box. Harvick had time to overcome that, but he couldn’t make his fuel cell any bigger, and it ran dry before the checkers waved. Harvick scored a top 10, coming home ninth, and will leave with the points lead, but it’s still a bitter pill to swallow after the night he had.
Kyle Busch was the favorite entering the weekend, a position bolstered by his win in the XFINITY Series race Friday night. But Busch couldn’t quite find that old Kentucky magic Saturday. He didn’t add to his series-leading laps led total and didn’t have enough in the tank to make a late charge, settling for 12th.
When…did it all go sideways?
Whether it was the slick green track, the changed car package or something else, it was holy attrition, Batman Saturday night– eight cars failed to finish and several others limped home with damage from contact with other cars and the wall. The track was unforgiving to all, and the rookies, who have been stellar this season, didn’t have beginner’s luck on their side this time. Jeffrey Earnhardt, running for the hapless Go FAS Racing team, won Rookie of the Race honors because he avoided trouble. Perpetual title favorites Jimmie Johnson and Joey Logano were among the carnage, and they were far from alone. Races need some attrition for sure—it’s a lack of risk that leads to boredom—but it would be nice if less of it came from crashes.
Perhaps the least lucky of all, though, was a race fan whose pickup truck caught fire in the parking lot during the race, and the owners of the cars around it which also suffered damage. The fan was rescued from his truck, but his vehicle was a loss. There was speculation that the propane grill the fan had with him was the culprit, but witnesses said the fire happened inside the truck’s cab. The grill looked like it fared better than the truck. Here’s hoping the fan will be alright and that those whose vehicles were involved were able to get safely home after the race.
— Chris Knight (@Knighter01) July 10, 2016
Why…did Brad Keselowski win the race?
The first half of 2016 looked deceptively quiet for the 2012 series champ, but there were hints of a sleeping dragon beneath the surface as Keselowski brought home a pair of wins early. And while the Toyotas dominated the early part of the season, the Ford camp has gotten stronger all season long with both Team Penske and a resurgent Roush Fenway Racing only getting better. Now, all the ingredients are coming together and Keselowski is at the top of his game as the season steams toward the Chase. His four wins lead the series.
Keselowski’s win didn’t come easily, though, and he probably had about the third-best car in the Bluegrass State. He won because his team didn’t make any mistakes, while Kevin Harvick overshot his pit and lost precious track position and Martin Truex, Jr. incurred a pit road penalty forcing him to race back through the field, and in doing so, Truex burned through his fuel and tires, forcing a late stop. Strategy almost bit Keselowski, whose engine hiccuped coming to the white flag as it ran nearly dry, but the driver was able to coax enough fuel through the lines to stay in front of Carl Edwards to the wire.
How…easy would it be to put a stop to penalties like Martin Truex, Jr. got on Saturday?
Very. If you missed, it, Truex was penalized for speeding up as he approached his pit, in the process passing Kevin Harvick on the left side. That’s a no-no for safety reasons (had Harvick’s pit been before Truex’s, it could have led to a nasty crash right among pit crews not protected by a roll cage), but it could be easily remedied.
The current pit road speed system uses a driver’s average speed in set sections of pit lane to determine speed. As a consequence, drivers play the timing lines to their advantage, going as fast as they can in the segment where their pit stalls are, knowing that the pit stop itself means there’s no way they will be too fast in that area. That’s why Truex sped up. But with improved timing and scoring equipment in the sport, simply using actual speeds the entire length of pit road would put an end to the jockeying that got Truex penalized (though he says he’s seen it on a weekly basis). It would mean less room for error, because a driver couldn’t simply hit the brakes for half a segment if he’s a little fast coming in, but it would end any confusion on where they can and cannot speed up, and that would make pit road safer in the end. For the purists out there, it wouldn’t necessitate speedometers, though they’d make things easier for drivers and could easily be added to the digital dashboards. It’s a change that makes sense as technology evolves.
Finally, how come the small teams aren’t in what’s became their usual place this week? Have no fear, the underdogs are still here (see what I did there?); they’ll have their very own feature column on Tuesdays, so stay tuned for The Underdog House.