Who… gets my shoutout of the race?
Intermediate tracks like Kansas are rarely kind to lesser-funded single-car teams, but this week, one of those teams broke up the party at the front for much of the weekend, including late in the race. AJ Allmendinger had a fast car, as evidenced by his 10th-place start, and he used good pit strategy and a little luck to run with the leaders, particularly in the second half, and drove to an eighth-place finish at a track where he has four top-10 finishes but also a 19.5 average finish. The No. 47 team has had flashes of brilliance this season, and Allmendinger has been strong on ovals of all sizes to augment his road course prowess.
What… is the takeaway from this race?
Over the last couple of years, it’s kind of become apparent that the first two rounds of the Chase’s elimination format are more about not screwing up than about winning races. Yes, winning is important in that it guarantees moving on, but in these rounds, a bad finish seemingly hurts more than a good one helps. Kansas was perhaps the race that will determine who moves on in this round as Charlotte morphed into a messy situation and Talladega is more about being in the right place at the right time, and that showed in that other than the teams who were near or below the cut line, the other Chase teams seemed unwilling to take any risks. There was a little friction between Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards and a racing incident between Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski, but it was tame.
Depending on which side of the Chase debate you fall, it’s either exciting to see who’s going to mess up this week and lose their chance at a title, or it’s disheartening to see a championship that should be decided by sustained excellence decided more by who didn’t mess up as opposed to who was willing to take risks. Of course, the reality of a full season of racing is that minimizing damage is always important, but that ramps up in the Chase, and it does raise questions of what the title hunt should be about.
Where… did the pole-sitter and the defending race winner wind up?
Matt Kenseth had an up and down day. He started up front and dominated early, but keeping up with the track proved difficult and he slapped the wall trying to keep up with it. Kenseth fell back to the bottom of the top 20 in a lackluster second half. He rallied to finish ninth, and he’s as safe as anyone in the Chase heading to a Talladega elimination can be—a far sight better than a year ago.
Joey Logano has struggled to find the magic he had in 2015. At times, the Ford camp has looked like they’ve hit on something, but it seems to be isolated to a few races. Logano didn’t have a bad run Sunday, finishing third—and he hasn’t been bad all year—but it’s hard to say he had a great one, either. He was strong enough to run in the top 5 for much of the day but never looked like a contender…which about sums up his season.
When… did it all go sideways?
Kansas didn’t feature a lot of hairy on-track action (there will be plenty of that next week, though, don’t you fret), but there were some moments, the biggest of which seemed to come for the Chase contenders. Denny Hamlin had front end issues by lap 35, but benefited from an Aric Almirola spin only to have a couple of pit penalties before he wound up 15th, on the lead lap, on a day that could have gone much worse.
Fueling problems put Martin Truex, Jr. not only out of contention but a lap down for a chunk of the day. A free pass got Truex back on the lead lap but he couldn’t climb higher than 11th. Meanwhile, Chase Elliott had multiple issues with cut left rear tires, leading to speculation that his team was trying a different rear-end geometry, and two bad weeks in a row will likely cost Elliott a chance to advance in the Chase (though to give credit where it’s due, NASCAR made a great call not throwing a caution for Elliott late in the race when he made it to the apron without shedding debris on track).
The worst blow of the day came to Brad Keselowski, who got spun by Hamlin and ended up with a destroyed No. 2 car that was unable to finish the race. The crash dropped Keselowski from a seemingly safe fourth in points to a not-so-safe 11th. It’s still hard to say that any but Elliott is out of the running without a win at Talladega, though, because it’s so easy to gain or lose a few spots there in the space of one lap.
Why… did Kevin Harvick win the race?
It was a case of everything coming together when it needed to. Harvick was strong enough to run near the front, and a late caution gave him a chance to lead, which in turn gave him a chance to win, and he made the most of it. He said earlier this season that he’d face the Chase like a raging bull, and he did, but he didn’t win by simply charging through, scattering the competition—he took his time and got to the front when he could, and from there he hung on. It was a race where aggression paid off, but his tactics were far from blind aggression. It was exactly the race he needed to have, and his team made it happen. That’s not something you might have seen from Harvick in his early days, but it was championship form on this one.
How… much has the Chase picture changed at the halfway mark?
At the end of NASCAR’s regular season, it seemed as thought he Chase would go much like the first 26 races had, with dominance from the Toyota camp. The five factory-backed Toyota teams (Joe Gibbs Racing’s four teams and single-car Furniture Row Racing) won a full 50% of those races in a thoroughly dominating fashion, and while a few others made some noise as summer drew to a close, there was no reason to think the Chase would be much different.
And in some ways, it hasn’t been — the Toyotas have 40 percent of the wins, with both of their victories in the first round and both coming out of the Furniture Row stable. Poised to dominate at Kansas, none of them did, with Kevin Harvick taking his second Chase win to the bank. In the process, Denny Hamlin fell below the cut line, yet it’s hard to say that it was a bad day, with two top 5s and three top 10s. And that’s kind of how this Chase is playing out: They’re no longer the only kids in the sandbox. Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick are making some real waves, but it’s hard to say it’s not going to be a JGR/FRR year. It’s just no longer the sure thing so many thought it would be.
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