Who… should you be talking about after the race?
Brad Keselowski only led twice for a total of 12 laps Saturday night at Kansas Speedway, but he made the second time count, beating a determined Alex Bowman to the checkered flag by a mere .203 seconds. Keselowski took the lead for the final time with a veteran move, using Bowman’s preferred high line to pass the No. 88 by forcing Bowman to contend with lapped traffic in the lower groove before surviving an overtime restart to win.
The pair had fairly equal cars, and the battle for the win was furious for the better part of the last 50 laps, but Keselowski showed why he’s a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion, thinking ahead to let traffic hold up Bowman. Had lapped traffic not have been an issue, the outcome may have been different, and that’s what makes Keselowski a threat anywhere his car can run with the leaders (which is just about everywhere): his ability to think his way through a situation to make it work in his favor. His three wins in 2019 match Kyle Busch for the series lead, and Team Penske as a whole is as strong as anyone. He’s a title threat, no mistake about it.
Speaking of Bowman, the young driver was visibly and understandably disappointed after the race. Kansas marks the third race in 2019 and the third in a row that he’s fallen just one spot short of a win. It looks as though Hendrick Motorsports as a whole is beginning to turn a corner, and Bowman has shown a new level of maturity on the track this year.
Remember a year ago when Bowman’s teammate Chase Elliott was racking up second-place runs? It was only a matter of time until Elliott found the winner’s circle, and when he did, he won three races last year. Bowman has that same look in 2019. He’s on the verge of a win, and it’s looking more like a matter of when, not if any longer.
What… is the takeaway from this race?
If the expectations for the Kansas race were low, it was for good reason: a night race on a mile and a half track is rarely an recipe for a memorable race, and the series was coming off what was easily the worst showing of the high-downforce package this year at Dover. It was hard to muster a lot of optimism for a track that’s been notable for the low quality of racing in many of its events.
But what happened on Saturday night was the best mile-and-a-half race of the year—and arguably the best race of the year—period. There were multiple grooves that worked. There was a real and prolonged battle for the win that included some different faces than the usual (at one point late in the race, the top five included Bowman, Elliott, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Chris Buescher and rookie Tyler Reddick). And there was passing.
Yes, clean air was still too important, and ultimately the need for it cost Bowman the win as lapped traffic killed his momentum. But the leader could not run away and hide from an equal or faster car in the last 100 laps or so, and drivers were able to challenge for position at the front of the field. Some of that was thanks to a couple of fortunate cautions, but that’s part of the game. This package has done something unpredictable: it improves night racing at 1.5-mile tracks, the worst events on the schedule. It elevated Kansas not just to slightly better than mediocre, but into a memorable race.
Where… were the other key players at the end?
Points leader Busch was uncharacteristically off the pace early. His team improved his car to where he finished ninth in the second stage, and after that they found some speed, which let Busch climb to second, battling for the lead with Bowman. But a costly pit road penalty, when Busch drove through to many stalls on his way into his own, put him in traffic on a restart, and that led to him being squeezed by teammate Erik Jones. The resulting tire rub forced Busch to pit road under green, and he wound up three laps down in 30th at the end, his first finish outside the top 10 in 2019.
Pole sitter and defending race winner Kevin Harvick was the best in the field early on, winning stage one and finishing second in stage two and looking like he had the car to beat with 100 laps to go. But with 89 laps to go, Harvick had to make an unscheduled pit stop for a tire issue, and while he recovered to finish on the lead lap in 13th, he never made it back to contend for the win.
Three-time Kansas winner Jimmie Johnson looked to be out to lunch early on. Johnson was the only Hendrick Motorsports driver to qualify outside the top 5 (though Elliott started 32nd after several inspection failures), starting 12th, and dropped back out of the top 20, scoring no stage points on the day. But Johnson quietly improved in the late going, working his way forward until he showed up in a big way at the end. On a restart with just over 20 laps remaining, he shot into the top four, battling briefly for the lead before settling in fourth. He was shuffled to sixth on the final restart, but it was the first race in a while when shades of the old Johnson showed through.
Fall race winner Elliott did not get off to a great start after his qualifying time was disallowed after he failed pre-race inspection. He rocketed through the field after the green flag, though, finishing second in stage one and winning stage two. All told, Elliott led five times for 45 laps and finished a solid fourth.
Last week’s winner Martin Truex Jr. had an uncharacteristically slow night, incurring a pit road penalty mid-race. But even before that, he never really contended, scoring no stage points and finishing 19th, three spots behind teammate Denny Hamlin, both a lap down to Keselowski.
When… was the moment of truth?
Kansas was an impound race, which meant stiffer penalties for teams failing pre-race inspection, and 11 cars wound up penalized for failing inspection, with several, including Elliott, Kyle Larson and Joey Logano, having to go through multiple times before being allowed to roll to the starting grid. Cole Pearn said afterward that the No. 19’s failure was for the deck lid being 9/1000 of an inch outside of tolerance. In a game of fractions of inches, that’s still not much.
But while this is ultimately on the teams to make sure their cars will pass, it’s not a good look for NASCAR to have cars failing a high-tech optical scanner on a weekly basis, especially by amounts that seem like nothing to the layman fan.
Even in a high-tech world, is NASCAR’s process too much? Sure, you want the cars to be on equal footing from a rules standpoint. But the old manual template inspection worked to this end just fine, even before the full-body “claw” template that was the precursor to the optical scanners. Ride height was checked with a little block on a stick which either fit under the car at the measuring points, or it didn’t.
Did teams work grey areas under this process? Sure. They still try now, with the most recent being paint schemes designed to fool the scanners, and there’s something to be said for finding that fraction of an inch between the rules that works. The rash of failures is a turn-off for fans, in any case. Perhaps NASCAR went a step too far in making what should be a simple sport so technical.
Why… should you be paying attention this week?
This week, look ahead to the All-Star Race, where we’ll get a glimpse of some possible seventh-generation car components that could be included in the car that will debut in 2021. A single piece splitter pan which should help cars stay more stable in traffic and even out ride height and hood scoops to deliver air to the engine are featured this year. That’s not encouraging for fans who had hoped for a car that will ride higher off the track, allowing air underneath and forcing teams to find mechanical grip instead of relying on aerodynamics.
It also looks as if the next racecar will be designed so that drivers can run wide open all, or at least more of, the way around most tracks. That’s the opposite of what works, which is making drivers lift entering the corners, which allows drivers to use their skill to find different braking points and putting the races more in their hands. The next car should be a back-to-basics version that gives teams and drivers areas to find their own advantages. Will we see that this weekend in Charlotte? Not likely, but stay tuned.
How… come penalized drivers are allowed free pass later in the race?
Following the rash of inspection failures which sent multiple cars to the rear for the start, a question arises: when a driver penalized during a race loses a lap, should he be able to take advantage of the free pass or wave-around to get back on the lead lap? Larson was the benefit of the free pass once on Saturday night.
As the rules are written now, even a driver who is held a lap or hit with a pass-through penalty by NASCAR for an infraction can get it back by being the first a lap down when the caution flies. For a fast car, starting at the back isn’t really much of a handicap, as we saw from Elliott in particular at Kansas.
It seems as though once a driver is penalized for a rules infraction, he shouldn’t be able to benefit from a helping hand designed to help drivers who followed the rules make up ground. It doesn’t feel right when a driver with an infraction gets a lap back over a driver without one. Is this another chink in NASCAR’s credibility? If it is, it’s an easy one to correct, and that’s not always the case for NASCAR.