Home / Bryan Davis Keith / Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2019 Digital Ally 400 at Kansas
(Photo: Nigel Kinrade Photography)

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2019 Digital Ally 400 at Kansas

The Headline(s): It took 245 laps for the No. 2 team to get its car handling right, but Brad Keselowski made the last 26 count, catching a strong Alex Bowman for the lead on lap 262 and holding it in overtime after Matt DiBenedetto blew an engine inside of five laps from the checkered flag. Keselowski held off a Hendrick Motorsports duo of Bowman and Chase Elliott, as well as a hard-charging Erik Jones. The win was Keselowski’s third of 2019 and his 70th career NASCAR national series win.

How It Happened: For much of the first half of Saturday’s race, pole sitter Kevin Harvick was in his own zip code, driving away from the front of the field for the first 32 laps until pitting after the competition caution flew (rain fell overnight Friday and into the morning at Kansas Speedway). The lead would shuffle to William Byron, who was one of nine drivers to take two tires on the ensuing pit cycle. While Byron would quickly yield the lead to Clint Bowyer, Harvick took it back by lap 49, holding it again until a lap 61 caution, when Denny Hamlin spun in Turn 2. Pit strategy would yield the race lead to Elliott, though Kyle Busch would lead the first green flag lap after the restart going side-by-side with Elliott. Elliott pulled away and led until lap 73 when Harvick again took the point and cruised to a stage one victory.

Kurt Busch would inherit the lead on lap 85, taking two tires while the rest of the lead lap cars took four, and did well to hold off the pack, keeping the lead until Harvick retook it on lap 92. Green flag pit cycles for the leaders start on lap 123, which resulted in Chris Buescher holding the point from laps 125 to 134 as pit strategies played out. Both Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Keselowski stayed out as long as possible on a fuel run before pitting on laps 143 and 144, respectively. When all was said and done, Elliott cycled to the lead and went on to win stage two.

The start of the final stage came on lap 168, with Harvick forced to do battle with Ryan Blaney, who while struggling with handling all race long gambled on a two-tire stop for track position. Blaney would soon drop through the field, just as Harvick soon would.

By lap 181, the race changed.

Harvick, convinced he was experiencing a tire issue, pit under green after already handing the lead to Bowman, who would hold the lead up until a questionable yellow flag on lap 218. Making a green flag pit stop, Ryan Newman’s crew lost a tire and had it roll to a stop in the infield grass in the middle of green flag stops. Despite being stationary, out of the way and in the middle of a race-altering pit cycle, NASCAR threw the yellow flag on lap 218, triggering a caution that would last more than 10 laps as NASCAR attempted to sort out a scoring mess. Meanwhile, Bowman lost the lead off pit road to the No. 18 car, which was quickly sent to the rear after being penalized for driving through too many boxes on pit road.

When the race was finally able to be restarted on lap 229 (Jones’ team was adamant they should have been leading even as the green flag flew), Elliott and Bowman staged a battle for the lead that saw Elliott take the point on lap 232. The caution would again fly on lap 240 when Blaney blew a tire and spread debris all over turn 1. 

The final restart of regulation came on lap 245. By lap 246, the Hendrick stranglehold up front was broken by Stenhouse, who made a power move in Turn 1 to clear both Elliott and Bowman. Bowman would take the lead back, but immediately found himself trying to hold off Keselowski. Keselowski’s relentless rim-riding paid off on lap 261, taking the lead until the caution flew again on lap 264 for DiBenedetto’s blown engine.

A stellar restart that saw Keselowski choose the bottom line (he wanted Bowman pushing his car) saw the No. 2 drive off into the sunset.

Should You Care? This is not my favorite package. This is not my favorite tire combination, as it put on a dud of a show at Texas earlier this year. Having said that, Kansas Speedway put on a fantastic intermediate race this Saturday night. The tires were durable, but four tires did matter when the race was on the line.

Cars were able to pass for the lead. Cars were able to pass all over the track.

And again, the increased downforce proved a stabilizing factor for the field, as the race was run without anything that’d be considered a wreck. Hard racing with plenty of strategy and no carnage is a very good thing.

Should fans care? Yes. Because based on initial reactions to this race, this may prove to be the most consequential race 2019 has yet seen.

To understand why, we need to first be real about the circumstances that allowed this race to go off the way it did. For one, this tire package worked better at Kansas than at Texas because the asphalt has aged longer. Just like at Texas (which many other than myself still consider to be a good race), Kansas was subject to unseasonably cool temperatures (the weather hovered in the upper-50s pretty much all day Saturday, with the sun never even peeking out). Which makes an old tweet of mine appropriate even months later:

There’s no question that this was the best race that the new package has produced to date. Race winner Keselowski was correct that Kansas Speedway seems to have been built for this package, and the racing showed it.

Let’s fast forward. It’s very possible that come Chicagoland in June, when the weather is going to be sweltering and the asphalt slippery, that the high downforce in these cars will keep them glued to the track and able to handle the radical maneuvering the Cup field demonstrated over 400+ miles Saturday. Possible, but not likely. So far, even from a limited sample size in 2019, it seems that cool weather is a must for this package to work as intended.

Keselowski echoed those sentiments, noting “nighttime is the new daytime” for Cup racing, as the cooler temperatures in the evening are something he sees as necessary to take advantage of the new rules and what the package offers these race cars. 

Now, having said that, if NASCAR is truly committed to low-horsepower, high-downforce racing as the way of the future for Cup competition, there’s a much larger step to be taken come 2021. 

Radical. Schedule. Adjustments.

The 2021 schedule has already been subject to rampant speculation, as fans clamor for more short tracks and NASCAR officials continually stress that everything from mid-week races to a return to retro venues is on the table. The discussion it seems, needs to be reframed. Race venues need to be organized not based on geography, but on configuration. It’s going to take clustering intermediates into the spring and fall, with short tracks, superspeedways and road courses dominating the summer months.

And that leaves two major wrinkles. First, the playoffs. There is no way that NASCAR can host a playoff stretch of 10 races in the fall which is nearly all intermediates, regardless of how good the package can be. Second, the reality of nighttime races is, with the exception of holiday weekends, they must be run on Saturday nights. Directly in conflict with the local short tracks and bullrings that many in all ranks of NASCAR are desperately trying (or at least speaking to trying) to reconnect with. 

Kansas has shown that under the right circumstances, no matter how specific, that NASCAR’s much-maligned mile-and-a-halves can put on races worth watching. The realities of when they can do that might end up being a less [race dates] is more [better shows] for venues that constitute much of the ISC track portfolio.

We’ll see just how committed NASCAR is to making the 2021 schedule something different and exciting.

Drivers Who Accomplished Something

Finishing second for the third consecutive week, Bowman became the first driver in Cup history to score three consecutive runner-up finishes without having won a Cup race. While that may be a record he has no interest in holding, the reality is Bowman’s three-week hot streak (which has been on three very different racetracks) has been impressive both for that diversity and for the composure he’s showing behind the wheel.

On this evening, Bowman proved capable of holding off both a red-hot teammate in Elliott and a Cup champion in Keselowski for laps at a time, showing speed the No. 88 team has not seen in years. Whatever Dale Earnhardt Jr. saw in Bowman, it’s visible to everyone now.

Speaking of Elliott, for as nonchalant as his personality sometimes seen, the driver of the No. 9 came to play on Saturday night. Be it on lap 67, where Elliott took the mighty Kyle Busch literally to the infield grass coming down the frontstretch, or lap 168 where Elliott visibly sparked using the apron to gain spots early on a restart, Elliott demonstrated a level of naked aggression that seemed almost of out of place for a Hendrick driver…but boy was it fun to watch. Most popular driver or not, Elliott is becoming a force in Cup racing.

Getting away from the Hendrick camp, Chevrolet’s improved performance continued to show throughout the top 10.

Defending Xfinity Series champion Tyler Reddick beat both of Richard Childress Racing’s full-time Cup drivers with a ninth-place finish. It was a quiet and composed a challenge for a driver like Reddick, who recently won at Talladega through sheer force of will, but is also demonstrative of a driver ready for the big-time. No disrespect to Daniel Hemric, but Childress needs to be having an honest discussion about whether he can afford to keep a talent like Reddick in the minors for long.

There was also Buescher, who scored his first top 10 since Atlanta with a 10th place result. 10th was not as well as the No. 37 team ran, as they were flirting with the top five for much of the first two stages, and just like the team’s last strong run at Richmond, they faded a bit late. But as was alluded to on the broadcast, JTG Daugherty Racing’s alliance with Hendrick Motorsports is bearing fruit, just as the Hendrick camp is finding their mojo again.

Stenhouse faded to 11th in the final running order, but the No. 17 team sustained a solid position in the running order in a way they haven’t consistently been able to in 2019, and that power move he made for the race lead on lap 246 was a thing of beauty.

Lastly, both Keselowski and Kyle Busch demonstrated something with this package that will keep races exciting. No matter how far off the mark a team starts a race with this package in one good run. they came become major players. Busch was venomous on the radio for much of the first two stages:

While Keselowski dropped outside the top 20 after the first cycle of pit stops under the competition caution flag with an ill-handling machine. Yet when the pay window opened on the final lap 245 restart, both Busch and Keselowski charged like bats out of hell, passing cars at will. Giving fans a real reason to keep watching over 400 miles is certainly a good thing, no matter who their driver is.

Drivers Who Accomplished Nothing

Blaney dropped like a rock after starting on the front row with two tires on lap 187, proving positive that the No. 12 team was light years off the mark at Kansas. That Blaney blew a tire later in the race was a mercy kill. With Keselowski’s team finding ways to use strategy to stay relevant until their car lights up and Logano being the most consistent car in the Penske camp (though not this Saturday), Blaney and crew have some bleeding to stop.

Harvick is by no means having a bad 2019 season, and had he not had his troubles on lap 181 he may well have driven off with this race win. But the way that Harvick fell out of contention on that pit stop is of note because Harvick’s pit crew found nothing wrong with his tires. Pitting for a tire issue only to find they’re all up is the definition of a self-inflicted wound. And while the FOX booth accurately noted that Harvick may have been thrown off because of the trash on the No. 4’s grill affecting its handling, Harvick is as veteran a driver as they come. He made a non-veteran mistake.

As written on Frontstretch earlier this weekend, DiBenedetto and his No. 95 team have tried to maintain a positive attitude as they fall victim to circumstances week after week. To have the team suffer an engine failure with Toyota power as they did is disappointing enough, but to have it happen in a 400-mile race in cool temperatures is cause for concern.

Lastly, though I came to Reed Sorenson’s defense last week after Martin Truex Jr. belittled the Cup veteran for not getting out of his way, the No. 27 car was the object of ire for several Cup drivers over the course of Saturday’s race. What’s more, there was an incident of his own admission that came over the team radio, where Sorenson expressed ire with his spotter for failing to mention he was at the bottom of three-wide. Aloof comments like that give Truex’s more credence.

Insights, Opinions and Fake News

I became the proud owner of a 2019 Ford Mustang GT about a month ago. I spent this weekend driving around Kansas City in a four-cylinder Ford Focus. I think I now know what Cup drivers feel like on the intermediate ovals in 2019.

Kansas has never been a race known for deep entry lists, but this Saturday’s race marked only the third time in 2019 the Cup Series started a full field of 40 cars. What’s more, there wasn’t a single start-and-parker in the bunch. Bravo.

But…having said that, there was an episode coming to the green on lap 168 that really bothered me, involving a number of the cars that got the field to 40 this weekend. Truex, having to drop to the rear to serve a pit road penalty, waited and waited, only to have a half dozen or so backmarker cars continue to lag behind the field. Eventually, Truex would take a position at the “tail end of the longest line” with eight cars ahead of said tail. That’s not a knock on Truex, who made a visible effort to serve his penalty. 

The knock is that eight cars literally took themselves to the back more than halfway through a race and lagged. And lagged. And lagged. Their motivations are understandable. The cars at the back of the Cup field in 2019 are way off the pace of the leaders, some with inexperienced drivers and all with a lack of funding. Wrecking cars could be a death-knell for those teams. But this is the Cup Series. It’s the big leagues. And having cars start big league races (and having an impact on them, lapped traffic did play a role in Keselowski’s race-winning pass) only to opt not to really play when the green flag flies for restarts isn’t a good image. 

I love underdogs. But there’s other series for them. Teams that want to race on the kind of budget that leads them to not compete for laps at a time don’t belong in the major leagues. 

What also doesn’t belong in the major leagues of any sport is officiating so questionable it makes the sport look bad. For one, NASCAR’s decision to interrupt a cycle of green flag pit stops to clean up a tire that was out of the groove, in the grass, and that jumbled the scoring order for 10 laps (longer than a stage break) demonstrated a complete lack of discretion. That one will go forgotten, as it didn’t end up having (too much) of an impact on the race. Unless your name is Erik Jones.

What will stick as a black eye for the sport is the inspection process. 11 cars failed inspection at least once at Kansas on Saturday. Three of them (Logano, Kyle Larson and Elliott) failed twice. Two of those cars that failed twice went on to finish in the top 10. 11 penalties that ended up meaning nothing. It’s inexplicable.

Elliott’s crew didn’t clear the No. 9 car until 90 minutes before the green flag was supposed to fly. And the reactions among the crews affected were a combination of disbelief and amusement. Corey LaJoie’s Go FAS Racing crew had a humorous take on passing inspection:

On the other side, Larson’s crew remarked as they were pushing their car away “take it back and don’t change much” after being held at the inspection line for nearly 10 minutes before being sent back to their stall. For one, the new Hawkeye system isn’t supposed to leave calls to judgement that require cars to be held for lengthy periods. On the other side, the fact that 11 teams failed, teams ranging from the powerful (Hendrick Motorsports) to the back markers (both MBM Motorsports cars failed inspection the first time) suggests that NASCAR is perhaps being too overzealous with this process. After all, just look at what Cole Pearn had to say:

Speaking to the MBM crew after getting Joey Gase’s No. 46 car approved on the second try, they remarked their belief that the cool weather was playing havoc with NASCAR’s imaging equipment, citing previous struggles they dealt with inspection at Chicagoland dealing with days of massive temperature drops.

Better hope they’re not onto something, otherwise all these intermediate oval spring and fall night races are going to turn tech inspection into the real calamity corner.

Participation Trophies:

Best Paint Scheme: Reddick Again, slim pickings for new schemes this weekend (how was there not a single barbecue sponsored car in this race?!), but this gives Thinkin’ a chance to give Reddick, the “show” of the Xfinity Series, some more love. He’s definitely got the hair for a haircare scheme.

Mic Drop Moment – Adam Stevens After being penalized for driving through too many pit boxes, Kyle Busch wasted no time spouting off that he was penalized for speaking out against NASCAR’s rule packages last week at Dover, rather than for actually committing a penalty. Crew chief Stevens calmly told Kyle he committed a penalty, and did something few men alive have ever done…shut Rowdy up.

We Talkin’ About the Regular Season Allen Iverson Tirade – Bowyer Bowyer’s probably angry at himself more than Jones, because he raced the feature at his hometown track like a regular season race rather than a playoff race. 

Where It Rated: More burnt ends please. This may not have been a KC Masterpiece, but it was a damn fine meal that’s worthy of an autumn encore.

What’s the Point(s): As it stands, Kyle Busch, Keselowski, Hamlin, Truex, Logano, and Elliott have all won races and locked into the playoffs. Leaving Kansas, Harvick, Kurt Busch, Bowyer, Blaney, Aric Almirola, Bowman, Daniel Suarez, Jones, Larson and Jimmie Johnson would point their way in. Johnson currently leads Newman by eight points for the final playoff spot.

Next Up: The Cup Series heads to its home stomping grounds in Charlotte for the All-Star Race. Coverage of the Monster Energy Open race will start at 6 p.m. ET on FOX Sports 1, with the All-Star Race to follow.

Author’s Note: Frankly, I’m over the All-Star Race, so I’m taking the week off to go short-tracking. One of my fine colleagues at Frontstretch will be taking over this column for the exhibition. See y’all at the 600.

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9 comments

  1. Avatar

    The best result of the event was Baby Busch not beating the record for top ten finishes because of another brain fade.

  2. Avatar

    Competition Caution – all cars will pit, take 4 tires and fuel and any adjustments required, then line up the way they were when the caution flag flew…..

    JMO….

  3. Avatar

    Really enjoyed your article. Spot on recap of the details. Also enjoy your insights.

  4. Avatar

    The Mike Joy / Jeff Gordon / Chase Elliott love affair continued on
    Saturday night!

  5. Avatar

    This race was fun to watch. I give it 5 cold ones.

    I couldn’t believe that on that last caution when most of the field had already pitted and had to take a wave around that they those wave around cars tried to line up right behind the lead lap cars. I thought that the wave around cars had to start behind the rest of the field that did not take a wave around… even cars multiple laps down.

    Since I haven’t heard any one beyond Jones and his team complaining about him being the leader, I will assume that it was their error and not a legitimate issue.

    Not only were there 40 cars in the race but all of except one of them was still running at the end.

  6. Avatar

    Truex whines all the time. He forgets he was marginally better than REED FOR MANY YEARS. Humility is absent with the high and mighty whiner Marty, his nasty crew chief COLE and his insane (imo) nasty spotter. I won’t even type the jerk’s name. Truex was a nobody for many years, many years. His claim to fame was being best buddies with driver who has a famous last name. Hmmmm. His nastiness has been going on for years. So I don’t give a rat’s butt what he says about any driver. MY O!

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