After an intense night of racing at Kansas Speedway, Alex Bowman and Erik Jones will have to take the bad with the good. Both drivers were impressive on Saturday night, especially in the late stages of the race. However, neither was able to beat Brad Keselowski with a race win on the line.
Keselowski’s victory was a surprising result given that he didn’t really show up until late in the race. Many of the front runners and eventual top 10 finishers were drivers like Bowman and Jones–drivers who have contended for wins occasionally, though not frequently, over the course of their careers. Seeing the Nos. 88 and 20 challenging for the win, along with racers like Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Chris Buescher, made Kansas one of the most exciting and refreshing races of 2019.
That said, it is significant that it was Keselowski, a past champion and proven winner, who took the checkered flag. After Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick had to make unscheduled pit stops under green, Keselowski’s primary competition became the younger, less experienced drivers like Bowman and Jones. Despite having a slower car overall, Keselowski’s experience in knowing how to close races became a much bigger advantage.
The No. 2 team came alive after pitting for fresh tires during a late caution period. When the race restarted on lap 245, Keselowski sliced his way through the field.
Jones, who also pitted, was not far behind. Bowman had stayed out and taken the lead on lap 249, but Keselowski and Jones presented a huge challenge. Though Bowman was able to hold Keselowski back for several laps, the No. 2 slipped past the No. 88 on lap 261. Jones got by Bowman a few laps later and set his sights on Keselowski. But another caution for Matt DiBenedetto’s blown engine would set up an overtime restart.
Thanks to the DiBenedetto caution, Bowman and Jones were gifted another chance to win the race. But when the race restarted, Keselowski had a huge jump on Jones that effectively ended the battle for the lead. While Bowman and Jones fought for second, with Bowman getting the position, Keselowski cruised to victory. Just as it did for the No. 2 team’s drive to the front, experience won its driver the race.
Certainly, top-three finishes are a big deal for both racers.
Bowman earned his third second place finish in a row on Saturday night. That is a good accomplishment for any team, especially for one that looked dead in the water just a month ago. Going into the Easter off weekend, Bowman had zero top 10s, no laps led and was 21st in points. In the last three races, he’s led 86 laps along with the three second places and jumped all the way to 12th in points. If Bowman does get into the playoffs via points, we are going to look back at these last three finishes as the races that saved his season.
Likewise, Jones also needed something good to happen to improve his playoff chances. After getting off to a good start, Jones mostly struggled through the months of March and April. While his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates have each visited victory lane at least twice, he dropped as low as 18th in points after a few pedestrian races. Back-to-back top-six finishes have since pushed him back above the playoff cut line, giving the No. 20 team something to build on in the next few weeks.
However, the real value of Kansas for Bowman and Jones will be the lessons they take away from losing the race in the late stages.
For instance, Bowman knows more now about how to hold off a driver with fresher tires. Considering that he was right behind the No. 2 for the last restart, he got the best view of anybody of Keselowski’s launch. As for Jones, do not expect him to get blown away so badly the next time he restarts second late in a race.
In fact, Kansas holds a lesson for every young driver and every team owner in the Cup Series. In situations like Saturday night’s finish, there is no replacement and no substitute for a veteran’s savviness.
As NASCAR’s current changing of the guard continues, with the superstars of the 2000s hanging up their helmets, both team owners and the sanctioning body have made it a priority to promote their replacements. These drivers often get characterized as completely polished racers who can do anything that the previous generation of racers can do, immediately upon taking over a new ride.
That has never been the case.
Drivers take years to develop, and it is only after years of development that we really begin to see if a driver can compete in the Cup Series long term, or if a driver is a good fit for their team. Yes, it is important for team owners and fans to invest in and support the next generation of drivers. But all the stakeholders in NASCAR have to accept that there are some things that only age and experience can teach. Veteran racers are not only hard to beat, they are hard to replace.
The truth is that Bowman and Jones suffered a tough loss, but those kinds of losses are to be expected for developing drivers. Perhaps more importantly, the experience will make both drivers more of a threat to Keselowski and the other veterans in the future. One day, Bowman and Jones could easily join the ranks of drivers who contend for wins regularly. If they do, Kansas will have been an important step in getting there.