The Headline(s): Capping a day that saw Joe Gibbs Racing surge back into form, Denny Hamlin weathered three late-race restarts and held off Chase Elliott to win the Hollywood Casino 400 in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, his fifth Cup win of 2019, 36th career Cup victory,and 55th NASCAR national series win.
— Kansas Speedway (@kansasspeedway) October 20, 2019
Elliott, Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch and William Byron rounded out the top-five finishers. Elliott’s runner-up result allowed him to capitalize on a disastrous day for Brad Keselowski to secure the final playoff spot in the Round of 8.
How It Happened: Sunday’s race picked up right where the spring race at Kansas Speedway left off, with the package putting on a show at the front. In the opening 20 laps, the lead shuffled between pole sitter Daniel Hemric, Keselowski and Kyle Larson on multiple occasions, with Larson finally cementing the lead. Though several drivers experienced issues throughout the first stage (both Ryan Newman and David Ragan were forced to pit with cut tires in the opening 30 laps, while Joey Logano pit on lap 37 with a loose wheel), the race stayed green as Keselowski started green flag pit stops by the leaders on lap 41. Stops cycled the lead back to Larson after Hamlin hit pit road on lap 58, and Larson held the point until the caution flew on lap 74, when Newman hit the wall.
Opting to stay out on old tires, Logano pulled away from a five-wide battle for the lead and scored a sorely-needed stage win for the No. 22 team.
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) October 20, 2019
Though Daniel Suarez led the field after the green flew for stage two on lap 87, by lap 93 Martin Truex, Jr. surged to the front of the field. It’s a position he held until lap 116, when the yellow flew after Larson spun the lapped car of Joey Gase on the frontstretch. Though Truex kept the lead through pit stops, by lap 128 four laps of side-by-side racing with his teammate allowed Hamlin to take the point, a position he held through the end of stage two. As the JGR competition was brewing up front, the playoff bubble battle was simmering, as Keselowski dropped from a fifth-place finish in the first stage to 19th.
The final stage went green for a while. Hamlin led while Keselowski continued to flounder and Kyle Busch battled Ryan Blaney for the second position. What would have been the final cycle of green flag stops started when Erik Jones and Kevin Harvick hit pit road on lap 214. Hamlin cycled to the race lead after Alex Bowman finally pitted on lap 226 (and after the No. 88 reported phantom debris in vain). The playoff bubble battle got more complicated two laps later, when Hamlin lapped Keselowski.
Under green, the race stabilized until lap 253, when Blaney shredded a tire on the turn 2 apron after making contact with the turn 4 wall the lap prior. Hamlin and Larson won the battle off pit road, taking two tires under the yellow, with the race going green on lap 259. As Elliott surged to a tie in the points with Keselowski by lap 261, the race went under yellow again on lap 264 when Bubba Wallace suffered catastrophic mechanical trouble in turn 2 and lost an entire wheel.
Runaway tire, never coming back.
Wrong way on a one-way track. pic.twitter.com/W9nplZhdTf
— NASCAR on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) October 20, 2019
That yellow brought about overtime, with Hamlin and Elliott restarting on the front row. Hamlin, who has history with Elliott on late race restarts (see: Martinsville Speedway a year ago), opted to start safely on the low line and held the lead coming to the white flag. However, with an extremely quickly thrown yellow coming to the white after Suarez, Hemric and Logano spun on the frontstretch, a second overtime restart was called for.
When the green flag fell a second time, Hamlin again held off Elliott for the race win. However, Elliott’s second-place finish allowed him to capitalize on Keselowski’s troubles, as he lost all momentum getting bottled behind Clint Bowyer on the final two laps, fading to 19th in the final running order.
Drivers Who Accomplished Something
The Round of 12 had been a very quiet one for Joe Gibbs Racing, but the return to an intermediate oval saw the Toyota factory outfit return to form in a big way. Hamlin scoring the race win, and doing so through a flurry of late-race restarts, was an accomplishment for the No. 11 team. Truex came from nowhere in stage two to score a sixth-place finish, Jones finished seventh after racing in the top five for much of the afternoon and Kyle Busch was heard vocally chastising his No. 18 crew for how bad his race car was… while running third in the closing laps. Leaving Kansas City, all is well at JGR, and that’s bad news for everyone else.
Though he wasn’t able to score the victory in a must-win race, Byron’s day saw the No. 24 a fixture inside the top five. That gave teammate Elliott everything he could handle. They’re not racing for a title this season, but in true Chad Knaus form, the No. 24 is showing improvement in the closing parts of the year. This guy will win in 2020.
Elliott did what he had to after having late-race cautions served on a platter to best Keselowski and advance into the Round of 8. Perhaps most importantly, he raced Hamlin clean in the closing laps, meaning he still owes the No. 11 one as the series heads to Martinsville.
Kurt Busch’s fourth-place finish was the first top five for the No. 1 team since its win at Kentucky Speedway in July. Ryan Preece finished 12th, his best result since Michigan International Speedway in August. Preece now leads Hemric in the 2019 Cup Rookie of the Year race by two points.
Further back, Garrett Smithley ran a full Cup race without causing an incident as a lapped car.
Drivers Who Accomplished Nothing
Regardless of just how stacked the officiating appeared to be against the No. 2 team in the closing laps Sunday (more on that later), the reality is Keselowski and crew did not run anywhere near good enough to advance out of the Round of 12. It was one thing to run as pedestrian as they did at Dover International Speedway, but to see the No. 2 team stuck in the back of the top 20 from the second stage on was a visual reminder of just how far they have has fallen since charging to victory at the same track in May. NASCAR did him no favors, sure, but Keselowski didn’t score a top 10 in the Round of 12. Enough said.
Finishing 11th with the damage that he had wasn’t a bad showing for Bowman. But he’s getting called out in this section because not once, but twice, the No. 88 team urgently radioed to NASCAR race control there was debris on the track right as the car took the lead while running a long-run pit strategy. Both times, even caution-happy NASCAR officials found nothing to throw a yellow over. Alexa, Bowman is not spelled Earnhardt.
Early contact with the wall derailed Newman’s day inside of the first 20 laps, and further contact on lap 74 relegated the No. 6 car to a last-place finish. That’s Newman’s worst since the fall Charlotte Motor Speedway race in 2017 while driving for Richard Childress Racing.
Speaking of RCR, we’re six months past when RCR was running trimmed-out package cars that qualified fast and faded early. Yet Kansas was more of the same for this sagging organization. Between Austin Dillon and Hemric’s first career Cup pole, the two RCR drivers posted an average starting position of fifth but an average finish of 25.5.
Fading from the front row wasn’t exclusive to the RCR camp. Ragan’s first front row start in a Cup race since the 2011 fall event at Texas Motor Speedway saw the No. 38 car drop from second to 24th before the first cycle of pit stops in the first stage began. Ragan eventually finished 26th, last among the Front Row Motorsports camp — and that’s despite teammate Matt Tifft being involved in Wallace’s lap 264 incident.
Timmy Hill completed only 95 laps before parking the No. 77 car after being black-flagged by NASCAR for failing to meet minimum speed… twice.
Insights, Opinions and Fake News — Inside the Playoffs
The inconsistent officiating at the ROVAL was bad enough, but this Sunday was even worse. The playoff cutline on Sunday was directly changed because of interventionist officiating, starting with the lap 253 yellow for Blaney’s cut tire. Yes, the tire came apart, but as the replay clearly showed, Blaney was on the low side of the apron when it happened, and the debris field was visibly confined below the racing line. What’s even funnier about the call when the yellow came out was that race control referred to a “car around in turn 2” when it threw the flag, though Blaney’s car did not spin when his tire went down. The decision that there was going to be a caution in the closing laps Sunday was made well before Blaney hit the wall on lap 252, and it showed with the way this race was called.
As egregious an example of manipulation as that was, what transpired coming to the white flag during the first overtime was even more so. I don’t care that NBC was able to find a replay showing that the yellow light came on a yard or so before Hamlin crossed the stripe, the yellow flag flying when Suarez and Logano went spinning on the frontstretch flew a hell of a lot faster than it did only a week ago, when NASCAR didn’t throw the flag at Talladega Superspeedway in a move that allowed a bubble playoff driver to win a race that a non-playoff driver appeared to have won. I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that the driver that benefited from that yellow flag just happens to be NASCAR’s reigning Most Popular Driver.
The late race yellows did what they were supposed to. #nascar's most popular driver has advanced to the round of 8.
— Bryan Davis Keith (@BryanDavisKeith) October 20, 2019
Just as after the spring Talladega race in this column, I ended this race clutching my tin foil hat. Having said that, Frontstretch alumnus Matt Weaver summarized my thoughts leaving Kansas City as well as anyone could.
And this sentiment is what they are catering to these days.
But there is increasingly less and less that resembles an authentic motorsport. https://t.co/TFEJywDclb
— Matt Weaver (@MattWeaverAW) October 20, 2019
Last week, it was outside the playoffs with Preece. This week, it was Larson’s team that got busted for the latest in “asinine uncontrolled tire penalties,” as the No. 42 was penalized for a tire that never left its pit box and impeded the entrance/exit of zero cars on pit road. For once, NASCAR is making a writer’s job easier with this rule; all I have to do is cut and paste.
It’s not often that I find myself agreeing with anyone whose handle includes the words Kyle Busch and fan, but NBC was a royal mess this Sunday.
— Taylor Bowe Mcardle (@KyleBusch51Fan2) October 20, 2019
Beyond that example, over the course of Sunday’s race, Kyle Busch was identified as driving the No. 19, Keselowski was identified around lap 195 as fighting a tight race car despite no less than three regular NASCAR beat writers tweeting that the No. 2 had gone “super loose” on the same run, and Rick Allen felt it necessary to clarify that NBC’s Through the Field segment would focus on playoff drivers. The word duh comes to mind after watching six races of the 2019 playoffs on NBC. Or maybe it was dumb.
One final note on NBC’s work, presented without (additional) commentary.
Rutledge ruins broadcasts. He adds NOTHING. #Nascar
— Ryan Wile (@RyanWile) September 2, 2019
After the spring race crowd appeared healthy at Kansas, and those fans saw a really compelling event despite a chilly evening, the grandstands on Sunday appeared quite sparse.
— GregK (@GregKWI) October 20, 2019
Playoffs or not, it’s like more people turn up on Saturday nights instead of late Sunday afternoons.
Insights, Opinions and Fake News — Outside the Playoffs
The issue of lapped cars again raised its head in both the Xfinity and Cup series’ races this weekend. Smithley moved up into oncoming traffic Saturday (Oct. 19) that took out playoff contenders Chase Briscoe and Christopher Bell. Then, during the Cup race, Larson was forced to dump Gase on Sunday after the No. 66 proved completely unable to get up to speed on the frontstretch high line. In the case of Smithley, it appeared a case of driver error. But in Gase’s case, the No. 66 did hold its line — it just wouldn’t go fast.
Over the last two decades, instructions given to lapped cars has evolved into the hold-your-line edict that has been common knowledge this season. However, seeing multiple playoff races across the top ranks of NASCAR impacted by lapped cars doing just that makes me wonder if it’s time to explore instructing lapped cars to run a defined line on the track, just as on the highway most states post instructions to drive on the right, pass on the left. Normally I’d argue that mandating cars run a certain place on the track is ridiculous (see last week’s remarks on the yellow line rule. But the fact is that in 2019, the best stock car drivers in the world are driving slot cars that require them to mat the gas 100% of the time. If the sport is going to take the drivers’ throttle response away, maybe they owe it to them to provide some predictability as to where the roadblocks on track will be.
Watching just how irrelevant both Dillon and Hemric were on Sunday despite their qualifying prowess, I’ve got to wonder whether Tyler Reddick’s promotion to Cup at RCR is, in fact, a promotion. Lost in the story of 2019 that’s seen Reddick put on a rock show of a title defense is just how much he’s improved the RCR Xfinity program. As good as Reddick is, I question just how much Reddick will be able to do the same at the Cup level, especially with a teammate that he’ll be stuck with no matter how good (or bad) the No. 3 runs. For Reddick’s sake, here’s hoping there’s a plan in place for 2021, because a couple years running in the 20s at RCR will likely take the sheen off what’s been an impeccable Xfinity career.
The near-incident between Grant Enfinger and Austin Hill at Chicagoland Speedway in the Gander Outdoors Truck Series this summer got one-upped after Saturday’s Xfinity Series race. That’s when a hand on the shoulder sparked a fracas between title contenders Reddick and Cole Custer. You’d think a bunch of young guns brought up in this era would understand that in 2019, nothing good comes from touching other people. Then again, Matt DiBenedetto did grab Bowman’s ass on national TV during pre-race, and he landed the Wood Brothers Racing seat.
— NASCAR on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) October 20, 2019
The Truck Series was off this weekend, but let’s take a look at Kyle Busch Motorsports. Todd Gilliland missed the playoffs, has scored 12 top-10 finishes through 20 races with an average finish of 11.7 and is widely expected to lose his ride. Harrison Burton missed the playoffs, has scored 10 top-10 finishes through 20 races with an average finish of 11.8 and was given the keys to the strongest car in the Xfinity Series field for 2020. Get the feeling this decision was made long before this season even started? It certainly wasn’t made on merit.
Best Paint Scheme: Bowyer. The No. 14 looked like winged victory itself — except for actually winning the race.
Bringing that good-looking No. 14 @Asgrow_DEKALB Ford Mustang back in after practice! 🌽
— Stewart-Haas Racing (@StewartHaasRcng) October 18, 2019
Most Likely to Star in a Children’s Book: Bowman. In The Boy That Cried Debris.
Most Uncontrolled Tire Award: Wallace. Seeing that tire run the length of the Kansas backstretch provided even more perspective on how ridiculous uncontrolled tire penalties have been in 2019.
Where It Rated: While the slot car package made for a very compelling first stage that saw lead changes reminiscent of the 1990s, NASCAR’s meddling turned the closing laps of a compelling green flag race into a four-wheeled circus. The WWE Cup is a real thing. This one gets two lukewarm bottles of Heineken 0.0. Two because the first stage was good stuff. Still, fake beer seems appropriate.
What’s the Point(s): Leaving Kansas City, Keselowski, Bowman, Byron and Bowyer were eliminated from the NASCAR playoffs. On the back of a second-place finish, Elliott earned the eighth and final playoff spot.
Dust Off the VCR: The Round of 8 kicks off at the Martinsville this Sunday. Coverage from the shortest track on the Cup circuit begins at 3 p.m. ET on NBC Sports Network.