NASCAR Race Weekend Central
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Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2020 Super Start Batteries 400 at Kansas

What happened?

Denny Hamlin won an action-packed Super Start Batteries 400 at Kansas Speedway on Thursday (July 23) after holding off a late charge from Brad Keselowski. Hamlin led a race-high 57 laps. Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick and Erik Jones completed the top five.

How did it happen?

Unlike Texas, the first two stages at Kansas actually had some good battles. Joey Logano started second, but took the lead from Harvick on the first lap and led all the way to the competition caution at lap 25.

After an uncontrolled tire penalty forced Logano to the back, Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch started on the front row for the restart. Busch – who has lacked race-winning speed all season – grabbed the lead and led the rest of the caution-free first stage. It was Busch’s first playoff point of the season after entering the playoffs with 45 last season.

No passes for the lead after that initial restart might seem like it was Texas all over again, but there was side-by-side racing throughout the top 10 for most of the stage. JGR and Penske were the class of the field, with Hamlin, Truex Jr., Ryan Blaney and Keselowski filling out the top five.

The JGR trio retained the top three for the early parts of stage two, with Hamlin and Truex Jr. trading off leading laps. A late-stage caution led to strategy on pit road. Blaney took two tires, but couldn’t hold off Keselowski on four, as the No. 2 won its fifth stage of 2020 – tied with Chase Elliott for the most.

Similar to Texas, all hell broke loose once the stage three green flag dropped. First, Ryan Preece got Matt Kenseth loose and sent the No. 42 spinning into Bubba Wallace. Then – on the backstretch after the restart – Logano blew a left-front tire and collected Matt DiBenedetto, Jimmie Johnson and Austin Dillon.

Later – again on the backstretch after the restart – Christopher Bell tried to get up in line, but he wasn’t clear of Ryan Newman. Preece got collected and took a massive hit into the inside wall. SAFER barriers saved the day, but this wreck looked downright scary.

After another caution for Newman, the whole field came down pit road – except William Byron. Bryon gave up the lead to Keselowski initially, but fought back and began to pull away on old tires. Just before Byron had to pit, a caution for Corey LaJoie saved his day. Byron and teammate Alex Bowman took two tires, while the rest of the field took four. For a moment, it felt like déjà vu from Sunday with two teammates making a strategy call late in the race.

Bowman took the lead on the restart before John Hunter Nemechek spun. On the final restart of the race, Harvick made an improbable move from third to first and appeared to be pulling away with another win.

But with 13 laps to go, Hamlin chased him down and passed him on the outside. Harvick’s car just wasn’t strong enough to run on the outside.

Keselowski gave chase late, but Hamlin took away his outside line and held on for his fifth victory of the season. It was Hamlin’s third career win at Kansas – which tied him with Harvick, Johnson and Jeff Gordon for most all-time – and his second straight at the track.

Who stood out?

After letting the Fords and Chevys play for the past few weeks, the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas proved their worth at Kansas. Hamlin, Truex Jr. and Busch combined to lead 153 of the 267 laps. Jones had a quiet, consistent day that ended in a top five. It was the race that JGR needed after not winning since the second Pocono race back in June.

One interesting stat that showed just how good the JGR quartet was at Kansas: All four cars earned stage points in both stages. Winning the race is one thing, but showing dominant speed throughout the race is what will get them deep in the playoffs.

Now, the series heads to New Hampshire, where JGR has won five of the last eight races. All signs pointing up for Coach Gibbs’ squad.

When most people heard that Keith Rodden was taking over for the father-to-be Chad Knaus, Byron was written off. Emotional Kasey Kahne fans cringed to hear Rodden would be back on top of a pit box after his tough stint with Kahne’s No. 5 team.

But Rodden, with a little help from Knaus back at the shop, called a great race. The move to keep Byron on the track paid off beautifully. The caution fell at the perfect time. The call for two tires on the last pit stops could’ve worked better, but it gave Byron a shot. He fell to 10th, but it was still a solid points day.

At this point, Byron might have to win to get in to the playoffs. Whether it’s Rodden or Knaus back on the box, expect more of these calls going forward.

Richard Childress Racing couldn’t replicate its top-two finish from Texas, but this race shined the spotlight on the team’s advanced technology. NBC Sports send pit reporter Marty Snider to Welcome, N.C. to sit in on the RCR Command Center, and it was a pretty cool perspective.

All night, viewers were able to get an inside look at how RCR makes strategy calls. It taught the audience a lot about how much goes in to each of these pit calls. Credit to NBC and RCR for trying something different – it definitely helped the broadcast.

Who fell flat?

Logano’s night started off promising, but the uncontrolled tire penalty quickly put him in a tough position. He had to restart at the back, and just as he was creeping back toward the front, he cut a tire and ruined his day and many others’.

After winning two of the four races before the COVID-19 pandemic, Logano hasn’t won since NASCAR returned. He’s finished outside the top 10 in six of the last eight races and is quickly losing ground in the standings. The wins lock him in to the playoffs, but more playoff points are awarded if you finish higher in the standings.

Perhaps a trip to the site of his first Cup win next weekend will reverse his fortune.

It was another instance of “wrong place, wrong time” for Johnson at Kansas. Minding his own business and running around the top 15 all night, Johnson was one of the innocent bystanders in Logano’s incident.

Johnson slowed, but was sandwiched between DiBenedetto and Dillon. When his car failed to meet minimum speed, he was required to park it and ultimately finished 32nd. Seven-Time hasn’t finished in the top 10 in his last seven starts, and is now on the outside of the playoff bubble.

If he can’t win a race, Johnson could miss the playoff for the second straight year to close his storied career. It doesn’t feel like this is how Johnson story should end. Gordon and Tony Stewart both went out with wins – it would feel wrong if Johnson can’t do the same.

JTG Daugherty Racing has had a painful season, and it was punctuated with a dismal performance at Kansas.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was forced out of the race after just 58 laps due to an electrical problem where there was a fire inside the car. Stenhouse Jr. has now finished outside the top 25 in four straight races.

As bad as Stenhouse Jr. has been, Preece has been that much worse. He entered Kansas with three straight last-place finishes. At times, he looked destined for a solid run. But his luck stayed sour, and he ended up taking one of the biggest hits we’ve seen this season.

What did this race prove?

In recent years, there’s always been talk about a so-called Big 3. There was Harvick, Busch and Truex Jr. in the Cup Series in 2018. There was Tyler Reddick, Cole Custer and Bell in the Xfinity Series in 2019. But this year, it’s all about Harvick and Hamlin.

There were plenty of moments in this race where Harvick and Hamlin were out of the picture. Harvick seemed to have a decent, top 10 car, but not much more. Hamlin led the most laps, but Truex Jr. and Keselowski seemed just as good, if not better. Hamlin even admitted as much.

That’s what great teams do. These are the two best teams right now, and it isn’t particularly close. Two great drivers and two great crew chiefs. Sure, Keselowski, Blaney and Elliott are having strong seasons. But if you need to bet your life on one driver to win a race, you’re picking Harvick or Hamlin.

As fun as last week was, the power teams are still the power teams. JGR led 153 laps. Team Penske led 72 laps. Hendrick Motorsports led 33 laps. Stewart-Haas Racing led nine laps. To do the math for you, that’s 267 laps – or, every lap in the race.

It was clearly Gibbs and Penske leading the way, but Hendrick (Byron) and SHR (Harvick) nearly stole the show late. Overall, these four teams have won every race this season outside of Texas.

RCR could very well put both of its cars in the playoffs. Chip Ganassi Racing and the Wood Brothers will likely get one car in. But the aforementioned four teams are likely to fill the Championship Four at Phoenix. Those are the powerhouse teams, and they showed it on Thursday night.

Kentucky and Texas… they weren’t great. Kentucky had the insane ending and shocking winner. Texas had tons of wrecks late and another surprise victor. But neither were great races. After those duds, Kansas produced some of the best 1.5-mile racing we’ve seen this season.

Two things stand out as to why Kansas was so good – the cooler temperatures and the lack of traction compound.

There isn’t much NASCAR can do about the weather, but I think it’s time to stop applying the PJ1 at 1.5-mile tracks. It’s clear that these places need two or more established groves to create two- or three-wide racing. Stay away from the sticky stuff.

Paint scheme of the race

Nemechek has gone through plenty of schemes in his rookie season, but his Digital Ally Ford on Thursday night stands out as the best.

The side of the car looks like a Tetris board, and I mean that in a good way. It’s a unique design, and the white and red mix looked clean under the lights. It was also much better than the Digital Ally scheme AJ Allmendinger drove in the Xfinity Series last fall.

Better than last year?

You may not believe it, but Kansas has actually produced some of the best 1.5-mile races in recent years. It’s not a traditional track you look forward to on the schedule, but both races in 2019 had great racing. There was a lot of passing in the spring race last year, and the night ended with a thrilling battle for the win between Keselowski, Bowman and Jones.

That was a great race, so I think this one might’ve been slightly below it. Had Keselowski caught Hamlin at the end and made it a battle, this probably would’ve taken it. But still, this was a really good race for a 1.5-mile track, and it was vastly improved from what we saw the past few weeks.

Kansas is quietly becoming one of the best 1.5-milers. Not sure if that says more about Kansas, or about the current state of 1.5-mile tracks.

Playoff picture

Another week, another playoff shake-up.

There was no surprise winner, but bubble drivers were all over the finishing order on Thursday. Johnson and DiBenedetto were caught up in Logano’s mess and lost even more points. Jones and Byron ran smart races and cash in on top 10s. Here are the full playoff standings with just seven races remaining in the regular season:

Just 50 points separate 14th from 19th. With wild-card races like the Daytona road course and superspeedway coming up, no one without a win should feel safe right now.

What’s next?

The Cup Series is off for the weekend and won’t return until next Sunday (Aug. 2) at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. This 10-day layoff will be the longest between Cup races since returning from the pandemic at Darlington in May. That break was 70 days, so I think we can handle this one.

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About Logan Reardon

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7 comments

  1. Avatar

    I agree it Pretty good race by intermediate track standards. Preece’s wreck was scary as hell and seeing him quickly drop the window net was a huge relief.

    All season long Brad Keselowski has seemed like the red-headed step-child at Penske Racing when it came to speed, so seeing him run up front with what seemed (to me) to be the fastest car was a bit of a surprise. If they’ve found something and can keep running up front, they may be a real contender for the title, especially with their playoff points. Or maybe that’s just wishful thinking from this Keselowski fan. Too soon to say.

    Any of the first three drivers below the current cutoff for the playoffs… Reddick, Jones, or Johnson… could possibly win a race before the playoffs. Positions 14-16…. held by Bowyer, DiBenedetto, and Byron… are still in play.

    • Avatar

      Keselowski definitely showed some impressive speed last night. Thought he was gonna go win the thing at the end. His consistency probably makes him one of the favorites (along with Hamlin/Harvick, obviously) to make the Final Four.

    • Avatar

      Carl D – brad’s contract is up this year with penske. rumors have him going to 48, along with everyone else.

  2. Avatar

    No caution for Blaney or Baby Busch but it comes out for the 38? Yep! NA$CAR consistency. Gotta find a reason to bunch up the field at the end of the event

    • Avatar

      I noticed that too DoninAjax, I have seen the opposite happen more… the caution come out for the two “stars” to keep them on the lead lap and the “other guy” doesn’t get the caution and goes down laps. As you said… consistency.

      I thought it was a good race for a 1.5 miler (have to include that qualifier). Also glad to see an honest track…. no sticky stuff. Good to see tires make a difference. I was kind of hoping someone other than Hamlin or Harvick would win but that’s the way it goes. Lots of (fake) drama for that playoff cutoff line. Truth is most of those guys on the bubble won’t make it past the 2nd round of the chase anyway.

      One last observation. WTF is up with Stenhouse’s hair? Looks like a he lost a bet.