NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2021 Kansas NASCAR Playoff Race

What happened?

Kyle Larson won the Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway on Sunday (Oct. 24) for his third consecutive victory. Chase Elliott, Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch and Denny Hamlin rounded out the top-five finishers.

How did it happen?

Pole sitter Larson jumped out to an early lead for 10 laps before a caution for a passing rain shower. There was a brief lightning delay, and the race restarted after a 15-minute, 46-second red flag.

Larson held the lead over Brad Keselowski on the restart at lap 16. On lap 23, Kyle Busch cut a tire and got into the wall. This yellow doubled as the competition caution.

Matt DiBenedetto grabbed the lead on pit road after taking fuel only. He didn’t hold it long though, with Larson regaining the spot on the first lap after the restart. Elliott passed Larson for the lead on lap 34, then William Byron took command on lap 36. Two laps later, Keselowski pitted under green due to a cut tire.

Martin Truex Jr. joined him with an unscheduled stop on lap 52 after hitting the wall behind Keselowski earlier.

With nine to go in stage one, Ryan Blaney pitted from fourth due to a blown tire.

Just 15 cars were on the lead lap at the end of stage one when Larson crossed the line.

Larson led on the next restart before Elliott got by his teammate. Elliott paced the field for 34 consecutive laps before green flag pit stops began. On the pit cycle, Joey Logano stayed out as long as he could to try and catch a timely caution. The yellow never came, and Logano gave up the lead with 14 to go in the stage.

Byron, who passed Elliott under green while Logano was leading, took over the top spot and won the second stage.

Larson, Byron and Tyler Reddick fought for the lead on the next restart, with Reddick nosing ahead as Anthony Alfredo crashed on lap 173. Everyone besides Reddick and Larson pitted under yellow. Larson regained the lead for seven laps after the restart before Byron, on fresh tires, got past him.

With 50 to go, Ryan Newman cut a tire and spun exiting turn 2 to bring out another caution.

Everyone was good to go on fuel after pitting during that caution. Byron, who exited as the leader, had to pit again due to loose lug nuts. On the restart with 45 to go, Elliott made it three-wide to grab the lead from Kurt Busch and Harvick. Just a few laps later, Austin Dillon got loose in the corner and bumped Blaney into the wall, ending his day.

On the final restart with 39 to go, Harvick took it three-wide inside Elliott, letting Larson pull ahead. Harvick, Kurt Busch and Elliott stayed close to Larson on the final run, with Elliott riding the high line to get back into second. Elliott got Larson’s lead down to around a half-second before hitting the wall and backing off in the final laps.

The win was Larson’s ninth of the season, third in a row and 15th of his career.

See also
Martin Truex Jr. Comes Back From Tire Problem to Earn Kansas Top 10

Who stood out?

Larson’s win was a fitting tribute to Hendrick Motorsports. Sunday marked the 17th anniversary of the tragic plane crash that killed 10 people, including Rick Hendrick’s son Ricky. Jimmie Johnson won at Martinsville Speedway on the day of the crash. Now, 17 years later, Larson took the famed No. 5 to victory lane. Not only that — he did so driving the same scheme Ricky Hendrick drove in his only NASCAR Camping World Truck Series victory at… Kansas.

A pretty special moment in what’s been an unbelievable first season at HMS for Larson. This team remains focused despite already being locked into the Championship 4. It’s the second time this season that Larson has won three consecutive races, and he nearly won a fourth last time before crashing from the lead on the last lap at Pocono Raceway.

It wasn’t the win he needed to lock himself into the title race, but Elliott should leave Kansas a very happy man. After Blaney’s wreck, Elliott built a sizable cushion over fourth place (33 points). That means even if there is a winner who is below the cutoff, Elliott is still 33 points above the new bubble. Now, he’s headed to the track where he won last year and finished second in April. A quiet, solid day at Martinsville should lock Elliott into Phoenix Racewaywhere he would have a chance to defend his title.

Hamlin grinded out a top-five when he clearly didn’t have his fastest car. The No. 11 has been strong on 1.5-mile tracks this season, including a recent victory at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Hamlin had no such race-winning speed at Kansas, and he was still able to finish fifth. He’s essentially in the same boat as Elliott where an uneventful day should be enough to make the Championship 4. With five career wins at Martinsville, Hamlin is likely thinking about the win.

Who fell flat?

Blaney was in a strong points position before an accident outside of his control ended his day. This seems to be on par with his past playoff luck. He overcame a flat tire in stage one to put himself in position for a solid top-10. Instead, Dillon lost his car in the corner and Blaney was the victim.

The No. 12 is still capable of running well at Martinsville, as we’ve seen in the past. In his last eight Martinsville starts, Blaney has five top fives and seven top 11s with 372 laps led. He led 157 laps in April before finishing 11th. Could this be the time Blaney finally breaks through for the coveted Martinsville win? It would be eerily similar to what Elliott did last year if he could pull it off.

Kyle Busch’s greatest strength has potentially doomed his 2021 season. He had seven top 10s in nine 1.5-mile races this season, leading us to believe he would be a force at Texas and Kansas in the Round of 8. Instead, he finished eighth and 28th, respectively, and never showed top-five speed. He’s still fourth in points, but a one-point cushion means he’s anything but safe. Busch was 10th at Martinsville in April and has no top fives at short tracks this season.

Everything went wrong for Keselowski at Kansas and he’s still in contention to make the Championship 4. He fell multiple laps down due to a cut tire, then pitted from the free pass position due to overheating just laps before a caution, and… he’s still in a good spot. After finishing 17th, Keselowski needs to gain six points on the cutoff. He crashed and finished 33rd at Martinsville in April, but he’s got two victories and 16 top 10s in 23 Martinsville starts.

What did this race prove?

The rest of the field is damn lucky the championship race isn’t at a 1.5-mile track. Larson was absolutely unstoppable at the intermediates this year, netting a 6.3 average finish with four wins and six top fives in nine 1.5-mile races. It was the type of season that we’ve recently seen from Truex and Harvick. Unfortunately for the No. 5, that speed means nothing for the championship race, which will be run at Phoenix with the 750-HP package. Had the title race been at Homestead-Miami Speedway like it used to be, we might already be able to crown Larson.

Kansas has become one of the better 1.5-mile tracks with the 550-HP package. Before this package, Kansas was routinely the track I wanted to see off the schedule. In recent years, though, there have been some solid races at the circuit. I’m still not sure Kansas deserves two dates on the schedule — especially when Homestead only has one — but it’s been better than Texas Motor Speedway, Atlanta Motor Speedway and Las Vegas as of late.

See also
The Underdog House: Bubba Wallace Stays on the Yellow Brick Road in Kansas

Paint scheme of the race

Kyle Busch breaks out a Halloween-themed M&M’s Toyota every October and it always delivers. The scheme has been relatively unchanged in recent years, and for good reason. It just feels like a big race when Busch is racing the Halloween car because you know it’s a playoff event. He’ll run it again next week, too, when the Cup Series races on Oct. 31.

Better than last time?

Last year, the racing was solid early on, with Elliott and Hamlin winning the first two stages. The final yellow came at lap 222 and the race restarted with 42 to go. Over those final 42 laps, Logano — who won the race off pit road — masterfully used the 550-HP package to his advantage to block every Harvick move for the lead. It wasn’t the most exciting race and there was plenty of outrage about the faster car being unable to pass, but Logano’s drive was impressive.

This year, the race was defined by the troubles that playoff drivers had. Between cut tires, unlucky strategy and accidents, there was no shortage of playoff drama. Up front, there were a handful of non-playoff drivers frequently fighting for the lead. Larson won (as usual), but it wasn’t as easy and dominant as many of his other wins have been. I’ll take this year’s race over 2020.

Playoff picture

Larson kept another driver from locking up a Championship 4 spot, so it’ll be seven drivers racing for three spots at Martinsville.

Beyond Larson, Elliott (+34) and Hamlin (+32) can breathe a bit easier with the cushion they have. Even if a driver below the cutline wins, they have a sizable margin on fourth-place Busch (+1). Blaney (-1), Truex (-3), Keselowski (-6) are all within reasonable striking distance, which means stage points will be crucial. Logano (-26) isn’t totally out of reach, but the small likelihood that all four ahead of him falter means Martinsville is nearly a must-win.

Here’s the playoff standings and the full standings entering Martinsville:

What’s next?

The Round of 8 concludes next weekend at Martinsville Speedway, the penultimate race of the 2021 season. This will be the second visit to Martinsville in 2021 after Truex won the race there in April. The Xfinity 500 will go green on Sunday (Oct. 31) at 2 p.m. ET on NBC.

RACE WEEKEND CENTRAL: KANSAS

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4 Comments
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Carl D.

When you have the fastest car and a ton of talent, you win lots of races. Larson is like Kyle Busch, only not an ass. I hope he wins the title.

Poor Blaney. Que sera, sera. I still hope he and/or Keselowski makes the final four, but I’m not holding my breath.

He may have been eliminated, but William Byron has my attention. On the other hand, since Alex Bowman was eliminated, he’s been a non-factor.

Harvick and Elliott were two of the faster cars and were around each other a lot on the track with no signs of continuing their feud. NASCAR must have really gotten their attention.

I’m really looking forward to Martinsville.

Bill B

There is no doubt who deserves to be champion this year but that doesn’t mean anything with this format. I can’t get over how many playoff drivers have created their own problems this year. One driver that didn’t create his own problem was Blaney, I was really hoping he’d be a final four driver but now it’s doubtful. If there is one thing we can all be thankful for it’s that we are done with 1.5 mile tracks and the 550 package for the year.
If I could choose the final four it would be Larson, Blaney, Elliott and Truex.

JD in NC

And if I could choose…I’d pick the same four.

DoninAjax

There will be multiple GWCs at Martinsville and complete KAOS.

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