Kevin Harvick won from the pole at Kansas Speedway on Sunday. It was clear he and sixth-place finisher Jimmie Johnson had the fastest cars. But for half the race, they were battling mid-pack, stuck in traffic and on restart roller coasters while the rest of the field took delight in seeing them trapped.
It didn’t have to be that way. Correct that, it should never have been that way.
The troubles for Harvick and Johnson started when NASCAR threw a caution for debris in the middle of green-flag pit stops on lap 88. The timing of the yellow was such that it hit a few feet before Johnson was officially on pit road. It left the No. 48 team trapped between a rock and a hard place. Already committed, they couldn’t pit under the rules since the pits were closed under yellow. But they couldn’t accelerate, either, which caused a painful, 35 mph jaunt that let half the field go by them without a stop for tires and fuel. At least they were luckier than Harvick; he had already made his stop, which trapped the No. 29 car a lap down and forced the team to use a wave-around in order to restart the race within striking distance of the leaders.
Working through traffic, then, was the order of the day for both drivers — along with strategy that eventually got them back to the front (Harvick won on 110-lap old left-side tires). But what was the “terrifying safety reason” to cause the yellow? According to sources, a brake-type hose under the white line at the exit of Turn 2.
Really? NASCAR couldn’t wait until after green-flag stops were complete, when the field would be solidified in place to go throw a yellow and pick that one up? Better yet, why have a caution at all?
One could make the argument that this piece of equipment, if run over by a driver accelerating after a pit stop, could have blown a tire or even cut an oil line. At the same time, no one would hit it unless they were slowly coming up to speed. Don’t the best drivers in the world have some basic common sense? A piece that far out of the groove causing a yellow that changes the outcome of the race based on the timing in the middle of green-flag stops was simply overboard. NASCAR officials should have a rule about debris: there should be no caution flag for it, especially at such a crucial point in a race, unless there’s a 10-foot piece of metal with spikes sticking out at the start/finish line. To make such rulings from the tower stinks of the type of manipulation and “playing fair” antics pointed out at Richmond that led to “Spingate” and this Chase being run, in part, with a giant asterisk over four drivers.
NASCAR did a good job of preaching in the wake of that scandal about how everyone must stay above the line. Now, they’ve simply got to practice that.
Let’s head up “Through the Gears” to see what Kansas taught us …
FIRST GEAR: Kyle Busch beat himself For three weeks, plenty of ink has been spilled about a three-man title Chase amongst Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch. Heading to Kansas, a “cookie cutter” intermediate, it’s the last place you’d think of for one of those three to knock themselves out.
Unfortunately, Mr. Busch had other plans based on his own mental fears. The track has always been a nemesis of sorts for him; 12 career starts and zero top-5 finishes at this 1.5-miler was his resume heading into Sunday. You could tell throughout the weekend those demons were clearly in the driver’s head. Wrecking in practice, he was forced into a backup car and had to start from the rear of the field.
During Saturday’s Nationwide Series race, he tangled with Brad Keselowski, wrecking his rival and creating an angry post-race scene. If there’s a list of people you want to enrage, the reigning Cup champ – who has nothing to lose during these playoffs – shouldn’t be among them. Keselowski was so incensed, he even asked during Sunday’s driver’s meeting if the sport’s “100 percent” policy would be violated by intentional wrecking.
In the end, though, it wasn’t Keselowski but Busch himself who committed Chase suicide. Never comfortable with the handling of his race car, the No. 18 vacillated between mid-pack and top 5, depending on pit strategy, yet never had the feel of a front-running car all day. Eventually, contact with Juan Pablo Montoya — another aggressive driver Busch had no need to irritate — led to the No. 18 taking a spin through the frontstretch. That seemed to tip Busch’s mental state off balance again, leading to another terrible mistake. An awkward restart, where Busch came down directly onto Carl Edwards’ bumper, sent him into the wall – and sealed his fate.
“I have no idea what happened,” said Busch, transitioning into the immature driver of old when the microphone was thrown in his face. “All I know is we’re in Kansas, right? That’s what we do here. We just crash.”
It’s a mental block that, in the end, will have mashed this year’s title dreams to pieces. Now 35 points back of teammate Kenseth, and sitting fifth in the standings, Busch is out of it without some major help.
SECOND GEAR: Is Harvick back in the title Chase?A “lame duck” year by Harvick, leaving Richard Childress Racing for Stewart-Haas Racing come November, has been defying conventional wisdom. Picking up his third win Sunday while leading 138 laps (his highest total in two years), the “Closer” has better stats on paper than anyone on his team-to-be.
The quality performances, while surprising, have come from an unwavering dedication on both sides to not let impending divorce ruin their dreams. All along, Childress has been vocal that this team could challenge for a title. But the cold reality of what these splits typically do have left them virtually ignored. Both sides are known to have a temper; one bad run could be all it takes to derail them straight through November.
At the same time, it’s hard to count RCR out completely. The Cup Series heads to Charlotte next, where Harvick was victorious in May. Next comes Talladega, a “wild card” due to its big wrecks, but a place where Harvick has also been wildly successful. Next on the list? Martinsville: a short track, which also serves as this organization’s specialty.
I still think it’s unlikely Harvick climbs himself back up into the race. Then again, an entire group of media, fans and other teams have doubted this bunch since February, when a Daytona 500 wreck left them 42nd and seemingly ready to coast all year. So who knows …
THIRD GEAR: What championship drives are made of For Kenseth, driving the “evilest race car he ever drove” threatened to leave him 20th or worse Sunday. Sliding through the field in the race’s second half like he was running on seven cylinders, a pit road speeding penalty finally threw him at the back of the pack. That’s when crew chief Jason Ratcliff went radical, changing everything but the kitchen sink inside the No. 20 Toyota. Miss on those fixes, and the risk was great; with a record 15 caution flags, so many cars were on the lead lap Kenseth could have wound up outside the top 30.
Except he didn’t. A terrific final drive during the last 20 laps saw Kenseth rise to 11th place. And when rival Johnson had a minor hiccup with the engine that dropped him to sixth, it was Kenseth who somehow held the point lead despite an awful day.
“We struggled a little bit and still salvaged,” he explained. “Proud of this team — they didn’t give up on me. They worked really hard on it. We’ll go racing next week.”
And come Homestead, those extra positions they earned could make the difference between first and second in points.
FOURTH GEAR: Kansas’ rough roadRecord-setting cautions. Rock-hard tires. Weird spinouts. Sure, Kansas has become its own animal, especially since a recent repave at the 1.5-mile intermediate oval. But the end result was a type of odd roulette game, where pit strategy and positioning on restarts determined your finish. Yes, passing was possible, which is more than we can say at some of the other intermediate tracks. But being able to maneuver in the first few laps of the run ultimately determines where you finish; good cars are not completely able to work their way up through the pack without help. That’s a problem several drivers still want addressed.
“With the combination of the cold temperatures, the tires, it made it treacherous when you were around other cars,” said runner-up Kurt Busch. “We always hope we can have more grip, be able to race side-by-side and have a comfort level to reproduce a show where fans want to come out and we see sellouts. We need to put on a better show on the track. And for that to happen, we just have to have Goodyear, the drivers, the teams, the tracks on the same page. Right now we're close, but I think we swung and we missed on tire combo this weekend.”
The proof? How Harvick won on those old left-sides, while two-or-four tire stops late in the race made little difference. Instead, it was about track position and how quickly you could dispose of cars in front of you on those restarts … or be trapped four, five, six seconds back of the leader for failing to do so.
Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon had a rough conversation, post-race over how the two raced each other on a late restart. Gordon felt that Busch made contact, cutting him off unnecessarily. In the end, the two seemed to agree it was good, hard racing. Both were calmed down by their post-race press conference. … After a weekend of good practices, Danica Patrick didn’t even make it through one corner in the race at Kansas. Making a three-wide move on the start, she clipped David Reutimann, got loose and started a multi-car wreck. It’s the fifth DNF for her based on a crash this season, tied for the most among full-time Cup Series drivers. … Dale Earnhardt Jr., eighth Sunday, now has three top-10 finishes and 107 laps led the last three weeks. Think he might want that race back from Chicagoland? As it is, he sits 54 back of championship leader Kenseth and will likely spend the offseason wondering what might have been. … Brian Vickers had a scary wreck off Turn 2 in which the No. 55 Toyota went airborne. Reminiscent of another crash for the car, at Texas a few years ago with Michael McDowell, drivers were so worried they were actually calling on spotters to make sure the rescue crew got there as quickly as possible. Luckily, despite heavy impact, Vickers walked out of the car unscathed.
Follow Tom Bowles on Twitter: @NASCARBowles