Kansas is becoming known as the “cookie-cutter wild card.” Bizarre stuff has happened here during the 11 years it’s been a part of the Chase, from Greg Biffle winning a race in 2007 despite not crossing the checkered flag first to Jimmie Johnson surviving a banzai effort from Carl Edwards the following year (where the No. 99 car ran so hard into turn 3, on the final lap it slammed the outside wall and still almost beat the No. 48 back to the line). Entering Sunday, the last two seasons had seen the fall race won by two “lame duck” drivers competing for the title knowing their teams were splitting up the following year: Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick.
Many people feel like this track is earning a reputation for mixing up the championship, a theory that grew Sunday with three top contenders finishing 36th or worse. But there’s an interesting sidebar to that, one Joey Logano will need to overcome in order to win a Cup title. The last 10 years, only one Kansas winner (Johnson in 2008) has gone on to win it all. Instead, the eventual champion has tended to lurk somewhere just behind, flexing consistency. Take a quick look at their finishes below:
2004: Kurt Busch (6th)
2005: Tony Stewart (4th)
2006: Jimmie Johnson (14th)
2007: Jimmie Johnson (3rd)
2008: Jimmie Johnson (WON)
2009: Jimmie Johnson (9th)
2010: Jimmie Johnson (2nd)
2011: Tony Stewart (15th)
2012: Brad Keselowski (8th)
2013: Jimmie Johnson (6th)
Average Finish Of Chase Champion: 6.8
That puts the titlist somewhere around fifth to seventh place, while no champ has finished outside the top 15 (ominous news for the trio of Brad Keselowski, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and Johnson). So who was sitting in those spots Sunday, seemingly in position to advance forward with solid runs? Edwards, Ryan Newman and Denny Hamlin, drivers most had crossed out of their Chase grid once the field shrinks from 12 to eight after Talladega. Each would cause a minor uproar if he wound up as Cup champion, for different reasons. (Edwards – “lame duck” who’s lacked consistent speed all season, Newman – got here by top-10ing people to death instead of running up front, Hamlin – missed a race and wouldn’t have gotten here without Talladega win).
Sounds farfetched at the moment, right? But not if Kansas history repeats itself. So in terms of this race mixing up the title fight, we may not have seen anything yet.
Through the Gears we go…
FIRST GEAR: Sliced Bread slicing through the competition
On a day where top contenders suffered through tire problems, Joey Logano took control of his own destiny. Leading a race-high 122 laps, the No. 22 Ford was the class of the field when others fell out, challenged only by young Kyle Larson and the pit strategy of Ryan Newman. With a career-high five victories, Logano is having a breakthrough season; advancing to the final eight around the same age Jeff Gordon was when he won the first of his four championships at 23.
“I have to thank J.D. and Joe [Gibbs] for giving him the time, kind of getting it ready for us,” joked owner Roger Penske Sunday. “Probably have to send him a check.”
Logano, recently signed to a long-term extension, is in the best position of his career. Now, the question is whether he can handle the pressure of being in a serious title fight. The next two weeks (just like teammate Brad Keselowski did at Chicagoland Speedway about a month ago) this Penske driver can tune up for the biggest challenge to come: clearing the last hurdle and making it to Homestead. With an average finish of 3.0 at Martinsville, Texas, and Phoenix in the spring (including a win in the Lone Star State) it would be a massive disappointment now if Logano didn’t move forward. At this point, the sky is the limit and if teammate Keselowski somehow falters, expect the entire organization to put its full weight behind getting the youngster his first title. Along those lines, with Keselowski finishing 36th at Kansas after a tire failure, it’s now a tall order for the No. 2 team to move forward. So this organizational shift, one that could only help Logano, is a very real possibility.
SECOND GEAR: Hendrick’s horrifying afternoon
No one suffered more Sunday than title favorite Hendrick Motorsports, whose teams unraveled as quickly as their Goodyear tires. Jimmie Johnson, despite the worst weekend of all, may actually be in the best shape of the trio. Despite running 40th at Kansas, primarily due to Johnson being a victim of his own self-inflicted wounds (qualifying spin) before Greg Biffle finished him off, Saturday night provides a saving grace for the six-time champion in Charlotte. It’s one of the team’s best tracks, where Johnson won the Coca-Cola 600 in the spring and a victory there is now a “must have” for the No. 48 to have any shot at moving on to the round of eight.
“We’ve got to be on our game at Charlotte and Talladega,” he said. “There is still a lot of racing left. Stuff can happen. We’ll see how the other Chasers fare. If I can get taken out today, somebody else can at Charlotte. We’ll do our best to get on track and then certainly need W’s, I would assume, going forward.”
The veteran experience of Johnson should help, while Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Kasey Kahne may be in more difficult situations. Earnhardt, in his last season with crew chief Steve Letarte had a fast car for the first time in this Chase and was leading the pack at Kansas, but he was ultimately undone by a flat tire. The resulting damage left him 39th, meaning the No. 88 must also run up front the next two events. Earnhardt has never won a points-paying race at Charlotte, and despite a history of success at Talladega hasn’t won there since 2004. Even two top-5 finishes the next two races, as an alternative to victory might not be enough to erase a 25-point deficit to get to eighth place.
Kahne, meanwhile had a top-5 car ruined by late contact with the outside wall. The worst-performing of the Hendrick bunch all season, he now needs luck at both Charlotte and Talladega, something that’s been in short supply. Even Jeff Gordon had a difficult day, making contact with the outside wall after a tap from Jamie McMurray within the first 150 miles of the race. Gordon was “off” the rest of the day, running 14th and is tied for the final transfer spot with Matt Kenseth.
So could all four Hendrick drivers wind up eliminated, in this round? Highly unlikely. But the fact it’s a possibility, right now showcases the unpredictability of NASCAR’s new format, how big a player bad luck now is (see: Aric Almirola, Chicagoland) and the need to be on top of your game every race.
THIRD GEAR: Sunday’s surprise winners: Joe Gibbs Racing
Where Hendrick Motorsports faltered, Joe Gibbs Racing launched forward by following one of racing’s simplest philosophies: in order to finish first, you must first finish. JGR Toyotas avoided tire trouble, and when they did have issues, in the case of Matt Kenseth, they were diagnosed before a trip to the outside wall. While the No. 20 car was damaged slightly, its championship driver still brought it home 13th, remaining inside the top 8 in points while Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin were third and seventh, respectively.
No one got more of a boost from Kansas than Busch, who’s been cursed at this track throughout his career. Sunday was his first top-5 finish there in 15 starts, an impressive performance especially considering JGR’s lack of speed on 1.5-mile ovals all year – and a speeding penalty that at one point set him back in the pack.
“I set my mind to it that there is no reason why we can’t run good here,” he said. “We did that here today and it felt good.”
Both Busch and Hamlin, who each successfully fought a dashboard fire by turning off switches inside their cars, are almost certainly in the final six races with their current crew chiefs. Just don’t underestimate them; Hamlin’s head wrench, Darian Grubb won a title with Tony Stewart knowing he’d be replaced the following year. In this format, three top 10s is going to be all it takes to move on and JGR, with the even-keeled Kenseth as its leader, is masking its lack of speed with that consistency. Perhaps the most unlikely year for JGR to win a championship is the one where the team may finally break through, ending a nine-year drought.
FOURTH GEAR: Teams building for 2015
Despite an expanded field of 16 playoff contenders, this Chase has seen a surprising amount of strong performances from those outside the title hunt. Kyle Larson continues to impress, running second Sunday and knocking on the door of a victory with Chip Ganassi Racing. He’s the only rookie to run inside the top 3 in 2014, and looked like a veteran in chasing down Logano late. Further back, teammate Jamie McMurray, while enduring both a speeding penalty and a tire problem, didn’t get the finish his No. 1 car the way he deserved. Both drivers could easily get a win over the final six races, and Charlotte is a good track for CGR: McMurray has won there in the past, including the All-Star event in May.
Martin Truex, Jr., meanwhile is finally flexing some muscle with a team in Furniture Row Racing that made the Chase last year. He earned a season-best fourth Sunday, inside the top 5 all afternoon to go with a seventh at Dover last week. And Brian Vickers, after a season of inconsistency, now has five top-15 finishes in his last six starts with Michael Waltrip Racing. Even Danica Patrick, with five top-20 results in her last six events, is showing marked improvement. There’s still a far-too-large gap between the “haves” and “have nots” in this sport, but among the two dozen or so drivers that have adequate funding, they’re showcasing parity down the stretch.
Don’t count out Ryan Newman. The most unlikely potential champion out of the 12 Chasers remaining (as he has never really threatened to win all season), Newman led laps Sunday and wound up sixth. With the No. 31 team owning an outstanding history at Talladega, they’ve put themselves in position to advance to the round of eight… On a day where most small teams ran several laps off the pace, Landon Cassill brought his No. 40, single-car Hillman Racing team home 21st, on the lead lap. A finish that good, with a team that has 10 percent of the funding top organizations have? (Snap Fitness did sponsor them at Kansas). It’s incredible Cassill isn’t mentioned for higher-end openings, like the No. 9 Ford ride seemingly destined for David Ragan or Sam Hornish, Jr. … For a track that’s weathered its share of criticism, Kansas Speedway produced 25 lead changes Sunday. That’s the most for a Cup race since Michigan in June and more than the last two Chase races combined, a promising sign for a racetrack whose pavement is two years old and gradually aging… Austin Dillon was a quiet eighth, his best unrestricted performance of the season. The driver of the No. 3 Chevrolet is a solid second for Rookie of the Year, gradually improving, but rival Kyle Larson has overshadowed him. Winning just nine of the 30 rookie awards this season, Dillon would need a miracle victory, combined with a Larson collapse over the final six races just to have a shot at snagging top freshman honors.
Follow Tom Bowles on Twitter: @NASCARBowles
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