Can Kansas kickstart Kevin Harvick's 2021 season?
NASCAR has had its share of bizarre race names through the years. Just this February, the sport's Xfinity Series kicked off its schedule with the Beef. It's What's For Dinner 300. But the Buschy McBusch Race 400 is easily the strangest twist on sponsorship in recent memory.
This USA Today article does a good explainer of how we got here in 2021. Sponsor Anheuser-Busch ran a promotion allowing fans to pick the Cup Series race name if they donated a minimum of $1 to the nonprofit Farm Rescue. This tongue twister won out in the finals over such "gems" as the Busch Latte 400 and (let's all groan in unison) the Nectar of the Cobs 400.
Some fans who won't know better will think the Busch brothers are involved somehow. Maybe it'll at least change their luck? Kansas remains one of the worst tracks for Kyle Busch in particular; he's won just once here while a career 15.7 average finish is his worst for any 1.5-mile oval. Brother Kurt has never won here, period, while posting a mediocre 15.9 average finish all his own.
Can the brothers turn it around this Sunday (3 p.m. ET, FS1) with their last names so prominently featured? Both have yet to visit victory lane in a season with nine different winners in the first 10 races. Kurt Busch has even fallen outside of playoff position with just one top-15 result since Phoenix Raceway in early March. Combined, the duo has led just 17 laps all season, a total that trails drivers like Daniel Suarez, Matt DiBenedetto and Bubba Wallace who have all never won a Cup race, period.
But the former champion to watch may be the man who finished runner-up here last fall: Kevin Harvick. It was here Harvick's career year began to unravel in the form of a Kansas tornado known as Joey Logano. Pit strategy snuck Logano out front, and from there, it was prevent defense personified as Harvick found himself unable to pass despite fresher tires and a faster Stewart-Haas Racing Ford.
The missed opportunity proved costly. A few weeks later, Harvick's nine-win season was all for naught as a series of poor performances kept him from reaching the Championship 4. It feels like the No. 4 team has yet to recover, starting the year 0-for-10 with just 29 laps led overall. It's Harvick's worst stat line at this point in the year since moving to SHR in 2014.
The low-horsepower handling package that stopped Harvick in his tracks that October Sunday led to calls for change in 2021. It didn't happen, NASCAR keeping the status quo one last year before moving to the NextGen car in 2022. Perhaps the heat of the day in Kansas (it'll be nearly 80 degrees on Sunday) will lead to a slicker track and more passing opportunities?
Logano certainly hopes so, forced to come from 29th starting spot this time around after a vicious wreck at Talladega Superspeedway. Kyle Larson (32nd) and Kurt Busch (28th) are among several big-name drivers needing to work their way through traffic this weekend.
History is on Logano's side as he fights to the front: all but one driver who's won here in the past decade can call themselves a Cup Series champion. The lone exception is Denny Hamlin, whose three Daytona 500 victories and multiple Championship 4 appearances have him knocking on the door for a big trophy himself.
Will the heavyweights dominate again at another intermediate track? Or will a 2021 season full of surprises throw a curveball in honor of Buschy McBusch?
Buschy McBusch Race 400
Date: Sunday, May 2
Time: 3 p.m. ET
Track: Kansas Speedway (Kansas City, Kan.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Brad Keselowski
Team Penske is now 3-for-3 in clinching playoff spots thus far in 2021 after Keselowski taught a master class in the Talladega draft. After a mid-race spin for teammate Logano's hard wreck, the driver of the No. 2 Ford bided his time, letting his crew fix up some wrinkled sheet metal while waiting for the right opportunity to make his move. During an overtime finish, he pounced, blowing by Matt DiBenedetto in crunch time with the help of Daytona 500 winner Michael McDowell.
That final-lap pass became the only lap Keselowski led the entire race. But that's the one that counts, earning him a sixth career victory at this track to lead all active drivers.
Who's at the Back: Kyle Larson
Larson dominated the race at Atlanta Motor Speedway back in March only to get passed by Ryan Blaney down the stretch. Since then, he's failed to lead a lap and posted only one top-5 finish in four races, dropping from second to ninth in the Cup standings.
The No. 5 Chevrolet hit rock bottom at Talladega, when a crew member forgot to remove a piece of metal separating its radiator and the air ducts. No practice or qualifying meant no one on the crew caught the mistake before the drop of the green; Larson's engine was toast three laps in.
Kaulig Racing will be moving up to the Cup Series full-time in 2022. After driver Kaz Grala posted a career-best sixth in the Talladega race Sunday, owner Matt Kaulig told SIRIUS XM Radio the team was preparing for a full-time effort in conjunction with the introduction of NASCAR's NextGen car. Kaulig currently has three full-time NASCAR Xfinity Series programs, manned by Jeb Burton, Justin Haley and AJ Allmendinger.
The 2021 NASCAR All-Star Race format has been revealed. The event at Texas Motor Speedway in June will be six rounds totaling 100 laps, with the winner receiving the lion's share of the customary $1 million bonus. This time around, $100,000 will be awarded to the pit crew who pulls off the fastest stop in round five of the format.
Atlanta Motor Speedway announced this week they'll open at full capacity when the Cup Series returns to the 1.5-mile oval in July. NASCAR also is planning to allow a limited number of guests to enter the garage area beginning with next weekend's event at Darlington Raceway.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Top-10 finishes for Kaz Grala in just three career Cup starts. The 22-year-old was also seventh subbing for Austin Dillon last summer on the Daytona International Speedway road course.
Organizations who have accounted for nine of NASCAR's 10 wins this season: Team Penske, Joe Gibbs Racing and Hendrick Motorsports.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
It's hard to bet against Denny Hamlin out in Kansas. The current NASCAR Cup point leader has three career wins at this track, including two of the past three races. He's led 268 laps during that stretch while collecting 47 points in stage bonuses. Extra credit comes with a 20th-place starting position that should produce a bushel of position differential points.
Martin Truex Jr. has slid back a bit compared to his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates at Kansas. Since moving over to the No. 19 Toyota in 2019, he's got just one top-5 finish in four starts. But 77 laps led during that stretch is pretty respectable for a guy who could provide more value at a lower price. Remember, back when Truex was with Furniture Row Racing, he swept both races here in 2017 en route to winning the Cup title.
At a track that rewards top contenders, I'm pushing three with Kevin Harvick. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver has just one finish outside the top 15 at this track since 2011, winning twice over the past five seasons. 85 laps led last fall plus Talladega momentum (fourth) equals hope there's momentum here to start a 2021 turnaround.
Can Alex Bowman bounce back after Talladega disappointment? The surprise Richmond Raceway winner two weeks ago was eliminated in a midrace accident not of his making, producing a disappointing 25th starting spot for Sunday. Position differential potential makes him a juicy pick for a Kansas track where he's pulled off five straight top-11 finishes.
Austin Dillon quietly put together an 11th-place finish at Kansas last October. It was his best run since 2016 here for Richard Childress Racing at a track where he's produced three top-10 finishes throughout his career. Expect him to be a great value pick for Sunday.
Can Erik Jones bring his Kansas Speedway magic to Richard Petty Motorsports? He's got five top-10 finishes in his last six races there, slipping to 20th last October. Of course, all those runs were in the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20 Toyota, not the single-car, underfunded No. 43 he's in now.
Corey LaJoie isn't mentioned here often. All the more reason to pick him as the driver of Spire Motorsports' No. 7 car. LaJoie was 21st and 23rd in the Kansas Cup races last year, making him a sneaky underdog pick at bargain prices.
What Vegas Thinks
Denny Hamlin leads the way for this weekend with 6/1 odds according to vegasinsider.com. Martin Truex Jr. is next up at 13/2, just ahead of five other drivers knotted together at 8/1.
Believe in the Buschy McBusch effect? Kurt Busch is sitting at 30/1 as a longshot.
What I Think
Denny Hamlin races up through the pack and takes his first win of 2021. It's long overdue for a driver who's jumped out to an 87-point lead over the field 10 races in.