Through the Gears: Four things we learned in the Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol.
Kasey Kahne, by his own admission, is NASCAR’s version of “Mr. Clean.” What else can you say after Bristol’s big fireworks show that never exploded? He had several prized opportunities Saturday to turn Matt Kenseth’s Dollar General Toyota and skate by for the win and a season sweep at the half-mile track. No one would have blamed him, either. All season, the No. 5 car has been swung into SAFER Barriers like clockwork by Kenseth and his teammates; they’ve made the old Allstate cougar accidents seem minor by comparison. It would have been only fair, in a locale nicknamed “Thunder Valley,” to cash in on the payback that was ripe and ready for the taking.
The fact Kahne passed on the aggression and settled for second is a compliment to his character — just not his career. Kahne turned down a “get even” opportunity on a move used commonly by short track racers around the country. Remember Bristol 1999, when Dale Earnhardt spun Terry Labonte on the last lap? The Intimidator was hardly intimidated by boos; neither were NASCAR officials. The No. 3 car sat in Victory Lane without penalty while Labonte’s crumpled heap of a Chevy was wheeled back to the garage behind a tow truck. Sometimes, that’s just the way you win races at short tracks. Let the best man who survives contact win.
How ironic that Kahne, driving the same car Labonte once made famous, has developed a similar, low-key and conflict-free personality. That might have worked in the ‘80s, even the ‘90s, but NASCAR is now a different place. Any athlete worth his weight in gold will smell out someone’s weakness. Now, all 42 competitors know, in a series where passing is difficult, that Kahne won’t hit them back if they play bumper cars. An element of fear, often an asset for a racer, is now gone. If Kahne won’t hit a competitor now with a win on the line and having been wronged all season, he’s not going to stand up for himself on the track. Ever.
I never truly believed in Leo Durocher’s quote, “Nice guys finish last,” but maybe Kasey Kahne has turned the other cheek one time too many.
Off the track? That makes him a winner. On it? That keeps a championship out of reach.
Speaking of titles prevented, “Through the Gears” find some people missing shifts after Bristol …
FIRST GEAR: Championship chances in big trouble Brad Keselowski hit Bristol with tons of momentum. He left it, well, getting hit. A late-race wreck, the icing on the cake of a myriad problems Saturday evening, left the No. 2 team outside looking in at the Chase. Only once has the previous year’s series champion missed the postseason (Tony Stewart, 2006). Only four points out, recovery is still possible, but it’s not a risk you want to take with another short track left on the slate.
“I’m not gonna be out of the worried zone unless I make it or it’s over,” Keselowski said. “That’s my job as a race car driver. I care about my team. We’ve got two races left. I think they’ll be good racetracks for us.”
Whether they will is yet to be determined. Keselowski’s teammate, Joey Logano, had a solid top-5 finish, is 10th in points and has the speedy setups he can pass over to the reigning champs. It’s just that, as we’ve seen so often with the No. 2 team this season, circumstances out of their control can jump up and bite. And other circumstances very much in their control — two points penalties equaling 31 points for failed inspections — find them out of the Chase by an agonizingly slim four points.
SECOND GEAR: Bristol had buzz
Who says Denny Hamlin can’t have an impact on the title this season? His contact on the backstretch with Brian Vickers set off a multi-car incident that altered the points race going forward. In an instant, a strong run for Chase contender Martin Truex Jr. was wiped out. So were the showings of about a half-dozen other cars. Tense moments ensued thereafter, when another victim, Kevin Harvick, parked in Hamlin’s pit stall to show maximum displeasure.
Hamlin explained the pit road incident away as no big deal.
“Me and Harvick are good friends, so luckily he was man enough to come over to talk to me right now and we were able to hash it out in about 10 seconds.”
It was just one of several examples of Bristol gone wild. 11 cautions. Quality racing. Flared tempers. All the elements the old track used to have, with more side-by-side competition thrown in. No question, the night race was one of the best this season, a showcase of what short tracks and NASCAR’s Gen-6 can do. Now, to transfer that to the other dozen or so ovals that don’t get it …
THIRD GEAR: Kenseth gets back on track
JGR’s newest pilot has spent the dog days of summer chasing his early-season brilliance. Entering Bristol, Matt Kenseth had led just one lap during the past four races and earned one top-5 finish during that span — easily his worst “slump” of 2013. Saturday night? He paced the field for a race-high 149 laps. Peaking at the right time, he positioned himself perfectly once Carl Edwards’ engine went south around Lap 375.
In one sense, this victory should come as no surprise: While not necessarily known as a short track ace, Kenseth has led 414 laps over the last five races at Bristol. Where the shock value comes in is that he now owns the top Chase seed by three bonus points over Jimmie Johnson with two weeks left in the regular season. All summer, the No. 48 team has made portions of races its own personal playground, only to fall flat in crunch time. Those three to four missed opportunities now loom large, giving the top Joe Gibbs Racing team some confidence entering the fall.
“Hopefully that gives you momentum,” Kenseth said. “The next 12 weeks are the most important 12 weeks of the season, so I approach every race the same. Go out with the idea of trying to qualify the best you can and prepare like you're going to go try to win the race.”
No question that Johnson has had more speed throughout the season. But there’s no arguing that Kenseth has now closed the deal at a greater clip than his Hendrick Motorsports foe and may just have something for him yet in that final 10-race run.
FOURTH GEAR: Edwards gets his mojo back … kind of
Roush Fenway Racing, with the exception of Greg Biffle’s Michigan win in June, has spent the year a forgotten superpower. Not in the Silly Season mix with its drivers signed to long-term deals, the organization seems to have faded into the background behind the typical rollercoaster dramas that flare up when drivers, crew chiefs and team look to make changes. While Chevy and Toyota have traded punches, RFR’s Fusions have been picking up the scraps of top-10 finishes to stay in Chase contention.
Enter Carl Edwards. Since the spring, he’s had the points deal on lockdown but has remained conspicuously absent from the front of the pack. Bristol was a surprise opportunity to change all that. If not for a blown engine with less than 120 laps to go, it’s very likely the storyline would have been the No. 99, front and center, in Victory Lane. With 119 laps led — his most since a Phoenix win in February — it was a key moment that shows the team can still flash speed.
“That’s the most fun I’ve had in a race car in a long time,” Edwards said. “Jimmy did a great job. The car was almost perfect and the engine ran awesome until it broke. We had great pit stops and I think we’ve got some good things to get forward to. This is what we needed, a race like this — with the engine aside — I think we were the dominant car here tonight. We’ve got some good races coming up.”
David Ragan, who has struggled since his upset win at Talladega, was a strong 12th for Front Row Motorsports. It was the best finish for him at an unrestricted track with the team in two seasons. … Dale Earnhardt Jr. played it safe to run 10th rather than risk it on gas to try and win the race down the stretch. That did put him 33 points ahead of the cutoff but it’s still far from a guarantee. Remember, one blown engine could cost him 40 points, if not more.