Matt Kenseth and Joey Logano are total opposites. One’s a 43-year-old NASCAR champion, lover of sarcasm, Metallica concerts and is decidedly “old school.” The other is a 25-year-old rising star, one of the few success stories of NASCAR’s “new school” generation who’d take a quiet night at home, the comfort of iPhones, and some light piano from Billy Joel. They drive for different manufacturers (Toyota vs. Ford) and have decidedly different racing styles. The only thing they had in common, it seemed entering Sunday is that both were Sprint Cup championship contenders.
Contact between the duo during the closing laps at Kansas gave Logano a victory and turned Kenseth into a “victim,” almost certainly eliminating one of the best drivers left in the Chase. Kenseth, posting a race-high 153 laps led was cruising up front Sunday before a short green-flag run down the stretch left him vulnerable. Logano caught his rival, then stayed patient behind a series of desperation blocks before finally losing patience, laying the bumper to Kenseth with four laps left. The incident entering turn 1 left Kenseth spinning, ended his chances and now leaves him in a “must-win” situation entering Talladega – the Russian Roulette of NASCAR tracks where anyone has a shot at first place – in order to advance in the playoffs.
“It’s hard to drive a car with the rear tires off the ground,” Kenseth said. “I was moving around the best I could, Joey (Logano) was a lot tighter, a lot faster on the short run, but we were so much better on the long run. We caught those two lapped cars, ‘Crazy’ (Kenseth’s spotter) told me I was clear and I was, I pulled up in front of him and he just lifted my tires off the ground and he wrecked us.”
That crash wrecked Kenseth’s comeback, similar to Kevin Harvick’s two weeks ago when he cashed in on his “win or else” moment at Dover to stay championship-eligible. Combined with finishing 42nd at Charlotte, Kenseth now likely becomes the second big name kicked out of the playoffs after six-time champion Jimmie Johnson failed to make the final 12.
At least in Johnson’s case, he has nothing but a $5 part to blame. Kenseth can point the finger squarely at Logano, anger that could turn towards payback before this title Chase wraps up at Homestead.
“We go to win the race,” Logano said, responding to media questioning his aggressiveness as a driver already locked into the round of eight after winning the week before. “I'm pretty sure you look at some of our legends in our sport, they didn't go out there to run second. If I were worried about [Kenseth paying me back], I probably would have run about 30th every week, so I'm not going to worry about that. I'm going to drive my race car like I do every other week, and what we're going to do is be very proud of what we did today.”
Kenseth can only pout, a five-race winner on the verge of elimination, while other winless drivers, like Jeff Gordon with three top-5 finishes total this season have a chance to move on. It’s a product of the new Chase format, still controversial in the eyes of many who now must accept that top title contenders will fail long before the checkered flag falls in the Homestead season finale.
The question now is whether Kenseth will accept his fate quietly or disrupt Logano’s. For now, I’m going with “keeping quiet.“ Not one to ruffle feathers, Kenseth has had a moment or two (roughing Gordon up at Bristol in ’06 comes to mind) but punting someone to keep them from a championship? Only a few brave souls would dare to tread there. Kenseth has too much respect for himself and the industry to be “that guy.”
Instead, he’ll become part of a Chase chapter that could see three of the sport’s four biggest winners (Johnson and Kyle Busch) part of the first eight eliminated. Isn’t the cream supposed to rise to the top in this Sprint Cup playoff? Not if the intent remains to produce a “Game Seven” moment, as NASCAR CEO Brian France likes to call this latest version of his brainchild, the Chase. It turns out a season’s worth of running up front doesn’t stand a chance against one ill-timed bump of bad luck.
Through The Gears we go...
FIRST GEAR: Logano Hitting High Gear
As I wrote last week, Logano has been overlooked at times this season with the success of Hendrick Motorsports and then Joe Gibbs Racing as a whole. No longer; after two straight wins he has the attention of NASCAR Nation. Sunday was his fifth victory, tying Kenseth for the series lead and he’s been the most consistent driver so far this Chase. Without the playoff, Logano would actually be leading Harvick by 32 points in the season-long standings; third place Brad Keselowski would be 116 points behind. That’s almost three full races’ worth of points.
Logano, whose average finish at Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix earlier this season is a strong 5.0, seems destined for the Homestead final four. A tip of the cap goes to Team Penske and Roush Fenway Racing motors who have somehow kept this ship sailing during a dismal season for Ford. Teammate Keselowski has been off a bit; he’ll be lucky to make the round of eight. But at least he’s still alive; no other Blue Oval driver even made the Chase.
SECOND GEAR: No One Else Is Safe
Only Logano has to feel good among the 12 Chasers leaving Kansas. Even a last-place Talladega finish, highly possible considering its penchant for unpredictable wrecks, will do nothing to harm his title chances going forward.
You can’t say the same for anyone else. Even Denny Hamlin, second in points and 18 ahead of ninth-place Kyle Busch, could drop out of the top 8 if involved in a bad crash. The unpredictability of drafting combined with pure racing luck leaves a lot of sleepless nights ahead for 11 men. The battle to make those final few spots will change lap-by-lap in a draft where you can drop from fifth to 35th in a matter of oh, about 30 seconds.
THIRD GEAR: Big Names, Bad Days
Dale Earnhardt Jr. for the second straight year suffered through a miserable Kansas fall race. A loose wheel produced an unscheduled pit stop under green-flag conditions and left him sitting 21st at the finish. Like Kenseth, this Chaser must win to have any hope of advancing to the final eight – both drivers are too far back in points – but at least Earnhardt has a victory from the spring at ‘Dega to hang his hat on.
Kevin Harvick, meanwhile lost a lap while dragging a gas can outside his pit stall. Add in a broken shifter and the reigning champ was lucky to come home 16th. That’s hardly the momentum the No. 4 team was looking for during a far more difficult Chase than expected; Talladega still leaves them highly vulnerable without a victory that guarantees their spot in the round of eight.
Hometown heroes Carl Edwards and Clint Bowyer also struggled through subpar days. Edwards had an ill-handling car, slow pit stops and was lucky to simply finish eighth. Bowyer didn’t fare so well; running outside the top 15, he overcorrected exiting Kansas’ treacherous turn 2 and slammed hard into the outside wall. His 40th-place result leaves him 0-for-5 on top-10 finishes this Chase and on the verge of leaving soon-defunct Michael Waltrip Racing with a whimper.
“I hit a wall. Pretty damn hard,” he said. “I couldn’t believe how fast it snapped. You usually can ride it along, but that thing came out from underneath of me so fast. (Jeff) Gordon pulled up and did a good job of taking my line away and I tried to pull it down in a bad spot of the corner. As soon as that headlight got some air in it, boy that baby bit and turned me around pretty quick.”
FOURTH GEAR: Kansas Has Come Into Its Own
Bowyer was part of a flurry of drivers Sunday (Tony Stewart, Kyle Larson) who found trouble coming off turn 2. It seemed that
even with NASCAR’s ho-hum 2015 rules package drivers still had to drive, utilizing the skill sets that launched them to Sprint Cup in order to keep control of their cars. The racing up front, aside from late-race contact, left much to be desired but the “edge of control” feeling for drivers actually led to more passing and several side-by-side battles back in the pack.
With the track producing solid racing now one can only imagine how challenging it will be with the sport’s new low-downforce rules package. This time next year, Kansas could be the Chase’s big “wild card” outside of Talladega and the short track in Martinsville. It’s pretty amazing to think how far this track has come, a place that was once heavily criticized for boring racing upon its addition to the circuit in 2001.
What a shame for sophomore Austin Dillon. Dillon and the No. 3 team showed speed at Kansas, running inside the top 5 before a blown right-front tire sent him hard into the outside wall. The 41st-place finish continues a pattern in recent weeks where the team has run far stronger than the final results appear... NASCAR needs to get its franchising system set up, pronto. Two potential new teams – one at Team Penske for Ryan Blaney, a partnership with the Wood Brothers and an expansion third car for Harry Scott – are on hold while the sport figures out how it’ll “lock in” teams for the 2016 season and beyond. Sponsors can only be put on hold for so long in a sport that hasn’t been the most attractive financial investment as of late... Overnight ratings for Kansas were up, the first year-to-year increase for NASCAR this Chase and shockingly the first above 2.0. With the NFL posting ratings as high as 14.6 for the same day, however, the gap between stock car racing and the most popular sport in the country remains wide.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
Photos by ASP Inc.