The Top Five: Breaking down the Brickyard 400

Five thoughts following Sunday’s race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway…

1. Saving Kahne

A few hours before the race, Rick Hendrick sat in the media center for a news conference and deflected questions about Kasey Kahne’s future. It wasn’t exactly a vote of confidence for the driver of the No. 5 car.

A potential replacement for Kahne — William Byron — had kissed the bricks a day earlier. Kahne, meanwhile, hadn’t won in nearly three years and entered Sunday 22nd in the series standings. His future didn’t exactly seem bright.

But after catching a lucky break on pit road and inheriting the race lead, Kahne found himself racing for his career — and delivered.

By excelling on two key restarts — one in which he held it wide open in the middle of a three-wide battle with Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski; another in which he out-dueled race leader Keselowski in overtime — Kahne reminded everyone of his talent.

After all, the guy has now won 18 career Cup races (ninth among active drivers), so that ability is there somewhere. It’s just been buried under a lack of confidence in himself and his team, a snowball effect that’s only gotten worse in the last couple years.

There’s no doubt he’s been mired in a terrible situation and could use a change of scenery despite having a contract through next season. But where could he land if he does part ways with Hendrick?

Well, winning the Brickyard and getting himself into the playoffs will do wonders for his prospects. He remains a popular driver despite his struggles, and now he won’t be an afterthought when it comes to top candidates to fill an open seat.

2. Follow the rules

NASCAR has an overtime rule, the point of which is to try and give fans a finish under green. But it appeared officials basically used the rule to make sure the race finished under yellow — and thus ended — on Sunday.

That’s the second time in a month this has happened, and it’s a disturbing trend in my view.

Darkness was quickly falling and there had been multiple big wrecks and long red flags. So when Denny Hamlin and others crashed on the backstretch, NASCAR waited to put out the caution until Kahne had crossed the overtime line (thus making it an official attempt).

Here’s a picture of what I’m talking about:

In this screenshot, you can see the wreck has started to take place (actually for a couple seconds at this point) and there’s still quite a ways before Kahne reaches the overtime line (the white line at the bottom).

NASCAR could have called a caution there, but they would have had to clean the track and might not have gotten the race restarted before it got dark (maybe, maybe not). So Kahne might have won anyway.

But here’s the thing: That’s not the rule! Whether it was dark or not shouldn’t have mattered at all. If it was dark, then let THAT end the race (like a rain-shortened event) instead of using the overtime line to do it.

NASCAR’s explanation for not calling the caution is it officiates the end of the race differently in hopes of getting a finish. That logic doesn’t hold, though, because it wasn’t the end of the race.

If it was the white flag lap, then sure. I get it and we’ve seen that plenty of times. But just like in the Daytona Xfinity race (where there was pressure to get it over with and move on with a doubleheader race day), the overtime line shouldn’t be used as an out.

At this point, I’ve come full circle and given up on any kind of overtime rule. Just forget the whole thing and go back to finishing races at the scheduled distance if the rule isn’t going to be used as intended.

3. Rowdy restart

Much ado was made of the restart when Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. collided while racing for the lead, moments after Busch had nixed a deal the drivers had kept all race.

Truex and crew chief Cole Pearn were miffed Busch wanted to race for it after Truex had played the good Toyota teammate in the first two segments. That may have played into how hard Truex raced Busch into the corner, but it was also likely because both drivers knew it might have been their final chance to get the lead (even though there was still more than one-quarter of the race remaining).

For that very reason, Busch didn’t even want to wait until the restart in question. On the prior caution (the break after Stage 2), he was in the midst of a conversation with crew chief Adam Stevens about what to do when NBC suddenly interrupted to talk to Stevens. The driver and crew chief never had a chance to address the issue again until the next restart — when Busch called off the agreement.

So even though scrapping the deal ultimately resulted in a crash, Busch shook his head when I asked if he had any regrets.

 

“Dude, hindsight is 20/20,” Busch said. “Do I regret it? No, because you race for the win. You’re supposed to race hard. If I would have done the (deal), he gets a three-second gap on me…he wins the race (and) I’m going to be thinking about it then, right? So you do what you’ve gotta do.”

4. Matt D. does it again

Did you notice? Matt DiBenedetto, who is sort of the ultimate underdog with his GoFAS Racing No. 32 car, scored an eighth-place finish after surviving all the insanity on Sunday.

Incredibly, DiBenedetto is one of four drivers — Kahne, Joey Logano and AJ Allmendinger are the others — to score top-10 finishes in both the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 this year.

“My crew chief, Gene Nead, always tells me before every race: ‘Stand on the gas and hope for the best,'” DiBenedetto said. “That’s pretty much what I did today. Just hoped we were in the right position, hoped it was our day and it was our day. That was pretty intense.”

DiBenedetto said he didn’t simply survive the race and cruise to a finish. He got “clobbered” in Turn 3 at one point — he didn’t even know who — and “made the greatest save of my life.”

Not bad for a team with only 15 employees.

5. Late start

I’m going to be totally honest with you: I was on the verge of tears at one point during the rain delay on Sunday.

Spending my own money to get to races this year has really provided some additional perspective on what fans who travel from out of state go through each weekend.

Back when I was at USA Today, a rained-out race meant a lost day at home (which sucked). But at least I didn’t have to spend my own money to pay an airline change fee or extra day of rental car/hotel/etc. That was on the company’s dime.

Now, though, that money is coming out of my pocket. And though my amazing supporters through Patreon have put me in a great position to get to races this season, spending extra money just isn’t in the budget. So I’m pretty sure I would have had to go home instead of changing my flight to attend a postponed race.

Because of that, it was incredibly frustrating when there was no rain at 1 p.m. (when NASCAR races traditionally start) and the skies were dry until 3 p.m. NASCAR could have gotten a couple stages in during that time, which would have meant an official race.

And while a shortened race wouldn’t have been ideal, it would have been a lot better for fans who spent their hard-earned money to travel there without flexibility in their plans.

Luckily for everyone, the race eventually finished on Sunday. But there was about an hour there where another big storm cell had formed and was heading right for the track — and if it had hit, that would have meant a Monday race. I was seriously sweating that scenario.

At some point, NASCAR isn’t going to be so fortunate. A late start time in the name of better TV ratings will force a postponement when the race could have gotten in had it started earlier — and a lot of fans will have to either eat their tickets or spend money to change their plans.

And when that happens, they’ll have every right to be pissed.

Rick Hendrick says he had Alex Bowman in mind all along

One intriguing news nugget to come out of Alex Bowman’s ascension to Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 88 car is the team signed him to a three-year deal last October.

But Rick Hendrick said Sunday morning in a news conference that the contract came with no promises of a job other than his current position: Driving the Chevrolet simulator and testing in the Chevy wheel force car on behalf of the team.

“We didn’t know what was going to happen, and we were very careful not to guarantee him anything other than if opportunities arose, he would have a shot,” Hendrick said. “I can’t make all the decisions — sponsors have to be involved. But in my mind, Alex was going to be the next up.”

It was interesting to hear Hendrick say he was pretty much looking to Bowman all along if everything lined up. The Hall of Fame team owner said Bowman was “in the back of our mind for whatever opportunity we had.”

“So it wasn’t much of a decision at all,” he said. “Alex was the guy.”

That doesn’t mean Bowman was the only driver considered. Hendrick was specifically asked about Matt Kenseth — who is available — and said, “I love Matt Kenseth.”

But he said the two had spoken in the past and mutually agreed that “sometimes things just don’t line up at the right times.”

As for Bowman, he just had to be ultra patient — which included turning down “solid opportunities” for this season with other teams.

“There was nothing set in stone,” he said. “It was a big leap of faith.”

Why was he willing to do that? Bowman said it’s because he grew up as a Jeff Gordon fan and wanted to drive for Hendrick his entire life. That was always the dream.

Plus, he said, even being a simulator driver for Hendrick was better than running 35th every week — as he did during his first years in the Cup Series.

“To get the opportunity to stay this year in whatever capacity, I was very happy to take that,” he said. “I didn’t know what was going to happen from there. … I took a chance with it, and I’m very glad it all worked out. “

DraftKings Fantasy NASCAR picks: Indianapolis

I’m playing DraftKings this season and will be posting my picks here each week. Disclosure: If you want to play and sign up using this link, DraftKings will give my website a commission.

Last race’s results: Played $4 Brake Pad contest and finished 1,560th out of 5,400. Won $8.

Season results: $55 wagered, $72 won in 15 contests.

This week’s contest: $9 Track Record game ($400k in total payout).

Indianapolis picks:

Kyle Busch ($10,500): The polesitter and two-time defending champion is likely going to lead a bunch of laps. It’s hard to go against his hammer possibilities, even though he’ll lose points in place differential if he doesn’t win.

— Kyle Larson ($10,200): Larson struggled on Saturday by his standards and had his worst qualifying effort of the season, so he’ll start 25th. The thing is, you know his cars have speed (look at the team’s usual performance, along with teammate Jamie McMurray qualifying third) — which means Larson will probably still get a top-10 out of it and get you a bunch of place differential points along the way.

— Dale Earnhardt Jr. ($8,200): Earnhardt seemed to have a car better than the 13th-fastest qualifier, which means he could pick up some positions. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him get a top five at Indy given the Hendrick speed overall, and he’s relatively affordable for someone with that potential.

Kasey Kahne ($7,900): It’s scary to pick Kahne these days, because something always seems to go wrong and screw up his race. But he seems to have a fast car at Indy — he had the sixth-fastest average of the 12 cars who did at least 10 laps in final practice — so it might be worth taking a chance on a guy who starts 19th and could pick up some place differential points.

— AJ Allmendinger ($6,900): It doesn’t look like he has a very good car this weekend, but he qualified 40th. So if he gets a top-25 finish at all, that’s 15 points right there in place differential — which is a way better deal than you’re going to get with other drivers in this price range.

— Paul Menard ($6,300): Here’s a former Brickyard 400 winner who starts 17th and is available for a good price. Menard has consistently made good runs at Indy — he has six top-15 finishes in his last seven Indy races.

Successful Xfinity Series race at Indy provides glimpse of the future

No matter what you think of NASCAR’s decision to go with an experimental rules package in Saturday’s Xfinity Series race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway or the merits of such a move, let’s start with the facts.

— There were a race record 16 lead changes, nearly doubling the previous race record of nine. That’s a remarkable number for the Brickyard, which has had 16 or fewer lead changes in 12 of the 23 Cup Series races run here!

— A race record eight different drivers led laps (two more than the previous mark). By comparison, last year’s Brickyard 400 — again, a race that was 100 miles longer — had just three different leaders.

— The margin of victory was just 0.108 second, which was obviously the closest.

So there are the facts. Did those stats — along with the eye test — make for a good race?

Well, as of the time of this post, 83 percent of people in a quick Twitter poll said “Yes.”

I agree. It wasn’t just a better race than in the past, but it was a good race — and I wasn’t very optimistic that would be the case, even with the rule changes in place.

After all, how many times has NASCAR tried something with high hopes (just look at the PJ1 at New Hampshire last week) only to see the race result in somewhat of a letdown?

This time, NASCAR’s extensive research and development work paid off with a concept that seemed to click. It would be shocking if officials didn’t try this idea in the Cup Series sometime in the next year — not just at Indy, but places like Pocono or Michigan.

Was it perfect? No, because it achieved only part of the goal. Slowing the cars kept the race close because the leader could not get away, but passing still seemed like a challenge.

Erik Jones, for example, told me he could easily stay with race leader Kyle Busch while running second — but there was nothing he could do to pass, even if he’d wanted to.

That said, Jones said the package was a positive move overall; it just needs some tweaks, he said.

“A lot of times, these cars are just going too fast,” Jones said. “You go to your local short track and the best race of the weekend is the street stocks or vintage cars, because they’re going so slow that they can go everywhere. They can go all over the racetrack.

“We were definitely a step towards that. You could even see people make passes on the outside, which at Indy is pretty unheard of.”

The whole thing is a bit of an odd concept at Indianapolis, which has rewarded pure speed ever since NASCAR has been racing here. But Saturday’s race had more of a Daytona or Talladega feel, where the leader was punished by getting too far ahead — allowing competitors to catch up in the draft.

Some fans were upset about the concept of artificially bunching the field. It also didn’t sit well with Kyle Busch, who was feeling salty after seeing his chance at a fifth straight Brickyard win disappear.

Busch told me the package was no good and said he would “definitely” be opposed to seeing it tried in the Cup Series.

“They wanted to slow down the fastest guy here so the rest of the field could keep up, and they did,” he said.

But what if there were some tweaks made that perhaps allowed for more passing? Would he be open to the idea then?

“There’s great ideas everywhere,” he responded while walking away.

Xfinity regular Brennan Poole, who finished seventh, disagreed with Busch’s comments. He said there were a couple small changes NASCAR could make to increase passing opportunities, yes; but overall, Poole had no problems with the fairness of the rules.

“I mean, that’s just part of racing,” he said. “It’s the same way at Daytona and Talladega. This package keeps everybody together, but you’ve just got to work a little harder for it.

“It puts on a better fan show for the fans. When there’s more passing and swapping for the lead and everyone fighting, it’s better to watch. I think it was good.”

And if you’re looking for a hint from NASCAR whether a similar package might be used in future races, Steve O’Donnell certainly gave all indications the sanctioning body viewed Saturday’s experiment with a smile.

“I think it passed the eye test,” he told reporters. “Some races, you’re going 200 (mph). Some, you’re down in the 100s on a road course. What at the end of the day matters is how many lead changes did we have and was it competitive throughout. And we thought it was today.”

 

Major Lazer embraces NASCAR theme at Indy’s 400 Fest

I’m not going to try to convince anyone that getting 5,000 or 10,000 Millennials to show up at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for a concert is going to suddenly create a lot of race fans.

That’s obviously not the case. The vast majority of the music lovers who came to see EDM megastars Major Lazer, rapper Mac Miller and DJ group Cheat Codes on Friday — the first day of the inaugural IMS “400 Fest” — have no interest in following NASCAR and never will.

But what if the track could expose new fans from a desirable demographic to NASCAR while making some money in the process? Even if a half percent of those people decided to take a second look at NASCAR, wouldn’t that be worth it?

Thanks to Friday headliners Major Lazer, IMS got a little help.

Before Major Lazer members Diplo and Walshy Fire took the stage (Jillionaire, the third of the trio, was performing in Ibiza), crew members passed out giant checkered flags with Major Lazer’s logo on them. Fans waved the flags around throughout the concert, and Walshy Fire also participated during one song.

In addition, the group’s four dancers sported checkered flag pattern booty shorts — which they emphasized through extensive twerking. And at one point, the DJs themselves wore shirts that appeared to say MAJOR LAZER in the style of the NASCAR bar logo (I think they also had a stock car on the shirt, but I couldn’t quite make it out).

Diplo seemed impressed by IMS and at one point urged the crowd to turn up and take advantage of “this great racetrack right here,” which he called “amazing.”

Again, I’m not saying all that is about to create thousands of new fans or even dozens. But it can’t hurt when Major Lazer tells an 18-year-old that Indianapolis Motor Speedway is cool and then shrouds its performance with checkered flag imagery.

 

Economics could push veteran drivers out of sport early, Denny Hamlin says

While there’s definitely a lot of merit to the young driver movement in NASCAR, there’s a flip side to the trend that has a big dollar sign attached.

Denny Hamlin, while acknowledging the influx of young talent into the sport, said hiring young drivers may not be what teams would prefer to do.

“It’s a shame the teams are not in a position to just put in who they want — put in the best guy available,” Hamlin said Friday during an appearance at the Indianapolis FedEx hub. “You wish the teams could operate and say, ‘You know what? We want this guy. We don’t care how old he is. We don’t care whether the sponsor likes him, because we have enough money in our company to field the car.'”

Hamlin said that because current teammate and free-agent-to-be Matt Kenseth is currently looking for a job despite still being at the top of his game.

“Without a doubt, Kenseth would be in a top-notch ride with a top-notch team if the business of NASCAR was run like that,” Hamlin said. “But it’s just not anymore. It’s tough to make money (for) these teams, and they need those sponsors to be OK with the drivers. … Kenseth, on talent, deserves to be in the sport for a fair amount of time.”

Veteran drivers, of course, demand a much higher salary than young drivers who are just happy to have the opportunity at the NASCAR Cup Series level.

Hendrick Motorsports hired unheralded Alex Bowman to replace Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the No. 88 car, Erik Jones will replace Matt Kenseth at Joe Gibbs Racing and Daniel Suarez replaced Carl Edwards this season.

So is Hamlin, 36, worried his driving days might end prematurely after seeing Kenseth and Greg Biffle pushed out of rides while in their mid-40s?

“Not as long as I have this company behind me — I don’t think so,” Hamlin said with a smile, motioning to a FedEx jumbo jet over his shoulder. He added: “I know my years are probably numbered and I probably know as far as I want to go.”

Denny Hamlin walks by a FedEx plane during a visit to the company’s Indianapolis hub on Friday. (Photo: Jeff Gluck)