Five thoughts from Saturday night’s race at Kansas Speedway…
1. Please be OK
The Joey Logano/Danica Patrick/Aric Almirola crash was the scariest incident in a non-plate Cup Series race in a long, long time. It’s not worth ranking crashes against one another, but it was in a category of frightening wrecks that seem part of a bygone era — when those incidents came with a high risk of serious injury or worse.
Of course, this stretch since 2001 is an illusion. NASCAR is safer now, but it’s not safe. And perhaps everyone has been lulled into a false sense of security.
Can you blame people? When drivers emerge from vicious crashes time and time again — even situations like Michael McDowell at Texas, for example — we just come to expect it. So as bad as Almirola’s hit was — rear tires off the ground and all — it was actually surprising when he appeared to be injured and had to be removed on a backboard.
Seeing the roof cut off of a car to get the driver out was an unfamiliar sight for fans who started following NASCAR in the last decade or so. I don’t recall seeing this happen in the Cup Series since I’ve been covering it (starting in 2004).
Fortunately, Almirola was conscious and able to move enough to drop the window net. As of writing this, there’s no official update on his injuries yet. Update: The team did not disclose Almirola’s injuries, but said he is in stable condition and is being held for observation overnight at a local hospital. Hoping the best for Almirola and his family should be the biggest concern for now.
But we should also use this as a reminder that crashes won’t always have a favorable outcome.
“It’s a dangerous sport — always has been, always will be,” Brad Keselowski said. “Sometimes we forget that and maybe take for granted that you see real hard hits and people walk away, and then you see one where someone doesn’t, and it puts things back into perspective just how dangerous it can be.”
2. Truex capitalizes
Although Ryan Blaney had two late chances to beat Martin Truex Jr. on a restart and score his first victory, the race may actually have been decided on the third-to-last caution.
On that restart, Blaney was on the inside of the front row with Truex lined up behind him. Truex went down to the apron and Blaney tried to block — but Truex then faked him out, went up the track to the preferred higher lane and drove away. Truex never trailed after that.
It was the move of a driver who has lost more races than he’s won, especially over the last few years, and is practically desperate not to let any more victories slip away. And in some ways, drivers have to learn what loses races like these before they understand what actions result in a win.
“You don’t forget those days that ones got away or you screwed up and gave one away or anything like that,” Truex said. “You never forget those things. They always stick with you.”
Granted, many of the missed opportunities haven’t been his fault, but they seem to bring out an extra level of determination to seize the chances that continue to come his way.
Blaney will eventually figure out how to close races. The more he’s in the position to have a shot at the win — like at Kansas — the better he’ll become.
3. Loose ends
Perhaps more than any driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is conscious of when his wheel might be loose.
Can you blame him? If his team leaves the wheel loose enough to come off (like it nearly did at Talladega last week), Earnhardt could hit the wall at full speed and have his career come to a premature end with another concussion — perhaps even having lifelong implications.
So when there’s a chance he might have a wheel loose, he’s going to err on the side of caution. It’s just not worth it to risk it otherwise.
You would think, then, that the No. 88 team would be particularly diligent about getting the wheels secured. If nothing else, it’s a confidence thing for Earnhardt to know he can go out and drive aggressively.
But it was another verse of the same old song at Kansas, where Earnhardt had a loose wheel again. However, he also said he pitted in one instance when it wasn’t necessary — because he mistakenly believed another one was loose.
“I came in for a vibration that wasn’t a loose wheel and we lost a lap and we got it back and ended up 20th,” he said. “I made a few mistakes tonight on the vibrations and what I thought they were and it cost us a lot of track position. It cost about 10 spots at least.
“I’m just a little confused as to why we can’t seem to shake this … I can’t say it’s really bad luck because tonight really was our own doing, but we can’t get in harmony and know whatever it is.”
This reminded me of the time in 2010 at Dover, when Earnhardt pitted by mistake because he thought his tire was flat — but it was actually just his car acting up. But there’s one big difference: He has speed now, whereas the cars back then pretty much sucked.
So although Earnhardt fans are certainly frustrated and are calling for Greg Ives’ job or pit crew changes, I don’t think the 88 team is that far off. The best chance for a victory is to stick together, put together a few mistake-free weeks and then get thoughts of loose wheels out of Earnhardt’s head.
4. False hope?
Just when it looked like Joe Gibbs Racing was going to have a shot to get its first win of the season, it got bested by affiliate Furniture Row Racing again.
All four of JGR’s cars were in the top 10 for much of the race, and Kyle Busch led 59 laps. But Busch ultimately ended up fifth — the highest-running JGR car — and it looked like the team still has much work to do in order to meet its standards from the last two years.
“We just don’t have that speed to be first,” Busch told FS1 after the race. “We don’t have that dominant speed to be up there all day.”
Especially, Busch added, to compete with the 78 car. Which is weird, since they’re basically both on the same team.
My favorite theory in explaining this is echoing something Jimmie Johnson noted last year about affiliate teams. The supplier (like JGR) builds chassis and pours all its knowledge and manpower into making them the best it can; but then affiliates like Furniture Row take the car and has its own very smart people put another twist on it.
It’s sort of like taking an A- English paper written by someone else, making a few tweaks and getting an A+ on it.
Still, that has to bug the crap out of JGR — although Furniture Row is doing exactly what it should be.
5. Points picture
The regular season is approaching its halfway point (Kansas was Race No. 11 of 26), so the standings are starting to be a legitimate concern for some drivers.
Stage points have created some big gaps between the drivers who regularly run up front and those who have struggled, and the latter include some big names.
Earnhardt is 25th in the standings, 77 points out of a playoff spot. Matt Kenseth is 18th. Daniel Suarez, who is driving for a team that made the final four last year, is 19th. And 2016 playoff driver Austin Dillon is 22nd.
So while there’s still a long way to go, there’s little margin for error remaining for drivers who are off to slow starts.