One reason not to hate Cup drivers in the lower series

When Kevin Harvick announced he was running the K&N West Series race at Sonoma, I thought it was pretty lame.

Seriously though — what was the point? It’s not like he needed road course laps under his belt like Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez or Ryan Blaney (who were also in the race). And it would have been an upset if Harvick didn’t win. So why take away from young, up-and-coming drivers’ opportunity to showcase their talent?

As it turned out, Harvick didn’t take away from them at all — it actually put a much bigger spotlight on one of the K&N drivers.

Harvick should be applauded for how he’s used his victory to essentially raise the profile of 22-year-old Will Rodgers, who was Harvick’s K&N teammate and finished second in the race.

A Maui-born driver who moved to California as a kid, Rodgers won the pole and led the first 26 laps before finishing second. He is fourth in K&N West points after Saturday’s race.

But let’s say Rodgers had won and Harvick wasn’t in the race. He wouldn’t be making an appearance on Harvick’s Sirius/XM Radio show tonight, wouldn’t have gotten to sit on the No. 4 team’s pit box on Sunday and wouldn’t have made relationships like this:

 

So even though Rodgers was denied his first career win, the publicity and connections gained through racing with Harvick might have been a victory in itself. After the race, Harvick business manager Josh Jones even offered to point Rodgers in the right direction with sponsorship.

Rodgers came to the Sonoma tweetup on Sunday morning and said despite finishing second, he was honestly feeling pretty good about how everything unfolded. After all, if that outcome ended up being his big break, it’ll be the biggest non-win he’ll ever get.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Sonoma race

Five thoughts on Sunday’s race at Sonoma Raceway…

1. Harvick’s legend grows

It’s hard to be known as one of the greats while competing in the Jimmie Johnson Era, because many of the wins and championships end up getting hogged by the No. 48 team.

But let’s not overlook what Kevin Harvick continues to do at age 41.

After winning for the first time this season, the versatile driver now has victories at every Cup track but Pocono, Texas and Kentucky. Sunday was his 36th career win — which is fourth among active drivers — and he has the second-most wins to Johnson this decade.

At the same time, Harvick has switched teams and now manufacturers during his run — which can sometimes make for a setback in performance. In fact, it probably should have cost him much more speed than it did this season — but everyone took it for granted Harvick and Childers would be winners again soon after changing to Ford.

Internally, though, Stewart-Haas had a lot of work to reach victory lane again on a non-plate track.

“I can say this now, but I had mixed emotions about how the year was going to go just because of the fact that we had a lot on our plate to switch over,” Harvick said. “… One day, I think everybody will actually learn all the details of all the things that it took to get to this particular point. But it’s a huge undertaking.”

The cars have been fast again, though, and for the most part Harvick hasn’t missed a beat. That could set the No. 4 up as a title threat again when the fall rolls around.

2. Clean and green

After a controversial debris caution last week at Michigan, the final stage of the Sonoma race was caution-free — this despite several spins and off-course cars.

It seems crazy to think there could be 55 laps without a caution at Sonoma — where drivers are sliding all over the place and running into one another — but that’s exactly what happened.

No one was complaining about the lack of a debris caution, though. Several competitors found it refreshing, including Brad Keselowski — who praised NASCAR’s “restraint” on Twitter with a thumbs up emoji.

“Good for NASCAR, man,” said Dale Earnhardt Jr., who had addressed the topic on his podcast. “I think they heard the voices last week. There were some opportunities for sure for them to throw some yellows without much of a gripe from anyone, and they let it play out. That’s a race in my book.”

Tony Stewart, one of the vocal critics about the caution at Michigan, praised NASCAR for essentially swallowing the whistle.

“It’s so easy for cars to go off track here and it happened all day long,” Stewart said. “A couple cars even spun out and kept going. So there was a lot of opportunity where we could have gotten that debris caution or whatever during the race, but it was nice to see the race actually got to play out.”

Stewart chided the Joe Gibbs Racing cars for trying to get NASCAR to throw a debris caution after pitting, calling it “gamesmanship” on their part.

“They’re smart; they know how to play the game,” Stewart said of JGR calling for the caution. “I’m glad NASCAR didn’t bite on that one today.”

3. Strategy race

One of the great things about Sonoma — and there are many — is even if the race goes green for an entire half of the event, that doesn’t mean it’s boring.

In addition to the curbs and esses and hills and hairpin turn, the strategy makes the race enjoyable. Unpredictable is a positive thing in racing, and Sonoma certainly fits that description. It’s why only one active driver — Kyle Busch — has more than one win here.

The stages only added to the strategy this year. Harvick crew chief Rodney Childers said he agonized over it in the nights leading up to the race.

“It’s been trying to figure out what’s the right thing to do, how many tires do we have laying in the pits, when should we pit, when should we not, do we go after the playoff points in the first stage or do we not or do we pit early,” he said.

That certainly enhances the viewing experience, because it jumbles the field and creates different leaders (there were a race record 10 on Sunday, along with a record 13 lead changs) with all the various strategies.

“I had no earthly idea what was going on,” Jimmie Johnson said. “I passed so many cars. I don’t even know what strategy won. It was very difficult to know what was going on from inside the car. I would assume that caused a lot of great viewing and entertainment that was fun to watch, but I had no clue what was going on out there.”

4. Hang up on the ringers

For all the talk about road ringers, the Cup regulars shined once again. These heavy, bulky stock cars are very difficult to drive and require some level of mastery that someone parachuting into the series can’t match.

Every driver in the top 10 — Harvick, Clint Bowyer, Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Earnhardt, Kurt Busch, Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney and Jamie McMurray — was someone you would expect to see run in that spot on any NASCAR track.

The highest-finishing driver who might be a surprise was Michael McDowell, who finished 14th — but he’s 26th in points and drives these cars every week (and won an Xfinity road race). A driver with a road racing background can definitely shine more than an oval (like AJ Allmendinger) — but not unless they are used to the cars.

The ringer results on Sunday weren’t all that impressive. Road racer Billy Johnson — fresh off Le Mans — finished 22nd in the No. 43 car. Boris Said finished 29th, Alon Day was 32nd, Kevin O’Connell 33rd, Tommy Regan 34th and Josh Bilicki 36th.

Granted, those drivers weren’t in great equipment — but it still shows a racer with Cup experience would be a better bet for road course substitute duty than a driver who hasn’t had much stock car seat time.

5. More bad luck for Kahne

With all the SAFER barriers at tracks these days, it’s a bit of a shock when a car has a hard hit with a concrete wall. But that’s what happened to Kasey Kahne on the last lap of the Sonoma race following contact with Kevin O’Connell — who was two laps down.

I caught up with Kahne after the race when he visited his team — and destroyed car — in the garage. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Denny Hamlin also arrived to check on Kahne and survey the damage.

“No. 15 (O’Connell), we were going down the frontstretch taking the white flag and he turned left and went to my (inside),” Kahne told me. “Then I was going to his right and like right before we got to the corner, he just turned right into me and just shot me into the wall.

“It was weird what he was doing. I hope something broke on his car, but I’m not sure it did.”

Kahne acknowledged he was shaken after the hit but said he started to feel better following the ambulance ride to the track’s medical center.

“My right shoulder and right side took all the impact,” he said. “I feel good now, but I’ll be sore tomorrow. That was a pretty good shot.”

It’s just more misfortune for Kahne, who seems to have something go wrong for him every week. He ended up finishing 24th after the crash, but before that he had fresh tires late in the race and enough speed to pass eventual winner Harvick and unlap himself.

Kahne is 21st in the standings — 122 behind Clint Bowyer, who is the current cutoff on points thanks to the variety of different winners this season.

Kasey Kahne explains his last-lap crash to Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Denny Hamlin after the Sonoma race. (Photo: Jeff Gluck)

Someone at FOX Sports has big balls

Television broadcasting is hard. REALLY hard.

The professionals make it look easy, but it takes true talent to be able to think of something, make that something come out of your mouth without tripping over your words and then actually provide insight — all while some producer is giving instructions in your earpiece.

So when FOX Sports turns over its entire Xfinity Series broadcast at Pocono to a bunch of amateurs, it’s going to be must-see TV.

Now, these aren’t just any amateurs — they’re experts in their field — but FOX’s concept is a fascinating experiment. From the booth to pit road to the Hollywood Hotel, all of the “talent” will be active Cup drivers.

These drivers all have experience in front of the camera, which definitely makes a difference. It’s not like they’re going to be blankly staring into your TV.

But still, they’re going to struggle with all the things required of a professional. Getting to a commercial without leaving too much dead air? Throwing from one reporter to another on pit road? Setting up a replay?

It could be a total mess. Or it could be one of the best and most enjoyable broadcasts in years.

Either way, you sort of have to tune in, right?

It’s fun to picture Kevin Harvick as a play-by-play guy, trying to wrangle Clint Bowyer and Joey Logano as analysts. Then there will be Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ryan Blaney and Erik Jones trying to describe pit stops and interview wrecked drivers. And Danica Patrick and Denny Hamlin will make small talk in the Hollywood Hotel while keeping the show moving.

That’s the plan, anyway. How exactly is this all going to work? I’m as curious as anyone — and I can’t wait to see what happens. My guess is a lot of viewers feel the same way.

So nice move, FOX. We’ll be watching.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Atlanta race

Each week, I’ll provide some quick analysis through a post called the Top Five — five notable storylines from the just-completed race. Today: Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Unhappy Harvick

Kevin Harvick absolutely destroyed the field in a performance reminiscent of the ass-kicking Martin Truex Jr. laid on everyone in last year’s Coca-Cola 600.

But there was a big difference. Truex finished off his win, where Harvick blew it with a speeding penalty Sunday on the final pit stop.

At least Harvick owned up to the error after ripping his pit crew multiple times last season when they cost him races. This time, the pit crew was outstanding all day long — and Harvick was the one who failed to close.

“I just made a mistake that I preach all the time that you don’t need to make and beat yourself, and then you go out and make it yourself instead of following all the things you preach,” he said. “That part is hard for me to swallow.”

The talk coming out of Atlanta will focus on his mistake, but in reality, there’s a huge moral victory to be had. The fact Harvick could come out in the first intermediate track race of the season after switching to Ford and be that good is a really positive sign for the rest of the season.

Personally, I thought Stewart-Haas would struggle after leaving Chevrolet and the Hendrick Motorsports alliance. As it turns out, Harvick is as good as ever.

The mistakes? It’s a long season, and they can always be cleaned up.

Don’t give Keselowski a chance

I don’t have the stats to back this up, but it seems like whenever Brad Keselowski gets an shot at a victory — after fighting his way through a comeback — he often capitalizes on it.

Keselowski thrives on adversity and loves when people count him out. It brings out the blue-collar fighter in him, and you can’t let him sniff the lead in that situation or he’ll snatch it away and end up with the trophy.

That’s what he did at Atlanta. His team had a major screw-up after Keselowski had taken the lead on a late pit stop, and Keselowski had to return to the pits to add some lug nuts. He came out 13th, and his chances looked to be over.

Did he have a meltdown or flip out on his team? No. He went back to work, rallied back and was able to pull off one of those signature scrappy wins.

“Everybody stayed focused and nobody had to say anything,” he said. “We know the deal. We know this isn’t going to be easy. You have to keep your head down and keep fighting at all times and that’s what we did.”

Keselowski is easy to overlook. He can come off as a bit of a dork, and other drivers dismiss him at times when he spouts off. But that’s almost always a mistake with Keselowski; he might not look like he could beat you in a fight, but it’s best not to give him a chance.

Hey Dale, so about that new aero package…

What the heck? For all the talk and hype about the new even-lower downforce package, combined with an old track surface that eats tires, the expectations were pretty high for a thrilling race.

As it turned out, there wasn’t much in the way of action until the end. I asked Dale Earnhardt Jr. about why the race seemed, um…

“Uneventful?” he said.

Exactly. No wrecks? No spins?

“We’re all pretty good, I guess,” he said with a smile.

Look, it’s obviously way too early to judge the new aero package. But it was kind of weird that last year’s Atlanta race seemed racier than this year’s. And Earnhardt knew what I was getting at.

He suggested (perhaps half-jokingly) NASCAR should “take more downforce off til we start wreckin’ more.”

“These cars, they did take a lot of spoiler off,” he said. “But we all still have a lot of side force. You can’t even read the damn sponsors on some of the Toyotas, they’ve got such big quarterpanels.”

Side force keeps drivers from spinning out, Earnhardt said. And all the cars –not just the Toyotas — have a lot of it.

“You know how they talk about the Trucks, when they get sideways and they kind of straighten themselves out because they’ve got that big flat side?” he said. “We’ve all kind of got that same thing going on here. The spoiler makes it harder to drive, but still, when we get (out of shape), we get a little side force kicked in and it helps you save it.”

The problem, Earnhardt said, is even if NASCAR cut the side skirts or something along those lines, the teams would likely figure out how to get the cars back to where they were before.

“Look at a picture of Carl Edwards when he won here, passing Jimmie (Johnson in 2005),” Earnhardt said. “Look at where the splitter on those cars is when they cross the finish line. They’re like six inches in the air.

“That’s what we really need to be doing, but you can’t unlearn the engineering we’ve done in these cars. So we’re all going to find a way to keep them sealed up.”

Kahneiacs Rejoice!

Kasey Kahne has missed the Chase for two straight years. Last year, he didn’t lead a lap.

But Kahne’s fans? Man, they are so impressively loyal.

I asked one Kahne fan in Daytona: “If he doesn’t start doing better, how long will you stick it out?”

“Until he retires,” she said. “He’s my driver.”

So those dedicated Kahne fans deserve something to cheer about. And they might get it this season.

Kahne was all smiles when he emerged from his car after a fourth-place finish on Sunday — and not because the car was that good all day. Actually, Kahne and the No. 5 team struggled with many of the same things they had in the last couple seasons. They weren’t very good for much of the race.

But this time, unlike in the past, the team made the right changes, got the car better and got themselves out of a hole. I asked Kahne how significant that was.

“That’s actually really hard to do,” Kahne said. “It’s hard to do when you’re one of the best teams and drivers and running up front all the time. So for us, the last year or two, it’s been really hard — and today we did it.

“That was really nice to see and be part of. We’ll just keep building from there. But yeah, it feels really good to dig out of where we started.”

Another week like this, and Kahne fans might really have reason to start feeling optimistic again. Combined with a top-10 finish in the Daytona 500, Kahne’s Atlanta finish has him eighth in the point standings.

Kahne isn’t starting the season with a deficit this year. That’s a good sign for a driver who needs a rebound.

Get that outta here

At the end of Stage 1 and Stage 2 — during the race — small trophies were awarded to the No. 4 team. Stewart-Haas Racing tweeted pictures with crew chief Rodney Childers holding the trophy.

Now, I like the stages and all — they provide a good break for mostly uneventful races like Atlanta — but come on, people!

A trophy for winning a stage?? The stages are cute little excuses for cautions and there are definitely some benefits (I’m a fan!), but let’s not overdo it by giving away trophies. Isn’t a playoff point enough for a stage win?

Fortunately, I’ve been told this is not a NASCAR thing but a track thing. I hope other tracks don’t follow suit. No offense to Atlanta, but one trophy is enough for the race.

NASCAR fans don’t seem like the kind of people who like participation trophies, so let’s just forget this little incident ever happened and bury the stage trophies idea along with the Sprint narwhals.

2017 NASCAR Playoff Picks

Here are my picks for the 2017 NASCAR Cup playoffs (alphabetical order):

  • Clint Bowyer
  • Kurt Busch
  • Kyle Busch
  • Austin Dillon
  • Dale Earnhardt Jr.
  • Chase Elliott
  • Denny Hamlin
  • Kevin Harvick
  • Jimmie Johnson
  • Kasey Kahne
  • Matt Kenseth
  • Brad Keselowski
  • Kyle Larson
  • Joey Logano
  • Jamie McMurray
  • Martin Truex Jr.

A few expanded predictions:

— Clint Bowyer will get back to his old competitive self after joining Stewart-Haas Racing. By September, any hiccups SHR has in the transition to Ford will be forgotten.

— Four Toyotas will make it, but rookies Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez will barely miss out because of a few late-race mistakes.

— All four Hendrick drivers will be in the playoff, including Kasey Kahne after his best season in several years. Dale Earnhardt Jr. will finish the regular season within the top 10 in points.

— Both Chip Ganassi Racing drivers will be in and Kyle Larson will win two times in the regular season.

— Austin Dillon will win his first Cup race by late August.

— Overall, Hendrick Motorsports will be the best team in the regular season (with Jimmie Johnson having the most wins), followed by Team Penske. Joe Gibbs Racing will experience a slight drop-off after two great years, just part of the usual cycle in racing.

— I hate leaving Ryan Blaney out, but I’m not a Blaney detractor. I picked him to make it last year, and it’s certainly possible he could have a great year.

Joey Logano will win his first championship in 2017.