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.

Social Spotlight with Sherry Pollex

Each week, I ask a member of the racing community to shed some light on their social media usage. Up next, Sherry Pollex, the longtime partner of Martin Truex Jr. (Note: This interview was conducted prior to Sherry’s public revelation of a cancer recurrence.)

Let’s start with your Twitter account. Sometimes you’re willing to put yourself out there, get opinionated. You’re really willing to speak your mind. What’s your basic philosophy with how you use your Twitter account?

My Twitter account is my only account that I have that’s public, so it’s my only chance to really give my opinion and be opinionated with the fans or just people in general about how I feel about things, whether I’m talking about my life, my personal life, cancer, racing, whatever. So I kinda use that as my platform.

I know that not everyone probably agrees with me all the time, but that’s OK, they don’t have to. As long as they’re respectful, I don’t block them. I try not to block people unless they’re mean. If they talk — can I cuss?

Sure.

OK, if they talk shit about Martin, I’m gonna block them because I don’t like when people talk shit about him. So I’m really protective of him. If somebody says something bad about him — because he’s like the nicest guy ever — then I have to block them.

You and I have talked a couple times this year about me saying some things that aren’t totally politically correct, so I’m sure I’m not on everyone’s good side all the time. But it’s my opinion, it’s honest — and if people don’t like it, they don’t have to follow me.

From afar, I look at the motorhome lot that we’re in right now and I’m like, “Everyone is so tight-knit.” But you’re saying stuff that at times might make some people mad within the motorhome lot. So do you ever get blowback from that? Does anybody ever come to you and say, “You shouldn’t have tweeted that?”

So that’s not happened to me ever, but I have heard that happening with some of the other wives. I think at times people tend to say things that are a little sensitive to other people’s husbands, and after the race it can get a little ugly on Twitter. I’ve seen some Twitter wars between the other wives. Luckily, I have never been in the middle of one.

I know there’s been some discussions in the motorhome lot after the races. Hopefully they talk it out and let it go. I think that things are just said in the heat of the moment and maybe they weren’t meant to be mean, or they weren’t meant to be rude to that person. So hopefully they talk it out like adults afterwards.

But I’ve actually never had that happen. I have gotten some Twitter wars with people on there that are mean to me, because I think people can be so quick to be judgmental on Twitter because you’re judging somebody by 140 characters or something that they’re saying.

I tell people all the time, “You don’t know me, so don’t judge me.” Don’t judge my situation. Don’t ask me why I’m not married. You know what I mean? There are so many things that are not appropriate for that time. You don’t know my situation, you don’t know my life, so don’t make those assumptions and I won’t make them about you. I think that’s the only time it’s ever really happened to me, with just people following me.

So you feel in some ways that you’re opening up your life, but then you feel like people are thinking they’re entitled to more. Like, “You gave me this one answer, this one insight, so where is the rest of it?”

Yeah. I do think people do that. So a lot of times I’ll start something, but then I don’t finish it because people do that. They keep writing and they want more, and it’s almost like they want me to say something I’m not supposed to say. And I’m not gonna do that, because it’s not the appropriate place to do it.

But I do get the marriage question a lot. I get a lot of people that ask why we’re not married. Well, it’s been 12 years, we’re still not married, we’re probably never gonna get married — so if we’re OK with it, you should be, too. Not everybody wants to be married, let’s just get that clear. So I think it depends. I try to just run that middle line all the time. I try not to make anyone too angry and just try to stay kinda even and cool.

So you’ve talked about the people that deserve the block if they talk shit about Martin. What else deserves a block? Like how does somebody cross the line? Can somebody argue with you but not get blocked?

Yeah. I’m all for a good argument. Ask Martin: I was born to argue. I love arguing with people. But if you’re gonna argue with me, do it politely. Don’t call me names and don’t say anything obnoxious about Martin, because if you do cross that line, I’m gonna probably block you. But I really haven’t had to block that many people.

I’ve had one weird stalker guy on there that was like really, really crossing the line, like talking about my family and hurting me and people in my family. I actually had to get some people involved. It was really creepy. So there is some people that I’ve had to block where I’m like, “Don’t ever come near me. You scare me. You make me feel like I wanna have a bodyguard.” But for the most part, I think everybody’s pretty friendly.

How do you decide who to follow with your Twitter account? How often are you looking at it? Is it something where you’re getting your news from it?

I definitely use Twitter for news. I get on Martin all the time for being on his Twitter, but always he says, “This is where I get my news from. This is where I get all my information.” I tried going on vacation and (staying off it) like, “Don’t go on it for a couple of days,” but I feel like I’m missing out. I haven’t been checking it, and I’m proud of myself for not checking it, but then I feel like I’m missing out on something.

So I think there’s a really fine balance between being on it for informational purposes and to get news and then being on it too much and getting addicted to it, wanting to check it all the time to see what everybody’s doing. I naturally want to know what’s going on in other people’s lives all the time — and I think that’s human nature — but it can also be unhealthy. So I have to control it sometimes, like, “I’m only gonna check Twitter and Instagram once a day. Then I don’t need to be on it again.” It’s really hard to do.

I’ve struggled with that. I’ve pretty much given up, even on vacation, I just can’t stay off it. I think we’re just so tied into it. It’s really a link to the community too, so you know what everybody else is doing, you know what’s going on, and if you miss that, like, “Oh no you didn’t see that? You didn’t know what was going on with me?”

You feel left out, right? You feel like you’re missing out on something. Martin, I give him a hard time because he’s always on his Twitter on the bus, but he never tweets anything. So he’s always on there and I’m like, “Why are you on there if you never tweet anything and you don’t like it?” And he’s like, “I feel like if I’m not on it, I miss out on everything. I don’t know what’s going on. Everybody’s doing something and I need to know about it.” I’m like, “OK, that makes sense, because I do the same thing.” It’s hard to criticize others when I do it, too.

I just figured Martin never looked at it at all. I didn’t know he was sort of a lurker.

He’s like lurking in the background, checking it all the time. And honestly, I probably shouldn’t tell people this, but after the race, he is always checking his replies to see what people are writing to him. I think he likes to see what’s going on during the race and like what people are talking about. So yeah. He’s a lurker. He’s on there a lot. He just doesn’t tweet a lot.

You have Instagram accounts, Facebook, things like that for personal use and you keep it private. Is that just a way for you to have your own space in the social media world?

Yeah. I mean, I kind of struggled in the beginning. My Instagram was open to the public, and then I was like, “Eh, I really need to have something where I can post pictures for friends and family that don’t live here that I want to keep in touch with where they can just see it, and not everybody can see it.” So that’s why I keep my Instagram private.

I’m not a big Facebook person. I have an account, but I just use it for my business (Lavendar Boutique), so I’m never really on there. So I just do Twitter and Instagram. And I’m really addicted to Instagram — I’m on there all the time. I’m always putting stuff on my story and I like to share with my friends and family, but I need my own space to keep part of my life private. So that’s why I do that.

Where do the Sherry Strong accounts come into play (for her cancer prevention website SherryStrong.org)? Do you post a lot on those yourself? Are you looking at replies to those accounts as well?

Yeah, so the @SherryStrongOC pages — we have a Facebook, an Instagram, and a Twitter, and I post on all of them. My sister, Jill, does too because she runs that account. So we both kind of tag team it. Like if I’m like juicing it or doing something cool in the morning that I want them to see that has to do with my health, then I film it. And then we do a lot of articles.

It’s not even just for cancer patients, it’s just for people in general on how to keep their bodies healthy and how to be well and how to use cancer prevention — not just if you have cancer, how to control it. So I love doing all of that. That’s a really cool outlet for me to share with the fans and how I live my life every day. I really enjoy that. So I kinda do both.

I switch around. I help Martin with his accounts sometimes, too, so I do Martin sometimes, I do mine and I do the Sherry Strong. So I have a lot of different accounts that I switch around back and forth between.

What kind of feedback have you gotten from those Sherry Strong accounts? For instance, you were talking about deodorant at one point — like how a lot of the deodorants are toxic — and my wife Sarah switched over to a healthier deodorant after seeing your post about it. So you must get a good response when you’re educating a lot of people that don’t know about this stuff.

Yeah. So I posted the deodorant thing on my personal Twitter after we put out the Sherry Strong site, and it went crazy. People went nuts over it. So I got a lot of questions about that. I mean, that’s great; I’m glad to hear that Sarah switched her deodorant, ’cause that’s good.

There’s a lot of things I learned when I got cancer about toxins on my body or in our house and around the things that we use everyday, and it was eye-opening for me. I wanted to be able to share that with people, so I try to share the important things on my personal Twitter, too, so that people who don’t follow the Sherry Strong sites can see it.

But I try not to bombard people that follow me on my personal Twitter. I know that they don’t want to hear about deodorant everyday — and I don’t write about deodorant everyday — but it is important that people know about the toxins in their body and their environment, so we do a lot of that.

And I enjoy sharing that information because it’s a lot of work to get all that and figure out what that means and what that means in your household and for you body, so we try to decipher all that for all the fans and do it for them.

What are some of your favorite accounts to follow that makes being on Twitter fun for you?

Oh geez, I have a lot of favorites. So I follow a lot of the drivers, of course. I really enjoy following Dale Jr. because he’s really funny. I’ve known Dale for a long time — Martin and him have been friends for a long time — and I know he’s really witty and funny, but he’s really funny on Twitter. Like you see his true personality come out. He’s probably my favorite person to follow.

Then I follow a couple celebrities. I follow Ashton Kutcher and random people, just celebrities that I like in movies and stuff. And then I follow some health-related stuff that I like. You put me on the spot — I can’t think of any others off the top of my head besides I really like to follow Dale Jr.

Do ever have to mute anybody?

No, how do you mute people? What are you talking about?

So if you mute somebody on Twitter, you still follow them, basically, but you no longer see their tweets so they don’t know that you don’t see their tweets. They’re just out of your timeline so you don’t have to deal with them anymore.

I didn’t know you could do that. So now you gave me this new trick that I’m gonna have to do. There might be a couple people I’m gonna have to do that to. I don’t feel like I follow that many people, but I probably do. I haven’t even looked to see how many people I follow (769). But there might be some people who I need to pull that card with now. I don’t know. You just gave me a new trick up my sleeve.

You may no longer see my tweets after this. So are you into Snapchat at all? Have you ever considered looking at Snapchat?

I’m not on Snapchat. Well, I take that back. I do have Snapchat on my phone, I did create an account, but I just never use it. I use it to take the funny pictures with the filters. So I do all the funny faces then I save the pictures and send it to people, but I don’t use Snapchat.

I took over the NASCAR Snapchat one day, and that was fun. Martin and I had some fun with that. But as far as opening it up to the public and using it, I think I just have so many other things that I wanna do with my time, it gets overwhelming.

I’m already doing Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and all that, so I don’t need to have one more thing with my time. I wanna spend time with my friends and family and be present in the moment, so I kinda have to pick and choose.

How much during a race are you looking at Twitter? Obviously you’re watching what’s going on on TV. Do you listen to the radio for Martin? How much information do you pull from Twitter as the race is actually going on?

I definitely listen to Martin’s radio, and then I’m always on Twitter during the race. So whether I’m writing anything or not, I use it for information. I read what the other wives are saying about their husbands’ cars, I read what the teams are saying about their cars, I read about what’s going on when a caution comes out, I read about what the media says. I read everything on Twitter during the race. I think it’s just a good place to get information and it kinda keeps me engaged and I can hear things that are going on with our team outside of Martin’s radio. So it’s super useful during the race, for sure.

Any final thoughts on where you think social media is going? It’s obviously come a long way in our lifetime — in the last few years really. It’s sort of crazy how it’s just suddenly there and everybody’s using it all the time. Where is it going next?

I don’t know. That’s a good question. Social media has blown up. I remember when Twitter first came out and we got on it and everyone was like, “This isn’t gonna be big. No one’s gonna do it.” And it’s huge. So I can’t even imagine where it’s gonna go now with all the video technology. Now you can do surveys and all that stuff. I can’t even imagine in five to 10 years from now where it’s gonna be.

My hope for the youth of America is that they’re not so engaged on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram that they forget to look up and enjoy their lives and live in the moment. I know we’re all kind of guilty of that, and I’d hate to see that with the younger generations.

I think it’s cool that they have all these different avenues and ways they can connect with other people — I just hope they don’t miss out on their lives, too.

Video: Toyota drivers participate in Olympic crossover event

During two days in Utah, I watched as Toyota NASCAR drivers Martin Truex Jr., Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez — along with crew chiefs Cole Pearn and Chris Gayle — mingled with Olympic athletes and participated in various Winter Games training.

It was pretty fun, and I could tell you all about it, but I’d rather show you. So here’s a video I made about it:

Post-Michigan Podcast with Portland-area NASCAR fans

For this week’s post-race podcast, I was joined by several of the race fans who watched the Michigan race with me at a local sports bar near my new home in Oregon. The fans gave their impressions of the Michigan race and also gave their picks for the championship favorite at this point of the season.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Dover race

Five thoughts following Sunday’s race at Dover International Speedway…

1. Get out of Line

After a disappointing finish to what was otherwise a very entertaining race, the immediate reaction from NASCAR Twitter was, Man, that overtime line rule stinks!

That’s understandable, because fans invested four hours in a race that built anticipation with great racing — only to see a non-finish. Ugh.

It’s easy to follow the “That sucked!” reaction with “NASCAR should change that!” But there are still a few benefits worth considering before throwing the whole thing out.

First, the current overtime rule was designed for superspeedways and still has validity at Talladega and Daytona. By cutting down on overtime attempts, there’s a reduced risk of a car flying into the fence like Austin Dillon or Kyle Larson at Daytona.

Second, it lessens the chances of race manipulation. Remember, this rule was created in the wake of the sketchy Talladega finish in the 2015 Chase.

So with that in mind, NASCAR had to come up with a rule that would address those issues while also applying to every race and all types of tracks (otherwise, people could scream inconsistency!).

But Dover really could have used multiple overtime attempts, so it doesn’t need to be governed by the same rules as plate tracks. Maybe it’s time to separate the two.

NASCAR could bring back the three overtime attempts for non-plate tracks while keeping the overtime line/current format for plate tracks only. After all, it’s a safety thing at plate tracks in a lot of ways and I can’t get on board with ideas like unlimited attempts no matter how much some fans say they want it.

Either way, NASCAR will probably end up changing some element of the overtime rule because fans seem really disgusted about how the end of the Dover race turned out.

2. Monster entertainment

It’s a shame the craptacular finish overshadowed what was otherwise a very fun and entertaining race for the second year in a row at Dover’s spring event.

I watched most of the race from the press box, and I kept getting so caught up in watching the battles that I forgot to tweet updates a few times. The leader never seemed to be able to get very far away, and the passes for the lead seemed to take multiple laps to execute.

There had been talk about adding VHT to Dover’s surface, but it definitely didn’t need it. The race had multiple grooves and drivers were all over the track. There always seemed to be something interesting going on.

I asked Martin Truex Jr. why Dover has put on a good race the last couple years.

“Man, it’s just so hard,” he said. “I think everybody is just so out of control, you run five laps and every one of them is a little different because you’re just out there hanging on. The tires are bouncing and skipping across the track so bad. You can get a little bit of a gap on somebody, and then you get in the corner a foot too deep and you slide sideways and he’s up your butt again and then you’re even looser.

“It’s just really hard to be consistent here and hit your marks. I think that’s why everybody comes and goes. (The cars) are just a handful and you’re sliding around just praying you make it through every single lap — and I guess that makes for exciting racing and guys getting close to each other.”

If that’s the case, this goes along with the theory that the more teams struggle with nailing a setup or finding consistency, the better the racing turns out to be.

3. Playoff Points for Dummies (like me)

Speaking of Truex, he won two more stages on Sunday to bring his season total to eight (most in the series) and has 18 playoff points halfway through the regular season.

For some reason, I didn’t understand how exactly the playoff points worked until talking with a couple people from NASCAR this weekend. So if I didn’t know, maybe you don’t either.

I thought — incorrectly — a driver would start with the playoff points and they were like money. If  the driver didn’t use them in Round 1, they would carry over to Round 2. But that’s not the case at all.

The actual rule is whatever amount of playoff points a driver has, they get that amount at the start of every round whether they needed them in the previous round or not. And they can further add to that total while in the playoffs.

So let’s say Truex doesn’t get another playoff point the whole season (unlikely). He would start Round 1 with 18 points. If he advances to Round 2, he starts with 18 points. Same with Round 3.

That’s a massive advantage and it will really make a major difference in the playoffs, because it creates a mulligan opportunity.

Anyway, hopefully my ignorance will help others out there understand. But I’m sure a lot of you already know that rule and you’re thinking, “Are you kidding me? How many races into the season are we?”

“Are you kidding me?” Truex said when I brought this up. “How many races into the season are we?”

He was well aware of the rule, of course, and that’s one reason why the 78 team has been so aggressive in going after stage wins.

“It is huge, and that’s why we keep trying to pile them up,” he said. “We might be able to get to 30 or so, but that’s still only half a race (with maximum 60 points this year). So they’re going to be important as long as you can be consistent. You’re still not going to be able to afford to have consecutive really bad days.”

In the past, the the typical regular season storyline is “Who will make the playoffs?” This year, that’s joined by the talk of “Who is in good shape with playoff points?”

4. He’s lucky AND good

There’s no doubt Jimmie Johnson got lucky in a couple instances on Sunday. But that doesn’t mean he’s somehow undeserving of getting to victory lane.

Let’s take Example No. 1. Chad Knaus had Johnson stay out while others were on pit road during a cycle of green-flag pit stops, even though the team was already in its fuel window. As it turned out, Regan Smith hit the wall and brought out a caution — which benefited Johnson, who stayed on the lead lap as others had gone a lap down and had to take the wavearound.

I asked Knaus to shed some light on why. Was he hoping to catch a caution, and did he have a hunch? I think yes, but he wouldn’t elaborate.

“Yeah, there is definitely some strategy,” he said with a smile. “For sure.”

Then there was Example No. 2. Johnson was surely going to lose the race to Kyle Larson, but David Ragan hit the wall to bunch the field and set up overtime.

“When I was watching Kyle pull away from me with five to go, I’m going, ‘All right, second is not bad,’” Johnson said. “And then something in my mind said, ‘This thing isn’t over. They’re not over until the checkered falls.’”

Sure enough, Johnson got his chance — but he still had to execute on the restart. Remember, Larson was right there controlling the overtime start with a chance to win. He couldn’t get it done and Johnson did.

As Kasey Kahne noted on Twitter, it wasn’t the oil dry that cost Larson a chance to win — it was Johnson.

Said Larson:  “Jimmie is the best of our time, probably the best of all time. He just has a lot more experience than I do out on the front row late in races and executed a lot better than I did.  I’ve got to get better at that and maybe get some more wins.”

5. Aw, (lug) nuts!

One of NASCAR’s safety rules was tested this weekend, and what officials decide to do about it should set an interesting precedent.

Kyle Busch lost his left rear wheel after a pit stop early in Sunday’s Cup race, much like Chase Briscoe did in the Truck race on Friday. Both incidents were clearly mistakes by pit crews — the jack dropped before the tire changers had secured the lug nuts — and were not intentional moves to make a faster pit stop.

But NASCAR typically does not judge intent — the rule is the rule — and so harsh penalties will likely be handed out on Wednesday. The crew chief, tire changer and tire carrier (of the wheel in question) are all facing four-race suspensions, which is the mandatory minimum as spelled out in the NASCAR rulebook.

So Busch, who hasn’t won this season, is set to lose Adam Stevens as well as two key pit crew members, for a month. All because of a clear mistake on pit road.

That seems awfully severe, and it also puts Busch on the same page as rival Brad Keselowski (who owns Briscoe’s truck).

“At the end of the day, intent matters,” Keselowski said Saturday. “The intent of the rule was to make sure guys don’t put three lug nuts on and have a wheel come off and say, ‘Aw, too bad.’ That isn’t what happened in the scenario we had.

“It was a mistake. … It’s the difference between murder and manslaughter.”

Here’s the thing, though: If NASCAR lets this slide, it’s eventually going to be faced with a less clear decision and have to play judge on whether or not a pit crew intended to send the car out with one lug nut attached (or something along those lines).

Honestly, it’s better just to have rules and enforce them the same way every time — no matter the circumstances that led to the infraction.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Kansas race

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.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Las Vegas race

Each week, I’ll give some race analysis through a post called the Top Five — notable storylines from the just-completed event. Typically, this will be posted as soon as possible after the race — but my site has been crashing for the past couple days, so I was unable to post anything new! My apologies for the delay.

Get ready for the mixed messages

It will be fascinating to see how NASCAR reacts to the Kyle Busch/Joey Logano incident.

In one respect, NASCAR probably has to give Busch a slap on the wrist (probation or small fine) to say, “Hey dude, you can’t go up to someone and just punch them.”

But on the other hand, this is exactly what NASCAR wants! You know NASCAR is going to use it in all sorts of promotional aspects heading into Phoenix and beyond, so it’s hypocritical to penalize Busch while also profiting from it.

That’s been how NASCAR has operated for years, of course, dating back to the 1979 Daytona 500 (the drivers were fined for that famous fight, even though it put NASCAR on the map).

With the addition of Monster Energy, though — which has openly advocated for drivers to mix it up — can NASCAR really fine Busch with a straight face?

If so, he shouldn’t pay it.

Finish saves a ho-hum race

The sun was pouring into the press box during the first stage, and — combined with a food coma from lunch and the expiration of my morning coffee buzz — I almost started to nod off.

You can yell at FOX all you want (There’s great racing through the field, they’re just not showing it!), but the truth is the entire field was running single file for a long stretch in both of the early stages.

At one point, a reporter (who shall remain nameless) shouted, “Whoa!” We scanned the track for trouble, didn’t see anything, then turned to the reporter with puzzled expressions.

What happened?

“A pass in the top 12!” he said.

Though the crazy finish with Brad Keselowski’s problems and the post-race fight salvaged the day, there are now legitimate concerns about the racing following the first two 1.5-mile tracks of the season. Both Atlanta and Vegas weren’t as exciting as their 2016 editions — especially Atlanta — and it makes you wonder what’s up with the much-anticipated lower downforce package.

Phoenix probably isn’t going to be an amazing race — it’s just not the most action-packed track after restarts — but Fontana should be, since it’s become one of the best circuits. If not, there will be much head-scratching going on within the industry.

Martin Truex Jr. closes it out

Every time I thought about the new points system heading into the season, I thought of Martin Truex Jr. He was so dominant at times last year, and then he got into the Chase and — well, you know what happened. But if he had the playoff points under the current system, he might have made it to Homestead.

So with that in mind, it was interesting to see Truex get the maximum seven playoff points (which, remember, are bonus points that carry over all the way through Phoenix). Prior to this system, a win was only worth three bonus points — and those could only be used in the first round.

“That really would have helped us last year,” Truex said. “We ran so good and led so many races, and always didn’t get the finish we probably deserved or thought we should have gotten, and so it’s cool to get rewarded for running good and pushing hard and being up at the front of the pack more consistently than other guys.”

With one great race, Truex now has more bonus/playoff points than he’d have for two wins last year. That’s really going to add up for some of the top drivers, and it’s going to make the chances of some fluke elimination in the early rounds much less likely.

Kyle Larson is having a fantastic start

Don’t sleep on Larson this year — and I’m not just talking wins, but the championship.

Dating back to the Phoenix race last fall, Larson has finished third, second at Homestead, 12th at Daytona, second at Atlanta and now second at Las Vegas.

“Super happy with how our season has gotten started,” he said. “Way better than where I’ve ever started a season.”

It seems like things are really clicking for Larson, who isn’t taking himself out of races with some of the mistakes he made in the first couple seasons.

When you combine Larson’s results with consecutive top-10s for Jamie McMurray, there’s a lot to like about Chip Ganassi Racing right now. Both cars appear to have the speed to be contenders in many weeks this season.

Keselowski the early title favorite

I just said not to sleep on Larson (see above) for the championship, but the favorite at the moment has to be Keselowski.

He won Atlanta despite having to make an untimely pit stop with a loose wheel, then won the pole for Las Vegas and was certainly either the best car (he was about to win, after all) or the second-best all day.

Keselowski said he didn’t know what happened to his car in the last couple laps, when he suddenly lost power (and if he did know, he was keeping it close to the vest). But either way, the overall speed is there and Team Penske seems to be extremely strong (Keselowski’s teammate Logano is the only driver with top-10 finishes in all three races).

It’s still very early, of course, and many things can and will change in the coming weeks. But if you’re looking for the NASCAR equivalent of a 25-day weather forecast, it’s looking bright for Keselowski.