Friday roundup: Kansas news and notes

Here are some of the highlights from Friday at Kansas Speedway:

Kenseth returns, but…

Matt Kenseth had a bummer of a first day back in NASCAR.

While Kenseth said it took him only two laps to feel like he’d never been out of a car, the No. 6 Ford itself appears to need some work — maybe more than his fans anticipated.

After Kenseth was only 28th in practice and his car didn’t get on track to qualify due to not passing inspection in time, the 46-year-old acknowledged it was a rough day.

“We didn’t have a lot of speed in practice at all today and we have some work to do to get it driving better as well,” said Kenseth, who will start 35th. “It’s going to take some patience. I’m not a super patient person, but it’s going to take a little time and some patience on everyone’s part to get this rolling in the direction we need it to.”

Kenseth was late starting practice because his car had trouble getting through tech inspection. He then made several short runs in the limited time — some as short as one lap — as he attempted to quickly diagnose the car’s issues.

“I knew what I was looking for and I could get a read rather quickly — at least which direction a change brought us in, whether it was a positive change or a negative change,” he said. “Really trying to get through enough stuff.”

Part of Kenseth’s task in his return to Roush Fenway Racing is to get the cars driving better again, and Friday showed how much work there is to be done.

“I didn’t have a lot of expectations for today (speed-wise),” he said. “I was hoping today would go smoother than what it went. I certainly hoped we would have been faster than what we showed in practice.”

Harvick the destroyer

Kevin Harvick, winner of four races this season and dominator of pretty much every week this season, was asked after winning the pole whether he plans on giving anyone else a chance at Kansas.

“I hope not,” he said. “I have no plans to.”

With apologies to Kyle Busch, the other drivers are well aware of who the top driver is this season so far.

Harvick is “head and shoulders above everyone else right now,” outside polesitter Ryan Blaney said.

“Kevin seems to be by far the fastest right now,” William Byron said.

Harvick now has 23 career poles, and 17 of them have come since he joined Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014.

Bowyer on blame

Clint Bowyer’s rear-window violation at Dover was due to a broken part and wasn’t intentional — at least according to Bowyer.

After his second-place finish was penalized this week, Bowyer said he was certain his crew wasn’t trying to skirt the rules. He said to look at the pictures for proof.

“If we’d have been pushing hard and they were foolish and got caught doing something bad and I felt like that’s how I got that performance advantage and that’s why I ran so good last weekend, you’d feel like you cheated somebody,” he said. “But I looked back at 150 pictures that we have available to us and went back and looked at the other guys that had the same problem — and I just didn’t see the same result.”

Bowyer will be without his usual car chief for the next two races.

Speaking of penalties…

Martin Truex Jr. said NASCAR’s rules are “over-enforced” and fans are tired of hearing about penalties every Wednesday. Dover runnerup Bowyer and third-place finisher Daniel Suarez were both among those to receive major penalties this week.

“(Fans) think everyone is cheating and (say) ‘This is ridiculous,’ and ‘I don’t want to watch racing because these guys are frauds.'” Truex said. “I’ve seen (the penalties) that happened this week, and that’s not why that guy ran third or why that guy ran second. Let’s have some common sense in the way we enforce some of these things.”

Truex said he recognizes NASCAR is in a “tough spot” in search of a level playing field, but is frustrated at the ongoing issue.

Wednesday inspection, you take four cars (after the race),” he said. “If you took the whole field, 38 of them might have failed this particular week. You had so many that didn’t pass.”

Ryan Blaney suggested NASCAR should still do the penalties but not tell anyone about them in order to keep the conversation focused on the racing each week.

Byron quietly having solid season

The Hendrick Motorsports cars have still been a bit off, but William Byron is measuring himself against his teammates — not the rest of the field. And he feels like he’s making gains in that department.

“I’m running close to where my teammates are and that is always really a reference point for how you are performing,” he said. “I feel like I’m right in the middle of them sometimes. Richmond, we were probably the best of our cars and I was really excited about that.

“I think that I am able to run with them, and if I can do that and continue that progression, once we do get the speed that we need we will all be that much better.”

Byron said at the start of the year, there was a bit of a shock with some races like Atlanta. And when they missed it in those races, it was a big miss. But now, he said, “the misses are a lot better” and are still competitive performances — like a top-15 instead of top-30.

Byron has eight top-20 finishes in his 11 Cup starts and is 17th in the point standings.

Almirola doesn’t care who owns NASCAR

Most drivers didn’t have much to say about the report NASCAR is up for sale, but Aric Almirola said it didn’t matter to him, anyway.

“I just show up every single weekend excited to go race and that’s what I love,” he said. “That’s what I’ve always done, so for me, as long as there’s a platform and a ride available for me to go race, I don’t really care who owns it. That’s just the truth. I know that’s probably not the answer you’re looking for, but I could give a crap less.”


Kevin Harvick reacts to NASCAR penalty

Here are some highlights from Kevin Harvick’s media availability on Friday morning at Phoenix, where he addressed the penalty issued to his team this week.

— On his previous success at Phoenix:

“Nobody wants to talk about that. Let’s just go to the first question. They all have the stats.”

— On whether NASCAR issued a penalty in response to social media posts:

The car passed all the Optical Scanning Station inspections and everything after the race. The car was built to tolerance. The scary part for me is the fact that (NASCAR) went far enough to find something on the car at the NASCAR R&D Center. They could find something wrong with every car if they took it apart for a whole day at the R&D Center.

“The (incorrect) side skirt material is on us. That rule was put into place Feb. 18 and it should have been aluminum, but ours was steel. That is really kind of the meat of what gave them the ability to actually get the fine to where it was meaningful enough to appease everyone on social media.”

— On social media posts leading to NASCAR’s additional scrutiny:

“If you look at Atlanta, the car was there the week before. Same team, same window bracing, same roof, same side skirts, same everything. It was in the R&D Center the week before (for inspection). It has been there 49 times in three years. Technicalities.”

— On photos of other cars (some from races last year) with similarly dented roofs:

“If we want to officiate it with fan pictures, if you want to officiate it with pictures during the race and call people to pit road and do those types of things — from a NASCAR standpoint. I am fine with that. As long as it is consistent. As you can see from a lot of the pictures roaming around on the internet this week, it is not consistent.”

“You could have called the window attached to the brace penalty on 20 cars last week, easy.”

— On why seven playoff points were taken away if the penalty wasn’t big enough to suspend crew chief Rodney Childers:

“That is the other confusing part about the penalty. If it is such a big deal, why is my crew chief still here? I don’t understand that.”

— On the penalty detracting from the conversation about racing:

“As a sport, you don’t want to be talking about penalties. We are right back to where we were with the LIS machine and all the conversations we had about that. The conversations that went away (because of the new Optical Scanning Station) are now right back into play. We have an encumbered win.”

— On how to stop social media from influencing penalties:

“Keep your executives off of it during the race.”

— On the impact of the penalty:

“It just motivates us. I can’t wait to win another race and jump up and down in victory lane on the back of my car.”

Column: Why nothing feels good about Kevin Harvick’s penalty

Nothing feels good about Kevin Harvick’s post-Vegas penalty

Welp, here we go again.

Kevin Harvick’s dominating Las Vegas win was ruled encumbered on Wednesday. Technically it wasn’t “encumbered” because NASCAR got rid of that term in the offseason — but the result is the same.

The No. 4 car’s rear window was not rigid at all times, as the rulebook states it must be, and the rocker arm panel extension was the wrong kind of metal (it is supposed to be aluminum).

So Harvick lost all seven playoff points he earned at Vegas. On top of that, the team also lost car chief Cheddar Smith for two races, Rodney Childers lost $50,000 from his wallet and Harvick lost 20 points in the standings.

That’s a lot of losing, but the team kept the win. NASCAR tradition, right? That’s what they say, anyway. So SHR will cash the check and display the trophy alongside all the others, and Harvick will go down as the winner in the history books.

Normally, this is the part where I would argue Harvick should be stripped of the win. An illegal car should not be able to keep a victory, and it looks bad when NASCAR allows this to happen.

When I asked readers about this last September, most agreed.

But I’m not going down that road this time, for a couple reasons.

First, diving back into the same argument over and over is just…exhausting. Second, this instance seems a little different than some of the others.

Harvick’s car has been so fast over the last couple races, it seems hard to believe a dented rear window could have contributed that much speed. Did it help? Probably. Was it the reason he won? Admittedly I have a lack of technical knowledge here, but I would argue no.

Same goes for the rocker arm panel extension. Was having it made out of steel instead of aluminum why Harvick won? Seems highly unlikely.

Still, for the sake of being consistent with my own stance (illegal cars should not win!), I guess NASCAR should probably have taken the victory away.

But…ugh. I just can’t get fired up about this one. In this case, stripping the win would have felt like sending someone to jail for a broken tail light.

I suppose NASCAR had to do something, and the something is better than nothing, but maybe it should come down to either doing nothing or taking away everything.

Otherwise, it feels half-assed, and I’m not sure how outraged we’re all supposed to be here.

Sigh. I’ve come to really hate weeks like these.

The Top Five: Breaking down the New Hampshire race

Five thoughts from Sunday’s playoff race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway…

1. The heavyweight contenders

Many of the races this season turned into a battle between Martin Truex Jr. — the dominant car of 2017 — and Kyle Busch, his Toyota teammate who has plenty of speed but perhaps not quite as much as the 78.

That was the case again on Sunday at New Hampshire. Truex and Busch combined to lead all but one lap (!!!) of a 300-lap event (Kyle Larson led the other one during pit stops in the break between Stages 1 and 2).

And although it looked like Truex might end up dominating had he not been caught up in the Lap 150 pileup, Busch happily said his team made gains on its chief rival for the championship.

“Today was a good catch‑up moment for us,” Busch said. “Obviously they’ve been so fast all year long. … But it was going to come down to that again and who was going to be in the lead, who was going to have the opportunity on restarts and whatnot to control the field.”

Many fans insist they are sick of Toyotas, which is bad news for them, because this domination doesn’t seem to be ending anytime soon. The four Toyota drivers in the playoffs are all in the top six in points, and only Kyle Larson has shown he can consistently challenge them.

So Busch vs. Truex is the battle to watch for now, and it’s actually pretty interesting. For example: Busch gained five playoff points on Truex during Sunday’s race, which puts Truex at 59 and Busch at 36.

That’s only a 23-point difference. So if the third round comes around and it has three different winners with one spot available on points to advance to Homestead, that could be determined by a Truex vs. Busch battle. And 23 points between them isn’t even a half-race.

Everyone seems to treat Truex in the finale as a given — and it’s highly likely — but it’s not going to be a cakewalk if he has to deal with Busch in a points race.

2. Finally, some points drama!

It’s been awhile since anyone had to worry about the points picture going into an elimination race — after all, points were not a factor at Richmond this year — which means Dover next week will be a welcome sight.

Austin Dillon and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. are tied for the last spot (the tiebreaker is best finish in the round) after Stenhouse and his team had a gutsy comeback after struggling all day.

Stenhouse, one of many drivers looking completely wiped after an unseasonably hot and humid day, said he “felt like we were in a boxing match with Floyd Mayweather all week.”

“We just couldn’t find speed, couldn’t find the handle on the car,” he said.

But after making up a few spots late in the race — thanks to consecutive cautions that put him back on the lead lap — Stenhouse gained valuable points that could put him in a showdown with Dillon and Ryan Newman (who is one point behind both drivers).

“It makes you feel good,” Stenhouse said. “We needed to make up a little bit and made up a little bit at a track that I didn’t think we were great at all weekend.”

As for Dillon, he was also optimistic about Dover after surviving Sunday with a 19th-place finish.

“Just have a good run like we did last year,” he said. “Go run in the top five and we’ll probably make it.”

Dillon also avoided what could have been a playoff-ending incident for himself when he made contact with Kevin Harvick to trigger a multi-car wreck at lap 150.

“He kept coming left, and I was in the gas,” Dillon told me after the race. “He bobbled and I hit him, and it was over. When he got loose, I connected and it hit him. I barely tapped him. I lifted after, but nothing I can do at that point. Hate it for him and hate it for (Kurt Busch).”

Busch, collected in the wreck when he rammed Harvick, is 15th in points — but too far back (-17) to hope anything but a win will get him in. Same with Kasey Kahne (-21), who said he hadn’t seen the points but wasn’t surprised to hear he was in 16th after a broken track bar.

“It’d be pretty tough” to make it now, Kahne said.

3. Hands off!

Thanks a lot, 24 team.

That’s probably what the rest of the playoff crews were thinking after NASCAR made them stand away from the cars for at least five minutes after the race — a new policy in reaction to Chase Elliott’s crewmen being caught on video removing tape from the spoiler last week.

Inspectors appeared to take a much closer initial look at some of the playoff cars than typically happens immediately after the race. At most races the last couple years — since NASCAR began stopping all cars on pit road instead of having them go back to the garage — crewmen go over the wall and approach the cars as soon as they pull to a stop.

But NASCAR obviously felt that might be an opportunity to mess with something before post-race inspection — the 24 team proved that — so now that won’t be happening for the near future.

If it was annoying for the pit crews, though, it was also irritating for the media. The cars were parked against the pit wall and no one —reporters, crewmen or public relations representatives — could go past the halfway point of pit road. Many drivers simply got out of their cars, saw no one was waiting to talk to them, and walked away.

Hopefully, NASCAR can figure out a solution to wrangle the playoff drivers for at least a moment before they disappear into the crowd. Otherwise, the sport might miss out on some much-needed emotion after one of these upcoming races; if there was a confrontation between drivers on Sunday, we likely would have missed it.

4. Goodbye, Loudon

The final New Hampshire fall race was fairly typical of most other New Hampshire races in memory. And that’s not really a compliment.

This is a great area with wonderful people who are true, passionate race fans, and they have a fantastic track for some cars.

But those cars don’t include the Cup Series, which has long struggled to put on a decent show here.

“It always lends to exciting moments; we had one today,” Kyle Busch said. “Sometimes the racing, though, is a little strung out with this place being so hard to pass.”

Busch called it “frustrating to race here sometimes” and explained in detail why that’s the case, if you want to dive in:

“It’s just not lending itself to being able to be right on top of or right close to the guy in front of you, because you just get so tight when you’re behind that guy. And you build air pressure in the front tires and you slow down and that guy drives away from you, and then you kind of accordion back to the next guy, he’s catching you thinking he’s going to pass you and then he gets tight, and it kind of goes back to the next guy.”

Look, it’s not like the Las Vegas race — New Hampshire’s replacement — is going to be that much more compelling. But it gives NASCAR a chance to open the playoffs in a high-profile market and then keep a short track (Richmond) as the second race, all while keeping an event at Loudon in July. So with apologies to the locals who love this place, that’s not the worst development.

5. Common sense solutions

Let’s talk about the NASCAR dunce cap penalty for a second.

Until the race — and until Richard Petty and Richard Childress got a bunch of national attention for saying they’d fire employees who kneeled for the anthem (just the publicity NASCAR needs!) — the biggest story of the weekend was Joey Logano serving a penalty on pit road for the entire final practice session.

It’s silly that it got so much attention, but it’s what fans were most interested in (I can see the numbers). So the media reported it and Dale Earnhardt Jr. reacted to it and it became a thing.

Yes, other drivers have served longer penalties under this policy (up to 60 minutes, where Logano’s penalty was 50), but those were in practices where they eventually got on the track for some laps.

That’s why Logano’s punishment seemed so wacky: He sat in the car on pit road for the entire practice session and never got on track.

When odd things happen in this sport, it often seems to catch NASCAR by surprise. After all, they are tasked with enforcing the rules and put in a very difficult position by teams trying to push the limit in every little area — and so officials are viewing it as doing their jobs.

So I feel bad for NASCAR in that sense, because what should be justice ends up ricocheting back at them and turns into a pie in the face. But the penalties they come up with could use a little work in the public eye.

If NASCAR wants to have a team miss practice, just make the team park the car in the garage and put a cover on it so crew members can’t work on it. But don’t make the driver sit in there — that comes across like they’re shaming a troublemaking child.

Or maybe NASCAR can increase the punishment by doing things like making a team serve its penalty at the end of Stage 1 — which would impact the race itself.

NASCAR’s heart is in the right place, because it has to keep teams in line. But maybe there’s a better way to do that.

Joey Logano forced to sit in virtual penalty box at New Hampshire

At one point, as Joey Logano served a full-practice penalty in his car on pit road, his pregnant wife Brittany approached the car.

She leaned over the pit wall and put her hand up to the window net, which was within reach. Her husband did the same from inside the car.

“She was laughing (and said it) was like I was in jail, you know?” the driver said afterward. “I said, ‘It’s kind of like that, actually.'”

Logano said he had “time for a lot of thoughts in there” during his 50-minute penalty for failing pre-qualifying inspection four times on Friday — “mainly that it’s a total joke.”

NASCAR requires drivers serve their “practice hold” penalty in the car on pit road, buckled into the car with full safety equipment — and several other drivers had 15- or 30-minute punishments on Saturday.

But a driver had never missed the entirety of final practice before this. It made it look like Logano was serving a time out with a virtual dunce cap on his head as the other cars drove by.

And maybe that’s the point. NASCAR has ratcheted up the penalties as teams continue to mess around in inspection and not present their cars that are within the rules from the start.

But this penalty in particular seemed absurd because it wasn’t just a chunk of practice — it was all of it. So Logano just sat there and never turned a lap.

“I just think it makes the sport look dumb,” Logano said. “It’s kind of a joke. I don’t get it, personally. I think we can accomplish the same thing in a more professional manner.”

Logano said he understood the reason for a penalty, but said there was “no reason to sit out there.”

“Keep us in (the garage) or something,” he said.

He laughed.

“But coming from the guy who just sat in the car for an hour, sweating, it might not be the best thing to say,” he said.

Logano said he wasn’t too uncomfortable in the car — he ran his helmet fan and had several bottles of water — but wished he could have done something more productive with his time.

“I would have signed autographs or something,” he said of the fans milling near pit road. “I had nothing better to do. I was looking to get something out of it.”

But Kurt Culbert, NASCAR managing director of integrated marketing and communications, tweeted the penalty was fitting of the infraction.


News Analysis: Chase Elliott docked 15 points, Alan Gustafson suspended for spoiler modification

What happened: Chase Elliott was penalized 15 points and crew chief Alan Gustafson and car chief Joshua Kirk were suspended for one race apiece — plus a $25,000 fine for Gustafson — after NASCAR ruled the No. 24 team illegally modified the spoiler at Chicagoland using tape. In addition, the race was ruled to be an encumbered finish — meaning Elliott will not get credit for the playoff point he earned at Chicago if he makes Round 2.

What it means: On Monday, several teams sent pictures and video around the industry of the No. 24 team appearing to have tape hanging off the spoiler and down the sides of the car. This photo evidence was sent to NASCAR and also ended up on Reddit, where it became public. It’s interesting the teams, who have photographers shooting high-resolution images of every car during the race, became sort of a second set of eyes for NASCAR after studying the pictures (Elliott had passed at-track inspection after the race). This shows if there’s a visible part of the car that is illegally modified, teams themselves are likely to catch it and report to NASCAR and/or the media in order to keep a level playing field for themselves. Ultimately, though, the penalty might not harm Elliott that much; he was a comfortable 33 points inside the cutoff, but now falls from sixth place to eight place — 18 points head of the final playoff spot for Round 2.

News value (scale of 1-10): Three. This isn’t very big in the grand scheme of things, but it’s newsworthy in the sense that the NASCAR community — namely the teams, but also Reddit by proxy — sniffed out an act of cheating.

Three questions: Teams privately have said the tape added a significant amount of downforce to the car, but how much of a difference did it really make? Is there any way this could actually cost Elliott in terms of making the next round? What else will the garage be able to find in future weeks by examining the photo evidence each team takes during races?

News Analysis: Denny Hamlin’s Darlington sweep ruled encumbered

What happened: Both of Denny Hamlin’s wins last weekend at Darlington Raceway came while his team was breaking the rules. After further investigation at its R&D Center, NASCAR found Hamlin had two encumbered victories at Darlington — for similar violations in the rear suspension. On the Cup side, Hamlin lost 25 points (meaningless) and the five playoff points he got for the win while crew chief Mike Wheeler received a two-race suspension and a $50,000 fine. To make matters worse, the runner-up driver in the Xfinity race — Joey Logano — also had an encumbered finish.

What it means: NASCAR penalties are not tough enough. Encumbered finishes by race winners are becoming more frequent, which means teams must not fear the consequences like they should. Even though he loses the playoff points, Hamlin gets to keep both of his wins despite his team basically cheating. That looks terrible, but this will never change until NASCAR starts to take the win away — which should have been the policy for a long time now. It’s also ridiculous to think Cup drivers not only made the Xfinity race a bore-fest (until the last lap), but they were whooping the Xfinity regulars by driving cheated-up cars the whole time. What a joke!

News value (scale of 1-10): Six. It should be a lot higher, but this is sadly becoming more commonplace. For example: Hamlin has two Xfinity wins this year and both were encumbered finishes. After you get beyond the headlines, these penalties are relatively hollow.

Three questions: When will NASCAR start taking the win away from illegal cars? When will NASCAR start taking the win away from illegal cars? When will NASCAR start taking the win away from illegal cars?