The Top Five: Breaking down the Kansas race

Five thoughts after Saturday night’s race at Kansas Speedway…

1. For the love of the game

There are few things in NASCAR more boring than when one driver dominates a bunch of races (or championships). It typically sucks all the oxygen out of the sport, because it suddenly feels predictable — and predictability often equals a lack of excitement.

But Kevin Harvick’s crazy start to the 2018 season feels different. It’s more of the holy-crap-that’s-amazing dominance than the oh-geez-not-this-again snoozefest.

Five wins in the first 12 races of the season. In-SANE! Harvick has already tied his career high for wins in a season and is on pace to become the first driver since Jimmie Johnson in 2007 to reach double digit wins.

Look, we’ve seen teams come out and kick butt for a season in recent years — Martin Truex Jr. last year and Harvick in 2014 come to mind.

But winning at this rate? It’s been a long time since we’ve seen anything like this, and Harvick knows he’s in the midst of something very special.

Like everyone else, he’s curious to see how far it can go.

“Now it feels like a game,” he said. “You want to see how many races you can win. You want to see how many laps you can lead. We know that we’re riding a momentum wave that is hard to come by, and you need to capitalize on it as many times as you can — because it may never come again.”

I wasn’t around for Jeff Gordon’s 13-win season in 1998, but I’m guessing what Harvick and Rodney Childers are doing is shaping up to be the closest thing. Harvick said the feeling is “addicting” and it feels like Homestead in terms of the level of focus each week.

“It’s something that you may never do again in your career,” Childers said. “… The reason we all are here is because of watching people like Jeff Gordon and Ray Evernham win 12 races a year, and that’s what your goal should be no matter what race team you are.”

Can they get there? It’s intriguing to consider the possibility, and it’s starting to make me actually look forward to watching this kind of dominance rather than dreading it.

2. Larson the beast

Kyle Larson has still never won a 1.5-mile track race, but he sure looked on his way to doing it at Kansas.

Even though he didn’t win, that performance might have been the best NASCAR race of Larson’s career. He ripped around the high line more effectively than anyone and executed it to perfection, clearly elevating his car to another level.

In a race dominated once again by Fords and Toyotas, Larson was the one Chevrolet driver who can run up front — and stay there. But Larson wasn’t taking credit for the performance; he said the cars have been pretty good.

“I was happy about the performance in our Chevy,” he said. “It looks like (Chevrolet) has been struggling, but I don’t think we really have been that much.”

Still, it has to have a lot to to with Larson. Remember earlier in his career when he used to ride the high lane but then hit the wall every time he was having a good race? He’s not doing that anymore. The guy is just extremely talented, and it’s a joy to watch when he’s on like he was at Kansas.

So did he agree it was one of his best races? He’s not really one for boasting, so he actually downplayed it.

“It’s not too hard to run the wall here,” he said. “It’s fairly smooth and has a lot of grip. But yeah, I was happy with it. I felt pretty calm out front.”

3. Truex team has lost a step

Martin Truex Jr. almost won at Kansas for the third straight time, but that was thanks to pit strategy rather than pure speed.

For the most part, Kansas reaffirmed Truex’s car isn’t where he needs it to be right now.

It’s not like the 78 is awful, but the flat splitter and the enhanced inspection have certainly cost it some speed. Meanwhile, the Fords have gained at the same time and it makes Truex look vulnerable.

“We’re going to have to find something,” Truex said. “We’ve had good speed throughout the season at points, we just haven’t been as consistent as last year in finding it.”

I wouldn’t discount Truex’s chances of making another final four, but it just seems like he’s going to be doing the chasing instead of being chased this summer.

“It’s pretty evident the Fords have an unfair advantage this year,” he joked, referencing the accusations lobbed Toyota’s way in 2017. “I’ll just throw that out there.”

4. YRB’s bummer

It’s not like Ryan Blaney meant to hit Larson, but he felt there was no choice but to aggressively side-draft in the situation that led to the No. 12 car wrecking out after leading 54 laps.

“You have to run inches from each other,” Blaney said. “Can’t pass nobody anyway, so you have to do that.”

Blaney took blame for the incident, but said he essentially had to race Larson that way or “he would have sucked me around into (Turn) 1.”

“The cars are really edgy and hard to handle,” Blaney said. “Harvick went by me a foot from me — probably 10 mph faster — and about spun me out.”

Was it fair game? After all, Larson had done a similar side-draft on Harvick earlier.

But Larson rejected the direct comparison when I brought it up.

“It wasn’t the same move, because when I was side-drafting Harvick to get by him, I had more of a run than Blaney had on me,” Larson said. “I was able to clear (Harvick) when I side-drafted. (Blaney) was just trying to side-draft and slow me down and get to my door.”

5. A penny for Trevor’s thoughts

Trevor Bayne showed up at Kansas to be a good team player, even though Matt Kenseth had basically taken his ride. The point of Kenseth returning to Roush Fenway Racing is to get the program headed back in the right direction, but this weekend was probably a rude awakening as to how far off Roush actually is.

Kenseth finished 36th after getting caught in a crash, but the night wasn’t great before that. He was running two laps down in the mid-20s when the wreck happened.

I’d love to know Bayne’s true thoughts after watching Kenseth struggle in the car — or at least run about where Bayne had been this season. There had to be some sense of, “See, guys? It’s not just me!”

Maybe it was never realistic for Kenseth to show up and immediately make the No. 6 into a top-10 car, but there were definitely people (um…me!) who thought a Cup champion who had just won a race last November could immediately elevate that ride beyond its typical finishes.

Perhaps that will be the case later this season, but now we know the car is definitely more to blame for poor results than the driver.

News Analysis: Matt Kenseth returning to NASCAR

What happened: Matt Kenseth will return to the NASCAR Cup Series on a part-time basis, Roush Fenway Racing officially announced Wednesday. As Jordan Bianchi of first reported, Kenseth will split the No. 6 car with Trevor Bayne at Roush, where Kenseth started his career. Kenseth’s first race back will be the Kansas Speedway race in May.

What it means: Roush found a new sponsor, and it’s likely any sponsor wants a big-name driver if possible. It certainly makes a deal more attractive. That coincided with an opportunity to improve performance; Bayne’s best finish this season is 12th and he sits 26th in the point standings, while teammate Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is 19th in the standings. At the very least, Kenseth can come in, drive some races and give feedback on whether the problem is the cars or the drivers. He just won his second-to-last start in November and the cars haven’t changed much since then.

News value (scale of 1-10): Uh, 9? Pretty high! As far as driver comebacks, the only thing bigger would be if Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart decided to race again for some reason. This is also be significant in the ongoing narrative about young drivers, since it could represent a shift back toward putting value on veteran performance.

Three questions: How will Kenseth perform in what currently appears to be second-tier equipment? How many races will he ultimately drive this season? Is there still time for Bayne to save his job, or is this the beginning of the end?

12 Questions with Trevor Bayne

The series of 12 Questions interviews continues this week with Trevor Bayne of Roush Fenway Racing. Bayne is carrying a career-best 19.6 average so far this season and is 21st in the Cup Series point standings.

1. How much of your success is based on natural ability and how much has come from working at it?

Growing up, most of it came from natural ability — but once I got to this level, I realized that you’re gonna have to work at it. I sat down in the office with (Roush Fenway competition director) Kevin Kidd probably two years ago and we talked about that exact topic: How far is your natural ability gonna get you versus your work ethic?

You look at the best guys and they work hard. So I’d say in the last year, I’ve ramped it up to about my max. This year, I said my goal was to try and burn myself out, to try to work as hard as I could and see if results came from that and see where it got me.

2. Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and now Dale Earnhardt Jr. have all either retired in the last couple years or will retire soon. What’s your pitch for fans of theirs to become fans of yours?

I don’t know if I have a pitch. Man, I just always try to be myself, try not to compromise any of my values or anything like that. So, if they want somebody that’s just gonna be themselves, that me.

That was weak sauce, wasn’t it? (Laughs)

3. What is the hardest part of your job away from the racetrack?

The hardest part of my job away from the racetrack is just managing time with family. I know everybody in our sport has that. I bring my two kids (Ellie and Levi) and my wife (Ashton) with me every weekend. (The kids) were screaming on the (team) plane this weekend on the way here, and I felt so bad for my team having to listen to it. They act like they don’t mind, but…

My family means so much to me, so it just requires so much time and so much effort. Listening to Carl Edwards in his retirement speech or whatever you want to call that, he talks about how racing requires every bit of your attention all day, every day. And like I said, I’m working at it, I’m giving it all my attention. So just managing family and racetrack (is difficult).

Most people, if they have screaming kids on a plane, they don’t know anybody and it’s all strangers. If you’re on a plane, and it sounds like it’s all your friends and your team and you’re like, “Oh no!”

We sat on the plane last night, and (Trevor and Ashton said to each other), “We’re flying commercial the rest of the year, because at least we won’t know the people.” (Laughs) They can’t be mad at us.

I think dragging your family around 38 weekends a year, four days a week and having them cooped up in a motorhome, I just feel bad about that. But it’s probably harder on my wife than it is for me.

4. Let’s say a fan spots you eating dinner in a nice restaurant. Should they come over for an autograph or no?

That’s fine with me. Actually here in Dover last year, my wife didn’t come for some reason and I was up in the restaurant right there on the backstretch, and a fan recognized me and I sat down and ate dinner with him the whole time. He bought my dinner; I thought that was really nice. So I sat with him and ate with him and his wife. They’ve been coming here for years and got to know him a little bit. But I think stuff like that is cool and it doesn’t really bother me.

So they were eating and you sat down with them, or they sat down at your table?

We were in line together and they were kind of doing the look — looking back, trying to be not obvious — and then finally they just turned around and said, “Hey, are you Trevor Bayne?” I said yeah. So I got up to the line and when I got up to pay, the (cashier) lady said, “They got it.” So I thanked them and they realized that I was by myself and said I could sit with them, so I did.

5. What’s a story in NASCAR that doesn’t get enough coverage?

It’s just the work ethic of these guys. I don’t know anybody in any real-world jobs that work as hard as these guys do — the hours they put in, the travel, the time commitment that it takes. We try to show that (through) the media coverage and TV coverage, but my job is really dependent on them. I can only do as much as my race car allows me to do, and so they determine how we run on the weekends (along with) their work ethic and what we do in the shops.

So I think just painting that picture of just how important it is to work together as a team, how important it is for these guys to be as committed as they are and for me to be successful and for us as a team to be successful.

6. Who is the last driver you texted?

We’ve got this whole cycling group text going on, so I don’t know if that counts, but we’re always talking about when we’re gonna go ride.

I actually talked to Carl Edwards on the phone this week, just checking in with him, seeing how he’s doing. That’s probably the last guy I talked to.

Is he gonna come back?

No. (Laughs) He’s loving life, man, I’ll be honest with you. He’s been all around the world bicycling and sailing. It sounds pretty crazy. But we were just talking about life.

It’s funny how people are gone for a few weeks and they’re just forgotten about. It’s unbelievable how quick our sport does that to you, so I think about those guys a lot and try to stay in touch with them.

7. Do you consider race car drivers to be entertainers?

Some of them are. (Laughs) Some of the personalities around here are entertainers. I mean, that’s what we’re here for, right? For entertainment. I try to do my entertaining on the racetrack, try not to do it on social media or after the races or whatever. But that’s our sport: Entertainment.

8. What is your middle finger policy on the racetrack?

Give me the middle finger and you’re gone. Yeah, you’re dumped. That’s like cussing me out to my face. Michael McDowell and I always talked about that –we’ve got a no middle finger policy. I got it (at New Hampshire) and the guy got sent, so that’s just how it is. I don’t think you and I standing here would talk to each other like that, so I expect the same respect on the racetrack. Most of the time, it’s just heat of the moment when those guys do it and they would never say that in person, but still you’ve gotta have self control. So I am partially an enforcer on that one.

Do people know realize that if they do that to you that’s gonna happen? It seems kind of dumb if that’s your policy and people know that. Like why would they even do that?

I think they found out a few times. Then they’re mad, like “What was the deal?” I’m like, “You’re flipping me off!” How many times have you been flipped at on the road and wished you should send somebody? We can here, and I do. So that’s kind of my policy.

9. Some drivers keep a payback list in their minds. Do you also have a list for drivers who have done you a favor on the track?

Yeah, I think I am actually more that way than the negative side. Maybe in that race, if someone ticks you off and you have your mindset or whatever that is, you’re gonna race them, make it hard on them. But same thing goes for someone who lets you in; if you catch them a straightaway back and they don’t race you super hard and let you in early in the race, I think you definitely pay that back more so than the negative side.

But it’s kind of that race (only). For me, I don’t carry things week to week. I can be just fuming mad at somebody at Loudon and we show up at Dover and I don’t even think about it. I feel like if you try to keep a checklist of good and bad in your mind, you’re just gonna be a mental head case. There’s no way you can keep up with it, and then you’re just gonna be out to get somebody every week or out to help somebody every week instead of running your own race. So I just try to clear the list every week.

10. Who is the most famous person you’ve had dinner with?

I’ve had dinner with a lot of people. I don’t know. I mean, obviously all the race car drivers in here, I have eaten dinner with them. Man, it’s been a few years since I’ve been in the famous club, hanging out with people. Right after the 500 (win) obviously I was able to do all kinds of stuff like that. But honestly, I couldn’t tell you. I don’t think about it.

11. What’s something about yourself you’d like to improve?

I think my goal this year was to finish as strong as we started this season, and I still think I have room to expand on that. You come to Daytona excited and ready to go racing, and by this point in the season, if you don’t make the playoffs, you’re kind of burned out, you’re ready for Homestead to come and go race and get a month off or so. We just have a long season. So for me, it’s just continuing to figure out how I can manage my season better, how I can finish as strong as I start and get the results at the end of the year.

12. The last interview I did was with Chase Briscoe, and his question was: Outside of NASCAR, what would be the biggest race you would like to win? 

I’d love to say go run an F1 race or run the Indy 500, but there’s no way my wife would let me get into an open-wheel car. So I’m not even gonna go there. I think it would be really fun to run a Rallycross race and win an X Games gold medal or something. I was friends with Scott Speed and he was talking about how he never thought he’d get an X Games gold medal, how cool that is because of action sports athletes. I think that would be kind of neat to run one of those and get a medal at the X Games.

That would be pretty badass. I don’t know who the next interview is with, so do you have a question I can ask another driver in general?

(Ricky Stenhouse Jr. walks by.)

Stenhouse: It’s not me.

Yeah, I already did a 12 Questions with Ricky.

Bayne: Ricky, how many Pop Tarts do you eat everyday? I’m just kidding. What do you think, Ricky?

Stenhouse: Take a chance. Ask them if you can have their car.

Bayne: At what point in the season do you start thinking about Homestead and get to the last race? There we go. I know for me, if we don’t make the playoffs, I’m ready to go. I said a couple of weeks ago, it should maybe be like football: If you don’t make the playoffs, you don’t get to come play.

Nah, I think for the next driver (the question is): “How do you keep your head on to finish the season strong?” Since that’s something I’m working at, I’ll have to read their answer. But at what point in the season do you feel like the fatigue of the season and start looking forward to the end, and how do you keep your head on and keep pushing forward to the end?

The Top Five: Breaking down the Bristol race

Five thoughts from Monday’s rescheduled race at Bristol Motor Speedway:

1. What a race!

Bristol was one of those races that was so enjoyable to watch, I was disappointed when it ended.

That’s it? Only 500 laps? How about 600?

Seriously though, I could have watched that racing all day. It was just SO much fun to see the drivers going all out, with close-quarters racing and two equal grooves (yes, even though the bottom wasn’t the dominant lane).

I found myself smiling through many of the battles for position (which seemed constant) — and even while watching the leaders navigate lapped traffic.

It didn’t matter there was no late caution or restart to spice things up (the last 32 laps were green), nor did it matter there was a typical winner (Jimmie Johnson, again?). Bristol was just highly entertaining all day long, with the VHT-aided bottom groove just good enough to even things up with the top lane. As it turned out, that made for perfect racing conditions.

“Honestly, I don’t think it gets much better than that,” Kyle Larson said.

The sticky VHT slowly wearing off through the course of the race made it so that the track was constantly changing, and Bristol and NASCAR deserve a lot of credit for making it work.

Jimmie Johnson explained it this way: When there’s anything that’s consistent in NASCAR, the garage will figure it out. Everyone is too smart. But when the surface underwent a constant evolution like it did on Monday, Johnson said no one could exactly nail the setup.

“The track intentionally tried to create the need to be on the bottom,” Johnson said. “… This race, without a doubt, would have been single-file around the top without the VHT on the bottom,” Johnson said.

There was only one bad thing about the race: It was held Monday, when many fans were at work or school and couldn’t watch. Thanks a lot, Mother Nature.

How unfortunate that so many people missed one of the best races in recent years.

2. Larson Legend

I made a beeline for Larson’s car after the race, because watching him was half the fun of Monday’s race. He got out of his car and we made eye contact, and he looked sort of puzzled because I was grinning.

It took a second for me to remember he finished sixth on a day where he could have won, and probably wasn’t thrilled about the result. But I don’t really care where he finishes; I just know he put on quite a show — and usually does.

This seems so premature to say about a driver with two career wins, but Larson is really going to be an all-timer in this sport. I don’t know if his dry wit will ever translate into superstardom outside NASCAR (he might be too reserved to be the Jeff Gordon type who can guest-host a morning talk show), but he’ll be a legend within it by the time he’s done.

Larson’s driving style makes races more interesting to watch, and that’s not something you can say about many drivers. No matter what his career stats say by the time he’s done, he’ll be remembered as one of the greats of this generation.

3. Ol’ Jimmie does it again

Seven-Time, already the best driver in NASCAR history, just keeps adding to his career tally.

He now has 82 wins, which is one short of Cale Yarborough and two shy of Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison. It seems very possible that by the end of the season, the only drivers ahead of him on the all-time list will be Richard Petty, David Pearson and Jeff Gordon — and he may be alone in championships by the end of November.

It will be extra special for Johnson to tie Yarborough whenever he does, because Yarborough was the only NASCAR driver he knew while growing up. Johnson recalled walking into a Hardee’s as a kid and thinking he was in Yarborough’s race shop.

However, I fully recognize it’s not so great for everyone else living in the Jimmie Era — not just fans of other drivers, but the other drivers themselves.

“The damn 48,” Clint Bowyer said. “You know what I mean? Hasn’t he had enough?”

He certainly has, but that doesn’t mean he’s about to stop winning.

4. Dale Earnhardt Jr. in trouble

If the playoffs started today, Earnhardt would miss the cut by 50 points. It’s not even close right now, and Earnhardt — with the exception of his top-five at Texas — just isn’t running that well.

That’s not news to him or his fans, of course. But if this keeps up, he’s going to be in the type of territory where he needs to win — and that changes how a team goes about a race, particularly with strategy.

It’s been a fairly miserable start for Earnhardt, who is 24th in the standings — behind rookies Daniel Suarez and Ty Dillon. He’s five spots behind Aric Almirola in the points.

I honestly don’t think Earnhardt has lost anything despite missing half the season last year, but he hasn’t had good luck (three DNFs due to crashes) and the car hasn’t been all that great in the other races. Bristol wasn’t going to be a memorable race for him even before his oil cooler broke.

He described his car as being too tight and said other drivers were “beating me really bad back to the gas” out of the corners.

“That ain’t no way to run anywhere, really,” he said.

5. Roush Fenway keeps plugging along

Chip Ganassi Racing’s hot start has been well-documented. Kyle Larson is the points leader and Jamie McMurray is tied for sixth in the standings.

But it’s not just Ganassi that is out-running some of the bigger teams this season.

Roush Fenway Racing is much improved, and both drivers finished in the top 11 on Monday (Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was ninth and Trevor Bayne was 11th). In addition, Bayne is 12th in the standings and Stenhouse is 16th (although would currently be on the outside of the playoffs because Kurt Busch has a win and is 18th).

If they keep collecting top-15 finishes, that will be enough to keep them in playoff contention all summer. And right now, they’ve combined for 11 top-15s after having a combined 24 all of last year — this after just eight races.

Are they going to win? Probably not anytime soon. But they’re both ahead of six drivers in the standings from Hendrick, Gibbs and Stewart-Haas, so that’s an accomplishment after the last couple years.