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.