The Top Five: Breaking down the Kansas playoff race

Five thoughts following Sunday’s Round 2 elimination race at Kansas Speedway…

1. Contenders narrow

It’s been 14 races since Martin Truex Jr. won. It’s been 10 since Kevin Harvick won. Kyle Busch has one win in the last 11 races.

And yet, regardless of how each team is running, the Big Three have to be thrilled with how the playoffs are shaping up at this point.

That’s because the drivers who would seem to be the biggest threats to beat them at Homestead keep getting eliminated. Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin were out after Round 1, and now Kyle Larson and Brad Keselowski are gone after Round 2.

Chase Elliott is perhaps the favorite to get the last Homestead spot right now, but can you really picture someone other than a Big Three driver winning the title? With apologies to the remaining five challengers, none of those remaining have the experience and history at Homestead that the Big Three brings.

Anything can happen, of course, and none of the remaining drivers are pushovers. It’s just that Homestead seems to require an extra level of speed and execution. Given the increased pressure and performance demanded by a championship situation, having been in that spot before — and achieving the ultimate goal — really does count for a lot.

2. What to make of Round 2?

Brad Keselowski won three straight races bridging the start of the playoffs, giving a false impression of how good his team really was. Keselowski himself was frank about the streak all along, saying he didn’t have the fastest car in any of the three races he won. But when a team goes on a roll like that, the momentum feels impossible to ignore. Suddenly, everyone had Keselowski penciled in to Homestead.

Then came a ninth-place finish at Richmond, a crash while leading the Roval and finishes of 14th, 27th and sixth in Round 2. Just like that, Keselowski was out.

Now Elliott has won two races in three weeks, and has seemed to be running better in general as the fall approached. That said, is Elliott’s recent run that different than Keselowski’s? Wins shouldn’t be ignored, but in terms of making a statement, it’s Harvick who was going to win both the races Elliott won — including on Sunday — without self-inflicted mistakes on pit road (one by the team, one by the driver).

So it’s tough to figure how seriously to take Elliott’s playoff hopes. He’s racing with confidence and his team is putting him in situations to capitalize on potential wins. Is that enough to put him in the Homestead conversation, though? I’m going to take raw speed over anything at this point in the season, and that still seems like Harvick every week.

3. SHR channeling JGR

All four Stewart-Haas Racing drivers advanced to Round 3, making up half of the playoff field heading into the last four races.

When is the last time such a feat occurred? Actually it was only two years ago, when all four Joe Gibbs Racing drivers — Busch, Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth — made it to the Round of Eight.

Kenseth and Hamlin were eliminated after Phoenix that year, with Busch and Edwards advancing to Homestead. Edwards then was infamously in position to win the championship until a late caution,  which reset the field, ended in a wreck with Joey Logano and ultimately turned out to be his final career race.

So how will this year unfold for SHR? Will more than one of its drivers get to the final four?

I’m going to say no. Harvick is a lock, but Aric Almirola, Kurt Busch and Clint Bowyer probably need to win a race during this round if they’re going to make it. That’s because there’s such a large playoff points deficit to the Big Three, and you would think at least one of that trio will need to advance on points.

Bowyer could win Martinsville, but so could a number of drivers. The best bet for other SHR contenders might be if a non-playoff team wins one of the races and opens up an extra spot to reach Homestead on points.

Otherwise, Harvick might be riding solo into the championship round despite having three teammates in the semifinals.

4. Stale schedule hurts Round 2

Kansas was an OK race. It got exciting at the end, when there was a late battle for the lead. But had the playoff elimination scenario not been present all day, it would have been your standard, ho-hum 1.5-mile track race.

Logano dominated the early part of the race in clean air, until Harvick took over and did the same. Aside from the stage breaks, there was only one caution — for oil on the track when William Byron blew up.

It was just another reminder that NASCAR’s No. 1 issue isn’t personalities or tires or rules packages, but the tracks themselves — and where those tracks fall on the schedule.

The excitement and freshness of Round 1 seems like a distant memory after a relatively uneventful Dover race, a disappointing Talladega and then Sunday’s event at Kansas. This round’s watchability was masked by the good fortune of two popular Elliott wins, which pump up many in NASCAR. Overall, though, Round 2 promised more thrills than were actually delivered.

But remember the chaotic playoffs opener at Las Vegas? The first-time playoff event at Richmond? The hype and craziness of the Roval? The playoffs had gotten off to such a good start and were part of a string of great races that spanned a couple months.

Thankfully, Martinsville lies ahead next week and Round 3 also contains Phoenix’s new layout with the start/finish line in a turn (which might not change much with the racing, but at least it’s something new to talk about).

Maybe this is a wacky theory, but is it possible a stale schedule can leak into the on-track product at times? When a race gets hyped so much that even the drivers buy into it, is it possible they race differently? Perhaps it’s just coincidence, but Round 1 was a hell of a lot more compelling than Round 2 — and that seems backward for a playoff format that usually picks up steam as it goes.

5. Frustration continues for racing in U.S.

One of the year’s most-attended races in the United States happened on Sunday, and it wasn’t the NASCAR race.

Formula One and NASCAR went head-to-head once again this season — same day, same time —  and it only figures to get worse next year when they run in the same state as well.

I understand the reasoning for both series — F1 goes all over the world and doesn’t really care what NASCAR does, and NASCAR doesn’t have much of a window to avoid F1 — but that still doesn’t make it productive for either.

Think about this: What if NASCAR held the Kansas race on a Saturday afternoon? Then it could have sent its drivers to flood the F1 paddock, where they would have been portrayed as celebrities to the worldwide TV feed, increasing the international profile of the stock car series. Conversely, F1 is trying to gain a foothold in the U.S. but can’t really do that without dipping into the NASCAR fan base, which is the largest and most receptive audience in this country.

It all seems so self-defeating when you think about the challenges all forms of racing face today. With so many smart people working in both series and the obvious crossover opportunities, a greater effort should be made to lift up both NASCAR and F1 — even if one has to give a little more than the other to make it work.

11 Replies to “The Top Five: Breaking down the Kansas playoff race”

  1. I agree with you.These next races might have more non-chase drivers up in front.It will make racing more exciting for me,I think 22 is the sleeper and pitroad will doom some.

  2. 1) Buuuut, even though they’ve been there and done that they only have ONE championship each.

    2)Annnd in each of Chase’s wins he held off two of the Big 3. Some would also consider Denny an elite driver.

    3) No way all four make it to the Final 4 becauuuse Chase is going to be one of those racing for the Championship ????.

    4) Gotta agree with you on this, not the most exciting round. Buuut this ol’ lady has been on the edge of her seat for two of the three races ????????????????.

    5) I know very, very little about F1 and don’t really care to know much more. From what I have seen if one starts in the front you can pretty much count them the winner. Unless something crazy happens it’s pretty much over before it even starts. Of course I could be totally wrong on this. There do seem to be some intriguing personalities though.

    1. True that about F1, but action does occur behind the lead car, and Sky network is really good at covering that action. The announcers are charming, personable, and make NASCAR announcers sound like idiots. They keep the action about the race and drivers, and cover all twenty drivers in the race. And… And… The entire race is televised with no commercial breaks.

      All in all, F1 races are far more watchable and vastly more entertaining than the mess that NASCAR puts on the air regardless of network.

      1. Excellant point about Sky Sports coverage of F1. Certainly does make the coverage of a Nascar race seem like amateur hour, or, or, they think they are playing to the rubes.Neither is very flattering to Nascar fans.

  3. Yeah, the schedule of tracks in Round 2 sucks. Tell us something we don’t know.

    Seriously, I was discussing the races with my family and recounting memories from Martinsville’s fall races. There were six I could recall right off the top of my head. Gordon’s final win, Jr’s wild celebration when he won, Kenseth vs Logano, Hamlin vs Elliot, and on and on….

    Name me a Kansas fall race you remember……

    I’m sure there is at least one, maybe two you might recall.

    That’s a data point of one, maybe, but I think we can all agree, the tracks are the problem, nothing else.

  4. I got so tired of being bombarded with stats about,’…if the race ended now…’, and all the talk about points. tell me, were there any other cars in the field? This format seems to have made point racing even more irritating than ever. Glad I could watch the US Figure skating to keep from falling asleep from Kansas.

  5. The tracks have long been the problem. After the flooding of mile and a half tracks, teams started focusing on them. Dominant drivers at these tracks were a shoe in for the championship. NASCAR is paying the price for boring races and too much predictability. Bristol should be in the playoffs, and fewer cookie cutters. There are too many intelligent people involved in racing too have this many problems.

  6. here is the thing that hampered this race, Cool temps. I mean Kansas is one of the few repaves that you can race anywhere on. The spring race was hot and slick and it made for a fantastic race with a last lap pass for the win, a 40 degree swing in temperature and everyone is making good grip and the speeds are a second a lap faster. just saying. I also don’t think anyone is a lock for the next round, I mean only the highest point guy after Phoenix is guarantees in. you could have 3 different winners not of the big 3 and at least 2 of those guys are now on the out side looking in. The battle to lead the points is a story line in its self given how this playoff has transpired to this point. So even though Harvick has been the fastest car, they continue to leave wins on the table and in this round you have to close the deal. you can’t continue to let the 9’s and 2’s of the series pick up the scrap wins because it will bite you this round. you know they they will be in contention waning for you to flounder

    1. as for F1, look there is nothing that will fix this, NASCAR, and its track owners crated this mess. now it takes an act of congress to make a change. There are 2 big races in the same state on one day next year. so the simple solution is move the cup race to Saturday night. There are F1 drivers that have an interest in NASCAR even if the owners don’t. if done far enough in advance It would be great to see some of those F1 guys at the cup race on a Saturday night. It would be grat to see cup guys at the F1 race because I am sure that there are a more then a few that would love that opportunity but cant because they always race only he same day. for what ever reason motorsports sanctioning bodies cant seem to find a way to or want too spend the effort to cross promote. I mean how bad ass would it be to see an Indy car and Cup race double header in texas? even at Pocono. send the xfinity and trucks to a short track those weekends. Lets get the WMT back at martinsville on the cup weekend and do a trucks and xfinity double header weekend at martinsville in the summer under the lights. cross promote shake things up, get out of your own way and see the light

  7. 1. To follow on to an earlier comment, the intermediate tracks tend to be more exciting with day races when the weather is hot – from my selective memory of post-race comments after a hot weather race, drivers talk about having all sorts of problems other than aero as a reason for not being able to pass.

    2. I am surprised that I have yet to see a headline indicating a former Nascar truck and Nationwide series driver won the F1 race at Austin (Kimi Räikkönen won Sunday’s F1 race; he also ran in a Truck race and a Nationwide race 7 years ago).

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