Five thoughts after Saturday night’s race at Kansas Speedway…
1. The package delivers
As the Kansas Speedway pavement kept cool on an unusually chilly May night, NASCAR’s new rules package found the ideal conditions to put on a good show.
Maybe that’s the key to unlocking this oft-discussed rules package. The NASCAR Winter Series, anyone?
“It used to be we wanted daytime races because it fit the rules,” race winner Brad Keselowski said. “Now it’s the opposite. Nighttime is the new daytime for NASCAR as far as the racing being better during the night, because it gives you the grip to be able to take advantage of what this car or rules setup is designed for.”
In Stage 3, after the sun had fully disappeared, the racing was as exciting as anyone could ever hope to see on a 1.5-mile track. Drivers were all over the track trying to get runs, throwing blocks and generally scrambling to grab track position before the field got sorted out.
It kept the leader from driving off and thus helped generate a three-way battle for the lead late in the race between Keselowski, Alex Bowman and Erik Jones.
“The package tonight was the closest iteration NASCAR is going to get to what I’m guessing they were shooting for,” Jones said. “We were very close to wide open. There were definitely some pack racing moments after the restarts.”
It also presented an opportunity for different teams to get into the mix, such as JTG Daugherty Racing’s Chris Buescher and Richard Childress Racing’s Tyler Reddick — who was making only his second career Cup Series start.
“I think this package did what it was designed to do,” Buescher said. “It’s kind of closing the field up a little bit, right? Get rid of the cars that could drive away and lap the entire field. With that, we had a good-driving race car and that was something that enabled us to go up there and run through it.”
A request to speak with NASCAR officials about the Kansas race was declined, and Steve O’Donnell commented only to a NASCAR.com camera crew for some reason. But you would have to guess the sanctioning body was pleased with what it saw.
That said, you also have to wonder if NASCAR is concerned Kansas might be a one-off rather than a trend. Had the race been run under warmer temperatures, cars may have been spread out while having a reduced ability to pass — as has happened in some other races this season.
It’s highly unlikely NASCAR will get lucky with another chilly night for the Coca-Cola 600 and beyond. Kentucky, for example, isn’t going to be 50 degrees in July. So the kind of racing we saw at Kansas might not be replicated until October or November, when the cool returns once again.
“I think this track suited what they were after, as far as being able to draft and be close to each other,” Chase Elliott said. “This is kind of the perfect form for it. I don’t really think it’s realistic everywhere. It was exciting tonight, so that was a win for them.”
2. Making a move
As the laps wound down, Keselowski was trailing Bowman and getting aggravated. He had his foot to the floor, all the way around the track, but wasn’t making any progress.
“In a lot of ways that’s frustrating, because it felt like before (in the old rules package) at least when you were lifting, there was something you could maybe do different,” Keselowski said. “But when you’re running wide open behind somebody and you can’t make the pass, you’re like argh.”
On the other hand, Keselowski noted making passes now is “a touch easier…because the draft helps pull you back to somebody.”
Even though Keselowski wasn’t gaining ground, Bowman still wasn’t driving away, either. So when Keselowski finally created an opportunity for himself to make a move, he was in position to capitalize.
With 11 laps to go, the No. 2 car got a run coming into Turn 1, and Bowman moved down to throw a block. But that got Bowman’s car juuuust out of balance enough for Keselowski to juke right and get to the No. 88 car’s outside.
“It feels a little bit like watching a football game and watching a corner versus a wide receiver and watch them kind of work each other,” Keselowski said. “You’re just trying to get him off balance and cut and go the other direction and get away from him. And that’s what we were able to do.”
3. What about Johnson?
It seems like Hendrick Motorsports has found some speed — at least in some of its cars. Bowman now has three straight second-place finishes and Elliott has three straight top-fives.
“Our race cars have gotten vastly better the last month or so,” Bowman said after the race.
Jimmie Johnson ended up in the top 10 at Kansas as well — putting three Hendrick cars in the top six — but he seemed more concerned than pleased.
“The first half, two-thirds of that race, we were terrible,” Johnson said. “That’s just the bottom line. … We’re still missing a chunk of speed even out there running by ourselves there’s a pretty good gap from our car to even our own teammates’ cars. We’re missing something.”
Johnson said the speed is there “company-wise,” as evidenced by Bowman and Elliott. But as his No. 48 team tries to get creative with its setups, Johnson sounds like he’s running out of patience as the halfway point of the regular season approaches.
“We’re probably on the aggressive side of trying to bring new stuff to the track and doing a nice thing for our company in developing and proving it,” he said. “So I’m trying to stay patient, but years are flying by. We’ve got to get to work. We’ve got to be winning races and finishing higher in the points if we’re going to have a shot at the championship. Hopefully we can clean that stuff up and get where we need to be.”
Johnson has been a good soldier for the company and kept any dissatisfaction private as the No. 48 continues its ho-hum performances. But now that his teammates have picked up the pace, Hendrick needs to double down on its efforts to get its legendary seven-time champion back up to speed as well.
4. Reddick alert
Can we talk a little more about Tyler Reddick?
Last year’s Xfinity Series champion was viewed somewhat warily when he took advantage of a track that suits his style (Homestead) to run the top line all the way to a championship — this after he won just one other race all year.
So was he really that good?
Why yes. Yes, he is.
Reddick, who has shined in the Xfinity Series this season, had quite a good showing Saturday night in what was his first “real” Cup race (the other was the Daytona 500, which was the final restrictor plate race).
The Californian had a legit shot at a top five finish and ultimately ended up with a top-10 — and then expressed disappointment! A lot of young drivers in his position would be elated with a top-10 in their first intermediate track race. But Reddick certainly wasn’t.
“I always want more; that’s just the way I am,” he said. “I’ve raced against some of these guy in the Xfinity Series and it was fun to go toe-to-toe with them. It was still a lot of fun to finish top-10, but we didn’t come here to run top 10. We came here to battle for the win.”
Reddick is quite an interesting character. He lacks the polish of some drivers — in a good way — and can be both irreverent and sponsor-friendly.
For example: Before the race on Saturday, he walked around the garage with samples of a shampoo product that was on his car (Tame the Beast) and passed them out to people while explaining how it makes his scalp refreshingly tingle (I’m not joking). Then he passed out a sample of the same company’s product — called “Nutt Butter” lotion — with instructions to use it…uh…down there (again, not joking).
Anyway, as fans get to know him both on the track and off it, he has a chance to become a driver who can make an impact when he gets to the Cup Series.
5. Are you listening?
NASCAR’s most popular driver doesn’t think officials care about his opinion, but you can bet they care that he said that.
On Friday, Elliott told reporters he’s tried to voice his opinion at times behind closed doors and said he’s realized “I just don’t think that my opinion matters to the people who make the rules.”
But he went a step further and wondered aloud if NASCAR should care. In his mind, maybe not.
“Why do the owners and the drivers and the teams even have a voice in some of that stuff?” he said. “When it comes down to it, just make the rules and be done with it. We’re racing. Either you like it or you don’t.”
The thing is, this goes against the direction of how NASCAR has been leaning recently. A decade ago, one of NASCAR’s biggest problems was said to be the sanctioning body’s lack of listening. Officials were criticized for making decisions without input from the rest of the garage, so now everything is changed.
Manufacturers have input. Teams have input. Drivers have input — first through the now-defunct drivers council, then through group driver sessions with NASCAR (which includes all drivers except Kevin Harvick, who hasn’t shown up for one yet).
But NASCAR points out that listening and acting on those opinions are different things. They might hear the drivers, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to do what the drivers ask.
As a result, the drivers feel frustration because they don’t have as big of a voice as others — namely the owners, though there are financial reasons for that. If it were up to the drivers, they’d have a high-horsepower, low-downforce package. Obviously, they got the opposite.
“Do I feel like the drivers have a great view of what is happening? Yeah, probably better than anyone because you can do all the CFD studies and show me all these squiggly lines, but there is nothing like real life when you get out there and actually feel it,” Joey Logano said. “… But we also have to realize and almost take a step back and look at it from a global view of what is best for our sport.
“I do feel like our voice is heard, I just feel like it is not everything and it probably shouldn’t be everything — because there are other groups that need to be heard as well.”
Some drivers and others in the garage — not just Elliott — believe NASCAR now seeks too much input. So it’s come full circle: The criticism for once not listening has turned into those seeking to return to the dictatorship.
And maybe they have a point, but it frustrates NASCAR — which has continued to make changes based on driver feedback. The playoff points, for example, were based on a Denny Hamlin concept. And just recently, Elliott asked NASCAR to find a way to fix the scoring if a driver has to go down pit road to avoid an accident — and NASCAR upgraded its pit road scoring loop technology as a result.
There are about a dozen other things NASCAR has done at the drivers’ request as well, but the bottom line is this: This era of seeking opinions has turned into opinions over whose opinions should be sought in the first place.
So perhaps Elliott is right: NASCAR should just do what it sees fit and everyone just has to live with the consequences — for better or worse.