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.

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

  1. -Harvick… how the heck is the dude so good this year!!?? Glad to see him get some wins, but I’m gonna need to see some new winners week to week! Haha Was looking forward to Blaney winning tonight but we all know how that went… then when Harvick went to p1 with like 3 laps to go And we all knew that was the end of that well… because 78 isn’t up to par (Can I use golf slang in a nascar post?!?)
    -Definitely agree about Bayne/Kenseth! Bayne has struggled all year (and more…) and it’s nice to know that it probably hasn’t been ALL his fault?? (i mean he hasn’t had the best career but he’s definitely not the worst one on the track week to week for sure!!) I think Kenseth and Roush both had their eyes opened a little this weekend! But definitely applaud Bayne for being a team player (as much as you can be in this situation) rather than pout at home. Gonna be a wild season watching these two. seeing if Bayne/RSJr can learn something from Kenseth, and seeing if Kenseth can get back to the driver he was before he took his break… or seeing if Roush is really the root of the problem here….

  2. With regard to Kenseth, Bayne, and Roush…

    There is no doubt that the 6 car was junk this weekend. It was a second (an eternity in modern NASCAR) off the pace from the time they unloaded. When a car is that far off it simply won’t be fixed at the track.

    I believe tha Kenseth stated that there was something fundamentally wrong with the car during the race, and the likely scenario is that Roush is struggling to produce downforce and sideforce compared to SHR, Penske, and Gibbs.

    Add in the fact that it was his first week in this car, and his first week with this downforce package, and you would be overly optimistic in expecting more than a top 20.

    Now, can Kenseth help right the ship? Perhaps, but really he can only give feedback and suggestions. The difference between him and Bayne (and Stenhouse, frankly) is that there may be a higher level of trust between the engineering team and the car developers with Kenseth who has proven he knows what he has to have in a car to win. The other two have only ever won o plate tracks, and have rarely been in contention to win on any downforce track.

    Regardless, if Roush can’t produce competitive cars it doesn’t matter if you have Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon, or Jesus tabbed as your driver. Just ask Jimmie Johnson.

  3. So I sat (or napped) through 360 laps of boredom, then saw 40 laps of mayhem. It certainly made for and entertaining few minutes, but wasn’t my idea of a race that was exciting to watch. Of course, there could have been a lot more actual racing going on behind the leader, but I didn’t get to see any of that. What a shame.

  4. I remember years ago (2005) with Joe Gibbs Racing first introduced their FedEx #11 team with the late-Jason Leffler (then a rookie) as the driver.

    As new teams typically do, they struggled, even missed the show at the World 600. Things deteriorated to the point that FedEx was not happy. It was then that Gibbs hired former champion, Terry Labonte (who was semi-retired) to replace Leffler for 5 races and see if he could help get the team back on track. Also part of this change was a crew chief replacement.

    Labonte’s time in the car did not go stunningly well in those 5 races (the best finish was a 9th at Richmond), but he did relay enough information to get the team building faster cars and making better in-race adjustments. Labonte went back into semi-retirement after his 5-race stent was over, but he reassured Gibbs that the team was on the right track. The next year Gibbs hired Denny Hamlin, who combined with the better equipment, helped build the FedEx #11 team into one of the best in NASCAR Cup.

    Give Kenseth time with the #6 before being too judgemental. The horrible run at Kansas was probably the best result in that it exposed a team that had gotten used to preparing mid-pack cars. I’m sure Kenseth unloaded on the team at the Monday meeting.

  5. Would Harvick win again? Will Johnson continue improving? Will Truex win three there? Larson’s got no chance, wait, he’s up front already? Guess that’s wrong. Kenseth vs. the missing Bayne. Logano is second? There were plenty of stories developing, great driving, passes. It was a good race even before all the action and pit strategies came to the fore.

  6. I want to briefly talk about window braces and sag.

    Q: Why could/can NASCAR look for body alterations to the sides of the cars from pit crews hip checking them, and make teams fix the ‘damage’; but NASCAR can not watch the rear windows for them bowing, visual ‘damage’, and make them come down pit road in race and fix it?
    Follow up Q: Why does NASCAR seem to think that altering the results on Tues/Wed is the better way to do it.

    Input: NASCAR needs to be watching for this and make the call in race and make teams fix it! If they judge from the tower its race damage, then it’s over and we know the result stands regardless if we agree with the call. If they just miss it on track, oh well, they’ll have to do better next race.
    NASCAR needs to stop firing officials and get enough manpower at track to watch all these cars in the event and stop waiting till Wed. to tell us that the event is official.

  7. I love how intelligent your followers are. Their knowledge of the race/race’s past and present, the cars, drivers, officials is just simply mind blowing at times. I learn a lot when I read what they have to say.

  8. I don’t believe for a minute that old Marty was “joking” about the Fords. I just don’t. Cole Pearn has gotten away with ALOT the past two years (prior to this), it was actually maddening and mind boggling, compared to the beat down other teams received by NASCAR. Now the new inspection process has caught up to COLE PEARN, imo.. MARTY ain’t happy, whiner.

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