Looking for the Who, What, When, Where, Why and How behind Sunday’s race? Amy Henderson has you covered each week with the answers to six race day questions, covering all five W’s and even the H…the Big Six.
Who…gets my shoutout of the race?
After a tire issue, getting caught on pit road when the yellow flag flew, and being mired in traffic for much of the middle part of the race, you’d think a driver would be driving for a mediocre finish at best. But as he has done his entire career, Matt Kenseth found a way to be there when it counted. After running as low as 26th at the race’s midpoint, Kenseth clawed his way back until he was not only in the top 10, but was in the top 5 and looking for more. That ability, to seemingly materialize out of nowhere to give the frontrunners fits late in the game, has been the hallmark of Kenseth’s career—it’s why he’s a Cup champion, and it’s why he can’t be counted out unless he has a problem…and even then, if he can find his way back, he will.
What…beyond the teams’ control affected the action?
Too many times it’s been the same refrain: tires. This week at least six drivers had tire problems, some of them very costly. Denny Hamlin kicked it off when he slammed the wall and limped away from his destroyed car, finishing 42nd and last on a night where neither the stands nor the Cup field were full. Hamlin wasn’t alone, though; tire issues also plagued Kyle Larson, Matt Kenseth, David Stremme, Casey Mears, and AJ Allmendinger.
It’s time for NASCAR to make some decisions. Goodyear’s current tires are either harder than granite, making it difficult for cars to pass, or they’re softer but not reliable. Neither is an appealing choice, and there could and should be a solution. Even if competing tire companies couldn’t work (it works in other areas, like motor oils, where teams have a choice in brands), why not use a system similar to IndyCar’s, where there are a couple of different compounds, one more durable but with diminished grip and one with great grip that falls off quickly? Teams could either have to choose one tire to run at the beginning of a race weekend and adjust accordingly, or be required to run both at some point during the day. No, that won’t take care of every issue – teams would still have to manage tires – but it could open the door for better tires, and better racing as a result.
Where…did the pole sitter and the defending race winner wind up?
Brad Keselowski certainly had a fast car in Kentucky, taking the pole on Friday afternoon and yarding the field on Saturday night, where he was the class of the field all night long. He should have finished the night in Victory Lane…and he did. Unfortunately for Keselowski, while he was there, he broke a champagne bottle on the trophy stand, necessitating a trip to the infield care center for four stitches and a clean uniform before his obligatory media center visit.
Matt Kenseth didn’t look like he’d be a contender at the halfway point in the race. He was running 26th at a track where clean air is everything, and he’d already been bitten by some bad luck in the form of a flat tire. But Kenseth was merely down, not out, and by the end of the race, there he was, inside the top 5 and gaining. He finished a hard-fought fourth.
“About the middle of the race, Jason (Ratcliff) made some good adjustments and got the car a lot better,” Kenseth said, explaining his race and quick to credit his team. “All weekend I felt like we were much more competitive than we’ve been lately. Overall, it was a positive and you always want to be a little bit better and be up there at the end. When we got that flat tire it got us a lap down and they did a good job coming back from that and getting some track position.”
When…did it all go sideways?
The frustration is evident on the radio, and while a driver throwing his team under the bus is never good for team chemistry, it’s becoming clear that for whatever reason, Kevin Harvick’s pit crew just isn’t getting it done. Mistakes on pit road have been costly for Harvick this year, and it hasn’t been an isolated incident, but rather several issues that have led to frustration for the Stewart-Haas Racing driver, who’s had one of the fastest cars on track all year long. Whether the crew just isn’t gelling or they’re folding under pressure or something else entirely, something needs to change soon if the No. 4 team is going to put together the title run that the car and driver are capable of.
Why…did Brad Keselowski win the race?
The Penske cars were clearly the class of field for most of the night, and while teammate Joey Logano’s engine sputtered late in the race, Keselowski’s was running strong as the driver led199 of 267 laps (Logano also led 37 circuits). Kyle Busch tried to run with Keselowski and led late, but the driver of the No. 2 Ford retook the lead with 20 laps to go and never looked back. It was one of those races where it was clear almost from the start which car was the one to beat, and by the time it was over, nobody was up to the challenge that Keselowski threw down.
How…did the little guys do?
Tommy Baldwin Racing; Michael Annett & Reed Sorenson (No 7 Pilot Flying J Chevy & No. 36 Theme Park Connection Chevy): This team, and Annett in particular, have shown marked improvement this year. This week, Annett has his best finish on a non-restrictor plate track, finishing 18th. Clearly, he’s bringing more than just money to the table. Sorenson still needs to pick his performance up a notch, but his 27th-place run this week was at least solid and uneventful, the kind of finish that gives teams something to build on.
Germain Racing; Casey Mears (No. 13 GEICO Chevy): The No. 13 team made a silk purse out of a sow’s ear on Saturday night. After losing a lap because he was forced to pit for a flat tire, Mears struggled to find the handling he was looking for, at one point saying on the team radio, “We haven’t done anything but make it worse every time we’ve made an adjustment.” Eventually, the team hit on something, though, and Mears climbed into the top 20. A broken shock mount late meant that Mears had to fight the car for the closing laps, but he was able to hang on and finish 20th despite the night’s issues.
JTG-Daugherty Racing; AJ Allmendinger (No. 47 Scott Products Chevy): Allmendinger’s finish absolutely does not reflect his night. He clearly had a top 15 car and ran there for most of the night. He ran inside the top 10 for a while, but had to hit pit road when he felt a tire going down, and a yellow flag came out, taking away too much valuable track position for the No. 47 to make up, and Allmendinger had to settle for 22nd, a disappointing result considering the way his night was headed.
HScott Motorsports; Justin Allgaier (No. 51 Brandt Chevy): Intermediate tracks are the toughest for the small teams, and it seems that finding the right amount of grip is especially difficult for many of them at these tracks. The No. 51 team searched for grip all night, but never quite found what Allgaier needed. He still had a fairly decent day, finishing 24th, but this team is still looking for the improvement they need overall.
BK Racing; Alex Bowman & Cole Whitt & Ryan Truex (No. 23 Dr. Pepper Toyota & No. 26 Speed Stick Gear Toyota & No. 83 Burger King Toyota): Whitt is beginning to show himself as an anchor for this team, finding some solid finishes even when his teammates struggle. This week Whitt led the team with his 28th-place run, nothing Earth-shattering, but he is providing the team some needed stability. Truex and his team felt like they made some positive gains in handling throughout the night. He tweeted after the race, “Well we were a little off at the start but my guys rallied and I feel like we had a top 25 car by the end, just stuck a few laps down.” Top 25s may not sound like much, but if BK could consistently post some of them, it would show marked improvement. Bowman struggled once again as he continues to adapt to Cup cars, but he spun on lap 153 and unfortunately collected three top-10 cars at the same time. Both Bowman and Truex will need some time and seasoning in the Cup series before they’re able to really help the team make a turnaround.
Phil Parsons Racing; Josh Wise (No. 98 Ford): This team continues to have some fairly strong finishes, considering they have very little information to go on from many tracks, as they operated as a start and park organization until 2014. For a team with little experience and little funding, top-30 runs are a fair start, and Wise was able to do that this week on a tough track. They’re doing something right.
Front Row Motorsports; David Ragan & David Gilliland (No. 34 Taco Bell Ford & No. 38 Love’s Travel Stops Ford): Gilliland fought his car for much of the night, but spent another week as his team’s top finisher with his 30th-place result, but four laps down hardly felt like a good night for the No. 38 bunch. Ragan struggled as well, finishing 31st and tweeting after the race about the difficulty of a bumpy Kentucky Speedway,”Well I feel like I had a fight with a concrete jack hammer for 4 hours! Glad we have Sunday off, and only 1 Kentucky race.”
Circle Sport; David Stremme & Landon Cassill (No. 33 Thunder Coal Chevy & No. 40 Snap Fitness Chevy): Cassill had the kind of night you’d expect from him and his team on this type of track—he finished five laps down in 32nd after searching for grip for much of the night. But the good news was that his team continues to attract some sponsorship interest as they continue to do more with less than many of their peers. Stremme was one of many drivers with tire woes during the race, and he spun in Turn 4, but he managed to save it with minimal damage. He had been running three laps down when the spin happened and fell back further afterward, finishing ten laps down in 35th.
GoFAS Racing; Travis Kvapil (No. 32 CorvetteParts.net Ford): Add Kvapil to the list of small-team drivers whose biggest problem at Kentucky was tire and handling woes. At one point, he told his team on the radio, “I can go faster but I don’t really want to; we’re abusing it enough already.” Sometimes that’s a smart move, because, while it may have cost Kvapil a better finish, it also may have saved him from a blown tire and a resulting crash. Sometimes knowing what your limits are is an important part of the game.
Jay Robinson; Joe Nemechek (No. 66 Toyota): Overfaced and underfunded, this team continued its 2014 struggles at Kentucky, finishing 28 laps down in38th, the last finisher still running. That they aren’t parking early is something, but an owner in over his head and a driver past his prime probably aren’t going to produce a Cinderella story anytime soon.