Race Weekend Central

Four Burning Questions In Kansas: Judging Fast Speeds And Penalty Appeals

Kansas Speedway is the site of Round 8 of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season, but before I get into this weekend’s preview, I feel I would be remiss if I did not express my most profound condolences to all those affected by both the Boston Marathon bombings and the West Texas Fertilizer Plant Disaster. There are no words to express the pain I felt upon hearing of these horrible tragedies, and my heart and all of my thoughts and prayers go out to all of the innocent families that these tragedies struck. Alas, in times like these, the best thing we can do as humans is pull ourselves back up by the bootstraps and get back to doing what we do best. That is exactly what the men and women of NASCAR will be doing this weekend, in the wake of these disasters as we as a nation forge past the atrocities of the past week.

Although they seem trivial in the context of this week’s happenings, there are quite a few news items to address heading into this weekend, ranging from the Penske penalties to the question marks surrounding the new Kansas Speedway pavement. Thus, without further ado, we shall begin.

1. Will the Penske Racing penalties immediately have an effect on the team?

By now, you’re probably all aware of the penalties NASCAR levied against Penske Racing this week. NASCAR utterly annihilated the team with penalties, nearly wiping out the entire braintrust of the organization for six weeks and relegating both Penske drivers to setbacks in the point standings. Such crushing penalties would, at first seem like a death sentence, as six weeks sans a crew chief along with his entire technical staff would be enough to put a dagger in a team’s Chase hopes. But for Penske, this incident all might end up being nothing more than a minor nuisance when all is said and done. Why?

The loss of crew chief Paul Wolfe would be devastating to defending champion Brad Keselowski, but it won’t be a factor this week in Kansas as Wolfe and company will stay on the job until an appeal can be heard.

As per NASCAR’s appeal policy, all suspended crew members are allowed to work as if nothing happened until a final decision is made regarding the appeal. This rule means that Penske crew chiefs Paul Wolfe and Todd Gordon, along with the litany of Penske staff members who were also “suspended” will be able to perform their normal team duties and be at the racetrack this weekend per usual. Since there’s no telling when the National Stock Car Commission will issue their final decision on the appeal, the Penske braintrust could feasibly still be at the racetrack for as many as an extra two or three more race weekends, even if the team loses the final verdict. If the team wins, they will have never missed a beat.

Thus, needless to say, Penske fans don’t have much to worry about in regards to the Kansas race this weekend. It’s obviously tough to make a call on how the appeal will end up being decided, but for the time being, expect the Penske bunch to use these penalties as extra motivation to work harder and prove their critics wrong. Considering where that kind of attitude has gotten the team’s ace driver, Brad Keselowski, in the past, that could be bad news for the rest of the field.

2. Fast fast fast!!!! Will the speeds at Kansas necessitate speed-cutting measures?

One of the big stories with the Gen-6 car thus far has been just how much faster the cars are over their Gen-5 brethren. Track records have either been broken or close to being broken on a weekly basis as of late, and that record will continue without question this weekend in Kansas. Drivers are anticipating that speeds could reach as high as 215 mph entering the corner, with lap times approaching 198 mph. The Cup Series has not seen speeds that fast on a mile-and-a-half track since Geoff Bodine posted a lap of 197 mph at a freshly repaved Atlanta Motor Speedway in 1997.

What, exactly makes Kansas so fast? It all comes down to the track’s fresh, smooth surface and newly instituted 20 degree banking. Smooth surfaces like the one currently in place at Kansas (remember, it was just repaved and reconfigured midway through 2012) have loads of grip, and the Gen-6 cars’ incredible downforce numbers create a perfect storm of speed. But just how fast is too fast?

We are going to find out the answer to that this weekend. Last year, two drivers (Denny Hamlin and Dale Earnhardt, Jr.) both suffered vicious crashes at the newly repaved Kansas facility due to tire failures, both resulting in injury… and that was in the slower Gen-5 car. There is no telling what could happen if a driver suffers a tire failure in the much faster Gen-6. As such, the onus is on NASCAR to monitor speeds throughout the weekend and make adjustments if deemed necessary. If any sort of accident occurs in the practices leading up to the race, do not be shocked if NASCAR issues either restrictor plates or tapered spacers to the teams in order to slow them down. Speed is cool and all, but if it interferes with driver safety, it needs to take a back seat. We’ve already had enough injuries in NASCAR this year, and you can be sure that they’ll have that in the back of their minds as they watch pre-qualifying practices.

3. Could wild tire strategy lead to a wild race?

Building on some items listed in Question 2, tires are yet another factor that will be directly affected by the new Kansas pavement. In order to make the tires withstand the fast and smooth nature of freshly paved racetracks, Goodyear is forced to bring rock hard compounds to the track that resist both failure and wear. In the case of Kansas, this pattern will once again be the protocol, meaning that taking four fresh Goodyears will foster little to no advantage in any situation other than a 50+-lap green flag run.

Obviously, this opens the door for all types of wild pit strategy to rise to the surface, and if cautions run amok like they did in last Fall’s race at Kansas, pit strategy could very easily turn the race on its head. I mention cautions, of course, because this new Kansas configuration seems especially prone to them. Given that the track has only one groove at the moment, if a driver misses his line by even a fraction of an inch, it will lead him to get forced up into the “green” area of the oval (which is essentially the higher part of the track that isn’t worn in by a groove). Due to the lack of grip in this part of the track, wrecks occur with great frequency, especially after restarts. This pattern puts even more pressure on the crew chief to make the correct call on pit road, as the wrong tire strategy call can lead to a driver getting stuck back in the dangerous part of the pack where wrecks are always a few mistakes away from breaking out.

Expect to hear the phrases “tough to pass”, “we’re in the wreck boys,” and “two tires this time” quite a bit on Sunday, as fresh pavement and rock hard tires will likely lead to a crash-filled strategy-fest, much in the vein of last year’s Chase race at Kansas.

4. Can Dale Earnhardt, Jr. rebound after consecutive weeks of poor results?

I feel somewhat responsible for this one. Four weeks ago, in this very column I dedicated a full question to Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s success at the time and lauded him as one of the three main championship hopefuls heading into the rest of the season. Boy, has it been downhill since then. The man who led the points after Auto Club has posted finishes of 24th and 29th since then and now sits tied for fifth in points, leading some to wonder if the early season magic that the No. 88 team possessed has evaporated.

Now, before Junior and his nation of devoted fans comes running after my head, I am in no way pinning this lack of recent performance on Junior. His performance as a driver is not what is concerning. It’s the No. 88 crew, in contrast which has left me puzzled. In Martinsville, Junior had what appeared to be one of the faster cars on track before the team gradually lost the handle on the car late in the event, then watched as his three other teammates dueled for the win. Then in Texas, Junior was running third late in the going and appeared poised to challenge for a win before a baffling battery issue derailed his day. The No. 88 team is making uncharacteristic mistakes that they are not accustomed to making, and they are heading to a reconfigured track this weekend where their driver has little experience. Uh oh.

All told, whatever has ailed the No. 88 team the past two weekends needs to come to a screeching halt in Kansas if they want return to the championship caliber form that they are most definitely capable of. Kansas ought to be a good test for Junior and Co., as this is the track they have perhaps the least amount of collective experience on (and the place where Junior suffered one of his infamous concussions last summer). I would argue that a good run this weekend is paramount to the overall success of the No. 88’s season, and given how strong they were earlier this year (and for 2/3rds of last week’s race!), there is little reason to doubt their ability to deliver. However, another poor result, no matter the cause, could send this team into a rut, and when you’re dealing with a driver who experiences spikes in confidence, that is the last thing they need to happen.

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