Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2018 Hollywood Casino 400

Who… gets my shoutout of the race?

In a race that was dominated by championship contenders, Erik Jones was the lone non-playoff driver to crack the top 10 at Kansas Speedway. He started sixth and finished inside the top 10 in both stages before ultimately taking the checkered flag in fourth. His eighth top five this season was his second in the last three races.

“We had a really fast car. Our Craftsman Camry was I think a car that could have contended for the win,” Jones said of his race. “We just struggled on pit road. We lost a lot of spots and it just took a long time to get them back. That long green run helped us at the win and we were able to pick them up and get back towards the front, but not enough time. Good car. Just got to keep working and keep getting closer.”

For Jones, it’s a question of what if. After winning at Daytona International Speedway in July, Jones locked himself into the playoffs but suffered a dismal first round with finishes of 40th, 11th and 30th, which eliminated him from the championship battle. By comparison, finishes of fourth, eighth and fourth in the last three races come out to an average of 5.3, which likely would have been enough to move him forward into the Round of 8.

What… caused such a calm elimination race?

When the XFINITY Series opened its Round of 8 on Saturday in Kansas, the field failed to even complete a lap before the wrecking started. That first caution took out three of the eight championship contenders and heavily damaged a fourth one in Justin Allgaier, Christopher Bell, Austin Cindric and Cole Custer.

Fast forward to Sunday, though, and with the exception of stage breaks, the lone caution to fly came when William Byron‘s engine expired during stage one. Though several cars hit the wall and there were multiple calls from drivers about debris on the radio, NASCAR opted not to throw the yellow after any of those incidents, leading to a 101-lap green flag run to the checkered flag.

“When we tested here, I don’t know, a month or so ago, we tested the top a lot because we knew that was kind of going to be a place to be,” Kyle Busch said during his post-race media availability. “But the problem is when you get to the next guy in front of you, you’re running the top, he moves up in front of you, there’s nowhere for you to go. You can’t bomb to the bottom.”

“The track was so fast. Even the runs where I felt like I was good, can’t make up any time,” Kyle Larson echoed. “Everybody’s quick. When you’re faster, somebody gets stuck. I think the cool conditions just made it kind of tough to pass today.”

When… will William Byron catch a break?

No one said it would be easy for Byron when he made the jump from the Camping World Truck Series to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series in a matter of two years, but this season has been particularly dismal for him. With just three top-10 finishes in 32 races, it’s likely a rookie campaign he’d rather forget, especially since his last two were highlighted by multiple trips to Victory Lane and an XFINITY Series championship.

In Kansas, Byron completed just 55 laps before his engine went south, sending up a plume of smoke and trailing oil all the way back to his garage stall. It marked his eighth DNF in a season where he’s currently ranked 22nd in the point standings.

“That was the best car we’ve had. Usually, that seems like how it works,” Byron said after taking his No. 24 Cherolet to the garage. “But we were making pretty good ground. We came out after our green flag stop in a decent spot. We were kind of mired between the two guys we were before, so overall the car was good and the motor just blew up. But there’s nothing you can do but look forward to the next race.

“I kind of felt off of (Turn) 2 that the bottom end came out of it. And then year, after that I knew it was over. So, I was just trying to get to the bottom. But no, you can’t really feel it.”

Byron has just four more races with Darian Grubb atop the pit box before the offseason brings the expertise of Chad Knaus to the No. 24 team and perhaps a fresh perspective that will allow the young driver to develop and find a bit of that success that’s eluded him thus far.

Where… did Chase Elliott come from?

After qualifying 13th, Chase Elliott methodically worked his way through the field until he was able to take advantage of a late-race speeding penalty for Kevin Harvick and took the top spot when the final round of green-flag stops was complete.

“We tested here I guess about a month ago. We had a really good test,” crew chief Alan Gustafson said. “We were able to get some speed out of our car over the long run, which was really our strength. We knew going in short runs probably weren’t going to be our forte.

“We weren’t looking forward to a caution there at the end. We knew our car wasn’t great on short runs,” he continued. “Fortunately it didn’t come for us.”

For Elliott, it’s his second victory in the last three races and his third of his career, all of which were scored this season. The last driver to score their first three career wins in the same season was Carl Edwards back in 2005.

Now that he won two of the three races in the Round of 12, people are suddenly putting Elliott in the championship contention conversation, but he’s going to have his work cut out for him if he’s going to overcome the talented veterans in Kyle Busch and Harvick, who have been title favorites – along with Martin Truex Jr. – for much of the season.

Why… does Team Penske only have one driver in the Round of 8?

Joey Logano is the lone Team Penske driver left standing following the conclusion of the Round of 12 when teammates Ryan Blaney and Brad Keselowski were eliminated in Kansas. Blaney led eight laps, but after running the high line, he bounced the No. 12 Ford off of the wall and never was the same.

Meanwhile, Keselowski struggled for much of the day, and crew chief Paul Wolfe tried to gamble on catching a caution in their favor by keeping his driver on the track for as long as he could during each round of green-flag pit stops. But that break never came and the driver of the No. 2 Ford finished sixth, which just wasn’t enough to allow him to point his way into the next round.

How… did the Big Three fare?

Much has been said about the Big Three of Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. for the majority of the season. In fact, the trio won 17 of the opening 26 races (65 percent), but since the playoffs began, only Kyle Busch had found his way to Victory Lane at Richmond International Raceway.

Entering Kansas Speedway, the last 10 fall races were won by championship contenders, and the last five events have been won by one of the Big Three.

All three finished stage one inside the top 10, though none of them led a lap. Enter Kevin Harvick, who took the top spot on lap 138 and didn’t look back for 76 laps until a round of green flag pit stops. With a substantial lead, he was poised to remain as the leader once the cycle of pit stops concluded, but Harvick was nabbed for speeding and ultimately was only able to recover to 12th.

Meanwhile, Truex struggled with handling throughout the race, leading him to claim he wasn’t sure what to do in multiple conversations with crew chief Cole Pearn over the team’s radio. Despite his pit crew gaining him four positions on pit road twice, Truex was never a factor when it came to winning the race, something that’s quite odd given his recent domination at Kansas. He did manage to take the checkered flag in fifth, though, which is far better than he had run for much of the race.

Kyle Busch actually was the best finisher of the Big Three but still left as runner-up by nearly a full second. He engaged in an extended battle with Kyle Larson on track and started running down eventual winner Chase Elliott before fading ahead of the checkered flag.

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