Who… should you be talking about after the race?
A dozen drivers led the field at Kansas Speedway, but only one could lead the final lap in Sunday’s AdventHealth 400.
It came down to the kind of battle people talk about: one driver in a better car, one driver who drove a better race but whose car wasn’t quite as good. Better driver, better car, white flag lap. That’s the kind of finish that makes for an instant classic, and while this wasn’t quite that, it was exciting.
Denny Hamlin had the best car, and it showed when he moved into second on the final run, nearly two seconds behind leader Kyle Larson with the laps south of 40 and ticking down. Hamlin, in the faster car, ran Larson down fairly easily as Larson’s No. 5 got looser with each lap. Larson made it difficult; he had the advantage of being in the lead and he did everything right, taking Hamlin’s preferred lines away and setting up lapped cars. Even when his car got loose, he hung on and held Hamlin off.
But Hamlin had speed, and he was able to get to Larson one more time on the final lap. He made one move to side draft Larson, almost getting by, but Larson hung tough, and Hamlin’s next move was to lay his bumper to the No. 5, executing a bump-and-run to take the lead and the win as Larson gathered it in to finish second.
It’s Hamlin’s first win of 2023 and first since winning the Coca-Cola 600 in 2022. He becomes the third Joe Gibbs Racing driver to win this year and claim a playoff berth,
And don’t forget Martin Truex Jr. Truex claimed his first win if 2023 last weekend at Dover Motor Speedway, and this week, he was the class of the field for sections of the middle portion of the race, leading eight times for a total of 79 laps, second only to Larson’s 85 laps led. Truex’s biggest enemy was the rash of cautions early in the third stage; a tire gamble didn’t pay off, and he had one stop that was slightly slower than the cars he’d been racing. Truex still finished eighth.
What… is the big question leaving this race in the rearview?
For the second straight year, the spring race at Kansas proved to be one of the best races of the season so far, featuring a last-lap pass for the win as well as multiple lead changes throughout.
Kansas, once noted primarily for its lackluster racing, has been good enough to keep two races on a Cup schedule that has seen intermediate ovals fall off in favor of road courses and reconfigurations. In 2019, the Cup schedule featured 14 races on 1.5-2-mile ovals. In 2022, the number has dropped to 12, but that number includes Atlanta Motor Speedway, which has reconfigured to race more like a small superspeedway. It also included Auto Club Speedway, which closed for a complete revamp after its race in February, and, if it reopens at all, will be a short track. Kentucky Speedway and Chicagoland Speedway are gone. Texas Motor Speedway is down to one race, though Nashville Superspeedway has been added and Darlington has gained a second race.
But given the great racing Kansas has displayed with the Next Gen car, did NASCAR overreact? Are there too few 1.5-milers left?
Not quite. NASCAR has needed to diversify the schedule for years, and it’s done a decent job balancing it, including moving the All-Star event from an intermediate to a short track. But the Next Gen car was designed to fix the racing at precisely these intermediate tracks … and that has proved to be to the detriment of the flat one-milers and short tracks.
NASCAR needs to improve the cars on those tracks, not add back the cookie-cutters. If the series is going to tout its versatility as a selling point, the schedule needs to stay diverse.
Besides, a few years ago, all the talk was how bad the intermediate tracks were. Now, they’re proving to be better. Enjoy the ride.
Where… did the other key players wind up?
Pole winner William Byron was fast on Saturday but struggled almost from the drop of the green flag on Sunday. A loose car on the second lap cost him the lead, but it was a brush with the wall that caused a flat tire, followed by a pit road speeding penalty that really hurt Byron’s hopes as he fell two laps behind. He got back onto the lead lap during stage two thanks to caution flags and the wave around, but his handling woes didn’t dissipate until the closing laps, when a series of cautions and fresh tires allowed Byron to get right back in the mix, taking back the lead with just over 50 laps to go before falling to third.
Fall Kansas winner Bubba Wallace had a top-five car for most of the race. He led nine laps, raced smart, and looked like he had a chance at the win if the chips fell right as both Wallace and teammate Tyler Reddick had good speed. Multiple cautions in the final stage changed the game for many teams, and the Toyota camp as a whole didn’t seem to quite keep up with the track and the surging Chevrolets — but a longer late run turned the tables back to Wallace’s favor and he finished a solid fourth.
Point leader Ross Chastain was solid all day, but didn’t have a car to contend for the win. Still, Chastain worked his way into the top five on and off throughout the race. He stayed out of trouble and, like Wallace, made the most of what he did have to score a top five. He got into a brief scuffle after the race with Noah Gragson, who he raced up the track earlier; Gragson retaliated by running into Chastain’s right side but did more damage to his own No. 42, cutting a tire. Chastain recovered from the incident to finish fifth.
When… was the moment of truth?
There’s been a lot of talk in 2023 about clean air and the races being taken out of drivers’ hands. This week’s race was an example of what happens when it’s put back into them. It was hard to pass, but the air didn’t make it impossible. Even as Larson and Hamlin battled, it wasn’t so much aerodynamics holding Hamlin back as it was Larson outdriving him. Hamlin made the bump and run because he was taking the race out of Larson’s hands, not because it was out of either of their control.
Teams spend as much time as they can testing cars in wind tunnels and making as many simulations as possible. They also study computer data from tracks like “ghost car” simulations to try and make better laps.
But perhaps it’s time for more in-depth studies of the track surfaces themselves. Why can cars pass more easily at Kansas than at, say, Charlotte? Things like differences in banking are, of course, the major players, but is there a way to make tracks race better when they repave the surfaces, like adding variable banking or a different asphalt compound? Maybe the racing everyone is looking for needs to come from the ground up as much as from the cars down.
Why… should you be paying attention this week?
The upcoming race weekend is one of the most fun weekends all year: NASCAR’s annual throwback weekend at NASCAR’s grand old Lady in Black, Darlington Raceway. Teams create paint schemes reflecting those of heroes past (and some present; there are a few honoring the retiring 2014 champ Kevin Harvick this time around). Teams have gotten into the game, digging up some very retro uniforms to wear in the garage.
The weekend has lost maybe a touch of its luster recently, but it’s still a fun nod to NASCAR’s storied past … and this year, it rolls right into the biggest throwback of them all as North Wilkesboro Speedway rises from the ashes to host the All-Star race after sitting silently for more than 25 years. NASCAR is a sport that can never outrun its past, and the next couple of weeks are a reminder of why it never should.
How… come nobody has snapped up Kurt Busch as a broadcaster?
It could be as simple as Busch not being ready to commit to a second career in the booth, but he’s excellent in an analyst role. Harvick will take over as Clint Bowyer’s sidekick next year, and he’s also proven himself for several years through guest roles, but Busch handles Bowyer better than any of the other guest analysts FOX has put in there so far.
At the very least, Busch would be a fantastic addition to the network’s Xfinity Series booth, which relies on guest Cup drivers but could use a permanent voice. Busch, if he wants to move into television, would only be an asset, particularly to FOX.
About the author
Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.
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