Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: The Best Kansas Race Ever?

What Happened?

KANSAS CITY, Kan. – Denny Hamlin tangled with Kyle Larson in some last lap contact to pass and win his first race of 2023 at Kansas Speedway on Sunday, May 7. William Byron, Bubba Wallace and Ross Chastain rounded out the top five, respectively.

This was Hamlin’s 49th career NASCAR Cup Series win and first victory since the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway one year ago.

See also
Denny Hamlin Wins Kansas Cup Race With Last-Lap Pass

But What Really Happened?

Sunday’s 400-miler appeared to have everything race fans wanted and more.

On a day when NASCAR needed an exceptional race, amidst a head-to-head broadcast against Formula One in one of its biggest races of the year in the Miami Grand Prix, NASCAR fans saw last-lap crashes and passes for the lead, a record number of lead changes and one big fight. Oh my.

It almost didn’t happen that way, either. The first stage of the 267-lap event was dominated by Toyotas — not too surprising, considering they had won both Kansas races with 23XI Racing in 2022. Yet by the end of the event, it was Larson and Hamlin in a duel between two of NASCAR’s newly named Top 75 drivers.

Larson ran the high line as Larson does, all the while zigging and zagging through lapped traffic while Hamlin crept behind the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet and slowly approached its back bumper in the closing laps.

It all came to a climax on the last lap when the two made contact — or so we think.

As to who’s at fault, the jury is still out, and you can put the blame on whoever you wish, but many were already calling Sunday’s race the best of 2023 as a result of the last-lap entanglement. And really, you can’t blame them for thinking so.

But on top of a thrilling finish between the two and a race that saw 22 drivers earn triple-digit numbers of green flag passes, neither of those is the biggest story of the day.

While Larson and Hamlin stayed respectful as a result of their on-track contact, there are a couple other drivers who weren’t.

Who Stood Out?

Chastain earned a new enemy on Sunday, in case you haven’t already heard.

After contact between the No. 1 Trackhouse Racing driver and Noah Gragson occurred with nearly 60 laps to go, the Legacy Motor Club driver found himself in the wall from a cut tire that likely stemmed from his skirmish with the Melon Man.

A tough break for the Las Vegas native, to be sure. At one point, Gragson was running as high as eighth during a green flag run. The No. 42 team was on course to earn its best finish of 2023 and possibly its first top 10 of the season as well.

Naturally, he was upset with Chastain — and, well, get in line — but it didn’t end there. The 23-year-old approached the driver of the No. 1 post-race, and more than words were exchanged. A lot more.

It’s the latest chapter in the book of Chastain and will likely be the subject of many an article for the next week.

It’s a shame, too, because it completely overshadowed the efforts of the No. 24 team and Byron.

The polesitter for today’s race started off strong but found himself as the subject of a speeding penalty on lap 36, followed by contact with the outside wall and eventually being a whole two laps down.

Despite his woes, Byron still recovered by the end of the race and even was able to lead 10 laps by the end. It appeared for a brief amount of time that the HMS driver may even have had a shot to win in what would have been one of the best comebacks in NASCAR history.

Byron finished third when it was all over, however, but for somebody who was a whole two laps off the pace at one point, that’s an impressive feat.

Who Fell Flat?

At one point in the first stage, all six Toyotas in the field were in the top seven. It wasn’t the result of pit strategy. It was speed. They were just that fast.

But by lap 240, only two of those Toyotas remained in that group.

Both Hamlin and Wallace finished in the top five when it was all over, and Martin Truex Jr. and Tyler Reddick finished eighth and ninth, respectively.

For Ty Gibbs and Christopher Bell, however, it was the story of what could have been.

Bell was a part of the Toyota train that had dominated the field early on in stage one, even going on to finish fifth in the first segment. He was running in eighth in stage two with eight laps to go as well.

Or at least he was until his spin.

It’s a little up in the air as to what happened with Bell, as there didn’t seem to be any camera angles that could accurately depict what had happened prior to his spin. Regardless, it ruined the Oklahoman’s race, resulting in him finishing dead last.

Then there’s Gibbs.

Last year’s NASCAR Xfinity Series Champion was running third at one point, joining his Toyota comrades. He, like Gragson, was on course to perhaps earn his best finish of the year, overlapping his previous best of finishing ninth three times.

However, during a hard battle for seventh with teammate Truex with only 91 laps to go, he, like many others throughout the day, found himself getting loose off turn 2. It ended with only a spin, but that’s not what took him out of the race.

While limping back to pit road, Gibbs’ tire exploded, shredding the right front of his vehicle. The rookie could only park it on the grass on pit road and hope to try and refire it after getting a push from the truck.

That push never came. Gibbs was stuck and forced to retire.

He was credited with a 34th-place result.

Better Than Last Time?

Sunday’s race featured 37 lead changes, shattering the previous Kansas Speedway record of 26 set in 2009.

Actually, it was the most lead changes in any 400-mile race on a 1.5-mile track ever.

So to ask if it was better than last year’s race almost does Sunday’s event a disservice.

Indeed, it was probably the best race at Kansas ever.

Forget the last-lap incident between Larson and Hamlin, and forget the Melon Man sending a haymaker into Gragson on pit road. There are probably few that would disagree that the racing product — complete with 12 different leaders and plenty of side-by-side racing — on Sunday at the 1.5-mile circuit was entertaining.

See also
Tempers Flare Between Noah Gragson, Ross Chastain in One Hot Afternoon at Kansas

Paint Scheme of the Race

You probably never thought you’d read about the Guardians of the Galaxy in a NASCAR article, but here we are.

It’s not often we see movies become the sponsor on racecars nowadays, but Brad Keselowski‘s No. 6 RFK Racing Ford featured a blockbuster on its palette this weekend.

And it’s out of this world.

Horrible jokes aside, Keselowski and RFK Racing gaining the sponsorship of what will likely be one of the biggest movies of the year is a huge get for the two-car team.

Additionally, it’s not a bad looker, either. The Ford scheme features a clash of orange and purple with a far-out nebula pattern on the sides — and no, that’s not referring to the character.

Although, she is on the car.

What’s Next?

It’s Throwback Weekend for the NASCAR Cup Series.

The sport heads to Darlington Raceway for its annual celebration of NASCAR’s past, featuring teams adorning cars with some of the best paint schemes of the past. Qualifying for the Goodyear 400 will begin on Saturday, May 13 at 11:20 a.m. ET, and the field will take the green on Sunday, May 14, at 3 p.m. ET with television coverage provided by FOX Sports 1.

About the author

Dalton Hopkins began writing for Frontstretch in April 2021. Currently, he is the lead writer for the weekly Thinkin' Out Loud column and one of our lead reporters. Beforehand, he wrote for IMSA shortly after graduating from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in 2019. Simultaneously, he also serves as a First Lieutenant in the US Army.

Follow Dalton on Twitter @PitLaneLT

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WJW Motorsports

Yes, we get it. Cautions=Restarts=”Good Race”

DoninAjax

Sixty-eight caution laps out of 267! Eleven double file restarts and lots of time for commercials.

Kevin in SoCal

Wow not many comments on this article today.

Was a reason ever given for changing the Darlington throwback weekend from Labor Day to the spring race?

Bill B

My guess is they didn’t want it to overshadow their stupid playoffs.

Kurt Smith

Best Kansas race ever? That’s a pretty low bar.

Yes, the battle between Denny and Kyle was exciting, and they are among the best drivers in the sport. And seeing wheels come off of cars still is making me scratch my head on the switch to one lugnut.

I seriously cannot wait until another network takes over the broadcasts. Thanks for showing me guys throwing a boomerang on a baseball field during a lead change. I know what I prefer to see when I tune in to NASCAR on Fox, and it’s all of their completely unrelated sidebars while the damn race is going on.

Last edited 11 months ago by Kurt Smith
DoninAjax

How many wheels came off when there were five lug nuts holding the wheel? How many since the NA$CAR Finance department decided one lug nut was enough for the purrrrrty over-sized wheels?

Kevin in SoCal

How many wheels come off F1 and Indycar racers with single lugs?

DoninAjax

How about this? How many wheels came off Cup cars when there were five lug nuts holding the wheel? Get my point?

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