Who… should you be talking about after the race?
It looked as though the race was over. Denny Hamlin had taken the lead in the Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway with just over 35 laps to go and had opened up enough of a lead that Tyler Reddick wasn’t going to be able to run him down in the final five barring disaster.
But disaster struck in the form of Chris Buescher’s blown tire, one in a rash of right-rear tire problems all day that had caused trouble for multiple playoff contenders. During the resulting caution, Hamlin pitted for four tires, but came out fifth, behind a handful with two tires and Daniel Suarez, who did not pit.
Hamlin eventually got by for second and charged at Reddick, but by then it was too late, and Reddick took the checkered flag — the third time in the last four races at Kansas that the No. 45 took the win with three different drivers. Hamlin finished second, the second week in a row that he had the best car and ultimately had no win to show for it.
And don’t forget Erik Jones. Following up a top 10 at Darlington Raceway last week, Jones was able to drive through the field with apparent ease on Sunday, and while he never led a lap, he was able to run with the most of the playoff drivers easily and capture his first top five of 2023 and the first for Legacy Motor Club.
What… is the big question leaving this race in the rearview?
Kansas Speedway has put on some good shows over the last couple of years, but is the racing good enough to support two dates a year?
The casino Kansas boasts has kept the track on the spring and fall dockets for NASCAR, but how long is that sustainable? There’s no historical significance like Darlington or Charlotte, and while Sunday’s event had great restarts, it wasn’t a great race.
With North Wilkesboro Speedway back in the game, possibly with the Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway to follow and even Rockingham Speedway reportedly making a play for a future race, something’s gotta give, and Kansas could be one something.
Next year could be pivotal when it comes to future dates for some tracks — if the short track package improves and the intermediate stagnates, Kansas seems like the most likely candidate to face the tough questions.
Where… did the other key players wind up?
Pole winner Christopher Bell led the first nine laps and was a top 10 threat all day long. A slow pit stop on the final green flag round dropped him deep enough that a top five wasn’t going to happen, but Bell was able to hang on through the wild final restart to finish eighth, which he said afterwards was about where he felt the team deserved to wind up.
Last week’s winner Kyle Larson picked up where he left off, handily winning the first stage. He had trouble early in the second stage, though, and pit strategy later dropped him in to the mid-20s in the final half. But he rallied late, racing his way back into the top 10 and getting the most of the overtime laps to finish fourth after a pit rod altercation with teammate Chase Elliott on their final stop.
Defending race winner Bubba Wallace had a strong car early, finishing second in stage one but struggled a little on restarts. Below the cut in the playoffs, Wallace was looking to solidify his position. However, a blown right rear tire in stage two caused Wallace to smack the wall hard enough to bend a toe link, leaving him several laps down after repairs. Wallace was able to finish the race, but wound up 33rd, four laps down and still below the playoff cut line.
After starting in the back for the second straight week, this time Kyle Busch marched through the field, working his way to 11th to end stage one. A week ago, the No. 8 turned it around to finish 11th, and this time, Busch only got better. A two-tire gamble on the final caution bought him a little more track position, and from there Busch finished a solid seventh.
When… was the moment of truth?
Kansas has put on some pretty great races with the Next Gen car… but Sunday’s really wasn’t one of them. If not for the caution flying with five to go to send the race into overtime, it would have been a disappointment with the margin of victory likely over two seconds.
The final restart, with its array of tire strategies on display, gave fans the finish they were hoping for with Reddick’s daring dive to the apron to take the lead, but was it enough to redeem the entire race?
In its second season, the Next Gen seems to have lost some of what made it an improvement on the intermediate tracks. It’s still better than the Gen 6, but not in the way fans had hoped for. And given that it’s been a dud on anything a mile or shorter and road courses, it needs to be better on the intermediates.
It isn’t terrible, but this season hasn’t quite had the unpredictability that 2022 held. And that unpredictability is the thing that’s needed most.
Why… should you be paying attention this week?
NASCAR visits Bristol for the annual night race on Saturday, the only race of the year on Bristol’s concrete surface. It’s also the cutoff race in the first round of the playoffs, and a place where drivers have been known to take their frustrations out on their competitors.
Buescher took the newly rebranded RFK Racing to victory lane for the first time in last year’s edition; this year, Buescher will be among the favorites with three wins already this season, but he needs a solid run after a blown tire at Kansas.
As an elimination race, Bristol is a bit of a wild card because while it hasn’t seen as many crashes as it once did, it’s still tight-quarters racing with high stakes. It’s also unpredictable, which means the fight to stay in the playoffs isn’t over yet
How… is that playoff elimination looking right now?
McDowell is 40 points below the cut; he has to win at Bristol to advance, and with just one top 10 in 23 starts there, that’s a longshot. McDowell has his best season ever, but he’s simply outgunned in the playoffs.
Stenhouse also probably needs to win on Saturday night to make the next round — he’s 22 points behind 12th-place Kevin Harvick, and making those all up is unlikely. Stenhouse has had some success at Bristol, with six top 10s in 18 starts, but nothing really suggests he has a win up his sleeve.
Wallace is in slightly better position at 19 back, because while he only has a three-point cushion over Stenhouse, he only has to pass two other drivers to squeeze in. But he’s struggled at Bristol in the past. It’s Wallace’s first playoff run, and his lack of playoff experience hurts him (same goes for Stenhouse and McDowell) because he hasn’t had to race in this situation before. He’ll learn.
Truex, just seven points behind Harvick, has the best chance, and has been too consistently good this year to make anyone think he can’t do that. It’s Bristol that could prove to be the sticking point for Truex; he has just four top 10s in 32 races with an average finish 20th. Harvick has three wins and 22 top 10s in 42 races and his average is seven spots better than Truex’s.
Joey Logano is also vulnerable at just 12 points up on Truex, but he’s also better at Bristol with a pair of wins, so the bottom four right now could well be the same in seven days.
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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