Race Weekend Central

5 Points to Ponder: Gimme More (Kansas)

1. Let This Sink In: Kansas Is Now the Crown Jewel of NASCAR Tracks

Once upon a time, Kansas Speedway was just another intermediate track on the NASCAR Cup Series schedule. Perfectly fine and occasionally capable of putting on a fun show, but not something that stood out from other mile-and-a-half circuits in any appreciable way.

A few years ago, no one in their right mind would have suggested that for pure racing action, Kansas would be elbowing iconic venues like Daytona International Speedway, Bristol Motor Speedway or Darlington Raceway out of the way on its journey to the top of the must-see list. Yet with the current Cup car and rules in place, there can be little doubt now that the racing at Kansas is second to none.

At the risk of invoking the recency bias gods, and with full admission that the facets of a great race lie in the eye of the beholder, let’s tick off what made the 2024 AdventHealth 400 so compelling.

See also
The Big 6: Questions Answered After Kyle Larson, Chris Buescher Duel in NASCAR's Closest Finish Ever

First and foremost, the faster cars could run down and actually pass the leader. It seems so simple but has been maddeningly uncommon in the Next Gen era. Once passed, the previous leader could and sometimes did fight back. There was a preferred racing line that moved up as darkness fell, but the top cars could and did move around to pass.

The performance of pit crews played a role in how a team’s day went (just ask Denny Hamlin), but it wasn’t the most important factor. Fuel strategy came into play in interesting and logical ways instead of just forcing everyone to drive slower for a while.

Restarts were entertaining, but not mass chaos. And while drivers were punished for making mistakes, they didn’t end up taking half the field with them when they spun or ran someone else into the wall.

That closest finish ever? Just icing on an already delicious cake, as it turned out.

While everyone who loves NASCAR should hope that things improve on short tracks and superspeedways, we need to appreciate what is working as well. Kansas, you’re as good as it gets right now and we salute you.

2. How Can NASCAR Get More Kansas-Like Content on the Schedule?

Now that we all agree that Kansas is awesome, the natural reflex is to ask how NASCAR can create more of it. Since it’s unlikely that giving the actual Kansas will be given a third date or anyone will build a track like it somewhere (though I’d do it, if someone randomly gave me hundreds of millions of dollars), we have to explore some more realistic options.

Helpfully, The Athletic motorsports reporter Jeff Gluck has compiled some of them in his post-Kansas column. How do they sound? Well …

  • Boot the Charlotte ROVAL for another Charlotte oval race – I wouldn’t enjoy this. The Coca-Cola 600 is special, and the other Charlotte Motor Speedway stop back in the day was the exact opposite of special since it was just shorter. Plus, the mere existence of the ROVAL bothers people in ways that amuse me and the Ryan Blaney victory in the first-ever ROVAL race when Jimmie Johnson and Martin Truex Jr. took each other out is an eternally fun memory. It should stay.
  • Reconfigure Texas Motor Speedway or give Kentucky Speedway a race again – I don’t have a strong opinion on what to do to Texas, but I don’t have a ton of confidence it can be made into something akin to Kansas. And while I’ve never attended a race at Kentucky, its issues went beyond the racing product. Not horrible, but we can do better.
  • Do Chicagoland Speedway again once people tire of the Chicago street course – This feels like the winner. The Chicago Street Race will definitely wear out its welcome in a few years as the novelty wears off and NASCAR will almost certainly consider moving a street race around if it wants to keep holding one. Chicagoland isn’t exactly the same as Kansas (it lacks progressive banking in the corners, for one), but it’s close. The way the intermediate tracks are shining right now, that might be enough.

Gluck also suggests NASCAR shouldn’t just sit around and do nothing to try to capitalize on Kansas-mania and he’s right. When fans called for more short tracks and road courses, NASCAR listened. It should do the same for intermediates now.

3. Hopefully Chris Buescher and the No. 17 Team Don’t Rue That Photo Finish

Racing journalists can’t, or at least shouldn’t, publicly root for one driver to defeat another, but what we can do is analyze when one outcome would be better for the sport than another. With that in mind, there’s no question it would have been a lot more compelling had Chris Buescher edged out Kyle Larson instead of vice versa.

Consider the way that would have changed the narrative of this entire Cup season. A Buescher victory would have given Ford teams real hope that they could compete for wins at places other than superspeedways. An RFK Racing triumph would have planted the seeds of hope that parity could bloom this summer.

See also
Up to Speed: Chris Buescher Is on a Familiar Path

Instead, it turned into just another checkered flag for Hendrick Motorsports, albeit an exciting one. Hendrick and Joe Gibbs Racing have 10 of the 12 wins in 2024, and Ford is still sporting its goose egg.

But what about Buescher?

He’s now 11th in points, though just two ahead of Kyle Busch, and is tied for the second-most top-10 finishes with six. He hasn’t looked like the race-winning threat he was in the back half of 2023, but despite Ford’s doldrums, Buescher hasn’t been bad.

The problem is if he can’t find his way to victory lane, he’s likely to be sweating out the points situation all season. The HMS-JGR duopoly actually helps Buescher a bit because it means more spots available in the playoff field on points, but he can’t rely on that remaining a constant as the season rolls on.

If the No. 17 team is on the bubble in a few months, it’ll almost certainly see Kansas as the race that could have changed everything, and it’s hard to argue against that point of view.

4. Noah Gragson is Making Good on His Redemption Story

When Noah Gragson and Legacy Motor Club parted ways last summer, it was hard to think of a Cup Series driver whose stock was lower. Not only was Gragson serving an indefinite suspension at the time, but he simply wasn’t performing in Legacy’s No. 42 Chevrolet, turning in a long series of miserable finishes in the 20s and 30s.

What a difference a year makes. Well, a year and a team and manufacturer change. Gragson is repaying Stewart-Haas Racing for taking a chance on him, currently riding a string of six consecutive top-20 results that includes three straight top 10s.

A case can certainly be made that he’s the cream of the SHR crop, too. While Chase Briscoe has more points, Gragson has the organization’s only top five, plus more top 10s as well.

He’s also simply trending up, seemingly unbothered by the overall Ford malaise. If you like your tales of second chances gone good, Gragson is your guy this season.

5. This Phase of Jimmie Johnson’s Career is One We Never Envisioned

Saying that Jimmie Johnson has earned the right to do whatever he wants in racing for however long he wants should go without saying. A true great of the sport, if he wants to help his team figure things out while far from the front, that’s his prerogative.

It’s just not too much fun for anyone who remembers the seven-time champion at the height of his powers. Whether you rooted for Johnson or against him, there was something about his methodical dissection of the Cup Series that forced you to respect him.

That’s why it’s jarring now to see Johnson when he’s in the No. 84. Running around down a lap or two is weird enough. Even more than that, when there’s a spin or a multi-car incident well back in the field, you kind of grit your teeth just assuming that he might be involved.

Sure enough, that’s exactly what happened to him at Kansas.

None of this takes anything away from what Johnson has accomplished. It just means sometimes you have to look away so that your memories of him are the good ones.

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Kevin in SoCal

I’m in the “keep the Roval, and give KY or Chicago a race back” camp. I’m not smart enough to figure out TX’s problems, though. I hope they do.

wildcatsfan2016

Gimmicks and more gimmicks. NASCAR needs to figure out how to get the current iteration of the “kit” car to be able to race better on all tracks. Or, even better, get out of the way and let the teams work the car and setups so fans can see better racing everywhere. I’m not a big fan of the Roval or the Chicago street race.

Ted

The Crown Jewels are the Daytona 500, World (Coke) 600, Southern 500, Brickyard 400, & Bristol Night Race,… that’s it!

DoninAjax

Indy and Bristol are in the past and don’t live up to the importance of the other three and it is because of the “brilliant ” ideas of Emperor Brian.

WJW Motorsports

Crown jewel? Sigh. It’s just a momentum track. Whatever cars have track position will dominate until the next caution . It was basically a truck race with timely cautions. Crown jewel smh

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