Kansas Is Do Or Die For Kyle Busch

Kyle Busch
Three weeks ago, after the Round of 16 elimination race at Dover, Kyle Busch was in a comfort zone.

Then Charlotte and Talladega happened.

In the first event in the Round of 12, Busch hit the wall at Charlotte and finished 29th, six laps down. In last Sunday’s thrilling race at Talladega, he crashed out in 27th.

Those two results wiped out the advantage he had built in playoff points and left him ninth in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series standings, seven points behind Jimmie Johnson in eighth.

With elimination looming in Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway, only 10 points separate Ryan Blaney in seventh from Matt Kenseth in 10th, with Johnson and Busch in-between. In all probability, two of those four drivers will advance to the Round of 8, and two won’t.

“I feel like I wouldn’t be worried about this if I didn’t have Charlotte or Talladega happen,” Busch said. “But that’s not the situation we’re in. We’ve just got to do a good job. This is our first ‘Homestead’ of this year.

“We’ve got to come through this race. It’s not a must-win, but it is a must-perform. We’ve got to do everything right in order to go out there and be the top guy all day out of the four legitimate candidates that are fighting for the two spots available. We’ve just got to concentrate on that and make sure we can get it done.”


Lackluster Qualifying Puts Jimmie Johnson Behind The Eight Ball

Jimmie Johnson & David Ragan
Jimmie Johnson knows he needs to do better at qualifying, but he’s not sure how to accomplish that goal.

The numbers don’t lie. Johnson’s average starting position through 31 races this season is 17.0. His previous low mark was 14.3 in his 2002 rookie year.

The mid-pack starting spots have had dire consequences. The seven-time champion’s lackluster efforts in time trials have translated to a career-worst average finish of 15.8. Though Johnson has won three times this season, he has finished in the top five only one other time.

Only one previous time in his career has Johnson failed to crack double digits in top fives. That was 15 years ago, when he posted six top-five results in his rookie season.

But the real negative of mediocrity in time trials manifests itself in stage racing. Starting from an average of 17th on the grid, Johnson has had difficulty accumulating stage points to any significant degree.

As a consequence, he’s eighth in the standings, fighting to retain a spot in the Round of 8 in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff. It doesn’t help that the driver who is seven points behind him—Kyle Busch—has eight poles this season and an average starting position of 7.1.

That’s an average advantage of 10 spots over Johnson, or 10 points, to start every race. That’s why qualifying is number one on Johnson’s to-do list of areas to improve.

“It hasn’t been a strong suit of mine, and over the last couple of years, it has slipped even more,” Johnson told the NASCAR Wire Service on Friday at Kansas Speedway, site of Sunday’s Round of 12 elimination race the Hollywood Casino 400. “This year, we knew before the season ever started that the importance of qualifying was going to ratchet up and be two to three times more important, essentially.

“Even with all that awareness and the thought process and attempts to raise our qualifying performance, we haven’t yet. And we’re looking at every option possible. Again, here this weekend, I personally am trying to find the right rhythm that is needed out there on the track to put up that lap time. Through practice and the three rounds of qualifying, at some point I can sneak the speed out of the car and post a good lap, and for whatever reason trying to back that up or do it lap after lap, just haven’t been able to pull that off.”

It’s not that Johnson has neglected qualifying in preparing for each race.

“We’ve spent a lot of time focusing on it, and we’re almost to a point now where we overthought it,” he said. “Are we slowing ourselves down from overthinking it in some regards?

“We’re aware and trying hard and have been trying hard to get that right. Hopefully, we get it.”

As an added incentive, Friday’s pole winner at Kansas Speedway will earn the No. 1 pit stall next week at Martinsville, where the stall closest to the exit from pit road is a huge advantage.

But Johnson can’t worry about that now. If he doesn’t survive Kansas in the top eight, Martinsville won’t matter, where a possible record eighth championship is concerned.


Martin Truex, Jr. Snags The Pole At Kansas

Martin Truex, Jr.
You can’t blame Martin Truex Jr. for looking ahead.

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series leader didn’t need to win the pole position at Kansas Speedway, having already qualified for the Playoff’s Round of 8 with a victory two weeks ago at Charlotte.

But by posting the fastest lap in Friday’s knockout qualifying session at the 1.5-mile track, Truex got a leg up on a trip to the Championship 4 race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, because the time trials at Kansas came with a significant bonus—first choice of pit stalls for the Oct. 29 Round of 8 opener at Martinsville Speedway.

For the record, Truex ran the fastest lap of the afternoon in the final round of qualifying for Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400, covering the distance in 28.719 seconds (188.029 mph) to beat Kevin Harvick (187.682 mph) for the top starting spot by .053 seconds.

But Truex had to push his car to the limit in the final round to earn his third Coors Light Pole Award of the season, his second at Kansas and the 15th of his career.

“I was shaking a little—I’m not going to lie,” Truex said. “My heart was beating. It gets the adrenaline going so high to put down a lap like that, to go the fastest you’ve gone all day in that final round.

“We put it all together. We got the balance better, and I stepped up and put it on the line out there, and it stuck. The commitment level was high, and the car handled it well. That’s always a good combination.”

Ryan Blaney qualified third, Matt Kenseth fourth and Denny Hamlin fifth, as Playoff drivers garnered the top five spots on the grid. Daniel Suarez was sixth, followed by Erik Jones and Kyle Busch, as Toyota drivers claimed six of the top eight starting positions, the only exceptions being the Fords of Harvick and Blaney.

Because qualifying at Martinsville is on the same day as the race, pit selection at the .526-mile short track was tied to qualifying at Kansas, where the No. 1 pit stall gives a driver unfettered egress from pit road.

“It was definitely on our minds,” said Truex, who has won a series-best six races in a dream season for the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing team. “We talked about it. It was like ‘It’d be pretty nice to go to Martinsville and have the No. 1 pit stall.’

“It was definitely on our minds, but I don’t know if it really played into how we got the job done or not. But it was definitely good timing, more than anything, because that’s going to be huge for us going into the Round of 8 next week.”

Harvick, the 2014 series champion described his qualifying session as “three sketchy laps,” but feels he has a competitive car for the race that will trim the Playoff field from 12 drivers to eight.

“I think we have a car that can be capable of staying up there and hopefully having a chance to win the race at the end,” Harvick said. “It’s a good start to the weekend. That’s half the battle when you’re trying to collect stage points in the first stage and get pit stall selection and try and gain all the advantages that you can on Friday.

“That’s something that our team did a good job at this year. I feel like our cars are a lot faster from the beginning of the year on the mile-and-a-half race tracks, and we’re on the game. It’s been a fun few weeks.”

Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, who currently leads Kyle Busch by seven points for the final spot in the Round of 8, and will start 13th after missing the final round by .020 seconds. Playoff driver Jamie McMurray qualified ninth in the fastest Chevrolet.

Playoff drivers Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott will start 14th and 15th, respectively. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., the only Playoff driver who failed to make the second round, will take the green flag from 25th.


Kyle Busch Faces Elimination At Kansas

Kyle Busch
The four-round elimination-style Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs can chew a driver up and spit him out in no time whatsoever!

Kyle Busch knows this as well as anyone.

The No. 18 Toyota driver entered the Playoffs third in the points standings and looked like the favorite to take the series crown after winning twice in the Round of 16.

But his situation changed rapidly in the Round of 12. Busch finished 29th at Charlotte, followed by a 27th-place performance at Talladega. Now, he sits on the brink of elimination – seven points behind Jimmie Johnson for the final Round of 8 transfer spot going into Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway.

“We are still some points out but we can go out there and try and get as many stage points as possible and, if we get a good run, we still have a shot to make it through,” Busch said. “We’ll just have to do what we’ve been doing all year and see where that puts us.”

Luckily for Busch, Kansas has treated him well recently. Although struggling at the 1.5-mile track early in his career, Busch has finished no lower than fifth in his last five starts there. His run includes a Kansas win in the spring of 2016.

“We’re going to do the same things we’ve always done – same preparation, nothing different,” Busch said. “I think we need to go in there and do our best to be prepared and when it comes to race time, try to limit our mistakes. I think that helped out there over the years and that has turned our team into a contender every time we race there, now. We’ll just do the same things this time around.”

The only way Busch can advance to the Round of 12 without the help of other drivers is to win Sunday’s race!


Keselowski Steals One At Talladega

Brad Keselowski
On the Longest Day at Talladega—in a war of attrition that required three red flags and left 14 cars running at the finish—Brad Keselowski powered his No. 2 Team Penske Ford past the No. 31 Chevrolet of Ryan Newman on the final lap to win Sunday’s Alabama 500 at Talladega Superspeedway.

Two laps after the final restart on Lap 186 of 188, Keselowski and teammate Joey Logano ganged up on Newman, who held the runner-up position after Keselowski shot past him. Trevor Bayne ran third in a damaged No. 6 Ford, with Logano and Aric Almirola finishing fourth and fifth, respectively.

Denny Hamlin came home sixth, the only Playoff driver other than Keselowski whose car wasn’t heavily damaged in one of the myriad wrecks that punctuated an event that consumed 3 hours, 53 minutes, 17 seconds—not including the three stoppages that totaled 35 minutes, 29 seconds.

But in winning for the fifth time at Talladega, the third time this season and the 24th time in his career, Keselowski claimed the important prize—a ticket into the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series’ Round of 8.

In his final run at Talladega in the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, pole winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. restarted third after the 11th and final caution, tried unsuccessfully to push Keselowski to the lead through the first two corners and fell back to seventh at the finish.

“I feel like only eight cars finished the race,” said Keselowski, who gave Ford its seventh straight victory in restrictor-plate races, despite running much of the final stage with a broken radio antenna and intermittent communication with his spotter and crew chief. “It was one of those crazy days. I think we’ve seen that at the plate tracks this year—a lot of attrition…

“This is still sinking in. It’s a special place to get to race and a special place when you win here. It was really a collaborative effort with the team and getting a real fast car and making the right moves as a driver and a lot of help from up above with staying out of those wrecks. It really takes all three and we had them all today.”

Though Newman surged to the front after the final restart, he assumed his stint at the point would be short-lived.

“We held them off longer than I expected,” Newman said. “I couldn’t tell how much nose damage I had and I hadn’t led all day, so I didn’t know what to expect. I saw the No. 2 car in the mirror backing up and then he lost his draft and then he backed up again and he caught the No. 22 (Logano). That was all it took for him to get a good run.

“I would have maybe played it differently and backed it up in hindsight, backed up to them in hindsight, but I don’t think it would have made a difference. They were double-teaming me, and it was still a good race to finish second with the Caterpillar Chevrolet.”

Any of the 10 Playoff contenders whose cars were heavily damaged in wrecks throughout the race would have gladly settled for second. Jamie McMurray was out of the race after 25 laps, his car destroyed in a six-car collision off Turn 4. That was a harbinger of the intense action to come. Playoff drivers Jimmie Johnson, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick all suffered varying degrees of damage in a 16-car accident triggered by series leader Martin Truex Jr. on Lap 172.

“Well, I tried to get into a hole that was closing up at the wrong time,” said Truex, who already had earned a berth in the Round of 8 by winning last Sunday at Charlotte. “By the time that I got in the brakes trying to get out of there I got into the 38 (David Ragan) a little bit on the right rear and he got squirrely out there and all hell broke loose. Just was trying to get to the end and get some track position and try to get towards the front and have a good day and ended up causing a wreck.

“So I hate it for everybody. We definitively had nothing to lose today, but at the same time, you don’t want to be the person that causes others problems. Even though I feel like I’ve never been that guy here before, it looks like today I was, so I hate it for all of those guys and all of their teams. I wish I didn’t make that mistake. Just 18 (laps) to go at Talladega, trying to get going and trying to fill a hole. Bad judgement and should have been more patient.”

That wreck caused the first red flag. The second came after a Lap 178 accident that ended Harvick’s day and that of Playoff contender Ryan Blaney, who had led 27 laps, second only to Logano’s 59.

The final caution on Lap 183—followed by the third red flag—wiped out the Chevrolets of Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson, who were fighting for position at the front of the field when contact from Daniel Suarez’s Toyota ignited a six-car melee that raised the crash toll of Playoff drivers to 10.

The enormous attrition set up a scramble for the final six Playoff positions entering next Sunday’s elimination race at Kansas Speedway. Kyle Busch, Kenseth, Stenhouse and McMurray are below the current cut line, but only 29 points separate Harvick in fourth place from Busch in ninth.

Check out the unofficial results of the Alabama 500 at Talladega SuperSpeedway.


Logano Is Hoping For A Three-Peat At Talladega

Joey Logano
Spoiler alert!

Joey Logano could have a substantive effect on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff—even though he failed to qualify for the postseason.

Logano has won the past two fall races at Talladega Superspeedway, and a third victory would change the chemistry of the Playoff. As it stands now, with Martin Truex Jr. taking the checkered flag at Charlotte Motor Speedway, at least five drivers will advance to the Playoff’s Round of 8 on points.

If Logano or any other non-Playoff driver wins Sunday’s Alabama 500 —or if Truex wins a second straight race—that number increases to six. And in an otherwise troubled year for the No. 22 Team Penske Ford team, Logano believes Talladega provides the best opportunity for a victory in the final six races.

Don’t expect Logano to cut the Playoff drivers any slack. He’d love to play spoiler at a track where the nature of restrictor-plate racing amplifies the number of potential winners.

“I’m wired one way,” Logano said. “I’ve got one gear, and it’s wide-open. That’s all I’ve got, so, for me, it keeps it pretty simple. When I come to the superspeedways it’s go to the front and stay in the front, race hard, and I think that shows in our results. We either win or we crash, and I’m OK with that. I’ve said this a lot here the last few weeks that fifth, second, 15th, crashing, what’s the difference?

“It’s all about winning. That’s what we’re here to do, and that’s what we’re going to do is just to go out there and race for the win, and that means you’ve got to battle up front all day long, learn as much as you can about your car, get it as best as you can for the end of the race, know who is racing around you and go out there and try to win it.”


Kenseth Continues To Side Step Questions About His Driving Future

Matt Kenseth
Matt Kenseth is a master of deflection—and he’s had plenty of practice heading into Sunday’s Alabama 500 at Talladega Superspeedway.

Ever since Kenseth announced at Kentucky Speedway in July that he wouldn’t be driving for Joe Gibbs Racing after the 2018 season, the 2003 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion has been the subject of rampant rumors and speculation.

For his part, Kenseth has parried questions about his 2018 status like a fencing champion. Asked whether he has had any recent substantive discussions about possible rides for next year, the droll Kenseth dead-panned an answer about a conversation with his wife.

“It probably weighs on me way less today than it did probably a few months ago,” Kenseth said of the uncertainty he’s facing. “Had some real productive talks with Katie. We’re going to run another day. Had a real, long productive talk together. That was enjoyable. It’s true, we did. Talked about it a lot.”

When talking about possible next steps in his driving career, Kenseth offered an unexpected option.

“I was thinking about maybe driving a school bus,” Kenseth said. “I thought it would be fun. I drive the kids to school every morning. I enjoy that. I thought it would be fun to drive them home, too.”

As facetious as Kenseth was during his question-and-answer session with reporters on Friday morning at Talladega Superspeedway, there remains the serious possibility that Kenseth could win a second championship without a deal lined up for 2018.

Entering the second race of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff’s Round of 12, Kenseth is ninth in the series standings, one point behind Jamie McMurray in eighth and one point below the current cut line for the Round of 8. But Kenseth is a previous winner at Talladega, and he has two victories at Kansas Speedway, venue for the Oct. 22 Round of 12 elimination race.

In fact, in his last 14 starts at Kansas, Kenseth has two wins, 10 top 10s and no finish worse than 14th. So it’s a distinct possibility Kenseth will drive his No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota into the Round of 8—before turning the car over to Erik Jones at the end of the year.

The question has still not been answered; “Will Matt Kenseth have a full time job in the Cup level in 2018”?


Pit Road Miscues Cost Johnson Valuable Points

Jimmie Johnson
After running seventh in Sunday’s Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, seven-time Monster Energy NSCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson is in a precarious position heading to the second race in the Round of 12 at Talladega Superspeedway, a track he doesn’t relish.

Johnson had worked his way into the top five before a snafu on pit road dropped him to 16th for a restart on Lap 284 of 337. The driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet had to wait several extra seconds while the lug nuts on the left front tire were tightened after the car had started to leave the pit box.

“We worked our way up to fourth and then had a little miscue on pit road and restarted 16th or something and got back up to seventh,” Johnson said. “Decent progress. The car was not easy to drive and not fun to drive, but my conditions were a lot better than the other guys, and I could work my way back up through there.”

Nevertheless, Johnson is seventh in the series standings and a mere eight points ahead of ninth-place Matt Kenseth facing the uncertainty and potential peril of a restrictor-plate race.


Kevin Harvick Dominates At Charlotte, But Finishes Third

Kevin Harvick
For the first half of Sunday’s Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Kevin Harvick looked unbeatable. Wresting the lead from Chase Elliott after a restart on Lap 52, Harvick swept both the first and second stages of the first race in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff’s Round of 12—his first stage wins since he swept both the first and second stages on Mar. 5 at Atlanta.

But late in the race, when the traction compound applied to the track began to lose some of its bite, Harvick couldn’t run his preferred line as effectively and finished third behind winner Martin Truex Jr. and Elliott. A slow stop near the end of the race—on Lap 327 of 337—also proved costly, to the tune of four positions.

“That’s about where we were going to run, second or third,” Harvick said. “We just kind of lost a little bit of the track there as the VHT (traction compound) started to wear off in the second half of the race.”

From a restart on Lap 284 to a caution on Lap 325, Harvick chased Truex relentlessly, closing up to his bumper in Turn 3 roughly midway through the run. But Harvick couldn’t pass the eventual race winner.

“I would get close, and then I would get loose, and as the day went I just got looser on the entrance to the corners,” said Harvick, who led a race-high 149 laps. “The car started bouncing really bad and started losing grip as the VHT went away and kind of lost what I had at the beginning of the race – to arc it into the corner and do all the things I needed to do to get through the middle of the corner and be in the throttle.

“I knew where I was running was kind of questionable as to how long it would last, and the entry was the first part that gave up for me, and I just had to be really cautious getting in there. that’s why I lost my speed from the first half of the race.”


Young Money Finishes 10th But He Raced Much Better

Kyle Larson
Kyle Larson scored a top-10 in Sunday’s Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, but the driver of the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet left the first race in the Round of 12 of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff knowing he should have done better with one of the fastest cars on the track.

Larson ran in the top five early on but missed his pit stall on the first pass down pit road, requiring a return trip and a resulting loss of track position. He recovered and climbed back toward the front.

Larson subsequently led Laps 268 through 279, but he lost 10 spots on pit road when his rear tire carrier tripped over the hose to an air gun during a stop under caution on Lap 327, and the tire changer had difficulty removing the lugs from the left rear.

A pair of less-than-stellar restarts late in the race—not to mention contact from Kurt Busch’s spinning car on Lap 335—relegated Larson to a 10th-place result that could and should have been better.

“I felt like I had a car to win,” Larson said. “I made a mistake on pit road early. We rebounded from that. And then we had a costly mistake late and somewhat rebounded; but then those last two restarts didn’t go my way…

“Disappointing, but we fought hard.”

Larson enters next Sunday’s race at Talladega Superspeedway second in the series standings, but he’s 34 points behind points leader and Charlotte race winner Martin Truex Jr.