Start Worrying Toto This Isn’t Kansas Anymore! | October 23, 2012
The halfway stage of The Chase saw the NASCAR teams arrive at Kansas Speedway for the second time this year. But while the name was the same this was a different track from its previous appearance as like others in the NASCAR schedule the track had been repaved in a bid to make the racing more exciting. April’s visit had seen a paltry 3 cautions and mostly strung out racing that had left many fans unhappy at the prospect of having to return.
Hopes of an exciting race were raised ever so slightly in the two days practice that teams were allowed on the new surface when every driver was able to set speeds higher then the April pole speed.
Jeff Gordon reported that the track felt like “a whole new racetrack”. But like all newly repaved tracks there is always the issue of multiple lines not working on account of their being a lack of grip off the racing line which can often hinder racing. But qualifying saw Chase contender Kasey Kahne take the top spot with a new qualifying record time of 28.219 seconds (191.360 mph), edging out mark Martin by 0.018 seconds. The practice times were backed up as every driver was able to comfortably beat Matt Kenseth’s 2005 track speed record.
As the green flag drops the track nearly claims its first victim when third place qualifier Clint Bowyer gets loose, causing the rest of the pack to take avoiding action. Fortunately everyone manages to avoid each other, while at the front of the pack Mark Martin is able to pass the pole sitter for the lead and fifth place Aric Almirola moves up to third. Two laps later the 43 of Almirola breezes past Kahne for second place and sets off in pursuit of the leader. After trying to find a way past Martin for a few laps the 43 eventually makes a move on lap 7 and takes the lead. An impressive feat considering that his car wouldn’t fire in the pits when the order too “start your engines” was given and some frantic work was carried out by the team, just to get the car on the track.
Almirola quickly establishes himself comfortably at the front of a pack and while many of the drivers are unhappy with how their cars are handling, slowly he starts to increase his lead over the rest of the pack and by lap 30 his lead is pushing 5 seconds. But the new track soon claims its first victim when the number 13 of Casey Mears slams into the outside wall when his right front Tyre suddenly lets go. Luckily nobody else was involved but it allowed everyone to come to pit row and start making some much needed changes to their setup.
While most drivers only take 2 tires Chase contender Denny Hamlin takes 4 and Jeff Gordon, who had qualified down the field, stays out, to make up some places, and takes a gamble that there will be another caution soon. On the restart the 43 and 18 of Kyle Busch run side by side for most of the lap before the 43 is able to edge in front and retain his lead. But it is a short lived challenge by Busch as he spins in turn 4 down the track into the infield to bring out the second caution of the day.
On the restart Almirola again establishes himself as the leader, while further down the pack Chase points leader Brad Keselowski, who had a very poor qualifying starting in 25th place, has moved up to 10th. The prerace worry that there was only going to be one fast line with little action, so far seems to be unfounded as plenty of cars are going two wide in the corners as is perfectly emphasised when Joey Logano and Matt Kenseth go either side of pole sitter Kahne in turn three to take sixth place away from him.
At this stage in the race Chase contenders Jimmie Johnson, Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth are showing in third, fourth and fifth place respectively and are keen to try and put as much space as possible between them and points leader Keselowski. But on lap 70 the third caution of the day comes out. AJ Allmendinger, who is racing in his first NASCAR race since completing his drug rehabilitation course, was running in the top ten before suffering a puncture and sliding up into the wall.
The leaders all come to pit row but it is not a great stop for Greg Biffle or Tony Stewart. The former was penalised for speeding in pit row and sent to the back of the pack while for the latter, not only is it a slow stop but he left his pit box with a wrench still left in and not only has to come to pit row to have it removed but is also penalised and sent to the back of the pack. However it is a very good stop for Jimmie Johnson who is able to beat Almirola off pit row and takes the restart in first place. Even the restart goes in Johnson’s favour as Almirola spins his tyres allowing Johnson an unchallenged route to turn one and the lead. However, for Johnson there is no chance to to establish a lead as five laps later Tony Stewart goes into the back of Jeff Burton and pushes him into the wall to bring out caution number four.
On the restart the top five are Jimmie Johnson, Aric Almirola, Mark Martin Clint Bowyer and Jeff Gordon and as before Johnson gets away cleanly at the restart. Within a few laps Johnson has opened up a one second lead over the 43 car and within twenty laps the two of them are nearly four seconds ahead of third placed Clint Bowyer. On lap 120 the first green flag pit stops of the day start as leader Johnson comes to pit row. Two laps later Almirola’s day gets a bit worse when he becomes the third car of the day to have front right tyre issues when he punctures and shoots into the outside wall.
While Almirola was the only car involved Matt Kenseth was lucky not to join him. He had to take avoiding action that involved having to hit the wall himself and cause a fair amount of damage to the right side of his car. While the timing couldn’t have been much worse for Johnson it couldn’t have come at a better time for Keselowski who was slipping quickly back through the field and was in danger of slipping outside the top twenty unless changes could be made to the car. The result of Johnson having just pitted at the time of the caution means that he will be at the back of the pack on the restart after having to take the wave around once the leaders all came to pit row.
On the restart it is Matt Kenseth, who’s pit crew did an amazing job to not only patch up the car and keep it going after his earlier brush with the wall, but to get it out in front, who finds a burst of speed and is able to pull away from the pack and take the lead into turn one. But it is a short lived lead as Jimmie Johnson’s efforts to carve his way back through the field come to an end when he comes up on Martin Truex Jr.
As Johnson gets close to him Truex Jr bobbles slightly and Johnson sees his chance to get past him but when he hit the gas his car let go and he slides backwards into the wall. However credit must go to his pit crew, who despite the extensive damage to the rear of the car were able to repair it with a few visits to the pits under the yellow without losing a lap; albeit down in 28th place.
On the green flag Kenseth again takes the lead, however is lead is even shorter then last time when on the next lap Bobby Labonte spun his car into the wall to bring out caution number seven. Again it’s Kenseth in the lead on the restart but caution number eight isn’t too far away, and when Danica Patrick and Landon Cassill tangle out come the yellow flags. Once the clean up crew have moved the cars and the obligatory visits to pit row have taken place the green flag comes back out and Mark Martin retakes the lead that he held at the start of the race. But the cautions are coming thick and fast now as on the next lap the yellows come out once again as Tony Stewart compounds his miserable day by spinning down the track, after Kahne took his air away, and blowing his tyres out, although he somehow keeps it out of the wall.
On the restart Martin again gets the jump on the pack but behind him Marcos Ambrose and Trevor Bayne get together and spin too bring out caution number 10! On the restart Martin is side by side with Almirola (who has made an amazing comeback since putting his car into the wall) but the 43 car can’t hold its line and loses grip sliding into the infield. Somehow the caution flags don’t come out and the racing continues.
The race though is going through a crazy period and one lap after the restart, caution number eleven is thrown. This time it is for Chase hopeful Greg Biffle who had been looking like he had a shot at the win, who gets a puncture and spins into the wall. Ironically Biffle, when talking about tyres at the track test earlier in the week, said “This tire has all the grip in the world, and then it has none,”. It seems he was entirely correct as many of the cautions were being caused by the heavily loaded front right tyre puncturing and sending the cars off into the wall.
The green flag sees a race between Martin and Kenseth into turn 1 with Martin just getting his nose in front. Once again though before any racing could really take place the caution flag rears its head for caution number 12. Kyle Busch appears to get nudged by Ryan Newman which sends Busch up into the wall and Newman down into the side of Sam Hornish Jr. Somehow Brad Keselowski, who is immediately behind the sliding cars, avoids being taken out by the narrowest of margins. Sometimes a little bit of luck is needed to win a Championship and this might just be the bit of luck that Keselowski needs to claim the title.
It business as usual at the front for Mark Martin on the restart, while in the pack Johnson has done some amazing driving in his beat up car to get back up to thirteenth. So impressive has his driving been that Keselowski even radios his crew chief to ask if the 48 car was actually damaged as it was driving so well! Although his progress was temporarily halted when the 13th caution of the day comes out.
For the second time this race Almirola puts his car into the wall but this time there is no coming back as the right side of the car is totaled All the cars come through pit row so as to avoid all the fluids pouring down the track from the crashed 43 car in turn four. Once all the stops have been completed, a slow stop drops Martin a few places down the pack the leading drivers are, Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne, Paul Menard and Clint Bowyer. Stewart gets a bad restart and drops to four places almost immediately while going in the other direction Kenseth blasts away from the chasers for the lead.
A mention must go to Regan Smith who is up to fourth and pushing Paul Menard hard for third place. He had been given a chance to show what he could do in a competitive car as he was subbing for Dale Earnhardt Jr who is sitting out a couple of races due to sustaining two concussions in a 6 week period and not being medically cleared too race. Smith was showing that his win a couple of seasons ago was no fluke and that he genuinely has the talent to be competitive. It is just a shame that his chance has come now when most of the seats for 2013 have been sorted out otherwise he could well have been snapped up by one of the top teams.
But before Smith had a chance to take third the record breaking 14th caution came out. This is most cautions in a single race this season and the most cautions ever at a Sprint Cup race at Kansas Speedway. Hornish Jr’s 22 car must be feeling the effects of his earlier incident as he gets a puncture that sends the car spinning into the wall. Most of the leaders stay out but second place Kasey Kahne gets penalised for running too slow under caution and is forced to go back four places. The cause appeared to be that he was running short of fuel and was doing the old NASCAR trick of shutting down the engine and refiring it to save fuel. Only this time he couldn’t get the car properly refired, hence why his speed dropped dramatically.
The restart again saw Kenseth take the lead and within a couple of laps he is able to establish a one second lead over second place Truex Jr. It then turns into a straight shootout to the chequered flag between the two of them and with no further incidents Matt Kernseth is able to hold his lead and take his second win in the Chase to move up two places to 9th in the standings. Being 55 points back is probably a bridge to far for him to be able to mount a serious title challenge but another couple of races like this and who knows what may happen.
As for the other Chase contenders, Keselowski was able to overcome his awful qualification and finish in 8th place to maintain his lead by seven points over second place Johnson who did an amazing job to overcome his damage and finish 9th. Denny Hamlin maintained his third place (20 points back) despite having a mediocre race and finishing 13th. Clint Bowyer stays in fourth (25 points back) after a solid race saw him only lose three places from his qualifying position of third. Kasey Kahne is still in fifth (30 points back) and could have jumped at least one place if he wasn’t penalised towards the end of the race. Martin Truex Jr moves up one place to sixth (43 points back) after a much needed second place finish.
Tony Stewart also moves one place to seventh (47 points back) after a brilliant (and drama filled race) saw him finish in 5th after qualifying in 33rd. Jeff Gordon also gains one place to eighth (51 points back) after a very average race that only saw him finish in 10th and never really look like challenging for the win. Kevin Harvick remains in tenth place (59 points back) after finishing in 11th and like Gordon looking decidedly average. The big loser was Greg Biffle who dropped five places in the standings to eleventh (62 points back) after his puncture saw him only finish in 27th place. Then at the bottom of the pile is Dale Earnhardt Jr (122 points) who after sitting out a couple of races will stay in this position for the rest of The Chase.
In my view any drivers that are further then fifth back don’t stand a chance of winning the title, but the reality of it is that the final four races will be a show down between Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson. But as I’ve said many times before this is NASCAR and it isn’t over until the chequered flag drops at the final race.