By Brian Eberly, Contributing Writer
KANSAS CITY, Kan. – Sunday afternoon’s Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway was the elimination race for the Round of 12, leaving four drivers out of playoff contention upon the completion of 267 laps at the 1.5-mile oval.
Despite the playoff drama, the race was fairly uneventful and featured just three caution flags, with the only non-stage break yellow for an expired engine on the No. 24 Chevrolet of William Byron. Chase Elliott earned his third victory in the last 11 races, beating Kyle Busch to the checkered flag by 0.903 seconds.
Ryan Blaney, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Larson and Alex Bowman were eliminated from playoff contention.
Blaney qualified fourth in the No. 12 Team Penske Ford and quickly worked his way into the second position. After a two tire call on the stop for the Byron caution, the 24-year-old took the lead and held on to finish third in the first stage. Consistently running inside the top-five, Blaney brushed the wall in Turns 3 and 4 on Lap 202 and wasn’t able to recover, finishing seventh and missing the cut.
“Obviously it was a mistake I made trying to work hard to catch those guys and I pushed too hard and got in the fence. It is all my fault,” said a clearly dejected Blaney.
“Whether it would have worked out for us or not, I don’t know. I don’t think we had the speed the 9 (Elliott) or 4 (Kevin Harvick) had. The 9 was super fast. I don’t know. I messed up and cost us a shot. I want to thank Wrangler and Menards and Ford for doing what they do. The whole 12 team deserves better than that. That was unfortunate on my part.”
Crew chief Paul Wolfe attempted to play the pit strategy game for Keselowski, also calling for two tires after Byron brought out the caution at Lap 58 of 267. The No. 2 Ford dropped like a rock on the ensuing restart, quickly falling outside the top-10.
“I would say it was pretty obvious that we needed something (at the end of that first stage) after I saw some things on the other cars. We needed something to step up but it just wasn’t there,” said Keselowski.
The team elected to leave Keselowski out on the track during an extended green flag run in the middle stage of the race with the hopes of catching a timely caution. Despite leading 16 circuits from Laps 122 to 137, the strategy didn’t pan out. The 2012 MENCS champion finished sixth and missed the cut.
“We just weren’t as good today as we were yesterday and I am not sure why. Everyone else seemed to find a little from practice and we were about the same, maybe a little worse than we were in practice.”
Keselowski got hot when he won three straight races, the final two regular season events at Darlington and Indianapolis and the playoff-opener at Las Vegas. But finishes of 14th and 27th at Dover and Talladega to start the second round proved fatal to his title aspirations.
“I am proud of what we did down the stretch of the year. We won three races and did all that. I feel like we can go win Martinsville next week so I am excited about that but of course the ultimate goal is to win a championship and we won’t have an opportunity to do that this year.”
After winning four times in 2017, Larson has yet to visit victory lane this season. Entering Kansas with a 26 point deficit to the final cutoff position, the California native was basically in a must-win situation.
Larson’s weekend got off to a rough start, as his Chip Ganassi Racing crew rolled out the backup car after a practice crash on Friday. Starting at the rear of the field as a result, the 26-year-old quickly worked his way through the field, running 12th after green flag pit stops cycled through at Lap 53.
Larson finished sixth in the second stage and gained a few more positions late in the race. The dirt ace took full advantage of the high line, but wasn’t able to run down the race leaders and didn’t get the advantage of a caution as the final stage went clean and green.
“I’m actually glad that nothing stupid took us out of the Playoffs this year. We had that battery come out at Dover a couple years ago. Blew up an engine here last year,” Larson said.
“I mean, obviously I would have liked to have made it into the next round. But I’m glad it wasn’t anything other than just us not performing where we needed to be that kept us out of the next round.
“Just trying to figure out how to make our cars better. Try to figure out this new package we’re running next year, try to be prepared, good all season long.
Larson pointed to the ever important stage points as the downfall of his team’s second round performance.
“We didn’t have any stage points (in the second round of the playoffs) until today. Only one stage out of the six stages. Can’t really expect to make it to the next round without being up front all race long. So that’s kind of where our round went wrong.”
Bowman came to Kansas 68-points off the cutoff line and needed a victory to advance. His best showing at Kansas was seventh in the 2017 Playoff race when he filled in for the then-injured Dale Earnhardt Jr. Bowman started 10th in the No. 88 Chevrolet.
Despite brushing the wall in Turns 1 and 2 at Lap 25, he was able to continue with minimal damage. Bowman finished ninth but failed to advance.
Despite the end of their championship hopes after Kansas, Blaney, Keselowski, Larson and Bowman will all head to Martinsville next week looking to add the infamous grandfather clocks to their trophy cases.