By David Morgan, NASCAR Editor
Each week, NASCAR Editor David Morgan will break down who’s hot and who’s not after the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race weekend. Today, we break down the Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway.
Martin Truex, Jr. – Racing with heavy hearts after the loss of crew member Jim Watson to a heart attack on Saturday night, Truex and his Furniture Row Racing team had extra incentive to go out and score the win on Sunday.
Though the team was able to capitalize and take home the victory, Truex’s seventh win of the season was anything but easy.
After starting on pole and leading the first 34 laps, a restart violation on lap 35 provided the No. 78 team with their first hurdle of the day, dropping them back to 31st place, but by the end of the first stage, Truex was back up to eighth.
Shortly after the second stage began, the team encountered their second hurdle of the day courtesy of a loose wheel that resulted in an unscheduled pit stop and a return to the track in 32nd, one lap down.
Truex would get his lap back and found himself back in contention late after avoiding the multi-car crash on the backstretch on lap 199. By lap 211, he powered his way past Kyle Busch for the race lead and never looked back, leading the final 57 laps en route to the season sweep at Kansas.
“Just can’t say enough about all these guys on this Furniture Row / Bass Pro Toyota,” said Truex. “Just really proud of them. Definitely racing with heavy hearts today with losing Jim (Watson) last night. Want to send our condolences to his family and all of his friends. He was a heck of a guy and a great worker and put a lot of speed in these Furniture Row Toyotas, so glad we could get him one here.
“Excited to get another one here at Kansas. This feels really awesome. It’s really Furniture Row’s home track. It just feels really good to finally get – to finally get another one here. We got that one in the spring after so many heart breaks and then today it looked like it was going to happen and we just persevered.”
Ryan Blaney – With a blazing fast Ford at his disposal, even having to start at the back of the pack couldn’t keep Blaney down. After qualifying third, a post-qualifying tech inspection failure meant the 23-year old would be relegated to dead last when the green flag flew on Sunday, but that didn’t matter one bit.
Working his way forward with relative ease, Blaney used a bit of strategy on lap 46, staying out on track while others pitted to advance up to second place before finishing the first stage in fourth. Once he was in the top-10, that’s where he would remain for the duration of the race, finishing the second stage in eighth before turning up the wick in the final stage to finish third.
His third place finish was his best result ever at the track and his first top-five since his win at Pocono back in June.
We started off in the back and was able to make some good ground early,” said Blaney. “We were able to run up through there and made good adjustments throughout the day which got us in a spot to be up toward the front towards the end and advance. It was a solid day for our team. We overcame a lot coming from the back and they should be proud of that.
“I think we’ve done a great job this year. I would say this is probably the most fun I’ve ever had racing with anybody, no matter what car. They just make it a really fun year. Just to be competitive, still be in this thing, that’s just a bonus, to be honest with you. So I didn’t really have any goals, expectations. I just wanted us to do well, see where it ended up. It’s going pretty decent for us right now. Hopefully we can keep that going.”
Jimmie Johnson – “It wasn’t a pretty day, but we got it done.”
That one sentence by the seven-time Cup champion sums up just how turbulent Johnson’s day was on the plains of Kansas. Johnson entered the day just seven points to the good, sitting eighth in points and holding the final transfer spot into the playoff semi-finals.
Johnson started 12th, finishing the first two stages in the top-10, but on lap 188, his performance from the first two-thirds of the race looked to go right out the window when he broke loose off of Turn 4, sliding down through the infield grass and causing minimal cosmetic damage to his car.
His crew worked quickly to get the car repaired and back out on track, but two laps after the restart, Johnson would be in trouble again, this time in Turn 3. Once again, the car was repaired and he returned to action in short order.
Being stuck further back in the pack as a result of his earlier incidents nearly bit Johnson on lap 199 when a 14-car crash broke out on the backstretch, but he was able to sneak his way through the melee to come away unscathed. From that point on, Johnson was able to move up the leaderboard enough to keep himself out of points trouble, finishing the race in 11th and advancing on to the Round of 8 with his championship hopes still intact.
“We fought the balance throughout the day and the car would swing so hard,” said Johnson. “We were trying for short run speed to free the car up and we just got too far with it and I spun out twice. Thankfully I didn’t hit anything too hard.
“And when things really changed was down the back straightaway in that wreck. Somehow, I went through there at a high rate of speed and missed everybody. I don’t know how, but I made it. And then the No. 1 (Jamie McMurray) car was sitting there and I thought I had him lined-up for a square impact, but fortunately he slid out of the way.
“It’s just a roller-coaster ride you’re on. We’re just trying to keep the car on the track and keep it going. The No. 42 (Kyle Larson) had problems. That big crash on the back; you can just never give up in this sport. That’s one thing that this team has always prided themselves on and I’m very thankful for that.”
Kyle Larson – Entering the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs, Kyle Larson was one of the “big three” that everyone thought was a lock to make it through the postseason with relative ease to fight for the championship in the season finale at Homestead, but as the knockout format has shown over the last few years, anything can happen and on Sunday at Kansas, he would be on the losing end of that.
After four wins in the regular season, Larson was ranked the highest among the drivers that had yet to win in the Round of 12, carrying a 29-point advantage over the cut-off line into Kansas, and many expected that margin would be enough to keep him safe. Unfortunately, for the No. 42 team, that would not be the case.
Larson moved his way from his 13th place starting position into the top-10 in short order and looked to finish there as the end of the first stage drew nearer. However, he lost a cylinder in his engine and tried to stay out on track to ride it out until the stage break when the team had planned to swap out the ECU. Before they could make it to that point, the engine let go completely, with smoke billowing from underneath the car, signaling the end of his day.
Larson’s engine issues mark the second year in a row that engine problems have sidelined one of the championship favorites and the second year that his own playoff run ended with a mechanical failure.
“It just dropped a cylinder 10 laps ago or so and then it suddenly got worse and finally blew up,” Larson said. “I hate that we blew an engine and probably blew our shot at the championship, but luck is a big factor of our sport.”
“I’m not stunned because freak things happen in every sport. I mean you look at every year in the past and a lot of times, most every time at least in the new Playoff format era not always does the best team win. Not saying we are the best team, but we have been one of the contenders all season long. So, I’m not stunned, because it is a long 10 race Playoff season, so anything can happen, but we have had a solid Playoffs. We have been consistent and just now got bit.”
Matt Kenseth – Kenseth had his work cut out for him heading into the elimination race at Kansas Speedway, needing to make up eight points to be able to advance onto the next round of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs and he looked to be well on his way to accomplishing that before finding an early exit that put an end to his hopes of challenging for a second championship.
Finishing the first two stages eighth and fourth, respectively, Kenseth put himself in position to not only score enough points to move on to the Round of 8, but also challenge for the race win. However, all of that would come to a crashing halt on lap 199.
Coming off of Turn 2, Erik Jones broke loose and spun back across the track in front of the oncoming field, collecting a total of 14 cars by the time the crash was over. One of those cars involved was Kenseth, who had moderate damage to his Toyota, but it was still in a drivable condition.
Kenseth would bring his car to the attention of his crew on pit road, but would shortly find his day coming to an early end, not due to the damage, but because the team broke a rule in accordance with this year’s Damaged Vehicle Policy which reads as follows:
“In addition to the five-minute time limit…six or fewer crew members are permitted in the vehicle’s assigned pit box for repairs to a damaged vehicle…If a vehicle exceeds the crew member limit, the vehicle will not be scored or permitted to return to the race.”
Only six crew members were allowed over the wall to work on fixing the damage, but a seventh crew member was seen heading over the wall with a saw in hand to try and help the other crew members, putting Kenseth in violation of the rule, ending his day, and taking his championship hopes with it.
“Honestly, I’ve never heard of disqualifying somebody from a race if you got one too many guys over the wall or whatever happened there,” said Kenseth. “I don’t really know. I really don’t have a lot of good things to say at the moment, so I’ll probably try not to say much. Pretty disappointing way to end. Can’t even go back on the race track because of the error we made. It’s just – couldn’t be any more disappointed.
“Seems like we got a lot of stuff that kind of gets, you know, changed so often I honestly can’t keep up with it. My head kind of spins from putting lugnuts out of pit boxes to one to many guys over the wall, you’re not allowed to race anymore. I just don’t get it to be honest with you.”
Jamie McMurray – McMurray had but one chance to advance in the playoffs when it came down to Kansas and that was to win the race, given his 29 point deficit to the cut-off line entering the day.
At his home track, McMurray was right amongst the leaders all day long, but happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time when the lap 199 crash broke out, as he was swept up in the chaos, leaving with major damage to his Chevrolet and putting an end to his playoff run after six races.
“I had a really fast car,” said McMurray. “I thought we had one of the best cars, and I felt like if we could have gotten to the lead, I could have led the race for a while. It was a good Cessna Chevy. But we’ve had two bad races in a row and there’s nothing you can do about it.
“We had to win today in order to get in. Had a really good car. Had maybe, I don’t know… we had a car that could have won. I think if we could have gotten to the front, but just didn’t make it to the end.”
Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. – Much like McMurray, Stenhouse’s only hope to advance was to win Sunday’s race, but the performance was just not there for the Roush-Fenway Racing team as they struggled mightily throughout the race weekend.
Stenhouse started back in 24th and the race wasn’t any better as he was a complete afterthought all day long, limping his way home with a 29th place finish after catching a piece of the wall on lap 176.
The team had overachieved in the playoffs, making it further than many expected, but eventually that caught up with them and Kansas spelled the end of their hopes of advancing to the Round of 8.
“We really struggled today with the handling of our Fastenal Ford,” Stenhouse said. “It’s a bummer we couldn’t advance but no one really gave us a chance to make Round of 12. Overall, we have had a great season so we can’t hang our heads. We have four more races to gain as many points as we can and finish off the season strong.”