NASCAR Playoffs: Larson Blows Up While Blaney Blasts Off

KANSAS CITY, KS - OCTOBER 22: Kyle Larson, driver of the #42 Credit One Bank Chevrolet, speaks with the media after having engine trouble during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway on October 22, 2017 in Kansas City, Kansas. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Kyle Larson experiences the media crush after engine troubles eliminated him from the NASCAR playoffs. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

Sunday’s elimination race at Kansas Speedway was a tumultuous contest, with favorite Kyle Larson, driver of the Chip Ganassi Racing #42 Chevy, eliminated from Championship contention, while Ryan Blaney, driver of Wood Brothers #21 Ford, delivering a storybook finish to advance to next round of NASCAR’s playoffs.

An engine detonation relegated Larson to the garage on lap 73 of the Hollywood Casino 400, extinguishing his Championship quest.  As one of the leading favorites to make the Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Larson’s fortunes going up in smoke caused fans on social media to melt down and lose their collective minds.

Conversely, Ryan Blaney started from the rear at Kansas Speedway but drove a stellar race and dodged several bullets to finish 3rd and remain alive in the playoff picture.

Surely, these contrasting challenges encompass the Game 7 drama that NASCAR sought when they introduced this multi-stage playoff elimination format.  No doubt playoff outcomes can be influenced by fortuitous luck or haphazard chance, but mechanical equipment has always been part of the equation in racing success.

Such mechanical misfortune could befall Martin Truex Jr. at the Homestead-Miami final, should he advance that far.  Truex, Sunday’s winner at Kansas and the perennial favorite to win the Championship, has a series-leading seven wins this season, and anything less than a Championship will seem unjust to the fans of the Furniture Row racing team, regarded as the “little team that could”.

Certainly, this Championship format is demanding.  Larson undeniably didn’t have a dazzling 2nd playoff round.  With previous finishes of 10th at Charlotte and 13th at Talladega, Larson had a narrow point cushion to rely on for advancement beyond Kansas.

 Ryan Blaney, driver of the #21 Wood Brothers Ford, raced through the field to a 3rd place finish in Hollywood Casino 400 (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

Ryan Blaney raced through the field to a 3rd place finish in the Hollywood Casino 400 (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

Conversely, Blaney and his Wood Brothers Racing Team are alive in their quest to win this year’s championship. Blaney explained, “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 fun year.  Just to be competitive, still be in this thing, that’s just a bonus, to be honest with you.”

And, naturally, seven-time Champion Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe’s Racing Chevy, persevered to advance in a less than stellar season for him, showing composure when confronted by desperate unscheduled pit stops that would have derailed a lesser team.  Johnson again revealed the golden horseshoe often attributed to him, spinning out not once but twice, including a critical journey into the infield grass that could have torn up his car and destroyed his quest for a record setting 8th Championship, but didn’t.

The abrupt nature of playoff elimination for those drivers and their fans always will generate an empty and hollow void at the end of each playoff round.  It’s the game we now have in NASCAR, and as each round concludes, the playoff cuts only get stiffer as worthy drivers are eliminated.

Still, the remaining eight contenders provide a perfect balance for the Championship chase.  We have a compelling mix of drivers, with four former champions (Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, and Brad Keselowski), two young guns (Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney), and two experienced vets who have just fallen short of the title chase before and are as hungry as ever (Martin Truex Jr and Denny Hamlin).

We also have manufacturer diversity in the title chase, with three Toyotas, three Fords, and two Chevrolets among the eight remaining contenders, despite the perceived dominance of Toyota during NASCAR’s regular season.

Vegas odds now favor Truex, Busch, Harvick, and Keselowski to make the Ford Championship Weekend in Homestead-Miami.

Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota, displays his 7 victory decals in a stellar season (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

Martin Truex Jr displays his 7 victory decals in a stellar season (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

Truex will likely waltz to the Finals given the playoff point buffer he has already accumulated with seven race wins this season.  And Harvick can surely get the job done at Phoenix, the penultimate race, with 8 previous wins at his home track.  Meanwhile, Kyle Busch is just on fire, with raw speed, talent, and conviction all converging at the right time.

Yet, I’m calling an audible on Keselowski, with the anticipation that either Hamlin or Johnson will rip a win at next weekend’s race at Martinsville Speedway.  Johnson and Hamlin are the preeminent active drivers at the oddly-shaped paperclip short track, having netted 9 and 5 wins, respectively, which would guarantee either’s advancement to the Homestead Final.

Then again, that’s just my reasonable conjecture.  In the congruence of man vs. machine, NASCAR’s playoff format requires that teams and drivers bring their best stuff to EVERY race.  Isn’t that why we should be tuning in, for the both the triumph as well as the agony that this playoff system delivers?

By Ron Bottano

Let’s connect on Twitter at @rbottano and share your final four contenders. 

This Time, Keselowski The Winner In A Fuel Mileage Race

A couple of random thoughts after the STP 400 at Kansas Speedway;

 

** Fuel mileage races in NASCAR certainly don’t excite us nearly as much as last lap, multicar dashes to the checkered flag, but they do have their elements of drama.

Consider the last two Sprint Cup events, last week at Charlotte and this past Sunday at Kansas. Both were, ultimately, fuel mileage races in which the winner was going to be the team that most ably managed gas mileage – either through strategy, driver tactics or both.

As hard as he tried at Charlotte, Dale Earnhardt Jr. ran out of gas just as he came through the third and fourth turns at Charlotte Motor Speedway while leading on the last lap.

As a result Kevin Harvick whisked by Earnhardt Jr. and snatched his third victory of the year.

You can imagine how disappointed the Earnhardt Jr. fans were as they hoped to see their man win his first races in 104 tries. It might have been dramatic but they certainly didn’t give a hoot.

Ironically, Earnhardt Jr. figured prominently in the finish at Kansas.

This time, however, he didn’t run out of gas. He just could not catch Brad Keselowski, who played his team’s fuel strategy beautifully to win the second race of his career.

Keselowski made his final pit stop with 57 laps remaining in the 267-lap race. He was in 10th place at the time and his crew chief, Paul Wolfe, calculated that should the event proceed unabated under the green flag, Keselowski would – make that could – have enough gas to finish without pitting.

But it was clear that to make it, Keselowski would have to preserve as much fuel as possible.

Keselowski watched car after car peel off for pit road, among them those of Denny Hamlin, who stopped on lap 215 and Earnhardt Jr., who took gas one lap later.

Keselowski took the lead when teammate Kurt Busch pitted just 10 laps shy of the finish.

If Keselowski had enough gas to make it, surely Hamlin and Earnhardt Jr. did as well.

So the question became, would Keselowski make it to the finish or be overtaken by either Hamlin or Earnhardt Jr.? That was the drama.

Wolfe said after the race that he knew Keselowski had a shot.

“We started picking up a lot of speed there,” Wolfe said. “I don’t know if it was clean air or what. As everybody kept pulling off and pitting, we got faster and faster.”

Fast or not, Keselowski still went into reserve mode. As was ably presented on the Fox broadcast, the 27-year-old driver repeatedly rolled out of the gas and let the engine idle through the turns, thereby conserving fuel.

For a while, Earnhardt Jr., running in second place, seemed to be advancing on Keselowski. But his attacked stalled and he finished 2.8 seconds in arrears.

This time, at least, Earnhardt Jr. didn’t lose by running out of gas. His second-straight runnerup finish propelled him one position in the point standings, into third.

As said, fuel mileage races don’t provide many nail-biting finishes. And some fans tend to write off winners of such events as guys who simply “got lucky” because of circumstances.

That my be true in some instances, but fuel mileage races tend to remind us there is much more to successful racing than a fast car and pit crew.

There’s strategy, for example. When a crew chief makes the call to avoid the pits as a race winds to its conclusion, often he’s taking a big gamble.

Sure, he’s been given estimates and such, but estimates are just that – calculated guesses.

And guesses can be wrong. They often are.

As much as strategy can play a role in fuel mileage events, driving can as well.

When it comes to gas mileage, obviously it’s not about going fast. It’s about driving properly according to the situation – using all the tricks available and at the right time.

Which means, obviously, a driver has to know a great deal more than how to mash the gas. Some competitors have learned this better than others.

It’s all simply another facet of racing, which, no matter what we think of it, comes into play and can determine who wins or loses.

Last week, Earnhardt Jr. lost.

This week, Keselowski won.

When it comes to fuel mileage racing, rest assured, in the future there will be other names.

 

** The 2011 season started with five different winners in the first five races.

Keselowski became the sixth different winner in the last six races. Interestingly, he is one of a few drivers who didn’t figure prominently in pre-season forecasts.

Others include Trevor Bayne, who won at Daytona, and Regan Smith, the winner at Darlington.

I don’t think anyone can complain when drivers win for the first time or are victorious when given little chance to be.

While this year’s new winners may be surprising, what is more so is to learn what drivers haven’t won and, by all accounts, were expected to by now.

They include Kurt Busch, Tony Stewart, Clint Bowyer, Ryan Newman, Hamlin, Greg Biffle, Jeff Burton and, OK, Mark Martin.

All of them, save Biffle, Burton and Martin, are among the top 10 in points and are, as of now, on target to make the Chase.

Speaking of points, under the new system, two “wildcard” selections for the Chase will be made among the top 20 in the standings, placed according to their number of victories.

The only driver among the top 20 and presently OK for the Chase is Jeff Gordon, ranked No. 13 with one victory.

Keselowski at 21st, Smith at 29th and Bayne, at 45th, are all out of contention for now – and other than Keselowski, it appears even another victory won’t do much good.

On the other hand, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth are virtually assured of places in the Chase.

Harvick is fourth in points with three wins, Busch in fifth and Kenseth in seventh, each with two victories.

It would appear that, points-wise, they are going to have to sink like stones in water to miss the Chase.

 

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