NASCAR Pre-Race Media: 5 burning questions for Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN, MRN) at Kansas

Will This 550 Package Be Missed?

I don’t think the drivers will lose any sleep over the 550 package coming to an end this season. They won’t miss it. Well Kyle Larson may, but he’s the only one. The thing is, next year will be similar, but it’s with a car designed for this package in mind so before we rush to judgement, we’ll take the wait and see approach. For this style, Kansas is it.

See, NASCAR had good intentions when introducing this. They were trying to create closer racing throughout the field and turn a lot of their tracks into mini Daytona or Talladega’s. The problem is, as we’ve soon found out, there’s no way of really replicating that with where they were trying to do so at.

The cars weren’t designed for this horsepower package in mind so while everyone could go flat out and have less tire wear, it didn’t improve the show. There were numerous reasons on why. The cars created too much dirty air to do anything with it. Everyone was flat out and going the same speed so you couldn’t break away from the pack. It was more about manipulating the air and hoping to not stall out at the races where you could pass with multiple grooves.

Most tracks though weren’t wide enough to even allow there to be enough lanes to manipulate the air either. It would create single file racing without many ways to pass the cars in front.

See, with more horsepower and less downforce, it creates a natural tire fall off. That also allows for more lanes to race on to figure out a way to get your car to work. But, with everyone running the same speed and dirty air hampering any passing abilities, the actual racing product suffered because of it.

That’s why the drivers weren’t really fans of this package. It wasn’t true racing to them. It was more about figuring out how to not lose momentum instead of actually passing cars on merit. That plus the restarts being as wild as ever, has really made the 550 tracks more of a wildcard than they once were which in turn has honestly created more parity on them.

We’ve seen 13 different winners in the last 19 races on intermediates. If you start at the first race on 1.5-mile tracks last year in Las Vegas and go all the way to last weekend in Texas, you would see 13 different names.

In 2020 you got – Joey Logano (Las Vegas), Charlotte (Brad Keselowski/Chase Elliott), Atlanta (Kevin Harvick), Homestead (Denny Hamlin), Kentucky (Cole Custer), Texas (Austin Dillon), Kansas (Keselowski), Vegas (Kurt Busch), Kansas (Logano) and Texas (Kyle Busch) following suit.

That’s nine drivers in 11 races.

This year, we’ve had eight 1.5-mile tracks in. One occurred in Homestead. William Byron won. The next was in Las Vegas with Kyle Larson. Ryan Blaney won in Atlanta, Kyle Busch in Kansas, Larson again in Charlotte, Kurt Busch in Atlanta. Denny Hamlin in the last round at Vegas and now Larson for a third time last week in Texas.

By comparison, Martin Truex Jr. used to be a 1.5-mile king. 11 of his first 19 wins were on intermediate tracks. It wasn’t until his 20th win that came via a short track. But, over his last 12 wins, eight have come on tracks 1 mile in length or shorter including six of his last seven.

Truex, has 15 wins still on intermediate tracks but none since the Fall of 2019. What’s bizarre is, we’ve had 13 different winners on the last 19 1.5-mile races and Truex’s name isn’t one of them. Does that change Sunday in Kansas?

Since 2017, he’s had a top 10 in all but one Kansas start including sweeping both race wins in 2017. In fact, he has seven top six results in his last nine tries.

That’s a plus of this parity, but it’s also a drawback that if you get a long green flag run to the finish, you’re really not going to get the end result of a thrilling side-by-side battle to the checkered flag either.

That’s why Truex says his advantage is gone. It’s no longer about the skill of a driver on these tracks but rather how good of a final restart you get.

This package is really only good on starts and restarts and as a run goes on, the field gets naturally single file without much ability or skill involved to pass.

So, here we are for the final week of this before going back to the 750 package for the final two races. I bet most of the garage will say “good riddance.”



KANSAS CITY, KS – MAY 11: Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M’s Red Nose Day Toyota, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., driver of the #17 SunnyD Ford, and Kurt Busch, driver of the #1 Global Poker Chevrolet, race during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Digital Ally 400 at Kansas Speedway on May 11, 2019 in Kansas City, Kansas. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)


Are Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski Shaping The Sport?

While NASCAR has shown to evolve over the years in terms of the car, the schedule, the tracks and everything that goes into the on track product, I wonder if three people are shaping the ones behind the wheel?

Out of the 38 combined drivers across the national series’ of NASCAR including the Cup, Xfinity and Truck Series, 20 of them have a direct tie to Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski.

See, Earnhardt Jr. is an owner of JR Motorsports in the Xfinity Series. Busch, owns Kyle Busch Motorsports in Trucks. Keselowski, used to own Brad Keselowski Racing in the Truck Series as well.

Half of the Cup playoff field came from these drivers. 9 of the 12 in Xfinity did too. The Trucks are only 3-for-10 but that’s because JRM is in NXS only and BKR has been shutdown for a few years.

The trend shows that these current and former drivers for them are working their ways up the ranks and having an impact on the Cup Series driving landscape.

KBM had William Byron, Christopher Bell, Cole Custer, Erik Jones, Harrison Burton, Todd Gilliland, Chandler Smith, Myatt Snider and Noah Gragson who are all current playoff drivers this year drive for them.

BKR had Daniel Hemric, Tyler Reddick, Austin Cindric, Justin Haley and Ryan Blaney as graduates of their program.

JGR on the NXS side of things had Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman, Ben Rhodes as well as Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr. and Justin Allgaier. Also, Reddick, Gragson and Bryon found their ways from BKR or KBM up to JRM in NXS competition.

That’s why this trio of current and former drivers have a direct involvement on NASCAR’s future. They have an eye for talent and a business model that helped groom talent in the sport. I mean these stats speak for themselves with the most telling that over half of the drivers in the playoff field this year are current or former drivers for these camps.




KANSAS CITY, KS – MAY 10: Paul Menard, driver of the #21 Menards/Dutch Boy Ford, and Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #19 Auto Owners Insurance Toyota, practice for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Digital Ally 400 at Kansas Speedway on May 10, 2019 in Kansas City, Kansas. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)


Should Tracks We Visit Twice Differentiate Between The 2 Stops?

NASCAR is showing a trend and that’s when visiting tracks for a second time, you better differentiate between the two or they’re likely coming to get one of your dates. Pocono, Michigan, Dover and Loudon have all found out the hard way. They didn’t adapt. They had two races each and both looked similar.

Same track. Same distances. Nothing really all that different between the two. They each lost one of their dates.

Now, we’re left with 12 tracks that we visit twice a year on the schedule. Among them, seven are owned by NASCAR (Daytona, Talladega, Phoenix, Martinsville, Richmond, Kansas and Darlington). The other five (Las Vegas, Atlanta, Bristol, Charlotte and Texas) are SMI run. But, when looking at this, it’s clear, SMI is the one thinking outside of the box here and likely doing so to keep butts in the seats and dates on the calendar as a result.

Among their five tracks they visit twice, three of them they changed it up. Texas moved their first date to hosting the All-Star race. Bristol switched their first date to a dirt race. Charlotte altered their second race to a ROVAL. Should Atlanta and/or Las Vegas feel threatened?

What about the seven owned by NASCAR?

Kansas this weekend is one that I question on if we need to come to twice. It’s basically the same race twice and NASCAR is trying to get away from that. While I don’t think they’ll necessarily take a date away from Kansas because of their deal with the casino outside of Turn 2, I often wonder why we need to go there twice.

NASCAR is showing that they’re open to visiting other tracks that aren’t on the schedule now. They’ve added COTA, Road America, World Wide Technology Raceway, Nashville, etc. Indianapolis moved to the road course.

I don’t see them changing around any of the Daytona or Talladega races and as long as Phoenix hosts the finale, they’re set. Martinsville is switching it up with a night race in the spring while Darlington has a day race in the spring and the Southern 500 under the lights on Labor Day weekend. Their only two tracks in question is Kansas and Richmond.

Which bodes the question, should the tracks outside of Daytona, Talladega, Phoenix, Martinsville and Darlington have varying races if we go there twice a year?




Will Clean Air Be King Again?

Kyle Larson had the fastest race car in May. He didn’t win due to a late race caution. That comes after Kevin Harvick having the fastest race car in the Fall race at the Kansas Speedway last year. That’s no surprise, as a year before that, Harvick has had the fastest race car all season. He won a series leading nine times by that point last October and had the pace to make it 10 on a blistery cold afternoon in Kansas for the opening race of the Round of 8.

Instead, pit road and the racing package is to what allowed Joey Logano to reach victory lane, not Harvick.

Logano used every bit of the track to hold off Harvick over a long, finishing green-flag run to win the NASCAR Cup Series race at Kansas Speedway and clinch a spot in the championship round at Phoenix.

Harvick, the winningest driver last season, kept pulling up to Logano’s bumper coming out of corners but simply couldn’t make a pass stick. Despite leading a race-high 85 laps, Harvick had to watch Logano cross the finish line by just .312-seconds.

“You got to want it, man,” said Logano, after earning his 31st career Cup win that day. “What an amazing team this Shell/Pennzoil team is. I am worn out. I spent more time in the mirror than I did in the windshield there. Pit stops got us positions and got us the lead. The 4 (Harvick) was fast, real fast, especially down the straightaways. I thought if I could hold him off the first 15 laps that I would have a chance. Dirty air was the best for us.

“As we caught lap traffic, I was able to gap ourselves as he got more dirty air, and I was able to draft somebody because I was a little slow down the straightaway. Man, I am exhausted after that. We are going to Phoenix and racing for a championship again, heck yeah!”

For Harvick, he noted that Logano beating him off pit road following the final pit stop was the dagger.

“We just needed to get off of pit road first,” said Harvick. “It came down to controlling that restart, and we lost the lead there on the restart and wound up trying to battle and didn’t get the lead, but just really, really fast Jimmy John’s Ford Mustang. All our guys did a great job, and we had a fast car; we moved all over the racetrack, and we weren’t the best behind somebody, but I had a lot of options as they made the car better towards the end of the race. It was a good run for us. I wish we could have one, but we were one short.”


The other factor was this rules package. Harvick hoped lapped traffic would allow him to make his move, but it never happened.

“There were a lot of things that could happen with lap cars or him guessing wrong and me being able to run the bottom or run the top or get a good run or something along those lines, and it never materialized,” said Harvick after finishing second for the fourth time at Kansas.

“He did a great job of putting his car where he needed to, and we just never had an opportunity to capitalize on anything from a mistake side of it.”

Harvick doesn’t blame Logano for doing that either. It’s the nature of the business in NASCAR with this racing package now.

“Joey did just a good job of putting his car right in front of ours, and with this package every time you put your car in front of the car behind you, it takes the nose away,” said Harvick. “We just had a little bit of trouble trying to get the nose to turn when he would take our lane. So, guys did a great job, brought a fast car and just came up one short.

“I think it’s how we race for sure; I think you’ve become used to that part of it. For me, it’s just a scenario that you just become used to, that’s part of what we race, and I definitely don’t make the rules, and just try to do the best we can each week with whatever situation that we have and go from there.”

Don’t hate the player, hate the game. A lot of people were upset with how the end of that race transpired. I mean, how can you blame them? The race was pretty good in fact for most of the way. It’s just that the final 42 laps were kind of blah.

Logano didn’t have the best car and beat the guy who did. Then, you have Denny Hamlin who had the second best car but he took himself out when he got into the wall on Lap 180. He’d finish 15th after leading 58 laps.

Chase Elliott had the next best car. He led 48 laps, third most and only behind Harvick’s 85 and Hamlin’s 58. He just wasn’t as good on restarts when it mattered.

It was Logano who took over the lead on the final stop of the day and at that point, had two laps led all race. He held off Harvick who had led 85 laps, over the final 42 laps of green flag action en route to the win.

How?

Track position. That’s how.

Logano, had the clean air and all the sudden his car looked like it was great now. Was it better than the 4, 11 and 9? Absolutely not. But, clean air is king. All he had to do was block and defend his position like he legally is able to and he could cruise to a win.

Logano did just that.

Back in Vegas last year, the opening race of the Round of 12, Kurt Busch got lucky by running the second to last stint long hoping for a fluke caution to aid in his strategy. He got it. Busch, never relinquished the lead the rest of the way. He had a 13th-15th place car but clean air allowed him to win.

“You just never know how the cautions are going to fall, the strategy, anything like that,” Harvick said. “You just have to go lap by lap and see where it falls.”

Pit stops, pit strategy and a little luck and anyone can win these races now. That’s why fans are frustrated. What happens on Sunday?

Vegas went caution free for a longer stretch of the final stage which allowed the best car in Kyle Larson to win that day. In Atlanta, tire strategy allowed Ryan Blaney to win since we didn’t get a caution in the end and allowed him to chase down Larson. For the Coke 600 and Atlanta, cautions stayed out of the way in the end. Last week Larson was just that good and couldn’t be topped no matter how many restarts we had.

If we don’t see a fluke caution towards the end, the best car has the capability to win. Does a caution not of his control hurt that?

Yes. It cost Harvick a championship last year.




FORT WORTH, TEXAS – OCTOBER 17: Kyle Larson, driver of the #5 HendrickCars.com Chevrolet, celebrates in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Autotrader EchoPark Automotive 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on October 17, 2021 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)


How Big Is A Win Now In Your Phoenix Prep?

You can’t take much from the first two races of this round and apply them to the final two races of the season. Both are different aero packages with the last two weeks being on 1.5-mile tracks now and the next two on short tracks.

But, for Kyle Larson who won last Sunday in Texas, this weekend is key in the sense that you don’t want to lose your momentum for a championship push either. See, it also helps for your preparation for Phoenix in the sense that you have extra time to massage your car.

If you wait until Martinsville to know that you’re into the final round, you have less than one week to get your car ready to go. You’d have a car already built for Phoenix, but you didn’t have the extra week or two than the winners before you did to just focus on that car and that car only.

How can you pay extra attention to your Phoenix car for a championship run if you don’t even know if you’re going to be there or not with a chance for a title? You need to prepare your current cars the best that you can.

The winners from Texas and Kansas can use this time to work on their Phoenix car and even use Martinsville as a full blown 500 lap test session for Phoenix.

Just look at what Joey Logano said last year in the same situation when he won the Round of 8 opener at Kansas.

“The weight lifted off your shoulders is only part of it,” Logano said.  “The ability to start working on your Phoenix car, not worry about your Texas and Martinsville car.  We do.  I don’t want to say that, but you’re 100% focused on one more race.  We know we can’t finish worse than fourth in points, you know what I mean?  We know we’re in it.

“Just got to stay healthy, get there, go for the big trophy when we get out there again and try to win another Phoenix race.”

Logano said that having a win out of the way already allows you to take your time in your Phoenix prep and you’re not just rushing a championship car together at the last minute.

“Doesn’t hurt,” Logano continued. “I think it means a lot, if I’m being honest.  I think it does.  I’ve lived this story once where you really just kind of — you’re not last minute trying to throw together a championship car for Phoenix because you’re trying to build so many other ones.  It just gives the team time to really start focusing on a car that can put us in the position to win.

“If you only have so much time in the day, you got to prioritize, you’re going to prioritize to get yourself in the Championship 4 first.  Now that we did that, we’re going to have 100% of our time to Phoenix.”

On how he approaches the final two races?

“We approach them to win, just like we always do,” Logano said on his approach over the next two weeks. “Same meetings and prep like we always do.  I just assume that we’ll probably focus a little bit more on Phoenix at this point.”

FORT WORTH, TEXAS – OCTOBER 17: Kyle Larson, driver of the #5 HendrickCars.com Chevrolet, crosses the finish line to win the NASCAR Cup Series Autotrader EchoPark Automotive 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on October 17, 2021 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

The other thing is for his year, we get practice back for Phoenix now too. Last year we didn’t. That is even more important in the sense by time we get to Martinsville, Larson’s Phoenix car should be ready to go. The other two drivers in the Final Four’s likely won’t. With practice back, the trucks now have to leave the shops even earlier in the week, meaning less time to massage the cars for those not already in heading to the cut race this round.

“I think part of what helps the Phoenix focus is just the timing of the schedule,” said his crew chief Cliff Daniels. “Since it’s a Friday, Saturday, Sunday show, the truck is going to leave like Tuesday of that week, and the way these race formats go, our hauler didn’t leave until Friday morning this week, so you’re just going to have two less days that week.

“So now we are very fortunate that we have a little bit more time just to really plan out the way the next three weeks can go with emphasis on Phoenix where if you’re not locked in right away, you’re kind of giving everything you can for that week, and to not be talking out of both sides of my mouth, we have really good cars in the system already coming for Kansas, already coming for Martinsville. I looked at them with a lot of our guys last week. Both cars look great, so we’re going to finish those out like they are already in process to be, and then when our Phoenix cars get in the system, make sure that they’re top-notch and ready to go.”

Does all this add up to a Larson advantage? He was only seventh in the spring race at Phoenix. He did have four straight top sixes prior to that, but is 0-for-14 there in general. Chase Elliott was 0-for-9 prior to his win last November so it’s still possible.

Does having practice help Larson get his car dialed in though? Does it help eliminate time for others to get their cars right too by them having less time in the shop? Does it also on the flip side negate all his speed shown this year with more time track time for others to catch up?

“Well, I could kind of take it either way, really,” Larson said when asked if it’s an advantage or disadvantage if practice returns. “We had practice at the 600 and Nashville, and we won those two. I can’t remember what all races we’ve had practice at. But as far as the ovals go for practice, I think we’ve won those.

“It kind of doesn’t — like I said, it could go either way for me. I think yes, I’m probably — I like having practice to give yourself — it kind of helps your confidence out, whether it’s good or bad, leading into the race with practice. But it also gives — if your car is great or whatever, it gives other people an opportunity to make their car better.

“But our team has done a really good job this year when we have had practice of not like getting crazy with trying different things. You kind of just get a head start on the race and your adjustments, what they may be.

“Yeah, I haven’t really thought too much about the practice and qualifying or all that at Phoenix, but hopefully it’ll go good for us.”

He won two of the previous seven races that we had practice at this season. Was runner up in COTA and third in Indianapolis. He had a top three car also in Road America as well.

That’s why this weekend is key for one of the seven remaining playoff drivers left to win. It can’t hurt to get more time to prepare for Phoenix.

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