In more ways than one, NASCAR is a circular sport. Drivers roar around ovals, strength and weakness are often cyclical, and teams aren't shy about jumping on board with any trends that work. Put most simply, what goes around, comes around -- sometimes quite literally.
That was certainly the case Sunday, when a scrape on the first lap at Kansas Speedway had huge implications for the end of the race. When Brad Keselowski's car suffered damage to its left-rear in contact back in the pack during the opening laps of the event, it seemed the only driver affected would be the reigning Sprint Cup Series champion, who fell a lap down while his crew repaired the damage on the afternoon's first round of pit stops.
And that indeed was the case -- until the patched-up piece of quarterpanel tore away from the vehicle with 50 laps remaining, bringing out a debris caution that trapped four contenders a lap down on pit road. While the yellow flag likely didn't impact the race winner given that Matt Kenseth was the class of the entire weekend, it certainly shuffled the top 10. Greg Biffle, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. had all been near the front for much of the race, the latter three combining to lead 46 laps.
But once the caution came out, they were up against it. They took the wave-around to get back on the lead lap, yet none of those drivers proved a factor in the event again. Stenhouse rebounded to finish 11th, his best of the season. But the handling in Edwards' car went away, and being back in traffic exacerbated issues with Biffle's vehicle, and Earnhardt couldn't mount another closing charge as he's done so many times already this year. Jamie McMurray, Aric Almirola and Paul Menard took advantage, translating their late track position into top-10s.
The biggest winner in that late-race shuffle? Probably Keselowski himself, given that he improved 10 spots over that final green-flag run, his car the strongest it had been the entire race with that flapping piece of sheet metal finally removed. His sixth-place finish seemed a gift, given all it had taken to get there. In this day and age of NASCAR, every position counts. Every point matters. And sometimes, things that happen on the first lap play a role in the end.
On the rebound: Of course, it should come as no surprise that Keselowski rebounded, given what we've seen from him this season. This is, after all, the same group that nearly stole the Daytona 500 with a car that had been involved in two wrecks. This is the same driver who managed a top-10 at Texas despite his car rolling through inspection only moments before the race, and losing a lap early. Few teams respond better to adversity than Keselowski's, a fact on display again at Kansas. Just imagine what he might be capable of if he stays on the lead lap the whole race.
Intermediate success: Think Joe Gibbs Racing has something figured out on intermediate tracks? Four races, and now four wins, two each by Kenseth (Las Vegas and Kansas) and Kyle Busch (Fontana and Texas). As an organization JGR had a few setup issues Sunday, as evidenced by three of its cars -- those of Busch, No. 11 fill-in Brian Vickers and Nationwide regular Elliott Sadler -- spinning out. But right now, no team is better on intermediates. Watch out for Kenseth, a two-time winner at Charlotte, in the Coca-Cola 600.
Outside contender: Although he isn't as heralded as his Ford stable mates at Roush Fenway, Almirola continues to turn in solid results at Richard Petty Motorsports. His eighth-place result at Kansas gives him consecutive top-10s for the first time in his Sprint Cup career, and he's placed inside the top 20 in every event this season save one he was wrecked out of at Bristol. Given how deep we are in the season, he and crew chief Todd Parrott clearly have something working that make them an outside contender for the Chase.
Biggest gainers: Kasey Kahne and Martin Truex Jr., who each picked up five spots. Thanks to his runner-up finish, Kahne moved up to second behind Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson. Truex has now gained 14 positions in the last two weeks, and is up to 14th after Sunday's fourth-place result. Truex is historically good on 1.5-milers, and his quest to get back in Chase contention now continues on more traditional layouts like Richmond and Darlington.
Biggest loser: Joey Logano, who dropped six positions after his early crash with Busch, who lost five spots. Busch, though, still stands seventh, and more importantly has a pair of race wins to fall back on. Logano has no wins and is 20th in points, the Kansas crash coming on the heels of a 25-point NASCAR penalty his Penske Racing team plans to appeal.
Lofty lead: By the way, have you noticed Johnson's lead atop the standings is now a rather comfortable 37 points? Last year at this time, the gap between first and second was 15. Keselowski's crisis management hasn't really allowed him to chase race wins, and Earnhardt's strong start is quickly becoming a memory after three tough finishes in a row. Meanwhile Five-Time quietly keeps chugging on, with five top-10s and two wins in eight starts.
Look who's there: The battle for the No. 1 overall Chase seed continues to get more interesting, given that Johnson, Kenseth and Busch now have two wins apiece. Kenseth may be eighth in the standings, but a lot of that goes back to his engine failure in the Daytona 500. In terms of overall performance, perhaps only Johnson has run better this season.
Break on through: Race wins to this point are evenly distributed among the top Chase contenders, keeping a lot of drivers in play for potential wild card spots. McMurray continues to show signs of life for an Earnhardt-Ganassi team that's been stuck in neutral the past two years, while Menard has set the pace for a Richard Childress Racing operation that's been underwhelming to this point. But race wins may ultimately determine who gets in, and toward that end we're still waiting for someone in that group to break through.
Talladega nights?: Meanwhile, Denny Hamlin remains very much a factor even though he's still out of the car recovering from the broken neck vertebra suffered at Fontana. He's 42 points behind 20th-place Logano, and told FOX during Sunday's race that he might start next week's event at Talladega before turning the No. 11 back over to Vickers. The longer those wild card hopefuls jostle for position, the greater the chances of Hamlin becoming a factor when he returns for good.
The big payoff: No. 2 crew chief Paul Wolfe's decision to keep Keselowski out of the pits during the caution that followed the accident involving Busch and Logano on lap 104. That move allowed Keselowski to make up the lap he lost because of the early pit stop required to fix opening-lap damage to his race car, and ultimately paid off in a sixth-place finish.
Quote of week: "Who cares how you get caught? If you're cheating, if you're doing wrong, it doesn't matter what you're doing -- it's wrong." Clint Bowyer, on whether Michael Waltrip Racing would turn in another team for bending the rules.
Runner-up: "Oh, really? Oh, that makes me feel bad." Danica Patrick, when reminded it's been five years since her breakthrough victory in Japan in the IndyCar Series.
Honorable mention: "I didn't talk to anybody about it except for (wife) Katie. ? I didn't really tell anybody else about it. I really didn't need to. It wasn't really a hard decision, believe it or not." Kansas winner Kenseth, on leaving Roush for JGR.
On the docket: Saturday night's event at Richmond International Raceway, where Busch is defending champion. Can the JGR guys keep it going? Or can Earnhardt get back on course in an event where he finished second last season? The 2012 race is best known for the travails of Edwards, who led 206 laps but finished 10th after being black-flagged for jumping the start on a late restart.
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