Ryan: Help thy enemy? Why it was the best strategy on Kansas restarts

Nate Ryan

KANSAS CITY, Kan. – With all the talk this year about the lack of autonomy afforded drivers because of rules that rob the accelerator of authority, restarts would seem the great equalizer.

If the low-horsepower, high-downforce combination makes you feel a little too stuck to the asphalt, let’s bunch them up and wave the green for 2019’s most consistently dependable spectacle on speeedways.

Five wide! Endless lane selections! Side-drafting in every corner!

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It often seems as if drivers could treat restarts as they would reading a Choose Your Own Adventure story with limitless options.

In reality, restarts offer less opportunity for independence in certain situations.

The most critical restarts Sunday at Kansas Speedway were firm reminders of how nothing is as it seems when strange bedfellows emerge while getting back to full speed.

The first moment came on a restart with two laps remaining in Stage 1 (video above). Joey Logano restarted third by skipping a pit stop under yellow, and he charged around Clint Bowyer and Ryan Blaney to the high lane and the lead.

Behind him went Chase Elliott, who was on four fresh tires and also entered the race trailing Logano by 22 points for the last playoff transfer spot.

As traffic fanned out five wide, Elliott elected to tuck in directly behind Logano — pushing his chief rival to 10 stage points and a playoff point.

Wut?

“What else was he going to do?” Logano countered a reporter who asked him if he was surprised by the help. “He didn’t have another option. He was three wide and pinned in behind me. His only thing was to push me and to help himself. He didn’t do it to be a nice guy, I promise you that. He did it because it was going to help him. That’s what got him to second.”

Indeed, Elliott picked up nine points that helped make the difference in his advancement to the Round of 8 (over Brad Keselowski by three points).

But couldn’t he have picked another lane and made Logano’s life that much harder?

“The top is where you want to be on the restart,” Logano shrugged. “Obviously he got to second, so that was the only move for him. It was the smartest one. That’s why I went (to the high lane).”

Elliott gave Logano credit for forcing him into a decision that essentially left his No. 9 powerless to avoid aiding the No. 22.

“At that point, I was going to do what was best for me,” Elliott said. “Unfortunately, it helped him. At the point in time, it was the best thing I could do for myself and in those situations, you have to be as selfish as you can. Unfortunately, it was the best option and he happened to be the guy in front of me. It wasn’t by dumb luck. He put himself in a good position. He’s pretty sharp on that.”

Elliott was in the mix of two more crucial restarts that determined the race’s outcome and his playoff fate while underscoring how alliances can shift. The final two times the green flag waved Sunday, the top four consisted of Elliot and the Joe Gibbs Racing trio of Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Erik Jones.

If it seemed like a recipe for the Gibbs Toyotas ganging up for a 1-2-3 finish, but Elliot managed to get second place and had some unexpected help from Jones when starting on the outside of the front row on the penultimate restart

“I was a little surprised that (Jones) gave me as good a shove as he did on that restart so appreciate that,” Elliott said. “At the end of the day, those guys moving their lane forward is going to help them. It might not look right at first, but you never know what is going to happen on the backstretch or down into Turn 3 that could give that guy behind you a shot to win. You’re just trying to do whatever you can to put yourself in a better position.”

Jones, who finished fourth, said working with his JGR teammates “was never talked about” on his team radio, but he did try to reduce Elliott’s momentum by pulling out of line briefly into Turn 1

“You want a team car to win,” Jones said. “But I wanted to win if our team car is going to win, so I would push (Elliott) on the restart, tried to split him on the top. It didn’t work. I was trying to get myself in a position to get to second to duke it out for the win with whoever it may be, whether a teammate or Chase. So there wasn’t really anything crazy teammate-wise we were trying to do.”

There was no expectation of tactical teammate precision from Hamlin and crew chief Chris Gabehart, who said there is communication between Gibbs crew chiefs without a delineated strategy to help each other. “Everybody is pretty smart about playing chess at that point,” he said. “It’s about he who executes best. My guy did it.”

Said Hamlin: “There’s no guarantees at all. You just hope, from my standpoint, that the person that’s behind you gives you a push.”

The most important shove for the race winner came from the No. 18 Toyota of Busch, who stayed committed to the slower bottom lane to ensure Hamlin kept the lead into Turn 1.

“There was one that was really crucial,” Hamlin said. “If he dips out and takes us three‑wide, one way or another, our lane is dead, and the whole outside line just freight trains right by us all.”

Busch, who slipped from second to third on the final restart, said the move “proved that point” about being a team player.

His sense of resignation also might have revealed another reason he has been among the biggest detractors of the rules package.

Even when it seems you have options … sometimes, you really don’t.

“If you’re not in control of the last restart, then you don’t have a chance to win,” Busch said. “So oh well.”

Lapped cars were a hot topic this past weekend with Garrett Smithley essentially causing Chase Briscoe and Christopher Bell to wreck while racing for the lead late in Saturday’s Xfinity race.

That sparked an avalanche of outrage from NASCAR Twitter, which had thoughts on Smithley making contact with a faster car for the second time in six weeks (Kyle Busch took umbrage at Smithley’s lapped car in the opener at Las Vegas Motor Speedway). One of the amusing and (naturally) blunt tweets came from Kyle Larson, who had an encounter Sunday with the lapped car of Joey Gase.

Larson spun Gase when he impeded his progress through the outside lane in Turn 4.

“There were a lot of us, and I was trying to get a big run up top,” Larson said. “I was hoping to get a lane and didn’t get one, and I was so slow. I was already to his back bumper, so …  yeah.”

Was a message being sent?

“It wasn’t really a message,” Larson said. “More it was just I was in a hurry, and he was doing his best to get out of the way of the guys below, and more so just impatience on my part. Yeah, I mean I just had to go.”

That’s the right assessment of the situation. As long as NASCAR races have a few dozen cars in the field and a few hundred miles to race to the checkered flag, there always will be lapped cars that potentially can affect the lead group.

There isn’t much that can – or should – be done aside from changing the parameters that govern how slower cars are allowed on track and then stay there.

“There’s just a few cars that are way off the pace, and it just is what it is,” Larson told NBC Sports. “Selfishly, I’d love to say make the minimum speed higher, but I know they have a formula for how that works.”

As Bill France Jr. once famously said: You always need slower cars for the faster cars to pass.

It seems only a matter of time before the best remaining open ride for 2020 is filled, and it seems likely Daniel Suarez will remain in the No. 41 Ford at Stewart-Haas Racing.

Suarez said meetings with sponsors have gone well the past two weeks as his management team helps shore up the funding for the car and with Arris. The telecommunications company, which has sponsored Suarez in NASCAR since 2015, recently underwent management changes with new ownership.

Encouraged that Stewart-Haas Racing now can focus on his deal after re-signing Clint Bowyer and Aric Almirola, Suarez said “good progress” was made on having his car sponsored after meeting the new Arris executives.

“There are a lot of things moving internally with Arris as a company, and overall that slowed things down a little bit, but everything is looking pretty good,” he said. “You make a relationship with somebody, and all of a sudden, they’re not making the decisions anymore. It’s like starting over again. There’s a lot of things in the middle helping. You have to do more than put a sticker on the car. Working on different scenarios to try to make racing make sense for everyone.”

There also seems to be building sentiment at SHR of delaying the elevation of Cole Custer to Cup until 2021 when the debut of the Next Gen car is expected. Custer is an Xfinity championship contender for the second consecutive year along with Christopher Bell and Tyler Reddick, both of whom are headed to Cup in 2020.

Suarez said he hasn’t felt pressure from Custer’s success, though.

“If you look at it, there are three drivers winning a lot in Xfinity,” said Suarez, the series’ 2016 champion. “Eventually, they’ll all be in Cup. Have to remember as well that in today’s world, it’s way easier to win races in the Xfinity Series because there is not Cup drivers there anymore, compared to two years ago.

“At same time, all three drivers are strong, eventually they’ll make it to Cup because they have everything it takes to be there. But honestly, I’m not worried. I know what I can do. I know what I bring to the table on the track and off the track. That’s very important. We just have to be patient and make sure the timing is right.”

In a revealing interview about his professional future, Jimmie Johnson told Jeff Burton last week that he expects to win this season.

New crew chief Cliff Daniels believes his driver can end a two-year winless skid over the next four races (“I think we can win any of them. With good execution, great restarts and pit stops, any day could be our day”), and a victory positively would influence the decision Johnson is facing about driving beyond the 2020 season.

“I think it would, and I think it would add years (to Johnson’s career),” Daniels told NBC Sports. “I think if he wins this year, he’s going to be fired up just to keep going. That’s just my take on it. To see his hunger and his drive right now, it’s still 100 percent committed, which is pretty cool to see.”

Daniels, who took over the team at Watkins Glen International in August, said he and Johnson have had some conversations on the future. Daniels is confident the team won’t get distracted while Johnson mulls a career timeline (the seven-time series champion expects to inform team owner Rick Hendrick within four to six months).

“I think whatever level he’s going to want support or encouragement or advice, he’s going to ask for that,” Daniels said. “But as far as the team goes, I think everyone is aware, and we would be blinding ourselves needlessly to not be aware, and that doesn’t bother anybody, and that’s fantastic because the team knows that he still is operating at a really high level and performing at a really high level as a driver. With the way he approaches the weekend, the way he still stays good with his fitness, we’re here to give him our 110 percent, no matter what’s going on, to give.

“If he decided to hang it up at the end of this year or in three years, it’s going to change nothing about our approach. We are fully committed to building us back to where we need to be and then continuing that. And then once we get there, we have to sustain it. So again, whether it’s six months or three years, our approach doesn’t change.”

After three races of uncharacteristic blunders – some inexplicably occurring prerace – there were undoubtedly some uncomfortable conversations this week in the conference rooms at Team Penske headquarters in Mooresville, N.C. There were two loose wheels on consecutive days at Kansas for Austin Cindric and Joey Logano, and the latter nearly precluded the defending series champion from having another shot to reach the title round at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Mistakes during championship runs aren’t totally unfamiliar to Penske – there was a period in the late 2000s when a comedy of late-season errors negated an IndyCar championship seemingly annually – but the “blocking and tackling” mistakes (as NASCAR on NBC analyst Steve Letarte calls them) are more egregious than just pit-stop miscues. While each has been a separate issue (e.g., Logano’s axle and Ryan Blaney’s hub failures at Dover; Brad Keselowski’s fuel pickup at Talladega), the rash of problems make it harder to write off as freak incidents and more indicative of a lack in quality control.

“We have to smooth out our days,” Logano said. “That’s the first thing and most controllable thing to work on is getting through the races with nothing happening. We shouldn’t have loose wheels when the race starts. We have to clean that stuff up. I’ve got to be smoother on the track and make sure I get the most out of it from there. We have to clean up pit stops and be faster there.

“We just got to look at every department and be a little better. We’re definitely not exactly where we need to be. I think we can close the gap. Don’t take that as I’m saying we can’t win this thing. We just have some work to do, and I know we’ll do it.”

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