Takeaways from Kansas: The increased importance of blocking and playing defense

Yahoo Sports

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Erik Jones did whatever he could to keep Clint Bowyer behind him over the final two laps of Saturday night’s Digital Ally 400.

That included throwing a block on Bowyer, who didn’t take too kindly to Jones darting in his path and taking away his lane. After Jones was third and Bowyer was fifth, Bowyer showed his displeasure on the cool-down lap and then had some words for Jones after the race.

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“I’d be mad if I was him, but it’s just racing,” Jones said. “I’ve been blocked a lot, especially with this package and I haven’t done a lot of blocking, so you have to get aggressive and fight for every position.”

Unsurprisingly, Bowyer viewed it slightly differently.

“It put me in a situation where I was either going to have to wreck him in front of the field or lift and you don’t want to wreck people like that,” Bowyer said. “You’re going 180, 190 mile per hour around here, if you turn a guy right into the fence in front of everybody you can hurt somebody.”

“Yeah, you wish you should have done it but you hurt somebody in a situation like that you damn sure wish you hadn’t done it.”

[Brad Keselowski wins at Kansas; full results]

The situation between Jones and Bowyer could be a preview of what’s to come on late restarts on intermediate tracks in 2019. After watching the frantic final two laps and the racing off the penultimate restart that preceded it, it’s very easy to see how a driver will go spinning off another’s bumper after throwing a block.

Blocking has been a criticized but utilized practice in the Cup Series over the last few years. But NASCAR’s new 2019 rules appear to make blocking and defending position far more important than it used to be.

“I’ve seen it change quite a bit from the last couple with the low downforce package, it wasn’t really necessary to block,” Jones said. “You can get some big runs with this package and it really lends to a lot of big moves and unfortunately, you’re going to have to throw big blocks to defend those at the end of the race especially.”

As race-winner Brad Keselowski noted after the race, there’s a difference between throwing a block and anticipating where the driver behind you is going to go and what you have to do to take away his racing line in the appropriate amount of time.

That difference, however, can be tedious. There’s not much tolerance between the two. That small margin for error, coupled with the way that cars can race each other on restarts, makes it feel inevitable that a big wreck is happening at some point thanks to a poorly-executed defensive maneuver.

“I always feel like a block is when you move down in front of somebody that has a run that's fast enough to pass you,” Keselowski said. “I don't think of blocking when you're switching lanes in front of a car that's slightly faster in order to get the draft off him because you can get a draft being in front of someone just like you can get a draft being behind someone.

“But it's hard because, much like in your passenger car, you're making those judgments in split seconds, and you're using a mirror to do it, which naturally doesn't give you great vision, distorts your vision, and so when you make those moves, you don't always know if you're making it as a draft or if you're making it as a block. But you have to make it. If you don't, you're just going to easily get passed.”

Another race, another lack of a multi-car wreck

While blocking may lead to a wreck at some point this season, the Cup Series is still in the midst of a multi-car crash desert. There were no multi-car crashes Saturday night, meaning there’s been just one multi-car crash through five intermediate track races this season.

Drivers simply aren’t losing control of their cars without a problem like a flat tire. The racing after the two late-race restarts was visually stunning as drivers went four-wide on multiple occasions and there was even a brief moment of five-wide racing.

That racing was possible because drivers are glued to the track with their cars because of all the downforce that’s on them. Four-wide racing through the corners a couple years ago at Kansas Speedway would have been unheard of because of how close drivers would have been to the edge of control. Saturday night, it was doable because drivers have so much confidence that their cars will stick to the track.

That confidence is a double-edged sword. It produces some highlight-worthy moments that NASCAR can use in future commercials. But on the flipside, racing is about taking risks. And drivers aren’t taking nearly as big of a risk as they used to in multi-wide racing situations because they know they likely won’t lose control.

Asking for more crashes is slightly morbid. But multi-car crashes are part of NASCAR. They shouldn’t be going extinct.

Was Kansas a ‘Mission Accomplished’ moment?

Many drivers believed Saturday night’s race would be the best test of NASCAR’s desire for closer drafting-aided racing at intermediate tracks because of the cool night race conditions.

And, after watching the racing in the last half of the final stage, it’s clear that drivers had some foresight.

“I felt like going into this race that this would be a good ‑‑ especially with it being a night race and being cool temps, this would be a strong showing for these rules and for the ability to pass and do those things, and obviously I'm a little biased because I won the race, but I felt like it was,” Keselowski said. “I feel like you saw the cars run closer than they probably ever have here and saw some pretty good battles throughout the day. And that's definitely because the rules package. It has its strengths and weaknesses, and if there's going to be a strength, it's going to be races like this, and I feel like it delivered.”

NASCAR’s green-flag passing statistics are inflated by green-flag pit stop cycles, but Saturday night’s race had far more green flag passes than the 2018 race did. While the 2018 race featured one green-flag pit stop cycle to two in 2019, the additional pit stop cycle doesn’t account for the large difference.

“The package tonight was the closest iteration that NASCAR is, what I’m guessing, shooting for,” Jones said. “We were very close to wide open and there was definitely some pack racing moments after the restarts and stuff like that.”

But here’s where it gets tricky for NASCAR going forward. It was unseasonably cool at Kansas on Saturday night. If races on cool tracks are now the ideal showcase of NASCAR’s intermediate track rules, well, the ideal isn’t going to be happening for a while. With summer approaching, there’s not going to be a race on cool track conditions for months.

Does that mean the racing seen in the final stage Saturday night won’t be replicated for a while? NASCAR sure as hell hopes the answer to that question is a big strong no as it brags about what happened at Kansas.

A loose tire caused a 10-lap caution

NASCAR has to do a better job figuring out the running order when a caution comes out during green flag pit stops.

A wheel rolled away from Ryan Newman’s pit stall and into the infield as Newman made a green-flag pit stop. Not long after it came to rest in the grass next to pit road, NASCAR threw a caution that jumbled up the field on lap 219.

The race didn’t go back green until lap 229.

The 10-lap caution came as NASCAR couldn’t get the running order of the race figured out in a timely manner. Numerous drivers and teams believed that NASCAR had the scoring order incorrect. But even if it did — or didn’t — whatever NASCAR determines is the correct order ultimately becomes the correct order.

But it shouldn’t take 10 laps to figure out that correct order. Especially with all of the modern technology available to NASCAR to figure out what cars go in what spots on the grid. Figuring out the running order is a complicated task. But NASCAR has people in race control who are paid to do just that. Asking for increased efficiency is a reasonable request.

Check out Jeff Gluck’s podcast

If you’re looking for even more post-Kansas breakdown, I made an appearance on Jeff Gluck’s post-race podcast late Saturday night. We’re a little sleep-deprived, but it’s a good recap of everything that took place during the race.

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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.

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