Top 5, Kansas: NASCAR’s closest-ever finish; intermediate tracks shine again

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Five thoughts after Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race at Kansas Speedway …

1. Taking Stock

There have been nearly 5,000 races among the various touring series in NASCAR’s 76-year history, and none of them ever came closer to an exact tie than Sunday’s banger at Kansas Speedway.

The Kyle Larson/Chris Buescher finish — with the cars separated by 0.001 second — was even closer than the Ricky Craven/Kurt Busch Darlington thriller in 2003 and the Jimmie Johnson/Clint Bowyer Talladega finish in 2011. It’s hard to imagine this one can ever be topped and, if it is, it might not be in our lifetime.

Even though Sunday’s classic finish was set up by overtime, the idea of having a pair of 3,400-pound stock cars race at blazing speeds over a three-mile distance and end up in a virtual dead heat is remarkable to consider. And that it came at Kansas — a traditional intermediate track, not a superspeedway or a short track — is even wilder.

But if you stick around NASCAR long enough, you’re bound to see everything come full circle. That’s the nature of a sport that makes laps, but it’s always still jarring when something changes this much.

After all, Kansas used to be a groaner. When it was awarded a second race as the result of the adjacent Hollywood Casino being built, there was a sense of ugh … another intermediate race on the schedule? The cries used to be “More Short Tracks!” It never felt like venues such as Kansas would be particularly compelling.

Fast forward to Sunday night, when the race winner declared — both on TV and in his postrace news conference — there should be more tracks like Kansas.

“This track is awesome; mile-and-a-halfs are awesome,” Larson said. “Give us more mile-and-a-halfs.”

He’s right, of course. NASCAR’s intermediate track racing has never been better, and the current three-year stretch for Kansas in particular might be the best any 1.5-miler has ever seen.

Yeah, but what about …

No. Sorry. I covered many intermediate track races from previous eras that get romanticized now — and they were not great. Sure, there were some memorable moments every now and then, which is what people send around as YouTube clips. But tracks like Kansas were largely bore-fests in which the leader would build huge gaps and make NASCAR feel compelled to throw debris cautions to bunch the field.

No more. Last year, Kansas was voted as the No. 1 race of the season in my “Was it a good race?” poll. Sunday’s race is currently trending to be the No. 1 race of 2024, and there’s a chance it may end up in the top three races in the poll’s history (out of 312 races surveyed). Plus, all five Kansas races in the era of the Next Gen car have polled above 86 percent while 10 of the previous 12 Kansas races in the poll scored less than 74 percent.

But what exactly makes Kansas such a great racetrack these days?

“The leader is typically at a disadvantage on these mile-and-a-halfs, because it seems as though you abuse your right rear tire more, so it’s hard to get away,” Larson said. “It just keeps the field bunched up. With the old car, we’d probably get out to like an eight-second lead here. The couple-second lead I got in the second stage was as big as you’d probably see in the Next Gen Era on a mile-and-a-half.”

Cliff Daniels, Larson’s crew chief, said it comes down to the amount of tools for both the driver and crew chief. When Daniels adjusts air pressure or wedge, the car is sensitive to it. The car also handles much differently based on track position and the lane options a driver chooses. Consequently, those things can have an impact on how quickly the tires wear out (which is another major plus).

As Daniels put it, Kansas presents “a very pure feel” and the combination of factors “present a great storm for a good race.”

You could call that formula ideal for what makes a “classic” NASCAR race, except there’s one problem with that: Even many of the classics weren’t this good.

2. Fastest Car Tracker

Despite being mired in traffic for more of the race than he would have preferred, Denny Hamlin’s No. 11 team brought him the best car for the third time this season.

“I don’t think there’s any dispute we were the fastest car,” Hamlin said.

The problem was he couldn’t show it as easily thanks to twice losing seven spots on pit road. But Hamlin still led the most laps and likely would have dominated the race had he not kept losing track position.

Larson was fast as well, of course. But as Larson told Daniels at the end of Stage 2: “The 11 is stupid fast.”

Fastest Car Score: Other Cars 7, Fastest Cars 6

Fastest Cars by Driver: Denny Hamlin 3, William Byron 2, Michael McDowell 1, Tyler Reddick 1, Martin Truex Jr. 1, Christopher Bell 1, Kyle Larson 1, Todd Gilliland 1, Joey Logano 1, Ty Gibbs 1.

Denny Hamlin

“I don’t think there’s any dispute we were the fastest car,” Denny Hamlin said of Sunday’s race. But lost spots on pit road cost him a shot at the win. (Logan Riely / Getty Images)

3. Q&A

Each week in this space, we’ll pose one question and attempt to answer one from the past.

Q: What could NASCAR do to get more intermediate tracks on the schedule?

Not long ago, the Cup Series schedule was dotted with traditional 1.5-mile tracks. Texas, Kansas, Atlanta and Charlotte all had two races (three in Charlotte’s case, if you count the All-Star Race). Las Vegas, Kentucky, Chicagoland and Homestead had one. And Darlington, despite not quite measuring as a 1.5-miler, was still close enough to have its pair of dates lumped in with the rest.

It was viewed as excessive. So in recent years, Kentucky and Chicagoland have vanished from the schedule. Atlanta was turned into a superspeedway. Charlotte lost two of its oval races and Texas lost one.

But now, with how exceptional the Next Gen has raced on intermediates, would there be a way to get more of those tracks back? If NASCAR wanted to make it happen, the pathway to some quick fixes could be:

— Turn the Charlotte Roval back into an oval race for the playoffs

— Reopen Chicagoland once the Chicago Street Race runs its course

— Either restore Texas to a traditional layout and give it a second date back or reopen Kentucky

But here’s where it gets tricky for NASCAR. Austin is a more important market than Kentucky. Downtown Chicago is more important than Joliet. And NASCAR has been focused on schedule expansion in unique ways, such as international races, street races, stadium races, and the revitalization of old short tracks (North Wilkesboro and Nashville). “Let’s reopen Chicagoland!” hasn’t exactly been the loudest rallying cry.

But this car is so dang good on those tracks, can this opportunity be passed up? Because if this is the truest form of racing NASCAR has these days and also puts on its best show, everyone could win by adding more.

A: Who has the edge: Hendrick Motorsports or Joe Gibbs Racing?

Go figure. That was the question in this space after this same race one year ago, and now here we are again.

Except this year, it’s an even more important question because those two teams have combined to win every non-superspeedway race as the halfway point of the regular season arrives next week.

These days, it would feel like a significant upset if a non-Hendrick/JGR driver won the race. The top drivers from those two teams appear to alternate wins on a near-weekly basis.

But in terms of who has the edge? We’ll have a cop-out here and say it’s even. Yes, Hendrick has won six races to JGR’s four — but Sunday could have very easily gone JGR’s way without a late caution, which would have made it five apiece.

Meanwhile, Hendrick has the points leader (Larson) and the third-place driver in the standings (Chase Elliott) — but JGR has P2 (Truex) and P4 (Hamlin). And all four drivers from each team are in the top 13 in points.

Of course, here’s the thing: It might not matter. In the last two seasons, Hendrick and JGR could be considered the dominant teams only to ultimately lose the championship to a red-hot Team Penske driver (Joey Logano in 2022, Ryan Blaney in 2023)

“It’s a long season,” Logano said Saturday. “The name of the game is you’ve got to get yourself in the playoffs, No. 1. And then you’ve got to peak during the playoffs.

“We’ve got to make sure we’re alive long enough to when we do get speed in our stuff, we’re ready to capitalize and have something to race for.”

Carson Hocevar

Carson Hocevar has found a creative push for All-Star votes. (Jonathan Bachman / Getty Images)

4. NASquirks

Cup Series rookie Carson Hocevar has long vowed to bring his unique personality to the top level of NASCAR in hopes of injecting some color into a sometimes-bland driving corps. But until recently, he’s been a bit cautious about going all in with the humor and lightheartedness.

“I didn’t want to show too much, too early,” Hocevar said. “I wanted to show I’m focused and paying attention. Now we’re starting to really find our footing as the season goes on, so I’m starting to let loose a little bit more.”

That’s been apparent in the series of NASCAR All-Star Race fan vote videos the 21-year-old has created — the most notable being where he tricked other drivers into inadvertently campaigning for him after he hired them on the Cameo app.

If you’re not familiar with Cameo, users pay celebrities to make a video about a topic of their choosing (birthdays, anniversaries, etc.). In this case, Hocevar encouraged Austin Dillon, Kaz Grala and Anthony Alfredo to make a video for a fictional boy named Carson who was in “a tight voting battle at school” and asked them to proclaim they would “vote as many times as I can.”

Then Hocevar edited their answers to make it seem as though they were talking about his All-Star Race candidacy.

“Yeah, he got me,” Dillon said Saturday. “But he paid for my dinner, so that’s good. I got $55 off of him.”

Posted Grala on X: “I have major trust issues rn.”

The only driver who declined the Cameo request was Ryan Preece. Hocevar said he “made it a little too obvious” when making a request in the comments section (where Cameo purchasers write a brief description of what they want the celebrity to say) by telling Preece it was a “popularity contest.”

After that rejection, Hocevar changed the wording for the other drivers — and it worked. But there’s more than just brand-building at play here; as a rookie, Hocevar noted he could use all the track time he can get.

“It’s just a fan vote for a lot of people, but I take it as a chance for us to learn and get a shot on a short track,” Hocevar said. “So anything I could do to help allow us to get an extra race under our belt, I’ll campaign for it.”

5. Five at No. 5

Our mini power rankings after Race No. 13/38 (including exhibitions):

1. Kyle Larson (last week: 1): The points leader began his big month with another Cup Series victory and put on an overtime display that reminded everyone why people are so enamored with his talent.

2. Denny Hamlin (last week: 2): This could have easily been back-to-back wins for Hamlin heading into one of his best tracks this weekend.

3. Chase Elliott (last week: 4): Make it five straight top-five finishes on non-superspeedways for Elliott, who is already approaching his total number of top-fives from last season (seven).

4. Martin Truex Jr. (last week: 5): If Kyle Busch doesn’t have a late spin, there’s a strong chance Truex tracks down Hamlin for the lead Sunday and either passes him straight up or forces Hamlin to run out of gas and wins either way.

5. William Byron (last week: 3): Byron was blazing fast in practice, but started 36th after a mistake in qualifying and was never really a factor in the race. That was weird for a team you would have expected to drive through the field.

Dropped out: None.

(Top photo of Sunday’s tight finish at Kansas Speedway: Logan Riely / Getty Images)

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