A 6-Pack of Kansas Observations
It’s been a while since we saw a race as crazy as Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway.
While the fact that Martin Truex Jr. won for the seventh time this season and the third time in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs was no surprise at all, almost everything else was, from Kyle Larson getting knocked out of the title hunt to Jimmie Johnson surviving a pair cheek-clenching spins to advance.
Here are six observations from the Kansas race:
Truex a lock
Martin Truex Jr. will advance through Round 3 to the championship race in four weeks at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Despite some of the scenarios commentators might try to cook up in Round 3 about what could happen, Truex is a lock.
Here’s the math: Truex has 69 playoff points. Kyle Busch has 42 playoff points and was able to move on to Round 3 despite having an average finish of 22.00 in Round 2. Busch finished 13 points ahead of ninth-place Larson, despite his crummy average finish in the last three races.
Truex has 27 more playoff points than Busch. With Truex’s 69 playoff points I can’t honestly come up with any realistic scenario where he doesn’t make it to Homestead.
So far, Chevrolet has been shut out in the playoffs, Ford has won only once and Toyotas have won three times, twice with Kyle Busch and three times with Truex. In the last 15 races, Toyotas have won 11 times to just three for Chevy and one for Ford. Yet of the remaining playoff drivers, three drive Toyotas (Truex, Busch and Denny Hamlin), three are in Fords (Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick and Ryan Blaney) and two are Chevy pilots (Jimmie Johnson and Chase Elliott).
The wild card
Kyle Busch might be the most unpredictable driver left in the playoffs. The 2015 Cup champ won at Dover and New Hampshire, but never finished inside the top 10 in Round 2 of the playoffs. All year long, Busch’s Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas have been fast, but his results have been all over the board.
Busch well could win another championship this year or he could have another bad round and get knocked out. Winning the title would be no surprise, but not making Homestead would be a huge upset.
Stepping it up
One of the least reported and most impressive performances at Kansas belonged to Ryan Blaney and Wood Brothers Racing. Blaney’s Ford flunked post-qualifying inspection, so his time was disallowed and he had to start from the back of the 40-car field. Still, Blaney wheeled the iconic No. 21 to a third-place finish, good enough to punch his ticket to Round 3.
Considering that this is the first playoff appearance for both Blaney and the Wood Brothers, making it to the Elite Eight is an impressive accomplishment.
The most dangerous man in the playoffs
Despite two spins and a huge crash in front of him, Jimmie Johnson somehow survived Kansas with an 11th-place finish and now moves on to Round 3 and races at Martinsville Speedway, where he has nine race victories and an average finish of 7.55; Texas Motor Speedway (seven wins, 8.11 average finish) and Phoenix Raceway (four wins, 8.96).
Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets have lacked the speed of the front-running Toyotas for most of the season, but anyone who ignores Johnson this time of year does so at his own considerable peril. Unless and until he’s officially out, Johnson remains a threat to win an eighth title.
Crazy, but it could happen
One of the big surprises of the playoffs has been the performance of Chase Elliott, who in six races has three runner-up finishes and four top fives. Elliott’s average playoff finish of 6.17 is second only to Truex’s 5.83. And yet Elliott is still winless in 73 career Cup starts.
What if Elliott advances to Homestead with two or three more top fives and wins the championship by finishing second in the race to someone not in the title hunt, like Kyle Larson or Matt Kenseth?
The odds of that really happening admittedly are remote, but thanks to NASCAR’s winner-take-all playoff format, it’s possible Elliott could win his first Cup championship before he wins his first Cup race.
What would people say about that?