Kansas Cup takeaways: Kevin Harvick, No. 4 team hustle for runner-up

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Kevin Harvick, crew chief Rodney Childers and the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing team haven’t been immune to their organization’s across-the-board struggles this season.

But Sunday represented progress for SHR’s standard-bearers.

Harvick scored points in both stages and recovered from an uncontrolled tire penalty on pit road ( Lap 230) to finish a season-best second at Kansas Speedway.

As Childers tweeted afterwards, it was a step in the right direction from where the team was in March at Las Vegas, where Harvick struggled to finish 20th after starting on pole.

Childers could’ve also mentioned another 1.5-mile track. Two weeks after Las Vegas, Harvick finished 10th at Atlanta, but not before spending nearly half that race off the lead lap. At one point, Harvick called his car “the biggest pile of crap” he’d ever driven there.

The typically blistering pace has not been there for Harvick and the No. 4 team. Even so, they’ve still wrung out eight top-10 finishes in 11 races.

And if it hasn’t been an ideal start to a season, well, it’s nothing Harvick and his crewmates haven’t seen before.

“I think we all just want to win,” said Harvick. “You never know how the year is going to start. I think we’ve done a good job with everything that we have, except for a couple weeks where we had some bad luck with flat tires.

“But some years start out good and you go like gangbusters and some years they don’t start out good and you have to figure it out. So that’s just part of the game.

“I’ve been around this for a long time, and you just keep grinding away, and hopefully, eventually you pick it up, and if you don’t, you start over the next year.”

Harvick and his team certainly had to grind away to get this runner-up. Harvick was running fourth at the Lap 230 caution, but his ensuing pit road penalty knocked him to the tail end of the longest line for a restart on Lap 236.

Harvick jumped from 20th to 15th before the caution came out again at Lap 246. That and another yellow at Lap 254 saw Childers supply Harvick with four fresh tires on both occasions.

The new rubber was essential to Harvick’s rally during two final restarts within the last 10 laps.

“We were a little bit off at the beginning,” said Harvick. “The guys did a great job of adjusting our car and getting our car better throughout the day. Then we had a pit road penalty while we were running fourth there and had to go to the back.

“Luckily, we had a couple cautions and Rodney made a couple great calls and put tires on the car a couple times and really put us on offense there at the end and were able to get a couple good restarts and come out with a good finish.”

Living on the “fringe”

Brad Keselowski followed his Talladega win with a third-place showing Sunday.

From his perspective, it was a solid outing but he and his No. 2 Team Penske crew were missing the raw speed needed to truly contend for a win.

Sunday hasn’t been the only time he’s felt that way this season.

“I feel like we haven’t had many bad races speed-wise, but we’ve been kind of fringe top five a lot this year and haven’t really showcased race-winning speed outside of obviously being able to run well at Talladega,” he said.

“I think, maybe Richmond, we were close there. But Vegas – we were kind of that second- to fifth-place car. And I think (if) you look at Daytona, we ran pretty well, but kind of still in that second to fifth-place car range.

“Just haven’t had that breakthrough of dominant speed, and if we can put that with some execution on our good weeks, then we’ll be in good shape. But this week, I felt like we executed fairly well and just needed a little bit more speed to be able to bring it home.”

Keselowski claimed fourth-place finishes in both stages, and that was where he was when he made his final stop under the Lap 246 caution.

With six drivers opting to stay out, Keselowski put his fresh tires to good use and climbed to third before the Lap 254 caution.

But two more restarts within the final 10 laps checked his momentum.

“I was buried too much,” Keselowski said. “Each restart was just so chaotic. Kevin (Harvick) had the newest tires and the yellows came out and pretty much nullified the advantage that I had and handed it back to the guys behind us. Just kind of stuck there.”

Climb continues for DiBenedetto

Matt DiBenedetto couldn’t convert a top-five starting position into critical stage points, but worked his way into contention late and wound up finishing a season-best fourth.

With that, the driver of the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford continues a remarkable turnaround from a dreadful start to the season.

DiBenedetto was 34th in points following the first three races. He now holds the 16th and final playoff position, at 12 points to the good.

“I know anything can happen and I’m a positive kind of guy, DiBenedetto said. “I look at everything that way, but if I’m being honest, I don’t know if I would have believed you – that we’d make up that many spots in points in such a short time.”

“I knew we had the strength of the team after such a rough start to the season and just circumstances out of our control. It’s amazing to come back like this, so it just shows that momentum can go one way or another and when it clicks and you get on a roll it can go well.

“I’m just really proud of the team. Nobody ever got down during those times when it was a rough start and we’re really rebounding and just super proud of the entire team.”

Like everybody else, DiBenedetto’s day came down to the multiple late-race restarts.

He and his No. 21 team gambled in this stretch, taking two tires instead of four on his last stop under the Lap 246 caution.

The call held up as DiBenedetto stayed inside the top 10 before jumping from seventh to fourth during the final two laps.

“The restarts at the end were insane, which is pretty normal for Kansas,” he said. “It’s kind of like superspeedway racing on the restarts and it gets messy at the end. I’m glad we survived them.

“I’m glad we were on the bottom lane, which I don’t say much but at the end it worked out because they got all jumbled up and about crashed up top there, so it worked out. We were in the right spots and tried to be smart all day.

“These are the races that you’re super proud of, because we didn’t have a fourth-place car. We were really having to fight, defend to be around that top 10 area at all, to execute and get the car better throughout the day.”

Elsewhere on the bubble

Kansas Cup takeaways
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. finds himself out of the top 16 in the playoff standings after two late-race crashes Sunday at Kansas Speedway. (Photo: Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Sunday’s late restarts were disastrous for Ricky Stenhouse Jr., whose tenuous grip on a playoff spot finally broke.

With 15 laps to go, Stenhouse was racing Austin Cindric off Turn 2 for 15th place when he got loose underneath him. Cindric was pushed into the wall, while Stenhouse spun off him to bring out the yellow.

Things got worse on the subsequent restart with 10 laps to go, when Christopher Bell spun high off Turn 4 and then down into Stenhouse. That impact sent Bell back up into Stenhouse’s teammate at JTG Daugherty Racing, Ryan Preece.

Both Preece and Stenhouse were eliminated from the race, and Stenhouse fell out of the top 16 in the playoff standings. He began Sunday in 15th at 12 points above the cutline, but ended Sunday in 19th at 18 points below.

Stenhouse’s tumble helped others on the playoff bubble to gain ground.

Chris Buescher moved from 16th to 15th, 20 points above the cutline, following an eighth-place finish.

Buescher stayed out during a green flag pit cycle after Lap 200, which saw an uncontrolled tire go into the infield grass. But instead of getting a caution that would’ve given him great track position, NASCAR waited to throw the yellow until after he finally stopped at Lap 226 to complete the cycle.

From there, Buescher returned to the lead lap via wave-around and restarted 19th. With the help of the late cautions, Buescher had a final opportunity to secure a top-10 finish and did so, going from 11th to eighth in the last two laps.

Kurt Busch is now up to “first driver out” at 17th in the playoff standings, yet only gained one point to the cutline (-13 to -12) after a 15th-place finish. He cited trouble throughout the day on restarts.

“We just have to figure out what trends are happening and with the way things are shaking up with the tires, I couldn’t be aggressive on restarts,” Busch said.

“The car wanted to swap ends. That’s not my normal deal – normally, I’m able to plug the holes and go and grab us spots. The pit crew were the ones gaining us spots today. We’ll just keep plugging away.”

In regards to positions, Tyler Reddick was the biggest gainer among the bubble drivers. Reddick moved up four spots to 18th in the playoff standings.

He also gained 20 points on the cutline, thanks in part to finishes of third in Stage 1 and eighth in Stage 2. It was the first time all season Reddick scored in both stages.

Add it all up, and he’s now 18 points out of the final playoff spot.

“I was able to run the wall really well during the early stages of the race, which really helped keep our track position and earn those stage points,” Reddick said. “Eventually, my car started to build tighter and tighter throughout the runs, and that made my entry on both sides of the track into a bit of a challenge.

“Being looser definitely worked best for our car, and my team did a good job working on the balance of the car to get it to where it needed to be later in the race. We did have a slight miscue on pit road late in stage 3, but luckily caught a caution quickly (Lap 230) and got our lap back, letting us stay in the mix for remainder of the race. It was a good day for us.”

What takes place in a NASCAR appeal hearing? Here’s a look

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Hendrick Motorsports is scheduled to have its appeal hearing at 10 a.m. ET Wednesday.

So what will happen in the appeal hearing? Here is a look at the process, based on the NASCAR Cup Rule Book.

NASCAR penalized Hendrick Motorsports for modifications to hood louvers. Those penalties were:

  • Docked Alex BowmanKyle Larson and William Byron 100 points and 10 playoff points each.
  • Suspended crew chiefs Cliff Daniels, Alan Gustafson, Rudy Fugle and Blake Harris four races each and fined each $100,000.
  • Penalized each of the four Hendrick teams 100 owner points and 10 playoff points.

Before the appeal hearing starts, both sides — in this case, Hendrick Motorsports and NASCAR — must file a written summary presenting their case before the hearing.

The summary must not be longer than two single-spaced pages. Any attachments or appendices either side intends to present during the hearing must be included. Such attachments or appendices may include, but are not limited to, video, written statements, diagrams, photographs and charts.

The summary is to be filed by 5 p.m. ET two days before the beginning of the hearing. The summary shall be confidential and not released to the public. The Cup Rule Book says that releasing the summary to the public “may result in a penalty.”

The appeal will be heard by three members. They will come from a pool of panelists. The Cup Rule Book lists 19 panelists. That group includes former drivers Mike Skinner, Lake Speed, Bill Lester, Shawna Robinson and Lyn St. James, along with others in various roles in motorsports.

The Cup Rule Book states that “in seating an Appeals Panel, the Administrator shall take into consideration the panelists’ availability, background, professional experience and knowledge.”

The Cup Rule Book states “the burden rests on NASCAR to show that it is more likely than not that a violation … has occurred, and that the Penalty Notice issued is within the guidelines of the NASCAR Rules.”

Both parties are allowed in the hearing room while each side presents evidence. NASCAR goes first.

After both sides finish, there is a break before an optional rebuttal period. NASCAR has the chance to go first, followed by those appealing.

Once that is complete, NASCAR is permitted one last opportunity to “argue, explain, or present rebuttal on the facts and violation” to the appeal panel since NASCAR carries the burden of proof.

The appeal panelists may ask questions to either group or any witnesses at any time during the hearing.

Decisions by the three-member National Motorsports Appeals Panel do not need to be unanimous.

The National Motorsports Appeals Panel can affirm the penalty or adjust it. The panel can rescind some or all of the penalties or increase any or all penalties.

When NASCAR penalized William Byron 25 points and fined him $50,000 for spinning Hamlin during a caution in last year’s playoff race at Texas, Hendrick Motorsports appealed. The National Motorsports Appeals Panel rescinded the 25-point penalty but increased his fine to $100,000. NASCAR amended its rule book after the panel’s decision.

NASCAR does not have the option to appeal the panel’s decision. Those who filed the appeal can further appeal the panel’s decision to the Final Appeal Officer. That decision can’t be appealed.

Kaulig Racing and Denny Hamlin each will go through this process when their appeals are heard. Kaulig Racing’s appeal is April 5 for modifications to a hood louver. Hamlin’s appeal is April 6 for intentionally wrecking Ross Chastain on the last lap of the Phoenix race.

NASCAR Power Rankings: William Byron returns to No. 1

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After last Sunday’s crashfest at Circuit of the Americas, the NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings experienced another jumble, and William Byron returns to the top spot.

Byron took fifth place in the chaos of the triple-overtime finish. He and winner Tyler Reddick were the top dogs in the Cup Series’ first road race of the year, Byron leading 28 laps and Reddick 41. No one else led more than two laps.

MORE: COTA finish — Entertaining and messy

Christopher Bell, last week’s No. 1, fell to fifth place after a 31st-place finish at COTA.

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. William Byron (second last week) — Byron, the season’s only multiple winner with two, finished fifth Sunday, marking his career first top five on a road course. He won the pole and the first stage.

2. Kyle Busch (third last week) — Busch continues to make his new partnership at Richard Childress Racing look good. His second-place run Sunday is his fourth top-10 finish in the season’s first six races.

3. Ross Chastain (sixth last week) — Despite being pushed around in the late going Sunday, Chastain persisted, re-emerging at the front to challenge the leaders and finish fourth. He has finished in the top four in all three COTA races and leads the points standings.

4. Alex Bowman (fifth last week) — Bowman continued his seasonal consistency, finishing third at COTA. He has finished in the top 10 in five of six races.

5. Christopher Bell (first last week) — Bell falls from the top spot in the rankings after being booted from Sunday’s race in a late-race accident. He dropped three spots in the Cup points standings to fifth.

6. Joey Logano (fourth last week) — Logano was mostly absent from Sunday’s front-of-the-pack jousting. He limped home in 28th and drops two spots in the rankings.

7. Tyler Reddick (unranked last week) — Reddick bursts into the rankings in a big way, easily outclassing the rest of the field on the way to victory at COTA. Challenged repeatedly by cautions that extended the race into three overtimes, he refused to give up the shot at his first win of the year.

8. Denny Hamlin (seventh last week) — Winless this year, Hamlin nevertheless keeps popping up around the front. Sunday’s late-race mess dropped him to 16th at the checkered flag.

9. Kyle Larson (eighth last week) — Larson seemed to be the race’s pingpong ball Sunday as he was bounced around during some of the tightest racing. He rallied to reach 14th.

10. Kevin Harvick (ninth last week) — Harvick’s final season has been a mix of the good and the bad, with two top-five runs, challenges for wins and a 33rd-place finish at Atlanta. He was 13th Sunday.

Dropped out: Brad Keselowski (10th last week).

 

Ross Chastain after COTA race: ‘Are you not entertained?’

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One driver evoked the movie “Gladiator” after Sunday’s Cup race at Circuit of the Americas. Another could be penalized for his actions after the checkered flag. Others expressed dismay at what the end of the event became.

A race that had been a thrilling duel devolved into a demolition derby over the final laps, leaving feelings as bruised as some of the cars.

While Tyler Reddick celebrated his first win of the season, other drivers stewed at what the racing became. Three overtimes were needed to finish the event due to incidents in the Turn 1 hairpin. Then again, it should not have been surprising, coming a week after Kyle Busch said: “We have completely lost any sense of respect in the garage between the drivers”.

“Are you not entertained?” Ross Chastain exclaimed, evoking Russell Crowe’s famous movie line. “This is what we love. I don’t love doing it, but … as a sport we’re not boring.”

Chastain is correct, the sport is not boring. But it’s fair to ask if the sport has crossed a line. Is it OK for races to end this way? If not, how to change it is a more difficult notion.

The action has been getting more aggressive this season. It was evident in the Clash at the Coliseum when drivers charged into the corners and slammed into the back of cars as a way to slow down to make the tight turns.

Sunday marked the third time in the last four road course races that the event went to overtime. In the previous 28 road course races — dating back to 2012 — only three went to overtime.

It makes one wonder what could happen this weekend when the Cup series races at Richmond Raceway, beginning a three-week stretch at short tracks that includes the Bristol dirt race and Martinsville.

“These cars are so tough,” Chastain said. “We can run into each other. There are just lines of cars all pushing each other (on the restarts) on the brakes. Nobody is going in there saying, ‘I’m going to hit somebody,’ but it’s just the leader has to check up and it just magnifies itself.”

Chastain’s teammate, Daniel Suarez, was not happy after the race. He ran into the back of Chastain’s car, knocking him out of the way as they entered pit road and then hit the back of Bowman’s car on pit road.

Section 4.4.B of the Cup Rule Book states that drivers can be penalized for “Intentionally damaging another vehicle on pit road.” Such a penalty could result in the loss of 25-50 driver and/or team owner points and/or $50,000-$100,000 fine. Violations may also result in a suspension.

Suarez restarted fifth in the second overtime restart but left the inside lane open. Alex Bowman, with Ross Chastain and Chase Briscoe aligned behind, charged and got beside Suarez as they approached Turn 1.

As Bowman slowed to make the tight turn, he was hit from behind and that sent him into Suarez, who clipped the left rear of Martin Truex Jr.’s car. Truex spun in front of Suarez and blocked his path, allowing the rest of the field to drive by and costing Suarez a top-five finish. Suarez finished 27th.

Suarez spoke briefly with Bowman before having a discussion with Chastain.

“The problem is if you don’t peek out and bomb the guy in front of you, the guy behind you does it to you,” Bowman said. “So what do you do there? It’s not right. The way we race is embarrassing, and if 12-year-olds were doing it, we’d be yelling at them, but here we are saying it’s the best thing in the world on TV.”

Chris Buescher simply called Sunday’s race “our first bumper car race of the year.”

Austin Dillon said: “The end of the race became a typical NASCAR road course race. It was just a mess. We drove up into the hill on a restart and everyone just pile drove into each other.”

Jordan Taylor, making his first Cup start as he filled in for an injured Chase Elliott, was struck by what the restarts were like.

“Every restart, you just get smashed in the front, rear, side,” he said. “So yeah, it was pretty much just survival.”

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Sunday’s race was scheduled to go 68 laps but was extended to 75 laps by the late cautions.

Here is a look at the drivers who gained the most and lost the most positions from where they were running on Lap 68 to where they were running on Lap 75:

Most positions gained

18 – Kyle Larson (finished 14th)

17 – Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (finished 7th)

16 – Kevin Harvick (finished 13th)

12 – Todd Gilliland (finished 10th)

9 – Ryan Blaney (finished 21st)

8 – Noah Gragson (finished 20th)

7 – Austin Cindric (finished 6th)

6 – Corey LaJoie (finished 11th)

Most positions lost

23 – Daniel Suarez (finished 27th)

20 – Joey Logano (finished 28th)

15 – Kimi Raikkonen (finished 29th)

12 – Christopher Bell (finished 31st)

12 – Martin Truex Jr. (finished 17th)

10 – Aric Almirola (finished 30th)

9 – Jordan Taylor (finished 24th)

6 – Michael McDowell (finished 12th)

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Tyler Reddick and Kyle Busch, who switched rides before this season, have both won in the first six races.

This marks the third year in a row that two drivers with new Cup rides have won so early in the year.

Last year, Austin Cindric and Ross Chastain each won in the first six races of the year. Cindric had driven a few Cup races previously for Team Penske but last year was his first year in the No. 2 car. Chastain did have the same crew chief and other crew members at Trackhouse Racing after it purchased Chip Ganassi Racing.

In 2021, Kyle Larson, in his first season at Hendrick Motorsports, and Christopher Bell, in his rookie Cup season with Joe Gibbs Racing, each won within the first four races of that year.

Winners and losers at Circuit of the Americas

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A look at winners and losers from Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas:

WINNERS

Tyler Reddick — Reddick needed patience and perseverance to stay in front through three overtimes to win Sunday’s race. Considering the supreme strength of his Toyota and his nearly flawless performance, losing first place in that calamity near the end would have been heartbreaking. Instead, he gives Toyota its first win of the year.

Kyle Busch — Busch never led, but he pushed through the field in the final stage, worked his way through the restarts and finished second.

William Byron — Byron appeared to have the only answer to Reddick’s power. He led 28 laps but was shuffled to fifth at the finish.

Todd Gilliland — Gilliland was in the top-15 mix through the three overtimes and worked his way to a 10th-place finish, the third of his Cup career.

Jenson Button — Former F1 champion finished 18th in his Cup debut, highest among the road course ringers. He told his team after the race on the radio that Cup drivers “are on it every second of the race” and also said that the race was a “roller coaster … a whole F1 season in one race.”

LOSERS

AJ Allmendinger — Always expected to be a threat at road courses, Allmendinger left the race after 60 laps with damage from an accident, finishing 34th.

Brad Keselowski — Spins limited Keselowski’s effectiveness Sunday, and he parked after 56 laps with a driveshaft issue, finishing 35th and dropping four spots in the points standings.

Bubba Wallace — The year has not started well for Wallace, who finished 37th Sunday and now has four finishes of 20th or worse in six races. He fell three spots in points.