NASCAR's 550 horsepower, high downforce package was designed for days like today.
Unusually cold track positions at the relatively recently paved Kansas Speedway set up the low horsepower, high downforce package for exactly its intended goal: Flat out racing throughout a run that makes restarts unpredictable and keeps faster drivers from pulling away from the field. In NASCAR's mind, the racing that followed would likely look more like pack racing at Talladega than anything else. In reality, the on-track product just looked off, with hectic restarts giving way to long green flag runs where the track's multiple grooves weren't enough to make cars run at different speeds and, combined with the same "dirty air" problems that have plagued the Gen 6 car since its debut, passing bordered on the impossible.
Because of this phenomenon, the package operating exactly as NASCAR hoped it would and creating the unintended effect that everyone who criticized it at the time predicted, this was a track position race. Positions were won in the pit lane, then fought for on hectic double file restarts. From there, it was a defensive game, with drivers locked into a position by strategy and opportunity and easily able to hold those positions against an onslaught of faster drivers behind them.
With this in mind, the race was won in a four lap stretch, starting with Joey Logano's Penske Racing team executing a perfect stop to get him out ahead of Kevin Harvick with 40 laps to go. Logano's team won him the right to pick his restart lane and lead the field to green, and Logano used an excellent restart to convert that advantage into the race lead. Harvick, who had led 85 laps today, was clearly faster behind Logano, but had no ability to actually get to his bumper, let alone attempt any sort of pass. Third-placed Alex Bowman caught both, but himself could not attempt a pass on either, so the race finished with three cars within a second, all completely incapable of making any attempt to pass one another.
Logano would win, locking himself into the Championship Four round in Phoenix despite a relative struggle of a season that saw the former series champion go without a win since the series shut down for pandemic-related reasons back in March. He had run well enough to get into the Round of Eight, however, and the rules of the series dictate that any winner in the Round of Eight is locked into the final race with an equal shot at a championship.
This means that one of Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Chase Elliott, and Brad Keselowski, the four drivers most likely to make the final race at Phoenix after last weekend's points reset, will not head to Phoenix with a shot at a title. All of Harvick, Hamlin, and Elliott led more laps in today's race than Logano, but none were fortuitous enough to lead the final restart, so all will have to head to Texas next weekend needing another excellent race to feel more comfortable about their chances of making Phoenix with a chance to win a title.
Hamlin, who hit the wall and was forced to pit under green late in the race, and Elliott, who struggled with radio communications throughout the afternoon, were two of the three remaining playoff drivers to suffer significant issues during the race. The third, Kurt Busch, faced a more catastrophic issue. His engine gave out mid-race, leaving him an apocalyptic 73 points behind the cutoff line with two races remaining in the round. Effectively, he has to win one of the next two races to make the final round.
Joey Logano came into Sunday's race at @kansasspeedway below the cut line.
His win bumps Chase Elliott below the cut line and puts Brad Keselowski on the bubble. #NASCARPlayoffs pic.twitter.com/t1TWiUcsNv
— #NASCARPlayoffs on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) October 18, 2020
Kevin Harvick's second place finish leaves him with a significant 41 point lead over the cutoff line, and two strong finishes in the next two races will keep him in even if two other drivers behind him in the Round of Eight standings win the next two races. Denny Hamlin's once-generous Playoff Point advantage is down to a gap of just 20 points, enough that he has reason to be concerned over the next two races. Brad Keselowski and Chase Elliott sit eight points from each other on either side of the cutoff line, with Keselowski retaining that advantage but desperately needing to either perform well or win to secure his spot in the final round.
Alex Bowman and Martin Truex Jr., each more than 27 points behind the cutoff line, will each need two exceptional races, some misfortune for drivers ahead of them, and no wins for anyone but Logano, Harvick, and the already-eliminated drivers to make the final round without winning one of the next two races.
The NASCAR playoffs continue next weekend at Texas Motor Speedway. Given the nature of the track and how previous races have gone there since the introduction of the 550 horsepower package, expect a similarly frustrating race.
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