Just as fans and pundits were wondering if the 2015 NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup would lack for dramatic moments, we got one at Kansas Speedway, as Joey Logano dumped Matt Kenseth out of the lead and stormed to victory in the Hollywood Casino 400.
Kenseth and Logano had been the strongest cars all day overall, with the former leading 153 laps total, and the scrap between Logano and Kenseth was one between fascinating contrasting outlooks; on the one side, Kenseth, who got into big trouble last week in Charlotte and was looking for a golden ticket to keep his title hopes alive. On the other, Logano, last week’s winner who technically had no need to go for back-to-back wins, but wanted to out of a mix of eliminating rivals to his title pursuit and being a race driver, animals conditioned to want to win anything from a motor race to a game of tiddlywinks.
As the laps wound down, the #20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota and #22 Penske Racing Ford once again rose to the front to duke it out. Kenseth, knowing how effective dirty air was in slowing a trailing car, threw blocks and defended hard, at times making the 1.5 mile track look like a 200mph game of Pong. Logano fought hard, looking for gaps wherever he could, until finally things boiled over with just five laps remaining – Kenseth, momentum checked by several lapped cars, blocked Logano right up into the wall, then went to dive back down to the inside going into Turn 1 – only Logano’s nose was already there, and he’d had enough.
Up in smoke went both Kenseth’s car and his chances of victory. And to nobody’s surprise, he wasn’t pleased: “I pulled up in front of him and he just lifted my tires off the ground and wrecked me, it’s hard to drive with the rear tires off the ground…He cries on his radio a lot about blocking or moving around, but man, you’re leading the race and you can pick whatever lane you want.”
And once Logano held off Denny Hamlin on a final green-white-checker victory to take victory, he unsurprisingly saw things slightly differently in Victory Lane: “We raced each other real hard and I felt like I got pinched twice on the straightaways. He raced me hard. I raced him hard back. If I get raced like that, I’ll race the same way. That’s just the way I’ve been and I’ll always be that way.”
Kenseth now finds himself staring at championship oblivion unless he can pull out a victory at one of the sport’s toughest venues next week – Talladega. He wasn’t the only Chaser to stumble however – Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr both were penalised on the final round of pitstops, and a loose wheel for Dale Earnhardt Jr puts him in a similar hole as Kenseth – although given his strong form on the plate tracks lately, he starts as favourite to win his way out of trouble. Ryan Newman and Kyle Busch also remain in the Chase drop zone, despite the latter’s 5th place finish.
Conversely, it was a good day for non-Chasers, despite a hard crash at half distance for Clint Bowyer which he thankfully walked away from. Hendrick Motorsports duo Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne took 3rd and 4th, and rookie Ryan Blaney drove his way to a sensational 7th place, having ran as high as 2nd. His performance would be headline news if it wasn’t mid-Chase and after such a controversial incident, but praise is due to the young charger and the resurgent #21 Wood Brothers Ford, who with Penske support have been building some quietly strong performances in 2015.
For all the intrigue and controversy this weekend however, next weekend the spectre of Talladega looms large. A formidable beast that cares not for your Chase hopes, egos or body panels, it’s one that seven drivers will be trying to survive unscathed, and one that four more will be desperately trying to win – or cause a ‘Big One’ trying.