NASCAR swapped weekends for the playoff races at Talladega Superspeedway and Kansas Speedway during the offseason.
Drivers hated that a crapshoot on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series’ most dangerous track served as an elimination race, so critical to one’s championship fate.
Instead, Talladega is the middle race of the second round and Kansas decided the contenders’ ultimate fate, but that didn’t lead to any less drama Sunday in the Hollywood Casino 400.
While history will record another victory for Martin Truex Jr. — who started on the pole and became the first driver to sweep a season at Kansas after also winning the spring race in May — the ever-shifting bubble for playoff advancement provided the day’s real excitement.
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It actually started Friday, when playoff contender Ryan Blaney was sent to the back of the field for failing a post-qualifying inspection.
Blaney — who sat in seventh place entering the day, only nine points ahead of Kyle Busch for the final elimination spot — showed in the opening laps speed wouldn’t be an issue for him.
He carved his way through the field and finished third, reaching the round of eight with ease.
Blaney’s relatively drama-free afternoon proved to be the exception.
Kyle Larson entered third in points, behind only Truex and Brad Keselowski — both of whom clinched spots in the round of eight with wins during the previous two weeks.
It was going to take a disaster of epic proportions for Larson to be eliminated.
Epic disaster struck on lap 66, when Larson’s engine started to sputter and forced an unscheduled stop that left him three laps back — and below the all-important cut line for the playoff elimination.
“I felt it drop a cylinder or something,” he said.
Ten laps later, Larson’s motor blew and took with it his championship hopes.
“It’s disappointing, but we had a good year,” he said. “It (stinks) to have the engine failure, but it is what it is. It’s sinking in as the seconds pass by, but things happen. You look at the past playoffs, (Truex) had an issue and it was the best car all year — us this year.”
More on-track drama nearly reopened the door for Larson, who finished 39th, after three straight cautions from laps 189 to 204 shuffled the field dramatically, including an 11-car wreck that eliminated two playoff contenders.
Reigning Cup champion Jimmie Johnson started the final stage on the wrong side of the playoff-elimination cut and his hopes seemed to take another hit with a spin on lap 188.
Johnson, restarting 27th, spun again on the next green-flag lap, but he caught a break by avoiding yet another wreck on the ensuing restart.
Truex’s Furniture Row teammate, Erik Jones, got loose off turn two and triggered an 11-car pileup.
“I just lost it,” he said. “It’s unfortunate. I feel bad for my guys and my team, and I also feel bad for the cars that we took out of the race. It’s just a shame. I made the same mistakes here in the spring, and this place has just been tough to me.”
Playoff contenders Jamie McMurray, who needed a win to advance, and Matt Kenseth, who was dueling with Johnson for the final berth in the round of eight, were among those involved.
“We had a car that could have won if we could have gotten to the front, but (I) just didn’t make it to the end,” said McMurray, a Joplin, Mo., native who raced in the top five most of the day.
Clint Bowyer from Emporia, Kan., also was involved in the wreck — which led to a 10-minute red flag as crews cleaned up debris — along with Aric Almirola, who suffered a broken back during an accident in May’s race at Kansas.
But the drama was only beginning.
Kenseth, 45, who was the 2003 Cup champion but found out in July he would not return to Joe Gibbs Racing next season, was disqualified for having seven crew members over the wall on pit road.
“I’ve never heard of disqualifying somebody from the race if you’ve got one too many people over the wall,” Kenseth said. “I don’t really know. I don’t have a lot of good things to say at the moment. It’s a pretty disappointing way to end.”
Under race conditions, the penalty for such an infraction is being sent to the back of the field, but a new NASCAR rule for 2017 institutes a 5-minute crash clock.
When a car is on the crash clock, violation of the seven-man rule results in immediate disqualification — and possibly a sad end to his 20-year Cup career.
Understandably, Kenseth wasn’t thrilled.
“I’m not a crew chief,” Kenseth said. “I don’t coach the guys. I don’t coach pit crews. I don’t do any of that. I drove back to the pit stall and tried to get it fixed. I don’t know who’s accountable. Somebody must be, and they made a pretty bad mistake.”
Even Truex, while safe in terms of advancing, dealt with his share of drama.
He led the first 35 laps, which allowed him to join the exclusive 2,000-lap club for a single season, but a restart violation sent him to the back of the field during the opening stage.
Another unscheduled pit stop early in stage two cycled Truex back again, but he stalked his way back into contention with a smart pit strategy and the run of cautions put him in position to repeat as the winner at Kansas.
Truex claimed the checkered flag with a heavy heart after Furniture Row Racing road-crew fabricator Jim Watson died Saturday after suffering a heart attack during a go-kart outing with other crew members.
“Things like today, it’s definitely easier when you know you’re locked in and don’t have to worry about (advancing),” Truex said. “Had we been on the cut line, plus or minus a few points today, it would have been a lot harder to deal with what we had to deal with. The next couple of weeks, it’s back to not being locked in. … This was definitely good practice, honestly, to face the adversity (and) know we can get through it.”