With the regular season winding down for NASCAR’s Monster Energy Cup Series and the playoffs inching ever closer, The Star caught up with Kansas Speedway president Pat Warren to discuss how the year has played out so far and the overall vibe heading into the postseason.
The Cup Series will visit Kansas Speedway on Oct. 21 for the Hollywood Casino 400, acting as the cutoff race before the playoffs are pared down to just eight drivers.
The playoff grid is pretty much set, barring any major surprises. What are your thoughts on the field?
“Three drivers have won a lot of races this year: Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. And then of course this (past) weekend was a great win by Chase Elliot. But those three, everybody is sort of talking about the big three. And what I think is kind of interesting is to see what happens once the playoffs begin, and how those guys maintain their performance or what happens.”
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“I also think, say, you look at Harvick’s team and Stewart-Haas Racing, I think you’re going to see a guy like Clint Bowyer probably step up his performance once the playoffs start, because the team will be able to devote more resources to him if other racers that are racing for Stewart-Haas aren’t in the playoffs.”
You mentioned the top three. How do you think will they perform in the run-up to the playoffs?
“I think you’re going to continue seeing them all race for stage points; that was the whole purpose of stage racing. When the sport moved from the concept of the chase to the playoffs, and added the stage racing, the goal was to create better racing every race, every lap. And so I don’t know if you’re going to see a huge shift in sort of the standings, so to speak, but everybody — all the drivers — care about the stage points and care about where they’re sitting relative to each other, because it gives them an advantage heading into the playoffs.
“It’s tough for me to say what’s going to happen, but Kyle Busch — you don’t have to do anything to make Kyle competitive, but putting stage points on the line, all it does is increase his desire to win every time he’s on the track, and beat everybody that he can.”
Martin Truex Jr. won the championship in 2017. What are his chance of repeating?
“He’s certainly racing very well. He was competing for the win last weekend at Watkins Glen. If you looked sort of the past several years ago, since Jimmy Johnson’s dominance has ended, it’s been really hard for teams and for drivers to come back the year after a championship and have success. Martin hasn’t had that fall-off; he has continued to be successful.
“And I think that’s a reflection of the team. A lot of people didn’t think Furniture Row Racing, out of Denver, they didn’t think they could compete, not being a Charlotte-based team. They figured that out last year, and they got confidence, and so personally I would never bet against Martin. Because he’s such a compelling individual, and he’s shown he can compete at the highest level.”
There are a couple of new variations to the playoffs this year. What do you think of them?
“I think the interesting thing about the playoffs this year is the addition of Charlotte and what they’re calling the ‘roval.’ No one knows how that’s going to affect the races, because nobody has ever raced on it before.
“I talked to Kurt Busch about it, and he had tested on it the week before our May race — actually, last October, I think, he tested on it, it was before a race when I was talking to him. And he didn’t even know how it was going to be, because he said, ‘When we’re out testing, we’re not racing, we’re not fighting for position. It’s a different kind of activity on the track.’
“So I think that’s going to be the giant wild card, just before our race. Nobody knows what’s going to happen yet.”
The Richmond Raceway short track is another new addition. Who is that going to help?
“I think that plays well for a guy like Clint Bowyer. Clint has had a lot of success on short tracks — Richmond, Martinsville — not to say Martin or Kyle or the others haven’t. But Clint’s background and history is short-track dirt racing.
“So I think having that in the playoffs, and having it early in the playoffs — if it weighs for anybody, I think it gives a guy like Bowyer a chance to win and advance in the playoff format maybe a little bit more than the old schedule did.”
Speaking of Bowyer, he’s originally from Emporia, Kan. Does he have any sort of advantage racing close to home at Kansas Speedway?
“I don’t know. I know that he really wants to win here: he’s told me that personally, he’s said it publicly. He’s racing in front of his family and his friends. I can’t tell you. He hasn’t won here in a Cup car, so to say it gives him an advantage, sort of the statistics wouldn’t play it out. But I think it always helps to be racing in front of family and friends at home. He always has a lot of needs for tickets, and so I think there are probably few places or tracks, if any, that he would rather win than Kansas.
Kansas Speedway is hosting its fall race just a week after the 1000Bulbs.com 500 at Talladega Superspeedway. What is it like to follow a race at Talladega?
“We’ve been in that spot before, and what’s interesting is that some people within the industry are calling us ‘The Little ‘Dega,’ because we’ve had some pretty big wrecks too, especially late in the race on restarts. So we’ve shown as a track, and the drivers have shown, since we’ve repaved and changed the configuration of the banking, that our track produces phenomenal passing, competitive racing.
“We’re less unpredictable than Talladega, but not much. And because we’re a cutoff race, everybody is going all out, there’s no opportunity after our race. So that creates an even higher level of anxiety, there’s a higher level of competitiveness, and for the fans, it creates unbelievable excitement.”
What did you learn from hosting a playoff race last year?
“The thing that we saw last year is what we just described. The level of intensity for the drivers, and the competitiveness, was at a level I’ve never seen. From driver introductions on, it was just clear that people were on edge in a different way.
“What we do for the fan experience, is we try to do everything possible to get the fans as close as possible to the action. If they want to be, they get to go down on the track before the race, they can find the start-finish line, they can sign the crash wall. They can be down there for driver introductions and get close to their heroes. We work very hard to try to get our fans close and give them those opportunities.”
Who do you think is going to win the 2018 Cup Series?
“It would be disingenuous for me to give you a prediction, because I honestly don’t know. I would tell you that, just based on stage points and what people are doing to this point, one of the big three is most likely to win. But the beauty of the playoff system and the way it’s set up is that anyone can (win).
“I obviously have a personal favorite in Clint because of the local connection and I would love to see him do well. Another guy that people could overlook is Kurt Busch, who’s another Stewart-Haas guy. And Kurt is an incredibly competitive driver, so if he wins to get in, or gets in on point, or if he’s in at all, but I would never write a guy like Kurt Busch off when it comes to the playoffs.”