Is this Kyle Larson’s race to lose, or will a Penske/Gibbs car dominate? – The Athletic

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After Brad Keselowski became the ninth driver to win a NASCAR Cup race this season, the series moves to Kansas Speedway for 267 laps and 400.5 miles (3 p.m. ET on FS1 and TSN5). Denny Hamlin is winless in 2021, but he has three Kansas victories, including two of the last three races. Jeff Gluck and Jordan Bianchi look ahead to this weekend.

Jeff Gluck: Well, Jordan, it’s time to talk about the Kansas race. And by the race, I mean the NAME of the race: The Buschy McBusch Race 400. Is this funny or cringeworthy?

Jordan Bianchi: It’s so cringeworthy that it’s become funny. I can honestly say that never before have I received more texts about a name of a race than I have this week. And while I don’t know if that’s a good thing, the adage “any publicity is good publicity” apparently applies in this case.

Gluck: Wait, people text you about race names?

Bianchi: This week they did. The Buschy McBusch Race 400 has people talking.

 

Gluck: Well if I texted you, I’d say I don’t really mind it. There have been so many ridiculous race names over the years, I’m numb to the wackiness of any particular one now. Buschy McBusch was also preferable to the other finalist choices in the Busch contest and I was more bothered by some of the former Brickyard 400 names that were like 20 words long.

Bianchi: I 100 percent agree about the absurdity of some Brickyard 400 names. Those were ridiculous, especially taking into consideration that this is a crown jewel race.

Silly race name aside, what are you most looking forward to this weekend?

Gluck: Getting some answers. We’re into the meat of the season now and we just cleared a stretch that had a dirt race, a couple short tracks and a superspeedway. Each week, we sit here and make assumptions or analyze the series based on results — but the recent tracks aren’t representative of so many races remaining on the schedule.

While there are more road courses than ever and the championship is decided by the 750 hp package (instead of this 550 one), intermediates still matter to anyone who wants to be a serious title threat.

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So I’m wondering: Will Hendrick Motorsports keep showing its 1.5-mile-track strength? Or will we see a Team Penske or Joe Gibbs Racing driver dominate on Sunday?

What about you? Same question right back at ya.

Bianchi: You make an excellent point about not having any true clarity on where things stand. Everything feels week-to-week. One week it feels like Hendrick won’t lose, another week JGR appears unbeatable and another week it feels as if Penske can win on any type of track.

But outside of Denny Hamlin, we’re still waiting for someone to assert themselves as Hamlin and Kevin Harvick did a year ago, or the “Big Three” in 2018.

I think Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Larson and Joey Logano are poised to do that, but as you note the variety of different tracks hasn’t allowed us a good barometer to assess where everyone stands. This should change after this upcoming stretch of races at Kansas, Darlington, Dover, Circuit of The Americas and Charlotte.

Gluck: So you envision a “Big Four” this year of Hamlin, Truex, Larson and Logano? Honestly, I still think Larson is going to win a lot of races and be more dominant than many people can envision yet. By the time the playoffs begin, we may be talking about how it’s Larson’s championship to lose.

As I laid out in my betting predictions this week, Larson has been the driver to beat at intermediates so far. I don’t see that changing at Kansas.

Bianchi: Larson should be strong at Kansas and starting 32nd shouldn’t be a concern whatsoever; there is plenty of room to make passes there and we’ve seen plenty of drivers go from the back to the front. He’d be my pick to win on Sunday.

Gluck: Ugh, hate when we agree. But same.

Bianchi: Why would you hate to agree with me? Doing so demonstrates that you have a smart, analytical perspective and should be something you strive for. 😁

Gluck: Because arguing with you is my favorite sport.

Bianchi: Who hurt you? Seriously.

And here’s something else we agree on: Larson will soon become a dominating force like Harvick was a year ago. It feels like he’s on the cusp of a monster season where he has somewhere around five wins and over 1,000 laps led (he’s at 379 laps led now). Four of the next five races are on tracks where he should shine; COTA is the exception.

Another driver who I’m convinced will emerge over the next month is Chase Elliott. Don’t be shocked if he punches out a few wins and looks very much like the driver who steamrolled to the championship last year.

Gluck: Perhaps, but let’s talk about organizations outside the “Big Three” of teams. I have a feeling Hendrick, Penske and JGR may sweep the entire top 10 on Sunday. But if not, who else can jump up and grab a victory?

Is it Harvick or bust for this question?

Bianchi: Based on how strong Harvick is at Kansas, you’d think he would be the guy to break up the Hendrick/Penske/JGR top-10 stranglehold. However, from what we’ve seen from Stewart-Haas Racing this season on intermediate tracks, there’s little reason to think he’ll be much of a factor.

Go back to Las Vegas and Atlanta, two other tracks where Harvick is usually great, and he was merely ordinary there this spring. SHR is struggling on aero-dependent tracks, exactly the kind of track Kansas is. Until we see otherwise, we have to expect this to continue.

Where are you on Harvick’s chances on Sunday?

Gluck: It’s hard to have much faith in SHR at the moment until they go out there and prove it. Otherwise, it’s merely a guess as to which weekend Harvick or his teammates will suddenly have a good run. Last we saw, they were still a step behind; at some point, the organization will make gains. I just don’t know if that’s this weekend.

Speaking of sudden rebounds, who is the one driver most in need of a turnaround at Kansas? You know, someone who needs to get his season back on track.

Bianchi: Ryan Preece.

Preece came into 2021 without any assurances he’d be in the No. 37 JTG Daugherty Racing Chevrolet for the whole season due to a lack of sponsorship. Team co-owner Brad Daugherty said Preece would remain in the car as long as he showed improvement and gave JTG reason to keep the team going.

Seemingly taking that message to heart, Preece had consecutive top 10 finishes to start the season. But since then he’s not finished better than 14th (last week at Talladega) and has slid to 21st in points. Some of this is due to bad luck, because he’s had some strong runs hampered by circumstances beyond his control.

Nonetheless, he comes into Kansas needing a positive result.

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Gluck: That’s an interesting pick with Preece. Didn’t see you going that direction.

Bianchi: See, I offer smart analysis. You’re welcome.

Gluck: I’m sure our readers appreciate it as much as they appreciate your fashion sense.

I’ll go with a more obvious pick for a driver in need of a turnaround: Bubba Wallace. As we discussed on The Teardown after Talladega, Wallace and the No. 23 team have yet to record a top-15 finish this year.

They’re certainly capable of running much better and I believe they will, but sometimes you need to get some singles before you can start hitting home runs.

Unfortunately for Wallace, his best Kansas finish is 18th — which happened last fall. But that was with Richard Petty Motorsports equipment. This whole move was about getting into a better car. It’s time to show it.

Bianchi: Did you see Mike Wheeler’s tweet after Talladega? I’m surely reading too much into things, but this had the feel of a crew chief who knows his team is not performing up to expectations and is feeling scrutinized.

Gluck: I didn’t interpret that from his tweets, which were more along the lines of explaining strategy to fans who were being critical. But I also think Wheeler is more than aware of the expectations and pressure. And let’s be honest: Those are there for a reason. This team has JGR equipment, lots of resources and should be running better. They know that.

Anyway, let’s wrap this up by talking about Kansas itself. It seems like the power rankings of 1.5-mile tracks have shifted since the 550 hp rules package came into existence. Honestly, Kansas has been pretty good over the past two years. Fans despised last fall’s race because Logano blocked Harvick on the last run and prevented a faster car from passing, but the three races with this package prior to that were pretty solid.

Personally, I’d rank Kansas as the second-best 1.5-mile track now (with Homestead still No. 1). Am I crazy?

Bianchi: Like are you crazy, in general, or just about where you rank Kansas? The answer to the first is “yes” and the answer to the second is “no.” But while Kansas does rank second among 1.5-mile tracks, let’s be honest: There isn’t much competition since Chicagoland was taken off the schedule. Among current tracks, a case could only be made for Las Vegas because neither Atlanta nor Texas offer much in the way of competitive races and Charlotte is just OK. So, again, low bar.

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Gluck: You bring up a good point — with Chicago and Kentucky gone, there aren’t many true 1.5-milers left. So let’s extend this question to all intermediate tracks then.

The Indianapolis oval and Fontana were off the schedule this year, at least for now. So if you add Darlington, Michigan and Pocono, is Kansas still the second-best intermediate? I have a feeling you’re going to make an argument for Darlington.

Bianchi: Bingo. Darlington is clearly the second-best intermediate. Old school venue, massive tire wear and a track that challenges drivers like few others. How can you not love what Darlington offers?

Gluck: You know I’d love to argue this point, but I can’t. Darlington gets P2 on my list as well. But that still leaves Kansas as the third-best intermediate track in NASCAR, which I wouldn’t have predicted five years ago.

Now we’ll see if Kansas can live up to its newfound reputation on Sunday.


How to watch the NASCAR weekend at Kansas Speedway

Saturday, May 1 — Camping World Truck Series
Wise Power 200
7:30 p.m. ET, FS1

Sunday, May 2 — Cup Series
Buschy McBusch Race 400
3 p.m. ET, FS1, TSN5

2021 NASCAR Cup Series standings

RANK

  

DRIVER

  

PTS

  

W

  

STAGE W

  

PLAYOFF PTS

  

CUTOFF

  

1

Denny Hamlin

446

0

5

5

+229

2

Martin Truex Jr.

359

2

1

11

In

3

Joey Logano

353

1

2

7

In

4

William Byron

351

1

1

6

In

5

Ryan Blaney

346

1

3

8

In

6

Brad Keselowski

318

1

1

6

In

7

Kevin Harvick

308

0

0

0

+91

8

Chase Elliott

306

0

1

1

+89

9

Kyle Larson

300

1

3

8

In

10

Christopher Bell

280

1

0

5

In

11

Kyle Busch

271

0

0

0

+54

12

Austin Dillon

268

0

0

0

+51

13

Michael McDowell

244

1

0

5

In

14

Alex Bowman

241

1

0

5

In

15

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

229

0

0

0

+12

16

Chris Buescher

229

0

1

1

+12

17

Matt DiBenedetto

217

0

1

1

-12

18

Kurt Busch

216

0

0

0

-13

19

Ryan Newman

198

0

0

0

-31

20

Bubba Wallace

196

0

1

1

-33

21

Ryan Preece

192

0

0

0

-37

22

Tyler Reddick

191

0

0

0

-38

23

Cole Custer

178

0

0

0

-51

24

Daniel Suarez

174

0

0

0

-55

25

Ross Chastain

173

0

0

0

-56

26

Aric Almirola

159

0

0

0

-70

27

Erik Jones

157

0

0

0

-72

28

Chase Briscoe

155

0

0

0

-74

29

Anthony Alfredo

100

0

0

0

-129

30

Corey LaJoie

91

0

0

0

-138

(Top photo: Sean Gardner / Getty Images)



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