A cool, brisk day at Kansas Speedway featured drivers on the edge for 400 miles.
Sunday was a bumpy ride for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
There was a first lap crash. Cautions dotted the race's second half. Drivers, one by one, called the still-new track surface "treacherous" thanks to a new type of tire used for the race's proceedings.
Yet, it was almost exactly what the Chase for the Sprint Cup needed to find a bit of flavor after a mellow start. Find out who emerged from the record-setting day of caution flags at the 1.5-mile track feeling good, and find who and what left Sunday's race with a head hung low.
Kevin Harvick had the dominant car Sunday, but required some good strategy to climb back from an early race deficit.
The box score of Kevin Harvick's win Sunday at Kansas Speedway would indicate he had a pretty easy time with the field. After all, he started first and finished first while leading 138 of the race's 267 laps.
It's the laps Harvick didn't lead that may have been the most impressive part of his day.
Harvick was caught in a bad pit cycle when a debris caution trapped his No. 29 a lapped down on Lap 88 along with other leaders Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson. All three got a lap back by taking the wave-around during the yellow, but all three were mired in traffic.
It was the perfect chance for Harvick—who consequently struggled in traffic—to make a mistake or give up on his day. Instead, Harvick trusted his crew chief to make the right strategy calls and adjustments to regain track position. Obviously, it worked.
Kyle Busch left Kansas Speedway with two torn up race cars.
Kyle Busch's disdain for Kansas Speedway's surface and configuration was plenty evident in the three crashes he suffered at the track in April. A new tire for Sunday's race—a tire Busch had tested at the track in July—had Busch hoping he'd find a better grip at the track.
The hopes never materialized. Busch wrecked first in practice Saturday and then three times more in Sunday's race. The third incident was by far the worst—Busch walloped the Turn 1 wall—and ended his day.
With a 34th-place finish, Busch's championship aspirations have taken a hit. He's now 35 points behind Matt Kenseth.
Kurt Busch drove a back-up car to second in Sunday's race.
It's no longer a shock to hear Kurt Busch berating his crew for their preparation and ability to keep a handle on the No. 78's setup during a race. It is jarring, however, to hear Busch rip his team in the race's middle strides before settling for a second-place finish like he did Sunday at Kansas.
Regardless, the finish for Busch tied his best of the season and left him less than two seconds behind eventual race winner and quasi-teammate Kevin Harvick. Busch, who started 41st thanks to a practice crash of his own, is now seventh in the point standings with six races to go.
Danica Patrick's finish six laps down in last week's race at Dover was less than inspiring. Sunday at Kansas, it got even worse.
Patrick didn't even finish a lap when she got loose entering Turn 1 on the first lap. As she lost control—it appeared the back end stepped out when she tried to avoid a three-wide situation—Patrick caught David Reutimann and Cole Whitt and triggered a three-car crash.
Patrick then smacked the wall head on, doing enough damage to end her race before she even completed a lap.
Jimmie Johnson was fortunate to escape Kansas with a 6th-place finish.
Jimmie Johnson had a fairly strong car at times on Sunday and looked to be a primary challenger to Kevin Harvick. But Johnson was bit by similar track position woes as Harvick and was forced to play catchup most of the day.
Ultimately, Johnson finished sixth in Sunday's race.
However, Johnson suffered a motor issue in the final two laps and slowed before finishing the race. The issue lost him two spots, but Johnson ultimately came out hugely lucky. Had Johnson not finished the final lap, he would have wound up 30th. Instead, he gained on points leader Matt Kenseth.
Sometimes in NASCAR, the best laid plans and the most innocent of actions can still end in disaster.
That's pretty much exactly what happened to Ryan Newman Sunday in the fourth race of the Chase. Newman, a Chase competitor himself, was running in the top 20 when rookie Justin Allgaier got loose ahead. Allgaier popped the wall and then came back down the track in the path of Newman's No. 39.
The collision heavily damaged both cars and left Newman's team scrambling to repair his Chevrolet. He ultimately finished, but in 35th and nearly 80 laps down. Newman now sits 12th in the point standings, 73 points from the lead.
Paul Menard recorded his fourth top-10 finish in his last eight races.
With one teammate winning (Kevin Harvick) and one satellite teammate (Kurt Busch) taking second in Sunday's race, perhaps its of little surprise that Paul Menard finished in the top 10 of Sunday's race.
But Paul Menard's finish—he was seventh at the checkered flag—was more than just a flash in the pan for the driver regularly derided for his pay-to-play path to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. While it was Menard's first top-10 finish in the last four races, it did mark Menard's fourth top-10 run in his last eight races.
All told, Menard is now 17th in points with a pretty good chance to improve on his career-best finish of 16th of a year ago.
The repave of Kansas Speedway and tracks like it have made for tough racing.
Sunday's race was the most intriguing of the four Chase races to date in the 2013 season thanks in large part to the knife-edge many drivers had to race on in order to get to the finish. In some ways, that's a good thing because of the unpredictable way the race plays out.
But the combination also makes legitimate side-by-side racing and improvements in track position by on-track maneuvering tough to come by. Indeed, Sunday's race was mostly decided by pit road track position and racing on the high number of restarts.
The cause of white-knuckle racing is rooted in the incredible smoothness of the new track surfaces used on repaved NASCAR tracks. They offer little in terms of abrasion and grit, meaning tires just heat up and don't wear out. Because of that, Goodyear has to bring harder compound tires in order for a race to proceed safely.
What's the exact cure to all of this? Who knows. But it should be a priority for NASCAR.
Aric Almirola and Marcos Ambrose scored top-10 finishes at Kansas.
Aric Almirola was pretty confident heading to Sunday's race at Kansas Speedway. A year ago, he led a bunch of laps before he was knocked out by a flat tire. In the spring, he started sixth and finished eighth.
Almirola (10th) was joined by teammate Marcos Ambrose (ninth) in the top 10 of Sunday's race, marking the first time since Dover in the spring of 2012 that two Richard Petty Motorsports cars finished in the top 10.
All told, 2013 hasn't been the kindest to the Ford team with alliances to Roush Fenway Racing. Both are in the top 20 of the point standings, but Almirola has led just three laps. Ambrose hasn't recorded a top five.
However, finishes like Sunday's come at a time when a team needs a boost in to the offseason. RPM got exactly that on Sunday.