NASCAR

NASCAR at Kansas 2014: Winners and Losers from the 5-Hour Energy 400

Bob MargolisContributor IIMay 11, 2014

NASCAR at Kansas 2014: Winners and Losers from the 5-Hour Energy 400

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    Jerry Markland/Getty Images

    Kansas Speedway’s first night race was highlighted by a final-lap thriller, an unusually high number of wrecks and a long overdue win by a fan favorite.

    Jeff Gordon and Co. were finally able to close the deal, capturing their first win of the 2014 Sprint Cup season.

    It wasn’t an easy win for Gordon, whose team had to overcome adversity in the first half of the race.

    “We had a lot of things in the first half of the race that did not go our way,” said Gordon in a post-race interview. “We knew we had a fast race car. We weren’t sure if we had as good of a race car as Kevin (Harvick), but I thought if we got in front of him we could hold him off.”

    On the final pit stop, Harvick made an uncharacteristic mistake on pit road that allowed Gordon to get ahead of him. The Stewart-Haas driver was then unable to close the gap, even as it was narrowed to only a couple of car lengths, as Gordon’s progress to the checkers was slowed by several lapped cars.

    Kasey Kahne breathed life back into his season with a third-place finish. Joey Logano, whose car was quick in the first half of the race but faded toward the end, was fourth, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. rounded out the top five.

    The race was marred by eight cautions, several of them the result of spins caused by rapidly changing track conditions. This kept crew chiefs on their toes all evening as they tried to stay on top of the situation.

    *All quotes in this slideshow are taken from official team and manufacturer media releases unless otherwise stated.

Winner: Jeff Gordon

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    Kansas Winner Jeff Gordon
    Kansas Winner Jeff GordonHHP/Harold Hinson for Chevrolet)

    Shortly after taking the checkered flag, Jeff Gordon told his team over the radio that the win was like taking a huge weight off their shoulders.

    It was more than that. It was the end of weeks of frustration for this Alan Gustafson-led squad that did nothing wrong, that never missed a beat and that delivered 100 percent every weekend. Yet the 24 bunch often walked away empty-handed at the end of the day, the victim of a failed tire or a late-race caution or a wreck that was not of the team's own doing.

    On this night, everything went the way it was supposed to. There was nothing that was going to stop this team once the pit crew put their driver out ahead of a dominant Harvick on the final pit stop.

    Gordon gave credit where it was due, to Gustafson, who kept the team focused on the job at hand and how it had fast race cars and that the reason it had not been able to win was not because of the team's own doing.

    "This team has been working so hard, and this guy sitting next to me (pointing to Gustafson), he's been so driven and motivated, and it's been inspiring to me with the kind of race cars I've had this year," Gordon said in the post-race press conference.

    Gordon's victory and its ticket into the Chase should put to rest the perpetual rumors about his retirement. He said in a television interview in Victory Lane that he felt 25 again.

    “The whole retirement thing I think is thrown out there too much, and I'm probably somewhat to blame, but there's no secret, I'm going to be 43 this year, but, man, if 43 is like this, I can't wait for 50,” he said. “This is all right. I'm having a good time. That's why I feel young, because I'm just having a great time.”

    Gordon leaves Kansas not only with a win, but he maintains his lead in driver points as well.

Loser: Kevin Harvick

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    Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    It’s hard to call Harvick a loser, but he let this one get away.

    The pole winner led the most laps (119) Saturday night and clearly had a dominant race car. On his final pit stop, he became distracted by a flickering fuel pressure gauge warning him that he was nearly out of fuel. As a result, he did not pay attention to his tachometer that showed he was traveling too slow down pit road, making his stop longer than it should have been.

    Even though it was only a few brief seconds slower, it was just enough to allow race winner Jeff Gordon’s team to return him to the track ahead of Harvick, where Gordon took over the race lead, a lead that he never relinquished.

    A determined Harvick worked his way close to Gordon, but another mistake, this time on the track, ended his chances of catching the eventual race winner.

    “The car was really tight, and then I found a groove that worked for me way up the racetrack, and I caught him, and then I slipped and lost everything I had gained and then gained it all back and just ran out of laps at the end,” a frustrated Harvick admitted in the post-race press conference.

    With two race wins already in his back pocket, Harvick's push to add to that number was obvious by the team's performance in Kansas. There's no laying back for this Stewart-Haas Racing team that now looks like the team to beat on 1.5-mile race tracks.

Winner: Kasey Kahne

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    For Kasey Kahne, third place was a win.

    His team started slow in 2014, with only three top-10s and a number of poor showings. It's not as if the rest of his Hendrick Motorsports teammates were setting the world on fire—even Jimmie Johnson appears to be in a mini-slump. But Kahne’s team just didn’t look fast. Didn’t look impressive. Didn’t look like a Hendrick team.

    The driver admitted as much in the post-race press conference.

    “Yeah, well, our biggest deal is we've just been slow this season. Really haven't been inconsistent or anything like that, we've just been slow each week.”

    Kahne credits a Goodyear tire test last month at Kansas Speedway for a turnaround in the team’s fortunes.

    “I think the Goodyear test here, for whatever reason, we were able to try some things and just look at stuff a little differently than what we had been, and it helped the 5 team, my guys, myself and Kenny (crew chief Francis) and our communication together,” he said.

    “It's helped us a lot since then. I feel like that's been the key, and ever since we tested here, we've ran much better and been a lot more competitive.”

    Kahne’s success in Kansas could mean a bright future for this group given that the team's 1.5-mile setup looks to be right on the mark.

Loser: Kurt Busch

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    USA TODAY Sports

    The No. 41 car spent a disproportionate amount of time during Saturday night's 5-Hour Energy 400 facing in the wrong direction.

    Kurt Busch found himself with an edgy race car that twice tried to end his evening early. The first time occurred on Lap 181, and it brought out the caution flag for four laps. Then, on Lap 204, Busch’s wicked Chevrolet caused another spin when the back end came around in Turn 2.

    A very frustrated Busch (whose team radio conversations reflected his anguish) ended the night in 29th position, four laps down to the race leaders. 

    The Stewart-Haas driver is now off to Indianapolis Motor Speedway for a few days of Indianapolis 500 practice and an IndyCar race car that will hopefully treat him better.

Winner: Jimmie Johnson

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    Kyle Rivas/Getty Images

    Jimmie Johnson’s team might be—just might be—in the midst of a much-talked-about mini-slump. But at Kansas Speedway, the No. 48 team looked like the team of old for 24 laps, as Johnson powered away from the field, despite not having a car that was working properly.

    Although the clutch in a NASCAR Sprint Cup race car is rarely used, it is needed for exiting the pit box following a pit stop. The clutch on Johnson’s Chevrolet SS was not working, which forced crew chief Chad Knaus to limit the number of times he brought his driver onto pit road.

    With track position being critical on a 1.5-mile race track, this hurt the team in the late stages of the race, especially when Johnson had to pit for a quick splash of fuel with only 12 laps remaining.

    That late stop did salvage a top-10 finish for the team, though, as Johnson finished ninth.

    The No. 48 car looked exceptionally fast when Johnson was leading the race, which leads one to believe that this team’s 1.5-mile setup is right on target. 

Loser: Roush Fenway Racing

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    USA TODAY Sports

    It wasn’t a memorable evening for Carl Edwards (shown above) and his teammates at Roush Fenway Racing. All three of the RFR cars looked to be just a click (or two) off from the Fords of Team Penske.

    “That wasn’t what we were looking for,” said a very disappointed Edwards after the race. “I wanted a better showing for these guys here.”

    Edwards considers Kansas Speedway his hometown track, but he’s yet to score a win there.

    Teammate Greg Biffle never got the track position he needed to make a charge on the race leaders, while Ricky Stenhouse Jr. struggled all weekend.

    “Not the result we wanted,” Stenhouse said in a post-race interview. “After running so strong at Kansas last spring, we had high hopes coming into this weekend. We’ve struggled with our 1.5-mile program this year but we will keep testing and working on improving our cars.”

    RFR isn’t even close with its 1.5-mile program, and one wonders how much sharing of data is being done with the other teams in the Ford camp given RFR's performances on the 1.5-mile tracks this season.

Winner: Danica Patrick

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    Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

    Danica Patrick finished seventh, earning her career-best NASCAR Sprint Cup Series finish in 57 starts. It was an impressive weekend for Patrick, who started ninth Saturday, her best qualifying effort at a non-restrictor-plate track.

    She even drove around Johnson on a restart. As mentioned, the No. 48 car was having clutch problems, but it still stood out as one of the more memorable moments of the evening. Even Fox's announcing crew took delight in describing it.

    It was big for Patrick.

    “Honestly, the most rewarding part of my night was probably when I drove around the outside of the No. 48 (Jimmie Johnson) on a restart,” Patrick said after the race. “That was probably my most rewarding thing of the night. I say that with all the respect in the world. It’s a big deal because he is Jimmie Johnson.”

    Overall, it was an admirable evening for the Stewart-Haas driver, who qualified well and raced with the race leaders all night. 

Could it be that crew chief Tony Gibson has found a 1.5-mile setup that is comfortable for Patrick and would allow her to excel on similar tracks?

    It could be the breakthrough the driver has been looking for since coming to NASCAR.

Loser: Joe Gibbs Racing

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    Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

    It was a difficult night for the three Joe Gibbs Racing teams. Matt Kenseth’s Dollar General-sponsored team struggled to get a top-10 finish (10th), while teammates Kyle Busch (15th) and Denny Hamlin (18th) were never really in it.

    Either the nighttime race threw the brilliant crew chiefs from each team a major curve ball, which is highly unlikely, or this organization’s 1.5-mile program is in serious trouble.

    Kenseth said it best: “We were just pretty slow all weekend—as a group, really. We got lucky to finish 10th, really. These guys did a good job. It was almost impossible to pass out there and (we) never really had great track position."

    Hamlin echoed Kenseth comments, voicing his concerns following another frustrating evening.

     “We’ve got to get better—just as an organization,” he said in a post-race interview. “We’re just miles off. We’re half-a-second off—in practice, qualifying and then the race. It’s frustrating. We’re trying to do everything we can to learn some stuff. 

    Then came some very strong words from the Talladega race winner: “Right now, it’s not a fair fight out there. I think it’s a combination of a lot of things. It’s not one thing. It’s really every piece and part on the car has got to get better.”

    One might expect that there will be a organization-wide meeting this week at JGR, with team boss Joe Gibbs telling his teams that they’re underachieving.

Winner: NASCAR and Its Sprint Cup Drivers

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    Colin E. Braley/Associated Press

    Following the death of the sport's most beloved driver, Dale Earnhardt Sr., in 2001, NASCAR promised to make its racing safer. While some of the stock cars designed after Earnhardt’s death were neither pretty nor fast, they were safe.

    Now, more than a dozen year later, NASCAR has continued to do a magnificent job, designing a race car that is not only faster, but safer. The Gen-6 race car has repeatedly proven itself as a race car that is superior to anything the sport has seen before—especially during serious accidents like the one seen on Lap 188.

    David Gilliland’s No. 38 Ford, seen above on fire, was literally destroyed in the huge crash that also involved five other drivers. Gilliland walked away from a wreck that in years past might not have ended so well.

    It is to their credit that the engineers and executives with NASCAR have delivered what they promised and given the sport exactly what it needed and deserved.

     

    Follow me on Twitter: @BobMargolis

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