The NASCAR Cup Series‘ Round of 8 began with Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway. The scramble for spots in the Championship Round at the track could best be summed up with two words: dirty air. Due to the series’ high-downforce package, a lot of dirty air is produced between the leader and those behind him, making it more difficult for anyone to make a pass for the lead, while clean air in front of whoever is in first allows him to pull away. Joey Logano was the benefactor of this as he held off Kevin Harvick to punch his ticket to the final four.
Last week’s winner Chase Elliott started on the pole ahead of Logano, while Martin Truex Jr. and James Davison were sent to the rear for failing inspection twice. During pace laps, Clint Bowyer had the honour of leading the field ahead of his final race at his home track as a full-time driver.
As Elliott led the way, Truex quickly climbed through the field until he cracked the top twenty after just five laps. The leader stayed in the position until the competition caution on lap 25.
Although Elliott was the first off pit road among four-tyre changers, Hendrick Motorsports team-mate William Byron opted for two and was the first out. Kurt Busch suffered a speeding penalty on his stop.
The race resumed on lap 31, with Harvick taking the lead a lap later. Elliott retook the spot on lap 64, but issues with radio communications had been plaguing the #9 car. Despite the lack of connection to his team, he drove off to the stage win.
Harvick would fall out of the top five as Brad Keselowski finished second ahead of Denny Hamlin, Ryan Blaney, Erik Jones, and Alex Bowman. Harvick finished seventh, followed by Truex, Logano, and Kyle Busch. Every Round of 8 driver but Ku. Busch was in the top ten.
Hamlin won the race off pit road ahead of Elliott, whose radio problems would persist throughout the race despite efforts to fix it. While no radio communications would ordinarily result in discipline, Elliott remained in touch with NASCAR officials during the event.
Elliott would lose second to Blaney after ten laps, the latter of whom attempted to chase down Hamlin until green-flag stops began on lap 123. The pit cycle allowed Keselowski and Matt DiBenedetto to spend time in front before they ducked into the pits.
On lap 144, Matt Kenseth wrecked to bring out the caution, with Jones also suffering damage. While Elliott beat DiBenedetto out of the pits, the leaders chose to stay out.
Hamlin and Blaney comprised the front row for the restart on lap 150. The former pulled ahead as the latter dropped, with Harvick entering the picture and giving chase but was ultimately unable to make the pass for the stage win.
Blaney, Bowman, Elliott, Keselowski, DiBenedetto, Truex, Ku. Busch, and Bowyer rounded out the top ten. Chad Finchum exited the race on lap 154 with transmission problems.
Ky. Busch stayed out to inherit the lead for the start of the final segment on lap 168. Logano restarted second and took first, but lost it to Harvick two laps later.
On lap 179, Hamlin hit the wall and was forced to pit and go down a lap, though the race stayed green. Twenty laps later, Ku. Busch’s playoff hopes took a hit when his engine blew up. Various figures like former crew chief Cole Pearn noted Chip Ganassi Racing, which receives engines from Hendrick, often had a tendency to suffer expirations during the playoffs; Pearn in particular tweeted, “Ganassi sure seems to always have a lot of engine issues this time of year…..”
Hamlin returned to the lead lap via wave around.
Lap 205 saw the next restart with Ky. Busch and Harvick occupying the top spots. As the latter led, the former was swallowed up by Team Penske‘s Logano and Blaney. Another yellow took place on lap 220 for Tyler Reddick hitting the turn three wall, with Logano beating Harvick off pit road.
Another green flag waved with 42 laps remaining as Logano and Harvick battled it out for the lead. Behind them, Jimmie Johnson‘s rough farewell season continued when he hit the wall in turn one, with Ryan Preece also suffering damage.
As lapped traffic came into play, Logano and Harvick’s battle continued. However, clean and dirty air reigned supreme as Logano held off Harvick to clinch a spot in the final round. It is his third win of the season but his first since Phoenix (where the Championship Round will be held) in March, the last race before the season was halted due to COVID-19.
“I spent more time (looking) in the mirror than I was in the windshield there,” Logano said in his interview with NBC. “Pit stops put us in position, got us the lead. The #4 is fast, especially on the straightaways; he was really fast on the straightaways, and I thought if I could hold him off the first fifteen laps, I have a chance.
“Actually, dirty air was the best for us. As we caught lapped traffic, I was able to gap ourselves as he got more dirty air, and I was able to draft somebody. […] Man, I’m exhausted.”
As Logano celebrated, much fan and media criticism quickly took aim at the NA18D package and effects of dirty air. Autoweek‘s Matt Weaver tweeted he hoped the reception and result would “a turning point (in NASCAR moving away from NA18D), but it won’t be.”
“Watching Harv drive his guts out back and forth to the 22 car only to have it plow up the wall once he got there was easily one of the most frustrating things I’ve ever watched,” tweeted Xfinity Series driver Robby Lyons.