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Track Talk: Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas

Carry on racers under the Kansas sun. (Photo Credit: Jeremy Thompson)

Carry on racers under the Kansas sun. (Photo Credit: Jeremy Thompson)

Each weekend, our panel on The Podium Finish provides their thoughts on the latest stories in NASCAR and attempt to pick the winner of the Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas, the upcoming Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race!

This weekend, our panel consisting of Adam LucasAshley HobbsAshley Hull, Cody ShoppeKathleen CassidyKayla Sturm, and Stephen Conley focus on Brad Keselowski’s timely victory at Talladega, the chance of seeing Dale Earnhardt Jr win in his final season, pit road procedures, and a playoff driver and team that faces the most pressure heading into Kansas!

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Question 1
Brad Keselowski with his victorious pose, the same stance used when he beat Mike Tyson's Punchout on the NES.

Brad Keselowski with his victorious pose, the same stance used when he beat Mike Tyson’s Punchout on the NES.

Brad Keselowski reasserted himself into the championship battle by scoring his third win of the season, this time at Talladega. How important was this victory for the No. 2 team and can this bunch challenge in the Round of 8?

Hobbs :  It seems as if it has been a while since the 2 crew has found their way to victory lane. In fact, it has been a while.

Keselowski’s most recent victory was back in April at Martinsville. A win in the playoffs secures your battle in the next round, so, the 2 crew can rest a bit more this weekend. But, they still need to flex more muscle if they want to survive the next round.

Sturm :  I think this win was extremely important for Brad Keselowski and the No. 2 team, considering he hasn’t had a win since Martinsville in the spring. We’ve seen Keselowski be on and off as far as performance goes here lately, and I think this win was what he needed to get that extra boost of confidence going into the Round of 8. If the No. 2 team can stay out of trouble and be consistent, I think he has a good chance at surviving the next round.

Magda :  Martinsville is just around the corner as the opening race in the Round of 8. Keselowski finally captured a grandfather clock there in the spring. The No. 2 team has been flying under the radar in the playoffs but still have some work to do if they’ll have a shot at the title. Texas will be the biggest test for this bunch and a very crucial race in the Round of 8.

Hull :  Since they were having a rough time in the initial races to the playoffs, this is great for this team. This shows that they are not a team you want to count out. There are some races where they can maintain their momentum and could vie for the championship. They just need to put the bad luck behind them.

Lucas :  It was huge! The Blue Deuce is menacing at the right time of the playoffs. I hope that they can carry the Ford banner all the way to Homestead this season.

Shoppe :  Brad Keselowski’s win at Talladega was another strong statement of his plate racing skills! However, another restrictor plate win for the No. 2 crew might not be the kind of win to make them more dangerous of a playoff contender.

Still, it served as a saving grace to keep this group in the game. After a lackluster showing in Charlotte, Keselowski and the No. 2 team were looking to be in jeopardy to advance to the Round of 8. This win is just what they needed. I don’t see them making it to the Championship 4 but this win definitely boosted their chances.

Cassidy :  Victory is always great, especially at Talladega. The 2 crew has a knack for this track. However, this win was a big confidence push for this team. Winning earlier in the season, this win shows that Brad Keselowski and Ford is still competitive.

Conley :  I think the Fords have really shown speed on tracks where downforce isn’t a major concern, like short tracks and the superspeedways. Unfortunately for Brad Keselowski and the No. 2 team, three out of the next five races are mile and a half tracks.

This is where the Fords have been hit or miss. If they show something this weekend at Kansas and can run in the front, then yes. They can be a contender down the stretch.

Question 2
All smiles with a career that's been relatively successful. (Photo Credit: Jeremy Thompson)

All smiles with a career that’s been relatively successful. (Photo Credit: Jeremy Thompson)

Dale Earnhardt Jr raced as competitively as possible in his his final Cup start at Talladega. Coming home in seventh, was Talladega his final shot at a win in the Cup series?

Hobbs :  While Dale Earnhardt Jr. is always the talk at restrictor plate races, that was maybe a decade ago when he was the best. Sadly, he has not been the best for a long time but he is still good. So yes, this was his last shot at victory in his final NASCAR Cup season.

Sturm :  I think Dale Earnhardt Jr has a shot of winning at Martinsville, it’s always been a pretty good track for him. Other than that, though, I do think Talladega was his only other shot.

However, he drove the wheels off that car at Dega and there’s absolutely nothing to be disappointed about when it comes to his last run in “Earnhardt Country.” He survived the race, came out in one piece, and pulled off a top 10.

That’s pretty dang good, considering how that race went. He avoided nearly every wreck by inches, and I definitely believe he had an angel (Dad) riding with him.

Magda :  I think it was his last good chance to win a race this year. Hendrick has been behind on speed as a whole, although they’ve made some gains the last few weeks with Chase Elliott. I don’t see Earnhardt winning a race but keep an eye on him at Texas. They ran strong there in the spring and can play the role as a playoff spoiler if the circumstances are right.

Hull :  Given the dismal performances for Dale Jr. this year, Talladega was likely his last shot. But there are also more races where that can change, so it’s best to keep an open mind. But I think he will try to be conservative for the rest of year so that he stays in good health for his wife and baby daughter!

Lucas :  Unfortunately, it would seem so. Although, it seems that it has been feast or famine at Phoenix for the No. 88 team in recent events. I think everyone in NASCAR wants to see him win one more time in Cup, but realistically, it will be hard.

Shoppe :  That was absolutely Dale Earnhardt Jr’s best last chance to win a race in his last year. Although he still has a debatable chance at Martinsville, where he won a few years ago, and Texas, where he earned his first Cup win, I believe the Phoenix fall 2015 race will go down as Dale Jr’s last cup win.

Cassidy :  I do not see Dale Jr winning a race this year unfortunately. I do not think he has had that competitive level for a few years now. However, I am always for a picture perfect ending. If the 88 won at Homestead, all of NASCAR would go love it.

Conley :  Yes, the No. 88 team has lacked speed and luck. I’m sure they will battle all the way to the end in the hopes of getting a win, but really, Martinsville may be the final shot for Junior.

Question 3
Pit road rules - simplify or toughen up?

Pit road rules – simplify or toughen up?

An early race caution trapped playoff contenders for pitting too early last Sunday at Talladega. Considering their limited visibility to see if pit road was open or closed, should NASCAR have some leeway with this or is the principle of this rule justified?

Hobbs :  No. A rule is a rule, and that is that. Let’s not give NASCAR the chance to change more rules just for the sake of changing rules.

Sturm :  Definitely some leeway. It’s not like the drivers just blatantly disregarded the rule. They couldn’t see and that’s not their fault. NASCAR is very inconsistent with rules as it is, so I’m not sure why this is something they were so adamant about, especially when it wasn’t purposeful. I think it was quite ridiculous to penalize them if I’m being honest.

Magda :  It’s fair game when it comes to pit road being closed. If the red light is on when the caution waves, the pits are closed and those who didn’t make it restart at the rear of the field. Talladega’s not much of a concern when it comes to track position and not as prevalent as a track like Sonoma, where it’s a technical road course and harder to pass.

Hull :  This is another inconsistency that NASCAR needs to address. There was no way for them to know that pit road was closed, so there should not have been any penalties. NASCAR really needs to work on communicating their rules better to teams. It’s hard to follow rules if they’re not clearly enforced.

Lucas :  I’ll keep this one short and simple as I think the timing off entering pit road, barring a caution, adds an extra element to team communication. As for spotters’ communicating to drivers on if the light is green, I think they could make it significantly larger and more visible.

Shoppe :  The good thing about the electronic policing systems now in place in NASCAR’s pit road penalties is that it is pretty cut and dry. Since the accident was caused by drivers coming on to pit road as others were racing passed, the yellow happened before some drivers crossed the commitment line.

Those who went down pit road after the yellow came out got penalized. Therefore, it is pretty black and white in the rule book. NASCAR needs to establish consistency with these calls and no longer give leeway here and there.

Cassidy :  I think that is all part of the race. Drivers are not the only ones who should be looking if pit road is open. The communication between the crew chief, spotter, and driver should reduce these problems.

Conley :  I’ve always believed that the light should be further back from pit road, like an “approach.” It’s closed, but you still have time to abort the entry prior to this spot.

If you are in that approach area when the light goes red, you are good to enter pit road. When you are rolling at speed and have the commitment line at the same spot as the light, the few feet isn’t enough to make that move back to the track.

Unfortunately for the teams, it is the current rule and it bit many of them at Talladega.
Question 4
Will Kyle Busch make a spooktacular entrance into the Round of 8 field? (Photo Credit: Jeremy Thompson)

Will Kyle Busch make a spooktacular entrance into the Round of 8 field? (Photo Credit: Jeremy Thompson)

Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Ricky Stenhouse, and Jamie McMurray find themselves on the outside looking into a playoff spot for the Round of 8. Which one faces the most pressure and which can take comfort in their team’s ability to overcome their latest obstacle?

Hobbs :  Poor McMurray has himself in a must-win situation here, so I think he has the most pressure. Kyle Busch also faces of pressure since he was written into the final four at Homestead. Kansas is probably not his favorite track, but maybe he will find some luck.

Sturm :  I think the pressure is definitely going to be on Jamie McMurray. He’s had awful luck here lately and he’s sitting 12th in points heading into Kansas so he’s definitely in the hot seat.

Being that Kyle Busch is the first driver below the cut-off line right now, I think that even though he’s going to have a lot of pressure on his shoulders just because he’s Kyle Busch, I also believe that he’s probably the safest right now. Toyotas are good at Kansas and so is Kyle Busch in general so I think he’ll go out and do his thing this weekend.

Magda :  Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Jamie McMurray seem to be the odd men out. Both are excellent plate racers and not coming out with a win at Talladega cements their playoff fate going into Kansas.

Expect to see the typical contenders up front in Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400. Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth are capable of winning at Kansas. Busch and Kenseth have wins there and Toyotas have been class of the field when it comes to intermediate tracks.

Hull :  Right now, Jamie McMurray is the one who should be sweating bullets. His last two performances have been poor, and if he wants to advance into the Round of 8, he needs to win a race. The driver(s) who could probably bounce back would either be Matt Kenseth or Kyle Busch. Both have good finishes at Kansas and have a chance to win on Sunday.

Lucas :  Honestly, I think they all are facing an uphill battle to advancing. The one driver I believe will be able to take comfort in their team’s ability will be Kyle Busch. Rowdy has all the talent in the world, and a pretty stellar team behind him. He might be able to sneak a win this weekend.

Shoppe :  Jamie McMurray and Ricky Stenhouse Jr are in must win situations in Kansas after their wrecks in Talladega. All the pressure will be on them to win Sunday and neither have a great chance of doing so.

Kenseth has a decent shot at getting in with some good stage points and a good finish. Kyle Busch has got to be on everyone’s mind as the one who can overcome this deficit to advance. Busch, who many say is a Championship 4 lock, will have to put a whole race together in Kansas and he should be able to make it in easily. Then again, he should have easily been well ahead of the cutoff anyway.

Cassidy :  The NASCAR playoffs would not be the same without Kyle Busch. I believe this team will fight their way into the playoffs. However, it will not be easy.

Conley :  All season, “the big three” has been our focus. That said, Kyle Busch, on the outside of the cutoff line, likely feels the most pressure. He seemed like a lock for the Round of 8.  Now, if he misses the next round, the questions will linger. It could be a very mentally draining situation for the driver of the No. 18.

With playoff spots on the line, the TPF Track Talk team dropped the hammer at Kansas! Before winning time arrives, let’s review our Talladega race and points reports!
"Candy Crusher" Cassidy collected a classic victory!

“Candy Crusher” Cassidy collected a classic victory!

Meanwhile, the Ashleys of TPF are flexing their NASCAR muscles.

Meanwhile, the Ashleys of TPF are flexing their NASCAR muscles.

Naturally, it would feel great making a Wizard of Oz reference.  In this case, let’s reveal our winning picks before we’re not in Kansas anymore.
Will one of these eight have their arms raised in victory at Kansas?

Will one of these eight have their arms raised in victory at Kansas?

Tiongson :  Aside from my championship pick, Martin Truex Jr is a true master of the 1.5-mile intermediate tracks.  Look for his seventh win of 2017 on Sunday at Kansas!

TPF Stats :  In the Chase/Playoff era, Jimmie Johnson has an average finish of 10.38 with two victories, and 10 top 10 finishes. His current average playoff finish is 11.2, but is still searching for that first playoff victory. The numbers favor him this weekend at Kansas Speedway.

Hobbs :  Stats do not lie.  Hips don’t lie.  Jimmie Johnson takes the win on Sunday.

Magda :  That Bloomin’ Onion will taste good on Monday, especially once Kevin Harvick wins.

Hull :  My pick for Kansas is Kevin Harvick. He is really good here.

Sturm :  Kyle Busch is in a must perform situation this weekend and I don’t think he’s going to do the bare minimum to advance. He’s going to go out and win.

Lucas :  The Outlaw aka Kurt Busch will take care of business this Sunday!

Shoppe :  Chase Elliott is my pick to win it!

Cassidy :  Look for Ryan Blaney to win at Kansas.

Conley :  Kyle Larson is on to the Round of 8.

That wraps it up, race fans!  Thanks for joining us for another edition of Track Talk! We’re ready for some racing. How about you? What do you think are the biggest storylines heading into Sunday’s race and who is your favorite to win?  Tweet us now @ThePodiumFinish and tell us now!

Thanks as always to the TPF team for their amazing efforts each week! The opinions and thoughts expressed in Track Talk are solely of the authors. They do not reflect any organizations affiliated with the participants and author outside of TPF. This weekly feature is strictly for entertainment purposes and are not indicative of TPF, the organization, and its staff.

Rob Tiongson is a sports writer and editor originally from the Boston area and resides in the Austin, Texas, area. Tiongson has covered motorsports series like NASCAR and INDYCAR since 2008 and NHRA since 2013. Most recently, Tiongson is covering professional basketball, mainly the WNBA, and women's college basketball. While writing and editing for The Podium Finish, Tiongson currently seeks for a long-term sportswriting and sports content creating career. Tiongson enjoys editing and writing articles and features, as well as photography. Moreover, he enjoys time with his family and friends, traveling, cooking, working out and being a fun uncle or "funcle" to his nephew, niece and cat. Tiongson is an alum of Southern New Hampshire University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication and St. Bonaventure University's renowned Jandoli School of Communication with a Master of Arts in Digital Journalism.

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