A wayward tire had been sitting in the infield grass for 15 laps when race control finally called the caution that would change the complexion of the NASCAR Cup Series race on Sunday at Kansas Speedway.
At the time, Kyle Larson had led 113 laps and had driven from the back of the field to get there.
The Hendrick Motorsports No. 5 had a three second lead over Denny Hamlin and was simply managing the gap to the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11. He had burned up his tires late before the end of the first stage and lost a playoff point to Kyle Busch because he didn’t have enough grip to capitalize on the clean air.
Larson wouldn’t get the chance to show off if his car would last on a long run to the finish.
Race control had controversially waited for Chris Buescher to come down pit road and complete a full green flag pit cycle before slowing the field to retrieve the tire.
The point of contention was that the Roush-Fenway Racing No. 17 team was one of a handful of drivers who had opted to stay out well after the leaders pitted all day in the hopes of catching a caution that would have netted them track position.
Their strategy gamble was attempted three times on Sunday.
That potential caution manifested itself when the No. 8 Richard Childress Racing team had a tire get away from their stall, settling three feet off pit road in the infield grass. NASCAR had previously set a precedence that it will wait for green flag pit stops before calling a caution as to not interfere with the natural outcome of the race.
What amounted to a standoff eventually ended when Buescher came down pit road with 41 laps to go.
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Denny Hamlin had picked off Larson on the ensuing restart but twice pancaked the wall, cut a tire and brought out yet another caution, which again placed the Hendrick No. 5 on the point.
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Kyle Busch picked Larson off on the next restart, but another crash behind them meant another restart would decide the outcome of the race.
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Busch outdueled Larson on the restart with 11 to go, at which point another crash resulted in an overtime, which was decisively won by the two-time champion. He had the benefit of teammate Martin Truex Jr. behind him on the inside with Larson lined-up behind Ryan Blaney on the outside.
“Having my teammate behind me I felt like was going to be a huge added bonus for us,” Busch said. “To wave him on when it was time to go, when I was going to go so he could push me and get us clear going into Turn 1 and then those guys on the outside kind of got crossed up, so that gave us clear track from there on.
There were several cars behind them on newer tires, but they just don’t provide much of an advantage with the low horsepower, high downforce rules package on fresher paved surfaces.
That group included Brad Keselowski who made it as far as third, and Kevin Harvick who finished second.
“Luckily we had a couple cautions and Rodney made a couple great calls and put tires on the car a couple times and really put us on offense there at the end and were able to get a couple good restarts and come out with a good finish,” Harvick said.
15 lap fresher tires just wasn’t going to be enough to overcome a faster car that also had clean air on a two-lap showdown.
“With just two laps to go in these cars and the package you’re able to just hold it wide open as the leader you’re just trying to cut the draft as much as you can and still to make corner the way you need to make your corner, and if you can run the bottom and wrap the bottom really tight to the white line then those guys have to go higher than you, which is just a longer way around and it’s harder to make a pass up there,” Busch said.
“The tires won’t equal out until probably 10 or 12 laps, so I knew that we had (enough) time left.”
It was especially frustrating for Larson because he led the most laps, 132, and showed the most dominant car in driving from the back to the front.
After getting beat on the two previous restarts, Larson actually launched really well from the second row, but it resulted in an incident between he and Blaney that relegated both to finish outside of the top-15.
“My plan was just to push him as hard as I could and try to be with him on the backstretch to shove him, and hopefully, get those guys racing in front of me or potentially get inside or outside for the lead somehow,” Larson said. “I just planned on pushing him really hard, and obviously I did that and got him sideways, and ended up getting us both in the wall.
“I probably should have just laid off once I got to the corner, and hopefully, a ran came to where I could get to his back bumper on the backstretch. Hate that I screwed that up and cost ourselves a good finish.”
But Larson knew his chances of winning were over the moment he fell to third, and thus lost an advantage of restarting on the front row with clean air.
“Nobody got to the lead from the second row, so I knew I was in trouble,” Larson said. “Like I said, I just wanted to do a good job to keep Ryan side-by-side with Kyle [Busch] and maybe get them racing and punch a big hole for me to get a run somehow.
“Obviously, I didn’t want to be on the second row for the final restart; I had Brad lined up behind me the one before, and he wasn’t able to get to my back bumper. He had to protect from the guys behind him trying to pull out of line, so our lane slowed up. Yeah, it just didn’t work out.”
Larson previously won at Homestead-Miami and has been in the mix at every race this season, but has been denied a second win by a wide variety of circumstances.
“We’ve got one win. Could have four or five,” Larson said. “Just another day where I lead a lot of laps and don’t win. Just got to figure it out.”
The same can be said of Hamlin too, who remain the championship leader by the largest margin over the past decade under this format, but just can’t close out at the end of these races.
As for the debris caution that triggered the 30 laps of chaos and crashing, a NASCAR spokesman said race control felt the tire was far enough out of the way that it didn’t post an immediate threat to the remainder of green flag pit stops, but it needed to be retrieved.
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