KANSAS CITY, Kan. — It was roller derby on four wheels, with more interruptions than a presidential debate. The sliding around had gotten to the point that midway though the Hollywood Casino 400, you expected the management at Kansas Speedway to retire the pace car and call in the salt trucks instead.
“Our restarts were pretty wild,” Jimmie Johnson said of NASCAR’s newest, strangest crash-fest. “You had to run so hard that when something happened you lost grip — the car just stood up on the tires and would take off. And you couldn’t control it.”
By the time the smoke (and debris) were cleared, Sunday saw a whopping 14 cautions, a new Sprint Cup series high for 2012 and a Kansas Speedway record. The longest run of green-flag racing was 35 laps. Of the final 134 laps, roughly the last half of the show, 44 of those bad boys — a third — were run under caution.
So, yeah, about the new paving job …
Paul Menard, who finished third: “For the first race on a repaved track, I thought the track came in really well. Would I rather have the old surface? I would. But with the surface falling apart, they had to do something.”
Denny Hamlin, who wound up 13th: “It’s a different track. There’s nothing that’s similar (from the spring). Nobody could pass anyone after five laps on the restart. So you do the best you can for five laps to pass guys, and then you just drive around in circles until somebody blows a tire.”
Matt Kenseth, who survived to take the checkered flag: “Drivers, teams, we don’t really like repaves. We complain about them. I was thinking, ‘Man, this has to be entertaining for everybody to watch.’ There was a lot of wild stuff happening.”
Martin Truex Jr., who came in second: “Crazy.”
Wacky. Bonkers. Certifiably Looney Tunes. The party started with 43 cars running; it ended with 27 — including, most remarkably, Johnson, whose No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet was roughly 40 percent duct tape by the end of the afternoon.
“This 48 team, I don’t know if we’re really good or really dumb,” crew chief Chad Knaus chuckled after Johnson recovered from a mid-range collision to wind up ninth. “We don’t give up trying, that’s for sure.”
Of course, this turned out to be a shindig where luck was of equal — if not more — importance than pure skill alone.
“This is a mine field,” Points leader Brad Keselowski told his crew with 83 laps to go. “It’s unbelievable.”
Every pit stop was a roll of the dice, especially when you consider that the summer repave of Kansas Speedway made years of notes and set-ups for the track pretty much useless. What once was 15-degree, uniform banking was now a progressive layout of 17 to 20 degrees. And that unfamiliarity was compounded by the schizophrenic weather during the week — Wednesday and Thursday saw chilly, 50-ish temps, while the highs on Sunday pushed into the mid 70s despite overcast skies.
Despite some Goodyear test runs in the late summer, the new pavement often played like black ice on restarts. Turn 4 proved especially harrowing, playing a role in six of the 14 cautions.
“I think Goodyear will probably bring a little bit different tire next time, something that has a little bit more grip,” Knaus said. “It’s tough on Goodyear; they’re in a no-win situation. If they bring something that has a lot of grip, and it’s tough for the drivers to manage throughout the course of a fuel run, then it looks bad on them. So I think they did the right choice by bringing this tire. And I hope next year when we come back, the track will be aged a little bit.”
In April, loose asphalt. In October, loose cars. You know what they say: Age before beauty.