A lot was on the line at Kansas Speedway in October. As the fifth race in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, the Hollywood Casino 400 was the midway point to the finale at Homestead.
Coming into the race, Jimmie Johnson had already locked in his position as one of the final eight drivers in the next round of the Chase. On the other hand, five drivers finished 30th or worse at Charlotte, meaning they needed to put together a solid run at Kansas or be in a must-win situation at Talladega, where anything could happen. With four drivers getting eliminated after Talladega, it was highly likely one or more of these drivers would not make it to the Round of 8.
Of those five drivers (Denny Hamlin, Austin Dillon, Chase Elliott, Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick), Elliott was the only driver to not finish in the Top 15 at Kansas.
Logano and Harvick, despite finishing 36th and 38th respectively at Charlotte, recovered mightily at Kansas. Harvick won the Hollywood Casino 400 while Logano finished third.
Up until this point, Harvick had never been eliminated from the current format in the Chase. To no surprise to NASCAR fans, “The Closer” was able to pull out the win, his second career win at Kansas.
“For us, it’s always about reaching something to motivate us,” said Harvick. “We know we can perform in good and bad situations.”
Harvick put himself in a good situation with 30 laps to go in the Hollywood Casino 400. Carl Edwards, who ended up leading 61 of the final 94 laps, was in the lead when Harvick positioned himself for the win on the final restart of the race. Despite his best efforts of regaining the lead, Edwards couldn't pass Harvick and finished second.
It was another heartbreaking finish for Edwards at Kansas, who has yet to win a Cup Series race at his home track.
“It’s tough,” said Edwards following his runner-up finish. “There’s so many people that have come to this racetrack that support me and have supported me. It’s a really special place for me. As much fun as I had racing up front, yeah, it stings. That’s just the way it goes.”
The good news for Edwards was his point standings following the race. Sitting just 13 points behind leader Johnson, Edwards was positioned well ahead of Logano and Dillon, who were both tied for eighth place (37 points behind Johnson).
Two Chase drivers left Kansas with a lot of work to do at Talladega: Chase Elliott and Brad Keselowski.
Elliott, who came to Kansas 10th in the point standings, did not have a good day at Kansas. Elliott took the lead from Harvick in Lap 169. Four laps later, the Sunoco Rookie of the Year lost his left rear tire, sending him to pit road. Unable to recover from his green-flag pit stop, Elliott finished the race in 31st.
Keselowski spent all week talking to the media about wanting to play it safe at Kansas. He finished seventh at Charlotte and with his lead in the point standings, avoiding a wreck at Kansas was his number one priority.
However, Keselowski’s idea of playing it safe and racing for points didn’t last long. on Lap 189, Keselowski cut in front of fellow-Chase driver Denny Hamlin in Turn 4 and after getting loose, Hamlin was unable to back off, tapping Keselowski and sending him careening across the Kansas Speedway tri-oval grass.
Catching the lip of the grass, the front of Keselowski’s car was demolished, sending him to the garage.
Keselowski would return to the race 28 laps down on Lap 218 and would only make it around the track twice more before bringing out a caution as his car started to smoke.
"I probably could have raced less hard with a big points gap coming in," said Keselowski. "With this format it is probably the smart thing to do but I don't want to race like that. I want to race my guts out and go for wins. I don't want to points race. I don't care what the damn format is, I am going to give it my best."
The wreck caused Keselowski to leave Kansas 11th in the point standings, 18 points ahead of Elliott and 44 points behind points leader Johnson.
Talladega became a must-win for both Elliott and Keselowski.