The calendar for Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 said late October. The weather seemed to scream late May.
Pre-race festivities and the green flag took place under muggy breezes and sunshine at Kansas Speedway. That lasted for all of 11 laps at the track in Kansas City, Kan., before a brief pop-up shower and lightning delay red-flagged the playoff race for about 15 minutes.
Unpredictable weather is a staple of life in the Midwest. But it can wreak havoc on NASCAR teams trying to claim one of the final three spots in the Championship Four season finale at Phoenix in two weeks.
So it was on Sunday. The rain stayed away after that early shower, but then came a stiff and persistent 20-plus mph wind. And that wind remained a steady if unseen force throughout Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race.
Coming from the southwest, it blew hard into Turn 2, pushing cars toward the wall. It resulted in cut tires and unplanned pit stops for several playoff drivers.
Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr. and Ryan Blaney all found the wall in or near Turn 2 in the first 80 laps of the race.
Not coincidentally, none of the four were serious contenders for a victory that would’ve secured a chance at the season title.
“It’s just frustrating,” Busch said. “I knew (it was bad) in the first 10 laps, just not having the right rear (tire) on the track.
“The wind really messed with our car there on (turns) 1 and 2, it was super, super loose on exit. We got into the wall twice. The first time was tolerable. The second time, it was over.”
Busch has had a hot-and-cold relationship with Kansas Speedway, winning the race in May and struggling to a 28th-place finish Sunday. It was Kyle Larson who won Sunday, taking the checkered flag for the ninth time this season.
“I’m sure (the wind) has been in this direction, and maybe those are the times that I’ve wrecked here,” Busch said. “It was just not to my liking whatsoever. We definitely need to go back and study and look at the wind stuff for when I have run good here, versus what it was today, and see if there’s anything I can do to help that.”
Blaney never recovered from his early brush with the wall, and his day ended with a wreck on lap 237. He finished in 37th as a result, dropping from second to fifth in the points chase — one behind the cutline.
Joey Logano avoided any major damage, but he and his team were unable to adequately compensate for the wind Sunday.
“It was a handful,” Logano said. “Early in the race, it was very gusty. The car is moving around a lot, and you’re just trying to hang on. It’s unpredictable.”
Sunday’s weather finished almost where it started. The checkered flag dropped under a sinking bright sun — although the temperature was about 15 degrees cooler than when the race began.
Driver Denny Hamlin’s crew urged him to play “the long game,” and avoid trouble after so many playoff drivers struggled early Sunday. He finished fifth and is 32 points clear of the cutline heading to next weekend’s race at Martinsville.
“The wind was a huge game changer off of turn 2,” he said. “Your car would just take off. I was probably too slow at times, making sure my car didn’t take off ...”
It’s not often in NASCAR that slow and steady is a winning strategy. But on Sunday, it kept Hamlin in position for a championship.