Matt Kenseth was still a little damp when he emerged from the spin cycle that was Kansas Speedway on Sunday. The normally stoic Kenseth was obviously wet around the eyes as he stood in Victory Lane, battling the conflicting emotions of what could be his final win at Roush Fenway Racing after 14 years with the organization.
"This really means a lot," said a teary Kenseth, who has four more races this season with Roush Fenway before officially leaving the team to join Joe Gibbs Racing. "I don't want to get too emotional."
Kenseth was one of the few drivers who left Kansas in a good mood. Most of the field was dizzy from the carousel procession of spin-outs that resulted in a track record 14 cautions. A new repaving job and changes to the degree in banking produced a slick track that had seemingly every driver complaining about being too loose.
"I'm ready to go home and have a couple of beers," said a weary Brad Keselowski, who avoided several accidents and left the track maintaining his slim seven-point lead in the standings over second-place Jimmie Johnson. "It was just a long day."
Here are five things we learned during that day at Kansas:
1. Too many cautions are not a good thing either: The common refrain throughout the 2012 season has been that the lack of caution flags has resulted in a series of boring races. That certainly was not the case at Kansas on Sunday. This time the problem came from the other end of the spectrum. Seemingly whenever the race started to get really interesting, a caution came out and broke the momentum.
"Everybody has been asking all season long where the cautions have been," Keselowski said. "Well, we have an answer. They flew to Kansas. They've been hanging out here."
Things became particularly messy just after the midpoint of the race. There were seven cautions from lap 136 to 181, an average of one every 6� laps. At one point there were four cautions and only six green-flag laps during a 17-lap span. There was a caution-producing spin within two laps of each of those four restarts, including by Chase drivers Tony Stewart and Greg Biffle.
"The restarts were pretty wild," Johnson said. "You had to run so hard that when something happened and you lost grip, the car just stood up on the tires and would take off and you couldn't control it, and guys were sliding everywhere."
2. The No. 48 team just won't go away: While championship hopes might have slipped away on the slippery track for several drivers, Johnson remains firmly in the hunt for his sixth career Sprint Cup title. He did so by overcoming an early spin of his own in which he hit the wall, damaging the rear end to an extent that the team initially planned to take the car to the garage for repairs.
But after seeing the damage up close, crew chief Chad Knaus had the team work on the car during the ensuing five laps of caution. Johnson would pull into the pits and the crew would hammer away furiously on the car. Then just before the pace car brought the field around Johnson would take off, quickly circle the track, dive back into the pits and repeat the process. Somehow, the team did enough repairs that Johnson was able to not only remain on the lead lap, but he eventually worked his way back up to a ninth-place finish, only one spot behind Keselowski.
"The damage on the car is pretty severe," Johnson said. "One, I'm impressed that they fixed it as good as they did and got the spoiler and deck lid back in place. Two, I'm surprised that the car was as fast as it was. It drove fine through the turn. I could tell on the straightaway that I didn't have the efficiency, and I can see why with this left-rear quarter-panel. It's blown out; a big parachute sticking in the wind.
"So I'm definitely proud of this team and the fact that we never give up. We continue to fight and try to get every point that we can. But I'm also disappointed. I crashed the car, spun out trying to get inside (Martin Truex Jr). He bobbled a little in front of me, and I thought that was an opportunity to jump on the gas real hard. And when I did that my car took off and I couldn't catch. So all in all a good day, but it could have been a lot better."
3. Tony Stewart is not going to go away quietly: With only four races left in the season, Stewart does not have much of a chance to repeat as Sprint Cup champion. Even though he finished fifth Sunday, he remains in seventh place in the standings, 47 points out of the lead. No matter how well he drives in those final four races, it is extremely doubtful that everybody in front of him in the standings will have enough problems for him to pass them all.
But that's not going to prevent Stewart from forging ahead with his typical hurricane-force personality. Early in Sunday's race, Stewart had to return to the pits during a caution-flag when one of his crew members left the wedge-adjustment wrench stuck on the back of the car. This prompted an irritated Stewart to sternly tell his crew over the radio, "Feel free at any point, guys, to get your heads out of your asses."
"It was an eventful day," a calmer Stewart said after the race. "I'm really proud of our guys. We had stuff (happen) early on in the race and our guys never quit. They never gave up. ... I'm really proud of the effort they gave. That's how we won a championship last year, by never giving up."
4. The learning curve remains steep for Danica Patrick: One key for Patrick as she has made the transition from open-wheel racing to stock cars is learning how to handle all the contact that takes place in NASCAR. The slightest contact between open-wheel cars can cause a wreck, while NASCAR drivers routinely bounce off anything that is in their way, sometimes intentionally. That is something Patrick obviously still has not mastered.
Patrick and Landon Cassill had issues throughout Sunday's race, making contact on the track and complaining about each other over the radio. Finally, after Cassill got Patrick loose while making a pass, Patrick retaliated by pulling up tight on Cassill's rear bumper. On a day when cars were skidding all over the place without any prompting, it certainly didn't take long for Patrick's maneuver to send Cassill into a spin.
The problem for Patrick was that she also lost control of her car, sliding down onto the apron and then shooting back up the track and into the wall, ending her race. Cassill, meanwhile, managed to straighten out his car and continue on without damage. This turn of events prompted Cassill to chuckle over the radio, "Rule number one in stock car racing is learn how to wreck someone without wrecking yourself."
A funny line, no doubt, but Patrick was not laughing afterward. "My situation with (Cassill) is really a product of frustration," she said. "He got into me on the front straight and said I was just in the way. That's really no good reason to hit me. If it's one time, I can imagine it's frustration, but it's been quite a few times with him. At some point I have to stand up for myself so this doesn't happen with other people. I chose today. The bummer about it is that my car is out, and he's still out there. So I've got to work on how to do that."
5. Regan Smith eventually will be back in a Sprint Cup car: Given the opportunity to show what he can do in top-notch equipment, Smith took the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports car usually driven by Dale Earnhardt Jr. to a seventh-place finish. This, on a day when some of the best drivers in the sport were struggling with the track conditions.
Earnhardt is expected to return to the No. 88 car for next week's race at Martinsville Speedway, though he still has one more test to pass before he is officially cleared. That will leave Smith, who was let go by Furniture Row Racing in favor of Kurt Busch earlier this month, once again out of ride. But following his solid performance on Sunday, don't expect Smith to be on the sidelines for long. He will likely compete in the Nationwide Series next season, with an eye toward quickly returning to Cup racing.
"It's been nice these past two weeks to be able to step in and have (the No. 88 team) treat me like their normal driver," Smith said. "I know Dale is excited to get back, so that is going to be good for him. I'm just looking forward to whatever comes next for me."