Not a pretty sight: Denny Hamlin's banged up right side (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
KANSAS CITY, Kansas
Fast new asphalt, variable banking in the corners (17 to 20 degrees, up considerably), hard, no-wear Michigan tires, and crisp, sunny fall weather -- that's the early line for Round Six of NASCAR's 10-race championship playoffs.
And Thursday morning Denny Hamlin added an unexpected twist, hitting the wall hard in the first turn, and getting checked out twice by doctors at the infield care center.
That's where Dale Earnhardt hit hard during an August 29th test, a hit that left with a concussion -- which he didn't reveal to any one until he had a second concussion in that last lap wreck at Talladega two weeks ago.
So Earnhardt, again, will be sitting out Sunday's Kansas 400, while Clint Bowyer, Jimmie Johnson and Hamlin continued stalking tour leader Brad Keselowski...and Richard Petty keeps working toward something for 2013.
Hamlin, though he wiped out his primary car, drove it back to the garage, thus not officially needing to visit an infield doctor. However NASCAR, sensitive to the medical issue now in the wake of Earnhardt's problems, asked Hamlin to get checked out. And an hour later Hamlin was asked to get checked out again, before being cleared to continue running this weekend.
NASCAR rules require that a driver start the race in order to get points for that event, a controversial rule in that it forces injured drivers to suit up and drive, or lose a shot at the title.
Denny Hamlin: woozy, but apparently okay (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By sitting out, Earnhardt got no points at Charlotte and will get no points here, taking him out of the championship hunt, in this his best overall season since 2004.
While it's supposed to be sunny and 73 for Sunday's 400, Thursday devolved into a windy, misty, overcast day.
NASCAR's 2013 stockers, a new design still evolving, have been on the track here, during extra testing for the first race on Kansas Speedway's new asphalt. The 2013s, seven of them, tested at Talladega two weeks ago, and more testing was conducted last week at Texas. However the final shape of the 2013 cars apparently has yet to be decided.
And the 2013 project continues to look far behind...and seemingly not a major priority for teams. The test here didn't exactly have an A-team of testers: Parker Kligerman in the new Penske Ford that Keselowski will run next year, Josh Wise in a Chip Ganassi Chevy, Brian Vickers in a Michael Waltrip Toyota, and Trevor Bayne in Jack Roush's Ford. None of those four are full-time Cup drivers.
Josh Wise, in that well-disguised 2013 Chevy Zebra (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Meanwhile the future of Danica Patrick as the GoDaddy girl may be up in the air, with questions raised about how effective she is now as a spokesman for that company, as it changes its marketing, and questions about the future of her sponsorship.
GoDaddy, the internet domain company, has been sold, and the new owners have a new ad agency, and a new agenda it looks like. And Patrick certainly hasn't been as prominent since those changeovers. It's been several months since she was last featured in a GoDaddy ad; those ads, and that sexy marketing, has been part of her business game plan since 2007.
It's been a rough season for Patrick, who hasn't done much at all on the NASCAR circuit, particularly on the Sprint Cup side. Has her sex appeal worn thin? Her sponsorship contract with GoDaddy runs another year, but she certainly appear to be heading into some transitional stage. A big question: as poorly as she's performed on the Cup tour this season in her few events, how may she fare as a full-timer in Cup next season?
Brian Vickers, in a 2013 Toyota, running ahead of AJ Allmendinger, in a 2012 Chevy (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
The featured story line here is ostensibly the championship, though the new surface may trump that.
It's only been 12 years since Kansas Speedway opened, in vacant farmland that has since become a major business hub, a veritable mini-city next to the track, complete now with a fancy new casino.
It is that casino that is the reason this market, though it's only 29th largest in the U.S., has two Sprint Cup weekends, while Los Angeles, for example, has only one.
A somewhat curious question is why did the International Speedway Corp (ISC) repave this track, when it still hasn't repaved California Speedway in the LA market.
The new pavement should dramatically change the game here. The old track was a tire-eater, with cars slowing down as tires wore; the new track is showing virtually no wear, as expected of course, with tire temperatures the bigger issue. On Michigan's new asphalt the tire temps were an issue, and Goodyear changed the race day recommendation on the eve of the June 400. Goodyear came back in August with a different package.
Well, the Hamlin crash raises some questions, naturally, in light of the Earnhardt situation.
Keselowski, Johnson and Hamlin are the three primary title contenders midway through the playoffs.
Bowyer, on the other hand, is hoping his Charlotte win Saturday night has put him back into contention. He's 28 points down, and that's about the different between winning and finishing 23rd. So he can't afford to slip, and he has to bank on the three men ahead of him bobble or mess up somehow.
Of course Keselowski did just that at Charlotte. He dominated that 500 but gambled one lap too many on fuel, and instead of taking a big leg up in the title chase, he comes here only seven points ahead of Johnson.
If Keselowski had gone on to win Charlotte, that would have been his third win in the five chase events.
Bowyer, who hails from these parts, and who is a country boy at heart, and doesn't put on for the crowd, is enjoying his best season of his seven-year career. Wins at Sonoma, Richmond and Charlotte. Eight top-fives and 19 top-10s.
This event could be a wild card, with the new asphalt and all those questions.
"As we have seen with all the repaved tracks, the grip level and speeds are way up and there isn't much tire wear," Hamlin says.
Matt Kenseth, the Talladega winner but out of the title chase, will be Hamlin's teammate in just a few weeks. He tested here in late August.
"It felt like it had a lot less grip than Michigan, (but) I think because we didn't have the track worn in, kind of like the first time we went to Phoenix (April), or the first time at Michigan (June)," Kenseth says.
"It's the same asphalt -- all the same people are making the mix for it, and putting it down.
"Although the banking changes a little, everything looks familiar."
NASCAR opened this track Wednesday and Thursday for extra testing, but rain shortened Wednesdays runs to just two hours. Greg Biffle, fastest at Charlotte, was fastest Wednesday too, at nearly 185 mph (29.205 seconds). Kenseth holds the track record at 180, which is almost certain to fall in Friday qualifying (5:10 p.m. ET, 4:10 p.m. CT)
"It's really smooth and fast," Biffle says. "It reminds me a lot of the other repaves -- pretty good, not real bumpy... and you can feel the grooves in the pavement going from one lane to another.
"The tire is super-hard. It's hard to get going; it takes about 10 laps before the car has real good grip. Hopefully by Friday the tire will fire off a little bit better with more rubber on the track.
"Turns 3 and 4 have a tremendous amount of grip with the repave, but 1 and 2 feel pretty much the same to me.
"We need to get the track widened out with more rubber on it. Typically first repaves might be a little more single file as people are exploring the track."
How many teams have been able to build true 2013 cars is not clear. Sheet metal has been hard to come by, crew chiefs report, and that of course changes the center-of-gravity. The 2013 chassis too will be different, 160 pounds lighter, with a new rear-end design. And it's unclear how much tweaking NASCAR will be doing on the aerodynamic balance of the 2013s.
Bayne says the new "cambered rear end" of the 2013s "really sticks out, as having the forward drive on (corner) exit... really being able to control the car with the gas pedal better. When it gets free, you can get to the throttle and stabilize the car.
"But the aero package is still all up in the air. I'm sure they'll start locking that in later as we go."
Bayne said he had his hands full with his 2013: "I only got behind one car, and that was enough for me right now. That's one of the things they're working on. They want these cars to be able to race, and to be able to be behind other guys.
"I was behind Jimmie Johnson, and it got really free (loose) on entry, so we had to back up from that."
Last week's Texas test, Bayne indicates, was inconclusive. "From Texas, I think everybody is on a little bit different deal now. Some people have a smaller (rear) spoiler, some people have the cambered rear end and some don’t. Some have different 'pans' in the front.
"I think they're just doing like a shotgun approach at this – like a shotgun blast on everything and seeing what they can come up with and what kind of feedback they get.
"They (NASCAR) have gone to all the teams and asked 'What do you think will make our racing better?'
"It's a big step for NASCAR to step outside the box and go to the teams and ask their opinions.
"Hopefully we'll get them to where we can race and can pass. Right now our cars are so much of a handful that we don't want to be around other guys."
And now Denny Hamlin has to go to a backup for Round Six of the championship chase (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)