KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) — Tyler Reddick knows you need to have speed to win a NASCAR Cup Series championship. Denny Hamlin knows just as well that you need to have breaks go your way.
Reddick had both going for him Sunday at Kansas Speedway, taking advantage of a late caution and four fresh tires to breeze by six other drivers in the final two laps for the win. It ensured that Reddick would be in the round of 12 of the playoffs for the first time, taking almost all the pressure off the No. 45 team heading to next week’s cutoff race at Bristol.
“We have enough speed, we should be able to make it through this first round, and winning certainly helps,” Reddick said. “Going into the round of 12, we can pick up just a little, and then as we go we can keep amping it up.”
Hamlin, on the other hand, had a bit of bad luck Sunday. Bubba Wallace and Martin Truex Jr. had a whole lot of it.
Hamlin looked as if he would cruise to a record fifth Kansas win as he dominated the last 35 laps. But when Chris Buescher blew a right rear tire, a consistent problem for drivers throughout the weekend, the caution flew and the leaders were forced into the pits. Hamlin’s lead suddenly was gone as the field prepared for a two-lap sprint to the finish.
Hamlin had been chased for much of the race by Kyle Larson, who was lurking behind on the restart. When the green flag flew, the driver of the No. 11 was so focused on what Larson was doing that he lost track of what was happening in front.
Reddick had a terrific restart, fooling everyone by shooting past them on the bottom rather than the top, where he is known for running. And by the time Hamlin realized his mistake, Reddick was far enough ahead that he couldn’t catch up.
“It stinks. It certainly flipped the results from first to second,” Hamlin said. “But that’s part of racing, right? Our sport is different than others. It’s a sport of chance at times, and luck does play a factor, and we were unlucky to get that caution.
“We knew that there was going to be a handful of cars that were going to do the opposite of what we did. I think the right call was four tires,” Hamlin added, “but the 45 just did a great job of executing. They executed the restart really, really well.”
It wasn’t entirely bad for Hamlin. He co-owns the No. 45 of 23XI Racing along with Michael Jordan.
“It makes me happy,” Hamlin said, “that if it wasn’t us, it was them. It’s a decent day.”
Would have been even better had 23XI’s other car, with Bubba Wallace, not had the same right rear tire problem. In his case, the defending race winner was running second when his tire went down, sending Wallace on a wall-scraping ride around the track. The tire was shredded and smoke came billowing out as Wallace entered the pit.
It turned out that he broke the toe link, a piece that holds the rear tire straight. The No. 23 team fixed it quickly, but Wallace wound up finishing four laps down, dealing his playoff chances a big blow with just one race left before the round of 12.
“I got loose like, five laps before,” said Wallace, now 19 points below the playoff cut line. “Three or four laps later it blew.”
Just like the rear tire of Truex, the regular-season champion, only his came three laps into the race. It sent him into the wall with heavy enough damage that he was done for the day, and he went from 25 points above the cut line to seven points below it.
“Just unfortunate and very unlucky,” Truex said. “I took off really tight and I knew something was up, and then cut a right rear. Not really sure what happened, obviously, but it blew in the worst place possible. I hate it for my guys. We were going to have a great day. Just not where what we need to do to get some luck here.”
Indeed, Truex was fast. So were Hamlin and Wallace.
None of them got the break they needed to beat Reddick on Sunday.
AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing