2017 Brickyard 400: Even after kissing bricks, rocky road awaits Kasey Kahne

By Jonathan Ingram, The Sports Xchange  |  July 24, 2017 at 10:08 PM
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No matter how much they had been slathered in oil from crashes and racing's equivalent of sawdust from the cleanup, no matter how many tiny shards of metal might have been embedded in them, the yard of bricks at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway are always ripe for a kiss from the winners.

Even when the winners of this year's Brickyard 400 had to wait through 6 1/2 hours of red flags, 14 cautions and two overtimes.

In a race that seemingly began in the Paleolithic era before ending near sunset, winner Kasey Kahne was so exhausted that he was barely able to stand after breaking his 102-race winless streak. He was able to kneel alongside team owner Rick Hendrick for the ceremonial kissing of the bricks at the start-finish line.

Perhaps he even whispered, "Boss, does this mean I can keep my job?"

Nothing about who will drive the No. 5 Chevy next year has been decided -- that's the official line at Hendrick Motorsports, which won the annual trek by NASCAR's "taxi cabs" for a 10th time at the track hallowed for its open-wheel tradition. Kahne's position is in doubt due to his losing streak and sponsorship concerns.

Up-and-coming Hendrick driver William Byron won the Saturday matinee Xfinity Series race for his third victory as a rookie in the understudy series. But Hendrick said before the race there are no plans to advance him next year. Veteran Matt Kenseth, meanwhile, is on the market and tends to attract sponsors due to his status as a NASCAR champion.

After crashing out of five of the previous seven races despite showing some front-running speed, Kahne finally had the twists of fate turn in his direction. Seventeen of the 36 starters ended up failing to finish due to crashes. But Kahne and crew chief Keith Rodden managed to make it to the clean air at the front with a savvy pit call 11 laps from the finish.

Kahne survived three restarts to get the victory as several cars spun and crashed behind him on the backstretch in the second overtime period. It looked like the ending to a Marvel or D.C. Comics movie.

Journalists questioned the call by NASCAR officials, who waited for Kahne to cross the overtime line before throwing the caution -- making the race official instead of trying to go for another restart. By then, the sun had almost set and everybody was ready to go home. The umps may have called a ball a third strike to put everybody out of their misery -- including cleanup crews, who would not have had enough time to clear the track before darkness fell. It was all academic given the Speedway has no lights -- except that it's not the first time NASCAR has played fast and loose with the overtime line.

Thus, Kahne's losing streak ended and the career-record losing streak of Kyle Busch was extended to 36 races, an entire season's worth. Busch hasn't won since claiming his second straight Brickyard 400 a year ago. His Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota was parked after fellow Toyota driver Martin Truex Jr. took him out on a restart. Until that point, Busch had led 87 of the 111 laps.

Busch's bad luck is getting to the point where the usual troll types who take exception to him may even be shaking their heads in wonder. But there's still time for NASCAR's most talented driver under the age of 40 to hit a winning streak before the season is out.

Rubbing is considered racing for the fendered NASCAR guys. But when they arrived at the Brickyard in this year's low downforce cars, that formula turned into blocking and tackling. The biggest loser was Clint Bowyer, who was relieved of duty 12 laps from the finish in a multi-car crash, with his Ford being the first to break loose. With Kahne advancing from deep in the points race into the playoffs with his victory, Bowyer fell out of the top 16 candidates. It was a case of bad track position at the end of a race meaning a bad result.

Two of the red flags were for late cleanups and the longest for thunder, lightning and rain shortly after the race began. That initial break added more steamy heat on an already hot day on the Midwestern plains. Drivers were forced to sit in their cars during the two late-race red flags, only adding to the malaise. The cars are sealed up for as much aerodynamic slickness as possible on the long straights at Indy, helping to add to the plight of some drivers, including Kahne, who complained of cramps and appeared to be dehydrated when he first exited his car.

Known for his workout regimen, the slender driver quickly rebounded, apparently revived by placing his lips on the bricks.

"I was really happy," he said. "Unbelievable to win at Indianapolis. Unbelievable to win a Cup race. It's been awhile. It feels really good for myself and my confidence. I know it's great for our team. We needed it as a team."

It was a bit of a homecoming for the driver from Enumclaw, Wash., who moved to Indianapolis to pursue an open-wheel career before taking up stock cars.

"I moved here in 1999, lived here for three summers, raced Sprint cars, midgets all around the area," said Kahne. "This was the track that I always wanted to win at, and dreamed of racing at."

Eighteen years after riding a bus around the track with his father, Kahne finally got the victory where he had come close on two previous occasions. He now has another major NASCAR title to add to his two Coca-Cola 600 wins in Charlotte. All three were major endurance races.

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