The last two weeks of the 2016 Winston Cup season have seen one of the races of the year and the most bizarre finish of the year. Sandwiched amid the two Cup races were also one of the most exciting Busch-Xfinity Series races of the year and the Truck Series' first test of Kentucky Speedway's new asphalt.
The Firecracker 250 and 400 weekend was far and away more competitive than the BGN and Cup portions of February Speedweeks. Aric Almirola's spectacular win in the Firecracker 250 was overshadowed by controversy over NASCAR's timing of yellows and the issue of not racing to the line remains the most foolish and needless controversy NASCAR has. It put a damper on a statement win by Almirola, driving a Fred Biagi Ford two years after his Firecracker 400 win in Richard Petty's #43. The win was followed by a superb storm to the front in Richard Petty's car in the 400, an effort wiped out by the two lines shaft-drafting him out of the top-15 near the end, and the result was a disappointing 15th.
Aric Almirola's win at the Firecracker 250 was followed by a stout effort in the 400 and another superb effort - derailed by gas - in the Kentucky 400
The common demoninator above everything else is Brad Keselowski won both races; his sidedraft fight with Kyle Busch in the final 30 laps was the highlight of the season so far. When people advocate that drivers prove themselves in different forms of racing I'm not sure they meant winning the way Keselowski had to win it - by running out of gas yet sipping enough residue to hold off Carl Edwards.
Brad Keselowski and Carl Edwards had not squared off against each other for a number of years until Kentucky, but less than ten years ago the two became blood enemies as seen in the 2010 Gateway 250.
Brad Keselowski has now become the odds-on favorite for the title, and his title chances are one of numerous subplots from the last two weeks.
The Firecracker 400 was the best Cup racing of the year so far, with the final 30 laps seeing an epic sidedraft war for the lead.
** Kentucky saw its first racing with new asphalt and predictions the surface would be one groove proved only partly accurate. The Trucks hit first and the trickiness of the surface was apparent right away, yet the longer the race went the wider albeit slightly - the surface seemed to get; there was also a striking draft effect for the leaders, as the first-place Truck could never get any gap on the others.
It was another win by William Byron as his career continues to advance faster than a lot of people expected.
It was the Cup 400-miler that was considered the real test, and with very low downforce the cars endured a bizarre event as multiple crashes led to eleven yellows, and with so many restarts the lead changed twice in Turn One on seemingly all of them. There were also several incidents where cars passed by taking air off the lead car and aero-shoving him out of the groove. But the downside was the high incidence of air-off-the-spoiler crashing, and while the telecast noted air-off-the-car passing the race also saw aeropush, most glaringly when Martin Truex caught the top two and suddenly couldn't close up to pass. The inevitable result of low downforce remains aeropush and it will always get worse.
The biggest upshot of the high number of crashes is that it wound up making for the bizarre fuel duel at the finish.
The issue of Kentucky's asphalt overall looks more promising than some may have felt - with more racing the groove will widen out, as it seemed to do so in One and Two more than on the other side in this season's 400.
** Keselowski, Edwards, and Almirola were the primary focus of the race, between Keselowski going for the win, Edwards doing likewise, and Almirola was easily the best Ford other than Keselowski - with a 4th-place effort on the final lap derailed by gas. The effort by Ford overall began to show real progress in the Firecracker and while Kentucky wasn't as fulfilling in terms of competitive depth there remained evidence that Ford's NASCAR program is finally getting out of being dead last.
Petty's guys showed they're capable of winning and the Roush fleet finally has become worth taking seriously again after being irrelevant for several years now. The most bizarre resurgence has been Greg Biffle, while Trevor Bayne has come back from career death with stout finishes the last two weeks. Ford needs them to win so they stop being only about Penske's guys.
** Toyota has definitely suffered from NASCAR's underside aero changes. Not that they're uncompetitive, but the Toyotas no longer have the firepower they had the first third of the season. The upshot of that is Martin Truex appeared to be the strongest car (leading 48 laps) at the end and it didn't become a win.
** In 2015 Chevrolet fell behind Toyota and Chevy's fall from grace continued at both Daytona and Kentucky, even with the resurgence of Stewart-Haas Racing in its final season as a Chevrolet team. Jimmie Johnson's Kentucky crash best symbolized Chevy's fall from grace while Tony Stewart's sudden rise to the front cannot be looked at sympathetically by Chevrolet given SHR's pending switch to Ford next season.
The race also displayed a striking trend with Kevin Harvick - he led handily (128 laps) and still couldn't cash in on anything, ending in ninth.
Lost in the shuffle was RCR, which saw Ryan Newman come home third in the fuel duel - the kind of strategy that damned him in Rusty Wallace and others' eyes in his second season in Cup - and got some good effort from Paul Menard and Austin Dillon, though neither was around at the end.
And it adds to NASCAR's first sojourn to Loudon, New Hampshire of 2016.