Friday, October 1, 2010

Chase Coverage: Kansas Preview

Last year's Price Chopper 400 at Kansas Speedway
gets under way. (Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)


This weekend the 12 drivers in the Chase for the Sprint Cup are preparing for the third race in the playoffs at Kansas Speedway. The track has hosted a Chase race every year since the format's inception in 2004. 


Sunday's Price Chopper 400 could be a make-or-break race for some teams in the Chase, helping to distinguish the title contenders from the title pretenders. 


The top five in the standings include two Sprint Cup champions (Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch), two drivers who many consider champions-in-waiting (Denny Hamlin and Kurt Busch) and the regular season points leader (Kevin Harvick). The top five are only separated by 65 points. With a battle this close, all eyes will be on Kansas Speedway to see who makes their move and inches closer to the coveted championship.


Today our team brings you the pre-race report for the 12 Chase drivers. We hope you enjoy and come back Tuesday for the post-race wrap-up report.


1. DENNY HAMLIN – 5368 POINTS (LEADER) – HOLLY MACHUGA
Going into Kansas, Denny Hamlin still dominates the points standings. He is the only driver to have this big a lead, 35 points, since the Chase started. 

He has six wins this season, the lot of them coming after his post-knee surgery after he tore his ACL playing basketball. On top of that, he has 11 top 5s, 13 top 10s and one pole. He has led in 15 of the last races and has led a total of 918 laps.

At Kansas, Denny has one top 5 and one top 10. However, he has no wins. This track has not proven to be one of Denny's better tracks. It's reflected in his average running position of 18.4. On Oct. 3, Denny hopes to change this and earn himself a win in the Chase, which would beneficial to his team and their points standing.

The No. 11 FedEx Camry team and Denny Hamlin are looking to continue to dominate that Chase board, even with a few drivers not too far behind.

2. JIMMIE JOHNSON – (-35) – REBECCA KIVAK
At Dover, Jimmie Johnson claimed the 53rd win of his career and his sixth of the season, showing that the four-time Sprint Cup champion is determined to bring home a historic fifth title. The victory vaulted Johnson four spots in the Chase standings to second place, 35 points behind leader Denny Hamlin. This weekend at Kansas Speedway, Johnson has the opportunity to narrow down the points gap and add to the “w” column.

Kansas has been a good track for the driver of the No. 48 Lowes Chevrolet. In eight starts at the 1.5-mile oval, Johnson has one win (October 2008), two top 5s and six top 10s. He has finished outside the top 10 only twice. Johnson also has three poles here, the most of any driver. He has led 304 laps at the Kansas City track, with an average starting position of 5.6 and average finish of 10.2.

Johnson boasts the highest driver rating at Kansas, 122.6. He also leads the series in five other categories of loop data: average running position (6.3), fastest laps run (204), average green flag speed (162.394 mph), laps in the top 15 (1,189) and quality passes (217).

Last year at Kansas, Johnson started 11th and led 53 laps. Before the final restart, Johnson took two tires like eventual winner Tony Stewart. Johnson restarted third, but struggled and slid back to finish ninth.

After last week’s win at Dover, Johnson said while the victory took a “huge weight off my shoulders,” the No. 48 team still has work to do. “We have to go to Kansas and do the job again. There’s eight races left in this thing. We want to win this championship, we want to win five in a row. …Today we did win, but we need to be stronger. We need to be stronger moving forward. We’ve got to go home and get better.”

3. KYLE BUSCH – (-45) – LINDI BESS
When both NNS and NSCS converge on Kansas Speedway this weekend for the NNS Kansas Lottery 300 and the NSCS Price Chopper 400, you better believe its gonna get ROWDY!

NASCAR visits Kansas once a year and it's during the Chase for the Sprint Cup. We are looking at the third race of the Chase, and you can bet it’s gonna really get wild out there on the track. Several teams have nothing to lose at this point and will be going for the win with all they’ve got. Then there are those non-Chasers hungry for their first win this season, or perhaps they are just out there to support teammates who are in the Chase.

The excitement begins on Saturday for #18 NOS Energy Drink Toyota Camry as they race for the win in the NNS Kansas Lottery 300. Busch along with Cup contenders Kevin Harvick and Carl Edwards will be pulling double duty this weekend when they follow Saturday’s race with the Sprint Cup’s Price Chopper 400 on Sunday.

Will this give the three Cup contenders an edge? As a NNS driver, Busch has raced here six times in his career, with one win, three top 5s, four top 10s and an average finish of 13th. But its his record as a Cup driver that’s nothing to write home about. With no wins or top 5s, and only one top 10, his average finish is 24.3. Let’s face it: Kansas is not one of Busch’s best tracks.

Of the 12 Chase drivers, nine finished in the top 10 in their appearance in 2009. Of all the races that Kansas has hosted for NASCAR’s Cup Series, half were won by non-Chasers. Only two have won more than one race: Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon, both with two wins at Kansas. Of the 12 Chase drivers, only six have an average of 15th or better at Kansas. Finally, the driver who is first in points going into Kansas has never gone on to win the championship.

With all of this in mind, the driver and team behind the #18 JGR Toyota Camry must remain focused on the big  picture. This race will probably eliminate the bottom four from the competition and can really distinguish between who will remain in the position to win the championship and who will fall short.

4. KURT BUSCH – (-59) – KATY LINDAMOOD
Coming in at the head of the pack during the Chase isn't always about trying to beat the guy in front of you - sometimes it's about nothing more than keeping your eyes planted firmly on the finish line. For Kurt Busch, this weekend is all about focusing on the task at hand and not letting where the other Chasers are in the field wreck havoc on his chances of being the next champion. It's not about getting into a media war with other drivers and it's not about looking for a chink in Jimmie Johnson's armor. It's simply about racing.

Kansas is a track where many of our Chasers have struggled, including Busch. In nine starts Kurt has an average finish of 19.7 and only two top-10 finishes. According to Busch, the reason Kansas is a wild card on the schedule is because it only has one date. On Tuesday Busch said, "There's a little bit of an uneasy feeling going there if you don't have a solid notebook because you only race there once a year and it's hard to find that speed."

This week a lot of attention has been placed on both Kyle and Kurt, who are in third and forth positions in the points as of now, with 14 points between. Though younger brother Kyle is often seen as the more competitive, Kurt isn't about to hand over the trophy just because they are brothers. Kurt said, "You know, we're teammates in one aspect; we're competitors in another. You know, I'm the bigger brother, so at the end of the day I want to win, and he's supposed to finish second to me." Sounds like a challenge to me!

Tune in Sunday to see which  (if either) brother tames Kansas. Me, I'm cheering for Kurt.


5. KEVIN HARVICK – (-65) – AMBER ARNOLD
There are a few things we can take away from Kevin Harvick’s weekend at Dover. First, Harvick is a team player and stands up for his teammates. Second, the 29 team, a team which seemed invincible in the regular season, does have a few flaws; and finally, "Happy" was definitely not happy with the finish on Sunday. What started off as a practice filled with fireworks for the 29 team quickly died off with the drop of the checkers. Harvick hung around mid-pack for most of the race at best after what began as a promising Chase race for the 29 team, who was plagued by handling issues which turned into a 15th-place finish.

After the race when Harvick was asked about the improvement of RCR, it was abundantly clear he was frustrated with his day and how his equipment was handling. While the 15th-place finish doesn’t put them out of contention for the championship, it certainly doesn’t help. Kansas will be a critical race that the 29 team must capitalize on.

Kansas is arguably the most difficult track in the Chase for the 29 team. Last year Harvick started from the 38th position and finished a mediocre 24th, but all Harvick fans know this year is a dramatically different year for not just Harvick, but RCR as a team. Coming off a heartbreaker at Dover where Harvick finished 15th and dropped from second to fifth in points, the team definitely needs to rebound in Kansas to keep them in the hunt for the championship.

In nine Cup starts, Harvick has no wins, no top 5s and three top 10s at the Kansas City track. His average start is 24.3 with an average finish of 15.9 and he has one DNF for overheating in the 2004 race. While I wouldn’t make Harvick my race-winning pick this weekend, this season has taught us you can’t count the 29 team out.


6. CARL EDWARDS – (-73) – AMANDA EBERSOLE
After a good race in Dover and a fifth-place finish for Carl Edwards and the 99 team, we head to Kansas Speedway for the Price Chopper 400. Edwards, who is a native of nearby Columbia, Mo., considers Kansas his home track in the Sprint Cup series.

In the previous six races at Kansas, Carl has amounted four top-10 and two top-5 finishes, and has no wins.  The Roush Fenway team is bringing a car that has previously been raced at Michigan (which had a third-place finish) and also at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where Carl finished seventh. Edwards' driver rating for Kansas is a 94.2, which is sixth best among all active Sprint Cup drivers.

Looking back at this same race last year, Carl had a speeding penalty on pit road that left him a lap down.  Eventually receiving the Lucky Dog free pass on lap 148 and sitting in 23rd position, Carl was than able to work his way up to a 10th-place finish.

Here are some of Carl’s thoughts on racing at Kansas this week: “Kansas takes everything. It takes a good engine, good qualifying effort and pit crew. The biggest thing I think it takes is a crew chief that understands how to make that car work through a long run there. So much happens at Kansas. The cars get tight, or they get loose in and you’ve got to really have a good crew chief. Fuel mileage is going to be key, too.”

Crew chief Bob Osborne is looking to the car that has previously done well and for Carl to get a top-5 finish in every Chase race. Bob states, “We are taking the same car we ran at Indy and Michigan to Kansas. It was a new car at Indy and we’ve had success with it both times it has run this year. We hope to come out of Kansas with at least a top-5 finish. That has been our goal in the Chase is to finish top 5 in every race. So far we are only 50 percent since we didn’t get the finish in Loudon we wanted, but Dover was pretty good. It would mean a lot to Carl to get a win at his home track.”

Home track or not, Carl Edwards and the entire Aflac team will be putting 100% into this race to show that they are still in the fight for the Sprint Cup title.

7. JEFF BURTON – (-80) – GENNA SHORT 
In nine starts at Kansas Speedway, Jeff Burton has an average finish of 18.6, his second worst at an active oval track. With only one top-5 and two top-10 finishes at the 1.5 mile tri-oval, the odds seem to be against him. However, Burton is coming off a second-place finish at Dover and has gained plenty of momentum. Still, Burton only has five lead-lap finishes at Kansas, a grand total of five laps led and has started 30th or worse in five of nine starts here.

Outside of the Sprint Cup series, Burton won the 2002 Nationwide race at Kansas.

Burton seems confident going into this race. “My focus is just to go there and be as prepared as we can be,” he said in a statement posted on RCRRacing.com.

“It’s one of our newer tracks, although it’s not new, but it’s one of our newer tracks. You know, sometimes people adapt to things quicker than others and it may be a track that I hadn’t really just got the handle of. I feel like this will be our best chance to run well there.”

It still seems that Burton is edging closer to a win. He currently sits 80 points out of the points lead, but it has been 69 races since his last win (Charlotte in fall 2008). This could be the weekend that he breaks his winless drought, so be on the lookout for the 31 car at the front of the pack.

8. JEFF GORDON – (-83) – GENEVIEVE CADORETTE
Jeff Gordon is on a dry spell; this is the longest he’s gone without winning a pole or a race in a season since 1991. Since the Chase started, he’s gone from eighth in points to fourth and back to eighth.

The media pays less attention to Gordon these days, mostly because of the Bowyer and Hamlin incidents and probably because the #48 team is showing signs that they are here to stay. 

Gordon has already expressed that he’s excited to race in Kansas. Actually, he said and I quote, “I can’t wait to get to Kansas. When I look at the 10 races in the ‘Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup,’ Kansas is the one that stands out to us. We won the first two races here and that certainly gives us confidence each time we come back.”

When NASCAR's Winston Cup Series first ran at Kansas in 2001, Gordon led 53 laps and won the race; a year later, he visited victory lane after leading 116 laps. 

He’s had three top-5 finishes in a row at Kansas and he believes that this year they are a much better team. In total, he’s had six top 5s and seven top 10s in only nine career starts.

In last year's Kansas race, Gordon finished second within a second of Tony Stewart.

This season, he’s had 10 top 5s and 14 top 10s and has led 815 laps in the last 15 races. Gordon and the #24 Dupont team are confident that they’ll drive into victory lane this weekend. 

9. GREG BIFFLE – (-140) – STACIE BALL
“Kansas is a unique track that I have always enjoyed racing at. I think I enjoy it because I’ve run well there. We finished third there the last two years and had a win there in 2007 so we know we can get to victory lane there. The last two weekends have not been a great start to the Chase for us so we really need to get to victory lane to try to make up some of the points. This is a resilient team though and we are definitely going to give it all we have until the checkered flag drops at Homestead.”

This is what Greg Biffle said of racing at Kansas Speedway along with his chances at getting back up in the rankings of the 2010 Chase after not having great performances at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Dover International Speedway the last two weeks. The mixture of the Magic Mile of Loudon and the Monster Mile of Dover really have not been nice, so I definitely see a new direction coming from the team.

Biffle has led 263 laps and won one race along with four top 5s at Kansas Speedway. He's only 140 points behind the leader of the Chase, but will taking a new car change things for the 3M Sherwin Williams Ford team? Crew chief Greg Erwin says, “We’re taking a brand new car to Kansas this weekend based on what we’ve learned at tests and races throughout this season. We’re definitely glad to get back to a mile-and-a-half race track. Kansas is a fast track that allows for a lot of good racing and we’ve had a lot of success there. My first win with this team was at Kansas in 2007 so it would be great to repeat that success there this weekend. Kansas is easy on tire wear so that allows for flexibility in pit strategy as far as taking two tires or fuel only. Hopefully that will play into our hands and we’ll have a solid run this weekend.”

With an average finish of 9.0 along with a green flag speed of 162.152 mph, the second fastest among the series' drivers, what does this truly say for the No. 16? It gives them hope: they know what challenges are facing them for this race along with the rest of the Chase. One step at a time, will this be the race in which things turn around for the team and will they chop down the competition in the Price Chopper 400?

10. TONY STEWART – (-162) – UNIQUE HIRAM 
Kansas Speedway will play host to the third Chase race where Tony Stewart has seen both success as well as disaster strike in the blink of an eye. In the 2007 race, Stewart was on his way to victory lane; however, he suffered fuel mileage issues. As a result, instead of capturing the checkered flag he had to settle for a 39th-place finish. The statistics for this driver at this particular race track include the following: two wins, four top 5s, six top 10s and one DNF.

Stewart was posed with the question about how to handle competing with not only the Chase guys but the other drivers out on the field, and this was his response: “For the 12 that are competing, we’re still racing against 31 other guys just like we’ve been since the beginning of the year. Probably for the first three or four weeks, I don’t think we’ll be too conscious of where we are on the racetrack. It’s still going to be business as usual. But as we get closer to the end of the season – probably with two or three races to go – you’re going to be singling out guys a little bit more and paying closer attention to where they are on the racetrack, what position they’re in, and how many laps they’ve led. The further we get into it, the more the points are going to separate the field, and you’re going to see exactly who you’re racing against for the championship. There probably won’t be 12 guys with two or three races left. It’ll be down to four or five guys who have a shot at it.”

This will definitely be a race to watch closely and see how the points standings shuffle before heading to Fontana next week. 

11. MATT KENSETH – (165) – WHITNEY RICHARDS
Matt Kenseth went to Dover last weekend looking to get a great finish at one of his best tracks on the circuit. However, a cut tire nearly halfway through the race caused him to go a lap down to the leaders, derailing his chances for getting the better finish he may have been capable of. The 18th-place finish did not help him gain any ground in the standings.

This week, the Sprint Cup Series heads to Kansas Speedway for the third race of the Chase. In the nine races that Kenseth has run at Kansas, he has acquired one pole, three top-10 finishes and two top-5 finishes. His only pole at the speedway came in October 2005. He finished fifth that race, which is his best finish at Kansas. Kenseth has an average starting position of 14.3 and an average finished position of 22.1 at the 1.5-mile track. This weekend Kenseth will be driving the No. 17 Crown Royal Black Ford. The team is bringing chassis RK-698, which was last run at Richmond, as their primary car.

Kenseth is currently 11th in the standings, 165 points behind leader Denny Hamlin.

12. CLINT BOWYER – (-235) – AMY MCHARGUE
When Richard Childress came out of Wednesday's five-hour long NASCAR appeals hearing to say that the RCR #33 Team's appeal provided no relief and all original penalties will stand, Childress said, “I'm very disappointed.” Childress echoed the feelings of the entire RCR #33 team, Clint Bowyer, and the many fans of the RCR organization. Going into the Kansas Speedway Price Chopper 400, Clint and his team have surely hoped for at least some relief from the fines to take away some of the pressure he and his team have been feeling.

After the 150-point fine stemming from a failed post-race inspection at New Hampshire and a poor finish last weekend at Dover, Bowyer is quickly dropping out of contention for the Chase. Kansas may be his saving grace, however. The #33 driver does post an 11th-place average finish at the track. In Clint's four Cup Series starts at Kansas, he has finished in the top 10 on two of those occasions, one of those being his second-place finish in 2007. A strong top-10 finish will likely keep Bowyer from being virtually eliminated from the Chase for the Championship, but Clint will have to lead laps and finish at least in the top 5 to keep his Chase hopes alive.

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