Friday, October 4, 2013

Chasing the Championship: Previewing the Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway

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The Sprint Cup Series heads to Kansas Speedway this weekend for the fourth race in the Chase. Matt Kenseth leads the standings but Jimmie Johnson is hot on his trail, only eight points behind.

How do the 13 drivers stack up at Kansas? Here’s the rundown.

1. Matt Kenseth (points leader)
by: Carol D'Agostino

Matt Kenseth is literally having a season of a lifetime, which is remarkable in and of itself, but take into account that this is his first season with Joe Gibbs Racing, and its meaning becomes that much more amazing. Kenseth could have used a tad more of that amazing quality last week in Dover, one of Kenseth’s favorite tracks.

Kenseth started in second, led twice for a total of 36 laps, and finished in seventh place after fighting a loose car for most of the day. Kenseth saw his points lead dwindle to eight points as Jimmie Johnson took the white flag and the second place spot in the standings in front of Kenseth’s teammate Kyle Busch.

Kenseth was disappointed in the finish, but did not walk away from the race feeling defeated.

“When you look up, it’s everybody that finished in front of you — it’s all cars that you’re racing for points. Overall, for how bad I felt like we struggled with the car, that was a decent finish.”

Things are looking up this week for the No. 20 team as they come to Kansas Speedway, a track where Kenseth has won the last two races. With a repave one year ago and a new Goodyear multi-tread tire debuting at the track, there are a couple unknowns, but that shouldn’t deter Kenseth if this season’s tear and past performance count for something.

In 15 Sprint Cup Series starts at Kansas, Kenseth has completed 3,739 of 3,953 laps (94.6 percent) and has led 479 laps. He has two wins, six top fives and nine top-10 finishes including two poles.

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2. Jimmie Johnson (-8)
by: Stephanie Stuart

After a win at Dover last weekend, Jimmie Johnson is looking to cut his eight-point deficit on Chase leader Matt Kenseth even more as the No. 48 team rolls into Kansas this weekend.

Johnson and the rest of the No. 48 team come into the weekend looking like they are in peak form at just the right time, something we've come to expect from them. Kansas is a track that has been good to Johnson in the past. In 14 races, Johnson has won twice. He also has six top fives, 12 top 10s and three poles to his name. Suffice it to say, Johnson knows his way around the 1.5-mile speedway.

It won't be easy for Johnson to make up those points as he has some strong competition around him, but he is confident about his chances and confident about his team. "It's good ..." he said. "When you put the 18 (of Kyle Busch) and the 20 (of Matt Kenseth) up there, it's going to make it a very difficult deal. And I think it's going to be fun for the fans to watch. I know the 20 is going to be awfully strong for the rest of the stretch, and I look forward to racing with him."

His quest for his sixth championship could be won or lost here, as the Chase marks its fourth race. Johnson's ability to cut into the lead Kenseth has carved will greatly depend on how well his team prepares his car, and how crew chief Chad Knaus calls the race from the pit box. He knows it is too early for a driver to seal the deal on the title, but also knows that all points are precious. He also knows this just may be his time.

3. Kyle Busch (-12)
by: Katy Lindamood

Most seasons, two second-place finishes and one fifth-place finish would be enough to put Kyle Busch as the top of the Chase standings, but this isn’t most seasons. 

Unfortunately for Busch, Kansas Speedway isn’t his best track. In 12 previous starts Busch has only two top 10s and no wins. His average finish of 22.4 is second worst among Chase drivers and Busch has only led 84 laps at the mile-and-a-half track.

Busch’s last two visits to Kansas have netted poor finishes, a 31st and 38th.

The driver of the No. 18 isn’t concerned with his place in the standings or how many points separate him from his teammate Matt Kenseth.

“I haven't looked at the points. I have no clue. I don't care to know. As far as I'm concerned, it's going to be a race to execute the way the 18 team needs to execute, and we need to handle our own Chase as we can and not worry about anybody else,” Busch said Tuesday during NASCAR’s weekly teleconference.

If Kyle Busch wants to finally get the title he’s been chasing for years, he’s going to have to find his way to victory lane not just once, but multiple times over the next seven weeks. Maybe lady luck be riding shotgun this weekend.

4. Kevin Harvick (-39)
by: Lacy Keyser

Following a sixth-place finish at Dover, Kevin Harvick moved up two positions in the standings from sixth to fourth – tied with Jeff Gordon.

When it comes to Kansas Speedway, Harvick looks good. He has one top five, and six top 10s. He’s also led 83 laps total at Kansas.

Last week’s top-10 finish at Dover marked Harvick’s 15th top-10 in 2013.

I have to say Harvick looks strong at Kansas. He’s also racing a brand new No. 29 car this weekend. I have a feeling the No. 29 crew is the one to keep a lookout for.

39 points behind first, I’m not counting Harvick out yet. As we saw last weekend, you never know who is going to have a bad day or a good day. Look at Carl Edwards - he was fourth coming into Dover and one bad day took him to 11th. It’s still too early to call this Chase.

5. Jeff Gordon (-39)
by: Lisa Janine Cloud

Just under three weeks ago I wrote a scathing editorial blasting Jeff Gordon’s inclusion in the Chase. I didn’t believe he’d earned his way in through performance, and that NASCAR should not have been the rules and added a 13th driver.

In the three races since that decision, Gordon’s taken advantage of the opportunity he’s been given. Out of a possible 144 points, he’s earned 110. Only Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch have earned more points than the No. 24 team.

Gordon will not only need to keep up that pace, but he’ll need all three of the front-runners to have some difficulty in the rest of season if he’s to have a chance at his fifth championship. While the chances of both of those happening are slim, they’re not impossible, especially considering Gordon’s record at the upcoming tracks.

“If Matt (Kenseth) and Jimmie (Johnson) continue to post wins and good finishes, it’s going to be difficult to catch them,” said Gordon. “But I like how our team has stepped up during the Chase and we need to be ready to take advantage if they have a bad race. When running the way we are right now, you really look forward to the next race.

The next race is at Kansas, where he has two wins, eight top fives and 10 top 10s out of 15 races. It’s not his strongest track of those left in the season, but he’s certainly no slouch. Can Gordon get that win this weekend? He could.

“It’s just we don’t ever quit,” Gordon said. The team slogan used to be “Refuse to lose,” but I suppose when you’re at the point Gordon is in his career, “We don’t ever quit” works well enough.

Gordon says, “I think it shows that we’ve made improvements performance wise we’ve gotten a lot better not just since the Chase started, but prior to the Chase we were performing better.”

“I’m really proud of them for that because I’ve been going to the race track and had a lot of fun. We have been leading laps and running up front. At times in position to win races and there is nothing better than doing  that and it couldn’t happen at a better time than right now.”

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6. Greg Biffle (-41)
by: Stephanie Stuart

After a 19th-place finish at Dover last weekend, Greg Biffle is looking to shift the pendulum in his direction this weekend in Kansas. Lucky for him, he heads to the track where he charts his best average finish.

Biffle seems to be the quiet player in this title hunt, but don't count him out yet. He continues to amaze people with his consistency behind the wheel and smooth demeanor off the track. He's no stranger to performing well at Kansas, either. In 14 starts at Kansas, he has won twice, also scoring seven top fives, nine top 10s and one pole. This is a track that he likes.

"I feel really good about Kansas this weekend," he said earlier this week. "We've got a lot of speed in our cars and 1.5-mile tracks are our favorite type of tracks. I like Kansas and have a couple of wins there.

We've been running well, and have the opportunity to get our first win of the Chase. Even though the tire this weekend is different than what we tested a little while back, I think we still learned a lot."

He knows it's time for him to make his move if he has a shot at claiming the title this season. "We've got to get a win this weekend if we want to get back in the Chase," he said when asked about his chances. Look for him to drive hard and remain towards the front, hoping to see that pendulum swing in his direction when the checkered flag falls.

7. Ryan Newman (-48)
by: Rebecca Kivak

After jumping two spots in the point standings at Dover, Ryan Newman wants to continue the upward trend at Kansas. The driver of the No. 39 Code 3 Associates Chevrolet is a past winner at the intermediate track and has two runner-up finishes to his credit.

Though not considered one of his best tracks, Newman’s record at Kansas is respectable. In addition to his one win, he has three top fives, four top 10s and an average finish of 18.1 in 15 starts. Newman finished 30th after wrecking in last year’s fall race and 14th in the spring.

Newman, currently seventh in the point standings, is only nine points behind Jeff Gordon in fifth place. With seven races to go, Newman believes it’s too early for his Stewart-Haas Racing team to hit the panic button.

“We’re not going to get too worked up just yet,” Newman said. “A lot can happen in seven races. We can find ourselves having some misfortune, and we might find some of the guys we’re racing for this championship have some misfortune. We have to be in position, should they have misfortune, where we can capitalize on it.”

8. Clint Bowyer (-51)
by: Beth Reinke


Like a teenager dressing up for a Homecoming dance, Clint Bowyer is bringing a brand new chassis to his home track this weekend. Fresh off a top-10 finish at Dover, the Emporia, Kan., native would love to win at Kansas in front of family and old friends, or at least finish in the top five like he did in the spring race. Bowyer’s pride in the speedway and surrounding area is evident.

“I love coming back to Kansas and think that they’ve done such a great job with turning Kansas Speedway into a destination track for NASCAR fans,” he said. “It’s a fun place to visit with all the restaurants, shopping, sporting events and things to do within walking distance of the track. That all used to be farm field and now it’s like a whole new city centered around the racetrack. It’s one of the better experiences you can get going to a racetrack.”

Bowyer hopes to add to the 48 career laps he has led at Kansas and claim a bonus point or two in the deal. In 10 career Sprint Cup starts at the track, he has an average finish of 13.1, with two top fives and five top 10s. Climbing two spots in the standings after last week’s 10th-place finish at Dover may be a momentum-changer for the No. 15 team.

9. Kurt Busch (-55)
by: Lacy Keyser

For Kurt Busch this Chase has been a rocky road. After Dover he dropped from sixth to ninth in the standings. He’s going to need a big turnaround this weekend in Kansas for this single-car team to make it.

Busch has good stats at Kansas. He has one pole as well as three top 10s. What Busch needs is to have a good clean day - no mishaps, no mistakes. That’s what’s been hurting Busch.

“No question, we need to turn things around,” said Busch on his last two races. “It’s not too late but we can’t have the performances we had the past two weeks. We need to get it together in Kansas.”

And he’s exactly right. He’s not out of this Chase yet, but he needs to stop having the days he’s been having the last couple races. He needs to start getting the finishes a past champion would.

10. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (-57)
by Katy Lindamod

Heading into week four, Dale Earnhardt Jr. sits 10th in the standings, 57 points out of the lead. While he’s still got a mathematical chance at winning the title, most people have already taken him out of contention insisting that the title will go to Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson or Kyle Busch. That’s a good probability, but don’t count anyone out just yet, even if they seem like a longshot.

Earnhardt Jr.'s statistics at Kansas don’t hold a lot of promise when compared to Kenseth's or Johnson’s, but he’s not the worst among Chase drivers either. In 14 starts, the driver of the No. 88 has one pole, one top five and six top 10s.

After last week’s second place at Dover, Earnhardt Jr. has momentum in his favor, but the question is: can he and his team overcome pit road issues and finally return to Victory Lane? If they want to win the title, all their ducks need to line up in a row and the top contenders are going to have to falter.

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11. Carl Edwards (-65)
by: Katy Lindamood

After last weekend’s finish at Dover International Speedway, Carl Edwards took a tumble through the standings and now sits in 11th headed into the fourth race of the Chase. Luckily, when it comes to Kansas Speedway, Edwards is one of the better Chase drivers.

Among all active drivers, with three starts or more, Edwards has the fifth best average finish with an 11.3. Only Johnson, Keselowski, Biffle and Gordon rank ahead of the Roush Fenway Racing driver. Edwards also ranks fifth among Chase drivers for top-10 finishes at Kansas.

The No. 99 team has yet to win at Kansas Speedway in their 12 starts, but they’ve led 91 laps.
Perhaps this weekend Edwards can better his second-place finish in the spring race and celebrate his third win of the season.

12. Joey Logano (-66)
by: Rebecca Kivak

Joey Logano is hoping to follow his third-place finish at Dover with a strong run at Kansas. But according to the numbers, the Penske Racing driver has struggled at the 1.5-mile speedway.

In eight starts at Kansas, Logano’s best finish is 15th. His average finish is 26.1, and he has yet to lead a lap at the intermediate track. He crossed the finish line 19th in last year’s fall race.

The driver of the No. 22 Shell-Pennzoil Ford desperately wants to avoid a replay of the spring race at Kansas. Logano was caught up in a wreck that destroyed his racecar, relegating him to a 39th-place finish.

However, Logano has cause for optimism going into Kansas. His primary car won at Michigan in August. He finished second with his backup car at Atlanta.

Using a race-proven car could help Logano make up ground in the championship standings, where he sits more than a race behind points leader Matt Kenseth.

13. Kasey Kahne (-78)
by: Rebecca Kivak

After a disappointing start to the Chase, Kasey Kahne is glad to return to Kansas Speedway. The 1.5-mile racetrack has been good to the driver of the No. 5 Time Warner Cable Chevrolet.

In 12 starts, Kahne has collected three top fives, six top 10s and an average finish of 13.9 at Kansas. The Hendrick Motorsports driver claims three poles, tied with teammate Jimmie Johnson for the most of all drivers at the track. Kahne started from the pole one year ago.

Kahne finished second at Kansas in the spring, his fourth consecutive top-10 finish at the intermediate track.

Sitting 13th in the point standings, Kahne knows he’s a longshot to win the title with seven races to go. In a teleconference Tuesday, he said finishing the year in the top 10 would be considered a success for the No. 5 team.

“We have a strong team,” Kahne said in a teleconference this week. “We’ve been one of the best cars at times throughout the whole season. Hopefully we can hit on it again these last seven races and at least finish strong and get back in the top 10. I think at this point in time that would be a successful year for where we’re at right now.”

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