This week, NASCAR visits a course that has been much more egalitarian during its history. Kansas is one of eight tracks that have been on the Chase schedule since 2004 and non-Chasers have fared better there than on any course except Talladega. Three of the previous seven races on this track have been won by a driver chasing the Cup and each of those races was won by a different person.
Kansas Speedway should be one of the most predictable tracks of the year. Four drivers enter the weekend with at least four-year top-10 streaks; two more have three top-10s during the past four Kansas race, and another driver has a worst finish of 12th in those same events. Identifying strong contenders this week should not be difficult. But will the outcome be as easy to determine? Some experts, fans and I included feel that this could be a weekend where a non-chase driver wins the race. But let’s get down to who’s in the top and who is the underdog looking in!
Whether last week was a success or failure for Jeff Gordon depends entirely on perspective. He hasn’t run well at Dover in several years, so a 12th-place finish was respectable and kept him in the championship hunt. In fact, despite slipping to ninth in the standings, he actually made up a little ground on first place. Last week, he needed to beat the leader by 2.9 positions per race; this week, he needs to make up 2.7 spots in each of the remaining seven events. Last week was a missed opportunity, however, and the driver who eventually wins the Cup cannot afford to have those. The good news is that this week NASCAR visits one of Gordon’s best tracks. He has been uneven in the past few years on several courses, but not Kansas. He enters the weekend with a perfect record of five top-fives since 2007. He won the first two Kansas races when the track was first added to the schedule and hasn’t revisited Victory Lane since, but that could change this week.
Carl Edwards is looking like a legitimate Chase contender and that is not only because he shares the points lead with Kevin Harvick. This team is hitting on all eight cylinders at the moment and last week’s third-place finish was his sixth consecutive single-digit result. In those races, he has four top-fives and an average finish of 5.2, which should have been improved even more at Dover since he had the car to beat before he incurred a pit road speeding penalty that dropped him one lap off the pace at a critical time during the middle stages of the AAA 400. His streak at Kansas is not quite as long as that of Gordon or Johnson, but his record of top-10s has been perfect for the past four years. Expand the reference a little, and he has six top-10s in his past seven attempts at Kansas and is virtually guaranteed to get another.
Be sure to keep your eyes on these two drivers because we look for them to perform to the star caliber that we are all used to seeing from these two.
As soon as fans and experts began counting Johnson out, he stormed to the front of the pack at Dover and had one of his most dominant performances of the season. The majority of points are paid at the end of the afternoon and his average finish of 14th in the first two Chase races left him slightly vulnerable, but he told everyone who would listen in Delaware that there were extenuating circumstances at both Chicagoland, when he ran out of gas on the final lap, and at New Hampshire, where he made contact with Kyle Busch late in the going. The team didn’t view the loss of points in the same way as the fans and still had a ton of confidence in their driver’s ability. That self-assurance paid off last week at Dover and it will pay dividends again at Kansas. He enters the weekend with five consecutive top-10s and an average finish of 4.4 during that span.
Denny Hamlin has all but conceded the Chase. He would need to beat the leaders Harvick and Edwards by nearly 10 positions per race and even catching the 11th-place driver in the standings is going to be difficult since he trails Ryan Newman by nearly four positions per race. At this point in the season, Hamlin is racing for pride and that is a strong motivator. His best opportunities to win in the next seven races will come on the short, flat tracks of Martinsville and Phoenix, but he needs to stop the bleeding immediately. To that end, he will be pleased with a top-10 finish this week at Kansas and that is in the cards if the team plays their hand correctly. In the past four Kansas races, the No. 11 team has two top-fives accompanied by an 11th in 2008 and a 12th in 2010.
These two drivers are total opposites in the Chase but they both have the common goal to make up more ground on the leaders and take the title. I look to see these guys make a charge on the points.
I am going to go against the grain on my first underdog pick. I am taking a non-chase driver as my first underdog pick. Kasey Kahne has shown that Red Bull is not out of the hunt just yet. Last week he did something that he has never done at Dover and that is claim a Top 5. Kahne is determined to get these Red Bull guys a win if it is the last thing he does before he leaves for Hendricks.
Kyle Busch should struggle this week. It was with some confusion that everyone listened while experts on TV said that the driver of the No. 18 would be happy to kick off the Chase on the flat similarly-configured, 1.5-mile track of Chicagoland. In 2011 Busch has not been particularly strong on any of the “cookie-cutter” courses with the single exception of Kentucky and there was little reason to believe his trend would magically reverse. Kansas certainly hasn’t been kind to Busch at any point in his career. He has only one top-10 there in eight starts and an average finish of 22.4 makes it his third worst track after Homestead and Talladega — two other venues that happen to be in the Chase. Kyle Busch will need to have the lucky horseshoe this weekend to make anything great happen while in Kansas.