BIG DADDY GOOD TO GO — Jeff Gordon’s fourth-place finish at Texas Motor Speedway broke a string of misfortune and poor finishes for the four-time champion, who should be strong again this week at Kansas Speedway. Last October, Gordon finished 34th here, but in the five prior Kansas races, his average finish was 4.0. And he won the first two NASCAR Sprint Cup races at the 1.5-mile track in 2001 and ’02. Add it all up and he’ll be one of the favorites in Sunday’s STP 400.
“For whatever reason, we have run well here since the beginning,” said Gordon, who is 17th in the Sprint Cup points standings. “We won the first two races and, even though we experienced engine issues in the fall, we ran well in both races here last year. And I think our cars are even better this year.”
Look for Gordon to put some extra effort into qualifying setups during Friday’s practice sessions.
"We definitely have to work on our qualifying and start more toward the front,” said Gordon, who has an average starting position of 18.57 this year. “We're not qualifying [well] enough in my opinion. But our cars are really good in the race.”
PAVEMENT POUNDER — Add Denny Hamlin to the list of drivers not looking forward to coming back to Kansas Speedway for a second race this season. The 1.5-mile facility will be repaved between Sunday’s STP 400 and the fall event scheduled for Oct. 21.
“I like Kansas now and I won't like it later,” said Hamlin, the driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. “I don't know. It's just the new paved race tracks make it really tough on the racing. Any surface that's old and worn out, it seems like it's always got better racing. No doubt about it. All the tracks that are old and worn out — Atlanta being one of them — you see great racing at those tracks.”
Hamlin comes into Sunday’s race sixth in points, with just two top-five finishes in eight races at Kansas. “Really, it's a track that I haven't had a whole lot of success at until here in the last couple years or so,” said Hamlin. “We've been a little bit better.”
NAPA KNOW HOW — One of the pleasant surprises of 2012 has been the performance of Michael Waltrip racing, which has full-time drivers Martin Truex Jr. and Clint Bowyer fourth and 10th, respectively, in the NASCAR Sprint Cup driver points standings. The team’s third car, which is shared between Mark Martin and Brian Vickers, has been stout, too: The No. 55 MWR Toyota is seventh in owner points.
“It's been a work in progress,” said Truex, who is in the best points position of his career. “Everybody has put a lot of effort into it. I feel like I've put a lot of effort into getting to where we're at as a team. For me, it's very gratifying. I've really just been having a lot of fun with my team. I've got a great bunch of guys.”
One of the biggest plusses, according to Truex, is the development of crew chief Chad Johnston, who took over that role 18 races into the 2011 season.
“I've really enjoyed working with Chad (Johnston), my crew chief, and watching him come into his own,” said Truex. “He's really getting a lot of confidence in his decisions. The things he's been able to do are showing. He's really growing as a crew chief. It's been a lot of fun just to come to the race track each week and work with him and just to see the progress of the team and the excitement around the shop during the week. It's just rewarding to be part of the program — kind of helping to build it to where it is now and being able to go out there and get results.”
HENDRICK HAT DANCE — Jimmie Johnson won at Kansas Speedway during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ last visit here, in October 2011. And ever since then, Hendrick Motorsports has been stuck on 199 race victories as a team. Johnson is hoping to finally deliver victory No. 200 in Sunday’s STP 400.
“Yeah, I mean, whenever it happens is going to be very special for the company,” said Johnson. “Again, I just want to win. I don’t care where it is, whatever reason. There are 36, 38 of these things a year, and I want to take home a bunch of trophies. Second is nice, but winning is everything. At Martinsville, we had that warm, fuzzy feeling there. It’s nice to go to tracks where you know you’re going to run well, and you go down there with high hopes but, unfortunately, it doesn’t guarantee much.”
Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100.