This week we continue the Contender Round in the Chase for the Cup. For the 12 remaining drivers in the field the pressure increases as we travel to Kansas and take one more step in narrowing the field of championship contenders to eight. Since so many drivers ran into trouble at Charlotte this past week, this event will be like a reset and yet another opportunity to win and advance. For the fifth race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, NASCAR pays its second visit of the season to Kansas Speedway just outside Kansas City for the Hollywood Casino 400. When we think of the Kansas oval we think of the many intermediate ovals on the circuit. This oval may not be exactly like Charlotte, Texas or Atlanta, but it could easily be the most important oval regarding the Chase for the Sprint Cup Series championship by the time we reach Homestead in November.
As we visit the 1.5-mile oval in Kansas this weekend the schedule offers up a huge advantage to fantasy racing players and the drivers alike. For it was only five short months ago that the stars of NASCAR were locked in combat at this intermediate oval. The data from that race, the SpongeBob SquarePants 400, will be fresh and applicable to the field for this weekend's Hollywood Casino 400. The oval of Kansas Speedway is our third intermediate oval event in the Chase for the Cup. It is one of five races on ovals of this size in the 10-event Chase lineup that crowns our champion. That means ovals of this size and style makes up a whopping 50-percent of the championship-crowning Chase for the Cup schedule. So pay close attention this weekend as trends from this 400-mile race will set the stage at upcoming intermediate ovals. While Kansas had been a Toyota facility the past few seasons, the pendulum has recently swung in Chevrolet's direction. Our race in May of this year was dominated by a handful of drivers for the bowtie brand, but won by another Chevy driver, Jimmie Johnson. However, there were a handful of Ford suitors that were close behind. Considering that Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano have both been hot entering this weekend they should be top contenders again. The Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas were practically invisible earlier this season at Kansas, but that camp has turned things around on intermediate ovals since. They should be very conspicuous and threats to win this weekend at Kansas Speedway.
Since we're making our second visit of the season to Kansas Speedway, we need to take a brief look back at history at this intermediate oval. These numbers will be even more important than normal and even more relevant given that we've seen a lot of repeat winners at this facility. As you'll see in the table below, some of the hottest drivers in the series are making a very important start at Kansas Speedway this weekend. Here are the loop stats for the last 15 races at Kansas Speedway.
|DRIVER||AVG FINISH||QUALITY PASSES||FASTEST LAPS||LAPS LED||LAPS IN TOP 15||RATING|
|Martin Truex Jr.||17.5||399||179||346||2,327||93.3|
|Dale Earnhardt Jr.||15.6||499||139||124||2,295||91.8|
The race earlier this season at Kansas Speedway was quite special. It was Jimmie Johnson's third of four victories to this point in the season, and his serving notice of how strong the No. 48 Chevrolet team would be on these intermediate ovals in 2015. He led only 10 laps that day but came on strong at the right time to defeat Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Johnson has been one of the streakiest drivers in the series since before the Chase began, and has battled consistency issues dating back to July of this year. Harvick and Earnhardt Jr. were second- and third-place finishers that day, and it was another dominant performance that slipped through Harvick's fingers as the checkered flag waved. For Charlotte winner Joey Logano it's another opportunity to win at the Kansas oval and taking another huge step toward the championship. He has been looking to make headway in the Chase standings, so this is a very timely visit to Kansas Speedway for this driver and team. Aside from the Penske Racing, Stewart Haas Racing and Hendrick Motorsports drivers, the Joe Gibbs Racing stable should be poised for a big rebound this weekend. JGR struggled tremendously the last time we visited this heartland oval, and those four drivers and teams will be looking for a bit of redemption in the Hollywood Casino 400. Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch each have strong career records at this intermediate oval, and Kenseth himself is a two-time winner at this facility. With all that Joe Gibbs Racing has been through the last month, big expectations will be the order for all four of these drivers at Kansas. These veteran drivers are just the kind to step up their performance in this important race. We'll highlight the drivers you need this weekend and the ones you need to avoid in order to dominate the day at Kansas Speedway.
The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win
Joey Logano - Logano has been every bit as impressive as his teammate Brad Keselowski on these 1.5-mile tracks in 2015. The driver of the No. 22 Ford won at Charlotte Motor Speedway last week and has a series-leading five Top-5 finishes on these style ovals. Also, his 447 laps led on the cookie cutter ovals leads the Sprint Cup Series. Logano won this event one year ago, and he now rides a four-race Top-5 streak at Kansas into this Sunday's race. Over the span, the Penske Racing star has led nearly 250 laps at the heartland oval. Coming off the momentum of a Charlotte victory, it's hard to bet against the No. 22 team this week.
Kevin Harvick - Stewart Haas Racing has been putting great cars under Harvick on these intermediate ovals this season. He won at Las Vegas earlier this season and he's now finished runner-up at four of the other intermediate ovals, including this past week's effort at Charlotte. The laps led, the Top-5 finishes and all the data is nearly identical to Logano's this season, so these two will be battling out again Sunday afternoon. Harvick has great career numbers at Kansas Speedway, so the combination of current performance and history couldn't be better. The driver of the No. 4 Chevrolet has one win and nine-career Top 10s at the Kansas oval. If Harvick hopes to repeat as champion he's got to break through for the win this Sunday afternoon.
Matt Kenseth - The Joe Gibbs Racing star comes to a great track this weekend. Kenseth has been strong on the intermediate ovals this season and Kansas has been no exception. The veteran driver has two-career victories at this facility and over 500 laps led. Kenseth cracked the Top 5 at Chicago to begin the Chase for the Cup, and he had an even better car at Charlotte this past week. Bad luck and poor pit strategy foiled him at Charlotte, but the speed to win was there. With the championship coming into closer focus with each race, you can bet the No. 20 team will be on their "A" game this Sunday afternoon at Kansas Speedway.
Kyle Busch - At five races into the Chase for the Cup, Busch is showing that he will indeed be a championship contender by the time we reach Homestead. Busch has 144 laps led, a runner-up finish and two Top-10 finishes in the first four events of the Chase. The driver of the No. 18 Toyota had a fast car but some bad luck at Charlotte this past week, so he comes to the Heartland this weekend with some real urgency to perform. Busch has never been that impressive at the Kansas oval, but it appears that has been changing the last few seasons. He qualified seventh on the grid and finished a Kansas career-best third earlier this summer in the SpongeBob SquarePants 400. Busch will be racing with the leaders this Sunday afternoon.
Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for the Top 10 with an outside shot at winning
Denny Hamlin - Hamlin has been reversing some of the inconsistency trends he's battled most of the season since the Chase began. Most notably, his performance on intermediate and larger ovals has improved since the late summer. Things are beginning to look very promising coming to Kansas Speedway this Sunday afternoon. Hamlin is a one-time winner at this oval, and has four Top-10 finishes there to his credit. Hamlin's last two starts on intermediate ovals have been flawless with a victory at Chicago and a fourth-place finish this past weekend at Charlotte. The No. 11 JGR Toyota team should continue to post strong performances through the Chase as we head towards Miami-Homestead Speedway and the championship.
Brad Keselowski - The Penske Racing star comes to the heartland oval this weekend looking to advance in the Chase for the Cup. His steady performances since Chicago have setup his potential advancement into the next round of the Chase, and he hopes to punch that automatic bid with a victory since we're visiting another intermediate oval. Keselowski is normally pretty strong on these style tracks as his perfect eight-for-eight in Top 10s on these style ovals this season shows. He won here in 2011 and he has five Top-10 finishes in 11-career starts at Kansas Speedway. Keselowski led 43 laps and battled with the leaders in May at Kansas, but fell short of the win finishing seventh. This time around can only be seen as finishing some unfinished business for the No. 2 Ford team.
Martin Truex Jr. - The dark horse play at Kansas Speedway is Truex and the No. 78 Chevrolet team. The FRR driver has been trying to become relevant again in the championship picture, and he's made some headway. His Top-10 finish at Chicago and Top-5 finish at Charlotte this past week is evidence of that. While Truex's level of performance has slipped a bit since late summer, this driver is still very skilled and capable of performing at a very high level. Truex has a pair of runner-up finishes and five Top-10 finishes in his last seven trips to Kansas. He led 95 laps and finished ninth at Kansas Speedway in May, and we're willing to bet he'll recreate that success in the Hollywood Casino 400.
Kurt Busch - Another Chase for the Cup participant is eyeing Kansas Speedway this weekend with huge eyes. Busch has quietly racked up a pair of Top-5 finishes on these style ovals during the Chase, and he's coming to the Kansas oval to keep that trend going. This 1.5-mile speedway hasn't been the best for this Stewart Haas Racing star over the years, but Busch intends to reverse those trends come Sunday afternoon. He's posted five Top-10 finishes in the eight intermediate oval races of 2015, and that includes his eighth-place finish at Kansas Speedway in May of this year. Considering that Busch sits right in the middle of the current 12-driver Chase field, the stakes are high coming to Kansas this week.
Sleepers - Drivers with good history at Kansas who can provide a solid finish
Jeff Gordon - Considering that Gordon owns three career victories and 13 Top 10s at Kansas Speedway how can you not like the Rick Hendrick Motorsports star this weekend? Coming off a steady Top-10 performance at Charlotte, he comes to Kansas Speedway with some momentum in his favor for advancing into the next round of the Chase for the Cup. Gordon out-foxed faster teams in this season's earlier race at the Kansas oval to a fourth-place finish and he could very well pull that feat again. The veteran driver rises to the occasion when the stakes are this high, and we should see that on display Sunday in the Hollywood Casino 400.
Carl Edwards - The driver of the No. 19 Toyota comes to Kansas alive and well in the championship picture. Edwards has thrown up one pole position and three Top-6 finishes since the Chase for the Cup began four events ago. The fact that we're racing on an intermediate oval again this week can only be encouraging for this Joe Gibbs Racing driver and team. Edwards owns 11 Top-10 finishes in 16-career starts at what he considers to be his "home track." That works out to a lofty 69-percent Top-10 rate at Kansas Speedway. That's a mark well above the norm for most drivers. Edwards should keep his hot hand in this 400-mile race at Kansas.
Kyle Larson - It took some time for the CGR driver to get it together and gather some consistency this season, but Larson has finally done it. He has Top 10s in three of the last six races and is looking to end the 2015 campaign on a positive note. Larson has only three-career starts at Kansas Speedway, but they've been productive outings. He posted runner-up and 12th-place finishes at the oval last season, and he raced to a steady 15th-place finish there in May of this year. The driver of the No. 42 Chevrolet should stay on top of his recent surge again this Sunday afternoon. We expect to see Larson racing around and finishing inside the Top 15 at Kansas Speedway.
Aric Almirola - Despite missing the Chase for the Cup this season, Almirola hasn't let that demoralize him nor the No. 43 Ford team. In fact, since the Chase began, this has been some of the best racing of the season for Almirola. The journeyman driver has posted four Top-10 finishes in the last five races and has been racing with great confidence each weekend. His Kansas Speedway Resume isn't lightweight either. Almirola boasts three Top 10s in seven career starts at this 1.5-mile track. Considering that the No. 43 team is coming off a 10th-place finish at Charlotte this past week, we believe they'll be strong again in the Hollywood Casino 400.
Ryan Newman - Historically speaking, this is not that great a venue for Newman. He has one career victory and six Top 10s in 19 starts. That works out to a lowly 32-percent Top-10 rate, but recent outings have been boosting that total. The RCR veteran's last two trips to Kansas Speedway have netted sixth- and 10th-place finishes. Those snapped a string of seven-straight events without at Top 10 at the heartland oval. Newman has been one of the more consistent performers this season on these style tracks with five Top-10 finishes in the eight events to-date. A Top-15 finish for the No. 31 team is nearly a given, but you also have the upside of a surprise Top-5 finish in the realm of possibilities for Newman this Sunday.
Ryan Blaney - The Wood Brothers Racing youngster will be making his 13th start of the season this Sunday afternoon at Kansas Speedway. Blaney is fresh off an impressive Top-15 finish at Charlotte Motor Speedway, and the No. 21 team will be carrying that wave of momentum to Kansas. With only one-career start (27th-place last season) it's hard to gage Blaney's ability at this oval, so we really have to look hard at that Top 15 last weekend at CMS. He kept the No. 21 Ford in that position for a good deal of the race, so the finish was no fluke. In the weekly lineup leagues, Blaney presents a real opportunity to slide a solid start into the lineup off the bench.
Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week
Jimmie Johnson - Our six-time Sprint Cup Series champion has three poles, three victories and 596 laps led in 18 career starts at Kansas Speedway. Johnson hasn't displayed the "winning touch" of late, in fact, he's been downright terrible the last few races. His 41st-place finish at Dover and his 39th-place finish this past week at Charlotte have been due to mechanical issues on the No. 48 Chevrolet. Since the team was eliminated from the Chase at Dover, have they lost focus? It's difficult to say, but the results have led to some speculation. Despite winning earlier this season at Kansas Speedway, we recommend keeping Johnson on the bench until he gets things turned around.
Paul Menard - The Richard Childress Racing veteran has struggled quite a bit the past few weeks, and things don't look so rosy for Kansas Speedway this Sunday. Menard is limping home to one of his worst seasons as a Sprint Cup Series driver. He has only two Top-20 finishes in the last seven events and he's on track to score his lowest Top 10 total since the 2009 season. The Kansas oval has held five Top-10 finishes across 13 starts for the driver of the No. 27 Chevrolet. That works out to a respectable 15.8 average finish for his career at this facility. However, the recent struggles for Menard have been so bad that we have to lower the importance of his historical success at this track.
Greg Biffle - The No. 16 Ford team appear to have packed it in for the season. We hate to say that about any team and driver, but after the 24th-place finish at Charlotte this past week, there's not much positive to point to. Biffle's four Top-10 finishes this season is on pace for a career low in the category as the end of the season approaches. Kansas Speedway is a facility of much success for the driver of the No. 16 Ford. Biffle has two-career victories and a 50-percent Top-10 rate at the 1.5-mile track. However, he's not cracked the Top 10 here since 2012, and his two intermediate oval races of the Chase have been nothing to write home about. It would seem Biffle is eyeing another finish outside the Top 20 this week.
Kasey Kahne - Another demoralized team and driver would be Kahne and the No. 5 team of Hendrick Motorsports. Clearly dejected after crash and DNF at Charlotte Motor Speedway this past week, he comes to Kansas looking to pick up the pieces from that mishap. The veteran driver faces an uphill challenge to get up for the Hollywood Casino 400. Intermediate ovals have not been kind to this driver and team in 2015. Kahne has only one Top 10 in eight starts on the cookie cutter ovals this season, and his last three efforts have all been finishes outside the Top 20. Kansas Speedway has puzzled him of late with finishes of 22nd- and 17th-place in his last two visits. He'll likely slot in that range again this Sunday afternoon.
Taylor is a three-time FSWA Racing Writer of the Year.
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