Seems like a long time ago we were at the Charlotte Motor Speedway for the Bank of America 500, even though it was just last Saturday night. And what a night it was, where Clint Bowyer came home with another win, and where the NASCAR Sprint Cup (NSC) race has tightened even further for the top drivers. Denny Hamlin, trying desperately to make up ground and put himself in position to take the Cup, finished second, shaving eight points off the deficit between him and points leader Brad Keselowski (who finished eleventh). Jimmie Johnson rallied a third-place finish and cut Keselowski’s lead on him back from 14 points to 7. Greg Biffle (sixth in NSC points) finished fourth, Kasey Kahne (5th in points) ended up eighth, with Martin Truex Jr (7th) in tenth. With half of the 2012 Chase for the Sprint Cup in the books, those drivers with more than about forty points to make up behind Keselowski are sadly going to have their dreams of the Cup go up in smoke, especially if we have the top performing drivers continuing to have good finishes.
Non-Chase drivers, such as Kyle Busch, Mark Martin, and even Carl Edwards, are still looking for their first wins of the season, and hope to come up aces this weekend as we travel back to Kansas Speedway for the Hollywood Casino 400. This 1.5-mile quad-oval track is a brand new, repaved facility, with repaving operations commencing just after the first race here back in April (see REPAVE below). Drivers seemed to like the new track, even though the big challenge is going to be getting on and off Pit Road due to the transitions from the apron to the main racing surface. That point notwithstanding, we’ll be ready for the drivers to strap into their machines for 267 laps in the Chase’s sixth race. The Broadcast day starts at 11am EDT with NASCAR Raceday on SPEED, followed by NASCAR Countdown at 1pm EDT on ESPN , with the race coverage on ESPN at 2pm EDT. Actor/Comedian Rob Riggle will be the Grand Marshall and give the Command to Fire Engines, with the Green Flag waving at approximately 2:16 pm EDT, following the National Anthem and a scheduled flyover of two U.S. Air Force A-10s from Whiteman AFB, MO.
Just like Saturday night’s Kansas Lottery 300, the Hollywood Casino 400 is likely to be a fuel mileage race. Kyle Busch had the Nationwide race’s win locked up, until he ran out of fuel in turns 3 and 4 on the last lap of a Green-White-Checkered finish. Considering the new racing surface, all the teams will have to rely on their testing data from nearly two months ago, plus the additional track session earlier this week, to determine how they plan their pit stops. The Nationwide race had a record 11 cautions, and I’m guessing we may be in for a similar situation Sunday, as the drivers get the track figured out, and try not to put someone else into the fence. But when the chips are down, we’ll see some exciting racing as the Chase for the Cup rolls on.
Best Bets: This week’s BB’s include a two-time winner, and a driver who set a new track qualifying record.
Greg Biffle (#16 3M/Sherwin Williams Ford)- The Biff has been soldiering on through the Chase, up three positions from last week’s finish. Granted, the middle of the Chase pack is only within a few points of each other, but right now, every point counts. Greg has scored two victories, seven top-five, and nine top-ten finishes here, and has been no worse than tenth in the last four outings. He currently is first in points earned in those last four races, and sits eighth overall in points for the last four Cup races. The Biff may be one who doesn’t make a lot of noise this weekend, but you can be sure he’ll paint the town red if he wins. He’ll start eleventh, and was thirteenth-fastest in final practice.
Kasey Kahne (#5 Farmers Insurance Chevy)- Kasey set a new track record Friday, posting a blistering 181.360mph qualifying run. While I normally am reserved to put the Coors Light Pole Award winner as one of my Best Bets, this week is going to be an exception. While Kasey still is winless here, he has a top-five, and four top-ten finishes. He’s finished no worse than fourteenth in three of the last four KS races (including a P2), he’s also been no worse than fifth in three of the last four 1.5-mile track races, sitting fifth in points earned over those last four 1.5’s. Kahne has already scored two wins; he’ll lead the field to Green, and was fourth-fastest in Happy Hour. Don’t be surprised if he scores his third win of 2012 here.
Probables: Hendrick Motorsports has won four of the thirteen races here at Kansas, with Roush-Fenway Racing three.
Jimmie Johnson (#48 Lowe’s Chevy)- Jimmie is one of only two drivers who have averaged finishes in the top ten (Biffle is the other). With two wins, five top-five, and ten top-tens on this track, he’ll have to start over to dial this surface in and put another win in the books. Jimmie has finished no worse than seventh in the last four KS races (including one win), and sits third overall for points earned in those last four races here. Johnson knows when to turn up the heat; he’s fourth overall in points earned in the last four Cup races, and he’ll need a good finish to chip away at the seven point deficit he has behind NSC points leader Brad Keselowski. His team brought a strong car to put him in this week; Five Time will need it as he starts seventh, and was third-fastest in final practice.
Matt Kenseth (#17 Zest Ford)- Kenseth is nearly out of the running for the Cup Championship this year, as he sits back in eleventh place following some rough races the last few weeks. Aside of his win at Talladega a few weeks ago (as one of the few drivers who managed to avoid the “Big One”), Matt has not finished any better than fourteenth during the Chase, which he’s done twice, plus a P18 and a P35. While he may not have a shot at the Cup this year, he can still whittle his way a little higher in the standings with some strong finishes these last five races. Kenseth’s still winless at Kansas, but has four top-five and seven top-ten finishes. Matt has finished no worse than seventh in the last four races here (including two fourth-place runs), and is fourth overall in points earned in those last four. He may have a shot at a good run Sunday; while starting back in twelfth, he won Happy Hour on Saturday with a 182.760 lap time. Don’t count him out just yet.
Dark Horses: Lots to choose from here; both of these “stallions” are in the top three in NSC points right now.
Brad Keselowski (#2 Miller Lite Dodge)- Brad wants to get some of that lead back this week, and he just might have a chance to do that. He seems to have a good read overall on the track, even despite the repave. Keselowski has one win, two top-five, and two top-ten finishes here, and has finished no worse than eleventh the last three runs. He’s currently first in points earned over the last four 1.5-mile tracks (with wins on two of those), as well as first in points earned in the last four Cup races. “Bad Brad” will start just aft of mid-pack in twenty-fifth Sunday, but was sixth-fastest in final practice. It’s this starting position that puts him as a Dark Horse, considering he’s going to have to work his way all through the field, on a track that is not going to be very forgiving. If fuel is not a factor Sunday, I’d bet he’ll find Victory Lane.
Denny Hamlin (#11 FedEx Freight Toyota)- OK, Denny is trying to get himself his first Cup Championship, and this year is his best shot yet. He still sits fifteen points behind Brad Keselowski, and has put up some solid runs despite having some back luck earlier in the season. While finishing no worse than sixteenth on the last four outings here, Denny does have one win. Add to that win three top-five and three top-ten finishes. Keselowski is first in points earned in the last four Cup and last four 1.5-mile track races, and Hamlin is right behind him in second for both of those, scoring three top-fives in those last four. You can place money on this cat this week; he may only start ninth and put up a tenth-best run in final practice, but before the night is done you’ll see his number on the top of the scoring tower.
Other drivers who could make the Chase contenders come up with Snake Eyes include none other than Kyle Busch, Mark Martin, Clint Bowyer, and Regan Smith. Kyle has a fast car this weekend, and narrowly missed a victory in the Nationwide race Saturday, but mis-judged his fuel and ran out; I can see that happening again, since Rowdy has not finished any better than tenth in the last four races at Kansas. Mark Martin and his Aaron’s Dream Machine have been having a great year despite Mark’s limited schedule; he starts outside the Pole sitter, and could make a good run. Clint Bowyer may ride some momentum from last week’s win to another good run. And Regan Smith, who makes his second run in Dale Earnhardt Jr’s #88 car, had some great practice runs (second-fastest in Happy Hour) despite the thirty-ninth place qualifying position; he could put up some good numbers with the Hendrick machine and world-class crew.
Rumor Mill: Big news this week, that’s all I can say.
2013 Rules Modifications announced- This week NASCAR unveiled the changes they’ll make for the 2013 NASCAR season, including qualifying, testing, and race field size.
- Qualifying will now have a 36-6-1 configuration, where a renewed emphasis on speed will put the fastest thirty-six cars in the race, six competitors who have not already made the field but registered for the event by the deadline are next, with a single winner’s provisional available to round out the field of 43. If no champion’s provisional is used, those six drivers increase to seven.
- Four testing sessions per organization (NOT BY TEAM) will be allowed
- The NSC competition field stays at forty-three, Nationwide races will permit forty entries, with the Camping World Truck Series field remaining at thirty-six.
These modifications will permit a lot of increased competition, and will bring things back to where they had been in previous years. We’ll see how these changes will be received by NASCAR fans, teams, and owners alike.
Tech Talk: We’re talking REPAVE this week. Kansas Speedway completed its repave earlier this summer, and ran a test session in late August. This test was where Dale Earnhardt Jr had a tire blow out, putting him into the fence, and gave him the first of his two concussions that took him out of the Chase contention. The new track, part of a redesign that put variable banking from 17 to 20 degrees, increasing the turns from the previous 15 degrees. Track owners also put in a road course within the confines of the quad-oval, grading and paving part of the infield to make the addition. So as teams throw away the notebooks and start again on their set-ups, they have a new track that will likely only have one, maybe two racing “grooves” initially, but might offer a third as more rubber gets laid into the asphalt. “I think it will be a good race and I think as the weekend goes the groove will start widening out and moving up,” said Joey Logano. “You can see it now it’s moving up little bit by little.” (NASCAR Press Release)
Drivers were generally happy with the new surface. Matt Kenseth was pleased, commenting: “Drivers aren’t huge fans of repaves, especially being the first ones on the track, by this afternoon the cars were more comfortable on the track. I think the repave is awesome.” (KansasSpeedway.com)
Jeff Gordon likewise viewed the new track as a fresh start. ““I look at it as a new race track,” Gordon said. “We don’t think of it from any notes that we had from this track in the past. We pretty much just start from scratch. It’s like going to a brand new race track somewhere else. It looks completely different than it ever did before.” (NASCAR press release)
Final Thoughts: Sunday’s weather forecast for the Kansas Speedway is looking at a 20% chance of precipitation, but hopefully Mother Nature will decide to stay home and watch from the couch and we’ll only need the jet dryers for blowing debris off the track. And on the couch is where I’ll be, catching all the action on ESPN, but remember you can also not miss a minute of the race on your local MRN affiliate or on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio (Ch 90). So we’ll be ready to see who cashes in when the chips are down; forget to follow me on Twitter (@speedglutton) for race analysis, updates, and my occasional rant.
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