NASCAR Chase searching for "water cooler moment" in Kansas

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1. Still waiting for a Chase water cooler moment
A palpable buzz is non-existent heading to Sunday’s race at Kansas Speedway. The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ championship fight is now four races old, yet the potential drama of a season-ender at Homestead-Miami Speedway seems months away.

Three drivers — Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch — have vaulted in front of the field with an appreciable 27-point gap from Busch’s third-place ranking to the next contenders. Each race has been pretty systemic without late caution flags, incidents or wonky NASCAR officiating calls to toss a wrench in the whole show. Danica Patrick remains slow.

Why has this Chase started in such a ho-hum manner? When is something worthy of a SportsCenter highlight going to occur?

They’re questions without answers right now. That’s unfortunate. They’re also telling of a postseason process lacking an inherent and built-in punch of excitement. Right now, the whole thing is just riding along, seemingly waiting for the final pit stop.

Who’s going to be watching by then?


2. Kenseth isn’t the biggest fan of Kansas’ new tire  Matt Kenseth
Matt Kenseth has won two straight Cup races at Kansas since the track was repaved last summer. He even did it with two different race teams. Change, it seems, wasn’t too big of an issue for the ever-cool driver.

Then Goodyear brought a new tire combination to Kansas on both the left and right sides of the car — the rights being a second incarnation of the “multi-zone tread” featuring two tire compounds on the same wheel — and it threw his No. 20 for a bit a loop in additional testing time offered to teams Thursday afternoon.

“I would have rather left everything alone for us, especially after today,” Kenseth deadpanned Thursday.

“We’ve got a lot of stuff to look at it, but (Thursday) was kind of a struggle. Whenever anything is working good for you, you kind of like to leave everything the same.”

Kenseth being who he is and the No. 20 team being who it is, it’d be surprising if he’s not back at the front by the time Sunday’s race reaches its critical points. That’s just how good they have been as a group this season. He’s leading the Chase, after all.



3. Summer tire test may key Kyle Busch Kansas rebound  Kyle Busch and Jimmie JohnsonThings didn’t go so well for Kyle Busch during his last race weekend visit to Kansas.

He spun in practice. He spun exiting Turn 2 on lap 6. And then, to top it all off, he spun in Turn 4 and was broadsided by Joey Logano, ending his day.

He finished 38th. Repeating that finish Sunday could be disastrous to his hopes of staying in the Chase fight with Kenseth and Johnson.

Fortunately, Busch was one of the four drivers who helped Goodyear select the tire compounds that gave his teammate Kenseth some fits on Friday. The tire supplier brought Kyle, brother Kurt Busch, Greg Biffle and Ryan Newman to the track in July for a nighttime selection test.

Ahead of the weekend, Busch was looking forward to the change on the left side of the car.

“I thought we learned some things and went really well for us and I think for Goodyear, as well,” Busch said. “They changed the left-side tire compound, so we’re not on that treacherous left that everybody spins out and crashes on, including myself three times.”



4. Aric Almirola expects to turn heads SundayIn his last two starts at Kansas Speedway, Aric Almirola has started in the top 10. In the spring he finished eighth. But last fall? Amirola’s car was surprising everyone.

His No. 43 led 69 laps and set the fastest pace 48 times — second only to eventual race winner Kenseth’s 50 — only to suffer a crash caused by a blown tire. He finished 29th but made an impression that day that likely went a long way in getting Richard Petty Motorsports to extend his contract. Kansas City-based sponsor Farmland also had to be impressed.

Naturally, Almirola is confident that his team could play spoiler as a dark horse in Sunday’s race.

“For whatever reason, we run really well at Kansas,” Almirola said. “We take some of the stuff from Kansas to the other mile-and-a-halfs but don't run as well as we do in Kansas.”

Crew chief Todd Parrott was even higher on the No. 43’s prospects.

“We have learned some things since April and hope to build on those during the test on Thursday,” Parrott said earlier this week. “I think we have the potential to be the best car this weekend and bring that No. 43 back to Victory Lane."



5. Michigan may be a good Kansas predictorWhile Almirola may feel confident going into the weekend and Kenseth may be looking for the right combination to match the new Kansas tire, what track features the same characteristics that might offer a solid prediction about Sunday’s race?

The easy answer is Chicagoland Speedway — a venue built to nearly identical specifications as Kansas originally, save for a curved backstretch. But if you ask Mark Martin, the answer sits a few states east and north of the Kansas City, Kan., track: Michigan International Speedway.

“I think you should be able to use a lot of your setup logic from Michigan to apply because of the paving and the smoothness,” Martin said. “Even though they’re shaped differently, I think that a lot of the loading and a lot of the characteristics will be very similar. So, I think you need to look at your notes from what you did at Michigan.”

NASCAR has raced twice at Michigan this year. If teams are using a setup logic that is similar, it figures many of the same drivers will run up front at Kansas that did at Michigan. In the two Michigan races, Kevin Harvick, Greg Biffle, Joey Logano, Clint Bowyer and Paul Menard scored the best average finishes. As for Michigan laps led, Biffle (76 laps led), Logano (72), Kurt Busch (64), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (54) and Martin Truex Jr. (23) led the way.

Of course, both Michigan races weren’t too kind to Jimmie Johnson. In June, he blew a tire in the final laps chasing Greg Biffle for the lead and in August the No. 48 lost an engine.

Obviously that’s one Kansas predictor Johnson would sure like to prove wrong.


Follow Geoffrey Miller on Twitter: @GeoffreyMiller

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