Each week, Geoffrey Miller's "Five Things to Watch" will help you catch up on the biggest stories on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series' upcoming race weekend.
Kyle Busch has to continue Kansas improvement
Kyle Busch never made it to lap 400 in his first three Sprint Cup starts on the new pavement Kansas Speedway laid down in mid-2012. The car never handled well and he wound up wrecking in all three races.
"The racetrack is the worst racetrack I've ever driven on," Busch said after his crash at the track a year ago. "The tire is the worst tire I've ever driven on.”
After the track didn’t change and Goodyear’s only made a slight change on the right side tires for Kansas’ May race, Busch and crew chief Dave Rogers brought a new mindset to the 1.5-miler.
“Dave and I worked together to start over, from how we set up the car to how I approached it,” Busch said of the spring preparation. “We didn’t get the finish we wanted, but we ended up 15th, I think, with a clean racecar.”
It was a marked improvement – the 15th even came after a pit road speeding penalty – and has Busch set up for a weekend at Kansas that might not derail his championship bid like the crash a year ago.
“I’ve been terrible at places like Martinsville, Pocono, Michigan and others, but we’ve had some solid finishes at those places by trying different things,” Busch said. “So we’re hoping we can build on what we learned there in the spring and improve our finish and run a smart race.”
Winless since April, Kevin Harvick has to be Kansas favorite
Kevin Harvick knows he’s given up a lot of chances at victory this season thanks to myriad issues. It’s plenty fresh on his mind after stumbling again at Dover just last week with a win in reach – a disappointment that continued a winning drought from April 12.
Sunday, he could expect to change that.
Harvick has been the best driver at Kansas in the last three races run at the track. He won at the track a year ago and has two poles in the span. His average finish of fifth is the best in the series, just like his average laps led – 65.5.
“We expect to be fast and just have to have some good luck,” Harvick said. “That is really what it’s all about for us. The car will be fast, it’s just about getting it all to come together.”
Kansas and Charlotte carry mighty Chase advancement weight
The second round of the Chase may feature the third and second-most important races of this new championship format, all because of the one that looms as the round finale.
At least six of the eight drivers who will advance to the third round will have to race in via the second round culmination at Talladega Superspeedway on Oct. 19. For those eligible drivers, Talladega will be 500 miles at a nerve-wracking level well above the typical craziness that is Sprint Cup restrictor plate racing because advancement will seemingly depend on not getting a car torn up in a big crash.
The odds of a clean Talladega race for any driver just aren’t very good. Last week, Jeff Gordon estimated 80 percent of races for drivers at the 2.66-mile superspeedway include involvement in a crash. It’s hard to dispute that number after recent Cup restrictor plate races have featured crashes with car counts nearing half of the field.
And so that unpredictability will greatly impact decision-making and strategy calls both Sunday at Kansas and next Saturday night at Charlotte. A win in either of those races equals a Get Out of Jail Free card for eligible Chase drivers at Talladega.
Expect that to mean more teams will be willing to risk it with fuel mileage or tire strategy calls for two reasons. First, wins are more valuable in this round than in the first one when conservative strategy was a strong way of advancing. And second, the craziness of a Talladega could also work inversely to the looming elimination danger by letting a team who somehow emerges from the wreckage unscathed to hit the Chase lottery.
Edwards plans to play role of hometown risk-taker
One driver who fully intends to participate in Chase risk-taking is Carl Edwards – both because he really, really wants a hometown win at Kansas and because he knows his Roush Fenway Racing No. 99 will need a bounce of good fortune to keep advancing.
Edwards didn’t get that bounce, per se, at Kansas in 2008 when he literally drove his car into the wall after a dive-bomb attempt on the final lap to pass Jimmie Johnson for the win. Johnson passed Edwards as he lost speed and still won the race.
“Yeah that was fun. I was really upset we didn't win,” Edwards said Friday. “That is how bad I want to win (at Kansas). Looking back that was probably a stupid move. We were racing for a championship and I intentionally ran the thing into the wall.”
Edwards advanced to the second round of the Chase with non-descript finishes of 20th, 17th and 11th while teammate Greg Biffle was eliminated. Chase or not, Edwards is going for broke on Sunday.
“I guarantee you the last run if we have a shot to win I won't be thinking about points or anything like that – which I probably should be – but this place is just special,” Edwards said.
Kyle Larson getting closer to first win with seven rookie races left
If it seems like Kyle Larson has had his name near the front of the first three Chase races a lot, you’re not being deceived.
Larson, in his first Cup season driving Chip Ganassi’s No. 42, has scored the third-most points of any driver in the series since the Chase began. Only Brad Keselowski (128 total points) and Joey Logano (127) have more than Larson’s 122. Larson, of course, narrowly missed Chase eligibility.
Still it’s been a heck of a summer and early fall for the rookie. Dating to New Hamsphire in July, Larson has only one finish worse than 12th from when he blew a tire at Michigan and finished 43rd. In the three Chase races at Chicago, New Hampshire and Dover, Larson has finished third, second and sixth.
A win can’t be far behind. If you’re wondering about this weekend, know that Larson started fifth and finished 12th at Kansas in the spring.
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Photo by Action Sports, Inc.