After a brief stop into the world of restrictor plate Russian roulette it appears on paper that NASCAR is returning to the world of normalcy this weekend at Kansas Speedway. The 1.5-mile intermediate oval was once the “cookie cutter” of all cookie-cutter tracks, serving as the final expansion pack with Chicagoland when NASCAR moved to its current schedule of 36 races prior to the 2001 season. Early races at Kansas were wreckfests; a single-groove racetrack frustrated teams and foreshadowed handling difficulties that would plague the Cup Series at all tracks during much of the past decade.
But a funny thing happened while the NASCAR has been busy trying to reinvent itself. The racing at Kansas, once a guaranteed snoozer, has suddenly gotten good. Even during the Car of Tomorrow era, you had weird finishes – there was Carl Edwards’ banzai effort to take the checkered that fell short during the 2008 Chase and Greg Biffle’s win while crossing the line in third (he ran out of gas under yellow) the year before.
A repave briefly halted the unpredictability but recent changes to both track and banking have served this oval well. Only three of the first 15 races held here produced more than 21 lead changes; we’ve now seen that happen four times in the last five events. The side-by-side racing has gotten intense and we’ve seen some fantastic battles for the lead, most recently the Joe Logano-Matt Kenseth contact that started their yearlong feud.
Will Logano and Kenseth come together again? Or will some other driver emerge with an unlikely upset? The lineup heading to Kansas appears to be unpredictable, a gargantuan shift for where this racetrack was headed as little as a decade ago. You never know...
2016 GoBowling.com 400
Time: 7:30 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Track: Kansas Speedway (Kansas City)
TV: FOX Sports 1
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Brad Keselowski
Talladega, by nature is unpredictable, big wrecks taking a winner right to the wrecker on a second’s notice, but Keselowski has somehow found a way to beat the odds. The driver of the No. 2 Ford for Team Penske now has four victories there since 2009, the most of any driver and paced the field for 46 laps Sunday. His 2016 season feels a lot like Jimmie Johnson’s last year; a little off on speed but using his talent to maximize limited opportunities and eke out victories.
It’s hard to take any momentum from a victory where only four cars in the field didn’t have crash damage. But in a year where Joe Gibbs Racing has dominated, Keselowski has as many victories (two) as any other driver through ten races. The way he’s been able to keep up is impressive.
Who’s at the Back: Kasey Kahne
Kahne had a wreck beyond his control at Talladega, slumping to 39th a week after an encouraging fourth-place run at Richmond. But the fact remains the No. 5 car has yet to lead a lap this season for superteam Hendrick Motorsports and Kahne sits 17th in points, the first driver looking in on the Chase after 10 races. What’s discouraging is despite strong qualifying efforts an average start of 11.7 has been wasted; he’s only improved that performance in three of 10 events and has an average finish of 18.6. While there’s a long-term contract in place here it’s one of the worst performances from HMS we’ve seen in recent years; this team is going to need to pick up the pace.
Matt Kenseth and Joey Logano, after another brouhaha at Talladega appear to have talked Monday night and are “in a good place” heading into their little anniversary of contact racing for the lead at Kansas. Kenseth felt Logano ran him off the track during Sunday’s race and the two had a little public exchange outside the infield care center following the involvement of both in a multi-car wreck. That led to a conversation Monday night and according to FOX Sports 1’s RaceHub, Logano said the two have patched things up to a certain extent.
Danica Patrick, Kyle Busch and others were upset about the high number of wrecks and flipping inside Sunday’s race at Talladega. Busch, despite a second-place finish made it clear he didn’t want to be running the event and would rather be “sitting at home” due to two victories that already lock his No. 18 Toyota inside the Chase. As for Patrick, who endured the hardest hit of her Cup career, she was among a group of drivers becoming increasingly vocal about the risks this type of racing poses. No changes to the package have been considered or announced for Daytona in July as of yet.
Changes are coming to NASCAR’s Sprint All-Star Race in two weeks. The event is being expanded from 100 to 113 laps and turned into a three-segment race. The first two segments will be 50 laps with mandatory green-flag pit stops sprinkled in. The third segment will be just 13 laps and there will be a vote as to whether the top nine, 10 or 11 drivers will be forced to pit. The remainder will stay out on the track with old tires, moving to the front and creating a breathtaking sprint to the finish where the faster cars start in the back and are forced to move forward for the $1 million grand prize. The exhibition had grown stagnant in recent years as handling woes and aerodynamics caused the leader to easily coast to victory in what’s supposed to be a “for the fans, super aggressive” ending segment.
Celebrity Sighting: Baseball Hall of Famer George Brett will be on hand (without his pine tar) to give the Command to Start Engines and serve as Grand Marshal for this weekend’s race. Brett’s Kansas City Royals won the World Series last year for the first time since his 1985 team.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Steering wheels that have come off during racing conditions this season, both from Hendrick Motorsports. Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s came off after returning from crash damage Sunday at Talladega; it’s a safety issue he takes the blame for, claiming he never checked to ensure the wheel was “locked in position” before leaving the garage.
The finishing position for Earnhardt at Talladega, the first time he’s run last in a restrictor plate race during his 17-year, full-time Sprint Cup career.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
This race is expected to be another clash between superpowers Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing. And while HMS has been a step behind on intermediates this season they’ve got a leg up at this track; Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, respectively have won the last two spring races at Kansas. I’d go with Johnson again as the No. 48 team has a great track record: he’s got top-10 finishes in every race but one here since 2007.
Kevin Harvick had the spring race won last year until a late strategy call by Johnson’s crew chief Chad Knaus handed the victory straight to the No. 48. In the last two spring Kansas races Harvick has finished second, led 172 laps and looked absolutely dominant at times. I’d pick him for my roster any day.
Martin Truex Jr. has come so close at Kansas in recent years but always has a late-race problem with handling that leaves him short. Truex led 95 laps here last spring before falling to ninth and has never been lower than 21st with Furniture Row Racing at this oval. Truex, the beneficiary of strong JGR setups under the new package should have another strong weekend here.
Chase Elliott, a Cup Series rookie, is listed on the bottom in most fantasy formats but he’s far from a C-list driver. After a pole and top-5 finish at Talladega he enters Kansas with momentum and surprised at a similar intermediate oval with this 2016 rules package (Fontana) back in March. Don’t be surprised if the No. 24 team sneaks to the top with another strong effort for the first-year driver.
What Vegas Thinks
Jimmie Johnson is listed as the favorite with +450 odds according to lasvegassportsbetting.com. Kevin Harvick comes in second at +550 followed by last fall’s combatants Joey Logano and Matt Kenseth.
What I Think
Hendrick Motorsports has something to prove after Joe Gibbs Racing appears to have dominated the early part of the season. Johnson comes in, leads half the race and scores a third win this season heading to a track he owns next week: Dover Downs.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Photo by ASP Inc.)