Last fall, Matt Kenseth headed to Kansas in a bit of desperation mode. A rough weekend at Charlotte landed him 42nd; his chance to advance in NASCAR's Sprint Cup Chase on points was proving near impossible. The only way he could move forward into the Round of 8 was through winning.
Joey Logano, meanwhile already had his Chase ticket punched. After a thrilling Charlotte victory he entered Kansas with a “get out of jail free” card for the next two races. Even two wrecks wouldn’t prevent a Round of 8 opportunity; he could race with nothing to lose.
Most fans know what happened next between the duo. Kenseth seemed to have the race under control before Logano stalked him late, made contact while battling for the lead and then started the Kansas grudge match that defined last year’s Chase for the Championship. Kenseth retaliated at Martinsville, killing off Logano’s title chances, and both men wound up on the outside looking in by Homestead.
Heading to Kansas this year, the roles are reversed. No, Kenseth didn’t win Charlotte but a runner-up finish there, combined with others’ misfortunes provides him with a bit of breathing room. Logano, by comparison, crashed hard after a tire failure and now finds himself in a bit of a “win or bust” situation. The two drivers, for their part still have a bit of a contentious relationship; Kenseth blamed Logano for putting him in position to be a part of Talladega’s big wreck in the spring.
Could this race be a setup, then for their latest chapter? Both led laps in the spring at Kansas, a race where Kenseth wound up fourth while Logano crashed after charging toward the top 5. Are the scores fully settled at this point?
This sport is hoping to find out. For a Chase that’s suffered through sagging ratings there could be nothing better than a fender-rubbing, side-by-side battle to the end here between these two.
2016 Hollywood Casino 400
Time: 2 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Kansas Speedway (Kansas City, Kan.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Joe Gibbs Racing Chassis
Yes, Jimmie Johnson is winning the battle, taking victory at Charlotte to snap a career-worst 24-race winless streak. The No. 48 team, already punching their ticket to the Round of 8, will clearly be a force to be reckoned with at Homestead.
But it’s Joe Gibbs Racing who’s leading the pack overall, putting all five of their chassis within the top 8 in points. Even Denny Hamlin, despite blowing an engine, sits eighth in the standings heading to Kansas and Talladega. Considering Hamlin’s strength at plate racing this season he’s got a great shot to win there, putting JGR and their satellite Furniture Row Racing in position to move forward with 100 percent of their fleet.
Looking ahead, in year three of the sport’s new format no team has yet accomplished the unthinkable: a final four composed of entirely the same organization. We haven’t even had two cars from the same team. Every week, JGR appears closer to making that a reality.
Who’s at the Back: Casey Mears
Dead last at Charlotte, part of an accident involving Alex Bowman a disappointing season for Mears hit rock bottom. Dead last (40th), it was his eighth finish outside the top 20 for a team that was expected to showcase improvement. They’re in their third year of running the same chassis (RCR) and the Mears-Bootie Barker driver/crew chief combo has been together for six years. After they haven’t threatened to win even once during that time, let alone make the Chase it’s possible Mears could be on the way out – even with a three-year extension signed at the conclusion of the 2015 season.
NASCAR released its 2017 rules on Friday with an emphasis on reducing spoiler height. The changes put in place mirrored ones run at Kentucky and Michigan earlier this year. Those adjustments, along with those races drew mixed reviews from both fans and teams.
Major highlights include…
*Rear spoiler dimensions reduced from 3 ½ to 2 3/8 inches with the goal to reduce downforce by 500 pounds
*A tapered rear deck fin
*Decreasing the size of the restrictor plate from 57/64th to 7/8th of an inch for Daytona and Talladega to slow down the cars
*Allowing an additional test under NASCAR policy for a driver returning from injury
*Mandating specifics on the rear frame of the car to limit the movement of that area (and crew chief creativity there) during races
*Safety improvements that include more energy-absorbing material within the driver’s side cockpit and mandatory roof hatches for superspeedways
Ryan Newman, in a bit of a surprise, announced a long-term extension with Richard Childress Racing this week. Newman, who had failed to make the Chase, had his contract expiring after the season and the owner’s grandson, Ty Dillon, claiming he would be running a full-time Cup schedule in 2017. With RCR unlikely to expand to four cars it was assumed Newman could be the odd man out; now, speculation runs rampant as to where Dillon will end up in 2017 (or if he will even move to Cup).
NASCAR by the Numbers
Laps led by Jimmie Johnson during this Chase (four races). He had only led 266 through the year’s first 26 races.
Mediocre average finish of Alex Bowman in five starts filling in for Dale Earnhardt Jr. Bowman, eliminated in a crash at Charlotte has suffered through some rough luck behind the wheel of the No. 88.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Kyle Busch used to be kryptonite to your team at Kansas. For years, he felt cursed as bad luck combined with a bad attitude to ensure a bad finish no matter the circumstances.
Now? He’s a must-start for your roster. Holding three straight top-5 finishes here, including a win this spring, Busch holds a newfound confidence out here. Rather quiet so far this Chase, the No. 18 has been battling back more than spending time out front the past few weeks. A victory here would be a great way for the reigning champ to remind everyone he’s still a major player in this title race.
Kevin Harvick, in “win or bust” mode after his engine busted up at Charlotte, heads to Kansas with a solid track record. He holds a win and three additional runner-up finishes there since joining Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014. With Talladega such a crapshoot this race is the one to focus on winning and Harvick is likely to find a way up front.
It came a little too late but Kasey Kahne has eight straight top-15 finishes for Hendrick Motorsports. While that hasn’t gotten him into title contention – he missed the Chase by a country mile – this driver and the No. 5 team are building a foundation for 2017. While a lowly 16th in the spring Kansas is the type of 1.5-mile track that suits Kahne’s driving style, don’t hesitate here. Momentum’s on his side.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has been out of the limelight recently but Kansas offers an opportunity. One of his stronger tracks through the years, his average finish of 18.9 includes two straight 13th-place results. Roush Fenway Racing is looking to finish strong and he’s a great dark-horse pick for a race that’s produced unpredictable faces inside the top 15.
What Vegas Thinks
The Westgate Sportsbook posts both Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. as the favorites for Sunday riding 9/2 odds into the race. Kyle Busch follows close behind at 6/1.
What I Think
A Kenseth-Logano battle would be great. I think it’s possible but you also can’t sleep on Kevin Harvick, a driver who needs a win to survive and advance. My bet is the No. 4 sneaks up late, steals the show and punches their ticket into the Round of 8.
— 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 firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Photo by ASP Inc.)