Kansas is a state known for its tornadic activity; just look to the Wizard of Oz for proof. But don’t worry about such windy weather affecting NASCAR this weekend. Turns out the tornado already tore through this sport in the form of a four-car Ford freight train at Talladega last Sunday.
That impressive performance by Stewart-Haas Racing, culminating in a win by Aric Almirola, put the icing on the cake of what’s likely to be Ford’s first manufacturer’s title since 2002. Can they follow up a year’s worth of quality performances with their first driver’s title since 2004 with Kurt Busch?
That’s where the final race in NASCAR’s Round of 12 comes in. Heading into Kansas Speedway Sunday, all four of SHR’s drivers remain poised to advance into the next round. Two of them, Almirola and Kevin Harvick, have already clinched (Harvick’s a 99.9 percent mathematical probability). That would give them a 50 percent chance at taking home the title with Kurt Busch and Clint Bowyer currently on the right side of the cutline.
But there’s more. A fifth Ford, driven by Joey Logano, sits in prime position to advance as well. The No. 22 Team Penske driver sits 39 points to the good and will start up front tomorrow after winning the pole. Two of his teammates, Ryan Blaney and Brad Keselowski, have good speed this weekend and should be contenders for a playoff-advancing win.
That’s important since the driver they would currently be in position to knock off, Martin Truex Jr., happens to be the reigning Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion. The driver of the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota has spent the year as one of the sport’s Big Three, racking up victories and running circles around the competition. But a poor race at Talladega, where Truex struggled to hang onto the draft due to mechanical problems, has left him vulnerable. Just 18 points separate the champ and the cutline, close enough that a bad race or a winner from below him in the standings could serve as the knockout punch.
Let’s say, in a best-case scenario, Blaney comes back and wins Kansas. The reward could be Truex knocked out and six of the final eight drivers in this year’s title chase driving Ford Fusions. The manufacturer with the oldest model in the series would be in the best position to potentially put a 1-2-3-4 sweep on the starting grid for the title at Homestead-Miami Speedway next month.
Who would have ever predicted such a surge at this point last year? The addition of SHR has clearly helped tilt the scales in favor of Ford but the teamwork displayed by all the cars at Talladega proved exactly how much this group has gelled together, top to bottom. They’ve provided a model both Toyota and Chevy will be chasing long into 2019.
Kansas may be the last chance to beat back the Ford onslaught. A winless Kyle Larson could perhaps throw a last-ditch wrench into plans and give Chevy a second car in the Round of 8. But Larson starts a distant 27th after scraping the wall in practice and looks to be out of sorts this playoff season. Lady Luck doesn’t seem to be in his corner.
No, instead 2018 seems to be Ford’s year after over a decade of disappointment. Truex, an inconsistent Kyle Busch in this year’s playoff and Chase Elliott will have their work cut out for them to knock off the Blue Ovals down the stretch.
Hollywood Casino 400
Time: 2:30 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Kansas Speedway (Kansas City, Kan.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Stewart-Haas Racing
What SHR was able to do at Talladega in terms of pulling away from the draft by themselves has been well documented. In the end, a late caution flag caused Kurt Busch and Harvick to run out of gas and spoiled what would otherwise have been a 1-2-3-4 coronation.
But you can’t just say it’s been one race. This group has shown consistent speed all season long, from Harvick’s series-high seven victories to Almirola doing in 31 races what Danica Patrick could not do in five-plus years: win in the No. 10 car. Moving Tony Gibson into an oversight role in the shop has clearly paid dividends for this group as they trudge forward in a bid to become the first team to sweep all four championship spots at Homestead-Miami since this playoff format began in 2014.
Who’s at the Back: Jamie McMurray
McMurray is reportedly undecided on his driving future with his ride at Chip Ganassi Racing potentially evaporating in 2019. But the driver of the No. 1 Chevrolet is doing himself no favors while auditioning for a potential new team. McMurray crashed at ‘Dega, the victim of a tire problem for his second run of 35th or worse in the last five races. That run of futility extended through some of his best tracks and wiped out a strong second-place finish at the Charlotte ROVAL earlier this month.
McMurray, despite driving for a playoff-contending operation, has led just 30 laps over the past three seasons. Earning just seven top-five finishes over that stretch, it’s easy to see why Ganassi started looking elsewhere to replace the 42-year-old.
Kyle Larson will enter Kansas with a even larger deficit in his bid to make the Round of 8. Larson was hit with a 10-point penalty after Talladega when NASCAR officials determined his No. 42 team violated the damaged vehicle policy. The crew, in fixing Larson’s car after a spin, rebuilt the car with metal parts in violation of NASCAR’s strict rules regarding the crash clock and eligible materials for keeping a racecar on track. Those pieces proved costly; crew chief Chad Johnston was fined $25,000 while car chief David Bryant was suspended for this weekend’s race at Kansas. NASCAR heard and denied the team’s appeal Friday morning, leaving Larson 36 points back of Truex for the final spot in the Round of 8.
Another NASCAR driver is retiring at the end of the season.This time, it’s NASCAR XFINITY Series regular Spencer Gallagher, choosing to enter into a management role at GMS Racing in 2019. Gallagher, who was suspended earlier this year for violating the sport’s drug policy, won at Talladega Superspeedway but has struggled overall since transitioning into XFINITY. He has only 10 top-10 finishes in 56 career starts and failed to make the postseason last year, placing 19th in his only full-time season. There’s no word yet on who will replace the 29-year-old in the No. 23 full-time next year.
Obaika Racing is entering the final three Cup races of 2018.The underdog operation, who failed to qualify at Talladega with David Starr, has not announced a driver and sponsor combination for those events. Whenever the No. 97 does qualify, it will be the team’s debut in NASCAR’s top division.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Lead changes Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway. That’s the fewest for a Cup race there since 1973 and the second fewest overall.
Starts between wins for Aric Almirola. Almirola’s previous (and only) Cup victory prior to Talladega came at Daytona in July 2014. In between, he rifled through multiple crew chiefs, endured a devastating back injury that kept him out for months and left the iconic No. 43 team and Richard Petty for his shot at SHR.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
The Big Threehave failed to show up in the playoffs in a big way. Even though Kevin Harvick has virtually clinched a spot in the next round, he hasn’t won during the five-race postseason to date. Kyle Busch was victorious at Richmond but overall has fallen short of expectations. Meanwhile, Martin Truex Jr. sits on the cutline at Kansas with a race team many thought could go back-to-back — even with their pending closure after Homestead-Miami next month.
But if there’s any time they’ll get back on the wagon, Kansas provides that opportunity. This trio have combined to win the last five races at this 1.5-mile oval and ran 1-2-10 back in the spring.
Harvick won that one but Truex has had the best average finish here in the past three races, sweeping the events in 2017 and finishing runner-up back in May. With Truex under pressure to advance, expect the No. 78 to show up and put their best foot forward.
Looking for an alternative? How about Ryan Blaney? The playoff driver has a great track record at Kansas, racking up four top-10 finishes in seven career starts and had a fast car back in May before a late-race accident derailed him. I’d pick Blaney as the driver with the best shot out of the quartet who likely need a win to advance into the Round of 8.
Austin Dillon has quietly been having a solid postseason despite getting knocked out after the first round. He has five straight top-20 finishes at Kansas and the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet appears to be building a bit of 2019 momentum with three top-11 finishes in the five playoff races to date.
Don’t sleep on Jimmie Johnson. The seven-time Cup Series champ responded to the Johnson-Knaus driver/crew chief divorce going public with a solid seventh-place effort at Talladega, fighting back from a spin. It’s the team’s best effort since Memorial Day Weekend and gives them a little bit of hope they can finish 2018 off right. The track record at Kansas isn’t great recently but he does have three wins here, the most recent of which came in 2015.
It’s easy to forget about Paul Menard after he missed the postseason with the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford. But Menard has a solid track record at intermediates and was sixth with this car back in the spring. He has six career top-10 finishes in 19 starts, not a bad track record considering his price in most daily fantasy leagues.
How about David Ragan? After Front Row Motorsports endured an awful Talladega, both their cars suffering through mechanical woes Ragan has an opportunity to claw back into contention. Ragan has quietly never finished lower than 17th at Kansas since moving back to FRM before the start of the 2017 season.
What Vegas Thinks
Kevin Harvick leads all drivers with 5/2 odds heading into tomorrow’s race. Kyle Larsonwas once next up, sitting at 7/2 but has faded after struggling throughout the weekend.
What I Think
I’ll say Harvick finally puts together a complete postseason race. His eighth win of the season is perfect timing to advance him to 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.