Kyle Larson will start from the pole in Sunday’s (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN) Hollywood Casino 400. The best NASCAR Cup Series driver during the 2021 regular season left nothing to chance, winning last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway to already secure a spot in the Championship 4. Instead of repeating Kevin Harvick’s disastrous Round of 8 in 2020, Larson will be gunning for his third straight playoff victory instead.
Who will join him to fight for this year’s title? That’s anyone’s guess as the other seven playoff drivers remain evenly matched heading to Kansas Speedway. Only Joey Logano appears to be in a win-or-bust situation after his engine failed during the closing laps at Texas.
Those title contenders will be scrambling for stage points, fighting for every position they can in the final 550-horsepower race with this current chassis. The consequences of this high-downforce package were on display at Texas, a chaotic finish with six cautions in the final 60 laps that turned the finishing order upside down behind Larson.
It’s the restarts that get treacherous in the 550-horsepower setup, drivers getting hyper-aggressive knowing it’s one of the few times they can gain track position easily. Passing is especially tough at a track like Kansas, despite its multiple grooves and restructuring over the past decade. Newer asphalt means limited tire falloff and virtually the entire field running around the track wide open.
That parity over a long green-flag run could also be applied to the Round of 8. Six of the seven drivers vying for a spot in the championship finale have won a race at Kansas; in fact, they’ve won eight of nine events held here since the spring of 2017. It makes picking the winner a toss-up at a place Team Penske, Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing have all experienced recent success.
Ryan Blaney is the lone outlier who’s struggled at this 1.5-mile oval as of late. Holding just a 17-point edge on the playoff cutline, he can’t afford another 21st-place finish like the one he registered at Kansas in May. Ditto for teammate Logano, last year’s defending winner who slumped to a 17th-place result in that race with zero laps led.
By comparison, teammate Brad Keselowski ran third, leading 72 laps, and could be in a position to pull off an upset. No driver since Martin Truex Jr. in 2018 has made the Championship 4 with an organization they won’t be driving for the following season. It would be another notch on this future Hall of Famer’s cap to beat the odds, keep his lame-duck group focused and get the job done.
What about the non-playoff contingent? Tyler Reddick and William Byron have been running up front, often into each other, and could easily pull off an upset before the year is out. Matt DiBenedetto ran a season-best fourth here and desperately needs a repeat performance as he remains without a full-time ride for 2022.
But chances are this race will boil down to a handful of drivers battling for their championship slot at Phoenix Raceway. Add in rain in the forecast and the racing could be chaotic as drivers may have to beat Mother Nature, bringing a few extra pit strategies into play.
Hollywood Casino 400
Date: Sunday, Oct. 24
Time: 3 p.m. ET
Track: Kansas Speedway (Kansas City, Kan.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Kyle Larson
I hate leaving the same driver here two weeks in a row. But Larson’s dominance in Texas left me with absolutely no choice. Leading 256 laps, including the final 218 was made even more impressive with the half-dozen restarts in the final stage. Larson held off all comers each time, getting an assist from teammate William Byron who played the role of offensive lineman for Hendrick Motorsports.
The second-place finish for Byron, eliminated the week before at the Charlotte ROVAL, made him wonder what might have been. For Larson, there’s simply what is: a career-best eight wins, nearly 2,300 laps led on the year, and a great chance at his first career Cup championship.
Who’s at the Back: Ryan Newman
You hate to see the 2002 Cup Series Rookie of the Year ending his full-time career with this type of slump. Another crash at Texas left Newman with three DNFs for wrecks in the last five races, one more than the number of top-5 finishes (two) he’s accumulated throughout all of 2021. As of now, he sits 27th in points, on track for the worst finish of his Cup career. It’s also two spots lower than Newman’s injury-plagued 2020 campaign, when he missed three races after that hard crash at the end of the Daytona 500.
Brandon Jones will return to the NASCAR Xfinity Series and Joe Gibbs Racing in 2022. The driver will be running his seventh full-time season in the sport’s second-tier division and his fifth for JGR, collecting four wins and multiple playoff bids driving the No. 19 Toyota. Unfortunately for Jones, he’s winless in 2021 and sits eighth in the championship race with two races remaining in the Round of 8.
ARCA driver Nick Sanchez will be moving up to the NASCAR Xfinity Series level in 2022. Just two weeks after Bubba Wallace’s victory at Talladega Superspeedway, the Drive For Diversity driver earned a spot on BJ McLeod’s roster for next year. The 20-year-old young talent has eight top-5 and 12 top-10 finishes at the ARCA level this season, sitting third in points heading into the season finale this weekend at Kansas.
Carson Ware has been suspended by NASCAR after being arrested on assault charges. The 21-year-old has six NASCAR Xfinity Series starts this season but is unlikely to race again this year after a police report described him as belligerent, assaulting a female, and destroying thousands of dollars in personal property. Carson is the son of NASCAR Cup Series owner Rick Ware.
NASCAR by the Numbers
More laps than Larson has led than any other driver this season. He’s led 2,267 laps while second-place Denny Hamlin has paced the field for 1,399. No other driver is close to 1,000 total with three races left to go.
Bonus points earned by Larson over the course of the Cup season, setting a new NASCAR record under this format first adopted in 2014.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Kyle Busch won the Kansas race in May when Larson struggled over a series of late restarts, leading just 20 laps on the day. But it’s part of a continuing trend of solid finishes at this racetrack after a rocky start here earlier in his career. Busch has four top-5 finishes in his last six Kansas races, including that win, and has a position differential of +18. That’s impressive considering most of those events had Busch qualifying at or near the front of the field.
There’s something really impressive with the way Brad Keselowski is closing his Cup career with Team Penske. Third in May at Kansas, he led 72 laps in one of his better drives running the No. 2 Ford this year. Brad has five top-6 finishes in his last six races here, leading laps in each of those races while snagging a victory in the spring of 2019. He may be this organization’s best hope to make it to Phoenix with a shot at the title.
Kevin Harvick seems to have a permanent spot in this category, right? That’s because I think the No. 4 team is putting its best foot forward to grab a win before the year is out. Continuing that streak (now seven years) of Harvick winning since moving to Stewart-Haas Racing is important to him and crew chief Rodney Childers. While their 550 races haven’t been great, a fifth at Texas was a momentum builder heading into this weekend. Harvick was also a frustrating second last fall, then this spring and understands the strategy needed to finish one spot better here.
Austin Dillon has been overshadowed by his Richard Childress Racing teammate Tyler Reddick at Kansas. Can he turn the tables after runs of 11th and 10th his last two races here? A 14th-place starting spot gives him a better chance to earn you position differential over Reddick (starting 12th).
Can Ryan Newman break that slump with three races left driving the No. 6 for RFR? He was 16th at Kansas in the spring and will be a cheap play with four DNFs in the eight races held here before that. This one is more of a hunch than anything, but historically, this car has had some of its best races when a driver is preparing to step out (see: Matt Kenseth during the final two races of 2018).
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has crashed out of two of the last three Kansas events, also making him an inexpensive option. He’s never earned a top 10 here yet has four 11th-place finishes in 17 starts. Add in 23 laps led from the May event and you may have a diamond in the rough picking the No. 47 JTG Daugherty Racing Chevrolet.
What Vegas Thinks
Kyle Larson has +240 odds to win the Hollywood Casino 400 according to the latest odds posted at vegasinsider.com. That makes him an overwhelming favorite; Denny Hamlin is next up at a paltry +550 by comparison.
Kyle Busch sits third at +600, followed by Chase Elliott (+800) and William Byron (+900). Austin Dillon is the best of your longshots, sitting at +6000.
What I Think
I’m thinking Brad Keselowski pulls a little bit of an upset and sneaks by the competition to earn a Championship 4 spot. Don’t discount Kyle Busch, though, in position to score a season sweep at Kansas if the cards fall his way.
— 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.