The 2022 NASCAR Cup Series playoffs reset for their second race of the Round of 16 on Sunday at Kansas Speedway. Taking place in an area of the country known for severe weather, championship contenders head to the Heartland still recovering from the tornado that already swept through the postseason back in South Carolina.
Darlington’s Southern 500 lived up to its reputation as a crown jewel event, The Track Too Tough To Tame pulling a reset on the Round of 16. Regular-season champion Chase Elliott? He ended the night dead last after crashing before the end of stage one.
It was a precursor of chaos to come. Just six of the 16 playoff drivers (plus Bubba Wallace, who’s fighting for the owner’s championship with 23XI Racing) finished the night inside the top 10. A non-playoff driver, Erik Jones, ended the race in victory lane after another upset bid by Martin Truex Jr. was spoiled down the stretch.
Once the smoke cleared, two drivers on the outside looking in, Alex Bowman and Daniel Suarez, had positioned themselves on the right side of the Round of 12 cut line. A trendy dark horse pick for the Championship 4, Kevin Harvick, ended the night on fire and sunk to dead last, 13 points behind 12th place. And Elliott, who seemed invincible heading into the playoffs, has now dropped to ninth in the standings.
The hope for these playoff drivers is a chance to reset at Kansas, introduced to the series in 2001 as a cookie-cutter 1.5-mile oval. But this place also has a history of weird, unexpected finishes, including a May event where Kurt Busch came out of nowhere, winning the race as one of six full-time Toyota drivers to finish inside the top 10.
Early signs are the Camrys will have a tough time replicating that performance in the fall. Only two of them qualified inside the top 10 and a new tire compound has thrown everyone a bit of a curveball in only the second race run here with the sport’s new Next Gen chassis.
Even new point leader Joey Logano, who qualified on the outside pole, feels a bit thrown off.
“We’re all guessing,” he said Saturday. “Without being out there on the racetrack, you’re kind of guessing how big an effect it’s going to have and at what parts of the corners do we think that’s going to affect the car the most. And then you try to adjust to it.”
Managing tire wear will be key to success here at a track that often produces long green-flag runs. A driver to watch early will be Elliott, having to fight back from 22nd on the grid as he posted a disappointing qualifying effort. He’s not alone back there; both Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin, frequent Championship 4 participants, will start this race in 20th or worse.
On the flip side is polesitter Tyler Reddick, third last week at Darlington to post back-to-back top-5 finishes. The groove here seems to suit his style, riding by the outside wall; could that propel his lame-duck No. 8 ride into the Round of 12?
Expect another wild race at an intermediate track type that’s produced the best competition with the Next Gen chassis. Can another non-playoff driver pull a major surprise? Or will Kansas mark a return to semi-normalcy in this topsy-turvy NASCAR season?
Hollywood Casino 400
Date: Sunday, Sept. 11
Time: 3 p.m. ET
Track: Kansas Speedway (Kansas City, Kan.)
TV: USA Network
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Erik Jones
Jones produced the first Cup Series win for Richard Petty’s No. 43 since 2014, the beneficiary at Darlington when a late series of engine problems doomed Joe Gibbs Racing veterans Truex and Busch. It was some sweet irony for Jones, released by JGR at the end of 2020, as he scooted by for his second career Southern 500 victory.
Jones now has 10 top-10 finishes this season, the most for a Petty-owned car since 2011 as he’s made the racing icon relevant back toward the front of the field. It was the first win for the King at Darlington since Sept. 4, 1967 – 55 years to the day his driver replicated the feat.
Who's at the Back: Chase Briscoe
Elliott’s Darlington crash left Briscoe an innocent victim, putting the No. 14’s chances to advance into the Round of 12 on life support. Now sitting 15th in points, the second-year driver hasn’t had a top-10 finish since the Coca-Cola 600 way back on Memorial Day Weekend.
Late-breaking reports on Saturday have Richard Childress Racing signing Kyle Busch beginning with the 2023 Cup season. Busch, 37, has spent the last 15 years with Joe Gibbs Racing, winning two championships and more than 100 races in NASCAR's Cup and Xfinity series. But with sponsor M&M's leaving after the 2022 season, JGR and Toyota were unable to come up with enough funding to re-sign him.
The 2023 NASCAR All-Star Race has a surprise new destination: North Wilkesboro Speedway. It'll be the first time the NASCAR Cup Series has raced there since 1996 after a new revitalization project brought the iconic short track back to life.
NASCAR has made a rule change effective with the Kansas race weekend designed to minimize the risk of fire. Among the highlights: the use of intumescent coatings for the underside of the lower crush panels and more clearance between the exhaust and the floor of the rocker bar. These changes will hopefully keep rubber from lighting a blaze underneath the race cars at speed, as we’ve seen from at least a half-dozen drivers (including Harvick art Darlington) since mid-July.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Top-10 finishes for Michael McDowell this season, more than double his previous career high of five.
Races since Erik Jones’ last Cup Series win, also at the Southern 500 (2019).
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Last fall’s Kansas winner, Kyle Larson, pulled off an improbable 12th-place finish at Darlington after falling four laps down at one point with power issues. Nearly 400 (351) laps led in his last four starts here leave him a fairly safe bet to remain in contention, racking up valuable stage bonuses and fastest-lap points.
Denny Hamlin starting 25th has to be considered just for position differential alone. A top-10 finish could lead to 15 valuable bonus points, likely more and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing driver has two wins in his last six starts in the Heartland along with four top-5 finishes.
Tyler Reddick really is becoming top-tier material with the way he’s surged to the top throughout the summer. A track where Reddick earned his first top-10 finish in Cup (2019) is the perfect place to earn his first oval track victory in NASCAR. Don’t hesitate to play him from the pole; track position and clean air could have you racking up laps led bonuses and a stage one win.
Austin Dillon was the surprise playoff party crasher and tends to do well inside the Round of 16. Kansas provides him with a prime opportunity to cash in; he has four straight finishes here between 10th and 13th. Ride the consistency he’ll provide despite minimal chance of a position differential bonus.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has struggled as of late and qualified a disappointing 35th. All the more reason to use him here, a Kansas track where he was eighth in the spring during a stretch of four straight top-10 finishes. He worked from traffic back then, too, charging up from his 36th-place starting spot.
Brad Keselowski quietly put together a season-best seventh-place finish at Darlington, a brief respite during a miserable season as driver/owner at RFK Racing. Could that spark a turnaround during the final 10 races as this team builds for 2023? Keselowski was 14th in this Kansas race in the spring and has four top-5 finishes (including a win) in his last seven starts here.
What Vegas Thinks
The vegasinsider.com odds for Kansas put Denny Hamlin out front with +550 odds despite his 25th-place starting spot. Kyle Busch is next with +600 followed by Martin Truex, Jr., still winless for 2022, sitting at +700.
Looking for a longshot? Erik Jones sits at +5000 if you believe the No. 43 team can somehow pull off back-to-back victories.
What I Think
I’m sticking with Joey Logano, this time pulling a bit of a surprise by winning at a Kansas track where no Ford finished inside the top 10 back in May.
— 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.