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Fast and treacherous

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Darrell Waltrip

Darrell Waltrip — winner of 84 career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races and a three-time champion — serves as lead analyst for NASCAR on FOX. He was selected for induction into the prestigious NASCAR Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 2012. Want more from DW? Become a fan on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.

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Well, folks, I think I mentioned last week that I thought Kansas Speedway could be somewhat of a wild card based on everything that had been done to that racetrack. After all, they changed everything there but the zip code.

It’s not the same Kansas that these guys were accustomed to and had notes for in the past. It's a whole new track with a new design. Progressive banking and, certainly, with the kind of asphalt they lay down these days, we knew that the track would have a lot of grip, a lot of speed and be incredibly fast for a mile-and-a-half racetrack. Entering turns at more than 200 mph on a mile-and-a-half racetrack with relatively low banking — trust me, that is just a handful. We saw it in practice with Denny Hamlin, who crashed.

The car gets just a little twitchy on you going off in the corner, and you can’t catch it. We saw a lot of single-car spins in the race, and that’s a product of a tire that has to be real conservative, a little on the hard side, and cars that are a little free and you have to jump back in the gas with one of those 850-horsepower engines and you can bust the tires loose. That’s what happened to Jimmie Johnson.

Particularly when you’re racing under somebody, you get a little aero loose, the guy on the outside sucks you around a little bit or makes your car a little loose, and, man, you can’t hang onto it.

I knew there would be tire failures. You can almost count on it. When you have a new surface and a track that fast, you can almost count on some tire problems. And it’s always the right front.

The camber, or degree of angle, leaning that tire in at the top, making that tire act like a blade cutting through that asphalt — that makes you fast, makes the car handle good, but it abuses that right front tire. A driver will lean on that thing, lean on that thing, and it will finally just bust a sidewall right out of it. The smart guys, the smart crew chiefs, the smart drivers, they’ve got a feel for that.

Jimmie Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus, he’s a guy who's going to look at that tire, and he’s going to look at how much camber. He’s not going to go by what the car wants; he’s going to go by what he knows is safe on a camber setting.

Johnson has a feel for a car; he knows when he is abusing that right front tire. So the smart guys, they’re usually pretty capable of managing the tires when they’re a little bit on the edge, like those tires at Kansas were.

I figured the track was going to be fast, and it was. Figured it was going to be hard on tires, and it was. Probably could have even predicted a lot of single-car spins, which we had.

There were a lot of things you could predict about Kansas, but the thing you couldn’t predict was who all those things were going to happen to. When Johnson backed his car into the wall, I mean, for all practical purposes, I thought his day was done.

I figured they would have to go to the garage and do some major work on that car before he could get back out on track. There’s a perfect example of experience. A crew chief who never lost his cool directed the team like a quarterback directing a football team. They handled precision work under chaotic conditions, knowing that the Chase for the Sprint Cup is probably hanging in the balance.

Got in there, got the job done, got that car back out on the racetrack. If they could have gotten fuel in that car, Johnson could have easily finished in the top five, but he had to come back in and put fuel in the car under the last caution and put him at the back of a bunch of race cars, and he raced his way back to ninth.

Folks, if Johnson and his team should win his sixth championship I will always look to Kansas and say that’s where it happened. That was a miraculous turnaround and save by Knaus and that whole No. 48 bunch.

The same can be said for Matt Kenseth. He slams the wall, pancakes the side of the car but crew chief Jimmy Fennig and his guys, they didn’t panic. They just fixed the car, got Kenseth on the lead lap and got him track position at the end of the day with a good fuel strategy, and he was able to get out and get the lead and he never looked back and actually ended up leading the most laps.

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The two wins Kenseth has in the Chase, those are great parting gifts for him and that he has given to Fennig and Roush Fenway. They’ve worked their tails off. They’ve had issues; the car has fallen apart on Kenseth a couple of times, but they haven’t given up.

They’re still fighting. They are 55 points out of the lead and they really have no chance of winning the championship, but they’re battling like they’re right in the thick of it.

My buddy Martin Truex Jr., in Michael Waltrip's car, he gets another second place — two second places there this year. He had a fast car, but he didn’t have anything for Kenseth. Nice return to racing for crew chief Slugger Labbe and the No. 27 team, got Paul Menard a third-place finish.

I’ll tell you another guy that had a car that could have won that race was Kasey Kahne. If he hadn’t have been shutting the engine off trying to save fuel and the thing failed to fire back up when it needed to and he lost a lot of track position, he could have been the guy in victory circle. His No. 5 car has been fast a lot.

He’s 30 points back in the Chase. He’s not out of it, but he’s right on the edge. I’d say the top five right now, I’d give all the guys in the top five a shot, but it really, it’s more and more and more, week after week, with only four races to go, it still looks like battle between Brad Keselowski and Johnson, to me.

Johnson's team made the miraculous recovery on Sunday. Keselowski didn’t run all that great — he didn't lead a lap — so I give the tip of the hat to Johnson after Kansas. I was disappointed in the way Denny Hamlin ran; I thought he would run a lot better.

We’re going to Martinsville, and we know how good Hamlin is and how good he has been at Martinsville in the past, but by the same token, Johnson is in a league of his own when we get to Martinsville and Keselowski has been known to struggle at Martinsville. We’ll see how it goes.

I think it’s pretty predictable when we get to Martinsville. I think you’re going to have a Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., probably Tony Stewart, maybe a couple of the Toyotas, maybe the Gibbs cars, will be up there battling for the win, and it will be a tight pack from there on back.

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Here’s my prediction. Want to know who’s going to win the race? I really think — and I mean this and I’m not just saying this because it’s Dale Jr. and he’s one of my buds, it’s because I really think Dale Jr. is going to come out stronger than ever. He has had a couple of weeks off. When you’re away from the track for a couple of weeks, it just kind of fires you up and inspires you when you finally get back and get in that car.

I think Dale Jr., he loves Martinsville. I think he’s feeling well. I’m just going to say right now, Dale Jr. is going to win Martinsville. That’s certainly not going to help him in the Chase. He’s out of it; we all know that. But I think it will be a great morale booster for him and his team.

I think Kansas turned out about like I thought it would. It was a wild day with 14 cautions, a great crowd and a decent race, I thought the race was pretty darn good and we’re leaving there with some folks that are not happy.

Stewart’s upset. Kyle Busch is upset. Danica Patrick, she’s really upset. As a matter of fact, she got upset.

So there’s a number of people who are leaving Kansas, and we’re going to the perfect place for payback, the short track at Martinsville.

If you want to dump somebody, you can. If you want to make it hard on somebody, you can. You can work against people there; you don’t have to help them.

I think that’s what we’re going to see this weekend.

We’re going to see some really aggressive racing, like we always do. We’re going to see some long greens, like we always do. But it’s probably going to come down to a finish like we saw there in the spring, most likely something late, a caution late, maybe even a green-white-checkered, and from there on it it’s on.

It just depends on whether you can hang on to it or not and make it to the finish. Johnson will be hard to beat. Gordon will be hard to beat, but I’m going to say right now, crew chief Steve Letarte and that 88 team, they’re going to want to give Junior a winning car and he’s going to want to win that race and it’s a Hendrick kind of track. This is the eighth anniversary of the plane crash up there.

There’s a lot of emotion and a lot of pressure and a lot of pride this weekend for the Hendrick guys, and I think Dale Jr. will deliver.

I love Martinsville. I set all my clocks to go off at 1:30 Sunday afternoon. So just watch it, and I will talk to you next week.

Tagged: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski

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