With the Chase for the Sprint Cup already a three-man runaway after just three races, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads west for Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway.
Here are five things you need to know about the race:
BOYS UNDER THE HOOD — The most nervous guys in Sunday’s race? That’s easy: the engine tuners. Kansas Speedway is a 1.5-mile track very similar in layout to Chicagoland Speedway, where the Chase began last month. At the Chicagoland race, six drivers blew engines, including championship contenders Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Joey Logano.
Sunday at Kansas Speedway, the high temperature is only expected to hit 60 degrees. Cool weather means more grip in the track, which equates to higher speeds, higher engine revolutions per minute and a much higher chance of engine failure. That could be devastating to one or more of the title contenders.
BIG DOGS HUNT — The top two in the Sprint Cup points standings are great at Kansas Speedway. Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth each have two race victories and six top-five finishes here. Johnson has the best average finish of any driver in the race at 7.643, and has led the most laps, 556. Kenseth is second in laps led with 479, and won here in the spring.
Third-place Kyle Busch, however, struggles at Kansas, where he’s never finished better than seventh, has led only 84 laps in his career and has an average finish of 22.417. Is this the week he gets left behind by Johnson and Kenseth?
RUBBER MEETS THE ROAD — Goodyear is bringing an all-new tire combination this week using its so-called “multi-zone” tread tire on the right side. The right-side tire features the same compound that Sprint Cup teams ran at Kansas earlier this season across the outside nine inches of the tread (traction zone) with a more heat-resistant compound on the inside three inches (endurance zone).
Goodyear officials say the “left-side (tire) features a compound change designed to give the cars more grip.” Again, more grip equates to more speed and potentially more engine failures. The first race with the multi-zone tires was at Atlanta Motor Speedway last month, with Kyle Busch winning.
TRACK POSITION IS KING — Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Kenseth and Busch have won seven of the eight Cup races run at 1.5-mile tracks this season, while Johnson has seven top-10 finishes at 1.5-mile races this year, including a third-place finish at Kansas in the spring.
But the dominance of the JGR Toyotas might be somewhat misleading. Six of the eight 1.5-mile races have seen the race-winning pass made either on pit road or on the first lap of green-flag racing after pit stops. And only three times did the driver who led the most laps win the race. There will be tremendous pressure on the pit crews to execute flawless stops and get their driver out in the lead.
POINTS — The way NASCAR’s points system works, bad finishes hurt drivers a lot more than good finishes help them. Just ask Earnhardt Jr. When the Chase began, he was 15 points behind Kenseth. After his catastrophic engine failure in the Chase opener at Chicagoland, Junior fell 53 points behind Kenseth. In his next two races, Earnhardt Jr. finished sixth at New Hampshire and second at Dover. And he now trails Kenseth by 57 points.
Seven of the 13 Chase drivers are already more than one full race behind in points. The only way anyone other than Kenseth, Johnson or Kyle Busch becomes champion this year is if all three leaders stumble badly over the final seven races. And so far, there aren’t any signs of that happening.