So far, NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup has been filled with drama — and not all of it on the track.
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There was the emotional opening-race win at New Hampshire Motor Speedway by Clint Bowyer and his Richard Childress Racing team, a victory followed by an in-depth study of his Chevrolet and an ensuing 150-point penalty for an infraction.
That led to fireworks the following week at Dover International Speedway, as Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin inexplicably waded into the fray by accusing the RCR team of pushing the limits throughout the season. Which, presumably, led to the practice bump of Hamlin by Kevin Harvick. Which led to repairs for the cars of both drivers and a verbal confrontation in the garage. Which has apparently led to a change in attitude by Hamlin.
Meanwhile, as the Bowyer situation stole headlines, Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus got back on track and dominated the actual on-track activity at Dover. Johnson won the pole position, led the most laps and won the race to overcome an opening-race setback as only he can. His roller-coaster run through the opening couple of Chase races (he finished 25th at New Hampshire) has netted him the second position in the standings, just 35 points off the pace of Hamlin.
So, for a week at least, the two men most favored to challenge for the title this season are actually leading. But it’s still early — and two races in, the field is still relatively tight. Kyle Busch and his Joe Gibbs Racing team are third, 45 points behind teammate Hamlin, Penske Racing’s Kurt Busch is 59 points back and Harvick tails by 65. Seven drivers are within 83 points of Hamlin, which actually isn’t that much of a deficit at this point. After all, Johnson was 92 points back after the first race — and look at him now.
If history holds true, things could get even closer this weekend. In an odd twist, excepting Johnson, the majority of Chase drivers who have performed well at Kansas are those deeper in the standings. The 1.5-mile track has hosted nine Cup races, with six of those being won by drivers in this year’s Chase. Jeff Gordon, eighth in the standings, has won twice at Kansas. Tony Stewart, 10th overall, also has won twice. Greg Biffle, in ninth, also has a win. Johnson, in second, has one victory there as well.
Not only is that trend true of the wins, but of top finishes as well.
Unless things change, Kansas could be the race that opens the door for some clinging to the outer edge of the competitive Chase field – and that could make those in front have to look a little more cautiously behind them in the weeks ahead.
Which Chase drivers seem to have figured out how to handle Kansas? It’s no surprise to see a pair of Hendrick Motorsports drivers on the list, but who else could continue to be strong this weekend?
Jeff Gordon: Gordon has the best average finish at Kansas among all Chase drivers. Not only does he have a pair of victories, but in nine starts at the track, he’s earned seven top-10 finishes – and six of those were top-fives. He has only one DNF at the track for an average finish of 8.9. Earlier this season at Chicagoland Speedway, a similar 1.5-mile track, he finished third.
Greg Biffle: The Roush Fenway Racing driver and his team have been impressive at Kansas. In eight starts at the track Biffle has not only a victory, but also five top-five finishes. He brings a stellar 9.0 Kansas finishing average and a hot streak at the track. Biffle’s lone DNF there came in his initial Kansas race. In his three most recent races, he has a worst finish of third. In fact, he has finished worse than third only once in his past six races at the track and no worse than 12th in his past seven. Watch out for these guys this weekend.
Tony Stewart: Entering the race deep in the field and 162 points behind Hamlin, Stewart must be happy to see this venue on the horizon. He has a pair of wins there and six top-10 finishes in nine starts. He has an average finish of 13.2 despite a pair of setbacks in his past trio of races. Still, he won a year ago and has three finishes of fourth or better in his past five races there. Stewart and his Stewart-Haas Racing group generally respond well to pressure, so this could be their weekend.
Jimmie Johnson: The one top driver who has fared consistently well at Kansas in the past is second-place Jimmie Johnson. Trailing Hamlin by 35 points, he has one win in eight starts at the track. He has six top-10 finishes, two of them top-fives, and an average Kansas finish of 10.3. As usual, Johnson is picking up steam as the Chase wears on, so anything is possible for him and his Chad Knaus-led team this weekend.
While these drivers hope to continue their overall trends at Kansas, some are looking to finally get a handle on the track that has stymied them from time to time over the years. Who will be looking to turn the tide at Kansas?
Kyle Busch: Off to a strong start in the Chase, Busch hopes to escape a setback at Kansas. He’s struggled to find a handle on this 1.5-mile track, one of the few where he doesn’t have a string of top finishes. Third in points heading into the race, Busch brings only a 24.3 finishing average at Kansas. He has just one top-10 finish in six starts there, a seventh-place run. Inconsistency has marred his performance there, where he has finishes of 12th, 28th, 41st, seventh, 21st and 37th. In what is shaping up to be a tight battle at the front, Busch certainly wants to avoid stumbling this weekend.
Kurt Busch: He’s not fared that much better than his younger brother at Kansas. In nine starts at the track, Busch has just two top-10 finishes and one DNF. His average Kansas finish of 19.7 is among the worst for Chase contenders. Still, he’s been gaining on the track. Busch has a pair of 11th-place finishes in his past three races at the track. Unfortunately, he has a pair of finishes worst than 25th in his past four races there. Which version of Busch will show up this weekend?
Matt Kenseth: The Roush Fenway Racing driver is searching for traction in the Chase this year, but history doesn’t show a good chance for recovery at Kansas. In nine starts at the track, Kenseth has three top-10 finishes, two of them top-fives, and two DNFs. He finished 39th for one of his unfinished races a year ago. Before that, he was up and down, posting finishes of fifth, 35th, 23rd, fifth, 17th, 36th, seventh and 32nd. He’ll need to finish much better than his average of 22.1 to move from 11th in the points standings this weekend.
Jeff Burton: Coming off a second-place finish last weekend, Burton looks to continue the momentum at Kansas. In his past five races at the track, he’s endured an array of finishes. He has two top-10 finishes, one of them a top-five, in races there for an average finish of 18.6. In recent Kansas races, he’s finished 23rd, seventh, 36th, fifth, 28th, 15th and 13th. He’ll need to match or better those top runs to gain ground in the Chase this weekend.