With Talladega just ahead, heat is on to win now
For drivers with aspirations of winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship, there's a little added pressure to win on Sunday: Nobody wants to go to Talladega Superspeedway next week needing a win to advance in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Sunday's Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway is the second of three races in the Chase Round of 12. After Talladega, the field of remaining championship contenders will be cut from 12 to eight.
A victory in any of the races in this round automatically advances the winner to the Round of 8, so the heat is on to win now.
The high-speed Talladega track is where drivers have the least control, where someone else's minor misjudgment can create a massive crash that takes out 20 cars and wipes out a driver's Chase hopes.
Last year, Denny Hamlin was second in points coming into Talladega, but a 37th-place finish because of a loose roof hatch knocked him out of the Chase.
The year before, something similar happened to Hamlin's Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Kyle Busch, who was caught in a crash and finished 40th, taking Busch from second in points to out of the Chase.
And drivers are worried about more of the same this year.
"Everybody knows Talladega is looming (in) week three of this round, so I don't think anyone wants to go in there and have to worry about do I have to finish 10th or 12th or whatever?" said Martin Truex Jr., winner of two of the first four Chase races. "You never know what can happen there."
Kevin Harvick, the 2014 champion and last year's runner-up, said the pressure is on to win before Talladega.
"I think everybody has the same goal to try to win one of these two races to eliminate that possibility," Harvick said before last week's race at Charlotte. "...Obviously Talladega has the most things out of your control. So if you can get to Victory Lane it's a huge benefit."
In fact, the only Chase driver who can come into Kansas relaxed is Jimmie Johnson, who won last week at Charlotte, which clinched a berth in the Round of 8 for him.
"I don't know what our plan would be at Kansas, but it certainly opens up the book, whatever opportunities may present themselves," said Johnson. "It lets me go to Talladega and not worry about anything, which is fantastic. I can just get up in the race and mix it up, and race hard."
That's a luxury 11 other drivers don't have this weekend at Kansas. And it's a big reason Johnson is suddenly one of the favorites to go all the way this year.