Matt Stallknecht · Friday October 4, 2013
He’s back, ladies and gentlemen. After nearly a month and a half of poor performances, Jimmie Johnson roared back last Sunday in Dover with a victory — silencing those who doubted the No. 48 team’s ability to return to its usual top form. But alas, this weekend’s race at the still freshly-repaved Kansas Speedway will be a whole different beast for Johnson and the rest of the 2013 Chasers to tame. Johnson, Matt Kenseth, and Kyle Busch have officially separated themselves from the pack; now, they’ll have to keep up their momentum. A new tire, a changing track surface, and the continuing drama of the Chase serve as obstacles, just some of the big stories we’ll all be watching heading into this weekend’s race.
I’m here to address them all in great detail for you…
1. How will Goodyear’s Multi-Zone Tread tire change the complexion of Sunday’s race?
Goodyear has been hard at work over the past year and a half or so trying to figure out how to build a tire that provides both falloff and durability. This adjustment is not an easy task. Over the years, Goodyear has struggled mightily to build tires for freshly repaved tracks like Kansas. The Goodyear folks are hoping that stigma changes this weekend.
Why? They’re rolling out a brand new tire based on the experimental one that was used at Atlanta earlier this summer to great success. It is a dual compound tire called “Multi-Zone Tread 2.0”, designed to have one compound soft enough for falloff and ample grip (which, by extension is good for racing). Also couched inside is a second compound, one that is designed to withstand the high heat of a repave. This format worked incredibly well at Atlanta, so there is hope that it will work again in Kansas.
Assuming the tire provides the kind of falloff that Goodyear designed it to have, it could seriously shake up the race on Sunday. Instead of approaching Kansas as a track position-centric race, drivers will instead have to be mindful of tire conservation that could set them back, several positions over the course of a run if handled wrong. Meanwhile, crew chiefs can scheme multiple pit strategies, based on handling that allow drivers to take advantage of their tire situation at any given time in the race. It’s a new element that hasn’t been seen at a race in Kansas since the track was repaved; and, as such, it will be a key item to watch on Sunday.
2. Can anyone outside the “Big Three” vault back into championship contention?
The “Big Three” title contenders (Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, and Kyle Busch) have largely made a mockery of the 2013 Chase thus far. None of the trio have finished outside of the Top 7 in any of the Chase races thus far, building nearly a full race lead over the fourth and fifth place drivers in the standings.
It is rather clear at this point that these three drivers are going to run away and fight the championship out amongst themselves if a fourth Chaser does not step up in a big way this weekend. And frankly, no one seems primed to do it. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has had a lot of speed throughout the Chase, but he is too far back at this point to mount a charge. Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon, and Greg Biffle (who are fourth through sixth in the points, respectively) are the only drivers close enough to really mount a comeback charge at this point in time. Unfortunately, none of them have shown the kind of dominating pace needed to compete with the top three.
Regardless, if the rest of the Chase field wants to have a say in this championship battle, they will have to outperform Kenseth, Johnson, and Busch this Sunday. It’s that simple. If the top three beat everyone for a fourth straight week, the rest of the field can pretty much kiss their championship hopes goodbye.
3. Is Dale Earnhardt, Jr. for real?
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has been something of a tease for the past year and a half or so. He has certainly recovered from his 2009-‘10 megaslump, surging forward as a truly competitive weekly contender. However, he has been unable to break through to that “championship” level despite showing flashes of the kind of performance that could net him such riches.
Take last week at Dover, for example. Seemingly out of nowhere, Earnhardt delivers one of his best career Cup performances, has the fastest car in the field, and goes toe-to-toe with Jimmie Johnson for the duration of the race. Earnhardt had similar speed at New Hampshire, indicating that perhaps his No. 88 team has found something.
We ought to get a pretty good feel for whether or not this team is “legit” this weekend in Kansas. The No. 88 car has been mediocre at best on intermediate tracks this year, and this track is as intermediate as they come. Another Dover-esque performance out of the No. 88 team could signal that Junior and Co. have hit on a formula that may be able to vault them back into the championship hunt. It’s not likely that he would be able to make up that kind of ground, but it’s not insurmountable, either.
4. Who will capture the checkered flag on Sunday?
Kansas figures to be a relatively difficult track to predict. We have a big sample size of 2013 intermediate track races to study from, and the raw stats would tell you that Matt Kenseth is the man to beat heading into the weekend. Kenseth has won every soft intermediate track race in 2013 (a soft intermediate is a 1.5-mile track with less than 24 degrees of banking, for those wondering), which includes the spring event at Kansas. Kenseth is thus the odds-on favorite, but he is by no means a lock to win.
With how many variables that figure to be in play on Sunday, specifically the tires, we cannot look at this particular event like a normal Kansas race. Looking back to Atlanta, which used a variation of the tire being used on Sunday, Joey Logano and Kyle Busch were the two cars to beat that night. I’m willing to bet they will use some of that knowledge to be fast on the Multi-Zone Tread tire Sunday.
I think Kenseth and his fellow championship combatants (Busch and Johnson) will ultimately be the guys to beat purely based on momentum. But you shouldn’t be surprised if some unconventional names end up towards the front due to the variables of the still-fresh Kansas surface and the new tire. A guy like Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., who led laps in the Spring Kansas event, would be a great longshot pick in that regard.
Long story short, expect the unexpected on Sunday, and do not purely rely on convention when picking a favorite to win the Hollywood Casino 400.
Matt Stallknecht’s Pre-Race Predictions for the 2013 AAA 400:
1. 20 – Matt Kenseth
2. 88 – Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
3. 18 – Kyle Busch
4. 48 – Jimmie Johnson
5. 17 – Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.
6. 22 – Joey Logano
7. 24 – Jeff Gordon
8. 5 – Kasey Kahne
9. 99 – Carl Edwards
10. 78 – Kurt Busch
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