The Chase heads to the Midwest this weekend for its eighth visit to Kansas Speedway. The teams will once again be trying to make the boxier new car go through the air quickly and still turn once it gets to the corners. As this is our first and only visit to the track this season, gamers will need to look at the previous 1.5-milers to get an idea of how their drivers have handled the cookie-cutter tracks earlier this year. There are some lower echelon drivers that seem to excel on the 1.5-mile tracks – as well as some higher-priced competitors who have struggled on this style of facility.
Carl Edwards has all but owned this type of track this year – can he continue to put a whooping on the field this weekend and expand his points lead? Meanwhile, Jimmie Johnson is peaking earlier than he has in recent years, and threw the last cookie-cutter punch at Fontana – can he follow that up with another surprising win? Finally, Kyle Busch has proclaimed he’s out of the title hunt; is that really the case, and is he worth the risk on your fantasy team as his on-track aggression heats up?
Read this week’s Picks ‘N’ Pans to see which drivers should be running for your team – and which ones would be better off driving a combine through a wheat field this Sunday.
Bryan’s Race Rewind
In what was one of the most controversial finishes of the 2007 season, Greg Biffle crossed the finish line third but was still awarded the win at Kansas Speedway. The race, already delayed twice by rain, was ended on lap 210 due to darkness. But as the field coasted to the finish under yellow, Biffle, who was reportedly out of fuel, crawled along the apron of the frontstretch, running at such a slow pace that Johnson and Clint Bowyer both crossed the line ahead of him. Nonetheless, NASCAR ruled that Biffle maintained an acceptable pace. While Chasers Bowyer, Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne all finished in the top 10, six drivers in the Chase finished outside the top 25 in this event due to various incidents throughout the day (Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Burton, Edwards, Martin Truex Jr., Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch).
Mike’s Keys to the Race
The annual trip to Kansas will once again showcase the teams that are good at making the new car design turn through the corners. The teams are understanding more and more how to make the cars turn better, and the racing has been improving – with Dover being the latest example. Added to that is the fact that Kansas has aged in its eight years of existence, and should begin to offer more competitive, multi-groove racing. The teams this year that have consistently run well on the intermediates will most likely run near the front again this weekend. Roush is always a force on the cookie cutters, and Hendrick has multiple wins on these style tracks. JGR has also been very strong on the 1.5-2 mile facilities.
Crank ‘Em Up:
Edwards has been very dominant on the intermediates this year, scoring four of his victories on 1.5-2 mile tracks. Edwards is also riding quite a wave of momentum, finishing third last weekend thanks in large part to what turned out to be a bad pit call – taking two tires on the final pit stop of the race. If he’d taken on four new shoes, there’s no telling where he might have ended up. Also, two of Edwards’s four races at Kansas have resulted in top-10 finishes, so it’s a better than decent bet that Cousin Carl will be battling for the win again this weekend.
Johnson is trying a totally different approach to the Chase this year. In past years, he has started very slowly and come on strong at the end of the Chase to win his titles. But he has finished second and fifth in the first two races of the Chase this year, and sits only 10 points out of the lead. His average finish over the last four races is 2.2, with two wins, a second and a fifth. The way this team tends to get stronger as the Chase progresses, Johnson may very well win half the races in the final 10 events this year.
Sit ‘Em Down:
Hamlin has had some great runs this year, and some poor runs this year in what’s amounted to an inconsistent season. Interestingly, more of the races he’s had on intermediate tracks have resulted in poor runs vs. good runs. Plus, Hamlin’s coming off a bad run at Dover, and he was sounding quite down on his prospects for the Chase after his team’s bad luck last weekend. On top of that, his history at Kansas is not impressive. He’s got an average finish of 26.3 on the track, and his highest finish is 18th. Don’t expect Hamlin to do much this weekend.
Bobby Labonte continues to do some amazing things in Petty equipment this year, but he also continues to do his best on tracks where he’s had success in the past. Well, Kansas is not one of those tracks. Labonte has a best finish of 16th in the Heartland, and four of his seven finishes have been 22nd or worse. While Labonte could surprise with a strong run, he’s more than likely going to finish in the 20s again this weekend.
Roll the Dice:
David Ragan almost made the Chase this season, but was ultimately done in by Richmond – which is a short track. For the surprising sophomore, his strength has actually been on the intermediates; and fortunately for Ragan and fantasy gamers, Kansas is an intermediate track. Ragan has run once at Kansas, and while most of his 2007 season was forgettable, he managed to finish 16th there. Expect to see more success for Ragan this weekend, as you can hopefully score some big points for little investment.
Crank ‘Em Up:
While it was controversial, Biffle did win the lone Cup race at Kansas Speedway in 2007. What isn’t controversial is that Biffle knows better than most how to get around Kansas’s oval. Since Biffle’s rookie season with Roush Racing in 2003, Biffle has never finished outside the top 15 at the track – working up a stout average finish of 6.0 in the process. Biffle has led multiple laps in each of the last four Kansas races, and has never finished off the lead lap in any Cup race he has contested at the track with Roush. The fact that the No. 16 team is suddenly the hottest in NASCAR and Kansas Speedway is one of Biffle’s best tracks… do the math.
The annual Cup trek to Kansas Speedway is homecoming for Bowyer, but his performance on the track is just as much cause for celebration for the No. 07 team as the team’s driver being able to return home. In the last two seasons, Bowyer has done everything short of winning at Kansas. In 2006, he finished fifth in the Nationwide Series race, then led 43 laps and finished ninth on Sunday. Last season, it was more of the same, with Bowyer landing top fives in both series’ races. More importantly, the No. 07 team has gotten their intermediate-track program back on track with the rest of Richard Childress Racing. They’ve been the model of consistency as a team through the Chase so far – so, look for Bowyer to lead the charge for RCR as they tackle the fastest track on the Plains.
Sit ‘Em Down:
Even last season, when Juan Pablo Montoya proved capable, albeit inconsistently, of competing on an intermediate oval, Kansas Speedway was none too kind to the driver of the No. 42. Last year, Montoya finished off the lead lap in 28th position, and this season doesn’t look to be too much more promising. Montoya has an average finish of 31.0 in the last four Cup races on ovals longer than one mile, and with his teammate and the No. 41 team in limbo an all too visible distraction at CGR, there’s no reason to see Montoya stealing a good finish this weekend.
Early in his career, Ryan Newman fans couldn’t wait to see the driver of the No. 12 tackle the Kansas Speedway. Newman scored three top-two finishes in his first three Cup races at the track, including a win in 2003. Since then, however, the Rocketman has dropped from contention at Kansas. In his last four starts at Kansas, Newman has an average finish of 30.75, without a single top-20 run. In that span, Newman has finished on the lead lap only once. The No. 12 team also struggled on Kansas’s sister track at Chicago earlier this season (their 10th-place finish was thanks to late cautions and tire strategy). Midpack is where Newman has run recently, and it’s a trend that will likely continue on Sunday.
Roll the Dice:
You’d never know it, but in the last four races at Kansas Speedway only two drivers have scored more points than Casey Mears. You’d also likely never guess that Mears is currently on one of his better stretches of the 2008 season. Mears has scored two top 15s in the last three races and was competitive for much of the race at Loudon. Mears is also riding a wave of momentum at Kansas which has seen him score three top 10s in consecutive seasons, posting an average finish of 4.67 at the track since 2005. If there’s a race to start Mears in this year, this is likely the one.
Mike: Congratulations are in order again this week for you, Mr. Keith. Your pick of Biffle going back to back was right on. In a first for us this season, we cranked the winner and the last-place finisher. Hopefully I won’t repeat that effort this week.
Bryan: As much as I felt bad for you and our readers, I couldn’t help but rejoice in Busch’s troubles, I’ve got to tell you. Neither of us are jumping back on the M&M’s bandwagon – but you’re staying with the Big Three. Johnson is the leader for Hendrick right now, no question, but why does Edwards deserve the nod when his teammate is the hottest driver in Cup right now?
Mike: Biffle has certainly got all of the momentum on his side, but Edwards did finish third last weekend, and had he taken four tires instead of two on that last pit stop, he very well may have been able to outduel Biffle and Kenseth at the end. He’s been on fire on the intermediate tracks all year and I don’t see that changing this weekend. Oh, and Edwards is also the points leader. I understand your pick of Biffle, though – but I’m surprised by Bowyer. I know he’s got the best finishing average at the track after his two previous runs there, but they have been out to lunch on the 1.5-mile tracks this year. Why do you think they’re going to turn it around this weekend?
Bryan: Take a look at RCR’s performance in recent weeks, and it’s very clear that as a whole they’ve snapped out of the summer rut that they found themselves in. As for Bowyer, he certainly has been out to lunch on intermediates this season, but his last race on an intermediate was markedly improved. Bowyer scored a top-10 run at Fontana, a run that has me thinking that the resurgence of the No. 07 team is going to continue past the shorter tracks that Bowyer has excelled on. I am equally surprised that you’re sitting JGR’s Hamlin on an intermediate… what’s got you concerned there?
Mike: I know I may be way off base, but looking at his results this year, Hamlin’s finishes on intermediates have been sporadic, and he’s coming off a down weekend at Dover. He’s been known to get down on his team after races like that, and the negative energy may very well carry over this weekend. On top of that, his average finish at Kansas is 26.3 and his best finish is 18th. I would not be surprised to see another subpar performance from the FedEx bunch. I must admit, I’m surprised to see you sitting Newman considering his initial success at Kansas. What makes you think he’s more likely to repeat the last four years vs. the first three?
Bryan: My boy Newman hasn’t cracked the top 20 at Kansas since 2003. Breaking streaks like that requires momentum and good racecars, and the No. 12 team has neither right now. Plus, the closest track to Kansas is Chicago, and Newman’s run there did not impress me in July. Sure, he finished 10th, but he got there only because of a late two-tire pit strategy and multiple late-race cautions breaking up the runs enough to prevent him from being gobbled up by the rest of the field. The No. 12 team ran in 21st or so all race long then, and I’d expect more of the same this weekend unfortunately. Much as Newman has dropped off the Kansas radar, Ragan has dropped off the radar entirely since narrowly missing the Chase. You think Roush Fenway Racing has enough focus to get the No. 6 up to the front?
Mike: One thing is for sure about Ragan this year – he can run well on the intermediate tracks. Short tracks have been his nemesis, but the cookie cutters have been his playground. Without question, if he’s going to win a race this year, it will come on a 1.5-mile track. Speaking of teams that can’t seem to focus, the No. 5 team has been far more miss than hit this year. What makes you think Hendrick’s lame duck driver will be able to do something impressive this weekend?
Bryan: Obviously, top-15 cars don’t cut it at Hendrick Motorsports, but Mears has two top 15s in his last three races, and he wasn’t running half bad at Loudon before trouble struck. Much like Jamie McMurray had a mini-run of halfway decent runs (by their standards) over the summer, I see Mears having a stretch of decency of late. Plus, statistically, Mears doesn’t have many tracks better than Kansas. He finished top 10 at Kansas last year despite having three teammates in the Chase, and that lightning I think will strike twice.
Mike: It will be interesting to see. I’m curious to see if we’re both wrong by not picking Busch this weekend. His luck can’t continue to be this bad, and intermediate tracks tend to be his playground. I would not be surprised to see him run away with the race this weekend.
Bryan: I also wouldn’t be surprised to see his attitude run away this weekend and put a final nail in the No. 18’s coffin. We’ll just have to see how it pans out.
The following are the guidelines that Bryan and Mike follow in making their picks each week: Crank ‘Em Up drivers can be in any position in the driver standings, Sit ‘Em Down drivers must be in the current top 25 of the driver standings and Roll the Dice drivers can not be in the top 12 of the current week’s driver standings.
Crank – 13.0
Sit – 21.9
Roll – 20.7
Crank – 10.9
Sit – 20.9
Roll – 19.0