The NASCAR circuit is making it’s second trip of the year to the Kansas Speedway this weekend, and much has changed since they last visited the Sunflower State in April. The track was repaved during the summer months, and new state of the art progressive banking was added as well. The track is now up to 20 degrees in banking and butter smooth, meaning that high speeds and a few tire blowouts will likely be the order of the day. How the Chasers fare during what has been billed as a wildcard round of the Chase leads our list of things to watch heading into this weekend.
*1. Can one of the Chase contenders deliver a statement win?*
We’re now five races into the Chase, and by this point it has become abundantly clear that three (possibly four if Clint Bowyer wins a bunch of races and gets really lucky) drivers have established themselves as the definitive title contenders for the 2012 crown. Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson, and Denny Hamlin are all well within striking distance of one another in the series standings, and although Keselowski holds the lead, there’s a prevailing feeling that his lead is tenuous at best given how tight the competition has been between the three drivers each week . All three drivers have had their moments of greatness so far in the last 5 races, but with how deep we are into the Chase, someone is going to have to deliver a convincing win to truly establish himself as “the man to beat” during the homestretch.
One could argue that Tony Stewart’s stunning victory at Martinsville last year was the win that vaulted him to the 2011 title. The 2012 contenders are going to be looking for that kind of magic this week in Kansas, as a definitive win on a track as unpredictable and untested as the newly repaved Kansas would go a long way in establishing that driver as the “favorite”. Can one of the three leading title contenders take on a total unknown of a racetrack and conquer it? That would be a huge statement, and it is certainly something to watch for this Sunday.
*2. Will the newly repaved track surface cause tire problems?*
Whenever the series heads to a freshly repaved race track, tires (and the deformation of them) is always a big issue for the drivers and teams. This week’s race at Kansas will likely be no different. Freshly repaved race tracks have a tendency to burn tires up, melt them, and destroy them, and this inevitably can lead to some nasty crashes. Dale Earnhardt Jr’s testing crash this summer was proof of that, to say the least.
Thus, the onus of responsibility is on Goodyear this weekend to provide a tire that can withstand the new track surface. Goodyear has been screaming from the rooftops all week that they believe they have a tire combination that is very conservative, which more or less means that they are rock hard. On most tracks this would be a problem, but given the safety implications involved here it is definitely a good move by Goodyear to bring the most conservative combination they have possible. But no matter how conservative the tire is, problems will likely still arise, so tire blowouts will most definitely be something to watch for in the race. And if there is a rash of them, expect the racing community to come down on Goodyear like a ton of bricks.
*3. Will the repave kill the racing quality?*
Related to the tire issue in question 2, newly repaved racetracks have historically been known to provide tepid racing. However, don’t expect that to be the case this weekend. The other tracks this season that got a facelift, Michigan and Pocono, put on some of their best races in years despite being resurfaced, thus suggesting that track owners have figured out how to repave race tracks without killing the quality of racing. And quite frankly, in the case of Kansas Speedway, there really wasn’t anywhere to go but up anyway. The pre-repave Kansas Speedway, with it’s low-banking, was not conducive to NASCAR racing in the first place, and it annually put on one of the worst races of the year.
Thus, the very fact that Kansas got more banking (it is now banked at 20 degrees) ought to negate any negative consequences that the fresh pavement provides. And given the fact that the last two track repaves went resoundingly well, it stands to reason that this Sunday’s race at Kansas Speedway could very well be one of the best races the track has ever staged since being added to the schedule in 2001.
*4. Can Regan Smith come up big in his last race with Hendrick Motorsports?*
Even though it lasted less than 100 laps, Regan Smith performed admirably in his first outing with Hendrick Motorsports. Smith drove from the back of the field to the top 10 before his engine expired a quarter of the way through the race. Smith was towards the top of the practice charts all week to boot, and overall felt like he had quickly developed good chemistry with his team. In fact, despite the issues that arose during the race, Smith managed to impress Rick Hendrick so much that ol’ Mr. H implied earlier this week that he wanted Smith to pilot an HMS car in the Nationwide Series for 2013?
With all this in mind, Smith has to be licking his chops at the opportunity in front of him this weekend. He knows his team has faith in him, he has A grade equipment, and he has nothing to lose. Those are all the ingredients that make for an upset, and the chances of it happening are much better than most people are willing to admit. Beyond this, a good run of any sort would not only strengthen Smith’s chances of landing a ride with an HMS-affiliated Nationwide team, it could also put him back on the radar of many Cup teams. So can Smith pull off the upset? I certainly don’t see why not.
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