Race Weekend Central

Four Burning Questions – Points Resets and an Slippery Kansan Wild Card

The first round of the Chase is officially in the books, and the stars of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series now turn their attention to the Kansas Speedway, site of the first race in the second round of the Chase. Four drivers were eliminated from championship contention last week in Dover, and now with the Chase field thinned to 12 teams, the pressure ramps up a notch as the championship becomes within sight. Compound all of these playoff implications with the slippery and crash-happy Kansas Speedway surface, and it all would seem to point to a day full of storylines.

Question time!

1. Will the new Kansas surface create havoc for the Chasers?

Kansas Speedway was resurfaced and reconfigured back in the summer of 2012, and ever since that repave, the track has turned into a fundamentally different race circuit. Kansas used to be one of the slower intermediate tracks, one with multiple grooves and long green flag runs. But courtesy of the track’s 2012 transformation, all of those characteristics have been turned on their head.

Kansas is now one of the fastest, narrowest, and most caution-friendly race tracks on the circuit, and many teams are treating today’s race like a wild-card event as a result. The fall Kansas race has produced an average of 14.5 cautions per race, tops among mile and a half facilities. It’s the kind of statistic that makes crew chiefs lose sleep at night, an unfortunate result of a confluence of factors that include hard tires, high speeds, a super smooth track surface and over-eager racecar drivers. In case you are still confused, Brad Keselowski described Kansas as being a “mini-Talladega” this week.

Caption: CIA
Sights like Jamie McMurray’s car aflame from the night race back in May could be quite common later today. (Credit: CIA)

With cautions expected to fly with great frequency today, expect the winner of today’s race to be the one who’s crew chief made the most accurate strategy calls during caution periods. The right call, as well as a little luck in terms of avoiding wrecks, could be the difference between an Eliminator Round berth and a 25th-place finish.

2. Will a top contender slip up?

Let’s be honest here, 16 drivers is probably too many for a Chase field. There was a pervasive feeling throughout the past three weeks that some of the Chasers who were predicted to be a threat in the Chase essentially coasted through the Challenger Round due to the fact that they had little threat of being eliminated. Most everyone knew who the likely losers would be, and I don’t think anyone was surprised at who missed the cut. A guy like Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was more than able to take a few bad finishes in the first round on the chin knowing that he had a big enough cushion to stroke it to some extent.

This week, however, that all goes away. The 12 remaining Chasers have had their points reset to 3000, meaning everyone has to step up in order to advance from here on out. Resting on the merits built in the regular season won’t apply anymore.

What this means is that if a top-contending guy, like a Jeff Gordon, an Earnhardt, a Johnson, a Keselowski, etc., has bad luck in today’s race, he’s going to be in a serious hole in terms of making it to the next cut-line. With Kansas’ newfound wild-card nature, it could truly be anybody, which means that it’s something you should keep an eye on today.

3. How hard will it be to pass?

Kansas Speedway has been notorious among Sprint Cup circuits since it’s 2012 repave for being a track that is difficult to pass on. The butter-smooth surface that the track has necessitates extremely hard-compound tires for safe racing, and hard tires are not known for falling off. This tends to exacerbate the ever-present aero-sensitivity problem of the Gen 6 cars, and hence, you have a track that is difficult to pass on.

All of that being said, the 2014 version of the Gen 6 car has proven to be far more forgiving in terms of passing-difficulty on low-tire wear tracks thus far, and with another six months of wear being added to the track since the series last visited, it is reasonable to think that passing should be a touch easier today than in recent Kansas races.

That being said, it is going to still be tough to pick your way through the field today, and as such, the onus is going to be on the drivers to get everything they can on restarts. Be mindful of this today, because as mentioned earlier, plenty of cautions are expected, so the guy who best plays the restart game could end up profiting handsomely late in the going.

4. Who will take the checkered flag in the first race of the contender round?

With everyone back on an even playing field in terms of the points race, winning is once again the chief priority of every Chase team today since a win will automatically advance said team to the next round of the Chase. Based on every bit of on-track action that has taken place this weekend, a familiar face has emerged as the favorite to take that elusive victory…

Surprise surprise, that face belongs to Kevin Harvick. For an unheard of eighth time this season, Harvick placed his No. 4 Budweiser Chevrolet on the pole, and he was second in both the opening and closing practice sessions of the weekend. Oh, he also won this very race last year running for an inferior race team.

Yes, I get it. Harvick has broken hearts over the past three weeks courtesy of he and his team’s inability to close in the end’s of races. But for god’s sake, the guy is just due. It would seem foolish to pick against this team at this point, no matter how much bad luck they’ve endured.

If you aren’t willing to jump on the Harvick bandwagon, the three Challenger Round race winners (Keselowski, Logano, Gordon) all appear to have race-winning speed and figure to play a factor in the outcome of today’s race. In fact, I might even go as far as to say that those three, plus Harvick, figure to be the most reasonable final four at this point. Whoa, getting ahead of myself there….

Matt Stallknecht’s Pre-Race Predictions for the 2014 Hollywood Casino 400

  1.   4-Kevin Harvick
  2.   2-Brad Keselowski
  3. 18-Kyle Busch
  4. 55-Brian Vickers
  5. 22-Joey Logano
  6. 24-Jeff Gordon
  7. 42-Kyle Larson
  8. 41-Kurt Busch
  9. 15-Clint Bowyer
  10. 20-Matt Kenseth

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It will be interesting if Jimmie Johnson continues to sandbag like he has been for the last four months, or if he will start to show his hand. Chad is a ruthless, blood thirsty cut-throat, like his boss, the Felon, and he and Jimmie are the masters at playing mind games with the rest of the garage, the media, and the fans. I would still like to see it all blow up in their faces. Then again, I keep hoping the entire Hendrick empire will collapse.

It will also be interesting to see what NASCAR has planned if the Penske boys are strong. Can’t have any competition for Brian’s main supporter now, can we! And yes, I am extremely cynical!

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