Complete Preview for NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at Kansas

Paul Carreau@@PaulCarreauAnalyst IOctober 1, 2013

Complete Preview for NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at Kansas

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    The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series will make its second trip of the year to Kansas Speedway on Sunday afternoon. The race will mark the fourth event of the 10-race Chase for the Championship.

    With three races of the playoffs already in the books, Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch have already begun to distance themselves from the rest of the championship contenders. All three will look to continue their strong performances and separate themselves from the rest of the pack as much as they can.

    For the other 10 drivers in the Chase, Kansas represents an opportunity to try to close the gap on the leaders.

    So which drivers are the ones to keep the closest eye on, and which stories are making the most news? Join us as we break it down from all angles and get you set for the fourth race of the NASCAR playoffs. 

Kansas Race Information

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    The fourth race of the 2013 NASCAR Chase for the Championship takes place at Kansas Speedway. Here are all of the important details.

    Race: Hollywood Casino 400

    Track: Kansas Speedway (one-and-a-half mile, D-shaped oval)

    Distance: 267 laps that make up 400.5 miles

    Green Flag: Sunday afternoon, 2:00 p.m. ET

    TV: ESPN

    Defending Race Winner: Matt Kenseth

    First Race: September 30, 2001 (won by Jeff Gordon)

Breaking Down Kansas Speedway

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    Kansas Speedway is one of the newer tracks in the Sprint Cup Series. The venue opened in 2001 and held its first NASCAR race that same year.

    Originally, Kansas Speedway hosted one event per year, but since the 2011 season the track has been host to two races. Since the inception of the Chase format in 2004, Kansas has hosted one of the 10 Chase races each season.

    Ten different drivers have won a Sprint Cup Series race at Kansas. Five drivers have each won twice at the mile-and-a-half track including Jeff Gordon, who was victorious the first two times the series raced there, and Matt Kenseth, who has won the last two Sprint Cup events held on the speedway.

    Turning in a good qualifying lap is important in Kansas. The winning driver started 12th or better in 11 of the 15 races held at this facility, and only twice has an eventual race winner started the event in 20th place or worse.


Top Storylines at Kansas

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    Jimmie Johnson Has Returned to Form

    Jimmie Johnson ended the regular season with the worst four-race stretch of his career. He finished 40th, 36th, 28th and 40th in the four races leading up to the postseason. During that time, he saw a 75-point lead in the standings turn into a one-point deficit following the regular-season finale in Richmond.

    Since the playoffs got underway, Johnson has returned to top form. He followed up fifth- and fourth-place finishes in the first two Chase races with a win last weekend in Dover. The victory moves him to within eight points of championship leader Matt Kenseth.


    Can Matt Kenseth Make it 3 Kansas Victories in a Row?

    Point leader Matt Kenseth is the two-time defending winner at this speedway. He won this event one season ago and was also victorious when the Sprint Cup Series visited Kansas earlier this season. Not only has Kenseth visited Victory Lane each of the last two times at this track, he has also dominated both events.

    He has led a combined 241 laps (out of a possible 534) in his two Kansas wins. Kenseth comes into this event with plenty of momentum. He has posted five top-10 finishes in the last six races and has won three times.


    Other Chase Drivers Look to Build Some Momentum

    For the drivers not in the top three in the standings, Kansas is the race where something positive needs to start happening. Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch have already begun to put quite a bit of distance between themselves and the rest of the Chase contenders.

    If any of the drivers currently ranked fourth through 13th have any chance at winning the championship, a win in Kansas is almost a necessity. Just three races into the playoffs, Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon and Greg Biffle are the only three other championship contenders that are not already one full race's worth of points behind Kenseth.

Meeting the Drivers Atop the Point Standings

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    Here is a detailed look at the top five drivers in the standings following the first three events of the playoffs.


    1. Matt Kenseth: Matt Kenseth continues to lead the championship standings, something he has done since the playoffs began. His seven wins are a series best, and he won each of the first two races in the playoffs.


    2. Jimmie Johnson: After limping into the postseason, Johnson has rebounded with three strong finishes in a row. He backed up two consecutive top-five finishes with a win in Dover this past weekend. He comes into Kansas just eight points out of the lead. Johnson is a two-time Kansas Speedway winner.


    3. Kyle Busch: Kyle Busch sits in third place in the standings with a series-best 18 top-10 finishes and 14 top-five finishes. He is just 12 points out of first, and has started the Chase by posting three consecutive finishes inside the top five. Busch has never won at Kansas Speedway.


    4. Kevin Harvick: Two top-10s plus a 20th-place effort in New Hampshire put Kevin Harvick in fourth place in the championship standings. He is a two-time winner this season, but his 53 laps led this year along with his 16.3 average starting position are the worst among all championship contenders.


    5. Jeff Gordon: The last driver to make it into the playoffs, Jeff Gordon has worked his way up to fifth in the standings. He has yet to win this year, but two top-10s and a 15th-place finish in the last three events have put the four-time series champion just 39 points out of the lead. Gordon is a two-time Kansas winner.

Favorites at Kansas Speedway

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    Jimmie Johnson

    Coming off the win in Dover, Jimmie Johnson is once again the favorite as the playoffs shift to Kansas. He is a two-time winner at the mile-and-a-half speedway and, in 14 starts, has posted 12 top-10 finishes. He is the track's all-time leader in laps led and his three pole positions also tie for most in history.


    Matt Kenseth

    Matt Kenseth comes into this race on a hot streak. He has posted five top-10 finishes in his last six races, including three wins. He is the two-time defending race winner at this track and, in total, has scored four wins this year on mile-and-a-half tracks. Kenseth has scored nine top-10s in his 15 starts in Kansas, including six consecutive.


    Jeff Gordon

    Jeff Gordon won the first two races ever held at Kansas Speedway. He has failed to find Victory Lane at the track since, but has still managed to post some solid finishes. In 15 starts, Gordon is a 10-time top-10 finisher, with eight of those ending inside the top five. His 11.1 average finish at Kansas is fourth-best among drivers with at least eight starts at the track.


    Greg Biffle

    Greg Biffle is another two-time Kansas winner. He was victorious in both 2007 and 2010. Biffle comes into this race quietly in sixth place in the standings. His finishes of 16th, third and ninth in the three Chase races have Biffle in championship contention as he is just 41 points out of the lead. In 14 Kansas starts, Biffle has nine top-10 finishes and his 10.1 average finish is second among all drivers.


    Carl Edwards

    Though he has never won in Kansas, Carl Edwards has had plenty of success. In 12 starts at the 12-year-old track, he has posted eight top-10 finishes and posted the third-best average finish of 11.3. He has finished on the lead lap in all but one of his appearances in Kansas. After suffering mechanical issues late in the race at Dover, there may be no driver more motivated to have a strong run than Edwards.

Kansas Predictions

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    If you are a believer in momentum, than both Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth have it. Both have finished seventh or better in all three Chase races and, between the two of them, they have won all three events.

    If you are looking for a dark horse at Kansas, look no further than Johnson's teammate Kasey Kahne. He came within a car length of stealing the win from Kenseth the first time the series visited the facility in 2013, and, after three sub-par Chase-performances thus far, is due for a strong Chase race.

    Though there will undoubtedly be plenty of cars with a chance to win on Sunday, realistically this race, and possibly the entire playoffs, is about two drivers: Kenseth and Johnson.

    Both typically run well in Kansas and Kenseth, in particular, has been exceptional on mile-and-a-half tracks all season long. Do not be surprised if the final green-flag run of the race features these two drivers fighting it out at the front of the pack for the win.

    While either one is a safe bet, only one of them can cross the start/finish line first. Expect Kenseth to leave Kansas with the point lead, but it will be less than the eight points that it is right now.


    Kansas Winner: Jimmie Johnson