Biggest NASCAR Storylines to Watch Ahead of Sprint Cup Series at Kansas

Bob Margolis@BobMargolisContributor IIMay 6, 2014

Biggest NASCAR Storylines to Watch Ahead of Sprint Cup Series at Kansas

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    Kansas Speedway Main Grandstands
    Kansas Speedway Main GrandstandsJerry Markland/Getty Images

    This Mother’s Day weekend, the teams of NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series return to familiar territory—1.5-mile racing at Kansas Speedway.

    The term “cookie cutter” is often used (erroneously) when describing Kansas Speedway and the other 1.5-mile tracks on the schedule. (Five in the Chase—seven total.) Each track, while similar in shape and length, has its own personality.

    Texas Motor Speedway has its bump just past the entry to Turn 1, while Atlanta it's worn out asphalt that acts like a cheese grater on the Goodyear racing tires. Chicagoland is bumpy all the way around and Charlotte, well Charlotte is just fast.

    Kansas Speedway underwent a repave in 2012, making the surface of the track a comparatively smooth ride all the way around. The track also had progressive banking built into its corners, hopefully to make the track a multi-groove track. However, since the surface is still new, that hasn’t happened yet. It’s going to depend on how the rubber lays down, how fast the track is and if the drivers get to sliding around in practice. But expect a few of the veteran drivers to move up and widen the racing groove.

    Racing on 1.5-mile tracks can often be boring, but they also have provided some of the more exciting finishes in NASCAR history.

    A historical note: Prior to 2005, Mother’s Day weekend was traditionally an off weekend on the Sprint Cup schedule. When Darlington Raceway lost its Labor Day race, it’s spring race was moved to Mother’s Day weekend, but as a Saturday night race. This year, NASCAR’s Mother’s Day weekend moves to Kansas, with racing on Saturday night, under the lights for the first time at Kansas Speedway.

    *All quotes in this slideshow are taken from official team and manufacturer media releases unless otherwise stated.

It's Good to Be Home for No. 300

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    Clint Bowyer
    Clint BowyerOrlin Wagner/Associated Press

    Clint Bowyer returns home for a major career milestone.

    In Saturday night’s 5-Hour Energy 400, the Emporia, Kansas, native will make his 300th NASCAR Sprint Cup Series start. Bowyer will look to become the next driver to win in his 300th start. His good friend Denny Hamlin did it on Sunday at Talladega.

    Four others have accomplished the feat: NASCAR Hall of Famers Ned Jarrett and Rusty Wallace, and Kasey Kahne and Kyle Busch.

    Bowyer will be racing with an extra added level of security this weekend. Michal Waltrip Racing (MWR) announced this week that it had signed a multiyear contract extension with sponsor 5-Hour Energy, Bowyer and crew chief Brian Pattie. The new deal begins with the 2015 season and the length of the agreement was not disclosed.

    "This is big news for all of us,” said Bowyer, who is an eight-time winner in NASCAR Sprint Cup competition. "It creates great stability and excitement about what the next few years can bring. MWR is my racing home and continuing this relationship with 5-Hour Energy was a high priority. It's time to put the paperwork in a drawer and focus on winning."

    Bowyer, who sits 18th in driver points, is currently winless on the season.

    In unrelated news this week, Bowyer announced on Twitter that he and his wife of two weeks are expecting their first child, a son, according to an ultrasound taken this week.


Kenseth Overdue for First Win of 2014

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    Matt Kenseth Kansas Speedway April 2013
    Matt Kenseth Kansas Speedway April 2013Chris Trotman/Getty Images

    If ever there were a track for Matt Kenseth to end a mini-drought, it’s Kansas Speedway.

    Kenseth has won two of the last three races at Kansas, which ties him atop the track’s all-time wins list with other two-time winners Greg Biffle, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart.

    When asked if he’s changed his style of racing since the start of the new Chase rules, Kenseth is quick to reply:

    I know it’s not always the popular answer, but I still stand by that I just don’t think it changes the racing. I don’t think it changes the winners, I just think it changes the reward you get for winning. All these races are really big races and everybody wants to win them. 

    Everybody goes out and does everything they can to win these races each and every week no matter what the reward is and no matter what it pays, points or any of that stuff. They’re all big races and everybody shows up every week to try to win.

    Kenseth is second in driver points behind leader Jeff Gordon, who is also without a win this season.

It's Kick Keselowski Week

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    Someone please remove the “Kick Me” sign from Brad Keselowski’s back.

    Granted, he deserved it being placed there for a few days, as explained by the Associated Press in USA Today following this weekend’s Aaron’s 499 at Talladega.

    In his defense, Keselowski didn’t do anything that hadn’t been seen before at Talladega. Although I’m not sure how long it’s been since a race leader has taken out the entire field, as Keselowski almost did on Sunday.  

    Had it been anyone else who caused two wrecks at Talladega like Keselowski did, it would have been easily dismissed as a typical “bonehead move” and the drivers, media and fans would have quickly moved on.

    “Well, I will say one thing if it was the other way around and it was anybody else except for him we’d all be getting lectured,” said Matt Kenseth, who was not spared the carnage and finished 37th, 17 laps down.

    “I didn’t know he was that many laps down honestly.”

    Keselowski is the first to criticize others in situations like this and so it was natural that the “Kick Me” sign be hung immediately after he caused the second wreck, which occurred while he was several laps down to the race leaders and was the race’s proverbial “Big One.” The wreck also took out several big names, including a few drivers who generally are among the favorites at Talladega.

    Also coming to his defense (somewhat) was two-time Talladega winner Jimmie Johnson.

    "I wasn’t so thrilled that a car six laps down crashed the field, that aspect of it,” said Johnson in a post-race interview. "But I get it. You’re trying to get your laps back. But I didn’t have any big run-in with him except for unfortunately being caught up in that wreck."

    Back in the day, NASCAR legends Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Darrell Waltrip didn’t make too many friends on the race track either.

Is There a Jinx on Johnson?

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    Jimmie Johnson (l) with crew chief Chad Knaus
    Jimmie Johnson (l) with crew chief Chad KnausMike McCarn/Associated Press

    No, there isn’t any jinx on Jimmie Johnson.

    The last time Johnson went winless this far into a season was in 2012.  He scored his first win that year in the 11th race, which was on Mother’s Day weekend at Darlington Raceway.

    The No. 48 team won five races that year, but it failed to win the championship. That honor went to Brad Keselowski, who won the first Sprint Cup title for team owner Roger Penske.

    There isn’t anything wrong with the Lowe’s Chevrolet team. Crew chief Chad Knaus is still the genius he’s always been, although some of the radio chatter during races the past several weeks has been “edgy” to put it nicely.

    Johnson and the No. 48 team has a good record in Kansas. Two wins and 13 top 10s at a track that plays a prominent role in the Chase is a nice ace up-the-sleeve when postseason play comes around in the fall.

    This team is getting impatient about winning. You can tell by the way Johnson answered when asked about Kansas during a press availability last weekend.

    “I feel pretty good. We’ve had strong runs and I think Texas, we didn’t get to go very far, but through practice and qualifying we had a lot of people concerned. I feel very good about our 1.5-mile stuff. We still want to be better and I think the No. 4 (Kevin Harvick) has been the most consistent car with the most speed. But we’ve been in there fighting for wins. So we feel very good about that.”

    Johnson sits seventh in driver points, although it would be difficult even now to imagine that this team would need driver points to make the Chase.

    However, stranger things than this have happened in NASCAR.

Is Hamlin Back?

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    Headlines throughout the NASCAR media would appear to confirm that he is.

    And there’s no question that he did win the Aaron’s 499 on Sunday in Talladega. To be honest, it was a restrictor plate race that ended under caution, and some might agree that Greg Biffle had the better car in the final laps and was setting Hamlin up. We'll never know.

    To declare that "Hamlin is back" might be a bit of a stretch. Tom Jensen with Fox Sports jumps to some huge conclusions in his piece.

    We all know the story. Earlier this year Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing team comes out of the box at Daytona, winning everything in sight—except for the big race itself, where he finished second.

    That runner-up finish might have been what took the air out of this team’s sails as they’ve been in a funk ever since. Forget that Hamlin took a weekend off because of a piece of metal in his eye, which mimicked what could have been a lot worse.

    This weekend, it’s time to show if he’s really back. The JGR 1.5-mile package isn’t great, but it should get him a top-10 finish or better, as shown by the results of the most recent 1.5-mile race at Texas Motor Speedway. Teammates Kyle Busch (third) and Matt Kenseth (seventh) finished in the top-10. Hamlin just missed the mark with a 13th-place showing.

    Sunday’s win was Hamlin’s third top 10 of the season. Let’s see how he does at Kansas, a track where he’s got one win and three top fives to his credit.

    According to most of the press he received this week, he should be able to keep the ball rolling and score back-to-back wins, shouldn’t he?

Rookie Report: Kansas Edition

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    Austin Dillon
    Austin DillonUSA TODAY Sports

    Only a third of the way into the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup season and the Sunoco Rookie of the Year competition appears to come down to a two-man race between Austin Dillon (pictured) and Kyle Larson.

    After trailing Dillon until now, Larson has edged ahead of the Richard Childress Racing driver by one point in the driver’s standings (13th).

    For both young men, the Aaron’s 499 was a real eye opener, with Larson scoring yet another top-10 finish (ninth), his fifth of the season. Dillon, on the other hand, has but one top 10 to his credit, in the season opener at Daytona.

    Dillon should have the edge at Kansas Speedway this weekend as he’s logged two top 10s and a top-five finish in the NASCAR Nationwide Series there. This will also be a return visit to Kansas for Larson. He has one NNS race to his credit, but this weekend will be his first time on the 1.5-mile track in a Cup car.

    As for the rest of the rookie class—Michael Annett, Justin Allgaier, Alex Bowman, Cole Whitt and Ryan Truex, all but Allgaier are hampered by their equipment. Arguably both Bowman, Truex and Whitt—all with BK Racing—could be considered to be in good equipment. But for them to succeed on the level of even Allgaier, they require the kind of team that only Chip Ganassi Racing and RCR can provide.

    Allgaier’s Harry Scott Motorsports team is in its first year as an organization, having made a transition from what was once James Finch’s Phoenix Racing. Allgaier has the level of experience and talent of both Dillon and Larson. This season has turned into a steep learning curve for driver and team at HScott Motorsports. That’s OK, because Allgaier will be around for awhile.

    And so will Dillon and Larson.

    In fact, it’s likely that most of this year’s Sprint Cup rookie class will be in the sport in five years. There’s plenty of talent here and hopefully there will be seats at better teams made available to them.

We're Watching You, Danica

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    USA TODAY Sports

    You have to learn to pace yourself/Pressure
    You're just like everybody else/Pressure
    You've only had to run so far/So good
    But you will come to a place
    Where the only thing you feel
    Are loaded guns in your face
    And you'll have to deal with

    .....Pressure by Billy Joel

    The clock continues to run on Danica Patrick’s NASCAR career. Three years in and she remains one of the sport’s flash points. Just the mention of her name evokes a long litany of comments from fans who either hate her or love her. I used to be a hater, when she ran in IndyCars. But now in NASCAR, Patrick has proved to me that she is worthy of the seat and deserves my full support.

    She led six laps at Talladega, a race that she could have won had she been able to stay out of trouble for the entire race. But she still has to learn how to do that, too.

    Those top-10 and better finishes will come. But first, she has to learn how to master the 1.5-mile tracks, and Kansas Speedway is about as “easy” as they come. It’s new surface and progressive banking should make for a problem-free weekend for the GoDaddy team.

    Kansas Speedway has been one of Patrick’s worst tracks with finishes of 32nd, 25th and 43rd, respectively, over the past two years.

    It should be about time for improvement, don’t you think?

Another Week, Another Chance for a Win for Gordon

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Don’t let that bit of gray around his temples fool you. This veteran is as hungry as someone half his age (he’s 42) for that first win of the season.

    Another weekend and yet another opportunity to win for the No. 24 team.

    This Alan Gustafson-led squad has been among the best teams not to win a race in the first 10 this season. Gordon’s stats this season, four top fives and seven top 10s, are very impressive. However, this team has been just one step short, or one bad tire away from taking the checkers ahead of the other 42 cars.

    Kansas Speedway is one of Jeff Gordon’s better race tracks with two wins, nine top fives and eleven top 10s in his 16 visits to the Midwestern track.

Don't Expect Harvick to Slow Down

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    Kevin Harvick walks down Talladega pit road with son Keelan
    Kevin Harvick walks down Talladega pit road with son KeelanPatrick Smith/Getty Images

    Kevin Harvick (seen above with son Keelan) is having fun this season. And why not? He’s won twice (Phoenix, Darlington), and his Stewart-Haas Racing team, led by Rodney Childers appears to have overcome their post-Phoenix “issues.”

    As a reminder, all of those “issues” were of a mechanical nature. Still, the team went through a real test of character during that run of eight races. According to Harvick:

    We have had some weeks that things didn’t exactly go our way, but there are a lot bigger challenges than a broken part on a race car. We put it all back together and we come back the next week and we know our cars have been running well. 

    That is really what keeps you going is when you are really capable and in our opinion winning every race that we’ve been in so far. Obviously, those wouldn’t have worked out and didn’t work out, but the performance of the car has been there.  That keeps you going and that makes me enthused and everybody is getting along and having fun and to me it’s like I said at Darlington, I think the character of the team has really been tested as we went through the first eight weeks.

    Always a threat to win on a 1.5-mile track, Harvick has a win and seven top-10s at Kansas.

    He’s still aiming for those wins.

    You just go out and try to put your best foot forward every week to get a win and protect yourself as much as you can with as many wins as possible is our goal at this point to get into the first rounds because the bonus points matter at this point.

    And as for the photo of him and son Keelan? Harvick has seen all the photos of a young Dale Earnhardt Sr. and an even younger Dale Jr. together at the race track. There's nothing like getting them started early.

The Mother's Day List

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    2011 Race Winner Regan Smith at Darlington Raceway
    2011 Race Winner Regan Smith at Darlington RacewayChris Graythen/Getty Images

    In case you were wondering which driver gave his mother the best Mother’s Day gift ever, here’s the list.

    2005        Greg Biffle
    2006        Greg Biffle
    2007        Jeff Gordon
    2008        Kyle Busch
    2009        Mark Martin
    2010        Denny Hamlin
    2011        Regan Smith (shown above)
    2012        Jimmie Johnson
    2013        Matt Kenseth

    It’s a useless stat. But I thought you might like to know.

    Note: Prior to 2005, Mother’s Day weekend was traditionally a weekend off.