Complete Preview and Prediction for 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at Kansas

Bob Margolis@BobMargolisContributor IIMay 8, 2014

Complete Preview and Prediction for 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at Kansas

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    Practice underway for 5-Hour Energy 400
    Practice underway for 5-Hour Energy 400USA TODAY Sports

    Mom, apple pie and stock-car racing.

    NASCAR brings its Mother’s Day celebration to America's heartland this year with a weekend of racing that is headlined with the Sprint Cup series’ 5-Hour Energy 400 Benefiting Special Operations Warrior Foundation.

    It’ll be “Saturday Night Under the Lights,” as Kansas Speedway hosts its first nighttime Cup race.

    All eyes will be on the Fab Five, the five marquee drivers in the Sprint Cup series who are winless so far this season.

    Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle personify the cream of the crop in NASCAR racing, yet they all are winless in 2014.

    Between them, the five drivers have 10 wins at Kansas Speedway (two each). Kenseth, who won a series-high seven Cup races last year, is the defending race champion.

    Kansas Speedway was repaved in the summer of 2012, smoothing out the asphalt blemishes caused by harsh Midwestern winters. Progressive banking was added in an attempt to widen the racing groove. The new surface has shown to have a lot of grip and speeds should be very high, well over 200 mph going into Turn 1.

    “It was so smooth when it was first paved – even the transitions were smooth,” said Tony Stewart. We knew going in that it would have a ton of grip and a ton of speed, but it was smoother than most highways you go down.”

    Fans get a fast track and a Saturday-night show. And one driver will give his mom the best Mother’s Day gift ever.

By the Numbers

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    Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

    5-Hour Energy 400 Benefiting Special Operations Warrior Foundation

    The Place: Kansas Speedway
    The Date: Saturday, May 10
    The Time: 7:30 p.m. ET
    TV: Fox, 7 p.m. ET
    Radio: Motor Racing Network (MRN), Sirius XM Ch. 90
    Distance: 400.5 miles (267 laps)

    Winner of Last Year’s Race: Matt Kenseth
    Youngest Pole Winner: Jason Leffler (09/30/200126 years, 0 months, 14 days)
    Oldest Pole Winner: Mark Martin (10/04/200950 years, 8 months, 25 days)
    Races Won from Pole: 4
    Last Race Won from Pole: Kevin Harvick (10/06/2013)
    Youngest Winner: Ryan Newman (10/05/200325 years, 9 months, 27 days)
    Oldest Winner: Mark Martin (10/09/200546 years, 9 months, 0 days)
    Race Record: Denny Hamlin, 144.122 mph (04/22/2012)
    Qualifying Record: Matt Kenseth, 191.864 mph (04/21/2013)
    All-time Race Winner(s): Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart, Greg Biffle (2 wins each)

    Kansas City Weather

    Things to Do in Kansas City

Key Storylines This Weekend

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    Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

    Fab Five

    Heading into Saturday night’s 5-hour ENERGY 400 at Kansas Speedway, the five drivers sharing the all-time lead in Kansas victories all are winless thus far this season.

    The collective 0-for-10 hitters are: Jimmie Johnson (No. 48, Lowe’s; Chevrolet); Jeff Gordon (No. 24, Drive to End Hunger; Chevrolet); Tony Stewart (No. 14, Bass Pro Shops; Chevrolet); Matt Kenseth (No. 20, Dollar General; Toyota) and Greg Biffle (No. 16, 3M; Ford).

    The first four have combined for 14 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championships. Biffle hasn’t won NASCAR’s biggest title, but he’s been close, finishing as the series’ runner-up in 2005. He also has won NASCAR’s two other national-series championships, the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series 2000 and the NASCAR Nationwide Series in 2002.

    If you’re into stats like I am, the five drivers listed above have the top five Driver Ratings over the course of Kansas Speedway’s brief (since 2001, 16 races total) history in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Here’s that rundown: Jimmie Johnson, 118.9; Matt Kenseth, 109.6; Greg Biffle, 106.9; Jeff Gordon, 99.6; Tony Stewart, 97.5.


    Goodyear in the Spotlight

    Once again, the Sprint Cup garage will have to deal with a new left/right tire combination from Goodyear.

    Last month, Goodyear conducted a one-day tire test to determine the tire combination to bring to this weekend’s race. The initial focus of this test was to refine the multi-zone tread right-side tire raced at Kansas last October. With sustained testing speeds at the existing track record, heat and wear rates were up, which led tire engineers to a change in direction.

    “With the 2014 rules package, more severe operating conditions were expected at Kansas,” said Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of tire sales, following last month’s test.  

    “With what we saw on the right side, we've decided on a conventional, single tread compound design, formulated to address treadwear, while maintaining the heat resistance still required for this surface. This compound will be the same as the one used in the traction zone of the Michigan right-side tire. The left-side tire will be the same one we raced at Kansas last October.”


    Mother Nature

    NASCAR has had more than its share of weather woes this season—mostly wet ones.

    And while no major rain is forecast for this weekend, Kansas Speedway sits in the middle of tornado alley. The weather can take a dramatic change in a matter of minutes.

    Being out in the open on the flat plains presents a distinctive set of issues to deal with.

    “Kansas is unique on how the wind changes direction from day to day,” said Kurt Busch in a press race media interview. “So turn two might be a problem one day and turn four might be a problem the next day. Now we have a night race, so it’ll be interesting to see how the racetrack wants to make the cars handle after moving from day to night."

    The forecast calls for windy conditions and a small chance for rain on race day.


    Fine-Tuning Setups

    Each of the 1.5-mile tri-oval-shaped race tracks (often referred to as "cookie-cutter tracks") on the Sprint Cup schedule, while similar in shape and design, presents its own set of problems. That makes for a challenging task when working on race setups for the Gen 6 car.

    This year NASCAR has also made changes to the aerodynamic and mechanical rules in the 1.5-mile package that coincide with the relaxation of the ride height restrictions on all tracks.

    Team Penske appears to have their 1.5-mile package working according to plan, as the two races run on that track length have been won by Penske drivers—Las Vegas (Brad Keselowski) and Texas (Joey Logano).

    Expect one or more of the larger teams to step up their game at Kansas. Best guess is Hendrick Motorsports. The home of Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon, Hendrick placed more of its teams in the top-five at those two races than any other organization, except Penske.

    Sprint Cup racing is unpredictable. Even single car teams like the Nos. 78 and 47, both with veteran crew chiefs, might step up and surprise.

Drivers to Watch

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    Kevin Harvick (l) and Tony Stewart
    Kevin Harvick (l) and Tony StewartIsaac Brekken/Associated Press

    Tony Stewart

    The three-time Cup champion is winless so far this season. Two wins, six top-fives and nine top-10s with an average finish of 12.3 puts "Smoke" right in the mix to end his drought.

    In 2006, Stewart came to Kansas outside of the Chase and won a fuel-mileage race. In 2009, he won with a fast car and a late race call for a two-tire pit stop.


    Kevin Harvick

    A multiple-race winner this year (Phoenix and Darlington), when the No. 4 Chevrolet SS is problem-free, Harvick ends up either in Victory Lane or the top-five.

    Harvick won the most recent race at Kansas in October 2013.

    “The Midwest winters are pretty harsh, and I think as you go into a night race this time with new asphalt and cooler temperatures without a lot of sun beating on the track, it should make for speeds that are really high," said Harvick in a pre-race interview."


    Jimmie Johnson

    With two wins, six top-fives, 13 top-10s and three poles, Johnson has mastered Kansas Speedway much like he’s done to nearly every other 1.5-mile oval track on the schedule.

    The No. 48 is the most dominant team in the Sprint Cup Series on 1.5-mile ovals. Although winless so far this season, that’s likely to end sooner than later.


    Jeff Gordon

    This Alan Gustafson-led team is a win waiting to happen, but performance isn't keeping him out of Victory Lane. Gordon’s patience has been tested this season more than any in recent memory, as he’s had victory taken from him in the final laps more than once.

    “What I'm most excited about, and this is true for every track we're going to, is how good of a race team we have right now,” said Gordon on a teleconference this week. 

    “Everywhere we go we have competitive cars.  We don't always start the weekend out that way. Some weekends we unload and we're just fast and it stays that way throughout the whole weekend, and others we've had to really work at it.”


    Matt Kenseth

    The defending spring-race winner at Kansas Speedway, Kenseth likes the new track with the smooth surface and progressive banking. All that needs to happen is for his Joe Gibbs Racing team to have a problem-free weekend.

    “The first race last year (at Kansas) we obviously ran well and won it and then the next one we had the tire change that we had a really hard time getting a hold of and didn’t run quite as good last fall,” said Kenseth in a pre-race interview. “Then I sped on pit road, which hurt us as well. I’m looking forward to going back there.”


    Brad Keselowski

    The Team Penske driver holds the record for a race win from the deepest starting spot in the field (25th) in the spring race in 2011.

    While his name doesn’t show up on any of the statistics sheets or in multiple places on the records page for Kansas Speedway, Keselowski’s Paul Wolfe-led team does have a solid 1.5-mile setup. And Keselowski likes fast tracks. Those two assets factor in his favor when picking favorites for the win.

Quick Picks

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Carl Edwards

    Edwards often refers to Kansas Speedway as his "home track." Unfortunately, home-field advantage hasn't worked in his favor. He is winless in 13 attempts with five top fives.

    He has one win (Bristol) this season and isn’t about to take it easy until Chicagoland in the fall. This Roush Fenway Racing driver is best remembered for the ill-fated slide job he tried on Jimmie Johnson in the closing laps of the 2008 race. Edwards hit the wall. Johnson went on to win the race and the championship.


    Joey Logano

    He and his Penske teammate are the only two winners on a 1.5-mile track this season. And while Texas is not like Kansas, the two tracks have one thing in common. They are both very fast, and Logano likes that. 


    Dale Earnhardt Jr.

    Junior will keep working hard to prove he’s not a one-hit wonder this season. And then once he’s got that second win under his belt, he’ll still want more—and he’ll get it.

    This Steve Letarte-led team is that good.

    Kyle Busch

    The jury is still out on whether or not the Joe Gibbs Racing teams have a good setup for the 1.5-mile tracks. If they do, Busch will show it with a win on Saturday night.

    Kansas Speedway has been one of Busch's least productive tracks. He has one pole and one top-five in 13 attempts here. But, there's no one better when his car is halfway good. and Busch could use another win for the bonus points.


    Kurt Busch

    Older brother Kurt might be distracted by his back-and-forth travel to Indianapolis and rookie-orientation practice for the 500.

    But then again, his IndyCar seat time might embolden Busch to overachieve at Kansas, a track where he is winless, but he has one pole and one top-five. The Stewart-Haas Racing teams have cooled down a bit, but that could change with just one practice session at Kansas.

Dark Horse

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Ryan Newman

    Team owner Richard Childress knew exactly what he was getting when he went after Ryan Newman last season. The veteran owner needed a driver for his No. 31 car who could not only win races, but also make the Chase.

    Three of Newman’s 17 Cup wins have been on 1.5-mile tracks, including one at Kansas. The defending Brickyard 400 winner would like nothing better than to prove his team owner right in choosing him for the No. 31 car.

    When we look at the RCR history at the track, especially scoring the pole and victory back in the fall race, I feel like the entire organization has the potential to bring home a win on Saturday night and I think we have some added confidence when we pull through the gates this week.

Of Historical Importance

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    Kansas Speedway (under construction 2000)
    Kansas Speedway (under construction 2000)CLIFF SCHIAPPA/Associated Press
    • Construction began in May 1999 on the 1.5-mile tri-oval, 75,000-seat Kansas Speedway.


    • May 2000: NASCAR and Indy Racing League announced they will bring events to Kansas Speedway for its inaugural racing season in 2001.


    • Track paving begins in September 2000 and construction is completed in early 2001.


    • September 2001: NASCAR Busch Series and NASCAR Winston Cup Series racing comes to Kansas City, Kansas, where a sold-out crowd watches Jeff Gordon win the first-ever NASCAR Winston Cup Series race at Kansas Speedway.


    • Aug. 10, 2010: Kansas Speedway is part of ISC's realignment of dates and is awarded a second NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race beginning in 2011.


    • June 5, 2011: Kansas Speedway hosts the first of two NASCAR Sprint Cup Series events that the facility was awarded as part of ISC's realignment of dates.


    • July 2011: Kansas Speedway announces track improvements that include a repave of the existing track surface, reconfiguration of the oval and the addition of a road course.


    • Feb. 3, 2012: The Hollywood Casino at Kansas Speedway officially opens, overlooking Turn 2 of Kansas Speedway.


    • April 22, 2012: Kansas Speedway begins a track reconfiguration and road- course project that is slated to be completed in early Sept. 2012 that will add progressive banking to the turns of Kansas Speedway and also add a road course in the infield.


    • October 2012: Race teams take to the newly reconfigured track for the first time, and in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series qualifying, Kasey Kahne set a new track record, topping the old track record by nearly 11 mph. Also, GRAND-AM road-racing teams take to the new infield road course for the first time.

Qualifying Report

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    Kevin Harvick with Kansas Speedway's Unique Pole Winner Trophy
    Kevin Harvick with Kansas Speedway's Unique Pole Winner TrophyJamie Squire/Getty Images

    Kevin Harvick won the pole for the 4th Annual 5-hour Energy 400 Benefiting Special Operations Warrior Foundation with a lap of 27.799 seconds, 194.252 mph which was a new track record.

    • This is his eighth pole in 477 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races.
    • This is his second pole and sixth top-10 start in 2014.
    • This is his second pole in 17 races at Kansas Speedway.

    “I just have to thank everybody on my Stewart-Haas race team and everybody from Jimmy John’s, Budweiser and Outback for all the effort that they put into this car,” Harvick said in a post-qualifying interview. “It feels like you go faster through the corner than it does down the straightaway just because of that sensation of speed.  As soon as you hit the banking it feels like the car accelerates.”

    Starting alongside of Harvick on the front row is Joey Logano who posted his eighth top-10 start of 2014 and his sixth in ten races at Kansas Speedway. His Penske teammate Brad Keselowski (third) posted his third top-10 start at Kansas Speedway. It is his eighth in 11 races this season.

    Kyle Larson was the fastest qualifying rookie. He’ll start fifth.

    Kansas Speedway becomes the sixth track in 2014 to set a new qualifying track record joining Phoenix, Las Vegas, Bristol, Martinsville and Darlington.

And the Winner Is:

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Jeff Gordon 

    It’s difficult not to pick Gordon.

    His No. 24 team is definitely a win-waiting-to-happen, and Kansas Speedway, where Gordon has two wins, is as good a place as any for the veteran driver to score his first win of 2014 and secure his place in the 2014 Chase.

    I've never seen winning be so important as it has this year.  It doesn't stop everybody from trying just as hard to win.  We're all out there working as hard as we can to win.  When you get that one win under your belt, I think that one win will get you into the Chase, two wins is for sure going to guarantee you a shot in the Chase. 



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

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