The Biggest NASCAR Storylines Ahead of the Sprint Cup Series at Kansas II
Four are gone and 12 remain.
Brad Keselowski leads the field of 12 remaining Chase drivers into the Contender Round, perhaps the most difficult of the four rounds that make up the Chase.
The first, the Challenger Round, was all about survival. Now you have to either win or be contending for the win to be able to make the cut into the next two rounds.
But before the teams begin practice Friday at Kansas Speedway, here’s what you’ll be talking about all week as NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup shifts gears into the next round.
Jeff Gordon Is Back in the High Life Again
Sunday’s race winner at Dover, Jeff Gordon, sent a clear message to the rest of the Chase field that the run to the title isn’t going to be a two-car intramural affair between the Team Penske drivers.
Keenly focused on the goal of winning his fifth Cup title, Gordon is in a “nothing’s stopping me now” mode, as revealed by his comments after the race.
“Right now...we're just laser focused on this championship and going to the next race,” he said in the post-race press conference. “I think that we're a team that is strong enough to win, but also good enough to be consistent, and I think that's what's going to get you through to the next round, and ultimately I think what it's going to take to win this championship.”
Gordon's confidence is sky high at the moment, and his pit crew is delivering consistent mistake-free pit work. That's a very healthy combination for winning races.
And if you win those...
Next up for Gordon and crew chief Alan Gustafson is a place they’re very familiar with, the 1.5-mile Kansas Speedway. In May, they walked out the door carrying the winner’s trophy.
Kevin Harvick's Bad Luck Reminiscent of Early Season Problems
"Bad luck and trouble is my only friend." — Born Under a Bad Sign by Albert King
Right now, Kevin Harvick needs a lucky charm. Period. Maybe he could use a whole box of them.
What else can you say? This driver has led the most laps in each of the first three Chase races, yet he’s not been able to close the deal and win one.
Remarkably, Harvick—who is known for being just a bit short-tempered—has been gracious in dealing with what has been a heartbreaking start to the Chase.
Unfortunately, this is a road that Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers have traveled down before. There was a five-race run earlier this season—Las Vegas to Texas—where the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing team suffered through multiple mechanical issues. Harvick's average finish during that time was 35th. Then he won at Darlington in May and everything turned around.
His is clearly the best car every weekend, yet something stupid happens and he has to watch the win slip away.
“We can beat every car on the race track. We just need some good luck. If we have some good luck, we’ll win races and have a shot at the championship,” Harvick said in a post-race interview Sunday.
Yeah, we feel for you, brother. Yes, we do.
Larson Continues to Excite in an Outstanding Rookie Season
Can you name the non-Chase driver who has finished in the top six in each of the first three Chase races?
Did you guess Kyle Larson (who is the answer, by the way)? Just for the record, he finished third, second and sixth, respectively, at Chicagoland, Loudon and Dover.
This young man from California, in his first year in the Sprint Cup Series, is not only good, he’s fun to watch. He had his Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet nearly sideways on the race track, yet Larson managed to put it straight and head toward the next corner to do it again.
“It was all I could do to not crash the car, I was so loose,” Larson said in the post-race press conference. “I was just hanging on.”
For the fans, he’s a delight to watch, especially when the rest of the field is in that "saving your stuff" mode and playing follow the leader. You know, that’s around the midpoint in most Cup races. Hopefully Larson doesn’t pick up that bad habit anytime soon.
And what about the rest of the field, especially the Chase drivers?
“Hopefully I can be the guy that wins Kansas and Charlotte so all the Chase guys can be nervous going into Talladega,” he said.
How can you not like a guy who says stuff like that?
Enjoy him while you can, race fans, because his success will surely change him.
It always does.
Roush Fenway Hangs onto Chase but Struggles Continue
Carl Edwards' teammate, Greg Biffle, is eliminated from the Chase.
“This is the way it’s gone all season,” a dejected Biffle explained during a post-race interview after Sunday’s race. “We’re just searching for speed and struggled all day today. We’ve worked hard trying to fix our problems, but it just hasn’t come together yet.
“It’s pretty frustrating. I’ve won races my whole career, but to be struggling like this all year is disappointing at best.”
Edwards isn't doing much better. He is treading water, hoping to hold off what appears to be an inevitable wave of disappointment.
Edwards has been in the Chase eight of his 11 years in the Cup Series. He’s usually a favorite until the very end. He almost won in 2011 but lost to Jimmie Johnson that year.
Since then, Edwards has lost some of his mojo. He’s mellowed, had a couple of kids and settled into the life of a rock star race car driver.
With some luck, he’ll make it to the next round of the Chase. But the odds are against the No. 99 team. Although he's run well at times this season and won two races, Edwards is winless at the next three tracks—Kansas, Charlotte and Talladega. That last one, Talladega, is always a crapshoot, so there’s no telling what can happen there.
I sincerely wish that the old Carl Edwards—you remember him, the guy who would run into people on pit lane and threaten his teammate—would make an appearance again.
The Bar Remains High for Team Penske
The Team Penske dynamic duo was good at Dover but not good enough.
It may have just been a hiccup en route to an eventual battle for the title between Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano. Or it could be a crack in the foundation of the castle on the hill made of stone and brick that was once thought to have been impenetrable.
Keselowski had his heart set on winning all three of the first tier of Chase races. Obviously, that wasn’t going to happen. But now, it's on to a pair of 1.5-mile tracks and the freak show that is Talladega, and Keselowski already has his best Alfred E. Neuman “What, Me Worry?” look packed up and ready to show to the world during the first practice session at Kansas.
And what about his teammate? Yes, what about him?
He’s saying all the right things.
“We’ve got to focus on what we do to go fast and not what other people are doing or who our competition is,” Logano said in an interview after Sunday’s race. “There are 11 other guys right now who are our main competition, so we’ve got to look at them all just like we did going into this round. We look at every one as a contender, no pun intended, and we’ll be able to focus on what we’ve been doing with our race cars and go from there.”
Blah, blah, blah.
Reading between the lines after he finished fourth at Dover, Logano fully expected that after his win at Loudon, he’d win them all.
He’s that confident. And that’s got to be pretty scary for the rest of the Chase field.
Joe Gibbs Racing Still Coming Up Short on Performance
What do you do when you’ve got good race cars but not enough speed to compete against the other guys?
You go to your team owner and say, “Coach, can we get those fellas over at Toyota to build us some more horsepower?”
A common complaint from the Toyota teams, in particular the Joe Gibbs Racing teams, has been a lack of speed. After being vocal about it for a good deal of the season, drivers have stopped referring to the engine and now blame the lack of speed on the race car itself.
Other teams have made up for the perceived deficiency by turning their focus on the race cars. That’s made the cars at Michael Waltrip Racing, the No. 15 of Clint Bowyer and No. 55 of Brian Vickers, more competitive.
Kyle Busch has been fast in qualifying in the second half of the season and started on the front row at Dover. But as the race progressed this past weekend, Busch's Camry revealed itself to be no match for the Hendrick-powered Chevrolets and the Fords of Team Penske.
Matt Kenseth managed a top-five finish, while Busch finished 10th and Denny Hamlin finished 12th. Meanwhile, Bowyer was ninth and Vickers finished 15th.
Although all three JGR cars have made it into the next round of the Chase, it gets tougher from here on out, and the likelihood of two or more of them dropping out after Talladega looms large.
Three Unique Stops on the Road to Elimination
No, that’s not a photo from Kansas—although Kansas Speedway has seen its share of big multi-car wrecks.
The next three races are likely the toughest the Chase field will have to endure. The two 1.5-mile tracks at Kansas and Charlotte are both fast and tricky, especially Charlotte. If a team can survive those two minefields, then it's on to the demolition derby at Talladega that may very well be the single most significant race of the Chase other than the finale at Homestead.
Drivers could be tempted to look ahead to Talladega, especially Dale Earnhardt Jr., who holds the track record for most consecutive wins (2001-03). It's also his best track, as he has five total wins, 10 top-five finishes and 14 top-10 finishes. It's likely that he and the rest will focus on the task at hand the next two weekends and work on winning either one or both of the 1.5-mile tracks.
Since its repave in 2012, Kansas has proved to be an elusive place. Its grippy track surface is prone to the rapidly changing weather conditions in the flatlands of Kansas.
Charlotte is a night race, and it's also one of the fastest non-restrictor-plate tracks on the schedule. A good car there means that you probably won’t have to lift your foot from the gas pedal all the way around the track.
The pole-winning speed in May (by Jimmie Johnson) was just a tick under 195 mph. Not much more needs to be said.
Now is when it all gets real.
Stewart Moves Forward, Finding Comfort in the Thing That He Knows Best
Yet Stewart wouldn't let it stop him from racing in those high-powered and difficult-to-drive race cars. He was behind the wheel of one in August in upstate New York when, in the blink of an eye, everything in his world changed.
It's been almost two months since the tragic racing accident that took the life of Kevin Ward Jr.
A grand jury verdict now behind him, Stewart faces the likelihood of a civil suit. And he's made his first true media appearance, where the normally brief and confrontational driver patiently answered reporters' questions for nearly 20 minutes.
Regarding that press availability, Stewart appeared sincerely contrite Monday. He is a changed man.
And so now begins a long healing process. Stewart will turn to the one thing in his life that’s always been real—his racing and his family in the racing community.
A great life changed forever. Another one gone forever.
All quotes and statistics are from official NASCAR, team and manufacturer media releases unless otherwise stated.
Bob Margolis is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association and has covered NASCAR, IndyCar, the NHRA and Sports Cars for more than two decades as a writer, television producer and on-air talent.
On Twitter: @BobMargolis