NASCAR at Kansas 2014: Complete Preview, Prediction for the Hollywood Casino 400
Up next: the Contender Round.
These three events—Kansas, Charlotte and Talladega—offer some of the most challenging racing that NASCAR has to offer.
The goal for the next three races remains the same: to win. After Talladega, the four drivers who haven’t won in this round and are the lowest in points will be eliminated from the Chase.
Up first, before the restrictor-plate free-for-all in three weeks, are two similar, yet unique in their own way, 1.5-mile tracks.
Kansas Speedway, where’s it's difficult to pass, is this weekend, followed by Charlotte Motor Speedway, where speeds are ultra fast and there's no room for error. Only the driver with the best handling car at the end has a shot at winning.
Jeff Gordon will attempt to become the first driver to sweep both races at Kansas. That's a tall order given Kansas Speedway's rapidly changing track conditions during the fall race weekend.
For the eighth time this season, Kevin Harvick will lead the field to the green flag in the Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway.
The Stewart-Haas Racing driver delivered his pole-winning lap of 197.621 mph, 27.325 seconds, mid-way through the five-minute final round of knockout qualifying. Although it was good enough to capture the pole, Harvick’s lap was actually slower than one he had run during the second round of qualifying (197.773 mph).
“It’s been just a phenomenal year,” Harvick said in a televised post-qualifying interview. “We have had some bad luck, but these guys continue to focus on the thing that they need to focus on and that is bringing fast cars.”
When asked about the team’s run of bad luck to start the Chase, he replied, “That bad luck can’t stay with us forever. Like I tell them (his team), the problems we have are a lot better than the problems we don’t have. We will just keep at it.”
Starting alongside Harvick on the front row is Brian Vickers (196.307 mph, 27.508 sec). Former Chase driver Aric Almirola starts third, while Chase drivers Joey Logano and Jeff Gordon start fourth and fifth, respectively.
Austin Dillon is the highest starting rookie (16th).
Notable starts: Brad Keselowski (sixth), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (eighth), Kasey Kahne (10th), Carl Edwards (12th), Denny Hamlin (25th) and Matt Kenseth (27th). Jimmie Johnson starts 32nd after a spin during the first round of qualifying.
Since Kansas Speedway was repaved and reconfigured in 2012, every Sprint Cup race winner has started from the front row.
Qualifying statistics courtesy of NASCAR Integrated Marketing Communications
Facts and Figures About Kansas Speedway and the Hollywood Casino 400
Kansas Speedway has often been criticized for being one of the so-called 1.5-mile “cookie-cutter” tracks, because its size and shape are similar to tracks like Charlotte, Chicagoland and Atlanta.
The “cookie-cutter” name is a misnomer, as each track has its own unique personality. For a long time, Kansas’ personality was that it had a worn-out and bumpy surface. But in 2012, the track was repaved, and variable banking was added to the corners.
The repave dramatically changed the racing at Kansas Speedway, making it smoother but far more difficult to pass. The variable banking has helped to make the racing two- and three-wide, but Kansas is still a question mark for many drivers.
“Kansas is really tricky and it’s really hard to pass,” said Matt Kenseth in his team’s pre-race media release. “You have to get the setup right, call the race right and have good pit stops and not make mistakes on the track.”
Starting up front is important at Kansas. According to official NASCAR statistics, "five of the 17 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races at Kansas Speedway have been won from the front row."
Hollywood Casino 400
Where: Kansas Speedway
When: Sunday, Oct. 5
TV: ESPN, NASCAR Countdown at 1 p.m. ET, Race begins at 2:18 p.m. ET
Radio: Motor Racing Network (MRN), Sirius XM Ch. 90
Distance: 400.5 miles (267 laps)
Jeff Gordon Back in Command
With 71 laps remaining in Sunday’s race at Dover International Speedway, Jeff Gordon took control of the race all the way to the checkered flag.
It was a strong “boys, I’m back” statement to the rest of the Chase field, who may have overlooked the four-time champion following dominating performances in the first two Chase races by Team Penske drivers Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, respectively.
Gordon has been driving like a man possessed this season, determined to make this the year he captures a long sought-after fifth title.
He and crew chief Alan Gustafson return to Kansas this weekend, a place where they walked out with the winner’s trophy the last time they were there.
“I mean, I think that we're a team that, again, 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 said during his post-race press availability following his win at Dover.
Back-to-back wins? Is it possible? We’re talking the Chase here. And 11 other drivers who want that critical win to put them into the next round.
Battle of the Superpowers
So far, the Chase has been the battle of the superpowers, Team Penske vs. Team Hendrick.
Hendrick-powered Chevrolet entries dominated the top five in May, finishing first, second, third and fifth (Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Kasey Kahne and Dale Earnhardt Jr.). Joey Logano’s Ford was fourth. Brad Keselowski finished 13th.
Now, some might say that you have to put Stewart-Haas Racing and the No. 4 team in the discussion. But Harvick’s team just hasn’t been able to close the deal yet. And they don’t give trophies for leading the most laps at every race. You have to take the checkers first in this sport.
Is there any car in the Chase field that isn't a Hendrick-powered Chevrolet or a Team Penske Ford that looks like it can win? Not right now.
Did Jimmie Johnson Sleep Through a Wake-up Call?
Now is about the time for the No. 48 team to kick things up a notch and remind us of the strong postseason team that it's been for the past decade.
You know, the team that won six Sprint Cup titles.
Johnson’s third-place finish at Dover was a start, although, to be honest, he should have won at the track—a place where he’s won nine times.
Have we become so accustomed to this team's superiority in past seasons that now, when it looks like every other team, we assume there's a problem? That may be the case, but it's clear that right now, this team doesn't look like a legitimate championship contender.
Junior's Great Expectations
The dream of a championship season may be over for Junior Nation, even this early into the Chase.
Following a top-five finish at Michigan in August (fifth), Junior’s been on one of the weakest streaks of the season, with an average finish of 13th. That kind of performance isn’t going to get the No. 88 team the championship.
Earnhardt's Chase run so far has been weak at best. He’s currently seventh in points. At this rate, his best hope of moving into the next round will be at Talladega, where he’s got five wins.
All is not lost yet, Junior Nation. But the SS Dale Jr. is definitely taking on water.
The Toyota-powered teams haven’t exactly been setting the world on fire.
At Dover, the marque managed to place three cars in the top 10—Matt Kenseth (fifth), Clint Bowyer (ninth) and Kyle Busch (10). None of those drivers had a distinguished race day. And Kenseth finished where he did because of pit strategy and the fact that the Wisconsin native can drive the wheels off of a bad race car.
Fans and observers had expected that Toyota’s engine development group would come with an updated engine. It didn’t happen. Perhaps it's already focused on the new less horsepower model that debuts next season.
The question remains: WWTD—what will Toyota do?
At some point, this team has got to come out of its funk and win one of these races. Harvick is unquestionably fielding the fastest car every weekend. Maybe this is his weekend.
The Drive for Five is alive and well with Gordon’s team. What makes Gordon and the 24 team such a threat is that they know they can win the championship. They just need to not screw it up.
Wasn't this NASCAR’s equivalent of Mr. October? Last week, this team finally showed signs of a turnaround. That's likely to continue this week at a track where Johnson has two wins and six top-five finishes. A win here might spell trouble for the rest of the Chase field.
Part of the dynamic duo from Team Penske, Logano is finally living up to the nickname “Sliced Bread.” What else needs to be said?
His role is playing Batman to Logano’s Robin. The Michigan-born driver opened up the Chase looking unstoppable. Not so much now. However some 1.5-mile medicine, at a track where he won in 2011, is exactly what this driver needs.
The weakest of the four-car Hendrick team, Kahne only gets contender status at this track because he finished third in May. Otherwise, he’s next on the list of drivers who fall out of the Chase. He's capable of stepping up, though, and could be a real sleeper.
The Roush Fenway Racing driver gets the sympathy vote that puts him in as a top contender this week. Kansas is the site of the now-infamous “slide job” that Edwards put on Johnson in 2008 during his failed attempt at beating Johnson for the title. JJ went on to win the championship, while Edwards finished second. Edwards will be fast.
Potential Chase Spoiler: Kyle Larson
At this time of year, if we mention a driver scoring finishes like a third, a second and a sixth, you might think we’re talking about a Chase driver who's doing extremely well.
But you’d be wrong.
Those are the finishes for the first three Chase races by non-Chase driver Kyle Larson. You know him, the rookie phenom who's just been tearing it up all season and making the big kids look silly on most Sundays?
Larson has gotten much better in the second half of the season, which is what is supposed to happen when you’re a rookie and you visit tracks for the second time in the same season.
Larson finished 12th in Kansas in May, but he had issues with an ill-handling car.
“I started the race off really loose, but the crew did a great job of getting the right adjustments made to the Target Chevy, which helped me race back towards the front,” Larson said in a team media release following the race in May.
You can bet that he’ll have a much better car this weekend. Look for him to possibly spoil the Chase party.
And the Winner Is...
At some point, you have to imagine that this team will get the monkey off its back.
You can’t continually show up every weekend at the race track with the fastest car (and one of the best drivers), win the pole, lead a ton of laps during the race and then not win.
Eventually, the odds have to be in your favor, and this weekend they will be. Not only the odds, but the planets and stars will be aligned as well.
There's no one who is more feared—even now—by the other Chase competitors than Harvick. He’s still my pick for 2014 champion.
All quotes are taken 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