Geoffrey Miller's Five Things to Watch at Kansas Speedway
1. NASCAR honors victims, heroes of Boston Marathon explosions
Just as it did after the large-scale attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, NASCAR will serve in the role of honoring those affected by Monday's horrific events at the Boston Marathon. Beyond the expected emotional pageantry of Sunday's pre-race ceremonies at Kansas Speedway, two Sprint Cup teams with unique ties to Boston and its annual road race have even made plans to recognize and support the victims and heroes in various ways.
Roush Fenway Racing, the NASCAR venture tightly partnered with Boston's Fenway Sports Group, will carry a unique "B-Strong" decal on each of its cars this weekend. Team owner Jack Roush has also pledged to donate $100 per lap led by his team to relief efforts in Boston. Fenway Sports Group, of course, owns the Boston Red Sox, Fenway Park and other Boston sports enterprises.
Meanwhile, Michael Waltrip will recognize his personal tie to the Boston Marathon by having each of his Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota's sport car numbers this weekend in the same font as the marathon's bib number system.
“The news coming out of Boston this week was very personal to me,” said Waltrip. “When I ran the Boston Marathon in 2000, I remember thinking about what a privilege it was to be able to participate and all the hard work it took to be there. When you can see those international flags flying in Copley Square, you know you are about to complete your journey. I know the joy those runners were feeling at that moment when their worlds changed."
Undoubtedly, expect many in the garage to be sporting Boston Red Sox gear, too.
2. Streaking Kyle Busch hopes to avoid 2012 mistake
This season, when Kyle Busch has found the lead, there's been at least two times in seven races when he hasn't looked back. In three others — now good enough for a career-best streak — Busch at the very least hasn't fallen from the top 5 when the checkered flag fell.
A top 5 for Busch on Sunday would push that top-5 streak to six and, more importantly, overcome a major gaffe he had at Kansas just last fall. It'd also mark his first top 5 at the 1.5-mile track.
Busch was just about to assume the lead of last October's event on Kansas' newly-repaved surface when he lost control exiting Turn 4. He made slight contact in the process, but the damage was enough to steal any good handling from his No. 18. A later crash sealed his fate for the day in 31st.
"Hopefully, we have a good car like that this time around and I don’t make a mistake like that," Busch said.
Busch, of course, wasn't the only driver to fall prey to a tricky Kansas track. The caution flag waved a track record 14 times in October — good for a series high among all tracks in 2012.
3. Martin Truex Jr. has had enough second fiddle
If you didn't sense his disappointment after Saturday night's race at Texas Motor Speedway, let's make one thing abundantly clear: Martin Truex Jr. is straight tired of finishing second. It happened again at Texas, and it happened twice last season at Kansas.
Truex was by far more dominant in the spring race last season before the re-pave, leading 173 laps. The Texas runner-up meant it has been 210 races since Truex won his only career Sprint Cup race at Dover in 2007 for Dale Earnhardt, Inc. If you'll remember, Truex's win that day came in a Monday race after a Sunday washout and was overshadowed by antics between Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart that left both wrecked and Busch parked by NASCAR.
See why Truex might be a bit tired of playing back-up?
"We had a good run in (Las) Vegas, and ran well at Texas," Truex said this week, more removed from his disappointing Saturday night. "It seems like our mile-and-a-half, big track program is pretty good and kind of like Kansas, so (I) look forward to going there."
4. Almirola returns to site of best career Sprint Cup run
Predictions for Aric Almirola to run well in the season's first 1.5-mile track race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway fell way short, but a very solid seventh-place finish last weekend at Texas should bode quite well for the No. 43.
Leading 69 laps in last fall's Cup return to Kansas, Almirola fell out of contention from the lead when he began suffering tire issues. Eventually, despite turning the race's second fastest laps and proving to be a top-5 car by speed both early and late in green flag runs, a tire exploded on Almirola and put him in the Turn 4 wall.
He finished 29th.
It was both a glimmer of hope and a knotting defeat for the underdog Richard Petty Motorsports team. Almirola, still searching for his first career win and just his third career top-5 finish, admittedly hasn't stopped thinking about a return.
"I've been looking forward to Kansas since last October when we left there. We were so good last fall. To have it all taken away with some blown tires really stung," Almirola said.
A solid run at Kansas would be extra nice for Almirola due to sponsor Farmland being headquartered nearby. He'll do battle in a brand new chassis built by RPM.
Clint Bowyer (ASP, Inc.)
5. Kansas' own Clint Bowyer still searching for hometown checkers
Speaking of new cars, Clint Bowyer probably has one to sell you.
NASCAR's lone native Kansan celebrated the opening of his recently-acquired car dealership Thursday in his hometown of Emporia, Kan. In something befitting NASCAR's newest witty character, the dealership is one where both he and his brother formerly worked in decidedly lower-paying positions. It's also directly across the street from Emporia's Clint Bowyer Community Building.
Now, Bowyer will sell Toyotas from the Clint Bowyer Autoplex.
"There's a lot of renovation work and a lot of stuff to do, but getting the doors opened up for business was really neat and a big day for me," Bowyer said.
Bowyer is yet to own a Sprint Cup checkered flag from his hometown speedway, however. In 2007, he was extremely close — some would even say he won — when a late caution flag created controversy surrounding Greg Biffle's win in a shortened race. Since that runner-up finish, Bowyer has led just five laps in seven races and has two top-10 finishes at the speedway. He's also spent just 54 percent of his nine races at the 1.5-mile track in the top 15.
Those stats don't tell the whole story of Bowyer from a year ago, though, and extra numbers could show Bowyer as an unexpected but popular favorite for Sunday's race. Last October, Bowyer took sixth despite having the race's best average running position (5.858) and most laps in the top 15 (98.9 percent).
Will Bowyer finally hit big at Kansas? I guess we'll find out Sunday.
Plenty about Matt Kenseth (left) and Jeff Burton below. (ASP, Inc.)
Kansas Speedway was the site for one of the weirdest races of the year in 2012. On a newly paved surface with an unfamiliar tire compound, the race offered drama (Jimmie Johnson crashing), comedy (Danica Patrick attempting to wreck Landon Cassill, but wrecking herself instead) and action (Matt Kenseth stormed to the front late in the race – there is more on this below – to scoop up the surprise win).
Statistically, one race is really, really tough for information-gleaning purposes, but we can try. There are a few hot drivers leaving Texas, one under-the-radar performer last year at Kansas and a driver with a lot to lose, desperate for a sound Sunday run.
56.29% Kyle Busch is the most efficient passer in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series with a 56.29 percent passing efficiency.
The winner in two of the last three Cup Series races is Busch, who also happens to be the most adept navigator through traffic in the new Gen-6 car. Ironically, Texas, the site of his most recent win, served as the only reliable race in which his pass efficiency was negative — 44.12 percent — but he started on the pole and averaged a 1.58-place running position en route to a fairly easy victory. Two of his three best single-race efficiencies, 56.25 percent at Fontana and 55.91 percent at Las Vegas this season came large intermediate tracks on which high horsepower matters, not totally unlike Kansas.
42.5% Martin Truex Jr. led his first laps of 2013 at Texas, pacing the field for 42.5 percent of the race (142 laps).
He didn’t get the victory, but it was a strong showing for Truex, who has had a forgettable season thus far, finishing 24th or worse in three out of seven races. He heads to Kansas Speedway this weekend with two consecutive runner-up finishes, coming on both old and new pavement iterations of the track. There’s a caveat to that, though…
10.09 He finished second, but Truex only averaged a 10.09-place running position in last fall’s race at Kansas.
Truex is going to receive a lot of attention this week as a win favorite and a fantasy pick, but is the hype to be believed? He wasn’t nearly as polished on the freshly paved Kansas surface as he was on the old track. That 10.09 was the sixth-highest average running spot in a race that was caution-filled and as jumbled as your run-of-the-mill restrictor plate race. He might very well be a contender for the win on Sunday, but he isn’t nearly the lock as many will suggest.
128 Last fall’s Kansas race winner, Matt Kenseth, didn’t take the lead until lap 128. He led 78 laps on way to earning his only non-restrictor plate win of 2012.
I don’t think anyone expected Kansas to be a 1.5-mile version of Darlington. There were 14 cautions for 66 laps, meaning 24.7 percent of the race was run under caution. Patience was key and Kenseth’s approach to the race proved brilliant. None of the drivers that led in the first 100 laps of that race finished in the top 15. It’s not a guarantee that this kind of craziness will repeat itself, but understand that early leaders clearly aren’t impervious to adversity on this fast, frantic track.
Jimmie Johnson led 44 laps until this happened. (ASP, Inc.)
44 In a race in which his crash was the highlight, Jimmie Johnson led 44 laps (16.5 percent) and looked like a potential race-win contender in last year’s fall race at Kansas.
Prior to the lap 137 accident, Johnson and the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team looked awfully fast — and in fact, they were; they ranked third in average green-flag speed for the race — which meant one of the smartest teams in the garage area was one of the earliest adopters to the new Kansas pavement. No surprise there, huh?
0.57 Jeff Burton has the second-worst crash frequency in the Cup Series, currently crashing 0.57 times per race.
That isn’t a good-look for the 45-year-old veteran, who has had an abysmal — and possibly, final — season in the No. 31 car for Richard Childress Racing, ranking 38th out of 38 drivers with a -0.143 Production in Equal Equipment Rating. He needs a decent Kansas finish in the worst of ways. Currently averaging a 24.3-place finish in races with new crew chief Luke Lambert atop the pit box, his early-season production can be aided with an above-average finish this weekend. He finished 28th in last fall’s race.
8.500 James Buescher earned a PEER of 8.500 across five soft intermediate track races in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series last year.
Buescher is the reigning Kansas winner, which makes sense considering the driver’s statistical fondness for the 1.5-mile non-quad-oval facilities. He won four out of those five races, claiming two at Kentucky and one at Chicagoland, in addition to the score at Kansas. He’s been quiet through three races in 2013, averaging a 13.7-place finish, so Saturday’s companion race to the Cup Series could help right his defense of the 2012 series championship.
Hamlin holds off Martin Truex Jr. to notch second Sprint Cup victory of 2012
Photo by ASP, Inc.
It seemed a formality that once Martin Truex Jr. had fended off a vicious challenge from Jimmie Johnson that Michael Waltrip Racing would score its first Sprint Cup Series win since 2010.
Truex had led 173 laps and seemed on virtual cruise control as the laps ticked away in the STP 400 from Kansas Speedway. He pulled away for chunks of laps at a time after green flag pit stops — 45, 81 and 43 consecutive laps led on successive occasions — separating himself from the runner-up competitor by whole seconds.
Then, with about 35 laps to go, something happened to Truex’s Toyota.
According to team co-owner Michael Waltrip, the sun came out and changed the track, loosening up the car. Truex, however, was unhappy with the last set of tires that he reckoned did not agree with his machine.
Whatever the reason, a charging Denny Hamlin caught Truex and got by shortly after the final round of green flag pit stops to score his second win of the season.
Hamlin’s race-winning pass came on lap 237 of 267, and despite a last-ditch banzai effort with three laps remaining by Truex to reclaim the lead, the aero advantage Hamlin enjoyed carried him to the win.
“I knew that the only advantage that I had is when his (Truex’s) car got so loose that last run, I was able to make up a lot of time on entry and a lot of time on exit (in and out of the corners) because he was really fighting his car,” Hamlin said. “So really, as the driver behind, you can manipulate his car and make it worse for him by getting up close to him — and that’s what I kind of did a few laps leading up to when we passed him, is that I tried to run as close up to him on entry as I could and as close on exit. It takes away rear grip, and to a car that was as loose as what his was, they have no choice really but to back off and not wreck their car.”
The win at the 1.5-mile intermediate oval was somewhat of a surprise, in that Hamlin’s best finish on a comparable track this season was 11th.
“We just need to make 10 race cars just like this one and we’ll be fine,” Hamlin said. “There’s always things, areas that you need to work in. We feel like we’ve identified those areas and we’ve gone to work on them.
“So right now I feel like we’re bringing better race cars to the racetrack than what we have, and it’s still going to take time.
As for Truex, he and crew chief Chad Johnston continue to knock on Victory Lane’s door. Six of his finishes have been eighth or better this season and he has yet to finish outside of the top 20. That performance — he has averaged a 4.8-place finish in the last five races — places him second in the Sprint Cup point standings.
“The NAPA team was phenomenal today,” Truex said. “Just not really sure what to think about that last set of tires. (The) car had been really good all day, (then we) put the last set on and I was wrecking loose for the first 20 laps of that last run and Denny was able to get by me and once he did the race was over.
“(The) car got better longer in the run and I was able to get back to him, but I’d get three, four car lengths from him and pick up the aero push.”
Johnson held on for third after pit strategy forced him to climb out of a late-race hole. Matt Kenseth and points-leader Greg Biffle rounded out the top 5.
Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Sunday's race in Kansas
Jeff Gordon's No. 24 Chevrolet. (ASP, Inc.)
Typically known for dealing with the thunderous roar of tornadoes, this weekend the Sprint Cup Series storms into Kansas for the STP 400.
Sunday’s race will be the 12th for the Sprint Cup Series at the Kansas Speedway, and the last on the current surface. Following the 400-miler, the track will be repaved prior to the series returning for its mid-October Chase date.
The aged surface causes tires to wear dramatically over the course of a run, meaning drivers and crew chiefs will be working all weekend to find the perfect balance over the long run as the tires begin to fall off.
Be sure to keep an eye on the two practice sessions Friday afternoon — especially those teams that concentrate on longer runs. A key factor nearly every week — especially on a track with excessive tire wear — is the best 10-lap average. Look for that statistic and make your picks accordingly.
Five Favorites: Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Greg Biffle, Clint Bowyer, Carl Edwards
Veteran Jeff Gordon took the first two checkered flags at Kansas Speedway in 2001 and ’02, and is looking to take the last before the surface is replaced.
Aside from the four-time series champion’s two Kansas wins, Gordon has an additional six top-5 finishes on the Plains. Although he succumbed to an engine failure in Kansas last October, Gordon is always a favorite.
The No. 24 team has been a consistent threat throughout the early portion of the 2012 season, as well. However, the finishes don’t show it. The team's fourth-place run Saturday night in Texas was its first top 5 and only second top 10. Gordon currently has three finishes of 26th or worse.
Those statistics aside, the team has been producing consistently fast racecars. That fact has allowed Gordon, who is 17th in the series standings, to remain confident they can win races.
The team heads to Kansas this weekend with that goal in mind.
Gordon has the fourth-best average finish (10.2) among active drivers at Kansas. Not to mention, team owner Rick Hendrick is on the verge of earning his 200th career Sprint Cup Series win. This weekend, Gordon will be looking to give his long-time car owner that milestone victory.
In order to do so, he will have to beat teammate Jimmie Johnson.
The five-time series champion has the second-best average finish (8.4) among active drivers at Kansas, and was the driver celebrating in Victory Lane when the series last visited the facility in October.
All told, Johnson has two wins, three poles, four top 5s and nine top 10s in 11 starts on the 1.5-mile track. His two worst finishes at Kansas are 14th (2006) and 32nd (’04), his only DNF.
These two champions have duked it out on the track before for the win, and expect them to both be in contention Sunday afternoon. Also keep in mind Hendrick leads all team owners with four wins at Kansas.
“Whenever it happens is going to be very special for the company," Johnson said of the 200th win. “Again, I just want to win. I don’t care where it is, whatever reason. There are 36, 38 of these things a year, and I want to take home a bunch of trophies. Second is nice, but winning is everything.”
While the Hendrick teammates are focused on giving Hendrick Motorsports its 200th win, the rest of the field will be doing their best to keep it from happening — especially points leader Greg Biffle.
The Roush Fenway Racing driver is fresh off his first victory of the season last weekend in Texas, and is now heading to one of his best tracks. With two Kansas wins, six top 5s and eight top-10 finishes, Biffle leads all active drivers in average finish (8.3). Despite his dismal 2011 season, Biffle still recorded top 10s (10th, eighth) in both Kansas races last year.
This is a new year for the Biff, and his sixth-place average finish through the first seven races have given him the points lead. Carrying that momentum into one of his best tracks, Biffle will also be one of the drivers to beat in the final laps of Sunday’s race.
“I’m ready for Kansas,” he said. “Kansas is a great track and I have two wins there. We are coming off the win at Texas and I’m ready to go. Kansas and Texas might be the same distance, but they are extremely different tracks. Kansas is much flatter and the track is more uniform from one end to another. Hopefully we can follow up our Texas win with another victory in Kansas with our 3M Novec 1230 Ford.”
Brad Keselowski in Victory Lane at Kansas in 2011. (ASP, Inc.)
Five Undervalued Picks: Brad Keselowski, Kasey Kahne, Denny Hamlin, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart
For this week's undervalued pick, look no further than defending race winner Brad Keselowski. Wait, how can Keselowski be an undervalued pick if he is the defending winner? Good question.
Keselowski was able to score the win last April by stretching his fuel 57 laps on the final run. Leading only nine laps, Keselowski celebrated the first of his three wins while former teammate Kurt Busch was forced to swallow a ninth-place finish after leading 152 laps.
The win was no fluke, though, as in his four starts at Kansas, Keselowski has an average finish of 10.0, with a worst finish of 23rd.
This season has been up and down for the No. 2 Penske Racing team. A 32nd in Daytona was followed up by a fifth in Phoenix, a 32nd in Las Vegas, the win at Bristol, an 18th in Fontana, a ninth at Martinsville and the 36th last weekend in Texas.
Looking at the trend, Keselowski is due a good run — provided no mechanical demons creep up. Keep in mind, he is the defending Nationwide Series race winner at Kansas, with finishes of sixth, third, second and first in the last four races.
Five Darkhorse Picks: AJ Allmendinger, Marcos Ambrose, Paul Menard, Kurt Busch, Mark Martin
Keselowski’s Penske teammate, AJ Allmendinger, is this week's darkhorse pick at Kansas Speedway. The driver of the No. 22 Dodge has two top 10s at Kansas, but struggled in 2011 finishing 27th in the spring and 25th in the Chase.
Sitting 19th in the standings, this bunch had higher expectations coming into the season. Their lone top 5 came at Martinsville, when Allmendinger finished second to Ryan Newman.
According to crew chief Todd Gordon, Allmendinger admitted prior to the start of the season that Kansas was “not one of his strong points,” but he remains confident due to the team's performance on the intermediate tracks throughout the early part of the season.
While this will be Gordon's first Sprint Cup Series race at Kansas as a crew chief, he led Keselowski to a dominant win in last fall's Nationwide Series race. It might be a gamble, but this week I'm going with the ’Dinger as the darkhorse.
Best Average Finish at Kansas Speedway (wins):
1. Greg Biffle — 8.3 (2)
2. Jimmie Johnson — 8.4 (2)
3. Brad Keselowski — 10.0 (1)
4. Jeff Gordon — 10.2 (2)
5. Carl Edwards — 10.7
6. Clint Bowyer — 12.0
7. Tony Stewart — 12.2 (2)
8. Mark Martin — 13.1 (1)
9. Kevin Harvick — 13.6
10. Denny Hamlin — 15.8