By Micah Roberts
Las Vegas Review-Journal
Although Kansas is one of seven 1.5-mile tracks that consists of 10 races on the season, the 15 degrees of banking make it one of the flatter tracks of the seven. The information gained this year at all the tracks is of little use in preparation for Kansas. The track actually resembles the old layout of Las Vegas Motor Speedway, but of the current tracks, Chicagoland Speedway would serve as the best barometer. If looking back at what happened at Chicago in July -- with long shot David Reutimann winning -- this race could prove to be one of the most critical in determining this years champion.
In two of the last three years Jimmie Johnson has used Kansas as a gateway into taking the points lead and then checking out. In the 2007 season Johnson came into Kansas fourth in points, finished third and left with the points lead. In 2008 Johnson was second in points, won the race and left with the points lead. In each of those years Johnson was terrific on all the 1.5-mile tracks, but his team distanced themselves from the others by adjusting better on the fly to the unique nuances of Kansas.
This season Johnson hasn’t been the dominant force on the 1.5-mile tracks that he’s been throughout his career. He won at Las Vegas in the team’s first crack at it, but hasn’t won since. They have been fast in just about every practice at these tracks, but have experienced misfortune during the second half of races that has been unlike anything we have seen out of Johnson the last four years, years that ultimately led him to the Championship.
At Chicago, Johnson was fast in practice just like he is this week. He led the most laps and then ran into all kinds of issues on his way to a disappointing 25th-place finish. He had an entire myriad of problems, the type that had always escaped his team in the past such as missing an entrance to pit road which cost him the lead. Then later, spinning out after contact and then finally to close out the un-Johnson like night, having a right-front tire go down.
Chances are Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus have got all their ducks in a row this week. Despite dropping closer to the level of the mere mortals he races with, the No. 48 team are four-time champs who have six wins this season. This is their go-time where they routinely shown everyone why they are the best. But if they’re not ready, there’s a few drivers who will be.
Jeff Gordon has had to sit and watch his teammate -- the driver he initially brought in and gave great cars from his own stable to drive -- win four straight championships, while he's been stuck on four titles since 2001. What may be even worse is that Gordon has had to watch Johnson win races at a record pace while he remains winless for the last 57 races.
There aren’t many tracks Gordon can say he’s better than Johnson at, but Kansas is definitely one of them. He won the first two races held there and has a track best 8.9 average finish in nine starts. He was runner-up in last years race while Johnson finished ninth. Gordon currently sits 83 points from the lead in eighth-place while Johnson is 35 points out in second. Should the same situation occur this week like in Chicago, where Gordon finished third, Gordon would pass Johnson in points. Both are vying for their fifth championship and the race to get it between the two may be closer down the stretch than most believe.
Gordon’s run for a fifth title will be critical at Kansas because he does have an edge over others and must use it his advantage. During Saturday’s practices, Gordon set the tone strong with a great pair of sessions where he looks to have one of his better cars of the season. He had the fastest average lap speeds along with the fastest consecutive 10-lap average during happy hour, both great signs that Gordon‘s car will be fast on the long runs which is a major key to winning. He also ended up with the second fastest single lap time during the first practice session.
Should Gordon not have enough to win, look for Greg Biffle to continue his strong ways at Kansas that has seen him finish within the top-three in five of the last six races there, including a win in 2007. He finished both practices Saturday within the top-five single lap speeds.
Biffle’s teammate, Matt Kenseth, also looked very stout in Saturday’s practice with the third fastest speeds in the early session. Kenseth has the distinction this year of having the best average finish on the six combined 1.5-mile races run thus far.
Tony Stewart didn’t have a great practice session Friday or Saturday, but has to be considered a contender just because of the car he brought this week which won at Atlanta and was runner-up at Pocono. It doesn’t hurt that Stewart is a two-time winner who won this race last year as well.
Kurt Busch has never done well at Kansas, but his two wins at Atlanta and Charlotte this season are hard to ignore. Busch was fastest in Saturday’s early practice session and followed that up with 12th during happy hour. He’ll be debuting a new car this week and is obviously saving those winning cars for returns to Charlotte and Texas.
The surprise of Saturday practices was Paul Menard who was strong in every category. He’ll be starting on the front row with teammate Kasey Kahne. While it’s hard to back Menard because of consistent struggles, he‘s has performed well when practicing well like he did in Aylanta earlier this season. At 300 to 1 odds like the Las Vegas Hilton Super Book has posted, he’s worth a shot at a big pay day. You never know, David Reutimann won at Chicago with 40 to 1 odds.
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