Monday, May 30, 2011

Kansas Storylines

First of two 2011 Kansas races this season is Sunday (Getty)
Message to NASCAR Sprint Cup Series teams: Get your notebooks out.

Sunday’s race – the inaugural spring event for Kansas Speedway – carries major weight. This season is Kansas’ first with two events, with this weekend’s race – the STP 400 – joining the usual Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup event in October. Putting it another way, this is a big-time preview for the championship run.

Last weekend’s race provided a juicy lead-in for Kansas. A strategy lover’s dream, Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 featured 19 leaders, all of whom seemingly had a shot at victory. Dale Earnhardt Jr., with a single turn separating him and victory, ran out of gas (he wasn’t alone in that regard). Kevin Harvick nabbed his first Coca-Cola 600 win, and now has a season-high three victories.

This weekend opens up with a major milestone event for the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. The series will run its 400th race, on Saturday in the O’Reilly Auto Parts 250.

The NASCAR Nationwide Series runs on Saturday night at Chicagoland Speedway, in the STP 300. Two big returns – that of Trevor Bayne and Danica Patrick – highlight the event.

Storylines follow…


Silver Lining: Earnhardt Continues Resurgence With Near-Win
Not a single car in front of him, Dale Earnhardt Jr. could see the checkered flag on Sunday. But his car sputtered coming into the final turn, and with an empty fuel tank, Earnhardt watched sure victory disappear.

But the near-win, and subsequent seventh-place finish, should give Earnhardt and Junior Nation reason for optimism. The finish was his sixth top 10 this season (Earnhardt had eight all last season). He still sits fourth in points, his best points position after 12 races since 2008 – his first season with Hendrick Motorsports, and the last season he made the Chase.

At Kansas, Earnhardt has four top 10s in 10 starts.

Harvick The Closer Does It Again
Harvick has been amazing this season in the crunch (Getty)
Kevin Harvick closed again at Charlotte, reeling in another come-from-behind victory in 2011. Each of his series-high three wins have been of the “Closer” variety.

At Auto Club Speedway, his first win, Harvick passed Jimmie Johnson on the final lap. At Martinsville, he stalked Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the closing laps, nabbing the lead with just four laps remaining. And again last weekend at Charlotte, Harvick led just two laps, passing a fuel-less Earnhardt on the final turn for the victory.

In his three wins this season, Harvick has led a combined nine laps.

Harvick’s first career points win at Charlotte also completed a rare career sweep of some of NASCAR’s biggest races. He has now won a Daytona 500, a Coca-Cola 600 and a Brickyard 400, joining Dale Jarrett, Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson as the only drivers to accomplish feat.

On The Double: Twice The Excitement for Kansas
It’s clear why fans favor races at Kansas Speedway: lots of leaders, lots of lead changes.

The record for lead changes at Kansas is 26, set just two years ago. Last year, there were 20 lead changes. Figure on another near-record figure this Sunday.

Same for leaders. The record for most leaders is 14, also set in 2009. Last year, there were 12 (and there has never been fewer than 10 in any of the 10 Kansas races).

The favorites: Greg Biffle, Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart. They each have two wins apiece, and rank in the top five in Driver Rating at Kansas. Biffle leads with 122.6, Gordon is third at 106.5 and Stewart is fourth at 103.3. Jimmie Johnson is second with 118.7.

Threesome Hopes For Home Track Advantage
Watch for ratcheted up intensity from three drivers in particular, all of whom consider any race at Kansas Speedway a must-win situation.

Carl Edwards: From Columbia, Mo., Edwards has five top 10s in seven Kansas starts. His best finish is a runner-up in 2008.

Clint Bowyer: From Emporia, Kan., Bowyer has two top 10s in five races, including a runner-up in 2007.

Jamie McMurray: From Joplin, Mo., McMurray has two top 10s in eight races. His best was a seventh in 2004.

Out Of Nowhere: It’s Not How You Start
Speaking to the “anybody’s race to win” feel of the 2011 season, an interesting phenomenon has developed.

Seven of the 12 races this season have been won from a starting position of 20th or worse, including Harvick’s win on Sunday from the 28th starting position. That’s the most wins from 20th or worse through 12 races in series history.

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