Wednesday, June 1, 2011

STP 400 Kansas Preview: Expect Roush Drivers to All Be Strong

By Micah Roberts

This has to be the coolest looking race logo, ever!
Kansas Speedway gets the first of it’s two races this week, the first time Kansas has had two races a season since the track opened in 2001. California’s inability to attract NASCAR fans among the millions of things to do in Southern California became an opportunity for Kansas as the parent company, International Speedway Corporation, swapped dates.

It was hoped at this time last season that Las Vegas would be in the mix for an additional date, but in order for that to happen, their parent company, Speedway Motorsports Inc., would have had to trade one of their existing dates for it to happen. While Vegas lost out on Atlanta’s date, it’s still nice to see Kentucky get a race with a fresh atmosphere, even though it is a very similar layout to existing tracks. Their inaugural Cup event will take place July 9.

This weeks Kansas race is kind of a big deal because it’s the last race of the season that Fox will broadcast. Next week TNT will begin it’s coverage before giving way to ESPN in August. Some people disagree, but I find the NASCAR coverage on Fox to be the all-time best. The team of Mike Joy, Darrell Waltrip and Larry McReynolds is unmatched and they can make any non-NASCAR supporter a fan just because they are so thorough in their explanations to what’s going on in the race.

It’s an education process for everyone on each of their telecasts, no matter how smart of a smart race fan, while offering entertainment. With Waltrip, you get the good ole’ boy flavor that is comedic at times, but very insightful from a drivers point of view. McReynolds gives more knowledge about how race cars work than anyone with such deep explanations, but still easy for the layperson to understand. And then you have Mike Joy who wraps the entire package together gift wrapped for the NASCAR public. Joy has almost as much knowledge about the sport as McReynolds and Waltrip combined, but lets them do their thing while offering occasional quips of his vast knowledge.

The best thing that comes across the television set is that they’re actually fun together. They really seem to like each other and broadcast the race much in the same way buddies would talk at bar over a few beers while watching the race. Enjoy this last race and soak up all you can, because the TNT broadcast is choppy and, at times, hard to listen to.

Kansas runs a lot like Fontana and Chicagoland (Getty)
The configuration of Kansas Speedway is a lot like what the old configuration was at Las Vegas. It’s a mile-and-half track with 15 degrees of banking in the turns. If we were going to make a comparison with any track that has run already, Fontana might be the closest even though it’s a 2-mile track. With this race, we will be able to use a lot of what we witness to help handicap Chicagoland in late September.

The best performer at Kansas over the years has been Greg Biffle who owns an 8.1 average finish in his nine starts. In his last seven starts, he’s finished third or better in six of them including two wins. He won this race last season as well as 2007. This week he’ll be bringing his car from the All-Star race that won segment and should be considered the favorite to win along with his Roush-Fenway teammates.

Carl Edwards is hoping for a little home cooking this week to get his first Kansas win. The track is only 130 miles from Edwards hometown of Columbia, Mo., but his best finish remains his 2008 runner-up performance. He’ll be bringing a new car to the track for the second consecutive week. Last week at Charlotte was kind of a disappointment in a new car, but a top-five should surely be in order this week.

Matt Kenseth will be using his winning Dover chassis this week and comes off a very impressive run at Charlotte where he led the most laps. This team is dialed right now and bringing great cars to the track every week. A 1-2-3 finish by the top Roush drivers wouldn’t come as a surprise.

Jeff Gordon won the first two Kansas races in 2001 and 2002 and is currently on a streak of four straight top-five finishes at the track. He hasn’t been overly impressive on the 1.5-mile tracks, or at California, but his past history makes him someone to pay serious attention to this week, meaning he’s not a good candidate to bet against in driver matchups.

Lots of Kansas success for Stewart
Tony Stewart has won at Kansas twice (2006 & 2009) and is an interesting choice this week because he’s bringing a car with a pretty solid history. His 12th-place finish at Texas this season was the car’s only finish outside the top-10 in five career starts. Had it not been for 39th and 40th-place finishes in 2007 and 2008, Stewart would have better average finish stats than Biffle. But as it sits right now, he’s still pretty good with a 12.3 average that includes three fourth-places finishes in addition to the wins.

Edwards isn’t the only driver having somewhat of a hometown reunion this week. Jamie McMurray comes from Joplin, Mo., while Clint Bowyer hails from Emporia, Kan.. Both would love to win equally as bad, but Bowyer actually has the ability to do it this week.

Bowyer’s best at the track was runner-up in 2007. It’s the best finish any RCR driver has had in 30 team starts. He’s led a total of 43 laps over his career with an average finish of 11.8. He’ll be driving a brand new car this week.

His teammate, Kevin Harvick, swooped up another late win last week at Charlotte giving him a series leading three wins on the season. Despite only one top-five in 10 Kansas starts, he has to be looked at as a contender because of his car. In three races last season, the car finished eighth or better in all of them, including third at Kansas.

Jimmie Johnson owns a 2008 win at Kansas and has a 9.3 average finish in nine starts at the track, but he doesn’t seem like the Johnson from years past coming into Kansas. His efforts on all the 1.5-mile tracks and Fontana have been very ordinary, and in his case for the standard he’s set, not good. The team will try to find something new this week by bringing a brand new chassis.

The wildcards of the race could be Denny Hamlin and David Ragan. Hamlin is showing signs of turning things around slowly while Ragan is climbing up the charts.

The top driver that we might expect a poor performance from is Kyle Busch. For some reason, Kansas and Kyle don’t get along. In seven starts, Busch doesn’t have a top-five and his average finish is 23.9. He did have a third-place effort at Fontana which should give his team some hope. They will be using a new car this week.

Top 5 Finish prediction:
1) #16 Greg Biffle (12/1)
2) #99 Carl Edwards (6/1)
3) #17 Matt Kenseth (12/1)
4) #33 Clint Bowyer (20/1)
5) #14 Tony Stewart (12/1)

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