Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Kansas Preview: 2012 Hollywood Casino 400

Hamlin and Johnson expected to battle for win at Kansas (Getty)
By Micah Roberts

47 drivers tested the new pavement at Kansas Speedway Wednesday, and just like we saw at the repaved tracks at Michigan and Pocono already this season, speeds are going to be faster. 30 drivers topped the track qualifying record of 180.856 mph set by Matt Kenseth in 2005. Greg Biffle was fastest on the day at 184.900 mph.

The change in the track from 15 degrees of banking into a progressive banking like at Homestead makes past Kansas trends and set-up notes almost useless.

“I look at it as a new race track,” said Jeff Gordon, who won the first two Kansas races. “We don’t think of it from any notes that we had from this track in the past. We pretty much just start from scratch. It’s like going to a brand new race track somewhere else. It looks completely different than it ever did before.”

The good news for the drivers is that they all seem to be comfortable with the tire compound, which wasn't the case at Pocono and Michigan.

“This track went to being pretty abrasive and wearing the tires out to now it’s smooth and super fast,” Gordon said. “We’re having fun out there, going really fast and having a lot of grip and testing and trying a lot of new things. That part of it is very interesting and fun.”

Since we we've thrown out most of our past Kansas trends, we can kind of generalize from a broad sense on 1.5-mile high banked tracks, almost like the drill we ran last week at Charlotte.

We haven't seen Jimmie Johnson win on a 1.5-mile track yet this season, but his chances look pretty good this week. He's the 5-to-1 co-favorite to win with Denny Hamlin, but the car that he's brought this week should make him more like a 7-to-2 favorite. This car is batting .500 this season with wins at Dover and the Brickyard. It also finished runner-up at Chicago and fourth at Dover.

We mentioned that Johnson hasn't won on a 1.5-mile track yet this season, but he did finish runner-up at Las Vegas, a track that looks very similar to Kansas now and he also finished third last week at Charlotte. It's also hard to throw away everything he's done at Kansas just because of the repave. He has a track best 7.9 career average finish with two wins, including this race last fall.

Oh yeah, he's also in the midst of a Chase, seven points behind Brad Keselowski, trying to win his sixth championship.

He's got everything in his favor this week: stellar car, crew chief, momentum and knowledge of how he's supposed to react in these situations. He may not show too much emotion, but his corporate mentality with everything being all business has to be commended, and respected.

That's the one area where Hamlin doesn't have the edge over Johnson. Hamlin has two wins on 1.5-mile tracks, including the spring race at Kansas, but his confidence is kind of a false front. While Hamlin called his shot at New Hampshire may have been a way for him to get himself pumped up, in reality, Hamlin has to be scared stiff that he doesn't fail like in 2010.
Johnson knows how to win this thing, while Hamlin is still learning on the fly.

Following the Charlotte race, the LVH Super Book made Hamlin the 3-to-2 favorite to win the Chase despite being third in points, 15 behind Keselowski. The thinking is that Hamlin has stayed the course steady and he'll have the edge on the three 1.5s remaining as well as Martinsville and Phoenix.

I still like Hamlin to win it all, but Johnson is a hard driver to bet against in this format, especially considering that he'll probably win on Sunday.

While I do expect those two to battle it out for the win, there are a few other drivers that are interesting looks this week, beginning with Greg Biffle who seems to have figured out NASCAR's aero package that was mandated in mid-season. Biffle and the other Fords were thrown for a loop and were far behind the other manufacturers, but it's apparent by his finish last week at Charlotte (4th) and Wednesday's testing that they are back in business as a contender. He'll be driving a new car this week.

Regan Smith has the luxury of driving the same chassis that Dale Earnhardt Jr. won with at Michigan. I kind of had a conspiracy feeling last week when the No. 88 had some issues ending a good run by Smith. That team had perfect cars on the previous eight races run on 1.5-mile tracks and the one week Junior was out, they failed. We can't have a replacement driver winning in his first race, which may prove that Junior may not have the type of skills we all think he has. It basically was just bad luck, no conspiracy, but Smith will be a driver I take a long look at in the sports book this week.

Kasey Kahne will be using his winning Charlotte chassis from May. Kevin Harvick will be running the same car that he finished runner-up with at Chicago. And Martin Truex Jr should also be given a shot even though he's only won one race over his career and that was in 2007. But he's been so close and his MWR car is super-fast.
Top-5 Finish Prediction: 
1) #48 Jimmie Johnson (5/1)
2) #11 Denny Hamlin (5/1)
3) #16 Greg Biffle (7/1)
4) #5 Kasey Kahne (8/1)
5) #56 Martin Truex Jr (15/1)

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