You can be a short-track ace like Denny Hamlin, a restrictor-plate stud like Dale Earnhardt Jr. or a road-course wizard like Marcos Ambrose and win races in NASCAR. But if you want to be a serious title contender, you’ve got to be competitive on tracks that are 1 1/2 to two miles in length. Such tracks comprise 14 of the 36 stops on the Sprint Cup schedule.
You can be a short-track ace like Denny Hamlin, a restrictor-plate stud like Dale Earnhardt Jr. or a road-course wizard like Marcos Ambrose and win races in NASCAR. But if you want to be a serious title contender, you’ve got to be competitive on tracks that are 1 1/2 to two miles in length.
Such tracks comprise 14 of the 36 stops on the Sprint Cup schedule. The proportion is even higher during the Chase: 5 of 10, including the next three. So as the Chase wends from Kansas Speedway (1 1/2 miles) to California’s Auto Club Speedway (two miles) to Lowe’s Motor Speedway in Charlotte (1 1/2 miles), here are three stories to watch.
Last call for Roush-Fenway
Although this organization put two cars in the Chase, it has been off its game since Matt Kenseth won the first two races of the year. With Greg Biffle (ninth, 138 points out) and Carl Edwards (11th, 153 points out) already on the margin in the Chase, it’s critical that Roush-Fenway step up at the 1 1/2- and 2-mile tracks that have always been its strong point. But not even Kenseth, who finished third at Dover, best among the Roush-Fenway cars, is optimistic. “The whole company hasn’t been performing the way it needs to to win a championship,” Kenseth said. “And that’s not being negative or anything. It’s just obvious. Everybody can see that. So it shouldn’t really be a surprise where [Biffle and Edwards] are at, considering the results we've had all year. But anything can happen.”
Hendrick hits its stride
For all the kudos Roush-Fenway has received in recent years for its performance on 1 1/2- to 2-mile tracks, Hendrick has been just as good. In fact, the driver with the best average finish at the tracks that make up this crucial three-race stretch is – stop us if you’ve heard this one – Jimmie Johnson (8.57). His Hendrick teammates, Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin, rank third and fifth, respectively. The rich, in other words, will likely get richer. “The tracks coming up, I think we have a really good plan in place,” Johnson said after winning at Dover, yet another track where he dominates. “I feel very confident with the approach we have and the setups we’re going to be taking.”
Will “good enough” be good enough?
Doesn’t look like it. Except for Denny Hamlin (22nd) and Brian Vickers (18th) every Chaser had what would normally be considered a good run – and yet everyone but Mark Martin and Jimmie Johnson ended the day in considerably worse shape than when it started. First-time Chase contestant Juan Pablo Montoya scored top-five finishes in each of the first two events – and still suffered a net loss of 25 points to leader Mark Martin. Now he’s beginning a three-race stretch at the type of oval that has been most challenging for him in his short stock car career (his average finish at the next three tracks is 24.45).
Most depressing of all for Montoya and the rest of the competition, if Jimmie Johnson performs according to form and comes out of Lowe’s with the points lead, the next track on the schedule is Martinsville – which just happens to be Jimmie Johnson’s best track of all.
NEXT RACE Price Chopper 400, Kansas Speedway
THE LOWDOWN After visiting New Hampshire and Dover, two Chase tracks that also hosted regular-season races, the Sprint Cup circuit now makes its first and only stop of the year at Kansas. With this year’s test ban, teams must rely on last year’s notes or 2009 data from similar tracks such as Chicagoland. Not that the lack of track time will affect championship contenders too much. Of the eight previous Cup races at Kansas, seven were won by drivers in this year’s Chase. (Joe Nemechek, in 2004, was the lone exception.)
2008 Jimmie Johnson
2007 Greg Biffle
2006 Tony Stewart
2005 Mark Martin
2004 Joe Nemechek
TRACK: Kansas Speedway (Kansas City, Kans.), 1 1/2-mile paved oval
RACE LENGTH: 267 laps, 400.5 miles
FIRST RACE: 2001
SERIES: NASCAR Sprint Cup
Driver Profile: Jimmie Johnson
WHY HE MATTERS: Dover was his 15th career Chase win, most of any driver
WHAT HE SAYS: “I hope that our performance today scares some people.”
WHAT THE NUMBERS SAY: He’s now just 10 points behind leader Mark Martin
Quote of Note
“I’m not sure I want to see a replay.”
–Rookie Joey Logano, after his car tumbled out of Turn 3 at Dover
Where to Watch
Sunday’s pre-race show on ABC starts at 1 p.m. EST, followed by the race at 2 p.m.
UP TO SPEED
Follow the Leaders
Like Dover, where 10 of the top 13 finishers were Chase drivers, Kansas should produce a competitive race among the championship contenders. Of the top 10 lap leaders in the track’s 8-year history, seven are in this year’s Chase, led by Jimmie Johnson with 251 (see chart). The two Chasers with greatest cause for concern appear to be Denny Hamlin (one lap led, average finish: 22.5) and Juan Pablo Montoya (0 laps led, average finish: 24.0).
Hamlin’s Lost Weekend
Denny Hamlin not only had the worst result of any Chase contender on Sunday at Dover – he finished 22nd and dropped from third in points to sixth – but he also made the wrong kind of headlines in Saturday’s Nationwide race. Hamlin and Brad Keselowski collided 10 laps from the end of the Dover 200, and Hamlin wound up in the wall. He finished 27th and had a postrace confrontation with Keselowski along pit road. The two drivers had to be separated by crewmembers.
Testy about Tires
Although teams are no longer allowed to test at Sprint Cup tracks, Goodyear selects certain Cup drivers to perform tire tests. Jimmie Johnson participated in one such test at Dover this year – which some drivers say gave him an unfair advantage that led to his sweeping the two Cup races at the track this season. Johnson’s response? “Goodyear notifies us as to what tracks we’re to tire test at. So at the end of the day, we're just doing what we're supposed to do. If it's upsetting guys, so be it. I’m glad they're worried about other things and not the race car.”
Kansas Lap Leaders*
RANK DRIVER STARTS LAPS LED
1 Jimmie Johnson 7 251
2 Matt Kenseth 8 183
3 Jeff Gordon 8 175
4 Greg Biffle 7 150
5 Mark Martin 8 141
6 Ryan Newman 8 118
7 Kurt Busch 8 79
8 Kevin Harvick 8 67
9 Kyle Busch 5 65
10 Kasey Kahne 5 50
11 Casey Mears 6 44
12 Clint Bowyer 3 43
13 Joe Nemechek 8 42
14 Dale Earnhardt Jr. 8 40
15 Carl Edwards 5 39
16 Martin Truex Jr. 3 30
17 Jamie McMurray 6 19
18 Tony Stewart 8 19
19 Jeff Burton 8 5
20 Dave Blaney 7 4
*Active, full-time drivers
Chase drivers in bold