NASCAR Goes Hollywood (in Kansas): Hollywood Casino 400 Preview
Let’s begin this column with a shocker; there’s nothing right now to complain about when it comes to NASCAR. Well, I suppose you could complain about the Chase coming down to the two most uninteresting drivers in the field, but beyond that there’s nothing to complain about at all! Following a great race last week and a lack of controversies for once, NASCAR seems to have finally gotten past the Michael Waltrip Racing fiasco and moved on to the always compelling (albeit slightly underwhelming) Chase for the Championship. This of course means that Mike Helton and co. will have to find some way to screw it up this weekend. Otherwise it wouldn’t be the NASCAR that we know and wish was normal.
So what is there to expect this Sunday at Kansas? I’m honestly not sure; on one hand, this is one of the newer tracks in NASCAR (only a little over ten years old), which suggests that there could be a surprise or two before the end of the race. Of course, I felt there could be one of those last weekend at Dover, and in the end it was still Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth standing tall. Thus, we’re playing it safe this weekend. Hey, the Mike Helton strategy works when you’re predicting races.
Hollywood Casino 400 Preview
13. Kyle Busch: Trust me; I’m just as stunned as you are. As down on Kyle as I may be sometimes, I certainly have been impressed with his Chase thus far and I certainly think he can prove me wrong this weekend in regards to this ranking. The problem is that Busch qualified poorly and then made things even harder for himself by wrecking in practice and moving himself all the way to the back of the field. Even worse, Kansas is by far Busch’s weakest track, where he’s posted only two top ten finishes, an average finish of 22.4 and has wrecked in his last two races here. Either way it doesn’t look like Kyle will walk out of this weekend in great shape; it’s just a question of how much can he minimize the damage.
12. Kurt Busch: Is only rated higher than his brother thanks to a better average finish 17.9. Beyond that, the Elder Busch has mimicked his brother in every way at this track, including qualifying poorly and then moving to the back after a wreck in practice. Barring a miracle, this appears to be where Kurt’s Chase chances officially end.
11. Joey Logano: The good news; Logano finished 3rd last week, qualified 5th this week, and has improved enough that you can perhaps throw out his past results at Kansas. The bad news; those past results are really bad, with an average finish of 26.1 (worst among Chase contenders) and straight zeroes across the board as far as wins, top fives and top tens. I’ll side with history on this one.
10. Jeff Gordon: How in the hell is this guy tied for 4th in points? You’ve heard this one before; Gordon historically is great at this track, with two wins and third best average finish among Chase drivers (11.1). Of course, Gordon was also great at Loudon and struggled mightily (to be fair, he did well last weekend at Dover) and hasn’t finished better than 10th in his last four races at Kansas. Add that to a poor qualifying effort, and the Rainbow Warrior looks destined for another mediocre finish.
9. Clint Bowyer: You’d think that returning to his hometown track would be just what the doctor ordered for The Fixer; unfortunately he’s never won here, qualified a poor 22nd, and has absolutely no momentum heading into this race whatsoever. I suppose the silver lining is that he’ll finally get a decent reaction from fans for the first time in weeks, officially making Bowyer the closest thing to a top heel wrestler NASCAR has.
8. Ryan Newman: It all ends here for the People’s Champion, as Newman comes in with no momentum in the Chase nor at this track, where he’s failed to finish higher than 14th in the past five races. I’m not sure what’s been more disappointing thus far in the Chase; the fact that two guys may run away with the whole thing by week four, or the fact that Newman and Bowyer ultimately didn’t duel it out in what would’ve been the most compelling championship battle in NASCAR history.
7. Kasey Kahne: It’s over for Kahne as far as competing for the title goes barring the sort of thing that only exists in movies like Legend. That said, he’s finished pretty well here over his career (13.9 on average) and has finished 2nd twice in the last four races here. Plus, you know he’ll be pumped up with Charlotte Motor Speedway on the horizon next week.
6. Greg Biffle: Alright, The Bif is starting to convince me he’s for real after another solid finish last week at Dover. Now he’ll be heading to a track where he has been flat out great, with 2 career wins, 7 top fives and an average finish of 10.1. The only concern is that he qualified the worst among Chase drivers (26th), and hasn’t exactly finished great the past two races.
5. Kevin Harvick: Thanks to earning the pole and Kyle Busch’s weekend looking like the final season of That 70’s Show, Harvick looks poised to move up at least one point in the standings coming out of this weekend. That said, the man has to start winning races here to keep up with Johnson and Kenseth, and while his average finish here is good (12.8) the Firesuit has yet to win at Kansas during his career. With the two top contenders having great track records here and lurking close behind, Harvick will have to come up big this weekend to keep close with them.
4. Dale Earnhardt Jr.: First off, how bad was NASCAR hoping last week for Junior to catch Jimmie Johnson during the closing laps? I can just picture Mike Helton right now jumping for joy with the thought of Junior getting involved as a legit contender, only to be left distraught as the 88 stupidly moved off his line, allowing Johnson to put enough distance between them. The only way I can picture Helton more depressed than that moment is if Clint Bowyer hoisted the trophy over his head at Homestead. With Junior of course watching Bowyer's every move just in case.
Back to the matter at hand, I have to admit I’m shocked with how well Junior has done after being almost lifeless throughout the first 26 races. Now, he’s finished in the top ten twice in the last two races, was two bad pit entrances and a lane change away from a win last weekend and has qualified well against this weekend. Can he keep up the hot streak? I’ll say yes, even if it may ultimately not be enough for him to climb into championship contention.
3. Carl Edwards: I’m not ready to give up on Consistent Carl just yet, despite the fact that he’s 11th in points and seems to be entering the same comatose status that left him out of the Chase last year. While never winning at Kansas and having finished outside the top ten his last two races here, his average finish has been appropriately consistent (11.3 with four top fives) and no one was faster in practice today than the 99. Thus, for one more week I will stick with him, although he’ll be doing back flips by himself if he disappoints once more.
2. Jimmie Johnson: Right on schedule, J.J. is starting to heat up after another victory at Dover and another strong qualifying performance (3rd) at a track where no one else in the Chase has averaged a better finish (7.6). The worst thing that I can say about him at Kansas is that he hasn’t won there in the last three races (still finishing in the top ten each time). A lock to be picked to win this race by every member of the ESPN broadcast team.
1. Matt Kenseth: As great as Johnson has been at this track over the years, he hasn’t been nearly as good as Kenseth has, where the current points leader has won the last two times out (three if you count his victory in the Nationwide race today). In the end, that’s enough to make you the favorite going into the weekend, regardless of how much hype J.J. may have. That said, don’t expect another victory for Kenseth this weekend.
Race Winner: Brad Keselowski (That’s right, I’m picking a non Chase driver to finally break the trend of Chase contenders winning. The Deuce qualified well, practiced well, and is just flat out due to win one of these days. Tomorrow will be that day).
Projected Points Leader: Matt Kenseth (even if Jimmie finishes better, Matt will be close enough that he’ll retain at least a slight points edge).
Projected Points Standings:
1. Matt Kenseth
2. Jimmie Johnson
3. Kevin Harvick
4. Greg Biffle
5. Kyle Busch
6. Jeff Gordon
7. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
8. Carl Edwards
9. Ryan Newman
10. Clint Bowyer
11. Joey Logano
12. Kasey Kahne
13. Kurt Busch
There you have it. Till next week!