NASCAR at Kansas: Hollywood Casino 400 race day preview

As you watch today's NASCAR race at Kansas Speedway, here are some storylines to follow, notes and drivers to keep an eye on:

Storylines

Kansas and the great unknown

Of the 10 tracks in the Chase, Kansas Speedway is the great unknown thanks to a reconfiguration that commenced shortly after the spring event. Thus far, it's been a struggle for drivers and crew chiefs alike in learning the nuances of the redesigned oval. And the new surface has also created lightning quick speeds – in qualifying all 43 starters broke the previous track record held by Matt Kenseth.

Another byproduct of the repave is the outside groove has yet to rubber-in, which means that passing opportunities are going to be limited. And with just a single-groove, track position will be the name of the game today with Denny Hamlin even going as far to call this an "extreme track position race."

To counter the lack of side-by-side racing, with little-to-no wear on the left-side tires expect to see crew chiefs call for plenty of two-tire stops as they attempt to do everything in their power to play the track position game to their advantage. And as has been the theme throughout the year - including last week at Charlotte - fuel mileage will likely come into play with the team that can best crunch the numbers having the decided edge in the closing laps.

Reliability concerns for Toyota

Clint Bowyer is from nearby Emporia, Kan. and he views this race in front of his home state fans as bigger than the Daytona 500. And coming off a win at Charlotte, the native Kansan enters today with what looks to be his best opportunity to get that victory he so desperately wants. But the one thing that might prevent him from being a contender this afternoon centers on the durability of the Toyota motors.

In the spring race here Bowyer, along with fellow Toyota drivers Mark Martin and Bobby Labonte, all headed to the garage early due to an engine that couldn't go the distance. And that issue has been a problem throughout the year, with Toyota teams having been frequently hamstrung by a power plant that is lacking in reliability.

However, if any of the Toyota cars can last for 400 miles, they should be strong and among the challengers this afternoon. In the spring, Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. dominated with the two combining to lead 76 percent of the laps with Hamlin ultimately prevailing. And last week on a similar type of track, it was Hamlin who led the most laps and easily had the fastest car at the end of the night.

An uphill battle for the points leader

At Charlotte a miscalculation on fuel cost Brad Keselowski half of his point lead. Now with just a seven point lead over Jimmie Johnson, Keselowski enters today knowing another slight bobble will likely drop him out of first. And if that were to happen, Johnson will have the decided advantage as the series heads to Martinsville next week - a track where Johnson excels and Keselowski has struggled.

Working against Keselowski today is the fact that he has been less than stellar on tracks that have just undergone a repave. In his first visits to both Pocono and Michigan this year after those ovals had laid a down a new surface, the Penske Racing driver's best result was 13th and he led a combined three laps.

Also not helping matters is with passing at a premium; Keselowski dug himself a hole by qualifying 25th. But if there is a silver lining in all this, it's that the No. 2 team won here last year after starting in the same position - the farthest back a Kansas winner has ever lined up on the grid.

Worth Noting
  • What is the key to winning at Kansas? Start up front, with eight of the 13 races having been won by a driver who started the race somewhere in the top 10.
  • Only once in the Chase era has a driver won the fall Kansas race and then gone on to win the championship. Not surprisingly that driver was Jimmie Johnson, who won here in 2006 on his way to his first Cup title.
  • By finishing ahead of Toyota, Chevrolet will clinch the manufacturers' championship for the 10th straight year. And if that happens, it will be the 36th time overall that Chevrolet has won the title.
Favorites

1. Jimmie Johnson

With two wins, 10 top-10 finishes in 12 starts and the all-time leader in laps led, it's fair to say that Jimmie Johnson is good on the 1.5-mile oval. Whether that success translates to the new surface remains to be seen. However, with a fast car I wouldn't bet against the five-time champ finding a way to get to the front just as he typically has done so in the past.

2. Greg Biffle

A two-time Kansas winner who also finished fifth here in the spring, Greg Biffle has consistently been among the quickest since unloading Thursday - including having posted the fastest time in Saturday's first round of practice.

3. Denny Hamlin

If he hadn't wrecked his primary car Thursday in a 202 mph encounter with the wall, Denny Hamlin would almost certainly be atop this week's list of favorites. But despite the accident, the April Kansas winner should still be strong today, as he will be driving the same car today he raced at Chicagoland where ran in the top five with for majority of the afternoon.

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